Movie Review ~ Wonder Woman 1984

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in 1984 during the twilight years of the Cold War, the film follows Diana and her past love Steve Trevor as they face off against television huckster Maxwell Lord and archaeologist turned half-wildcat Barbara Minerva aka Cheetah.

Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Gabriella Wilde, Kristoffer Polaha, Amr Waked

Director: Patty Jenkins

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 151 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Earlier in 2020 when theaters started to close and movie release dates began to be bumped, the first films discussed were the most immediately affected: the latest James Bond film No Time to Die, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, and Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated Tenet.  Each film has followed their own path to getting in front of audiences, from sticking to a theatrical release at all costs to its own detriment or embracing the streaming/on demand option that is available to millions in more immediate platform providers.  Arguably, out of all the movies in 2020 that audiences, studio heads, and investors in the future have been looking to for a sign of what’s next is Wonder Woman 1984 and like its bold titular superheroine, it wound up being a leader for its peers.

Rather than just debut the movie in theaters and have a streaming date follow weeks later, or have the film premiere for a fee on demand first, Warner Brothers stopped giving the film a seemingly endless set of new release dates and decided to gift everyone the movie on Christmas Day via HBOMax as well as select theaters in areas where it was safe to open.  The new streaming service has launched this year to a good buzz with nice content and an even better supply of films so far that have bypassed a theatrical run due to the pandemic like the remake of The Witches, Let Them All Talk, and Superintelligence.  To further entice those wanting a more cinematic experience, Wonder Woman 1984 would be the first film on HBOMax to be released in 4K, and would also support Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and HDR10.  So if your home theater is tricked out, you were going to get a great show.

Still…there was the question of the quality of the film, a much (and I do mean much) anticipated follow-up to 2017’s origin story of how the Amazonian princess (Gal Gadot, Furious 7) made her way from her home island of Themyscira to the battlefields of the first World War, fighting alongside Col. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, People Like Us).  Eventually joining the Justice League for more modern adventures (and being featured in two other DC films, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League) she stands as a symbol of truth and is always “fighting for our rights…and the old red, white, and blue.”  Original director Patty Jenkins was wisely brought back, this time co-writing the script with Aquaman screenwriter Geoff Johns.  The result is a solid sequel that builds on the excellent groundwork set in the first film but struggles with focus and juggling two villains with only one proving to be effective.

I’m going to assume from this point on you’ve all seen the first film so we’ll discuss some key events that happened in that movie.  You’ve been warned on spoilers from that movie!

Jenkins begins her film with a true thrill, an extended pre-title sequence set on Themyscira showing the young Diana (Lilly Aspell, Holmes & Watson) going up against older Amazons on a grueling obstacle course race that takes them in, up, over, and under the beautiful isle.  Under the watchful eye of her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright, Blade Runner 2049) and mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, Sea Fever), Diana learners an early lesson about truth above all else.  Jumping time periods from 1918 to 1984, Diana is now operating out of Washington D.C. working at the Smithsonian as an anthropologist when she isn’t taking long lunch breaks to solve crime and save lives as Wonder Woman.  The apprehension of a set of mall thieves (one of several well-orchestrated action set-pieces) winds up overlapping with her day job as items from the heist are actually antiques, one of which holds a special power that changes all who come in contact with it.

One of those people is Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), a co-worker of Diana’s that largely goes unnoticed day in and day out.  Mousey and easy to push around, she begins to change once she makes a casual wish to be more like Diana and that’s when her world, appeal, and physicality start to change overnight…and soon not for the better.  Another individual that seeks the artifact is smarmy Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk), a pyramid scheme sham-artist about to go down in flames whose fortunes change after making a deadly pact with a force of unknown power.  Still mourning the loss of Steve, who sacrificed himself at the end of the first movie, Diana, too, becomes part of this when her innocent wish for him to return brings him back…kinda.  Everyone has been wondering how Jenkins was going to bring back Pine for this film after his character, well, died all those decades earlier but she and Johns have worked out a clever way for this to happen within the context of the story being told.

That’s pretty much all you need to know about Wonder Woman 1984 because it’s the gist of the set-up introduced in the first quarter of the movie, the rest is all how these characters react to the new powers they’re given or, in Diana’s case, the person she’s given back.  For Barbara and Max, the power becomes an intoxicating drug they need more of.  Max begins to be unable to hold back and it starts to manifest itself outwardly but for Barbara while the change is somewhat external, the majority of the alteration is to her internal confidence and prowess.  Unwilling to be manhandled, exploited, intimidated, or second-guessed, an animal emerges…and this is long before her eventual transformation into Wonder Woman’s famous rival, Cheetah.

For Diana and Steve, it’s a far more emotional journey and Jenkins allows Gadot and Pine to have these moments, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of the many fanboys and fangirls that just want to see wall-to-wall action.  Yes, I would have loved to see Gadot show up one or two more times in the Wonder Woman get-up in that first hour (there’s a frighteningly long passage in the first 75 minutes where she’s tiara-less) but would I have sacrificed the nice moments generated by the two actors?  Not at all.  If Gadot and Pine weren’t so engaging, I might have said yes but both elevate their characters to something bigger than big-screen versions of comic book creations.  It also paves the way for one of the film’s most stunning moments for Gadot, a “never look back” sort of scene that demonstrates not only why she’s underestimated as an actress but why she’s made a fantastic Wonder Woman so far.  Still…a nice mixing of the two is a 4th of July ride for the two on an invisible jet plane through a mass of fireworks.  It’s a romantic interlude in an otherwise more action-oriented scene.

Wiig is another huge revelation, I’m glad to say.  Everyone is a fan of the actress for her comedic turns but I’ve struggled with her in more dramatic roles, finding them a bit on the sly and overly produced side.  Not so here.  I loved watching how her Barbara turns from being a wallflower (that maybe only thinks she’s a wallflower) to a full-fledged creature out for dominance.  She begins by wanting to be like Diana in terms of being noticed, but when she realizes that her wish came true and then some…she becomes addicted to the “then some” more than anything.  Emma Stone was rumored to be the first choice for the role but Wiig is such a better selection, it’s hard to consider anyone else playing it so well.

Then we come to the biggest problem with the film, Pascal as Max Lord.  In a role that should have been played by (and I would wager a guess was written for) Matthew McConaughey, Pascal is by far the weakest element of the movie and that becomes a huge detriment the more Lord shifts into a leading villain role throughout the overlong 151-minute run time.  Popular right now more than ever due to his role as The Mandalorian on Disney+, Pascal may have his fans from that series but he’s almost unwatchable here as he overacts and oversells Lord while others around him are operating at a different level.  Someone should have taken him aside and helped him make an adjustment because it just looks like he’s in a completely different kind of movie.  In the hands of a McConaughey or even a Jeremy Renner (if he wasn’t already tied to Marvel), Lord could have been a true foe for Diana but under Pascal’s watch he’s a complete annoyance more than anything.

True, some of the CGI near the end gets a little iffy, especially when Wonder Woman and Cheetah finally meet face to face but as is typical of a DC film, it’s a strikingly rendered bit of entertainment for the most part.  Plenty can be said about the plot holes around the logic surrounding the central artifact, not to mention inconsistences in its usage but isn’t that true of all superhero movies at some point?  I mean, let’s not even go there with Marvel and it’s various magic objects that do the impossible.  Yes, it may not hold up to a careful inspection and isn’t as unique as its predecessor but its still eons better than most of the other films released so far in the DC Extended Universe.  It has a distinct moral compass that it’s not afraid to be open about; messages about telling the truth to yourself and, if you are in a position of power, telling the truth to those you have the ability to communicate with seems pretty pointed and timely for today’s audiences.  I like that it has a point to it and also how it keeps its emotions close to the surface, allowing them to rise up when necessary.  Gadot gets several key moments to emote and they don’t feel forced, her sincerity is what continues to make her engaging.

You can bet that all eyes will be on HBOMax this Christmas to see Wonder Woman 1984 make its premiere on the service (and I’ll be watching it again sometime soon, I’m sure) and I’m not worried about the future opportunities to see the Amazonian princess on the screen.  Make sure to stick around for the first few minutes of the credits and clear out any annoying windows that pop up so you can see the full screen – there’s a brief mid-credit sequence that is not to be missed for anything.  As a long-time fan of Wonder Woman dating all the way back to that original Cathy Lee Crosby movie (yes, even that one!) I kind of lost my mind for a moment.  It’s just the capper on Jenkins understanding what makes the character so appealing and proving that she knows how to give fans what they want.  Another absolute winner.

Movie Review ~ Sylvie’s Love

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Sylvie has a summer romance with a musician who takes a summer job at her father’s record store in Harlem. When they reconnect years later, they discover their feelings for each other have not faded.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Lance Riddick, Jemima Kirke, Erica Gimpel, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tone Bell, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Regé-Jean Page, Aja Naomi King, Eva Longoria

Director: Eugene Ashe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With all of the delays due to the pandemic, Disney and Amazon Studios couldn’t have predicted that both would be releasing films about jazz musicians examining their lives at critical junctures around the same date in December but here we are, several days out and both Soul and Sylvie’s Love loom large ahead of us.  The two films are unique at their core and speak for different audiences, but the way they overlap is interesting to note, in particular the way that it deals with the role of influential men in the lives of the young.  This Christmas, it will be nice to see multiple options of representation for inclusive storytelling available to distinct target demographics.

One also can’t even begin to talk about Sylvie’s Love, a romantic drama from writer/director Eugene Ash that’s been in various stage of development as far back as 2014 and not mention the old-fashioned melodramas so popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when the film takes place.  Emulating the feel of a Douglas Sirk escapade that’s more big-city than Anytown, USA, Sylvie’s Love wears its many factions of homage clearly and proudly, which succeed in making it a more entertaining feature and also prevents it from being accused of not understanding that it is neck-deep in soap-opera scenarios.  Unfortunately, it bites off more than it is capably comfortable chewing on and experiences serious drag in the final 1/3, a disappointing shift in what up until that point had been a nice balance between the sudsy and the serious.

After a brief glimpse of the early ‘60s, we go back to the late 1950s where Sylvie Johnson (Tessa Thompson, Creed) is working at her father’s record store while her fiancé is overseas.  Since her mother (Erica Gimpel) runs a popular local charm school and it wouldn’t be ladylike for Sylvie to, gasp, work, Sylvie and her father (the excellent Lane Reddick, Angel Has Fallen) have to pretend she’s just watching the store and have placed a Help Wanted sign in the window, though it’s really just for show. Then musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, Hello, My Name Is Doris) walks in to apply for the job, mostly to talk more with Sylvie and also because he needs a little more income seeing that his band isn’t booking big gigs at the moment.  The job is his and, hopefully soon her heart will be too.

As expected, the two eventually fall in love despite her mother’s protestations on Robert’s profession and financial situation.  Their summer together is filled with new experiences and special moments, often conveyed by Sylvie with twinkle eyed wonder to her more experienced best friend, Mona (Aja Naomi King, The Upside) as they lay out listening to records and taking in some sun.  When Robert books a job that takes him overseas, he expects Sylvie to go with him…a decision that changes their lives together for the future.  When the film jumps back to the 60s to find Sylvie an assistant producer to a brassy TV cook (Wendi McClendon-Covey, What Men Want) and Robert a successful musician, we witness them navigate their relationship and how it has evolved, for better or for worse.

With both stars serving in some form of producer role on the film, you can tell they have a vested interest in how the characters are represented.  That may be why there’s more to Sylvie’s Love than just, well, Sylvie’s love.  Back in the day these romances always had some motivating side stories but there’s more time spent on these diversions in this instance, so much that they begin to come off as distractions from the people we do want to see more of…Thompson and Asomugha.  While it’s filled with familiar faces in supporting roles that range from the large to the tiny, none are interesting enough to pull you in their direction…well, maybe except for McLendon-Covey who Thompson’s character sees a spark in that’s being hidden by the senior producers of her show.  Casting Longoria as a fiery Latinx singer and then having her actually sing and dance was smart but, again, unnecessary since she is barely seen or established up until her late in the game production number.

The film does thrive when it’s just Thompson and Asomugha sharing the spotlight together.  Thompson tends to bring out the best in whatever costar she’s working with, human or CGI and here she’s matched with one that doesn’t need too much prodding to deliver.  A former NFL cornerback for nearly a decade, Asomugha cuts a convincing figure as a jazz musician and is a fine actor on top of it all.  Though he’s sadly part of several of the film’s less successful attempts at arch melodrama, he comes out unscathed from these sequences thanks to his honest approach to the character and to Thompson.  There’s a vulnerability to Asomugha, and in Thompson to a lesser extent, that is appealing and becomes an effective tool in keeping the audience with him along the way.  I liked that the script gave Thompson more autonomy that we usually see in films set in this era and it’s that unpredictability that keeps the movie from running too far out of gas, though it does feel like it has several endings as it makes its way to the final finish line.

Set to a gorgeous score from Fabrice Lecomte, the overall production design of Sylvie’s Love sublime and while Ashe hasn’t directed that many films, he clearly has an eye for what stands out and an ear for setting the mood. While Ashe is able to lean away from Sirk’s penchant for going overboard with strife as the film nears the conclusion, enough roadblocks are put in the way of our main couple to keep the resolution hard to figure out until the finale.  Even though an early glimpse may hint at the future, it isn’t quite the wrap-up audiences might think while watching.  It’s a completely worthy watch for those who miss an old-fashioned love story, well-told and performed, that isn’t trivialized or heavily weighted down with a coat of syrup.

Movie Review ~ The Midnight Sky

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A lone scientist in the Arctic races to contact a crew of astronauts returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.

Stars: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall

Director: George Clooney

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Ardent fans may disagree, but George Clooney has reached a point in the career of a successful actor that I always look forward to.  This is the time after an actor has paid their due (he appeared in later seasons of TV’s Facts of Life and the schlocky sequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes), had great commercial successes (a star-making turn in ER for NBC and a string of blockbuster hit movies), and won critical accolades (an Oscar for acting in 2006’s Syriana and one for producing 2013’s Argo, not to mention multiple other nominations).  He married after years of professed bachelorhood and is a father when he believed he was too immature to be one.  With all that under his belt…what’s next?  The answer? Sort of anything he wants to do.

Along with contemporaries like Jodie Foster and, to a smaller extent, friends Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, Clooney has earned the privilege (right?) to be ultra-picky with the work he does, often going long stretches without a film in the can or in production.  Leaning toward more producing than acting or directing, Clooney the actor seems to have taken a backseat to the other roles he seems to prioritize more right now.  So, like those other A-list stars mentioned above, when he does peek his head out for a film role (and directs it as well), it’s something to perk up for because there was obviously something about this certain project that was motivating enough to step back in front of the camera.

That film is The Midnight Sky, premiering the week of Christmas on Netflix, and it’s really a two-for-one kind of deal.  Both are Clooney movies through and through, for better or for worse…it all depends on which one you’re in the mood to see.  One is more of a movie Clooney is known to act in, with a sleek sophistication that builds in suspense the deeper it flies in the face of uncertainty.  The other reminded me of a feature Clooney had helmed in the past, one more focused on human drama on a smaller, more intimate level. Both pieces have their merit and varied degrees of satisfying realization throughout, but it’s delivered in a package so depressingly bleak that even an unexpectedly emotionally vibrant finale can’t clear the clouds away.

The year is 2049 (where are all the Blade Runners, I ask you?) and astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney, The Monuments Men) is alone at a research station in the Arctic Circle.  Evacuated after an unspecified global event three weeks earlier, it appears the Artic Circle is the last stand for humanity according to the radar showing whatever it was that happened inching closer to the pole Lofthouse is nearby.  Terminally ill and without family, Lofthouse chose to remain in the facility where he spends his time doing a lot of nothing save for monitoring the ongoing devastation and self-administering his daily dialysis.  Flashbacks to a younger Augustine (Ethan Peck) show an inspired young man that feels he found the answer to life on another planet, K-23, and we come to understand the study of that planet through a satellite circling a distant solar system became his one true passion in life above all other things, including a woman he loved (Sophie Rundle) but let slip away.

As he monitors the missions in space, he sees there is one crew still bound for Earth and they’re returning from a mission that involved exploration of a satellite near Jupiter that Lofthouse created.  Returning to Earth and whatever has taken place would be bad news and so Lofthouse begins attempting to make contact with the spacecraft Aether and it’s five-member crew.  Led by Adewole (David Oyelowo, A Most Violent Year) and communications office Sullivan (Felicity Jones, On the Basis of Sex), the crew is unaware of the catastrophe on their home planet, having been unable to contact mission control during the end-stage of their return voyage.  With his facility satellite not strong enough to relay a dependable signal, Lofthouse will have to trek in perilous conditions to a nearby facility if he is to get a message to Aether before its too late for them to turn back.

Based on a 2016 novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted by Mark L. Harris (Overlord), I won’t venture too far further into the plot of The Midnight Sky because there are some elements that are best left to be discovered as you travel on the journey.  Though it’s not a spoiler, per se, there is a small girl (the non-verbal but expressive Caoilinn Springall) Clooney finds has been left behind in the main research facility that becomes his companion on his frozen mission through ice and snow.  She serves as a silent sounding board for his thoughts and an outstretched hand of comfort when he finds he needs it most. Oscar-nominee Demián Bichir (A Better Life), Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now), and an excellent Tiffany Boone (Beautiful Creatures) make up the crew of the Aether, becoming important pieces in what eventually is seen to be a mystery of sorts that’s been staring us in the face from the start.

What also becomes obvious is that as grand as the movie is in certain key moments and for as well-made as the picture is, it operates too much as distinct independent features that it never quite feels like the two stories are tied together.  Long sequences with one storyline make you totally forget the other one is happening, and how the ramifications that what is happening in Plot #1 have a direct impact to Plot #2.  An important development in Plot #2 more than 2/3 of the way through is almost nullified by a bit of information from Plot #1.  These types of overlaps abound, and it pulls the movie apart rather than binding it to be stronger as a whole.  I either wanted to see more of the two features interacting with each other (because when they do, it’s all systems go for high-stakes suspense or emotional resonance) or one feature that plays solo.

Following in the footsteps of recent bleak outlook films like Songbird and Greenland, The Midnight Sky doesn’t seem that interested in finding a happy ending to appease us and that’s completely the prerogative of the filmmakers.  I continue to be curious to see how audiences embrace these types of movies during our current situation…do we really want to imagine a future even more depressingly futile than now?  Maybe it’s because my eyelids started to get just a tad heavy near the end but the finale from Clooney and Lester pulled the rug out from under me a bit too fast.  It achieved the desired impact, I think (I hope), and while the actual ending skirted the line of being too abrupt, there was a short section right before the credits played where Clooney achieved something fairly beautiful where all the elements of a film (visuals, Alexandre Desplat’s unsurprisingly hefty but surprisingly haunting score, performances) joined in harmony.   Like the stars up in the blackness, there are several of these shining moments in The Midnight Sky…I wish there were more.

Movie Review ~ Soul

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, June Squibb

Director: Pete Docter

Co-Director: Kemp Powers

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I recently was watching some programming on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ and it included clips from 1995’s Toy Story, Pixar’s first full length feature film.  It was a landmark in the movie business, the first entirely computer-animated feature and it opened so many doors for artists and creative energy to flow over the next twenty-five years.  It’s strange to look back at that revelatory movie (that still holds up well today, I might add) and see how far the medium has grown.  Now the animation borders on prehistoric in terms of composition and the ability to capture life-life expression and scenery.  It’s easier than ever to lose yourself in a Pixar film, which is a huge help with stories that are aiming for emotional connections like Onward from earlier in 2020.  (Doesn’t it feel like that movie came out two years ago after all we’ve been through?)

Pixar levels up, amazingly, once more with their latest release and it shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point when I tell you that Soul finds a way into your heart in the most unique ways.  Bumped from its June theatrical release to a hoped-for November bow in theaters before Disney threw in the towel and decided to put their efforts behind a holiday release on Disney+, Soul is wisely debuting Christmas Day when families can gather in harmony for a moving viewing experience.  Though it deals with topics that are deeper and often less tangible than other Pixar productions and parents should get ready to unpack the movie with their younger children after (or during), Soul finds Pixar pushing the boundaries of storytelling to a far more inquisitive and almost metaphysical plane.

Continuing their trend of tweaking their studio logo to fit the film it precedes, Disney allows Soul to re-orchestrate their opening fanfare, helping to set the tone as we meet middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy) hoping to inspire his inner-city students in the short amount of time he has them each day.  A jazz musician at his core ever since his late father taught him to love the style when he was the same age as his students, he picks up the occasional side gigs but never achieved the level of his success that matched his talent.  When he’s offered a full-time teaching job that would provide stability, not to mention would also please his firm but caring mother (Phylicia Rashad, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey), a self-made woman that owns her own tailoring shop), Joe struggles with choosing some permanence in his life over the possibility that something may happen down the road.

Then, a call from a former student (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove) offers a chance to fill in for the quartet that plays with jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and it could be the opportunity that changes everything.  A head held high and open manhole cover with a perilous drop ends that dream, though, and Joe’s soul is taken from his body and set on a course to the Great Beyond.  Now in the form of an aqua colored sprite that has Joe’s identifiable hat and glasses, Joe escapes from his final journey and winds up in the Great Before as an unlikely mentor to a soul yet to be born.  Helping this soul (Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) find their purpose by examining his own lived life becomes Joe’s ticket back to Earth and a reunion with his body.

Sounds like the full movie, right?  Ah…but this is from those ever-imaginative minds at Pixar and the outline above only covers the first 1/3 of Soul.  Oscar-winning writer/director Pete Docter (Inside Out) and his co-director Kemp Powers make Joe’s journey to the Great Before and his time there one of interesting discovery where origins of personality are found and motivations for a full life are started.  It’s a fascinating conversation for the movie to have with its audience and one that I’m sure will stay on your mind after; fantasy though this may be there’s some truth to thinking about what moves us and keeps us on track.  I didn’t even mention a hippie-dippie tie-dyed pirate character (Graham Norton) that’s very much alive on Earth but found his way into the Great Before by going into what we call “The Zone” or a chubby feline that plays an important role in the latter half of the movie.

It’s when the movie advances past Joe and his mentee getting to know one another in the Great Before that Soul earns its stripes for ingenuity and starts to close its grasp around your tear ducts, readying to squeeze.  It always amazes me the level of detail the writers and designers at Pixar can drill down to in each sequence.  There are comedic bits included here that would take forever to work out in live-action and even then may not come out correctly.  Yet they’re razor sharp here without a second of extra space for a laugh to go on for too long or too short.  Further, the action is complicated but easy to follow even with all the bells and whistles they’ve put on it.  That’s excellent filmmaking no matter what the medium it’s being made in.  It’s amplified by the score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Waves) which gives the film an ample pulse and runs in a nice parallel to the jazz compositions provided by Jon Batiste, the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Then there’s the way Docter, Powers, and the crew can make a simple moment, a small line, or a brief glance have huge emotional weight when you least expect it.  The realism of the animation at times helps this immeasurably.  There were honestly moments when I forgot it was animated, like Joe on a park bench watching the twirling seeds of maple trees fall or walking into a neighborhood barber shop.  You feel like you have to blink several times to adjust your eyes back to the animation.  There are several emotional high points within but the most effective one is instrument and dialogue free, and I won’t spoil where it is, but when you start to feel your eyes heat up, your cheeks flush, and the goosebumps ripple…you’ll know you’ve arrived.  As the first African American co-director in Pixar’s history (who will also be well-represented in end-of-the-year awards with One Night in Miami for Amazon), Powers brings some much-needed balanced narrative to the traditionally more vanilla Pixar brand of moviemaking.  Coupled with Docter’s trademark brand of tapping into what is going to pluck your increasingly fragile heartstrings and you have an inspired collaboration.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that a film about a jazz-musician’s soul figuring out their true spark of purpose set to a largely high-top horn heavy jazz score would be a tough sell but Soul emerges of one of Pixar’s mighty best, standing among an already impressive roster of top titles.  The voice cast is stellar (Foxx is the least Jamie Foxx he’s ever been and that’s a great thing) and it’s filled with jokes simple enough for small(er) children to laugh at and a number of quite hysterical one-liners (and appearances) involving historical philosophers and do-gooders that adults will get a belly laugh or four out of.  Despite the warning that parents might have to be prepared for some questions about death and what happens after we die, not to mention the film toying with the sticky-subject of the ability to come back after you die, for everyone else this is exactly the way you want your Pixar films to be: creative, moving, magical, funny, and thoughtful.  One of the very best of the year.

Movie Review ~ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Tensions rise when trailblazing blues singer Ma Rainey and her band gather at a recording studio in Chicago in 1927.

Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown

Director: George C. Wolfe

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Since April, Broadway and musical theater fans have been starved for ways to watch live performances and have had to settle for pre-recorded shows from the archives of regional and national theaters or newly produced live streams that don’t always go off without a hitch.  Nothing is going to replace that feeling of actually being in the theater, shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbor, hearing the rustle of the programs, the annoying cellphone noise, and, of course, the badly timed cough which will only be more of an annoyance in the future.

As theaters continue to look for alternative arrangements until the lockdown on Broadway playhouses has ended, Netflix has been bringing a little bit of Broadway to audiences in ways they may not even realize.  First there was the September adaptation of the revival of The Boys in the Band, then the recent movie version of the fun musical The Prom (sadly, not provided to me in time for an official review), and an upcoming taped recording of Diana, the stage musical that was in NY previews when COVID-19 shut down Broadway in April 2020.  Jury is still out on how Diana will fare and The Prom transitioned nicely to the small screen but The Boys in the Band, though entertaining, felt like the stage-bound play it was…and that’s not the only stage-to-screen adaptation premiering on Netflix before the end of 2020.

Looking at the cast for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix is enough to make one want to shell out the price of a premium ticket to see a production of August Wilson’s 1982 play in person on the New York stage.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) is the real-life “Mother of the Blues”, one of the first African-American professional blues singers who recorded her music early on, becoming a pioneer in that field for her race and gender.  In Wilson’s play, a fictionalized recording session for Ma Rainey and her band that quickly goes off the rails, there’s a real fire to the dialogue and it bristles with the sweat and heat of the late 1920s summer day it takes place on.  The scenes between the veteran band members and Levee the cavalier trumpeter crackle and anytime Ma Rainey gets fired up demanding the respect and quality treatment her white agent provides his other clients, the electricity starts to create massive sparks.

The trouble is, this isn’t live on stage or even a performance that was filmed to be broadcast later.  It’s an adaptation using Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay and directed by George C. Wolfe.  That it doesn’t have the same verve and pulsating rhythm Wilson’s work has when seen in the intimacy of the live-theater setting isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors, but it does have to fall on someone, somewhere.  The scenes feel stagey, almost more-so than any stage-to-film movie I’ve seen in recent memory and it becomes so reverential to Wilson’s work that it begins to do damage to the motivation of the piece.  At least Denzel Washignton’s superior adaptation of  Wilson’s Fences in 2016 was able to find ways to open-up the story beyond the backyard setting of Wilson’s original work.  Keeping everyone cooped up is part of what makes the tension boil over during the recording session, true, but there are a number of interludes that could have more movement and Wolfe has directed enough films to know how to keep the camera moving while continuing to establish character.

What the film also has is the responsibility of carrying star Chadwick Boseman’s (Black Panther) final performance in a leading role before tragically passing away earlier in 2020 after a private ongoing battle with cancer.  A genius actor with years ahead of him, I think a number of people want this film and the performance to be at a certain level of greatness as a way to memorialize him and that’s unfair to put all that weight solely onto the actor.  Thankfully, while the film may not live up to the expectations I had going in, Boseman  does and turns in a haunting performance…another in a long line of winning acting choices the young actor had under his belt when he passed away.  You can’t hang the whole movie just on him but he’s definitely due the kudos of his performance being a knockout.

As for Davis, the role tends to overwhelm her just like her outward appearance and prosthetics threaten to overtake her performance at times.  It’s odd; the garish eyes and glittering teeth, body glistening with sweat and ample bosom feel like they are from a different iteration of this character.  Pictures of the real Ma Rainey are shown at the end and none of them have the type of matted, dripping, ghoulish make-up we see her in throughout the film.  I don’t doubt it is historically accurate but I would have loved to see some kind of context for the look so we have a comparison.  Match that with a voice that is supposedly Davis with some “extra help” (that needs to be investigated) and there’s something that just feels like the dial was turned too far with this one…Davis is one of the best actresses working today and if this were onstage I’d probably be insanely crazy for how good she was.  On screen though, it comes off as overkill.

Where more attention should really be paid is the three supporting actors making up the rest of the band.  Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and especially Glynn Turman are dynamite as old friends who have seen it all as members of Ma Rainey’s bad.  They have the war stories to tell of their touring days with her and the injuries to back them up.  There’s also pain bubbling below the surface and it takes a wild card like Levee to raise the heat while they wait for Ma Rainey to get ready to sing.  Each get a nice moment in the spotlight with Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) emerging as the mediator between the band and Ma Rainey and Turman (Bumblebee) hilarious at one point but ultimately heartbreaking in the film’s final moments.

Even at a short 94 minutes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels longer than it should.  It’s one of those watches that you wind up feeling like you should be getting more out of for your own sake more than the sake of the movie and that’s when you need to let go and admit a movie just isn’t working for you.  Boseman’s final leading performance is a memorable turn and he’s surrounded by top-tier talent in supporting roles, but everyone is working with material that is unavoidably stage bound and immovable.  Watch the movie now but seek out a live performance of it when things get back to some sense of normalcy in 2021 (hopefully!).

Movie Review ~ Hunter Hunter

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A family living in the remote wilderness believe they are being hunted by the return of a rogue wolf. Determined to catch the predator in the act, the father leaves his family behind to track the wolf. When a severely injured stranger shows up and the longer the father is away, the more the idea of a mysterious predator in the woods slowly becomes a threat much closer to home.

Stars: Camille Sullivan, Devon Sawa, Nick Stahl, Summer H. Howell, Gabriel Daniels, Lauren Cochrane, Blake Taylor, Karl Thordarson, Erik Athavale, Jade Michael

Director: Shawn Linden

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There I was, just minding my own business, enjoying Hunter Hunter and thinking what a great year IFC Midnight has had in the realm of selecting superior horror/thrillers to release under their banner and that’s when it happened.  The ending.  The jaw-dropping, you can’t believe it, did that happen, yes it did, I am now an old man, I need a cookie, wow wow wowza of a finale.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself so let’s put on the brakes on circle back to the beginning.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live “off the grid” without the modern comforts I’ve grown so accustomed to…and then I watch movies like Hunter Hunter and realize I’m totally fine where I am and how that life is not for me.  No judgement on those that do and more mighty power to them, I just know that I’d be an insufferable person to live with in that situation, mostly just from lack of knowledge of the outside world.  That sense of being cut-off is the first thing that sets a mood in writer/director Shawn Linden’s horror mystery that is shrouded in shadow and is best to know as little as possible about before diving headfirst into.  Have no worries, I won’t spoil any more of it than what you’d already know had you read a synopsis and what I’ve already said about the ending isn’t a tip off either, any review you read is going to allude to what Linden has in store for viewers at the end of this entertaining trip into a dark wilderness.

A family of three reside in a remote cabin and make their living through the hunting and trapping of animals, selling their fur and using the rest for sustenance.  It’s a life that Joseph (Devon Sawa, Disturbing the Peace) and Anne (Camille Sullivan) have chosen for themselves but not one their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) had any kind of say in.  Though Renee has taken to the routine of their lives and enjoys learning the work from her father, Anne knows the world that is out there and wonders if she is keeping her home-schooled daughter away from a better opportunity than she can offer.  As another tough winter begins to draw near, she readies a plan to propose to Joseph that they consider buying a real home in town…but everything comes to a standstill when the presence of a returning rogue wolf puts the family on high alert.

Realizing the only way to catch the large animal is to track it on its own territory, Joseph sets off with no plans to return until he has cleared the forest of this particular danger once and for all.  Soon after he leaves, an injured man (Nick Stahl) appears seeking shelter and first aid, both of which Anne is able to offer him.  By opening her small home to this man and without Joseph around, it’s up to Anne to determine if the biggest trouble is coming from the woods nearby or is sleeping in the bedroom next to her.  There’s more that’s been revealed in the movie before this that I’ve deliberately left out (and thankfully, so have the trailers), all adding to an escalating game of cat and mouse that becomes more unpredictable the longer it plays out.  Surprises are in store for the viewer and the characters, all making for an edge-of-your-seat watch.

Linden has crafted a fine film with interesting characters and a unique setting that allows a believable sense of isolation without outside electronic interference.  He introduces images or sequences that may not make sense at first but wind-up fitting together in a puzzle that you eventually see was being put together from the get-go as part of a larger game and it’s all nicely filmed by Greg Nicod’s chilly cinematography.  Performances rank high as well, with former teen heartthrobs Sawa and Stahl roughing it up (Stahl in particular looks like he’s lived a life over the past decade) in roles well-suited for them.  Howell plays the naivete of her character with a sweet curiosity rather than coming off simple, no one in the movie ever is sketched as being “backwoods” in the least.  I also liked Lauren Cochrane and Gabriel Daniels as a set of rangers that enter the orbit of the cabin and the surrounding forest in surprising ways.

The VIP of Hunter Hunter is most surely Sullivan in a towering performance as a wife and mother pushed to a breaking point, first as a potential target of a vicious animal and then holding down the fort while her husband is away with a strange, injured man in her home.  Sullivan has an even keel to her acting and it works wonders for keeping the viewer engaged and going along for the ride with her, even when she’s not on screen.  She’s also a part of that aforementioned ending that is bound to leave you mouth agape with the audacity of the filmmakers in “going there”.  Again, it’s not a spoiler because I was told the same thing before I saw the movie and, even knowing it was coming, I still wasn’t prepared.  Bravo and kudos to Linden for pulling off what he envisioned and to Sullivan for going along with what must have sounded nuts on paper.

The bloody cherry on top of IFC Midnight’s absolutely stellar year of film, Hunter Hunter joins the ranks of The Wretched, Relic, Sputnik, Centigrade, Rent-A-Pal, & Kindred as some of the best offerings in the horror/thriller genre in 2020.  This is a studio that knows its audience and knows its brand and in a year where so many things were off the mark or in a strange new place of adjustment, IFC Midnight very much found smooth sailing in scary waters.

Movie Review ~ Greenland

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The Facts
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Synopsis: John Garrity, his estranged wife and their young son embark on a perilous journey to find sanctuary as a planet-killing comet hurtles toward Earth.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn, David Denman, Hope Davis

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I feel like I should give a disclaimer at the top of this review for the new end of the world disaster film Greenland which is being released onto streaming platforms after its summer 2020 release was delayed.  Though it had already arrived in theaters over in Europe back in July, it’s just now entering the U.S. atmosphere for all of us to see.  My disclaimer is that though I’m going to be dissecting some finer points of Greenland along the way and they are going to come off as maybe a tad harsh, I am definitely landing squarely on the side of recommending this film on the quality of the filmmaking and its overall effectiveness as a motion picture.  Whatever you may think of the characters within or the timing of its release, the movie has an almost tangible presence while you’re watching it that makes for an unsettling viewing experience.

Director Ric Roman Waugh reteams with his Angel Has Fallen star Gerard Butler in hopes of reigniting that same good chemistry and recapturing the rich details of their unexpectedly excellent third sequel to London Has Fallen and Olympus Has Fallen.  The film starts rather innocuously with spare titles and news of a recently discovered interstellar comet, named Clarke, that is making headlines but isn’t cause for much concern.  Butler is an Atlanta-based structural engineer estranged from his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) but returning to help patch things up and host a party for his son (Roger Dale Floyd, Doctor Sleep) to watch the comet enter Earth’s orbit along with friends from their upper class neighborhood.

The fun stops quickly when John receives a message from the Office of Homeland Security notifying him that he, along with his family, have been selected for evacuation to a secret bunker and that they need to make their way to a designated location for transport immediately.  The comet’s trajectory has changed course and small fragments have begun to vaporize cities across the country and the world, with a massive sized chunk due to touch down in mere days, killing 75% of the population.  Leaving their dazed neighbors behind, the Garrity family heads for the transport base but getting to safety amidst the rising panic of a country not used to being denied access to anything proves to be a journey as perilous as the danger plummeting toward them from the sky.

Perhaps it’s just that as we’re reaching the end of 2020 I’ve had my fill of the selfishness I’ve seen overflowing in American cities, but there’s something about the actions of the central characters in Greenland that started to really annoy me early on.  Numerous times during the film John and Allison have a direct impact on preventing thousands of people making their way to safety (i.e. surviving) because of something stupid they’ve thrown a fit about being able to do (get on a plane, get off a plane, etc).  There’s even a scene where John says that if he can’t get on a plane, no one will be able to take off.  Is that really how we want our heroes in movies to act?  It’s likely something that every action hero or heroine has done in similar films throughout movie history but for some reason I couldn’t get over it while the film was rolling, and that frustration sat over me like a dark cloud straight through to the end of the movie.  Constant elbowing to the front of lines, moving from the back of crowds to the front touting their importance above the person next to them, numerous demands of attention needing to be paid right then and there while millions of lives hang in the balance echoes a lot of the kind of behavior we’re seeing today.  Then again, it could be one other thing.

Maybe…well.  How do I say it?  Maybe it’s also because there’s so much whiteness in the film as well.  There, I’ve said it.  That’s what’s really bothering me.  On more than one occasion, one of the Garrity family is directly helped by a minority character who either winds up sacrificing their life for a Garrity to survive or becomes collateral damage because of the actions caused by something a Garrity did or didn’t do.  It almost becomes a farce after a while because each person they meet you are almost counting down the minutes until they’re either dispatched or disappear without so much as a goodbye wave.  Complaining to a black female military official that she and her son aren’t able to board a plane to safety for those selected to go to the survival bunker, the official (Merrin Dungey, who faced another comet in 1998’s Deep Impact) tells Allison that her family wasn’t even allowed to go to the bunker and Allison takes it in for a moment, shrugs it off, and then asks for help finding her husband so they can get on the plane together.  It’s a constant feeling of “me first above all else” that starts to grate on you.

So, it almost feels wrong to whip my head around and tell you that Greenland is still quite an entertaining film…but it is.  Yes, it has some serious issues in the moral character department (strangely and in a scary way, it’s not as far-fetched as it may sound) but it finds a way to by-pass those problematic stumbling blocks with grounding the actors and situations with as much realism as possible.  Other disaster films are all about the massive visual effects and destruction scenes and while those are present here, Waugh is more adept at creating dread than causing mayhem.  The movie is infinitely more effective when it is leaving us to think about our current situation and what we’d do if faced with days left with nowhere to run.  It is frightening, I admit.

Arguably an experience that would be more impressive on the big screen, watching Greenland at home isn’t a total loss because at least when the tension gets too high you can (as I did) jump up and pace at your leisure without worrying about bothering your neighbors.  Fans of Butler will be pleased with his continued run of middle-aged do-gooders trying to do-good (even if John Garrity is, as mentioned already, kind of a Karen) and Baccarin is a fine match for him in the action scenes as well as the dramatic ones that make up the front end of the movie.  Watch with confidence of a film that delivers on its promise of entertainment value for the full two hours but do take note of what I’m talking about and see if you know what I mean about the whole “me first” attitude…

Movie Review ~ Beasts Clawing at Straws

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A Louis Vuitton bag stuffed full of cash sends a group of hard-luck lowlifes on a desperate chase for fortune. Fish-mongering gangsters, a greasy cop, an “innocent” gym cleaner, a scheming prostitute, her wife beater of a husband, her ruthless boss and her clueless boyfriend all violently plot to get their hands on the elusive bag.

Stars: Jeon Do-yeon, Jung Woo-sung, Bae Sung-woo , Yun Yuh-jung, Jung Man-sik, Jin Gyeong, Shin Hyun-been, Kim Jun-han, Jung Ga-ram, Park Ji-hwan, Heo Dong-won, Bae Jin-woong, Jang Eui-don

Director: Kim Yong-hoon

Rated: NR

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Right after Quentin Tarantino truly put down stakes with the mighty players of Hollywood with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, critics discovered a new way to describe movies that had a violent streak along with ice cold blood running through their veins: Tarantnio-esque.  These films were gritty in the sense that they had a rusty sheen to them, making even the most uglied up movie star still look magazine cover ready.  Between witty banter and twisty plots with quadruple crosses and time hopping storylines, the movies were too cool for school and aimed to match Tarantino’s ear for dialogue, taste in music, and encyclopedic knowledge of film to help make numerous small references throughout.  The trouble was Tarantino was such a singular talent that it was next to impossible to make it look as effortless as he did so any attempt to do so wound up looking like the close by no cigar try it was.

With the success of 2019 Best Picture winner Parasite from Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho, I’m already seeing a similar trend emerge from that film’s popularity.  Press ads for the South Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws compare this new film to last year’s runaway awards hit as well as making passing mention to it resembling something the director of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might have made had it been produced in the U.S.  The good news is that for once the quotes aren’t totally off the mark, if even they are slightly more effusive for the overall entertainment value of the picture in general.  While there are certain delights to be had in this wicked little tale, a sameness sets in that starts to dampen the early spark set off by director Yong-hoon Kim, who adapted the film from a novel by Keisuke Sone.

It’s a simple story, a tale as old as time almost.  A bag of money has parted ways with its owner through a series of unfortunate events and a number of people are now after it, all thinking they have a rightful claim to the contents.  The movie clocks how the bag came to be in a locker at a shoddy bathhouse and where it goes after a cash-strapped late-night janitor finds it and takes it home when he is fired by his sniveling boss.  Finding out who originally had the money, how they lost it, if they are they ones currently trying to get it back, and who ends up with it becomes a head-spinner of a mystery that isn’t always telegraphed ten minutes in advance but still carries with it some familiarity of other films with this similar robbery storyline.  Divided into chapters via title cards making use of an image that is yet another piece of the riddle we’re being told in fragments, keep your eyes on the money not just while it’s in the bag but where it originates as that is key to unraveling the solution later on.

Chock full of characters and a swerving plot that waits for no viewer, Beasts Clawing at Straws demands more than your usual amount of attention and that begins to get exhausting after an hour or so.  It would help if there were a few standouts in the cast, but everyone is playing into their stock characters so much that it’s hard to derive much nuance from them, let alone ask them to provide it from Kim’s script.  As in most cases, it’s the villains that linger the longest in memory so Jeon Do-yeon’s glam madame lady crime boss has the most fun devouring the scenery and we are more the better it.  The air of the film palpably changes when she arrives and coincidentally that’s when the most trouble begins for a number of the players we’ve already met…plus the most bloodletting.  Here again is another case where you wish she was given more than a passing brush stroke of a character trait, the film simply doesn’t have the time or space to allow much of that in the story it needs to tell.

I have the sneaking suspicion this is one property some American studio will buy and remake in English and in the right hands it could emerge as a tighter, trickier film with a few more surprises in store for the viewer.  There are plenty of juicy roles that Hollywood actors would love to snag, like the femme fatale criminal that causes so much trouble and a freaky henchman that likes to eat raw fish guts in between dispatching his victims.  Rehashing some stale double crosses, Beasts Clawing at Straws knows how to stage a good-looking backstabbing (the film is beautifully made and edited) but it lacks a stronger air of unpredictability and memorable performances.  The one standout can’t carry the whole film on her shoulders and the other beasts needed more bite to match her performance.

Movie Review ~ News of the World

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Covino, Fred Hechinger, Neil Sandilands, Thomas Francis Murphy, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Paul Greengrass

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  As I sit here writing this in the second week of December, I realize that News of the World might just have been the last big potential Oscar nominee I would have had to see in theaters had they still been open.  While this grand scale western starring one of the most trusted men in America had always been targeted for a Christmas release, a number of other titles that have been mentioned as awards contenders were slated to come out over the past eight months and who knows where we’d be right now if they’d all made their original dates.  Would a film like News of the World, with its simple pleasures and old-fashioned storytelling feel as touching or impactful if we’d been inundated already with dozens of “prestige” pictures all vying for our votes?

Then again, there’s one thing all of those movies didn’t have: Tom Hanks.  That good-natured, dependable force of good who can turn your frown upside down has a way with a role that makes it uniquely his.  You may be able to imagine several other equally valid stars that could play the part and serve the material with grace but what Hanks can offer in terms of sincerity and core can’t be replicated by any ‘ole matinee idol or aging ‘80s action hunk.  There’s a line near the end of News of the World that Hanks speaks, it’s an important line but not a gussied up one (nothing in the screenplay from director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies overreaches by much), and they way he pitches it and has it land found a way right into the center of my heart.  That’s talent.  It’s also why a movie like this, which is lighter on plot than a two-hour film out to be and overly episodic, even by normal page-to-screen adaptations go, lingers in the mind long after the final credits have faded.

Based on the 2016 bestseller by Paulette Jiles, the film is set in the Old West of 1870 and opens on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks, Sully) who travels from town to town reading the newspapers aloud for anyone willing to pay a dime.  Choosing his articles based on the crowd and territory, he’s part showman, part newsman, but a good man in sum and total.  In his latest journey between towns, he arrives at the scene of a deplorable crime and the one young survivor (Helena Zengel) who remains.  Rescued from a Kiowa tribe after being taken from her immigrant family as a small child, she was being transported to her only living relatives when another tragedy struck.  Realizing the only guarantee of her safe return is if he takes her, Captain Kidd agrees to accompany her on the journey home.  Speaking no English, the girl longs for the tribe that she was wrenched from, making her an orphan for the second time in her short life.  Yet the two disparate travelers set off on a harrowing journey, encountering dangers in each town they enter and every new territorial line they cross.  His advanced age and her lack of communication initially prove to be a hinderance, especially early on when they are cornered by a trio of violent thugs, but eventually they use these as tools to bring them together the closer they come to being separated forever.

Reteaming with his Captain Phillips director, Hanks revives a few of those same silently reflective scenes that made that earlier performance so effective (and, amazingly, not recognized by the Academy) yet he pitches them with the knowledge of a longer life lived and an entire war behind him.  Kidd has served his country and now serves the people by traveling around and bringing them information to make the world seem less small and their daily lives less routine.  Of course, all that keeping busy is hiding a pain within himself he can’t face, not until later on in the movie, at least.  Hanks has a way with achieving an almost instant audience buy-in whenever he shows up in a movie.  You just sort of instantly buy him in the role.  While his performance as Fred Rogers was lauded in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood last year, the movie didn’t 100% work for me but I totally bought him completely the minute he appeared onscreen.  It’s probably the confidence he exudes that brings us all under his spell…but it works every time all the same.

It was important for Greengrass and, I suppose Hanks, to find the right co-star and German-born Zengel is a real discovery.  Perfectly believable in a complicated role of a child stuck between two different worlds and three different languages, most of Zengel’s performance comes through in her expressive face and wide eyes, which cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World) captures as beautifully as he does the pristine sights of expanse from the Old West long forgotten.  It would have been easy for Zengel to tip her acting slightly more one way and lose her balancing act, making the child unbearable but she has a strong scene partner with Hanks and she encourages him to be better as well.  Holding your own against such a force couldn’t have been easy but it all adds to the emotional complexity the role requires.

The supporting players are a strong mix of familiar character actors, with Elizabeth Marvel (Inheritance) being the standout among many greats as a proprietor friend of Hanks that offers some sage advice for her sometime companion.  Marvel is one of those actresses that, when she shows up, you know that however long she’s on screen it’s going to be something you’ll be interested in watching and that’s completely true here.  I suppose Thomas Francis Murphy’s (12 Years a Slave) grotesque manager of law and order in a civilian led town that Kidd and the girl have the misfortune of riding through could be dialed down a bit, if anything this is the sequence that has the most squirm factor.  Maybe it’s because it feels like it’s out of some ghastly American take on a Dickensian Western, but then again it’s another of those episodic entries the film has which is why it may seem like it could be sliced out and removed with no one being the wiser.

A handsome production on all levels, from the visuals to the unobtrusive editing from Oscar-winner William Goldenberg (Argo), News of the World has the gleam of polish to it and deserves to look so pretty.  Accompanied by another rousing score from eight-time Oscar nominee James Newtown Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) that extends through the closing credits, this is full-scale entertainment at a high level – exactly what we’re almost owed at the end of this year.  Hanks knows what I mean.  As one of the first celebrities to experience this terrible virus, he’s been through a rough patch in 2020 but should be able to rest his head easy once the reviews for News arrive.  Read all about it and see it when it arrives on Christmas Day.

Movie Review ~ I’m Your Woman

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman is forced to go on the run with her baby after her husband betrays his partners in crime.

Stars: Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Heck, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin

Director: Julia Hart

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Not that you’d have much sympathy for their luxe paychecks and high profile lifestyles, but it must be difficult for an actor to go from having a respectably decent career to becoming a sizable star nearly overnight.  We see it happen all the time now with the advent of streaming shows that release entire seasons of shows at once, often with casts of fresh faces that start a Friday as an unknown and come in Monday morning as the hottest topic over the company water cooler.  Even though actress Rachel Brosnahan had already amassed a nice tenure of television appearances under her belt, working with the likes of David Fincher (House of Cards) and Woody Allen (A Crisis in Six Scenes), it must have felt like a whirlwind when the tweed tornado that became The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel swept her up.

Originally premiering in early 2017 as part of Amazon’s old model of showing a handful of pilots, letting the consumers dictate which ones they liked, and then giving full series orders to the most popular choices, I remember watching this quirky show and appreciating it’s tommy-gun dialogue and loving its handsomely recreated period production design.  Other viewers did too, evidently, because by the end of that year the first of the three produced seasons had premiered to critical and audience acclaim.  The show was a hit and so was the cast, rocketing Brosnahan to multiple award wins and keeping her quite busy for the ensuing years.  Both a blessing and a curse, she’s now closely associated with her do-it-all, know-it-all character from Mrs. Maisel and in I’m Your Woman, her first true solo-led feature since her star-making role on the streaming screen, she’s playing another wife in a different decade…but one in a situation far more dire than her television alter ego.

The backyard of a modest home in Pittsburgh in the 1970s is where we first see Jean (Brosnahan) sunbathing in the middle of the day.  A housewife that can barely keep house or cook, her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) doesn’t seem to mind much, mostly because he’s preoccupied with shady business dealings that Jean is mostly oblivious to but occasionally just pleads ignorance on.  Despite multiple attempts to get pregnant, Jean can’t carry a child to term and she’s only just resigned herself to not being a mother when Eddie walks in the door with a baby boy that is now theirs.  Too happy to ask the kind of questions she should in this situation, Jean welcomes the baby with open arms and begins the motherly tasks she thinks she should perform, making breakfast for her child and husband (even though she can’t cook), and taking the baby to the playground (even though he’s still an infant).

A knock in the middle of the night changes Jean’s suburban peace forever.  Eddie has disappeared and his business partners can’t find him.  For her own safety, she needs to leave town under the escort of Cal (Arinzé Kene, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) another friend of her husband’s who seems to be one of the only ones that doesn’t want to harm her for information on his whereabouts.  Trusting him to keep her safe, she sets off and it’s the beginning of a journey for Jean, her baby, and eventually Cal’s family in the bonds of loyalty and security during a time when America was at war and crime was running rampant in many large cities.  While we never know what exactly Eddie was neck deep in, it’s clearly bad stuff because based on the lengths we see certain parties go to get to Jean, they feel that pressing her will elicit the necessary response from him.

Directed by Julia Hart from a script she co-wrote with her husband, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz (remember him? He’s the guy that announced “There’s a mistake, Moonlight, you won best picture” on the Oscar telecast), this is a full-bodied crime drama that will remind anyone worth their salt of the kind of picture John Cassavetes would have lensed back in the day.  You can easily see some ‘70s star taking her performance of Jean right to an Oscar nomination and not for nothing, Brosnahan’s performance is top-notch throughout.  Watching her change from a reserved kept wife to a more assertive mum on the run is a rich endeavor and she never forecasts what’s coming next.  Watching the fear rise in her eyes when trying to locate an unresponsive visitor in her house is chillingly real.

It’s not just Brosnahan that’s memorable in I’m Your Woman, which is why the performance feels slightly off-kilter at times comparead to others.  Showing up rather far into the movie, I’m not going to tell you who Marsha Stephanie Blake (Luce) is playing, not because it’s a huge spoiler (it’s not, really) but because her arrival bears some significance in Jean’s personal growth into a stronger individual.  Blake is an actress that continues to gain solid traction in the Hollywood machine and I couldn’t be happier.  Again in this film she demonstrates how to convey a range of deep emotions through the smallest of adjustments in voice or facial expression.  That’s the theater training she’s had right there on display.  As Jean’s watchman, Kene is equally impressive as someone that gives as good as he gets.  You get the sense he doesn’t care for Eddie and before he met Jean made up his mind he didn’t like her either…so it takes a while for him to divest his image he originally had of her from the woman she actually is.  As usual, the gregarious Frankie Faison (The Silence of the Lambs) is a warm presence and he nabs a fine scene with Brosnahan and a gun that has a nifty little punch to it.

Hart manages to instill fine moments of suspense throughout the film, a surprising amount actually.  I had thought the movie would be less crime and more drama but it’s actually the opposite.  The performances are first rate and it’s clear Brosnahan is made for more than a world that revolves only around Maisel.  What’s also on display in I’m Your Woman is a calling card of sorts for the writer/director, one that shows an attention to knowing the difference between homage and mere replication and creation of a charged atmosphere when necessary without altering the overall temperature of the film in the process.  Hart also has a knack with finding the right cast as well, from the leads to the supporting characters; it’s pretty perfect all around.  If there’s one thing I’d give you some advice on, try not to watch this with headphones on.  Jean’s baby is a fussy one and cries for much of the film and the wails started to get to me after listening to them through the headphones I have connected to my TV for late night watches.  Aside from the noise complaint, I’d keep your eye on (and out!) for this one.