Movie Review ~ The Glorias

Available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s itinerant childhood’s influence on her life as a writer, activist and organizer for women’s rights worldwide.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Kimberly Guerrero, Enid Graham

Director: Julie Taymor

Rated: R

Running Length: 147 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  One thing 2020 has definitely needed is more empowerment.  We’ve gone through this year feeling like we’re just behind in a lot of ways, from our health to our control over what happens within our government, even to what goes on in the neighborhoods we want everyone to feel safe in.  No one wants to be at odds with each other (at least I don’t think the majority of us do) and it becomes draining to watch news reports on the great division that appears to be widening between numerous groups that used to be able to find common ground.  The rise of social media and the ability for those that hid in the shadows to now speak their hateful rhetoric from the comfort of their anonymity has only added fuel to that and the spiral just continues downward.

That’s why in some small way a biopic like The Glorias feels like a welcome bit of relief right about now, even though it too focuses on an upward battle for acceptance and understanding in the face of adversity.  While a number of documentaries have been made and work has been written about the activist Gloria Steinem over the years and just in the last decade alone, this is the one that has sprung from her own words and is based on her 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road, written when she was 81.  Adapted by celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl, directed by lauded auteur Julie Taymor, and starring two Oscar winning actresses sharing the role of Steinem at various points in her adult life, on paper The Glorias feels like a project that sounds like an ideal convergence of the right people.  Why, then, does it wind up feeling like a artistically curated Cliff Notes version of a colorful life, only finding some true resonance with its audience in its final half hour?

I honestly doubt a life as large and full as Steinem’s could ever be fully captured in a feature film and to whittle down eight decades into 140-some minutes does seem like a Herculean task, but Ruhl does her best by not taking the traditional biopic route.  This is not a straight-timeline kind of film, but rather one that seems to go from one memory to another, at least at first.  That may be frustrating for audiences that are used to seeing where someone began and watching their life unfold until they wind up in the present (or their version of the present if it’s a person that’s no longer with us) and discover what they learn along the way.  Here, Ruhl and Taymor make use out of the multiple Glorias (Becky’s Lulu Wilson and IT: Chapter Two’s Ryan Kiera Armstrong’s play younger Glorias) to replace others seemingly at will as a way of commenting on what is to come in her life or in service of reflection on her past.  It’s cinematic trickery that works some of the time, mostly when Julianne Moore (Still Alice) as the eldest Gloria subs in for one of her younger counterparts who may not have found her authoritative voice yet but it gets a little showy if a smaller one takes over for an adult.

This narrative alignments also makes it harder to review The Glorias in such a straightforward way.  Taymor and Ruhl jump around through different periods of Steinem’s life with such apparent abandon that it’s a bit of a whirlwind.  One moment we’re with the youngest Gloria (Armstrong) as she dances with her huckster father (a stalwart Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) on the music hall pier he owns before he packs up the family and hits the road in search of another easy money opportunity.  The next thing we know, Taymor has us with ¾ Gloria (Vikander, The Danish Girl) on her travels through India or her early journalist days where she goes undercover working at the Playboy club.  Then we’re back to teenage Gloria (Wilson) caring for her bedridden mother (an excellent Enid Graham) before meeting the Gloria in full bloom Gloria (Moore) as she comes into her own as an activist fighting for the ratification of the ERA, forms Ms. magazine, and in her later years develops a friendship with Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero, A Wrinkle in Time), the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

What I found the most interesting in The Glorias was not the typical biographical data that makes up the usual films of this type.  Steinem’s upbringing, dealing with a dreamer Father that lived in the clouds and a Mother who toiled away making up for his frivolity, doesn’t feel so dissimilar than many that would go on to champion the rights of women who served unnoticed for so long.  Though Steinem had a number of relationships over the years (and was questioned often about them in interviews), the film bypasses any of these tangents in favor of exploring her friendships with other women, including feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe, Harriet), U.S. Representative and a leader of the Women’s Movement Bella Abzug (Bette Midler, Hocus Pocus), and civil rights activist Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).  Those that watched the FX series Mrs. America earlier this summer may be surprised to see how little the ratification of the ERA fits into the film, it’s almost a good thing to have watched that nine-episode series because it gave more context to conversations between Gloria and Bella that those who aren’t as familiar with the movement might feel a bit at sea in.

As she does with all of her projects, Taymor brings a keen eye to The Glorias but occasionally lets her artsy side get the best of her.  This is never more obvious than a misguided sequence where Moore’s Gloria steps in to respond to an interview question on live television and sends the studio into a Wizard of Oz-ish tornado that’s not entirely rendered with the same style or polish as other flights of fancy.  Another animation of the Hindu goddess Kali that becomes the first cover of Ms. magazine feels awkward and a tad childish in the context of what has been a more maturely delivered movie until that point.  Taymor’s blending of dreamy fantasy works best when its done subtly, like when the camera that’s focused on one Gloria will pan back to show another iteration of Steinem gently resting her head on the shoulder of her younger self.  It’s brief specialties like these that Taymor is so adept at that The Glorias needs more of throughout.

Even as it races through the decades, it’s when The Glorias finally slows down a bit in Steinem’s later years that Taymor and Ruhl strike something special.  Moore ages forward and with the help of believable prosthetics manages to look remarkably like Steinem without becoming a grotesquerie of plastics in the process.  These quieter later scenes of The Glorias make up for the frenetic earlier part of the movie and lead to a final transition that I should have seen coming a mile away but didn’t.  When it happens, you suddenly realize that Taymor and Ruhl have done what they set out to do and connect Steinem’s past to our present with a graceful sincerity.  Essentially, they hand the film back to their subject as a way of communicating “If this is what Gloria Steinem’s legacy is to be, then let the final word on the matter be hers.”  And, simply, it is.

Movie Review ~ The Boys in the Band (2020)

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: At a birthday party in 1968 New York, a surprise guest and a drunken game leave seven gay friends reckoning with unspoken feelings and buried truths.

Stars: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins

Director: Joe Mantello

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s a curious thing to watch a movie that began life as a play starring it’s original cast that performed it onstage.  It’s an even stranger experience to watch a movie that’s a remake of that earlier filmed version of a play…that also began life as a play…that also stars the original cast who appeared onstage. If you’re struggling to wrap your head around that, let me break it down for you.  Mart Crowley originally wrote the landmark play The Boys in the Band in 1968 and it played off-Broadway for a healthy run of over 1,000 performances.  When it came time for the play to make the leap to the silver screen, a pre-Oscar winning William Friedkin brought it to life with the entire original cast.  In 2018, the play was revived, this time on Broadway with an all-star cast for a strictly limited run that became a smash summer hit.  Produced by Ryan Murphy and directed by Joe Mantello, this entire cast was brought back for a filmed version now premiering on Netflix.

A landmark of gay culture both on stage and on screen, The Boys in the Band is an interesting time capsule to watch today because it captures a piece of history almost impossible to get back.  Taking place in the pre-AIDS era, both the film and the play make no mention of the “gay cancer” that is felling the community or gathers its doom and gloom from the shadow of illness that countless projects would take advantage of once HIV enters the picture throughout the next decade.  It would be almost unheard of to not mention AIDS or HIV at a certain point and to not have that factor at all into the mix here is both a startling reminder of a time before an entire generation of men were lost to the disease and a welcome relief to be able to watch a movie about gay men that isn’t going to end with a hospital bed or a graveside emotional breakthrough.

That’s not to say The Boys in the Band arrives in 2020 without some heavy emotional baggage of another sort, though, because the same themes of self-hate and acceptance it grappled with in 1968 are still front and center.  Longtime Ryan Murphy collaborator Ned Martel has trimmed Crowley’s two-act play down (more on that later) to a more streamlined machine built for the attention and vocabulary of modern audiences and it’s mostly successful in maintaining Crowley’s message even if it loses key reference points that gay cards were earned off of.  The resulting two hour film is both a faithful adaptation of a fifty year old work and a fresh look at the lives of gay men who struggled then with a number of the same personal issues that are still prevalent today.

As it opens, it feels like returning director Mantello is going to be opening up the film past its one location setting as we are introduced to “the boys” throughout New York City.  Tightly wired Michael (Jim Parsons, Wish I Was Here) is preparing for the birthday party of his best frenemy Harold (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek) who is already doing his pre-party work in front of the mirror to hide his pock-marked face that becomes an easy target for some of his image obsessed friends.  Larry (Andrew Rannells, The Intern) is on his way to meet lover Hank (Tuc Watkins) to pick up loud and proud Emory (Robin de Jesús)…if only that other guy he bumps into on the street wasn’t such a distraction, so he might be a little late.  Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) might be seen to some as the token black friend of the group but as the ‘60s are drawing to a close he’s starting to see the ‘70s as a time of change for all.  The three semi-outsiders to the group that night are Michael’s friend Donald (Matt Bomer, The Magnificent Seven) in town for the evening after being stood up, a gigolo Cowboy (Charlie Carver) meant to serve as Harold’s birthday gift from Emory, and Alan (Brian Hutchinson, Winter’s Tale) a college friend from Michael’s past that arrives unexpectedly needing his help for reasons that are unclear at the outset.

Fairly quickly, it becomes obvious there’s just no way around the material coming off like a stage show and while Judy Becker’s (American Hustle) expertly designed production is filmed handsomely by Bill Pope (2019’s Charlie’s Angels), it just all feels so bound to a different medium than film will allow.  To be fair, that’s the same issue the original film had but while that might be the kiss of death for some projects, it winds up benefitting The Boys in the Band because this is material that feeds off of the intimacy that is generated from the stage.  While Mantello makes some nice moves in finding brief moments (via flashbacks) to get out of the apartment, I was surprised at how alive the whole movie felt even though it was essentially locked in one space for the duration.

Looking at pictures from the 2018 revival, it appears the costume and set design have been tailored back to the original design from the 1968/1970 productions and I think that’s the right choice.  The new production felt a little too luxe and, at least from the visuals, made it look campier than I think was intended.  Now, the performances feel like they can come to the forefront and that gives the actors a chance to really show off some new sides to what we’ve seen them do so far.  I’ve always been far on the opposing side of the fence on Parsons but admit that he won me over here with his take on a difficult role, one he is arguably very right for.  Same goes for Quinto who almost, almost, manages to make you forget how good the original Harold Leonard Frey was in the role.  Parsons and Quinto have a lot of verbal sparring that has to be delivered with razor sharp precision that can’t be fixed by mere editing and both play these scenes to the hilt – you can’t ever quite tell if they love to poke at each other with the friendly back and forth or if they actually derive some sick pleasure in cutting down their friend in a public forum.

The rest of the cast all get their moment in the spotlight, as is the way in these well-written, long lasting plays.  There’s a reason this show is often done in community theaters (open-minded community theaters, that is) and it’s because each role has a showcase moment any actor worth their salt would love to sink their teeth into.  Obviously, the showiest role is Emory and de Jesús recreates his Tony-nominated role with the same energy and heart that has gotten him good notices throughout his career.  I also quite liked Washington’s Bernard who, in a harrowing sequence, walks us through a first love and is eventually pushed by Michael into being the first member of the group to play a game that exposes a number of raw nerves within the friends.  The other actors all have their requisite turns to be the focus but more or less play on their existing strengths we’ve seen before.

As a fan of the play and the original 1970 film, I have to say that I enjoyed this remake (revival?) quite a lot and would recommend it with the request that you make sure you do your homework and compare it to Friedkin’s earlier film.  A number of the trims make sense, I suppose, in terms of keeping the momentum moving forward and not simply re-doing The Boys in the Band as a museum piece.  What they’ve excised isn’t a dealbreaker because what’s there still reminds us of the landmark achievement it remains and how far we’ve come since it first premiered.

Movie Review ~ Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Follows chef Yotam on his quest to bring the sumptuous art and decadence of Versailles to life in cake form at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Stars: Yotam Ottolenghi, Dominique Ansel, Ghaya Oliveira, Dinara Kasko, Sam Bompas, Janice Wong

Director: Laura Gabbert

Rated: NR

Running Length: 75 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Flip on any of the numerous cable channels devoted to food and you’re likely to land on a show that celebrates the sweet and the decadent.  The cakes tend to take the cake when it comes to what is popular with viewers and programs that feature wars of the cupcake variety and the tales of the bosses of cakes regularly find themselves with massive followings.  Who can make the best and most elaborate sponge, butter, or biscuit is always changing and everyone from amateur to pro has thrown their hat into the mix.  There is truly something for everyone.

The new documentary Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles literally raises cake-making to high art by following five pastry chefs from around the globe as they bring to life their own interpretation of Versailles through dessert.  Curated by famed Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s 2018 summer event The Feast of Versailles, director Laura Gabbert follows the chef as he prepares for the event alongside museum administrators and the colorful artists he selects for their diverse talents.  The results were surely tasty for those in attendance but less satisfying for those of us at home that can only go so far in the overall experience of the fête.

The inherent problem with Gabbert’s film is best illustrated by a scene halfway through where one chef struggles with a recipe that worked well at home but isn’t coming together so well in The Met’s kitchens.  The Met’s head chef tells her that her ingredients lack a fat, a bonding agent, to hold everything together and that’s what’s missing in Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles as well.  Though Ottolenghi is the through line that Gabbert constructs her narrative around, he’s not a strong enough central figure to hold the entire film up.  To be fair, it appears that aside from the recipe drama and a brief electrical issue that threatened to stymie one of the elaborate displays, there isn’t much in the way of suspense to be mined so it appears Gabbert worked with what she had.  I wonder what this could have been if it were a chapter in a longer film that either focused solely on Ottolenghi, the chefs being featured, or as part of a larger look at The Met and its history.  This appears to be such a specific piece of a larger puzzle that’s been removed from a bigger idea.  While the material has moments of interest, I found myself wanting to know more about Ottolenghi or the various people that worked at The Met more than the singular event being highlighted.  That speaks to some disconnect between storytelling and subject.

Even at 75 minutes, this feels like it strains to hit feature length and plays more as a long episode of a show you’d see on the Food Network.  The history of Versailles has been covered in greater detail before and reconstructed in its full glory for big budget films in the past so the mini staged conversations between Ottolenghi and historical experts feels a bit like a forced refresher course added for padding.  That being said, when Gabbert turns her lens on the food and the art created from the layers of decadence it’s hard not to feel your cheeks start to swell and your taste buds long for a bite.  Would that the rest of Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles have been as sumptuously stimulating.

Movie Review ~ LX 2048


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A fatally ill man tries to secure the future of his family in a world where the toxicity of the sun forces people to stay inside during the daytime.

Stars: James D’Arcy, Anna Brewster, Delroy Lindo, Gabrielle Cassi, Gina McKee, Jay Hayden, Juliet Aubrey, Linc Hand

Director: Guy Moshe

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It’s easy to look back in hindsight now and say that many of the films released since the beginning of the pandemic have had uncanny timing but you have to admit that stepping back it is odd that in the last half year audiences confined to their homes from danger outside have had so many movies with claustrophobic narratives to keep them entertained.  Titles like The Rental, The Owners, Relic, 1BR, Vivarium, and the upcoming 2067 have either held the message to “Get Out” or “Stay In” and the directive can be confusing, especially if you just want that simple escapism to take your mind off of the creeping virus we learn more about from day to day.  What might have originally been produced with the intention of being a slick twist to a stifled genre now comes with the burden of being another ominous harbinger of even more danger to fear in an already precipitous time.

You can add the futuristic LX 2048 to that mix of films that have arrived at an odd moment in history.  Written and directed by Israel-born Guy Moshe, it joins a long list of movies set years from now where our way of living has become unstable, forcing the Earth’s population to come up with a different solution to continue our existence.  With the sun’s light turning lethal, people have to stay indoors during the day, venturing out only in heavy Hazmat suits to protect them from exposure to toxic levels of radiation that will kill them.  Most have opted to live in a virtual state, interacting through a digital platform and being replaced by clones once their human form has ceased to exist.  There is next to no human interaction and those that do choose to go into the office or continue to lead their physical existence do so at their own peril and often without the presence of their loved ones who have moved into what basically the Cloud.

This brings us up to date when we meet Adam Bird (James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas), a man that has resisted the transition away from humanity and wants to keep his connections with his wife Reena (Anna Brewster) and children.  The trouble is they have moved on without him and Reena especially resents him for his unwillingness to join in on the next stage of evolution.  They’re heading for a divorce when Adam discovers he is dying and seeks to make final amends before his time runs out and he’s substituted by a replicant with upgrades in personality and physicality designed by his wife. Working against a timeline he can’t control in an uncertain future, Adam attempts to seek alternate options for his finality that would suggest he has more control over his fate than he was originally led to believe.

Moshe introduces a wealth of interesting concepts in the film at the outset, ably laying the groundwork for what could have been a nice blend of questions of morality and mortality set in a future world where time is of the essence and the possibilities of imagination are endless.  The trouble is that the characters, all of them and I do mean all of them, are so intensely unlikable from the start that as a viewer you find yourself literally leaning away from the screen the longer the film goes on.  Though the visuals are well rendered for the most part, there is a particular ugliness in the character qualities of Adam’s resolutely passive aggressive mealiness and Reena’s selfish manipulation that it’s hard to find any warmth to relate to.  As a viewer, I simply didn’t care what decisions were being made, by whom, or why.  That’s a fairly large hurdle for a director to put in your way.

Unfortunately, though D’Arcy is a strong actor and can handle this type of material, that character likability factor becomes a major problem in the final act when it essentially becomes a one (well, two…kinda) man show.  It becomes, frankly, an interminable watch and at 103 minutes feels like a self-indulgent screenwriting experiment that needed editing down.  Even the presence of the normally engaging Delroy Lindo (Point Break) as the reclusive scientist behind the technology that has provided the advancements to essentially save the human race does little to spice up Moshe’s drab, overly talky sci-fi drama.  It doesn’t help matters that it’s a hard to follow narrative at times as well, with timelines jumping and converging at odd moments that don’t always line up.  Usually, there are better connections and visual cues that assist viewers in putting the pieces together…at least at some point.

Before eventually becoming a tedious meditation on one’s own existence, the film already has lost its way in the wilderness between two plots and one ill-advised side tangent involving a sex-doll come to life.  There’s more than a little overlap between this and Blade Runner 2049…but only in concept, not in the intelligent execution.  It isn’t required to have likable characters for a movie to succeed but you do need to provide some reason for them to exist and Moshe hasn’t given his creations (or viewers) in LX 2048 much hope for the future.

Movie Review ~ Kajillionaire


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.

Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Diana Maria Riva, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf

Director: Miranda July

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in March I was getting to the point where I was considering limiting my screenings to no more than two a week in theaters, if that.  The process of getting home from work and having no time to catch my breath before heading out to a screening or finding a way to fit one in during the daytime was tough stuff, especially when you consider there was a full-time job and relationship that I had to prioritize.  Then there were the audiences which, as anyone that’s been to a movie in the last two years can attest, have been growing into a headstrong pack of rogue-texting, seat-kicking, popcorn-chomping, late-arriving, no-shame-about-it-talkers that proceed to treat their fellow movie-goers as witnesses to their showcase of bad behavior.  I know, I know…this is all “woe is me” and the kind of “spoiled critic”-type complaining I normally gag at, but my candle burning at both ends was about to melt away completely and my patience level was wearing thin.

Then this pandemic hit and I suddenly found myself in an audience of one (or two if I wasn’t being impossible that day) with only myself to complain about. And I discovered something interesting.  If there’s one thing I’ve really missed these past seven months watching films at home it’s…audiences.  Not just heading to the theater and milling about shoulder to shoulder in the lobby wondering what everyone else is seeing or waiting in line to get into your auditorium but the communal nature of everyone having a shared experience of discovery together.  Laughs are great at comedies, shrieks are fun at horror, and it’s secretly fun to spot alpha males walking out of a “guys cry too” film with their eyes red and watery.  For me, though, my favorite moments are when an audience catches on to something at the same time a character onscreen does and can’t help but gasp or let their jaws hinge open.

There’s two of these very surprises in director Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire and I couldn’t help but get a small pang of sadness when I realized how much fun it would have been to be in a packed crowd to see it for the first time.  Now, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what these little moments of movie magic are, what kind of emotion they’re meant to elicit, or when they occur, but the first is easy to pick-up on while the second might be something that will sneak up on you after the movie has finished.  Known for her more avant-garde work in independent film in the past, July continues her recent streak of staying in a more commercial lane with Kajillionaire.  Thanks to emotionally resonant work from her star and a trio of fine supporting performances, July may have made her most accessible film yet…though in an ironic twist it’s primarily about the inaccessibility of emotions between a daughter and her parents.

A family of con-artists make their way through Los Angeles barely scraping by with their small time swindles and quick schemes.  Like a modern day version of the grasping couple the Thénardiers from Les Misérables, Robert (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) and Theresa (Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment) aren’t above stealing from the dying to get ahead or lying their way out of any situation if it means they might eventually turn a profit.  Yet we learn early on they’re also impulsive in their decisions and reckless spenders when they do find funds, which begins to alienate their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, Frozen II) who learns on her own the value of money and the emotions that come with it.  How Old Dolio got her name is another mystery the film holds onto until late in the game and when we learn its origin it manages to be both terrifically funny and tragically sad at the same time, another of July’s gifts in storytelling.

When Old Dolio cooks up a plan to help pay the back rent they owe through a con involving an airline luggage insurance claim, her parents somehow manage to bring Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation), into the fold.  Sensing immediate competition from the more glamorous girl, Old Dolio begins to distance herself from her family, even after Melanie comes up with her own plans to use the trio to advance a money-making hustle of her own.  Thankfully, July lets things get as messy as possible over the ensuing hour and supplies her cast with great material in which to explore the relationships between parents and their children as well as young women finding their own inner strength even without a role model/strong parental figure to guide them.

Wood completely disappears into her role, pitching her voice to a dull low monotone with a hint of California surfer thrown in for good measure.  It’s not a “dumb” voice but one that wasn’t ever exposed to any emotional levels that would signal a change in dynamics she could learn from and that’s not her fault.  Clearly, Robert and Theresa never took the time to parent their child, only using her as we see them using her now…as part of their con in one way or another.  You almost wonder at some points if she’s even their real daughter or if her birth was planned as part of another plot that paid out previously.  Though strong as ever, I feel like I’ve seen Jenkins play this kind of aloof father figure before, his complete disregard for the feelings of others stings like a slap in the face even to us the viewer.   With each passing film, I’m more and more impressed with the parts that Rodriguez takes on, they never seem to be quite the same person and she’s obviously pushing against any kind of bubble Hollywood is trying to stick her under.  A true legend when it comes to screen presence and talent, Winger is always (always) a welcome sight and her brittle character is fairly fascinating; watching her turn on a dime from uninterested to fully committed for the sake of the swindle is spooky…you’ll want to dissect it later.

Careening a bit too much with tonal issues that start to distract more than help audiences fully sync up with Old Dolio and her lot, July eventually spins Kajillionaire out of control but regains some semblance of order for a rewarding finale that I had no idea what to expect from.  These are the kind of movies where you don’t know the ending at the beginning and that’s an exciting film to be able to step up to the line for.  I’d have liked to have trusted the film a bit more in the second half when it wanted to be more serious as it shifted into a different gear, but by that time it had trained you to be on the lookout for dishonesty so much that it was almost impossible to let your guard down. Add to that characters that have made it their mission to deceive and you never know if you’re hearing the full truth, a version of the truth we want to hear, or an outright lie.  It makes for an interesting movie, which Kajillionaire certainly is, but an uneasy view.

Movie Review ~ Enola Holmes

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Enola Holmes-Sherlock’s teen sister-discovers her mother missing, she sets off to find her, becoming a super-sleuth in her own right as she outwits her famous brother and unravels a dangerous conspiracy around a mysterious young Lord.

Stars: Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, Louis Partridge, Helena Bonham Carter, Adeel Akhtar, Fiona Shaw, Frances de la Tour, Susie Wokoma

Director: Harry Bradbeer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I think we can all agree that by this point, that sly detective Sherlock Holmes has had his fair share of the spotlight in movies and television shows.  If you run a search for Sherlock Holmes in IMDb you’re going to get a truckload of results…and that’s only those with his name in the title.  Think of the all the movies with Holmes as a leading or secondary character that take the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creation into numerous different directions, some for the good (1979’s much liked Murder by Decree) and many for the bad (take your pick but 2018’s ghastly Holmes & Watson springs to mind).  The brilliant reimagining for the BBC in 2010 made Benedict Cumberbatch a star and the big-budget 2009 film and it’s gargantuan sequel in 2011 solidified Robert Downey Jr.’s A-List status in stone.

So if Sherlock was considered played out, how to further the Holmes lineage in new and interesting ways?  The answer came in the form of six books written by Nancy Springer that followed Enola Holmes, Sherlock’s much younger sister.  Raised solely by her mother after her father’s death, both Sherlock and his brother Mycroft were out of the house by the time Enola was born, leading the now teenage girl to grow up not really knowing her siblings.  Springer’s books were published between 2006 and 2010 and now the first one has been adapted into Enola Holmes, a film originally intended for release by Warner Brothers this past summer that was eventually bought by Netflix on account of the pandemic.  If this origin story and initial adventure is any indication, Netflix has scored a win with a promising new franchise on their hands.

On the morning of her 16th birthday in 1884, Enola Holmes (Millie Bobbie Brown) discovers that her ever-present mother (Helena Bonham-Carter, Cinderella) has vanished from their sprawling and overgrown country home outside London, apparently leaving no clue as to where she’s gone.  As Enola’s only companion, teacher, and guardian, this is a puzzlement as it’s not like her to just disappear without a trace so Enola sends word to her brothers in the city who arrive in short order.  Stodgy Mycroft (Sam Claflin, Me Before You) isn’t surprised their flighty mother took off, begrudgingly accepting the responsibilities for taking in Enola as his ward. The more laid-back Sherlock (Henry Cavill, Justice League) likely has already figured out where she’s gone and how tight her shoelaces were tied when she left but defers to his more tightly-wound brother in the decision-making process.

Enola, however, can’t wait around forever and when Mycroft attempts to ship her off to a boarding school run by a perilous headmistress (Fiona Shaw, Pixels, a brittle riot) she sets off on her own after making a hidden discovery that points her in the right direction.  Along the way, she crosses paths with the Lord Viscount Tewskbury, Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge, Paddington 2) , a young runaway she assists in evading a treacherous henchman (Burn Gorman, Pacific Rim) dispatched for murderous purposes by someone close to the boy.  Not letting herself be distracted by another mystery when she has her own familial problem to solve, Enola continues to track the disappearance of her mother, which may have ties to the growing women’s suffrage movement.

With Jack Thorne’s (Radioactive) script often episodic in nature, the film tends to resemble the chapter book it’s based off of, with tiny little adventures or plot advances happening in small chunks throughout.  It gives the entire film, which is by and large entirely delightful, an ever so slight stutter and never lets it achieve a smooth ride.  Director Harry Bradbeer makes his feature film debut after years of building a respected career in television and he uses that history of handling short form storytelling to bring a liveliness throughout, even if it often lacks true connectivity.  It’s a handsome production, with the period recreated beautifully in the sets and reflected faithfully by the costumes.

With only Netflix’s Stranger Things and last year’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters as the majorly significant items on her resume, I haven’t yet hopped on the Millie Bobbie Brown train yet but I’m willing to buy a ticket after this.  It’s a role perfectly suited for her and she delivers the right amount of spunk and heart, never making Enola too coy or aggravatingly precocious but finding the exact right balance that makes her come alive.  Much of the movie involves her speaking directly to the audience and it wouldn’t have worked as well if Brown didn’t have the right attitude, but whether it be a glance at the camera or lines delivered straight out to us, she really commands your attention.

Acting as a producer of the film as well, Brown has wisely surrounded herself with a nice array of talented supporting players, from Bonham Carter playing pitch perfect as her mother with a hidden life we only just start to skim the surface of to Frances de la Tour (Into the Woods) as the Lord’s grandmother who takes a liking to Enola.  Claflin’s role is rather humorless so he’s stuck with a bit of a downer part, the most villainous non-villain in the film and he’s playing the brother supposedly seven years older than Sherlock…even though he’s three years younger than Cavill.  Cavill is an inspired choice for Sherlock and while the film has made news lately for being named in a lawsuit by the Conan Doyle estate for showing Sherlock as “too emotional”, I didn’t find Cavill to be overtly emo more so than Cumberbatch or Downey, Jr.  It’s wholly Brown’s circus, though, and even Cavill playing the world’s leading detective can’t steal her spotlight for any amount of time.

At 123 minutes, this a long film and while it may entice younger viewers and parents might find the opening 80 minutes to be fairly light, there’s a dark turn as we get to the home stretch that I wasn’t quite expecting.  It is rated PG-13 and earns it in that final half hour when things get violent and scary in ways I’m not sure were entirely necessary, especially for a movie hoping to build into future installments that parents could confidently leave their children in the care of.  That being said, for mystery lovers in general and especially those that like the Sherlock Holmes film adaptations that strayed with cheeky humor from the original Conan Doyle tales, you’ll want to see the first adventure of his sister because Enola Holmes is just getting started.

Movie Review ~ Last Call

The Facts:

Synopsis: Shot in two true single takes, filmed simultaneously in two different parts of a city, this is a real time feature presented in split screen showcasing both ends of a wrong number phone call that has the potential to save a life.

Stars: Daved Wilkins, Sarah Booth, Matt Maenpaa

Director: Gavin Michael Booth

Rated: NR

Running Length: 77 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Released in conjunction with the recently concluded National Suicide Awareness week, Last Call is a clever new tiny Canadian drama showing in virtual theaters and arriving soon in on demand platforms.  You’ll likely hear about the film first because of how it was made (more on that later) but once you get acclimated to what you’re seeing, audiences are apt to find a movie boasting high stakes performances delivered with a strong, if at times a bit muddled, message that’s handled with a surprisingly delicate touch.

My advice to you before seeing Last Call is to make sure you’re ready to sit for the full duration without interruption because that’s going to be the best way to fully immerse yourself in the filmmaking experience as intended.  Clocking in around 74 minutes, it shouldn’t be a challenge…you can focus in and pretend you’re back in a movie theater.  I’d also suggest removing distractions as well because in all honesty there are points in the film where you’ll be tempted to check your phone quickly but, again, that would break the spell of the mood that’s being created.  Know that when you hit ‘play’ the film begins and doesn’t stop, with two continuous takes being shown onscreen.  Two actors were filmed at the same time in the same city in one continuous take and thought you may feel you’d be too wrapped up in paying attention to that fete of filmmaking it becomes secondary to the story rather quickly.

On one side of the screen is Beth (Sarah Booth), a single mother arriving to her shift as the night janitor at an adult education center she attends during the day.  Working there after hours to subsidize her own studies, she’s distracted because her eldest son hasn’t returned home after a night at the movies.  The other side of the screen has Scott (co-writer Daved Wilkins) who is polishing off his drink at a local bar before heading home for the evening.  For the first fifteen minutes of the film we watch these two people settle in for their evening plans.  Beth attempts to locate her son and tries to find coverage in case she needs to leave and track him down and Scott walks the several long blocks back to his home where he resumes drinking.

Then Scott makes a phone call and dials the wrong number.  That’s when he connects with Beth and two things happen.  The first is that our view of the situation literally changes and the second is that we become eavesdroppers on a real-time conversation between individuals that don’t know each other but are soon bonded over their emotionally revealing talk.  When it becomes clear that Scott thinks he’s called a suicide prevention line and if Beth disconnects from this man she has no way of redialing.  Without any personal information to go on, she continues to engage with while simultaneously using her resources to use what little clues he’s giving her to identify him and get him help.

Ok, this one goes out to all you theater nerds out there.  In the 1959 musical Gypsy, there’s a second-act show stopping number where three vaudeville strip-tease artists sing “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”.  It brings down the house and one line from that number rang through my head while watching Last Call:  “You gotta get a gimmick, If you wanna get applause.”  The film has a gimmick, there’s no getting around it, but it’s efficiently used and appropriately engaged.  Instead of teetering with high-stake chicanery, it’s not used as a cheap trick or garishly exploited to show off director Gavin Michael Booth’s bravura filmmaking technique.  It adds to the overall impact and assists particularly in the intense final act which may resort to some slightly overbaked histrionics but don’t affect the feelings toward the film as a whole.  It’s highly worthy of praise because it’s so masterfully done.

If there’s one questionable aspect here, I did start to wonder how much consulting the screenwriters and filmmakers had with suicide prevention counselors.  While there’s nothing disrespectful here or actions taken that raise red flags, some of the approaches employed feel quaintly pat and textbook, like someone just looked up what is the right response in a certain situation and copied it verbatim into the script.  I think there could have been a better way of handling some of these more serious and serious-minded developments of the narrative.

Wilkins is a bit of a tough nut to crack, which is likely the point, but there’s something to be said about being too obtuse for this kind of role that asks you to expose some raw nerves.  He could have taken a note or two from his co-star Sarah Booth (the director is her husband) because she’s often downright riveting to watch.  There were moments when the attention was meant to be on Scott’s character but what Booth was doing was so interesting even in moments of silence that I just kept watching her.  I almost have to think about what this would have been like if the Wilkins view had been excised completely, I think the intensity would have still been there, though the purpose of the two shots would have gone away.

Plenty of films and filmmakers have experimented with these long takes and one shot movies but I don’t remember one that has done something like this before and I think it’s by and large a success.  There are some long gaps where nothing much happens and there could have been some creative ways to fill in that space but it also added to the reality of the world of these characters to not have every minute of their lives spent talking to someone.  Last Call has a first rate concept and an important message, it has its gimmick and deserves the applause.

Movie Review ~ The Wall of Mexico


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A wealthy Mexican-American family decides to build a wall around their ranch to stop townspeople from stealing their well water, which is rumored to have unusual properties.

Stars: Esai Morales, Mariel Hemingway, Jackson Rathbone, Alex Meneses, Carmela Zumbado, Marisol Sacramento, Xander Berkeley, Moises Arias

Director: Zachary Cotler & Magdalena Zyzak

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve mentioned it here before but I think it’s worth repeating here: at film festivals, it pays to have good time management skills.  That’s really the only way you’re going to maximize your full potential of seeing as much as you can in the often short time frame that is allotted for screenings.  Apart from choosing your films carefully, you need to make sure you’re also selecting the right films at the correct time of day so your energy is matched with what you’re seeing.  It doesn’t always work as well as it should when you factor in availability and sheer unavoidable bouts of fatigue but when everything lines up you’re in for a gold star viewing experience.

At the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest, I was having trouble making my schedule work and finding that I had a gap of time that went unaccounted for.  Then I realized that if I moved a few things around, I could start earlier in the day and add another film to my list, which is how The Wall of Mexico began as a simple gap filler but wound up being one of the more interesting and intriguing films I saw. Remember, this was back in October 2019 when all we had to worry about, pre-COVID, fiery protests, and the upcoming election were the harsh regulations being imposed against immigrations into the US.  So a movie with a title like The Wall of Mexico was bound to pique some interest at the outset and the good news is that writer/co-director Zachary Cotler rewards those who take the leap into the mysterious lives of the Arista family with a mostly unpredictable parable.

In an unnamed town running along the California border to Mexico, the Mexican-American Arista family lives an enviable life of privilege.  As the head of the family, Henry (Esai Morales) has provided well for his two daughters Tania (Marisol Sacramento) and Ximena (Carmela Zumbado, Need for Speed) who spend days lounging by the pool soaking up the sun and nights with a select group who party until they pass out.  Into this tranquil existence comes Tom (Jackson Rathbone, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), hired to work as a groundskeeper under the tutelage of Michael (Xander Berkeley, Candyman), the Aristas long-standing employee.  It isn’t long before Tom falls under the spell of the beautiful Tania and his crush on her doesn’t seem to surprise anyone, even when it strays into possibly dangerous territory.

If that were the crux of the story, Colter and his co-director Magdalena Zyzak might have had a fine if standard, film exploring the class differences between Tom and Tania but there’s something more on the agenda.  On the Arista property is a well, which seems to hold some sort of secret for the family in addition to serving as a frenzied curiosity for the townspeople that want to know what’s being kept hidden from them.  When the water level in the well begins to lower dramatically and it becomes evident someone is stealing the limited supply, Tom is assigned to help Michael build a wall around the Arista estate during the day and watch over the tank as an overnight watchman to catch the culprit.  As you can imagine, formally being walled out of something creates an even bigger uproar from the rabidly curious and increasingly irate townfolk, leading to a showdown with the town officials (led by Mariel Hemmingway in a brief cameo) and an eventual standoff.

With a run time of nearly two hours, Colter and Zyzak can’t quite sustain the energy or keep up the interest they’ve laid out for the entirety of the film but for a while there The Wall of Mexico gets a nice buzz going as you try to figure out, along with Tom, what’s truly going on.  Is the Arista well some sort of fountain of youth, aiding the Arista clan in their success, longevity, and glamorous looks? Or is it simply water and a valuable resource they choose to keep for themselves, which they have every right to do.  The questions are interesting and the answers feel resolved long before the movie wraps up

It’s good, then, that the cast is so worth watching and brings something more to the script than what was on the page, and that goes for everyone on screen from top to bottom.  Usually, the characters that enter a world foreign to them can be the dullest ones in the bunch but Rathbone finds some good moments throughout that feel special, giving the audience someone they can feel some kind of small relation to.  There’s also a bit of a kinship to Morales as the father just doing right for his family and protecting what he’s worked hard to cultivate.  A hard-working character actor for years, Berkeley is solid as always.  Playing the two wild daughters that take great joy in manipulating the men they love and loathe in their lives, Zumbado and Sacramento are of particular note because they seem to hold the greatest air of mystery for the longest amount of time.

While it’s not the politically timed piece it appears to be at first, there are so many underlying currents flowing through The Wall of Mexico and its left to the viewer to draw their own parallels between the events in the news and what transpires on the Arista estate.  Colter has crafted a neat little parable that reflects on our culture and today’s entitled society, it’s often right on the money and I’d imagine it’s a more uncomfortable watch now than it was when I first saw it nearly a year ago.

Movie Review ~ The Way I See It


The Facts
:

Synopsis: As Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza was an eyewitness to the unique and tremendous responsibilities of being the most powerful person on Earth. After leaving the White House, Souza transforms from a respected photojournalist to a searing commentator on the issues we face as a country and a people.

Stars: Pete Souza

Director: Dawn Porter

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Are we Facebook friends?  If we are, you may have seen some posts of mine regarding our upcoming election and maybe we agree on things and maybe we haven’t.  Perhaps you’ve put one of those angry face emoticons because you think I’m misinformed or are you one of those people who use the laughing icon ironically?  Maybe you just like my posts and forget about it…or wait, you’ve just muted me until after the election, haven’t you?  Remember, I’m not trying to change your mind…I’m just fact checking you.  Something we all should be doing, no matter what candidate you support.  Everyone needs to be responsible for telling the whole truth…and frankly that goes double for the candidate you are endorsing.

Like you, I’m ready for this election to be over with because it’s just dividing this country more and more.  Family and friends are being pushed further apart and while I appreciate hearing other people’s viewpoints, it honestly just does me no good to know that people I have great respect for are voting against the rights of so many.  It changes you, it just does.  Watching the documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy a few weeks ago, I was angry about the abhorrent voter suppression that has gone on in this country and still permeates often unchallenged throughout cities today.  Now having sat through The Way I See It, I find myself in a different state of grief…a grief for a country that has changed so much so quickly.

Photographer Pete Souza was a young photojournalist that wasn’t much of a political person when he was asked to apply for a job as the official White House photographer in 1983 during the Reagan administration.  The one thing he did know before he started that job was that he wasn’t a fan of Reagan and while they may not have ultimately agreed politically Souza speaks in the early part of this new documentary about a respect that developed over time for the actor turned politician.  Arguably the most famous Republican president (until recently) of all time, Reagan drew heat for his handling of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the Iran-Contra affair, not to mention his tax reforms that we are still feeling the chilling effects of today.  What we see by way of hundreds of Souza pictures is a Reagan that was as personable and engaged out of the public eye as he was in front of the world.  To hear Souza tell it, Reagan and his wife Nancy showed up for the country in ways he found great value in.

The bulk of The Way I See It, though, is comprised of the eight years Souza spent as the official White House photographer during the Obama administration.  Starting to photograph him when he was a newly elected senator, Souza was there nearly every day with Obama, his family, and his staff as they traveled around the world representing the United States.  The pictures he took were stunning but it’s the stories the pictures tell that are the immensely moving wonders to behold.  Director Dawn Porter condenses Obama’s eight years in office to around 55 minutes of screen time and highlights the major events where Souza captured him at his most compassionate and naturalistic.  By showing Souza’s involvement with two Presidents one the opposite side of the political spectrum, audiences get an idea of how much he’s seen during his career and come to understand that he can speak from experience when discussing the qualities that make up a strong Commander in Chief and an honorable leader.

I have to admit it’s hard to watch The Way I See It and not get choked up on a number of occasions.  Even going back to the Reagan era, Porter provides so many reminders of the way the office of the President used to hold such honor, not just for the voters that elect the candidate into office, but for the person that takes on that crucial role.  Say what you will about the causes championed by either Reagan or Obama (or any of the others that came in between them or before) when they held office but there’s historical evidence (not to mention pictorial) to show that these men took the job, and the American people seriously.  Porter is surely taking aim at the current President but instead of making the focus squarely on him, she instead has historians and cultural critics describe the history of the office of the President and the qualities of what makes a great leader.  It’s an intelligent way of exposing the current weaknesses of the administration without coming right out and saying it.

What it also does, however, is make the documentary feel off kilter and rambunctious.  I never quite got the feel or overall theme of the piece  One moment it’s focusing on Souza’s transition from a behind the scenes apolitical staff member to a public defender of the legacy of the Obama administration and, to a larger extent, human decorum.  Then it changes angles to be about Souza’s tenure with Obama and about what he gleaned from his time with the 44th President of the United States. Finally, it seems to document Souza’s personal life from his upbringing to his wedding day, which is so special, I won’t spoil it here.  I understand there’s a lot to say but I wish there was a bit more conscious editing to help it flow better from one part to another.

The current official White House photographer does not have the same access granted to Souza or others who have held the same position.  Gone are the days where a photograph could be snapped catching the President, his staff, or his family in a candid instant of levity or finding a special behind the scenes moment where the country could see a human side to a group many find phony.  Now, the role is relegated to a glorified photo op curator, coming in to get a heavily staged shot that Souza points out is often not presented in its true form.  What was intended to capture the truth is apparently now another part of the machine of falsehoods and that’s unfortunate.  Before the photographer was there to preserve a piece of history, now it’s there to proliferate propaganda.

This is an important documentary for all those interested in history and the upcoming election to see, although I can imagine the conservative right struggling to find the same inspirational goodness that I found in the meditation on past Presidents.  As someone who respects government and the tenets on which it was created and as someone who held the office of the President in great regard, I was greatly moved by The Way I See It but also left a little hollowed out at the end too.  It’s just another chilly reminder at how sallow our nation has become in the last four years.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Fire in the Sky (1993)

In 2013 I was feeling pretty blue about the state of movie trailers.  For a time, it was imperative for me to get to a theater in time for the previews or else some of the fun would be missing from the experience of going to the movies because, let’s face it, sometimes the coming attractions were more entertaining than the feature presentation.  That started to change when the previews became less of a creative way to market the film and more of way for studios to put all their cards on the table with little artistry.  Like I said back seven years ago, it seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

Sadly, in the years since I did my first run of the In Praise of Teasers series, not a lot has changed and it may have gotten worse.  It’s gotten to the point where I almost avoid watching a trailer all together because so much of the plot is given away.  This site used to feature a wealth of movie previews but I just can’t bring myself to post too many because they’re so spoiler-y.  Only the rare well-done coming attraction or preview for an “event” film gets through…and even then I can’t think of anything recent that could go toe-to-toe with the brief bites I’m going to share with you over the coming weeks.

That’s why I’ve decided to revive In Praise of Teasers now.  In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot.  Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there; but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Fire in the Sky (1993)

OK.  So here’s one of those examples I was talking about where the teaser trailer is better than the movie.  I vividly (vividly) remember seeing this teaser trailer before a number of movies leading up to its opening in early 1993 and being convinced this was going to be the next big movie.  I mean, it looked like it had a spooky menace to it, it was about aliens, it had the guy from The Cutting Edge in it, plus it was a true story!  I love, and still love, everything about this teaser because it tells you all you need to know to get you interested, invested, and ready to see the film.  Now, Fire in the Sky turned out to be more than a bit of a dud with me (and audiences and critics) because it was more drama than sci-fi at the end of the day and the marketing was misleading to say the least.  I don’t think I’ve seen the film more than twice and it’s been a solid fifteen years since the last time I took it in so perhaps my less “entertain me for the entire running length” brain would appreciate the slower pace of the movie now.  Just look at that cast, it’s nothing to scoff at with the likes of James Garner, Peter Berg, Robert Patrick, and Craig Sheffer joining D.B. Sweeney in this true-life tale of what was reported to be the first alien abduction on record.  (The account is widely believed to be a hoax, the man who claimed to be abducted even went on television to take a lie detector test and failed it!)  It just goes to show you that one good trailer can truly sell tickets…and Paramount was really great at these types of “big promise” trailers that turned out to be less than stellar delivery.  You have to add some points to this one for having a good poster as well — nice try, Paramount.  Nice try.