Movie Review ~ Finding ‘Ohana

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A summer in rural O‘ahu takes an exciting turn for two Brooklyn-raised siblings when a journal pointing to long-lost treasure sets them on an epic adventure with new friends, and leads them to reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage.

Stars: Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson, Owen Vaccaro, Kelly Hu, Branscombe Richmond, Chris Parnell, Marc Evan Jackson, Ricky Garcia, Jonathan Ke Quan

Director: Jude Weng

Rated: PG

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Each year I try to make a promise that I’ll challenge myself to explore/review more films from a certain genre and one that I find I sometimes gloss over are the midrange family films that often are forgotten in the mix of available titles.  These aren’t your Disney animated films aimed at younger audiences nor are they the more adult leaning fare masquerading as all-ages family entertainment but those going after the elusive market of the 9-15 year-olds that are the budding consumers of today and up and coming leaders of tomorrow.  This really sparked for me after seeing Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey back in November and being totally knocked out by that Christmas-themed musical which went on to be an extremely popular title on Netflix over the holidays. In the past, I’ve skated past similar features because I’ve definitely aged out of that category and, well, didn’t feel my review would add much to the conversation.  It’s a new year…so I figured we’d try another one of these out.

On the outside looking in, Finding ‘Ohana felt like the type of movie that I would have probably begged to see in theaters when I was a 10-year-old but sitting here thirty years later didn’t exactly scream “must see” to me.  However, those feelings were set aside once I heard an early description of the film invoke the magical two-word phrase that will perk up the ears on any child raised in the ‘80s: The Goonies.  Yes, the beloved 1985 pre-teen adventure film that set many a kid on the hunt for buried treasure was used to describe this new film set on the island of Oahu premiering on Netflix and after that I pretty much blacked out with glee until I was ready to hit play on the screener.  I mean, having recently re-watched all of the Indiana Jones films (yes, even the fourth one) my appetite for unearthing hidden gold was at full-bore so there was no way I was missing the chance to continue that feeling.  An added bit of fun was finding out that Ke Huy Quan, one of the young stars of The Goonies, had a small role in the film as well – two worlds colliding…a positive sign.

At 12 years old, New Yorker Pilialoha “Pili” is a Geocache champion on her way to a camp in the Catskills for pre-teens with similar talents when she and her brother Ioane “E” move with their mother (Kelly Hu, Strange Days) to Hawai’i to care for their grandfather (Branscombe Richmond, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) who has fallen ill.  Though originally born in the area they now visit, the city raised kids don’t have any real connection with their island heritage or the history of their people, an important piece of culture their grandfather hopes to teach them while they are there.  With their widowed mom distracted helping her father heal and deal with mounting bills, siblings E (YouTube star Alex Aiono) and Pili (newcomer Kea Peahu) are always at odds but try to stay out each other’s way…a hard task when there’s little to do without WiFi.

Exploring her grandfather’s make-shift art studio like the natural discoverer she is, Pili finds a journal supposedly obtained from a pirate that emerged from the wilds after hiding a fortune in gold  obtained as the result of a mutinous shipwreck. Passed down through their family for generations, no one has been able to locate the treasure by following the clues…but they didn’t have Pili’s smarts in dissecting clues.  Before long, Pili has become obsessed with finding the lost treasure and sets out to claim it with a little help from brainy neighborhood friend Casper (Owen Vacarro, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) and, eventually, E and his island crush, Hana (Lindsay Watson).  Together, the four will pass through nooks and crannies, cross between large cavern ledges where lava flows several stories below, swim through sunken tunnels, and traverse waterfalls as they seek their fortune while finding strength as a team.

While Finding ‘Ohana is sadly not the next Goonies (or even the next Jingle Jangle), it makes its own mark in other ways that are commendable. First and foremost, the focus on family is and always will be something I’ll admire the movie for wrapping its arms around with such affection.  There’s a richness and validity to the way screenwriter Christina Strain injects the film with moments that reinforce the importance of coming home and remembering your ancestors, the living and the dead.  Loving those that are gone and continuing to celebrate their lives is another way of paying respect to their memory.  The message may be drilled in a little tighter than necessary by the end, but as adults that have likely experienced loss and understand the “why’s” maybe we need those words a little less than the target audience that will surely be devouring the film and pick up on its themes of familial bonds.

Carrying a PG rating keeps the stakes relatively low for all involved so the perils the four find themselves in as they go further in on their quest for treasure aren’t ever that dangerous, and in turn aren’t that exciting.  There’s no huge puzzle to solve like at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or what the entire final hour of The Goonies undertakes but it does allow for the production team to get creative with the sets they create to look like the inside of caves or tunnels that have been unoccupied for centuries.  While the final set unfortunately looks like an overdesigned waterpark at the Wisconsin Dells, there’s a nice little section by a rainwater pool lit by luminescence in the walls.  Mostly, though, parents should know the PG rating comes from the script’s rather crude obsession of talking about boy’s nipples and several mentions of an actual anatomic butthole.  I just…don’t get it.

Director Jude Weng is making her feature film debut and delivers Finding ‘Ohana as a mostly pleasant affair that, with the caveat just mentioned, should make for a nice family movie night for the old kid crowd.  I think it’s slightly too long running nearly two hours and could easily have been trimmed down by twelve minutes or more without losing any of the positive impact the non-adventure/action scenes had.  I definitely wouldn’t touch the final 15 minutes in which Weng and her cast find some lovely little moments of connection to each other and the audience.  And it all culminates in a fun credits sequence that reinforce what we already have felt…that this cast really enjoyed each other and making the film.  I think, with the right frame of mind, you might enjoy it too.

Movie Review ~ Supernova (2020)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following a life-changing diagnosis, Sam and Tusker travel across England in their old camper van visiting friends, family and places from their twenty-year relationship until secret plans test their love like never before.

Stars: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, James Dreyfus, Pippa Haywood, Sarah Woodward

Director: Harry Macqueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: For too long, gay and transgender people were shown as negative stereotypes in film and television, relegated to the loveless best friend, the cruel queen, and worst of all, the ultra femme perverted killer that must be stopped by a masculine cop in a spray of bullets.  That’s just the way it was until movies on the fringe like the original production of The Boys in the Band in 1970 and dramas such as 1989’s Longtime Companion began to put the spotlight centrally on gay people as the stars of their own stories.  (Obviously, I’m leaving out numerous landmark pieces across all walks of media – barriers were broken down through a massive number of channels in the years between and since.)  Still, it took longer than necessary for the narrative to move from “dying AIDS patient” to legitimate, long-life-living contributing member of society.

Like many members of the LGBTQ+ community, I welcome the arrival of any major work that has the potential to reach a great number of people which shows the normalcy of a healthy same-sex relationship.  I’m not one of those that stand in staunch opposition to straight actors playing gay. As long as the actor approaches it with their full heart and open mind it’s perfectly fine in my book.  Thankfully, the time of it being an “big deal” for heterosexual actors to play gay seems to have passed and we’re blessedly long removed from the Brokeback Mountain days of nervously tittering when Heath Ledger makes the moves on Jake Gyllenhaal.  Now, media can show that gay people lead lives just as boring and unfulfilled as straight people.  Y’know…just like real life.

The arrival of the new drama Supernova feels like another minor milestone in the evolution of gay cinema…because it reveals that even handsomely made dramas that attract A-list talent and feature impeccable cinematography can be as stiflingly inert and problematic as their straight counterparts.  Convincingly cast, brilliantly filmed by Oscar-nominee Dick Pope (Bernie), scored by Keaton Henson like a glowing lullaby you can hold in your hands, it’s a marvelous little film to look at but also falls prey to its own ambition.  It’s just it’s not that interesting or narratively intriguing if you strip all of the strong flourishes away.  So much effort has been spent to present the film as a precious slice of life journey for two lovers on a final trip together that writer/director Harry Macqueen appears to have forgotten that there has to be more to a script than a beginning and an ending.

Traveling through the English countryside on their way to their final destination within the gorgeous Lake District, concert pianist Sam (Colin Firth, 1917) and his partner of twenty years, Tusker (Stanley Tucci, The Witches) seem to already know this is likely the last time they’ll be able to be alone together.  Diagnosed with early dementia, author Tusker has found the disease is rapidly reducing his quality of life and wants to spend his remaining days with friends, his dog, and the love of his life.  Helping Sam begrudgingly plan this concert is his way of ensuring life will go on after he’s gone, a last bit of control he can hold on to that no one can take away from him.  Sam recognizes this and realizes the easiest thing to do is to let Tusker have his way and dutifully becomes driver, caregiver, and navigator for their trek through nature’s beauty toward an unknown future.

Viewers join this trip as it’s nearing the end, just about the time that Sam and Tusker are due to arrive at the villa of Sam’s sister where a gathering of friends is set to celebrate a birthday of a man and the life of a friend.  It’s the one stretch of Supernova’s short running time where Firth and Tucci aren’t alone together on the road or in a room somewhere hashing out their fears and working through some painful realizations.  The scenes at the villa play like a movie, most of the passages between Tucci and Sam come off feeling like filmed bits of stage business.  I’d pay to see the actors perform this play but watching it unfold onscreen makes for treacly viewing.  Luckily, director Macqueen has nabbed himself two of the finest actors working today to star in his film, both experts at commanding the screen without hogging the spotlight.  That’s how the interplay between the celebrated actors mostly comes across feeling so naturalistic; they speak to each other and interact as if they’ve indeed been together daily for two decades.

So how is it that Supernova comes up short?  Well, it’s that whole “not about the destination, it’s the journey” saying people always talk about.  Pretty early on in the film we know where things are headed and once the cards are on the table the screenplay seems to stall out, becoming quietly introspective when I yearned for it to get somehow, someway louder.  No amount of star quality can turn that dial and it’s because the stages of grief often shown in movies (and that I wanted) have already long passed for these men.  In essence then, apart from the villa diversion and a nicely crafted scene between Tusker and Sam’s niece, the entirety of Supernova is focused on how life is like in the acceptance phase of someone facing death.

In several interviews recently Tucci revealed that he and Firth switched parts shortly after Tucci showed the script to Firth as a potential project for them to work on together.  Originally Firth’s idea to play the pianist instead of the dying author, I think the change-up was a smart one that ultimately helps the film get to a higher level because Tusker’s resolute feelings toward his prognosis feels like the stiff-upper-lip British way of going about things.  Having Firth trying his hand at a warmer, far more emotional character does do wonders for him and, gay character or not, will have his female fans swooning even harder.  While Tucci is the one without an Oscar, his consistently strong work throughout his career and a ramping up of higher profile roles as of late feels like the beginning of a crescendo that will lead to a top award soon…but not yet.

I wanted to like this one more than I did and I’m not even one of the early admirers of the trailer who were caught tweeting how it gave them “all the feels” while they pondered who Tucci was going to knock out of the Best Supporting Actor list of potential nominees.  I don’t think that’s going to happen for Tucci this year, not because he’s not a strong presence in the film but because the film isn’t strong enough to support his presence.  The same could be said for Firth but I think Tucci outshines him a bit, but only by a bit, mind you.  Supernova may not be the out of this world emotional experience I was hoping for but it does wonders for strong representation of a normal couple (that happen to be gay) going through one of life’s unfortunate setbacks.

Movie Review ~ Palmer

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After 12 years in prison, a former high school football star returns home to put his life back together—and forms an unlikely bond with an outcast boy from a troubled home.

Stars: Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Juno Temple, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb, Dean Winters, Wynn Everett

Director: Fisher Stevens

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When it comes to making the transition from music to movies, looking over the history of Hollywood in the last half century it’s clear that the women have far outshone the men when it comes to getting accolades for their performances.  Stars like Bette Midler, Cher, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and Lady Gaga have all starred in critically acclaimed feature films and four of these ladies have even netted multiple Oscar nominations to prove it wasn’t a fluke.  The men haven’t had it quite as easy and audiences just are not nearly as accepting of the gentlemen pop stars dropping their well-honed images to take on polarizing parts.  A number of attempts in recent years (curiously mostly country stars) have simply tried to stick in their comfort zone, which is almost worse because they’ve painted themselves in a safe corner with no movement allowed.

If there’s an exception to this rule it has to be Justin Timberlake but up until now, the one-time *NSYNC star that got his start on the Mickey Mouse Club alongside former flame Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, has only found mediocre returns on even his best performances.  While he’s chosen good filmmakers to work with and been cast in prestige pictures, his roles haven’t quite fit him, or he hasn’t taken them to the level he could have.  Something has been out of alignment in nearly every feature he’s been a part of, like some diabolical voodoo curse by one of the Backstreet Boys to keep him from having it all.  I just looked over his list of credits on IMDb and it’s true, Timberlake consistently has either a good performance in a bad movie or a so-so showing in a good feature.

Apparently, whatever dark cloud was hanging over Timberlake has lifted because he’s venturing into the acting arena again with Palmer, a new film streaming on Apple TV+ starting January 29th.  Not only is the Fisher Stevens-directed film surprisingly excellent with a sweet heart but it hands Timberlake his best role to date.  Perhaps it’s because the singer-actor had recently become a father (and just became one for a second time) or maybe it was just finally the right part at the right time, but it showcases Timberlake at his most open and vulnerable, demonstrating great range without ever overselling the delicate nuances of drama found in Cheryl Guerriero’s sought-after script. It’s well known that Guerriero’s screenplay for Palmer was included on the 2016 Black List as one of the best un-produced scripts in Hollywood.  Nowadays, enough bad movies have been made of those supposedly excellent scripts but back then, that still meant something, and the Palmer script was obviously one of the good eggs in the Black List basket.  Guerriero’s voice is strong and comes through demonstrating a natural ear for realistic dialogue that could be maudlin and hokey to some outside of the township setting the film takes place in but rings right in the ear of the viewer all the same.

Returning to his small Louisiana hometown to live with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb, Palm Springs) who raised him, Eddie Palmer (Timberlake, Wonder Wheel) is seen as a pariah by the townspeople thanks to his 12-year prison sentence for aggravated burglary.  While the question of his committing the crime on his own is a bit up in the air throughout the film (it’s suggested he took the rap for his more affluent friends), there’s little question he likely was headed in that direction anyway.  A one-time popular football player that apparently had a bit of an arrogant streak, his friends have stayed local and may have grown up in age but not in overall maturity.  They’re all in the middle of their lives with wives and children while Eddie hasn’t even had the chance to begin.  Tough love Vivian makes Eddie follow rules while living in her house and that includes going to church and helping her with tasks, including helping her care for Sam (Ryder Allen), the young boy living in a camper with his addict mom in the vacant lot next to Vivian’s house.  When Sam’s mom Shelly (Juno Temple, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) splits for a bender, she abandons her son with Vivian, often for weeks at a time.

It’s during one of these extended absences that life changes for Eddie and he really gets to know Sam better, noticing how different he is from the other boys.  Preferring more feminine looks to wear to school and often adorned with barrettes in his mop of hair, Sam is the definition of young confidence. As is usually the case, instead of recognizing this beam of good-natured sunshine for the joy it is, those those can’t accept someone for being “other” feel threatened by his very existence.  Sam’s sensitive but not impractical and he’s lucky to have support from Vivian, Shelly, and his teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright) who all allow him to be whatever he chooses to be.  So he watches television shows about fairy princesses instead of Transformers and dreams of one day being able to join their ranks.  Eddie, on the other hand, isn’t as easily swayed and observes how Sam is treated in class by poorly raised bullies when he finds a job working as a janitor for the local elementary school.

The script developments in the latter half of Palmer aren’t all together unexpected but they are handled in the form of such refreshingly direct conversations that even if the scenes begin predictable, they don’t end that way.  At some point, someone is going to confront the elephant in the room and not let the issue sit until there is resolution through other means.  In so many movies the plot hinges on topics that could be discussed and dealt with were it not for the general unwillingness of people to have these tough exchanges.  Perhaps Guerriero has drawn on some of her own life lessons but she seems to be of the “let’s deal with it and move on” school of living and it creates an electricity around the characters in Palmer that can’t help but make them spring to life.  It does result in some hard to watch scenes of neglect and abuse so while Stevens doesn’t shy away from showing these tough moments he handles them with a gentle hand knowing there is a kind of light around the corner for most of the characters.

I find it so fascinating that Timberlake was drawn to this script and this character in particular.  It’s so far afield from what he’s done in the past and I think its deeper themes will go a long way in opening further dialogue for families that watch the movie together.  There’s little of Timberlake the actor to be found here, he blends into the character seamlessly and you don’t see the Super Bowl performer or teen heartthrob all grown up.  His natural chemistry creates a great connection between himself and Allen and the two form a believable bond as a quasi-father-son combo.  He’s never had a son, the other has never had a father and both conveniently and comfortably fill that blank space in ways that satisfy more than they could have imagined.  I also really appreciated Wainwright’s empowered character, a take-charge teacher that advocates for her students and checks up on them when she feels something isn’t right.  She gets a little broad at times, but Temple has an absolute killer scene near the end that I swear if Apple TV+ sent out a screening link to every Oscar voter on 1/29 she’d wind up a nominee this year.

This one caught me by total surprise.  I didn’t expect to find as much value in Palmer as I did and wouldn’t have guessed it would have the kind of lasting impression it has had on me since I saw it.  Some of the performances, Timberlake, Temple, Allen, have been on my mind quite a lot and probably enough so that I’ll watch it again.  Here’s hoping Timberlake continues to find scripts like this that allow him to uncover characters like Eddie Palmer.  Flawed but redeemable, he’s a man that just wants to start over again.  His opportunity doesn’t come in the exact package he would have guessed, but once he stops and looks at the value instead of the debt it could bring his world-view changes.  It’s a good lesson for us all.  Especially now.

Movie Review ~ The Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple become trapped inside a hotel with their demons — real and imagined — until they can confront the secrets of their marriage.

Stars: Shahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, George Maguire, Elester Latham, Michael Graham, Armin Mehr, Leah Oganyan, Golbarg Khavari

Director: Kourosh Ahari

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Several years back I had some free time around Halloween and a lifelong curiosity to know what it was like to work behind the scenes of a haunted house.  So almost on a whim I went  and signed up to be one of the “creeps” at a popular local fright fest.  I’d long enjoyed the thrill of being scared in person, though as I grew older, I started recognizing I was more interested in the reactions of those around me than being shocked myself.  Turns out it can be hard work terrifying the general paying public and it takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and a hefty amount of throat spray to keep your voice healthy enough to surprise them with a shriek.  I wound up having it easier than other employees since I was in a “dark room” basically a space devoid of light where guests wound up scaring themselves more than anything I could do to make my ghostly presence known.  The darkness plays tricks on the mind and though your eyes may adjust over time, you can’t ever be sure that what you’re seeing is truly real.

It’s in a similar blackness a husband and wife find themselves trapped along with their infant daughter in Iranian American director Kourosh Ahari’s clever horror film The Night, which kicks of IFC Midnight’s 2021 slate of releases.  Coming off of a slam dunk 2020, IFC Midnight has set a high bar for itself so to come out of the gate with a movie shot in Los Angeles and filmed mostly in Farsi is a big gamble…but it’s paid off quite well.  What begins as one film eventually escalates into something all together different and unexpected, giving audiences a richer experience than they might have imagined.

A late-night dinner party at a friend’s house has left Iranian immigrant husband and wife Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) exhausted but wanting to make the journey home with their adorable daughter in the backseat to sleep in their own bed.  Babak has had a little too much to drink but it winds up being a faulty GPS that gets them lost in an unfamiliar part of inner city of Los Angeles.  Finally caving to his wife’s wishes, Babak pulls up to the imposing Hotel Normandie and books a room so they can get some shut eye and start fresh the next morning.  A front desk clerk (George Maguire) is accommodating but his behavior is admittedly peculiar.  Though the couple chalks it all up to the lateness of the evening, they’ll wish soon enough they trusted their first instinct and driven back to their friend’s house.

Entering the hotel has set Babak and Neda on a collision with a future that has as much to do with secrets of their past as it does with their present relationship struggles, enveloping them in a nightmare they can’t explain or escape from.  Who keeps knocking on their hotel door just as they are about to sleep, only to disappear when the door is opened?  What’s all the loud commotion above them?  Why does the front desk clerk speak of gruesome events in history he was present for with an air of sadness tinged with regret at missing out on more?  Just a few of the bizarre occurrences Babak and his family face throughout the night…and I haven’t even mentioned the other visitors.

Working in the actual Hotel Normandie, a key place of historical interest within Koreatown in Los Angeles gives the film an uneasy authenticity and I sure hope the hotel wasn’t hoping to use The Night to drum up more business.  The lobby is gorgeous, but the upper floors fit the horror motif of the final half of the picture quite nicely.  The small cast is given a lot of rich material to work through and both Hosseini and Noor are excellent in crafting characters forced to face their own worst fears and mistakes over the course of the evening. While it takes a little bit to get acclimated to Ahari’s style and to develop a comfort level with leads that are constantly bickering, once we’ve settled into the rhythm of their personalities it’s not as grating.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the enormous contribution Maguire makes to his supporting role as the hard-to-pin-down front desk clerk.  Is he there to help or to hinder?  We aren’t quite sure and a veteran character actor like Maguire knows better than to show his cards too soon.

If there’s a drawback to The Night, it’s that it suffers a bit from the limitations of the filmmaking process itself.  As I mentioned earlier the ornate hotel lobby is grand, but the rooms leave much to be desired.  I’m not sure if the hotel room was a set or filmed in an actual room of the hotel but it’s drabness was a bit on the nose for the developments that would happen later on.  There’s also, from what I can tell, a curious amount of re-dubbing going on…and I could be wrong but either one actor re-recorded all of their lines or a different actor entirely came in to perform the speaking role.  I briefly thought Ahari had done it on purpose (which would have been a neat little twist) but there’s no payoff to the voice discrepancy so I’m assuming it just must be a technical bit of business.   These may seem like little issues, but they begin to pile on when the production design plays a key role, almost serving as another character in a way, in the film you’re selling.

Obvious comparisons to The Shining aside, if The Night is any indication of where the indie distributor is headed throughout the year, audiences are in for a diverse line-up of films that challenge as much as they chill.  I already have The Vigil in the hopper for review in a few weeks and it’s another strong case for the face of horror looking different than it has in the past.  As forThe Night, it has made headlines recently for being the first U.S. production that has been approved for commercial exhibition in Iran since 1979 and the film is also a top-flight representation of the next generation in psychological horror.  Reserving its shocks for the most opportune moments of maximum impact and instead focusing on maintaining a consistent aura of atonal dread, Ahari gleefully toys with audiences as much as the spooky hotel at the center of the film appears to enjoy keeping the exhausted couple up for an all-nighter.

The Silver Bullet ~ Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

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Synopsis
: Best friends leave their small midwestern town for the first time and soon find themselves tangled up in adventure, love, and a villain’s evil plot to kill everyone in Vista Del Mar, Florida.

Release Date:  February 12, 2021

Thoughts: At one point in time, I couldn’t imagine being late for a movie because it meant missing the all-important previews.  This was back when they didn’t give everything away in nearly three minutes.  Personally, I don’t think any trailer needs to be longer than 1:45; anything more than that tells me the movie needs extra help selling itself to audiences.  Now that I exclusively watch films at home, I have the luxury of being able to skip previews but one of the last times I was in a theater I remember seeing a short teaser for Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and finding it a total gas.  Though I looked for it so I could do a short write-up, it never made its way online in any kind of good quality.  Thankfully, with its On Demand release date approaching in February, Lionsgate has posted a brand-new preview clocking in at…wait for it, 1:47.  Perfection.

Reuniting Kristin Wiig (Wonder Woman 1984) and Annie Mumolo (Bad Moms), the Oscar-nominated writers of Bridesmaids who star in the film together, the film looks incredibly silly but also incredibly necessary for the current climate.  A more grown-up version of Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, there’s not a whole lot of plot covered in the trailer because the title pretty much speaks for itself.  What is on display appears to be a colorful comedy with broad broads living it up in paradise and, hopefully, uncovering the same kind of intelligent laughs found in Wiig/Mummalo’s previous outing.  I’m not expecting this to be another Bridesmaids and it looks all together different but while much of the country in shivering indoors waiting out a pandemic, this could prove to be the warm burst of fresh salty sea air that gets us through to summer.  My bags are packed and I’m ready for a vacation with these two.

Movie Review ~ The Little Things

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A burnt-out deputy sheriff is sent to Los Angeles for what should have been a quick evidence-gathering assignment and becomes embroiled in a crack LASD detective’s search for a killer who is terrorizing the city.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Sofia Vassilieva, Natalie Morales, Terry Kinney, Michael Hyatt, Chris Bauer, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Sheila Houlahan, John Harlan Kim, Tom Hughes, Jason James Richter, Stephanie Erb, Kerry O’Malley

Director: John Lee Hancock

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  During the recent long weekend I sat through nearly four hours of the mesmerizing documentary Night Stalker on Netflix which chronicled serial killer Richard Ramirez’s reign of terror over Los Angeles and neighboring counties in the mid ‘80s.  Here was proof positive of evil at its purest form, the killing of innocent people chosen at random with increasingly depraved brutality.  Anyone that’s ever read up on serial killers (or seen the movie Copycat) knows at least a little about Ramirez but I hadn’t truly experienced the full-on assault of his crimes until Night Stalker came along.  The fascination of the film for me wasn’t in the details of his actions, though, it was in the work of the dedicated detectives that called upon their resources, ingenuity, and plain old detective gut instinct to nab the predator.

This investigative work is always what draws me to these serial killer films and why I’ve been sad to see them fall by the wayside in recent years in favor of less complex plots that hinge more on luck than on genius.  Where are the Clarice Starlings from The Silence of the Lambs in film today?  Or a wise William Somerset from Se7en to take young recruits under their wing?  Heck, even Andy Garcia’s troubled detective in the not so beloved Jennifer 8 actually takes the time to investigate the reddest of all herrings. (I love that movie, by the by).  Even more than that, these are popular films that have entertainment value if generated with a modicum of competent thought, despite their often perilously dark subject matter.  Yet they’ve become less prestige over time and more the kind of films that top level B-grade stars frequent…rarely attracting A-list talent.  Plain and simple – we’ve been needing a movie like The Little Things to come around.

Writer/director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) has delivered an agreeably formulaic but nonetheless efficiently crackerjack excursion back in time to 1990s Los Angeles, allowing viewers to follow along in a puzzling mystery.  An opening prologue applies just enough pressure to get the blood pumping but then withdraws for a time as introductions are made all around.  After a health scare several years earlier, former L.A. detective Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has retreated to a quieter life of public service as a deputy sheriff in Kern County, two hours outside of Los Angeles.  There’s a slight apprehension when he’s sent back to the big city to retrieve important evidence in a local case and we’ll find out why (but on Hancock’s slightly drawn-out timeline) after he runs into his old partner (Terry Kinney, Promised Land) and a medical examiner (Michael Hyatt, Nightcrawler), both of whom he shares a well-kept secret with.

Deke happens to arrive at an opportune time because his previous department could use an extra set of eyes to help find a killer targeting women.  At first, lead detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) wants Deke far away from his case but once Baxter sees how the veteran lawman works, he realizes if there’s a key to catching the evil roaming the streets at night, Deke is holding it.  After examining the latest murder scene and discovering new evidence, the men are threatened with losing the case with the impending arrival of the FBI.   The two men combine their efforts in an attempt to flush out a criminal in hiding, eventually targeting a potential suspect (Jared Leto, Blade Runner 2049) who checks all the boxes to be the man they’re looking for but might also turn out to undo all the work they’ve done if he’s innocent.

Playing like a truncated season of True Detective, The Little Things doesn’t have the meat to fill out an five or six episode order on HBO but for a two hour movie that’s debuting on HBO Max, it’s a largely satisfying endeavor.  It has the appropriate amount of thrill to it at the beginning but benefits from a heat that sparks more than slow burns.  Now, this may be insufficient for some who want that slow burn gradient for their films and enjoy watching the waters rise over the nose the ears the eyes of their protagonists, but I almost found it more interesting how Hancock more or less would dunk his characters in cold water from time to time.  It’s also two mysteries in one, with the current murders being looked into while Deke has re-opened an older case that has haunted him for years.  It’s not always an equal balance between the two cases and I still haven’t decided if Hancock has resolved either fairly enough but it’s certainly more ambitious a plot than not.

You wouldn’t expect an actor like Washington to show up in film that didn’t have some extra oomph to it, would you?  While it falls into one of Washington’s more outright commercial efforts like the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, you can tell Washington is bringing more to the character than what was on the page…and what was on the page is clearly what attracted him to the role in the first place.  Deke is a flawed character with a range of setbacks he’s been working around.  His return trip to L.A. is causing him to confront those and his relationship with Baxter is a chance for further reflection on the mistakes he’s made both personally and professionally.  In typical Washington fashion, he takes what could have been an average role that a good actor could have made better and turns it into a bona fide star turn.

He’s followed pretty closely by Leto as one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen anyone play in some time.  Wearing dark contacts, a paunch, greasy hair, and a strange gait, he also takes on an affected voice that I was dubious about at first but starts to work into the freak factor if you buy into Deke and Baxter’s hunch that he’s the man they seek.  He certainly plays into their suspicions and Leto goes full, well, Leto in the performance.  I was genuinely unnerved by the actor and he’s well cast from my vantage point.  In the shadow of these two, Malek can’t help but look a little chilly and reserved.  Apparently unaware he isn’t wearing his Freddie Mercury teeth anymore, Malek always appears poised to ask Washington if he has any Grey Poupon and his attempts at being serious come off as bug-eyed confusion.  He’s just the wrong fit for the role as a family man young detective that becomes obsessed with finding this killer.  Another note about the cast in general, Hancock has amassed a fairly phenomenal supporting cast of bit players comprised of, among others, familiar faces (Lee Garlington, Psycho II in a small role as a harried landlady) and grown-up child stars (I didn’t even recognize Free Willy’s Jason James Richter as another LASD detective) – so it’s all around a strong world that’s been created for viewers.

Built on Hancock’s sometimes wobbly script that does require your rapt attention, the editing of the film is what detracts from the overall quality the most.  Several key scenes are hard to follow because, without giving any spoilers, the editor doesn’t properly establish location of certain characters.  That’s a big problem when you’re trying to put a puzzle together with only your brain storing the pieces.  My advice is to pay close attention throughout because important information about characters are given in sometimes offhanded ways, almost as toss away lines.  For a number of people, The Little Things will be seen as a creaky serial killer thriller that’s past its expiration date but it’s actually one that has outlived its sell-by window with better than average results.

Movie Review ~ Penguin Bloom

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When an unlikely ally enters the Bloom family’s world in the form of an injured baby magpie they name Penguin, the bird’s arrival makes a profound difference in the struggling family’s life.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Rachel House, Felix Cameron, Abe Clifford-Barr, Gia Carides, Leeanna Walsman, Lisa Hensley, Randolph Fields

Director: Glendyn Ivin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  What I loved most about one of my all-time favorite critics Roger Ebert is that he could review a movie that was a top awards contender or the ninth sequel in a once popular franchise film and give them both equal considerations based on their individual merits.  He didn’t compare the two to each other, he didn’t contrast the ninth sequel with the fourth sequel or ponder what could have been done in the sixth one to make the eighth lay better groundwork for the film he was watching then.  He reported back to you how he felt about that movie on that day and often would revisit a film later and talk about how his experience changed over time on a second or third watch.  I know I’ve looked over reviews I’ve done in the past for this site and couldn’t believe the high (or low) scores I’ve given a film.  However, that’s where I was at the time and I have to trust my opinion I formed back then.

Maybe that’s my preamble apology (or is it excuse?) for what I’m going to say in the next few hundred or so words about Penguin Bloom, premiering on Netflix January 27th.  Here’s a movie, based on a real-life family in New Zealand, that couldn’t be more predictable and made up of your standard formulaic elements that go into films surrounding overcoming adversity.  It’s a kitchen sink flick that tries to fit as many issues in as possible and I’m half-amazed they couldn’t find a way to stick in a pair of bumbling thieves for a late in the game attempted bird-napping but, alas, screenwriters Harry Cripps & Shaun Grant (True History of the Kelly Gang) stick closely to the adaptation of the book from Cameron Bloom & Bradley Trevor Greive.  Yet the fact remains that I wrapped up the film with a genuine warmth I didn’t have before I started it and it’s largely due to its admirable unwillingness to hide from its own mawkishness.

On a 2013 family vacation in Thailand, active mom and nurse Sam Bloom leaned back on a balcony railing and her life changed forever.  Falling nearly 20 feet to the concrete pavement below, she was paralyzed from the waist down…but she was alive.  With three young boys and a photographer husband she would now have to rely on, the once unstoppable force of nature had the wind knocked out of her sails and fell into a deep depression when faced with her new normal.  Rarely venturing out of the house and refusing the extra care offered by family and friends, life is going on for Sam and the rest of the Blooms but nothing is flourishing.  That’s the point where director Glendyn Ivin opens the film and while we get glimpses of life before the accident and small snippets of the horrific event itself, the action primarily is focused on the Bloom house and Sam’s life within.

Noah Bloom (Griffin Murray-Johnston) narrates the film, watching as his mother (Naomi Watts, Luce) exerts great energy to even pull herself up into a sitting position.  Frustrating easily, she hasn’t quite mastered her way around their oceanside home yet and her wheelchair makes it difficult/impractical for her to accompany her outdoors-y sons to the beach or through their various daily adventures.  Husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, Love, Actually) helps as much as he can, but backs off when his wife feels lorded over.  Her busybody mother (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) pays frequent visits, never missing an opportunity to point out something her once go-getter daughter could be doing differently and showing that even in the face of permanent paralysis, some mothers think there’s no excuse for having a dirty house.  Mostly, Sam sits alone, looking at a wall of pictures of their life of abundant activity before Thailand.

While exploring the beach, the boys find an injured magpie that fell from its nest and bring it home in hopes of nursing it back to health.  You can take one guess who is the most against the bird (named Penguin) at first and then I’ll let you go double or nothing to predict who will form the greatest bond with Penguin over time.  The discovery of the injured bird the boys can nurse back to health and the way the bird seems to intuit family behavior is the tip of an iceberg of metaphors the screenwriters have placed along the way. The movie is just chock-a-block with parallels to how, among other bits, the healing of Penguin starts the healing process in Sam that you start to chart the course of where the journey for both human and bird will wind up.  Unable to perform a miracle and restore their mother/wife back whole, there’s an unspoken knowledge among the Bloom men that their attention for this bird represents all that they wish they could be doing to help their family member.

To the great credit of the film, this isn’t a Mr. Popper’s Penguins sort of situation where it becomes more about magpie antics than serious minded drama but there is a general light tone to the movie, even in its darker passages.  A particularly upsetting sequence near the end is tough to watch, but only because the movie has lined you up perfectly to be targeted for that emotional reaction.  (No, that’s not a spoiler, by the way.)  It was refreshing to be diverted away from some of the oft-traveled roads in these types of films or at least have the scenery not be exactly what you think.  More often than not, even when the most predictable of moments arrive they aren’t dwelled upon long enough for viewers to squirm within the familiarity.  It’s also not a movie with Watts chatting with a magpie and working out her emotions as if in a one-woman tour de force, it’s hard to describe but both are good scene partners in some strange way.

Speaking of performances, there’s solid work going on throughout the picture from the always underrated Watts turning in gold star work on a silver star picture.  I don’t always love her choices in roles or films – she’s flirted with the Oscars a few times and has never been the right choice to win.  She has the chops to get one, but it can’t be for roles like this…not that it comes across like she’s trying for it here with her relaxed showing.  Not a fan of The Walking Dead here so I’ll have to trust you that Lincoln is dependable in the long run; he’s serviceable, if not all together memorable as your typical supportive husband and the same goes for Weaver in a role that feels too constricting for the quality of work she’s capable of.  The boys are all fresh-faced and naturalistic, with Murray-Johnston handling himself nicely but coming up just a tad short in a pivotal scene.  By far, the best performance in the film is Rachel House (Soul) as a kayak instructor that enters the Bloom’s life at the right time.  House brings a special kind of light to the picture in her few short scenes and, don’t tell anyone, but there were times when I wondered what was going on at her character’s house because she was able to create something unique in her character that generated interest to know more.

At a short 95 minutes, the film develops a nice zeal with threads of harmony in the final act and found some moving scenes for Watts to shine. While it can be a hair on the heavy-handed side as it makes that final climb up to its conclusion, it doesn’t overburden you by staying in that weighty area for too long and instead chooses to keep its head up as it focuses on the bigger picture. Ultimately, Penguin Bloom is a pleasantly pleasant sort of film from Down Under and one that feels like it was the best one that could have been made from the story it wanted to tell.

Movie Review ~ Psycho Goreman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After unearthing a gem that controls an evil monster looking to destroy the Universe, a young girl and her brother use it to make him do their bidding.

Stars: Matthew Ninaber, Nita-Josee Hanna, Owen Myre, Adam Brooks, Alexis Kara Hancey, Kristen MacCulloch, Reece Presley, Rick Amsbury, Matthew Kennedy, Timothy Paul McCarthy, Conor Sweeney, Robert Homer, Anna Tierney, Rich Evans

Director: Steven Kostanski

Rated: NR

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  During the tumult of 2020, one big positive I took was getting to see more indie horror films long before they became another new release to add to a growing queue of titles I would struggle to return to.  With space on the schedule thanks to the studios moving their bigger projects out months or years, my inbox became an increasingly fertile ground for all kinds of features with creatures both real and imaginary. Most were expectedly good, some unexpectedly great, and of course we had a stinker or two that just balanced everything out in the end in my eyes.  Each week there seemed to be something new to spook you and it’s important to keep these studios/titles/filmmakers in mind as we head into 2021 when we start to get back to “normal.”  That’s a thought for another day though because there’s another title out that’s worth your time here and now and while Psycho Goreman may have some rough edges and more schlock than shock, it’s a goofy good time that can serve as a throwback for fans wanting retro kicks or a perfectly enjoyable modern take on a popular formula.

As the film opens, an introductory scroll tells us of the Archduke of Nightmares and how he was defeated by the good people of the planet Gigax.  Imprisoned on Earth for his crimes and separated from his power source, a glowing gem that was buried deep within the soil, his reign of terror over the galaxy was put to an end and everyone lived happily ever after.  That is, until the present day when suburban siblings Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) accidentally awaken the demon during their afternoon match of Crazyball and hypercompetitive Mimi winds up with her bratty hands on the amulet he is desperate to be reunited with to regain his full strength.  Realizing that as long as she has what he wants he’ll do anything for her, she names her new pet Psycho Goreman (PG for short) and sets about wreaking almost as much havoc as PG did, sometimes with more disastrous results.

In between montages of PG learning about the people of Earth, there are secret neighborhood crushes turned into a oozing oversized brain and a run in with the police that turns into a face melting bad time for one of the officers.  To the increasingly horrified Luke, this is the stuff of nightmares, but to Mimi it’s her own plan for world domination coming to fruition…just a few years earlier than she expected.  As Mimi and Luke befriend PG, who grits his teeth as Mimi’s personal gopher, galaxies away his revival has sent an alarm to the Gigax elders and alerted them that their ancient nemesis may be making a return visit.  In short order, the alabaster warrior Pandora (Kristen MacCulloch) is sent to Earth to make it clear they aren’t accepting visitors. Then, when a horde of PG’s former fiendish allies also descend upon the small town and several double-crosses are revealed that loop in the kids’ squabbling parents (Alexis Kara Hancey & Adam Brooks), Mimi and Luke turn to their beastly bud for assistance and find that PG might turn out to be the savior of Earth and not its destroyer.

Writer/director Steven Kostanski has a clear affinity for the low-budget efforts from studios like Troma, Full Moon Entertainment, and Empire Pictures.  These production houses churned out cult classics that might have been stuck together with goopy glue and popsicle sticks that still had remnants of a Fudgsicle on them, but they were so much fun to watch you hardly minded.  Film production has come a long way since then so Psycho Goreman uses its low budget in all the right places, going sparse in the way of special effects and focusing on make-up and costuming instead.  That’s where the creative energy really starts to flow and there are several of the old PG friends that were designed to be so disgusting and/or funny that you very nearly want to stand up and applaud the imagination brought to life.

That same energy flows into the performances as well, starting with Matthew Ninaber under layers of latex (and, later, some goofy costumes to disguse himself) as the titular character.  The suit is always a suit but it has a surprisingly effective presence even when you can see it puckering in at odd angles on the actor.  All of the actors in full costume deserve major props for navigating what I’m sure where hard conditions to film in; it can’t have been comfortable, but the results are well worth the efforts.  If the humans feel a little second banana, it’s only because they are so ordinary compared to the extraordinary nature of their out-of-this-world co-stars.  Audiences are either going to love Hanna’s preposterously awful Mimi or wish she’d get a laser blast to the cranium post haste and while it took me longer than it probably should have to warm up to her, by the end I understood why she had to be drawn with such big bold lines.

Definitely bound to appear on every “Best Movies You Haven’t Heard Of” lists for whatever streaming service this one lands on and more than likely headed toward a status of cult, Psycho Goreman is a fun film that takes itself only as seriously as you’d let it.  It delivers everything it promises and more, with a plot that’s more fleshed out than usual, excellent physical effects that blend nicely with computer generated ones, and performances that sell the material without turning it into a poorly timed farce.  The final act (and specifically the last 15 or so minutes) is really going to tweak a sweet spot for horror fans but by then I’m betting most viewers will already have been won over by PG’s R-rated antics.

Movie Review ~ Our Friend

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After learning his terminally ill wife has six months to live, a man welcomes the support of his best friend who moves into their home to help out.

Stars: Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, Jason Segel, Gwendoline Christie, Cherry Jones, Ahna O’Reilly, Jake Owen, Denée Benton, Marielle Scott, Isabella Kai Rice, Violet McGraw, Michael Papajohn

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As we kick off a new year here and cross our fingers that 2021 will signal the start of better things to come, I’m also looking forward to movies getting back to business and releasing some titles that have been hovering around in limbo for a while.  Sure, there are the blockbuster properties that keep getting pushed back (the latest James Bond film No Time to Die just moved its arrival date yet again, this time to October 2021) or released directly to on demand/subscription streaming (Wonder Woman 1984) but then there are the more niche movies that showed up at film festivals in late 2019/early 2020.  Some of these may have had a distributor lined up that fell through when the pandemic hit or are going through their own release date shifts on a smaller scale.

Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2019 when it was still called The Friend, the new drama Our Friend is one of those movies that has gotten lost on its way to a general release but is finally seeing the light of day.  Now, for some reason the delays and distributor shifts have cast a small cloud of strangely bad press over the film and that’s unfortunate because Our Friend signals the return of two important things that have been missing from movies for a few years.  The first is Jason Segel’s welcome appearance after a small hiatus and the second is the true-blue five hankie weepie that seemed to go out of fashion in the mid ‘90s.  Both are reason enough to cheer on this solid effort but it’s richly rewarding in other areas as well.

Based on Matthew Teague’s article in the May 2015 issue of Esquire magazine (read it here, but it does contain spoilers from the movie), Our Friend tests your mettle within the first five minutes, almost as a way to prime you for the next two hours to see if you’ll break easy or if you’ll need an extra dose of sorrow to get those tear ducts flowing.  Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given a limited amount of time to live.  Her journalist/author husband Matthew (Casey Affleck, The Old Man & the Gun) is at-first ill-prepared to deal with the enormous responsibility of caring for their two young children as well as his increasingly fragile wife while staying afloat personally and professionally.  That’s where Dane Faucheux (Segel, Jeff, Who Lives at Home) comes in.

A friend from Nicole’s theater days (she was a semi-professional actress, he was on the tech side), Dane steps away from his life, his job, and a budding relationship to live with the Teague’s, eventually staying for the duration of Nicole’s illness.  While he’s a bit of a schlub, he’s the perfect breath of fresh air the household needs, especially the daughters that aren’t aware of the severity of their mother’s illness and who are growing to recognize their resentment toward their father for his absence earlier in their lives when he was often traveling internationally for work.  Isolated once well-meaning friends have moved on with their own lives, the job of caregivers falls to Matt and Dane exclusively.  Through this time together, the men form a stronger bond over the love they both have, in different ways, for Nicole and learn how to care for her individually and as a unit with the aid of a professional nurse that arrives at just the right moment (Cherry Jones, Boy Erased) so her final days are as full and memorable as possible.

After seeing the movie but before writing this review I read Matthew Teague’s original article that inspired the film and was struck by how well Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) brought the characters to life for the screen.  Now, there are some situations not covered in the article that delve into more personal issues within Matt and Nicole’s relationship and I’d be interested to know if they were imagined or factual but I appreciated the small details Ingelsby worked in throughout.  The article was praised for its raw, unglamorous, unflinching reaction to the death of a loved one and the description of what it’s like to live through that and I think the movie naturally recoils a bit from going that far.  While to some that may rob the movie of its street cred authenticity to its source material, what it’s been replaced with calls forth many of the same emotions…just in a different way.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite made a significant impact with her documentary Blackfish in 2013 before transitioning into narrative features with 2017’s Megan Leavey and she brings her good instincts for drama and humanity to the table for her second full-length feature.  Ingelsby’s script isn’t linear, broken up into scenes that jump from the present to the past to the present to the not quite as past as before and onward.  It’s strange but in other hands that jumping around could drain the film of its emotional build-up but it actually works in the opposite.  Knowing where the film is heading and then seeing where these characters began makes the heartbreak have that much more of an impact when we jump back to the present and see Nicole in the final stages of a ravaging disease.

As much as the jaded movie-goer (and critic) might think it’s every actor’s dream to play a dying swan of a role, it’s such a demanding task that requires some careful skill and thankfully Johnson is cast perfectly as Nicole.  Never laying it on thick, she fades in health with a slight delicacy, and you’re reminded again that Johnson continues to be quite the underrated actor.  No stranger to aching sorrow-fests, Oscar-winner Affleck’s character has so many qualities we can all relate to that you can’t help but cast yourself often as the protagonist…when you’re not seeing the situation through Dane’s vantage point.  Matt Teague has some interesting quirks about him and Affleck captures those nicely, feeding off the warmth of Johnson and the fervent support Segel is offering up.  Speaking of Segal, what a fantastic role for him and it’s another step away from the types of characters he was known for playing a decade ago.  Showing a staunch commitment to going outside of the box but also not playing inside the sharp edges of a triangle, Segel knows where he’s comfortable now and that ease translates into a character built from the ground up.  I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention Jones, who just exudes warmth whenever she enters a movie, even if she appears only briefly.

If you can get through Our Friend and not choke up just a little bit, especially the last thirty minutes, then you are made of stronger stuff than I am.  Maybe it’s because I have personal experience from a similar situation to what this family went through and some of the finality portrayed onscreen, but the movie hit a nerve that hasn’t been tweaked in some time.  Do you want it totally truthful?  Honestly? I don’t think the movie even overdoes the emotional manipulation and forces the tears out of you…for once they actually spring naturally based on the quality of the performances, direction, and writing.  It feels good to have a reason to cry for all the right reasons.

Movie Review ~ The White Tiger

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ambitious Indian driver uses his wit and cunning to escape from poverty and rise to the top.

Stars: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Mahesh Manjrekar, Vijay Maurya, Mahesh Pillai, Nalneesh Neel, Aaron Wan, Vedant Sinha, Abhishek Khandekar, Solanki Diwakar, Ram Naresh Diwakar, Harshit Mahawar, Sanket Shanware

Director: Ramin Bahrani

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When examining a movie, I’m finding more often that narrative structure is becoming more of a hot button issue for me.  How a filmmaker chooses to tell their story is a key indicator not just in how each particular project will establish tone from the start but on a larger scale the creation of their own future calling card for style.  Obviously, the best kind of auteurs are those that never let you pin them down – their style is constantly being reenvisioned by the work that is in front of them yet they manage to still put their stamp on it in a way that is uniquely theirs.  Director Ramin Bahrani is one of those creative-minded people who, based on his list of credits so far, isn’t content to being boxed into a certain corner.  That has allowed him to make films that might not be commercial successes but are usually followed by a trail of good notices from reputable outlets.

Standing to score his biggest breakthrough yet with his newest film, Bahrani has adapted Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger for Netflix where it premieres as a streaming title on January 22.  It’s easy to see why Bahrani would be drawn to this Dickens-by-way-of-Mumbai rags to riches tale that reveals a surprisingly sinister dark edge in its third act.  With a flair for the dramatic and flights of fancy both fun and fearsome, the movie is almost always angling for some higher level.  There are ample opportunities to stretch the medium of storytelling by jumping around in time from the present to the past and allowing Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), our older and wiser narrator look back at his younger self and recount the story of how he left his tiny village and came to the big city to seek his fortune.

The film begins in the middle of Halwai’s journey, on a fateful night of celebration with Halwai a backseat passenger enjoying himself as Pinky Madam, the wife of his boss, careens down the vacant streets of the city as her husband Ashok looks on from the seat next to her.  What happens next changes the course of the lives of all three…but it will take over an hour of Halwai-narrated catch-up to rejoin the trio to see what transpired.  During this time, we see India through the very one-sided eyes of Halwai and come to understand that success is determined on the spirit of the individual, not on any opportunities that just fall out of the blue.

A once promising student held back from furthering his education by family obligation, Halwai grows to resent his family trade and takes the first opportunity he can to flee the small town in favor of a larger city that better represents his interests.  Joining the staff of the very same family that are imperious land barons in his village, he becomes the driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the son of the head boss.  As his allegiance with Ashok and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Isn’t It Romantic) grows, the ties with his family diminish and soon Halwai is rejecting many of the tenets of morality in favor of getting further ahead with his own plans for the future.

In essence, there’s not a lot in the bones of The White Tiger that we haven’t seen told numerous times before in different cultures and periods throughout time.  There’s always some poor person that longs for a better life tempted away from the “good” by the “bad” who eventually makes the choice to turn their back on the right way for their own advancement…often to disastrous results.  The same is (mostly) true in The White Tiger and it’s why the movie, as lively as it is, never feels like the full meal is it clearly meant to be.  At best, it’s a satisfying treat with the occasional energy boost from a charming star and a director that keeps things interesting visually, if not plot-wise.

With the plot being more than a little also-ran, the key factor to The White Tiger being worth the time is Gourav’s pretty astounding work as the boy with big plans that becomes a man willing to do most anything to get what he wants.  At the time, I found the performance to be a solid effort and definitely regarded him the strongest player of the group but the longer I sit thinking the more I see just how big of an arc Gourav took Halwai over the course of the film.  The physicality changes as well as Halwai’s understanding of his surroundings and ability to survey a situation, especially after a pivotal shift when he realizes the only one looking out for him is him reveal a detailed character that has been realized and the results are fascinating.  The rest of the cast, including Chopra Jonas who also serves as a producer, handle the twists in tone well, a benefit to the director being able to keep things largely under control so the satirical comedy aimed squarely at India’s class system that forms the backbone of The White Tiger doesn’t tip the scales over to cartoonish farce.

Stretched too long by a lengthy run time, The White Tiger is a rare flower that loses steam rather quickly at the outset and struggles to regain its footing for a time that thankfully bounces back with a somber reminder of the consequences of trusting too much and wanting it all at the same time.  I left the film respecting the story it was telling but wishing it was more efficient in its delivery, admiring the lead performance but thinking the entire movie shouldn’t have had to depend on Gourav for it to succeed, and hoping the director will continue to surprise us with future projects.  I wouldn’t pounce on The White Tiger immediately, but it’s a movie to keep in your back pocket if this location and story speak to you.