Movie Review ~ Promising Young Woman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be — she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs from the past.

Stars: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown

Director: Emerald Fennell

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Allow me to be totally shallow for one brief review and talk about the impact of COVID on theaters, ok?  It’s completely inconsequential in the big picture, I know…but I have a point to make, I do!  Of the numerous things the pandemic has robbed movie goers of over the last year, the one I’m starting to miss the most is that word of mouth buzz that spreads like a low hum and reaches new places.  Stretching beyond the periphery of the regular film fan and past the casually interested film movie goer, there’s always a few movies each year that permeate the conversation in surprising ways and that’s just not a phenomenon that can occur when only a handful of theaters are open for limited business and most films are watched online.  Anticipated movies arrive and are forgotten, sucked into the vortex of the 24 hours news cycle.

It makes me sad to think about the watercooler conversations that would have been had over a razor-sharp film like Promising Young Woman and the way it obliterates your expectations at every turn.  The more you think you know about the characters, the further away from the truth you get and that’s due in no small part to the dynamic pairing of writer/director Emerald Fennell and star Carey Mulligan.  Together, the two women have delivered the best film of 2020 (in my opinion), one that holds its unblinking focus dead ahead on a prize some may feel isn’t worth winning.   It’s going to frustrate a lot of people as much as it electrifies others but there’s no denying it’s the most ‘alive’ film you’re going to see in quite some time.  Entertaining is probably too genial a word for it…it’s a Movie with a capital “M” and it gives you a full course meal to digest.

When we first see Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan, Far From the Madding Crowd), she’s in no condition to be out alone at a bar at last call.  Barely able to stand and definitely not in a position to give consent to anything other than a cab ride directly home, she’s instead offered a ride by a guy (Adam Brody, Ready or Not) who seems like a decent fellow at first…until he decides a detour to his apartment for a nightcap might be a better option.  It’s not.  What transpires between them in his bachelor pad is not going to be spoiled by me but he’s not the first man to pick up Cassie Thomas and regret it the next morning.  She’s gotten good at this.  He’s another name in a well-worn black book she keeps.  And there will be more.

By day, Cassie works at a coffee shop alongside Gail (Laverne Cox, Bad Hair), having dropped out of medical school for reasons that will become clear as the movie progresses.  Living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Like a Boss and Clancy Brown, Lady and the Tramp) who seem to keep their daughter at arm’s length by her request, Cassie’s life consists of working by day and roaming the bars at night.  These worlds co-mingle in surprising ways when she has a chance encounter with a former med school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham, The Big Sick) who asks her out.  Their date doesn’t just create a spark between them but adds fuel to a long-burning ember of revenge which comes alive again, setting Cassie on a wickedly twisted path forward in order to make good on a promise she made in the past.

To say more of the plot or what’s motivating Cassie would be to give away too much of Fennell’s fantastic first feature film, a boffo debut being made after cutting her teeth on high-profile work as the showrunner and writer of the second season of Killing Eve.  I wasn’t crazy about where that show went with its sophomore season, but Fennell nails her outing on the big screen, creating a project with the darkest of corners to venture into and making even the sunnier stretches have an ominous haze hanging over it.  Take for example Cassie’s lunch reunion with the HBIC of her college class (Alison Brie, The Rental) that’s now a suburban mom and watch how it turns into a potentially dangerous encounter for one of them after several glasses of wine.  That’s nothing compared to what Cassie dreams up for a former teacher (Connie Britton, American Ultra) that’s now the Dean of her almost alma-mater.  You don’t generally see women taking this kind of advantage of other women in film, but Fennell doesn’t let anyone off the hook for wrongdoing…and trust when I say anyone.

With several Britney Spears songs included in the soundtrack and one chilling all-string version of ‘Toxic’ that sets-up the blistering final act, it’s no coincidence Mulligan has been styled to look like a doppelgänger of the singer.  There are times when she looks so much like the one-time pop princess that I actually had to close my eyes and shake my head to remind myself it wasn’t her.  The resemblance is just…uncanny.  Her commitment to the role is extraordinary and she’s tasked with taking a woman with complications that could be seen as the problem and making the audience root for her.  If this was told from a different perspective, her character would be seen as the villain, but it never comes across that way in this narrative and it’s because Mulligan keeps Cassie understandably aggravated at her inability to effect change in the usual way…so she resorts to her own methods to yield the desired results.  In some bizarre way, it makes her more relatable than most of the “good” people in films.  It’s a performance that has layers you can peel back for days, one of the absolute best of 2020.

The supporting cast that’s featured in roles that range from cameos to vital parts of the plot are also 10s across the board, from Burnham’s mild-mannered and lovable potential mate to Molly Shannon (Hotel Transylvania 2) in a brief turn as the mother of someone that plays a key part in Cassie’s plan.  Even the men that show up as the ones we’re supposed to loathe (I’m not going to name them just in case it goes into spoiler territory) are well done for their carefully balanced methods of keeping them arch enough to be a bit cartoon-ish but also realistic enough to fear them should they ever get the upper hand.  There’s not a bad apple in the bunch but all are playing fourth fiddle to Mulligan who could probably play the entire orchestra on her own without breaking a sweat.

It’s been two months now since I’ve seen Promising Young Woman and it made the #1 spot on my Best of 2020 list based on it’s staying power for ping-ponging around in my head all this time.  It’s such a brilliantly made film that breaks down some key barriers between men and women and the lengths people will go to get what they want.  What some people will shrug off in a man’s actions, they object to in a woman’s and vice versa.  Fennell takes aim at these antiquated notions and levels the playing field with a cautionary tale of the true price of revenge.  Don’t you dare pass it up.

Movie Review ~ One Night in Miami


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, the boxer meets with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown to change the course of history in the segregated South.

Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges, Hunter Burke, Nicolette Robinson

Director: Regina King

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s seems strange to say it, but movies like One Night in Miami make me miss live theater.  There are so many moments within this impressive feature film directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Regina King when I wished I was in the same room with the actors playing the roles of key figures in the history of Black America. The way they embodied these men with such alacrity seemed to give off a kind of electricity that I’m positive would have set off a charge strong enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  In the room where a play is performed, you take notice of these types of performers and what they are giving out to you and, in turn, you give back to them as audience members.  Without that opportunity to express that though, when it just halts at the barrier of the screen, something feels unfulfilled.

I suppose that’s why I’ve struggled with my thoughts on One Night in Miami these past weeks since seeing it and wondering why it hasn’t moved me in the way that I’ve heard it has for other people.  Not that I have to fall in step with the throngs because I’ve certainly defended my share of movies to those that didn’t respond like I did…but there’s something about this particular project that’s made me a little out of sorts.  The performances in the movie are stunning and just as awards worthy as you’ve heard (but maybe not in my mind the exact people being mentioned…more on that later) and the imagined dialogue that happens within the framework of the real-life set-up has a crackle to it.  However, there’s one element missing that there is no working around that keeps the movie from ever taking a sky’s the limit flight…and it’s that old electricity I mentioned before.

Adapting his 2013 play, screenwriter Kemp Powers (already having a jolly good year as co-director and screenwriter of Pixar’s Soul) opens the film with introductions to the four men that will feature in the night’s festivities.  Civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, The Commuter) struggles with maintaining his path forward in the face of threats of violence, a visit with a family friend of NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man) in Georgia starts sweet but ends with a sour reminder of the time and place, boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Godzilla) is established as the king of the ring and a true showman, and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) makes a dreary first impression at the famed Copacabana nightclub where his crooner numbers sink like a stone to the all-white audience.  These scenes have all been added to the film and are several examples of ways that Powers and King have wisely expanded the world of the one-act, 90-minute play…and not just for an excuse to pad the run time of the feature.

It’s when we get to the bones of Kemp’s play, when the men gather at a motel room after Clay’s victory and discuss his intended conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcom X, that the film starts to back itself into a corner.  Gone are the easy ways to keep the action moving and here to stay are speeches crafted as monologues and dialogue that sounds more like back and forth talking points to cross off on a checklist.  It’s unavoidable, I suppose, that a play about a gathering of men in a motel room would turn into a movie that feels like a play.  Only in the moments when the men excuse themselves and King follows them out of the room or travels back in time do we find ourselves slipping back into the magic and mood that are attempting to be evoked.  Every time we got back into that room, I felt like it was a return to actors running their lines again, stymied by four walls that were holding them back…much in the same way their characters were lamenting the way they were being held back from doing greater things.

The good news is that the performances are so superlative that they mostly overcome this stage-y feeling that infiltrates these scenes.  All are dealt nearly impossible tasks of recreating personalities that are instantly recognizable, but King has cast her film impeccably from top to bottom.  By far the star of the film is Ben-Adir, unforgettable as Malcom X…which is saying a lot because the doomed civil rights leader has already been played brilliantly before onscreen by an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s 1992 film.  Making the role his own, Ben-Adir channels Malcolm X from some otherworldly place, and it’s not a larger-than-life performance either.  Along with Hodge’s Brown, it’s likely the quietest one in the film but instead of just blending into the scenery, that solemn silence speaks volumes as he clashes with Sam Cooke over the popular singer’s refusal to be a more visible part of the movement.

I can understand why Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke is getting the advance notices for the film and an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Category wouldn’t be out of the question, but it would be folly not to speak of Ben-Adir in those same lines.  If anything, Cooke is pushed into more of a leading character with Odom Jr. performing several songs, including a thunderous take on ‘A Change is Gonna Come’.  Strangely, as over-the-top as Clay/Muhammad Ali was, Goree is the least memorable out of the four and it’s possibly because he’s the one that isn’t given as much to do when it comes to serious-minded debate compared to actors like Ben-Adir and Odom Jr.  Even Hodge gets to take a walk outside of the motel and have his opportunity in the spotlight, plus his early scene in Georgia with Beau Bridges leaves a lingering impression, a sting that is felt for the remainder of the film.

A long-time veteran of the business that has won a truckload of awards through the years, after taking home an Oscar two years ago for If Beale Street Could Talk it’s clear that King is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the director category in years to come.  Based on One Night in Miami, there is a lot to be excited about for King’s future as well as its cast of emerging stars.  I wish Powers had been able to solve the issues that plague every play that transfers from the stage to the screen, but the additional material that’s been added at the beginning, end, and interspersed within show that there was an awareness that movement was needed in order to give the film life.  Recommended on the strength of the performances because they definitely help when the film finds itself on shaky stage bound legs.

Movie Review ~ The Marksman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A rancher on the Arizona border becomes the unlikely defender of a young Mexican boy desperately fleeing the cartel assassins who’ve pursued him into the U.S.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Jacob Perez, Katheryn Winnick, Teresa Ruiz, Juan Pablo Raba, Dylan Kenin, Luce Rains, Chase Mullins, Christopher Mele, Grayson Berry, David DeLao, Esodie Geiger, Gonzalo Robles

Director: Robert Lorenz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It just so happened that the weekend before I caught The Marksman I watched 1994’s Nell which found one-time-all-time serious actor turned action star Liam Neeson in a much different mode.  Twenty-six years younger and starring alongside his soon to be wife (the late Natasha Richardson), Neeson is a hot-headed and passionate doctor making a compelling argument for protecting the innocence of a vulnerable woman.  The film’s success at the box office (along with his Oscar nomination the previous year for Schindler’s List) helped tip the scales in favor of Neeson’s A-List status and he became a bankable star for the next decade.  Then he made a potboiler of a film called Taken in 2008 and his career took another swift swerve.

Ever since the success of Taken and it’s subsequent sequels, Neeson has made a crackerjack living off of playing the rough-edged everyman put into extraordinary situations and rising to the challenge of beating back all that stand in his way.  While maintaining a steady career in other genres to keep his craft honed, it’s these muscle-y popcorn chomping action flicks that certainly pay the bills and, to his credit, a number of them have been of above average quality and well-tailored to Neeson’s strengths.  As time has gone by they’ve presented less and less of a stretch for the actors so while we aren’t seeing him taking on wolves in The Grey or sussing out a killer onboard a plane in Non-Stop, every now and then we see him riding a train for a Agatha Christie-esque mystery/adrenaline mash-up like the somewhat silly The Commuter.

You’d understand then why The Marksman didn’t immediately jump off the page for me when scrolling through the list of releases, right?  I mean, another Neeson January release with a familiar formula wasn’t exactly a clarion call for immediate viewing.  Yet something about this one felt different and more serious in tone than the recent endeavors so rather than let it be a film I fired up after it had been out for a while I pursued it a bit and am I ever glad I did.  While it’s not going to be anywhere near the top level of Neeson’s best known for works, The Marksman is arguably one of his more respectable efforts in quite some time.  Stripping away a lot of the false bravado and grime that has started to creep into his movies as of late, there’s a semi-Western vibe to the film that gives it that same feeling of it being Neeson against the world.  Even better, it features the return of the actor that convinced us of his passion for protection of true innocence.

With his Arizona ranch that stretches along the border of Mexico on the verge of foreclosure after falling behind in his mortgage, recent widower Jim Hanson (Neeson) is facing the reality of leaving behind the home he made with his late wife.  A former U.S. Marine sharpshooter that spent two tours in Vietnam, Hanson spends his days keeping coyotes of the animal and human variety off his land and helping any undocumented immigrants crossing the border illegally from being left behind to die in the deadly heat…by turning them over to border patrol.  He’s not unkind in the process, just matter of fact in his transactional nature, especially considering his stepdaughter Sarah (a wan Kathryn Winnick, Wander) has connections to the department.  There’s nothing much to do around town but drive around and drink and he’s gotten good at both, finding too much comfort in the latter.

Hanson is out driving alongside the border wall with his dog when he spots Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) who have just snuck through.  What he doesn’t know is that Rosa is fleeing a dangerous cartel that has already murdered her brother and is now tracking her and her son…and they are hot on her heels.  This chance encounter spirals into a scene no one was expecting and leads Hanson to make an out of character choice to later remove Miguel from Border Patrol custody and deliver him to family in Chicago.  This cross-country trip is no joyride as the older man and child are tirelessly pursued by a lethal quartet of killers who are as well connected in the U.S. as they are in Mexico.  With no one to trust and their lives definitively on the line, Hanson and Miguel must learn to trust one another if they have any chance to survive.

For his second feature film directing gig, Robert Lorenz follows in the well-worn footsteps of his long-time friend and mentor, Clint Eastwood.  On a number of Eastwood films over the past two decades, Lorenz has served as producer (Jersey Boys, American Sniper) and/or second-unit director (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) and he’s clearly learned a thing or two about pacing from his squinty pal and more’s the better for it.  A flashier director might have turned The Marksman into a film that would have felt a little edgier but lost some of the laid-back soul it finds throughout.  It’s PG-13 rating becomes a benefit because with all the killing (and frankly there’s a lot of senseless murders in this one), it was nice to be spared a lot of the aftermath.  I wouldn’t half doubt the script was offered to Eastwood or written with him in mind – it’s extremely reminiscent of something that would appeal to him.  (In a nice nod, Miguel watches Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High on a hotel room during one brief respite on their journey.)

If I say that Neeson feels relaxed in the role I don’t want you to take that as a bad thing or that he’s coasting.  To me, it comes across like Neeson read this script and just instantly understood this character and where they are at this present point in life (or in their grieving process?) and how taking this boy and his challenges on would change him.  None of the action sequences seem unrealistic for his age (68) and when he springs into action it comes with a twinge of excitement not just for the audience, but for his character as well, like he’s plugging into a socket that’s long been decommissioned.  Perez is cast well against him too, avoiding a number of the pitfalls a child actor can plunge into when faced with these sort of ‘child in distress’ roles.  He’s afforded some true sincerity in his lines and gets in several that put present situations into a much more global perspective.  I liked the smaller bit parts Lorenz cast too, like the roadside attendant and gun store owner that Hanson meets along the way.  For once, the villain is actually fairly terrifying so anytime Juan Pablo Raba (The 33) is onscreen you weren’t quite sure what was going to happen.

Even managing to nail what could have been a cheat of a ending, The Marksman is largely a bullseye for Neeson and company with only its formulaic set-up being the major detractor above all else.  It’s beautifully shot by Mark Patten (a second-unit director of photography on The Martian who graduated to cinematographer) who doesn’t let the orange sun and sand of the desert swallow up the actors and if the score from TV composer Sean Callery’s feels like it’s been recycled from one of his numerous television themes at least it’s been lifted from a project that’s rousing.  Here’s to hoping that Lorenz turns in more crisp work like this.  Who knows?  Maybe he’ll even convince Eastwood to come out of retirement if the timing is right.

Movie Review ~ HAM: A Musical Memoir

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Based on Tony Award nominee and multi-platinum recording artist Sam Harris’s critically acclaimed book and the original stage production.

Stars: Sam Harris

Director: Andrew Putschoegl

Rated: NR

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though I now consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool musical theater nerd in addition to a massive film buff (that’s either two strikes for me or against me…you decide), there was a time when my knowledge of the stage was limited.  The most I knew about theater were the local shows that played in my hometown and I’m lucky that my parents had such a fondness for it as well.  I’m also counting my blessings that I grew up in Minnesota which has a thriving community for theater with many opportunities for talent to cut their teeth while often being a hub for new works to travel through on their way to Broadway.  We’ve seen Julie Andrews in the pre-Broadway tryout of Victor/Victoria and the massive musical production of The Lion King originated at our beautiful Orpheum Theater.

All that’s to say that in 1994, I was a theater newbie and my mom had just taken me to the first “big” show I can remember, a bus and truck tour of Jesus Christ Superstar and my mind was officially blown.  Leaving after the matinee we caught a glimpse of a poster advertising an upcoming tryout of a revival of Grease that was coming to town and headed to Broadway shortly after.  What’s more…it was starring Rosie O’Donnell.  My movie love was already in high gear so the chance to see someone that was in A League of Their Own live on stage was big news.  The tickets were bought, the show was seen (and enjoyed), but while Rosie was fun to see it wasn’t her performance that I came away remembering the most throughout the years.  A secondary character that didn’t have his own song in the movie version, Doody, had this great number (‘Those Magic Changes’) and the actor playing him, Sam Harris, possessed a killer voice…leading me to spend the next two decades not thinking I was a Danny but a Doody.

At the time, I had no clue that Harris came to Grease already a big star in his own right.  When the television show Star Search premiered in 1983, he became its first grand champion and rode that wave into a recording contract and the rest, as they say is history.  Though he’s flown across my radar several times over the ensuing years, he’s always been first and foremost Doody to me but I never had the opportunity to know more about the singer/actor than what you could hear on a podcast or the occasional profile on a theater website.

In the new film HAM: A Musical Memoir, Harris has filmed his one-man stage show adapted from his memoir that covers his life growing up in small town rural Oklahoma up through the present when he becomes a husband and, eventually, a father.  Interspersed throughout are songs, a number of which Harris is known for (his chart-topping rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ is delivered quite nicely) in addition to a few barnstormer roof-raisers that show-off Harris’ still-strong vocals, as well as an original tune crafted as a silly title track of sorts.  Accompanied by his piano-man Todd Schroeder whom Harris has the occasional banter with, it’s largely a scripted “improvised” conversation between himself and the audience and one of those harmless bits of self-promotion that plays a few sold out shows and exists as a sort of “you should have been there” remembrance.

So why the film?  I get wanting to capture the show for posterity, but something feels a little lost in the transition from stage to screen because there’s little separating the viewer at home from becoming a viewer of viewers watching Harris perform.  Do you follow?   It also comes off like Harris has ramped up his energy for that very reason and the delivery winds up reading more forced than felt, as if this was Harris playing Tevye for the 500th time and he’s recounting his Star Search victory laps with a weary back.  Perhaps it’s because the show was recorded by director Andrew Putschoegl after it had already played a few venues and wasn’t quite the fresh experience it was when it began.

That’s not to say Harris isn’t an engaging storyteller or that his experience of coming out in a much different atmosphere doesn’t have its curveballs.  Those going in expecting to hear stories of O’Donnell escapades backstage at Grease or what Ed McMahon said when the cameras weren’t rolling will be disappointed because Harris isn’t a namedropper in any kind of fashion.  This is his story to tell and by keeping most of the celebrity-ness out of the conversation while still being interesting makes HAM: A Musical Memoir that much more of an intriguing watch.  Of course I wanted to hear just a tad more about the life of a Broadway baby but maybe that’s left for a sequel down the road.

Streaming now on BroadwayHD, a subscription service that has a bevy of other Broadway related content, I’m sure I would have jumped at the chance to see this show live simply because of the lasting impression Harris left on me in Grease all those years ago.  While I wish HAM: A Musical Memoir had been a little less, uh, hammier (the show starts out pretty rough with jokes of the creaky dinner theater variety) it’s very recommended on the quality of the storyteller.

Movie Review ~ Redemption Day

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A decorated U.S. Marine captain embarks on a daring mission to save his kidnapped wife from terrorists in Morocco.

Stars: Gary Dourdan, Serinda Swan, Ernie Hudson, Martin Donovan, Andy Garcia, Samy Naceri, Robert Knepper, Lilia Hajji

Director: Hicham Hajji

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s an occupational hazard that with the number of films I see over the course of a month, they begin to blend together.  That’s one of the reasons I’m glad I have this outlet to get my thoughts in order so I can reflect back on a movie later if I need a reference point for a future work for an actor, director, or project from a similar genre.  Too often, though, it must be said that the finer details of plot and character fade from memory just as soon as the publish button is clicked and all the social media posts have been shared.  Only the most memorable manage to lodge into my noggin and not always for the right reasons.

I can’t say that Redemption Day is going to fare well if my recall skills are tested because not only did I barely make it through the film grasping to its dangling thread of a plot but it also felt like the film itself didn’t even remember where it was going when it started.  I half expected this warzone action pic to be a rugged indie variation of a standard one-man-against-the-world sort of international rescue operation, something Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson, or even late-stage Kevin Bacon would have a stateside gruff field day with.  Instead, it’s a slickly made but grossly unfocused bit of grandstanding for a writer and director that doesn’t know where the meat of the story is and a cast that mostly gets an acquittal for instilling some realistic drama into situations that are set-up for histrionics.  Worst of all, it’s just a poorly timed release seeing that these types of war films are just going the way of the dodo, especially if you can’t rationalize a need for it with a compelling plot.

Haunted by an deadly ambush while on a humanitarian mission several years ago in Syria, U.S. Marine captain Brad Paxton (Gary Dourdan) has returned home a decorated war hero with PTSD battle scars he can’t shake.  (A quick side note, I have nothing but huge respect for the men and women that serve but do films always have to portray them as damaged goods when they return?  Maybe writers feel like they are paying respect to the military but continuing to show every vet welcomed home as broken does an overall disservice to their service.  Not saying there isn’t a certain price paid in battle that stays with someone who’s lived it or that I don’t find it realistic, I’m just a little weary of some over-victimization of these honorable vets.  Anyway…)  Though working through his vivid dreams of the attack, he’s one of the lucky ones, though, being able to be embraced by his young daughter and archaeologist wife Sarah (Serinda Swan) who are exceedingly patient and understanding with his recovery.  While he takes on the role of stay-at-home-dad, Sarah embarks on trip to Morocco, leading a team of her own as they are granted an opportunity to explore an ancient city that’s been uncovered beneath the sun scorched desert.

Though she’s supposedly in good hands both with the security detail that accompanies her with and a few overseas contacts Brad has called in, her caravan of high-profile international assets is unsurprisingly (to us) intercepted and taken hostage.  Held for ransom by terrorists (who could not be any more stereotypical if the cast of SNL portrayed them reading cue cards) that demand money and are willing to spill innocent blood to get it, the time is ticking on Sarah’s life and Brad knows it.  Discouraged by his government from getting involved and knowing the policy on negotiation with terrorists, Brad uses his curated military skills and knowledge of private global network dealings to get into the country where his wife and others are being held before its too late for all.  Disobeying direct orders, going against his country’s own policies, Brad calls in a number of favors from previous informants and spies to get him closer to his wife.

I wish I could tell you all of this generates some sort of excitement but honestly the biggest thrill the movie offers is the potential that Sarah could take viewers into a city lost to the sands of time, Indiana Jones style.  Why co-writer and first-time director Hicham Hajji chooses to make that Sarah’s mission that takes her overseas is a bit of a mystery, if only because that key discovery stuck in my mind for most of the movie. “What happened to the city?”  “Was there a city at all?” “Will we ever see the city and does a monster live there?”  You almost wish Hajji and his co-writers had the wherewithal to have their evil doers abscond with their hostages into this mysterious undiscovered land because that would have added some spice to what is a flavorless concoction.  Once the kidnapping takes place the film is just a series of back and forth conversations between increasingly unpredictable men with guns…and the terrorists they are hunting.

There are few long-running TV shows I can say I stuck with through thick and thin but CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was one of them so I’m familiar with star Dourdan’s work from his time on that crime drama.  He’s an unexpected choice for the lead of a feature so while he does serviceable work, there’s a particular spark missing that can’t be totally ignored.  Still, he gets the job done in more ways than one and is convincing as the character, though he fares better in the tactical sequences than he does with the overly dramatic ones.  There’s little time to establish a chemistry with Swan so the connection between them isn’t ever so strongly felt, but it doesn’t matter much because Swan has such pluck that you’d be rooting for her survival if her significant other was a rocking chair.  She’s arguably the best actor in the film, certainly better that the absolutely jaw-droppingly terrible second level supporting cast.  It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed the kind of terrible line readings that you’ll see here, especially from the actor that played the President.

With little to recommend in Redemption Day, it’s hard to put together what you should do with it should you come across it.  Is it a good time waster?  I mean, maybe?  It’s not the kind of film you can put on as background noise because for as convoluted and confusing as the plot gets at times it does require a certain amount of focus if you want scenes to hold together at all.  Then again, when the most interesting part of the plot involves a MacGuffin that reminds you of Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe you’re better off revisiting that Best Picture nominated classic instead of this which won’t garner a nomination for anything.  Best to just let night fall on this one.

Movie Review ~ Herself

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Struggling to provide her daughters with a safe, happy home, Sandra decides to build one – from scratch. Using all her ingenuity to make her ambitious dream a reality, Sandra draws together a community to lend a helping hand to build her house and ultimately recover her own sense of self.

Stars: Clare Dunne, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Shadaan Felfeli, Cathy Belton

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  All through November and December leading up to Christmas, I did something I never did before, I watched a whole bunch of Hallmark movies in all their holiday predictable glory.  Maybe it was because this year I just needed something safe and comforting that wasn’t going to challenge me much during a stressful time of year but the movies just keep finding their way onto my DVR and I couldn’t stop watching them.  Even now, nearly halfway though January, I’m still finishing them off and not the least bit tired of their harmless charm.  In terms of quality of film, I have to say that for as much crap as these films have received over the years, a number of the ones I watched were quite decent and not the same silly dreck as others I have seen in the past.  All in all, they were just fine films.

Watching the new Amazon Studios release Herself, I heard that “just fine” sentiment echoing around in my head a lot as well.  While the movie has its good intentions, solid performances, engaging storyline, and is well-told by the filmmakers who obviously have invested an inkling of heart into the effort, there’s nothing that sets the movie truly apart from the crowd.  For a movie that wants to push some emotional buttons in the audience, that just won’t do because ultimately, I felt that something more had to be done to go further and elevate it to a higher level than where it lands.  Not every movie has to aspire to be better than what’s come before but when you put a spotlight on yourself and ask for that comparison, you better have something that actually makes you linger in the memory for some time after the credits are done.

When her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) finally takes things too far, Sandra (Clare Dunne, Spider-Man: Far from Home, who also wrote the film) leaves him and soon finds herself homeless trying to raise two daughters on her own in Dublin.  While she’s attempting to make ends meet by taking a job as a home aid to a doctor recovering from a broken hip (Harriet Walter, Rocketman) she thinks about how to create a new life and home for her young daughters (Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara).  Then, an idea comes to her on a bus ride home and she brings it to the housing authority that has been paying for all three of them to stay in a hotel.  Why not help her buy a piece of land so she can build a house?  Ultimately, the loan she needs for the land and the house would be cheaper than what they’re paying for their hotel upkeep now.  Unsurprisingly, she’s denied the solution to her current problem by an agency that can’t see a bigger picture presenting itself.

She’s not undeterred for long, though, because just like all great feel-good movies, Sandra benefits from having the right friends in the right place at the right time and soon she’s building her house in the most unlikely of places.  As she gathers her resources for the house and a motley crew of workers to assist her in its creation, a dark shadow appears in the skies.  Though he’s continued to see his children through court-appointed visits, her husband now wants the entire family to be together again.  Yet the house is a secret from him because it’s Sandra’s chance to finally get away from him; the longer the house takes to build the harder it is to keep it out of the conversation.  Leading to a series of dramatic climaxes and intense scenes that offset the good-natured charm offered in the first hour, Herself eventually turns into a standard drama symphony with the usual notes to play.

Let me be totally clear, Herself is a perfectly fine watch, it’s one I would recommend for Dunne’s leading performance and especially her scenes later in the film.  Even if it’s these very scenes that are the most commonplace, Dunne sells them in a way that gives them a breath of fresh air.  She can’t quite erase their familiarity, though, so the audience always is two or three steps ahead of the plot, up to and including its crescendo moment.  The husband is charming enough when he is nice to lead you to believe he may have changed but Anderson does well having his true colors show just below the surface in almost every scene, proving to all of us he isn’t as good at hiding it as he thinks he is.  It’s also worth it for Walter’s turn as a once-towering professional in her field that has been hampered by illness and personal tragedy in her life.  I was worried the relationship would start to look like the one in Wild Rose which was more of a savior/lost lamb situation but Dunne and Walter make a nice team in that both are strong women who lean on each other as they walk forward.

Director Phyllida Lloyd is best known for creating the stage musical Mamma Mia!, directing the movie version, and producing its hugely popular sequel.  While there’s music to be heard here (it must be noted the soundtrack is pretty dreadful, filled with songs that are so on the nose you practically want to wipe your TV with Kleenex), Lloyd is comfortable with the drama and lets the camera linger on some emotionally raw moments.  Thankfully, abuse scenes are either shown in quick flashes or not at all, the memories are shown on the faces of the victims and that is illustrative enough.  Her handling of the dramatic storyline feels more at ease than she was with The Iron Lady, yet it’s not as if you watch the movie and can tell what the director brought to the film.  She has no signature style to speak of so you get the sense that anyone could have really directed this.

Truly, Herself was always going to face a steep climb because it’s a story that is oft-told.  A battered wife packing up and leaving her no-good husband with her kids in tow and running into hard times trying to keep her children is something we’ve seen in books, TV, movies, songs, etc.  There’s a curious lack of overall ambition to make the movie something more than what is on the surface and that is where I found myself disappointed overall.  Dunne wrote a good script and turns in a strong performance along with Walter…that should be enough, but something’s missing from the final blueprint of Herself.

Movie Review ~ Shadow in the Cloud

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A WWII pilot traveling with top secret documents on a B-17 Flying Fortress encounters an evil presence on board the flight.

Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale, Taylor John Smith, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Joe Witkowski, Byron Coll, Liam Legge, Asher Bridle

Director: Roseanne Liang

Rated: R

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I think we’ve talked before about my not-so-secret aversion to flying but by very public (at least on this blog, anyway) love of all things involving movies and planes.  It’s a strange dichotomy, I know, and it must be the universe’s way of trying to cure my fear through a medium I enjoy…but I’m so stubborn that my white-knuckle nature when flying the friendly skies just can’t be fixed.  I’m also not talking about enjoying your standard airplane disaster movies like 1970’s Airport or it’s numerous silly sequels but more along the lines of the truly scary ones that present throat-clutching scenarios that elicit yelps and have been the cause for many a canceled transatlantic flight.

One of my favorite examples is Nightmare at 20,000 Feet which is actually part of a larger anthology film, 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.  (Yes, I know it was originally from a 1963 episode of the original TV series.)  I’ve yet to discuss that movie at length as part of my 31 Days to Scare and still might so won’t say much more about it, but it’s a dandy of a freaky fifteen minutes.  Clearly, someone else has an affinity for it as well because there’s a new film out that takes a page or two (or three) from that story and uses it as an inspiration for a larger period piece that’s an eventful, if completely ludicrous adrenaline rush of a ride.  As one of the last movies to come across my desk in 2020, the overly eager Shadow in the Cloud could have been the last gasp of a year that didn’t know when to quit but it manages to eek by on its suspense and “did they just do that?’ far-fetched action sequences.

In the throes of World War II, a highly classified package needs transportation out of an army base in Auckland, New Zealand and Air Force Capt. Maude Garrett shows up to the all-male crew of The Fool’s Errand, a B-29 bomber charting a course to Samoan Islands with papers granting her a seat.  Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz, Greta) is used to the male bravado instantly on display to both intimidate and (improbably) entice her but doesn’t let it distract her from the job she’s been tasked with.  With the only seat available in the gun turret below the main cabin, her cargo must remain above her guarded by a kind crew member (Taylor John Smith, Insidious: Chapter 3) while she is in the cramped space below.

As the plane takes off, the Brit must contend with the close quarters of her seating arrangement, the “locker room talk” of the crew she hears over the radio, a small crack in the glass that separates her from the clouds below, the threat of enemy planes engaging for attack, and another danger that has also hitched a ride on The Fool’s Errand.  If you haven’t yet watched the trailer for Shadow in the Cloud, I’d advise against it as it gives away sadly too much of the surprises the hectic flight has in store, including a disappointing amount of the very end of the movie.  No, it’s best to go into the movie as blind as possible because that’s how you’ll wring maximum enjoyment out of the wild ride writer/director Roseanne Liang has in store for anyone brave enough to withstand takeoff.

Working from a script originally written by the problematic Max Landis (click here for more details), the producers have gone to great lengths to separate themselves from that predatory persona.  I hope that his name still lingering as a writer for legal reasons doesn’t deter people from seeing Shadow in the Cloud because this is largely a fun film with its eye squarely on keeping you at attention, ready at a moment’s notice for things to change course.  With the first 45 minutes largely a solo endeavor for Moretz to command the screen (a challenge she meets nicely, by the way) with growing suspense, Liang pivots the movie to a full-scale action/horror mash-up when things get hairy.  At a trim 83 minutes, there’s not a lot of breathing room or time to acclimate yourself so you have to keep up with the rapidly changing developments as they fly by.

At times in the first half of the movie I found myself closing my eyes and wondering what this would sound like as a podcast.  With only Moretz seen onscreen and everyone else from the crew heard on radio, Liang relies on a good sound design and well-done CGI effects to convincingly isolate her young star in the underbelly of a plane where she’s exposed in a glass dome for everyone to see.  When she gets a glimpse of something out of the ordinary and can’t do anything about it, the tension meter starts to rise exponentially and Liang keeps her thumb on our pressure points straight through to the finale.  Aside from Moretz’s strong performance, the rest of the cast is a bit of a blur of accents and standard military male archetypes; I mean, it took me forever to even notice Love Simon’s Nick Robinson has a small part as another gunner in the unit.

If the film loses you during it’s juggernaut of a final twenty minutes when the action takes over and the stunt work blends with some at-times unconvincing CGI, I think you may be the wrong audience for the film.  I found these sequences to be most audacious and rapscallion, with Liang providing escapist fun for female audience members first and not caring about paying service to the fanboys out there that may decry some of the more non-period implausibility’s.  Like Patty Jenkins did with expectations of Wonder Woman and its (better than you’ve heard) sequel, Liang knows how to make a “female action film” without gender-ing it to death.

I found Shadow in the Cloud to be so enjoyable and mostly unpredictable in the way it played out.  Maybe experienced travelers will foresee some of the final details and small twists that are interspersed in the film throughout, but I appreciated the way the movie introduces some rather big game changers and then just moves on without lingering in the reveal, pleased with its cleverness.  It has a job to do and doesn’t have time to waste basking in any rug pulls.  It’s brawny but not quite brainy and gets some good jolts in along the way.  You can hardly ask for more in a film of this type.  Very worth the travel time.

Movie Review ~ Pieces of a Woman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A heartbreaking home birth leaves a woman grappling with the profound emotional fallout, isolated from her partner and family by a chasm of grief.

Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails

Director: Kornél Mundruczó

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Most of the time, I enjoy going in blind to movies and not knowing quite what I’m getting myself into.  It helps keep the experience fresh and expectations at a minimum, allowing the movie to stand on its own two feet and make the best impression based on my gut reaction to it.  There are times, however, when being tipped off to something that may be hard to watch is welcome and the older I get the more I appreciate these small hints to buckle up and prepare.  While not delving into full spoiler territory, I often will let you, dear reader, in on these moments as well because I know that many of you find value in these ‘heads up’ warnings so you can decide on your own if the movie is right for you as a whole or if it’s just one section you need to grapple with.  There is power in decision making…and it’s only a movie, after all.

Chances are, if you’re keeping any kind of track on the film world these days (and at this point who isn’t starved for any kind of soapy awards talk) you’ve heard Pieces of a Woman mentioned and its harrowing opening.  Prior the title even being shown, there’s a solid thirty minutes of prologue featuring a traumatic home birth that is shot in excruciatingly real detail, casting the viewer as a voyeur on an event that will change the lives of a young couple and their midwife forever.  It’s agonizing to watch but brilliantly performed by star Vanessa Kirby (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) along with Shia LeBeouf as her husband and the wonderful Molly Parker playing a substitute midwife called on to fill in at the last minute.  Though its meant to look like one shot, I’m not entirely convinced it was done in one take…but it’s impressive nonetheless the way it all unfolds in a short span of time.

Adapting their multi-media stage production first produced in Poland, director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber translate the work to the screen with a fierce intensity in these opening moments, creating a scene we can’t look away from even though we know what’s coming.  Though we get the briefest glimpse of what their life is before that fateful evening (she has some vague office job, he’s a blue collar construction worker in the middle of a bridge build, both feel the judgmental weight of her wealthy mother who holds money over them as means of control), it’s that one night that comes to define them for the rest of the movie.  I suppose that that’s why the film is never as successful after those first thirty minutes, despite Kirby’s supersonic performance throughout and Ellen Burstyn’s (Lucy in the Sky) dynamic turn as her brittle mother facing her own shortcomings through her daughter’s personal loss.

I wish I could tell you more about Pieces of a Woman but there’s just not that much to it after it comes out guns a blazing.  It’s a lengthy film, though, and Mundruczó and Wéber disappointingly fill the majority of it with the standard themes of a marriage falling apart before our eyes.  A union unraveling after the loss of a child isn’t all that uncommon in film so there has to be some kind of hook to it that sets it apart but there’s not enough meat to go around for everyone, especially with an actor like LeBeouf circling the herd and hungry.  While he manages to inch back into good graces with illuminating turns in films like The Peanut Butter Falcon, LeBeouf’s acting is becoming more troublesome to watch.  Though he’s cast as a bit of a louse who apparently got his crap together with help from his wife, it’s unsettling in light of recent events in the actor’s personal life to see him get aggressive with Kirby’s character, not that she intimidates easily.

In all honesty, the film works best when it’s solely following Kirby and cuts out LeBeouf completely.  Her journey throughout the film is the most intriguing and special, anyway.  Everyone expects Kirby’s character Martha to grieve in a particular way and when she doesn’t, treats her like she’s doing it wrong…which only infuriates her more.  It all comes to a head in a grand scene between mother and daughter that is bound to net both Kirby and Burstyn well-deserved Oscar nominations when the time comes around.  Until this point in her career, Kirby has played second (or third) fiddle in her projects but she’s in first position here and commands the screen at all times.  She’s closely followed by Burstyn who, after all these years in the business, still finds a way to create a character that may have limited screen time but has a backstory that could fill volumes.

Aside from those leads, Mundruczó has shown a curiously strong instinct for casting.  Comedian Iliza Shlesinger (The Opening Act) is primarily known for her raunchy specials but plays it straight and looks remarkably like Kirby…I 100% believed they were sisters and Burstyn’s adult children.  Uncut Gems co-director/writer Bennie Safdie takes a turn in front of the camera as Kirby’s brother-in-law and the director does quite nicely with his role.  There’s not a lot for the usually dependable Sarah Snook (The Dressmaker) to do but as a family member/lawyer, she still gets a prime opportunity to get entangled in the family drama in more ways than one.  In her short time on camera, Parker (Words on Bathroom Walls) has to make a big enough impression so that we remember key pieces of info for later on in the movie when she becomes a focus of a public witch hunt.  While it leads to the film’s least realistic yet strangely satisfying sequence, it does get the three most interesting actors (Kirby, Parker, and Burstyn) very nearly in the same shot.

With 2020 turning out the way that it has, it’s nice to continue to celebrate strong female roles like the ones delivered by Kirby and Burstyn but I can understand if Pieces of a Woman is too much for some to take on.  Between the pain of watching the opening sequence unfold, especially for those that have suffered the loss of a child, and any unease that could be triggered by watching LeBeouf considering some unpleasant allegations leveled against him recently by his ex-girlfriend, this has a lot of reasons why it would be a challenge to queue up to.  I’d encourage you to consider it though, because Kirby’s performance is pretty amazing and the more I sit with Burstyn’s the more I’m convinced it’s one of her greatest onscreen roles.  If only the film were more about them…and shorter.  Much shorter.

2020 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

 

Hello!

Usually, I find myself hurrying to write this as December 31st draws near but the final days of 2020 seemed to arrive so quickly that I was only too happy to wave goodbye and welcome 2021 with open arms.  That also let me think a little bit longer about the year in movies and how different everything has been in the last twelve months.

Who would have thought that back in January when I was seeing a lackluster remake of The Grudge that it would be just one of the 21 films I would see outside of my home during the year?  With movie theaters closing in late March/early April and most screenings/releases happening online, 2020 was the year of making the most of the at-home cinema experience and let me tell you, I got pretty good at it.  So good, in fact, that I wound up shattering my record for most movies seen in a single year.  Now, I don’t count that as a huge win, but with little else to do in terms of travel or social interactions with friends which were prohibited…I think I did my best.  I should point out this was also in the midst of buying a new home, painting the entire place, moving, and keeping up with my other hobbies/interests.

While a number felt the loss of in person screenings was a setback, I found it strangely liberating and empowering at the end of the day.  Though a number of mainstream studio features were way-laid several months or bumped off the schedule completely, independent films were still arriving on a regular basis.  Previously, I might not have said ‘yes’ to review these due to time constraints but I had nothing but time so I was afforded the good fortune to see a number of well-crafted, intelligent, exciting films that I likely would have missed before.  True, some were stinkers, but that’s the case for larger films as well. 

That ties in nicely to the challenge I laid out for my fellow critics last year “If you’re a critic and reading this — I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release.”  I’m going to double down on this again in 2021 because it’s looking like we’ll be in this cycle for the foreseeable future.  Keep seeking out these smaller films and give indie filmmakers some exposure.  At the same time, acknowledge your fellow critics as well who do good work, tip you off to certain films, and support you throughout the year.  Off the top of my head, I’m always looking to Brian Orndorf, Tim Lammers, and Jared Huzinga to see what they’ve been watching and The Minnesota Film Critics Alliance is worth a peek as well for another roster of critics doing their thing.  Give credit where credit is due!  

As we enter the 10th year of this blog (wow!), it goes without saying that I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence over time.  Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.  The number of readers and subscribers grow, the followers increase, the likes go up — it’s great to see!

If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Twitter (@joemnmovieman), follow me on Instagram, and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.

Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)

5. Let Him Go/News of the World – OK, I’m cheating right off the bat but I feel like these two films are very much in the same vein and when it came right down to it, couldn’t decide between them.  The rare entries that made me actually long to see them in theaters on the biggest screen possible, I liked the mood both provided with their grand scale and was totally sucked into the stories even though they are as old-fashioned as they can be.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some honest to goodness true movie stars leading the cast.  Let Him Go was a real surprise, not knowing anything about it going in, not even that it was a period piece or how it would morph into a sinister thriller that dialed up the tension as it neared its suspenseful end.  Kevin Costner and Diane Lane were glorious; perfectly (and believably) cast as a husband and wife tracking their young grandson and his mother to the home of her new husband’s violently smarmy family.  On the other side of the coin, News of the World finds the most Movie Star of them all, Tom Hanks, proving again why he’s so dependable to audiences yet undervalued by his industry turning in a rich performance as a man transporting an orphaned child to her surviving relatives through dangerous Old West country.  There’s nothing wholly original about where these films start or end but a special magic is created in that space between that made them essential watches for 2020.

4. His House – More and more, the best kinds of scares are derived not from the beastly monsters that spring from radioactive tests but from the horrors we create for ourselves.  That’s just one of the points being made in this excellent film released through Netflix this year, finding a refugee couple from South Sudan dealing with an evil presence in their temporary housing they must live in while they wait for their immigration papers.  Director Remi Weekes knows how to apply just the right amount of pressure throughout, keeping audiences engaged with the kind of visuals that don’t just send chills up your spine but put a joy buzzer to your tailbone.  The frights here are well timed and, thus, well earned…thinking about some of them now still gives me the willies.  That it all comes to be more about something as simple as the paranormal speaks to the intelligence of the script from Weeks — it truly is a haunting experience and one that I thought about for a number of days after.  Highly recommended for those looking for something more than simple scares.

3. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey – Everything about this movie made me want to pass on it when it came up on my list.  The title, the poster, the concept, it all just looked too saccharine for words and not worth my time.  What a total fool I was!  Absolutely the best Christmas film to debut this year (sorry, Hallmark/Lifetime and yes, sorry Happiest Season), David E. Talbert’s ambitious musical is the kind of family entertainment that instant holiday classics are made from.  Beautifully designed from the steampunk-y Victorian sets to the elaborate costumes and choregraphed within an inch of its life, it thankfully is filmed in a way to let you enjoy it from all angles so you don’t miss a thing.  The music is spot-on and allows several actors not yet known for their voices to show off their talent and a few that are to really let ‘er rip (I’m looking at you, Anika Noni Rose!) and it has a strong message for young children from underrepresented groups.  I don’t think I suggested this to one person who didn’t fall out of their seat with love for it so I find it strange Netflix isn’t putting more effort into promoting it for end of year awards, especially in production design and song — it definitely could be a contender.  Also, this is a film that exposes your true “Scrooge” critics — those that gave this one a thumbs down absolutely got coal in their stocking on December 25.

2. Sound of Metal – As we came down to the final two movies of the year, it was hard to figure out the order because both films have lingered in my brain ever since I saw them.  In fact, the two are still bouncing around in there now and just came to rest in these positions so Sound of Metal just misses #1 by the slimmest of margins.  That should say something about this mesmerizing look into the journey of a young punk band drummer who loses his hearing but gains a new perspective on his own path at the same time.  So many similar stories have been told over the years and they’ve had the same trajectory but Sound of Metal doesn’t head in the directions you think it will and that’s what keeps it alive and fresh, never letting you get ahead of its rhythm.  What makes the movie truly unforgettable is the lead performance of Riz Ahmed as Ruben and most especially relative newcomer Paul Raci as Ruben’s leader in the deaf community he joins as he learns to live with his new normal.  The work that Ahmed does is remarkable and the layers Raci displays, often without saying anything, is staggering.  If I could have one “sure thing” this awards season it’s that Raci will be recognized for his work at every ceremony.

1. Promising Young Woman – Oh, this movie is going to be fun to watch people dissect because it’s pushing the kind of buttons that make many uncomfortable.  Writer/director Emerald Fennell makes a helluva battle cry debut with Promising Young Woman and doesn’t pull punches in the telling, something that I truly appreciated.  Delivering the single most amazing performance of the year, Carey Mulligan is sensational as Cassandra, a mild-mannered coffee shop employee by day and an avenging angel of sorts at night.  To say much more would reveal a number of the secrets I’ve been asked to keep (though my full spoiler-free review will be up 1/14/20) but Fennell has assembled a dynamite supporting cast that surrounds Mulligan for a sinewy mystery we have to unravel as the film progresses.  Though Fennell may give us some strings to pull at to reveal the solution, it’s far more complex than it appears on the surface.  With so many wonderful touches in design and music selection (this is a film Quentin Tarantino would salivate over), it’s full-bodied entertainment from the first frame to the last.  You couldn’t ask for anything better.

Honorable Mentions: 1BR, All In: The Fight for Democracy, Archenemy, Class Action Park, Color Out of Space, Happiest Season, Host (2020), Hunter Hunter, Possessor Uncut, Relic, Soul, Sputnik, The Personal History of David Copperfield, The Witches (2020), To the Stars, The Devil to Pay, Villain, You Cannot Kill David Arquette

5. Becky (2020) – One of two movies on my Worst of 2020 list that will, I’m sure, be featured on a number of “Best of Lists” for other critics, I found Becky to be one of the most unpleasant films I’ve seen in any number of years.  Pitched as a brutal, bare-knuckle gender-swapped version of Home Alone, there is precious little in the movie that is redeeming.  All of the characters are obnoxiously awful, from the title teen to the nasty criminals that take her family hostage and exact some gruesome acts of bloody gore.  The film almost seems to be daring you to get behind violence toward children and animals.  Now that we’re so conditioned to violence against adults and attacks on women in film, the attention has turned to children and there are just too many gross moments here from pets getting killed to youngsters being brutalized that completely skeeved me out.  If you want a far better film released in 2020 about a female that takes revenge on criminals that have it coming to them, check out the excellent The Devil to Pay…it just so happens to be written by Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye who wrote Becky.  I hated Becky as much as I loved The Devil to Pay so…I guess we go into 2021 even stevens.

4. The War with Grandpa – In 1993’s Mad Dog and Glory, Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman played lovers.  In 2020’s The War with Grandpa, they play father and daughter.  How times have changed, how the mighty have fallen.  The great De Niro follows up his towering work in 2019’s The Irishman playing a old-timer that has to go live with his daughter and her family, displacing his grandson to the attic in the process.  Adapted from a children’s book, this is one bizarre film that’s more of a study of a young psychotic in the making (Oakes Fegley) than about the bond between a grandfather and his grandson.  Instead of a light-hearted comedy, Fegley’s character is so selfish, demanding, terrorizing, and scheming that by the ominous ending you at least suspect there won’t be a sequel because none of the characters will be alive to continue the story.

3. Endings, Beginnings – On one hand, this was a sad one for me because I’ve liked what director Drake Doremus has done in the past.  Like Crazy and Equals both had their recommendable aspects and this film has appealing stars in Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, Sebastian Stan.  The problem is that the characters that are featured in this one are so toxic and blithering that you want to skip to the ending from the moment you begin.  Over the course of a year (and, wow, does it feel like it!), a love triangle forms and creates odd angles for audiences to view this strange world from.  And the smoke.  Oh my lord, the smoke.  I swear I thought my television was emitting haze after a while because if someone wasn’t smoking they were lighting up another cigarette — it was exhausting…just like the movie, its characters, its script, and its direction.  Doremus has exceled at personal relationship drama in the past and putting it into an interesting light, with this one it was a total miss thanks to characters you wanted to toss into the ocean along with their carton of Marlboro Red’s.

2. Bad Hair – Is there anything worse than a scary movie with a good concept terribly executed?  For a horror fan like me, the answer is no.  That’s what lands Bad Hair at the #2 spot of 2020.  That and some awful special effects, bad acting, and poor casting in general that needed the benefit of a more skilled casting director that thought outside of the box.  There’s a brilliant film waiting to be made using Justin Simien’s idea but his script needs an overhaul, tightening up the pace and giving it far more edge than it has currently.  Keep star Elle Lorraine, though, because she’s arguably the best and most exciting thing about the movie.  The “killer weave” plot device is a scream on paper but ham-handed in its execution thanks to astoundingly heinous digital effects that suck any fear out of the proceedings.  It also doesn’t help the majority of the cast haven’t locked in the satire Simien is going for, certainly not Vanessa Williams who is not just phoning in her schmaltzy villainess performance, she’s talking through a paper cup attached to a string.  Sometimes, you just have to cut off all the damaged, split ends, and start again.  I’d love to see Bad Hair get a re-do quickly.

1. She Dies Tomorrow – The best poster of the year?  Maybe.  The worst movie of the year?  Absolutely.  Essentially a post-mumblecore version of a Debbie Downer sketch filtered through the modern lens of LA living, She Dies Tomorrow was well liked by a number of people but was just the most excruciating turd of a film to sit through this year.  Maybe it was because it came smack in the middle of the year when quarantine life was at its peak annoyance and a film about a woman feeling like her death was imminent just hit too close to home.  With her fear spreading like a sickness to her family and friends who each reacted in their own freakish way, I kept waiting for the movie to find one interesting thing to say about life, death…logic…but it’s just a black hole of void that you fall into for 90 minutes and then exit with only regret in your heart.  It’s exactly the type of terrible naval-gazing, up for interpretation film, that would serve as comic punchlines in an Albert Brooks or Mike Nichols film back in the day.  The central figure is so afraid of death that everyone around her starts to feel the same way…if only she had also thought about being in a really good movie at the same time.

Dis(Honorable) Mentions: A Call to Spy, Disturbing the Peace, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, Fisherman’s Friends, Hard Kill, Hillbilly Elegy, Life Overtakes Me, The Beach House, The Pale Door, Vivarium, You Should Have Left

Most Misunderstood: Wonder Woman 1984The movie that sits in this position is often several months old so it’s odd that Wonder Woman 1984 is here because it’s the last review I wrote in 2020 (and the last post if you scroll down just a tiny bit).  It’s only taken that amount of time for the movie to get a royally rotten reputation in the public eye and, honestly, I’m shocked it was sunk the way it was.  Did it not measure up in terms of overall quality to the first film?  Yes.  Did it have major logic problems and unexplained loopholes that rendered it erratic?  Sure.  Could it have trimmed one villain off in favor of focusing just on one? Yes (and Pedro Pascal should have been axed…I don’t care what you say).  Still, WW84 is so much better than other entries in the DCEU that for people to call it ‘garbage’, ‘the worst movie ever’, and ‘awful’ instead of just merely ‘disappointing’ speaks to something more than just being bummed the movie isn’t good.  I can’t help but notice the amount of reviews that trash the female director, the female star, the female villain, but praise the male villain…it’s not just one review, either.  These critics need to examine why they really didn’t like the film because it’s not just plot problems.
Honorable Mention: The Craft: LegacyA staple of sleepovers ever since it was released on home video, 1996’s The Craft has held up rather nicely over the ensuing years so it was a curious film for horror production company Blumhouse to give a not-quite-remake to.  Going the route of “continuation-kinda-sorta”, The Craft: Legacy got dismissed fairly quickly but I found it to be a nicely done affair that has a modern voice to it.  The scares are barely there but the cast is strong and it even pays decent fan service, showing the filmmakers took the right approach from the start.  I wish everything wasn’t dependent on how fanboys liked what is essentially a horror film for a few different groups that often don’t get horror films that speak to them…but, it appears from the rise and fall of this Legacy that the loudest voices will out.

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2020 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Valley Girl (2020) – The trajectory of the release of this film gave me major whiplash.  Though this musical remake of the classic 1983 film was completed over a year ago, it sat on the shelf unreleased until earlier this summer.  When the trailer first hit mere weeks before it premiered on demand, I was flummoxed and totally against it, horrified that another ’80s staple was getting trampled on.  Then it arrived and holy moly, it was so much fun.  Acquitting itself entirely (yes, entirely), this candy-coated re-do may sanitize things a tad but having the stars burst into song using top hits from the era was a brilliant move and it creates a flick that’s easy to love and hard to resist.  The soundtrack has received major airplay at my home ever since.
Honorable Mention: The RentalI was definitely thrown for a loop when I finished Dave Franco’s nifty thriller starring his wife Alison Brie and Dan Stevens.  Based on what I’d seen the actor do previously and considering his older brother’s tendency for the weird extreme, I assumed Dave would make an obnoxious movie as a first-time director and fall into any number of traps.  Yet, it started off on the right foot and kept waltzing along at a good rhythm all the way through to its final flourish.  An unsettling watch…mission accomplished.

Two Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should: Unpregnant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Throughout movie history rival films have come out that touch on the same topic.  There was the great Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano showdown of 1997 and the Armageddon and Deep Impact grudge match the following year.  In 2020, it was the small theatrical release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always and the later release of Unpregnant on HBOMax that was the subject of another showdown, albeit on a topic not quite as bombastic.  Both stories revolve around high school girls from small towns that get pregnant and make a long journey with a memorable travel companion in search of an abortion.  While the stories have overlap and take their central themes seriously, they diverge on overall tone with Unpregnant teetering toward more of the raucous road trip comedy that dovetails into serious drama near the end and Never Rarely Sometimes Always starting in drama and keeping audiences holding their breath throughout.  Both excel in coaxing out the humanity in their characters, allowing viewers to see souls behind the tough decisions being made and the pain that’s tied to each step that has brought both young women to this place.  The two films are highly recommended, not just for their mature handling of the situation but for their spirited lead performances and dynamite supporting performances from the sidekicks.  If you have to choose just one, go with Never Rarely Sometimes Always.  You may desire the more lighthearted Unpregnant but the other film will stay with you longer.

Others to Consider:  Some of these are titles released in 2020, some are films I saw for the first time in 2020, some are titles I revisited in 2020 — all are worth a look but didn’t quite fit into any other category above!

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Extra Ordinary
In Search of Darkness: A Journey Into Iconic ’80s Horror
Interiors
Jennifer’s Body
Just Mercy
Miss Juneteenth
Missing Link
My Cousin Vinny
Netflix vs. the World
On the Rocks
Palm Springs
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Run (2020)
Saint Frances
Sullivan’s Travels
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
The High Note
The Hunt (2020)
The Opening Act
The Red Shoes
The Shadow of Violence
The Small One
The Trip to Greece
The Uninvited (1944)
Thunder on the Hill
Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time – Vol. 1 Midnight Madness
Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time – Vol. 2 Horror and Sci-Fi
Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time – Vol. 3 Comedy and Camp
What’s Up, Doc?
Written on the Wind

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2020
Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 21
Total Movies Seen at Home: 580
Grand Total for 2020 (not counting films seen multiple times): 601
Where I Saw the Most Movies – At home!