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.