Movie Review ~ Promising Young Woman

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The Facts
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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

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The Facts
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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.