Movie Review ~ Four Good Days

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A mother helps her daughter work through four crucial days of recovery from substance abuse. 

Stars: Mila Kunis, Glenn Close, Stephen Root, Joshua Leonard, Rebecca Field, Chad Lindberg, Michael Hyatt, Sam Hennings 

Director: Rodrigo García 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 100 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review:  Bless her long-suffering Oscar-less heart but Glenn Close is a trooper, ain’t she?  An eight-time Academy Award nominee, Close has had the good fortune to land meaty roles in more than a few unforgettable classics and deservedly earned her polite accolades for her efforts.  What she hasn’t brought home yet is that one piece of golden hardware many think she’s toiled long enough for.  While she could have won it early on for her supporting work in The Big Chill or in a more daring choice like Fatal Attraction, she very nearly grazed the glory in 2017 with The Wife.  That film definitely wasn’t her best work but the general consensus was that she was good enough to make the honor not feel totally like a sympathy nod.  Then along comes Hillbilly Elegy and a less subtle role Close seemed to gnaw on hoping it would attract the right kind of attention.  Sadly, again it was not meant to be.

While Close continues to hold out hope of a Sunset Boulevard musical film adaptation (for real, get going on that Hollywood! Close will devour that role and give you the Oscar performance you’ve been wanting all along!), until that happens, we’ll have to settle for seeing her in smaller titles like Four Good Days, rolling into theaters this weekend.  An indie drama centered on drug addiction that could have gone so maudlin and wrong it winds up being a better showcase for Close than Hillbilly Elegy ever hoped to be.  Heck, she even gets to wear another slightly questionable wig and manages to pull it off.

Close stars in this adaptation of an article from the Washington Post penned by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eli Saslow.  Though it changes the names and location of that original piece, by and large it sticks fairly close to the true story of a heroin-addicted daughter (Mila Kunis, Bad Moms) who returns home to her mother (Close, Guardians of the Galaxy) seeking shelter where she can detox.  Having been on this ride before with her daughter (thirteen times, we later learn), Deb initially refuses to let Molly back into her life or into her home but after some convincing that Molly is serious about her choice, she drops her off at rehab and hopes this will be the stay that takes.

Coming out of detox, Molly is told about a treatment that would be able to combat the sensation of getting high, a shot given once a month but only if the person has no drugs currently in their system.  To be safe, the doctor wants her to wait another four days to let her last fix work its way out.  Needing a place to stay so she doesn’t relapse in that short time, Deb agrees to let her stay with her and and her new husband (Stephen Root, Bombshell) and mother and daughter spend the next several days reconnecting over past traumas and mending bridges both had a say in tearing down.

Those expecting Four Good Days to be one of those Lifetime Television Movies will be in for a nice surprise because Saslow and co-writer/director Rodrigo García’s script isn’t as one dimensional as it might appear to be.  Yes, it practically goes through a checklist of required items in these sort of films (parent doesn’t trust, parent learns to trust, parent gets burned, child feels bad, everyone cries, lessons are learned) and there’s enough motivational quotes to make a slew of school cafeteria posters, but there’s a deeper being worked through that’s far thornier.  In addition to showing us the outcome of years of addiction, García (Albert Nobbs) is also addressing issues of enablement and accountability and that’s what winds up setting Four Good Days apart from the crowd and giving its two leading actresses many opportunities to shine.

What has always been so depressing about Close not winning an Oscar all this time is that she easily was first runner up for a number of these races.  Her training and commitment to the work makes her an ideal actress to convey empathy we can relate to.  I wouldn’t call her character dowdy but Close clearly understands where this part-time esthetician chooses to direct her energy and so we feel every weight she carries around from her life so far.  I’ve always had a fondness for Kunis (another actress that nearly made it to the Oscars with her role in 2010’s Black Swan) and am glad to see her turn up so successful in a part that is saddled with a lot of extra business which might overtake someone unable to handle it all.  The hair, the gait, not to mention the teeth (oh, the teeth!), could have all been pieces Kunis used to do the work for her but she goes beyond those outward tools and finds Molly from within.  Watch for the moment when her two young children are visiting and she’s playing a video game with her son that gets heated.  There’s a moment shared between the two of them that could go either way and you hold your breath because you know what’s she’s feeling and how she wants to react…Kunis shows it all in the smallest flutter of her eyes and doesn’t have to say a word. 

Together, Close and Kunis are dynamite and, as I imagine it would be for their characters, it’s hard for anyone else to get between them.  Root’s role is reduced to pretty much a cameo and you’ll start to wonder if Close is still married because he vanishes for so long.  There’s a nice, but brief, scene between Deb and her other daughter (Carla Gallo, We Bought A Zoo) and the contrast between their relationship and the one she has with Molly is clearly defined by Saslow and García but not in a cloying way.  There’s a number of good supporting performances, actually, even down to Michael Hyatt (The Little Things) as a member of Deb’s support group for mothers of addicts.

Released by a small studio with little advance fanfare, Four Good Days is the type of film I wish Close would be championed for and encouraged to make more of.  Same goes for Kunis.  Close has more experience in this arena but the realism without heaps of sentimentality is a refreshing change of pace for family dramas centered on drug abuse.  Ending with a Diane Warren song (another Oscar nominee for a song from The Life Ahead that went home empty-handed this year) sung by Reba McIntire that’s pretty much in line with most Warren ballads of late, the entire movie exceeds expectations with both actresses making it absolutely worth a watch.

Movie Review ~ Golden Arm

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A tough lady trucker trains her girly best friend to compete in the National Ladies Arm Wrestling Championship.

Stars: Betsy Sodaro, Mary Holland, Olivia Stambouliah, Eugene Cordero, Aparna Nancherla, Dawn Luebbe, Ron Funches, Ahmed Bharoocha, Dot-Marie Jones, Kate Flannery

Director: Maureen Bharoocha

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: All good things come to those who wait…or are forced to wait.  At least that’s what it feels like watching a winning little indie like Golden Arm make its debut a year after it was slated to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Fest (SXSW).  Director Maureen Bharoocha wrote a great piece for The Hollywood Reporter detailing how the pandemic derailed her big moment that felt like the pot of gold for her and everyone involved with the production at the end of an arduous shoot.  The piece was frank and honest, not so much a pity party but a “this sort of stinks” soiree that she felt like she earned the right to throw.  Missing out on SXSW was a blow to a number of filmmakers, many of whom are now just seeing their films start to roll out through brokered deals that perhaps aren’t as lucrative as they could have been with the buzz that came out of the popular film fest held in Austin, TX.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Bharoocha wasn’t too worried deep down because she knew once people started to see this women’s arm-wrestling road trip movie (don’t laugh, you’ll regret it soon) they’d be spreading the good word for her.  You see, Golden Arm might have needed a festival run to obtain a higher profile release which often can help salvage a mediocre film but in reality it exudes a kind of confident charm that easily helps it rise above any of its budget limitations.  A scrappy film to match its scrappy cast and scrappy sport, there’s honest to goodness joy to be found here amidst the crazy costumes and some over the top archness.

It does take a second or two to orient yourself to Bharoocha’s bold world of wonder but once acclimated you’re in for a treat as we meet Danny (Betsy Sodaro, The To Do List) as she dominates in her latest raucous arm wrestling championship.  A ballsy trucker that puts her arm where her mouth is, she’s sidelined from her ascent to take the top cash prize at the Oklahoma City Women’s Arm-Wrestling competition when notorious Brenda the Bonecrusher (Olivia Stambouliah) gives her wrist a good twist.  Nursing her injury and a bruised ego and not wanting to see Brenda make it to the top, she pays a visit to her best friend Melanie (Mary Holland) who is the only person she can think of that could outmaneuver the best of the best.

Melanie’s arm-wrestling college days are long gone so Danny pretends she needs someone to accompany her on her route, using Melanie’s currently pending divorce and struggling bakery business as reason to encourage a break from her usual routine.  They aren’t too far out of the city when Danny lets Melanie in on her true intentions, bringing her to train with legendary champion Big Sexy (Dot-Marie Jones).  If Melanie can find her lost “golden arm” and recharge her self-esteem, she could be poised to join the crazy ranks at the wrestling competition where all moves to strongarm the opposition will be tried and all bets on fairness are off.

There’s some clear evidence the movie is put together (lovingly) with Scotch tape but for the most part Golden Arm is the second best shot in the arm movie fans can get lately.  The cast is uniformly ready for fun and even if the occasional day player might show the more amateur nature of the production from an acting perspective, there’s a lot of mileage to be had on the charisma of Holland and Sodaro alone.  Holland, fresh from stealing scenes in Hulu’s Happiest Season which she co-wrote, is the unlikeliest of heroines for an arm-wrestling film but she’ll make you a believer.  If Sodaro’s role had been played by a guy it would have been totally insufferable and I’m not sure she isn’t sort of obnoxious most of the time…but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  Both work well as individual characters and as a duo learning about themselves over one adventurous trip together.  Completing their trio is Stambouliah as an over-the-top meanie who takes her sport seriously and convinces us of its importance as well.  Stambouliah’s deadpan delivery gives great comedic fuel to the script from Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly.

The movie can’t help but throw in a love interest B-plot that feels incredibly extraneous.  When you have an appealing A-storyline with performers that make the time fly, why slow things down with a secondary story that doesn’t measure up the same way?  Still, at 90 minutes the movie zooms by with little fuss and you won’t have to tap out of Golden Arm before it overstays its welcome.  I’m not sure if any other tinkering was done to the film over the past months but Bharoocha’s entertaining finished product should get her noticed and back to work as Hollywood moves into production mode again.

Movie Review ~ The Virtuoso

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Danger, deception, and murder descend upon a sleepy country town when a professional assassin accepts a new assignment from his enigmatic mentor and boss, given only a cryptic clue to identify his mysterious mark from among several possible targets.

Stars: Anson Mount, Abbie Cornish, Anthony Hopkins, Eddie Marsan, David Morse

Director: Nick Stagliano

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Wow, do you think the producers and distributors of The Virtuoso went to bed this past Oscar Sunday a little more excited for the prospects of their small thriller?  Prior to that day they had an Oscar winning star listed above the title but thanks to his unforgettable performance in The Father star Anthony Hopkins earned himself another one and under some fairly high-profile circumstances.  That will surely get people a little more interested in his next project and while The Virtuoso isn’t top tier stuff (I’m not sure it ever quite makes it to second shelf status, actually) it’s good for a little distraction in our post-Oscar palette cleanse.

It’s really not even fair to say Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) has much of a role in the film; ads show him as much more involved in the action than the 83-year-old actually is or would probably want to be.  Instead, Hopkins’ scenes are largely contained within one room and constitute one half of phone conversations between himself and The Virtuoso (Anson Mount, Non-Stop), a nameless assassin.  As The Mentor, he’s there to provide The Virtuoso with information on his next assignment and stay out of the way, which seems to be the perfect fit for the distinguished actor as well as the natty gentlemen he’s playing. 

Opening with a nifty bang, things go south for the hitman when he bungles an assignment that leaves an unfortunate instance of collateral damage.  He’s trained not to care about such blips but something about this moment shakes him, sending The Mentor in for a face-to-face meeting to check on his viability moving forward.  Cleared for his next task, The Mentor sends him to a quiet township in the middle of nowhere important with the vaguest of clues provided by their contact.  With two words, White Rivers, his only cue to go off of and a rendezvous location named, The Virtuoso arrives in town to find he isn’t the only one to show up with a mission to kill. 

There’s some good stuff to be found in the basic premise of the script from James C. Wolf, even if it annoyingly tends to favor voiceover to get us inside The Virtuoso’s head.  Narrating the film to give us outsiders his inside take on every situation and angle of defense, The Virtuoso isn’t exactly the most engaging of narrators thanks to his occupational hazard of removing emotion from his business.  In Mount’s hands, or voice rather, it does begin to drone on and sound like an adult character from Peanuts after a while.  You wish Wolf or director Nick Stagliano would have found an easier way to crack the surface and allow some sort of sentiment or personality into The Virtuoso’s hemisphere.  Where the voiceover comes in handy is when he’s sizing up who has also appeared at the same time he’s arrived, and his rundown of the suspects is one of the first ways the movie sends us down a tricky path that isn’t always what it appears to be. Even with our leading character serving as narrator, don’t trust everything you’re hearing.

The list of suspects fills out the remainder of the cast.  There’s The Waitress (Abbie Cornish, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) who catches The Virtuoso’s eye just out of town and winds up being a happy accident run-in later on.  Still…was their meeting by chance or a carefully plotted bit of intrigue?  Or what about The Loner (Eddie Marsan, Atomic Blonde) or Handsome Johnnie (Richard Brake, Spy) or even The Deputy (David Morse, Concussion) who The Waitress doesn’t remember seeing before today.  All provide their own contributions to the puzzle we’re putting together at the same time The Virtuoso is and I don’t know if I wasn’t paying attention or what but the solution to it all is truly there from the beginning.  Careful viewers could catch it if they are looking at the right time.

As far as blank stares go, Mount has it down so his casting likely is perfect though I’d wonder what an actor able to convey greater range with such little outward dialogue could have done.  Cornish earns points for committing to a gratuitous nude scene but scores the most in the way she’s able to keep a poker face far longer than we might expect from the character. How much his recent Oscar win will get people to check this one out is anyone’s guess but if they do, they’ll be treated to an all-in Hopkins performance and not merely a quick money grab like a number of his peers are starting to sign up for (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman and Vanquish from a few weeks back.)  Hopkins delivers the single best scene in the entire film and it’s a doozy of a monologue.  If you haven’t already, follow The Virtuoso up with The Father and watch his masterful skill really go to town. 

Movie Review ~ The Mitchells vs The Machines

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A quirky, dysfunctional family’s road trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse and suddenly become humanity’s unlikeliest last hope. 

Stars: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Blake Griffin, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Conan O’Brien, Sasheer Zamata, Elle Mills, Jay Pharoah, Alex Hirsch, Griffin McElroy 

Directors: Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe 

Rated: PG 

Running Length: 113 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review: Were this a time when we were back seeing movies in theaters, a film like The Mitchells vs The Machines (which was originally set to be released in 2020) would have been one that made me glad for stadium seating that allows me a nice distance between the screen and my seat.  There’s so much going on in the movie that it often becomes an overwhelming mash of color, ideas, and sound.  As a child, it would have served to stimulate a number of my senses in just the way the animators at Sony meant to but as I get older, I find that these mile-a-minute delirium exercises put a serious crimp in the overall way I absorb the story.  That means the performances land with a little less oomph and the sweetness at the heart of the screenplay from writer/directors Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe can’t quite get its hands in a firm enough grasp at your heartstrings to tug away whenever it wants to. 

It’s definitely not for lack of trying, don’t get me wrong.  Rianda & Rowe are willing to go to great lengths and expend copious amounts of energy and animation to send home the message about the importance of family and, more pointedly, family time.  In this ever-expanding world of technology when it can be easy for us to self-isolate, families spend less quality time together than ever before and it becomes an effort to get everyone (parents included) out of their “screens” and involved with one another.  In Rianda & Rowe’s brightly hued world, a service known as PAL (voiced on the mainframe by Olivia Colman, The Father) is installed on nearly every phone and also into many of the machines the country uses on a daily basis.  Think of it as Alexa from Amazon, just with a wider net and a much more sensitive skin that’s easily rankled. 

Katie Mitchell has a number of PAL powered devices and for good reason, she’s a budding filmmaker that’s been at work since she was a small child making movies involving her family and dog.  As she has grown older, she feels like she doesn’t fit into the small-town life and craves a creative community of like-minded individuals (note the rainbow-pin on her jacket and later references to her relationship with Jade) that speak her language.  More than anything, her once inseparable bond with her dad Rick (Danny McBride, Sausage Party) has frayed and father and daughter barely know each other anymore, much to the dismay of mom Linda (Maya Rudolph, The Way Way Back). 

When tensions rise the night before Katie is set to leave for college, Rick makes a terrible error in judgement and decides to make up for it by gathering the family (including always-worried brother Aaron) and road-tripping his only daughter off to school instead of having Katie fly out there on her own.  A bad idea at first, it proves to be a stroke of genius because the family is together when a new model of PAL is released, causing the previous version to erupt in a jealous rage.  Using a virus to take over her replacements, she begins to enslave the humans in a giant prison. However there’s one family that won’t go down without a fight, one that’s rediscovered their strength as a team when put through a series of high-stakes battles with bots.

It’s never quite clear to me what endgame PAL was after but it doesn’t really matter in the end. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is about watching a family that has drifted apart find their way back to one another when put into a perilous situation.  I may question how young children would react to some frightening situations of appliances coming to life and attacking them and just the overall thought of electronic world domination, but it’s delivered wrapped in such a buoyant bow it’s hard to fault anyone involved too much. (I’m easily swayed, clearly.)  Running long at nearly two hours, there’s a lot of story packed in that wound up feeling repetitive and padded for time…that might be good for a theatrical release but when you’re at home I’m always in favor of a shorter sit for the family-oriented flicks.

Despite the presence of a talented comedian like Rudolph and someone that likely had a ball making this like Colman, the voice work is strangely muted here.  There’s so much in motion around everyone that it’s odd for there not to be any standout among the voices heard.  Even two rogue robots voiced by Beck Bennett (Zoolander 2) and Conan O’Brien (The Lego Batman Movie) that wind up working with the Mitchells sound interchangeable throughout.  I kept waiting for some spark to be lit, and while Colman comes close and Rudolph finds it late in the film when her character hilariously finds her inner warrior the movie comes to a close with barely any embers glowing.

For Netflix families that haven’t subscribed to Disney+ or Apple,+ which have had several impressive animated films over the past few months, there is now a viable option for entertainment in The Mitchells vs The Machines.  It’s fast, loud, and firmly a movie of today, but it will surely catch not just the eye of your kids but probably yours as well.  Not only are there positive lessons to be taken away from the sweet-natured heart of the film but its animation is stunning.

Movie Review ~ Limbo

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An offbeat observation of refugees waiting to be granted asylum on a fictional remote Scottish island focusing on Omar, a young Syrian musician who is burdened by the weight of his grandfather’s oud, which he has carried all the way from his homeland. 

Stars: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kais Nashif, Kenneth Collard 

Director: Ben Sharrock 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 103 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4/10) 

Review:  Back in my early college days as I was starting to fine tune my movie tastes and expand my horizons past the multiplexes with easily accessible titles, I became a frequent visitor to the local art house theater that was on a good run of films which could easily keep one busy from week to week.  In fact, the selections were so stellar that it wasn’t uncommon for you to show up, realize a showtime was sold out and not be bothered in the least to just buy a ticket to whatever was starting next.  This went on for some time and often peaked in awards season.  It was the period after all the awards had been handed out that the real interesting properties would arrive and my education got even more eclectic.  Now, I could take in international offerings there would be no way I’d have access to normally and I wasn’t very discerning on what I’d slap down some of my hard-earned student worker money for. 

The new drama Limbo reminded me so much of one of those movies I’d have taken a chance on back then and walked out of thinking I had a sort of a one upmanship bragging rights on others.  Which is silly. It didn’t make me any smarter than my fellow film fanatic and spoke nothing to the overall quality of the movie, it just was a film I saw for no other reason than it was there.  Of course, here and now I made a choice to see an advanced screening of Limbo which is opening in theaters and having seen several hundred movies since those halcyon days when moviegoing was less complicated I feel more inclined to provide the kind of feedback I don’t think I could have given then.

Waiting for asylum on a Scottish island dreamt up by writer/director Ben Sharrock, the refugees we meet are from places such as Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria.  All are waiting for decisions that will tell them whether they can remain in the United Kingdom or be sent back to their native land.  Some have been waiting for years, others like Omar (Amir El-Masry, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) are recent arrivals still adjusting to life on the windy isle.  Always carrying his grandfather’s oud (a stringed instrument resembling a lute) which reminds him of his days as a musician, Omar makes frequent calls to his relocated parents that compare him to his older brother that stayed behind to fight for their country. 

As they wait, the men attend classes on adjusting to life with English customs taught by Helga, the lone female seen in the film (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Inferno), and get to know one another better.  There’s a main foursome of men that make-up Omar’s core group, including Freddie Mercury loving Farhad (Vikash Bhai) an eccentric Afghan nearing his third year on the island who seeks asylum so he can continue to live his true self. On the polar opposite side of the coin, Nigerian brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi, Cherry) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) aren’t as open as Farhad is for reasons that slowly come into focus the more we learn about their backstory.  Hoping to play soccer when his asylum is granted, Wasef feels the burden of caring for Abedi, routinely causing strife between the two of them. 

If you do your homework on film before seeing them and read several reviews before making a decision (and you really should, second or third opinions are always great) you’re going to see Limbo described as “offbeat” and “deadpan” and that’s what originally drew me to it.  Despite not being immediately sold based on the preview alone, I chalked it up to a marketing misstep and scootched my way under the bar like a true limbo star because I dig these non-U.S. films that handle comedy in ways far different than we would.  Outside of our country, comedy is more observational than physical, more cerebral than lowbrow so that’s why it’s possible to have a comedy with few “laughs” but still have a wealth of humor. 

What I’ve learned from my experience with Limbo is that there’s a vast difference between “deadpan” and what the film really is: dour.  Although it flirts with fun in the wildly strange moments involving Helga’s class (the opening of the movie tricks you right away), Sharrock is much more in favor of following glum Omar around the gloomy island.  There’s little humor of any level to be found in rather long stretches of the film, which isn’t a bad thing if it’s substituted for material that sticks to the bones in a similar way.  It didn’t for me.

Perhaps it’s because El-Masry’s performance aids in that sinking into the bleak of it all.  This is not saying the character needs to be “happy” or anything of that nature, it’s just that when all you have in your film is sad conversations on a lone payphone sprinkled in amongst arch classes on etiquette, you can’t turn around and claim “offbeat” or “deadpan” as your subgenre of choice.  I struggled with staying involved or engaged with any of the characters aside from Farhad and even he fell victim to Sharrock making him overly odd and not just merely eccentric. 

Who knows?  Maybe this is one you did have to see in a dark theater with an audience getting the full experience of Limbo (and see some of the rather beautiful scenery) who could help you with audible cues to gauge their response.  Then you’d at least know if the movie called for reactions along the way.  Hey, at least you’d get popcorn for your efforts. 

Movie Review ~ Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An elite Navy SEAL uncovers an international conspiracy while seeking justice for the murder of his pregnant wife. 

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lauren London, Brett Gelman, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Colman Domingo, Guy Pearce 

Director: Stefano Sollima 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 111 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6.5/10) 

Review:  I must confess to being a huge fan of the Tom Clancy films of the Sean Connery/Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford days and not so much from the later chapters when Ben Affleck took over for Ford, Chris Pine took over for Affleck (in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and John Krasinski took over for Pine in the popular TV series for Amazon Prime.  Each actor had their own spin on the role of Jack Ryan so you were bound to have someone along the way you could call your favorite.  Movies just aren’t made at the breakneck speed necessary to keep up with the pace that books are written so much of Clancy’s material has been left un-adapted and even the properties that were already brought to life have had to jettison key characters with stories too complex to include into larger narratives.

Take John Clark, Jack Ryan’s close friend and onetime bodyguard.  Featured in a number of Jack Ryan novels and eventually becoming nearly as popular as Ryan himself, Clark fits into many of the operations Ryan undertakes throughout Clancy’s blockbuster espionage thrillers.  However, it was in 1993’s Without Remorse that Clancy gave readers Clark’s origin story, including how and why he changed his name from John Kelly and why the CIA helped him change his identity.  Though the film has been bouncing around Hollywood for years trying to get made with several big names attached, it wasn’t until red-hot star Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) showed interest that the title became a must-have commodity again.  Now, as Jordan gets ready to direct and star in Creed III, he’s set himself up with another franchise starter but how would Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse measure up to the level of thrillers it has followed?

It’s a little bit of the whole good news and bad news situation right now.  Ripping the band aid off, I’ll say that the bad news is the overall ambiance of the movie doesn’t feel like the big budget production it should, considering the studio funds behind it and the producers involved.  A number of films originally intended for theatrical release acquired by a streaming service look like they were made for the big screen when you see them at home.  With Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, everything feels scaled down like the original goal was only to be for in-home distribution.  More on that later but for now let’s talk about the positives.  The good news is that Jordan is a natural for the role, well suited to be playing a skilled Navy SEAL back from a dangerous mission in Syria involving the CIA and the Russian military.  When members of his team are assassinated and his pregnant wife is killed, he’s left for dead by an attacker’s gunfire but survives.  This turns out to be, ironically, a good news/bad news situation all over again.  Good news for John Kelly and bad news for anyone that gets in his way of finding those responsible for the death of his wife and unborn child.  Taking the title of the movie literally, Kelly is a one-man machine of vengeance as he mows his way through high ranks of government both foreign and domestic to get the answers he wants. 

The final script was re-written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River and the upcoming Those Who Wish Me Dead) and it shows with his vernacular and tendency to use shorthand in his technical terms.  He has the actors speak like these professionals would talk and it assists in the authenticity of it all.  Working with his Sicario: Day of the Soldado director Stefano Sollima, Sheridan took over script duties form Will Staples so I can’t say who made the majority of alternations from Clancy’s original novel but the changes seem to be for the better in allowing this story to grow in future installments…because it should and will.  Apart from it filling a gap for representation in people of color as action heroes, Kelly’s a complex character like we haven’t seen much of lately.

Much of that complexity is owed to Jordan’s performance as well as his platonic relationship with Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) a friend and SEAL team member he can trust that has been watching out for him while he’s healed.  Working with the Secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce, Lawless) and a not entirely trustworthy CIA Officer (Jamie Bell, Rocketman), Kelly and Greer use their government resources to further their serach for the truth. Of course, this being an action film built around large(ish) scale set piece, Kelly stages some daring acts of aggression in order to extricate information from sources that can help them locate who put a target on all of their backs.

You’d likely be able to write down who the bad people are at the beginning the film, seal it, and open it again at the end of the film and find your correct answer within.  Along with a strange look that gives it almost a B-movie vibe, there’s little in the way of surprise as the plot moves from Point A to Point B.  Extended fight sequences are periodically thrilling but endless gunfire scenes start to get old rather quickly, especially when it becomes a challenge following the action.  Several times, Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Beautiful Creatures) leaves us lost amongst the action with no direction on where to look.  It’s all disorienting.

It might not rise to the ranks of The Hunt for Red October or Patriot Games but for a first outing with John Kelly, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is a sufficient introduction to the character.  This was a Saturday evening choice in my house and it proved to be a popular and rather perfect selection for a movie night.  Jordan is said to be coming back for a second film and if that proves successful I’m wondering if we’ll ever see him team with Krasinski or another new Ryan feature film in the future – now that would be the event film I’d like to see.

Movie Review ~ The Father

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Ayesha Dharker

Director: Florian Zeller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Throughout film, there have been movies and performances that have tackled the subject of Alzheimer’s and dementia or shown us the effects of the disease in striking detail.  You can go all the way back to 1981’s On Golden Pond for an example and find titles like The Notebook, Away from Her, Robot & Frank, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Still Alice, and 2020’s Relic in the years since.  Each had it’s own approach to illustrate the impact to the person as an outside observer but none have been able to walk audiences through the actual experience of what it’s like from the inside out. Diving down deep below the surface of a debilitating condition of the mind, The Father aims to show audiences what it’s like to be inside this head of someone suffering from a disease which robs one of their memories.  It’s a cinematic trick achieved with no special effects or CGI assistance, relying instead on masterful writing and the kind of acting that comes along once in a blue moon.

Hard to watch but almost impossible to look away from, director and screenwriter Florian Zeller leads us down a twist-filled path where nothing is what it appears to be.  He adapts his own play (with original translator Christopher Hampton) and while I have yet to see this onstage it sounds like nothing was lost in the transition from stage to screen.  That Zeller and Hampton were able to capture the same magic that earned the theatrical piece rave reviews across the globe is something in and of itself due to the complexities inherent in the storytelling and overall production, but this is a property that lends itself well for a film adaptation.

Anne (Olivia Colman, The Favourite) has arrived at her father’s flat after he’s scared off another caretaker with suspicions of stealing.  He’s misplaced his favorite watch and Anthony (Hopkins, Thor) is convinced the woman Anne hired to keep an eye on him pocketed it when he wasn’t looking.  This isn’t the first time he’s “lost” his watch or leveled accusations of this sort and Anne is worried – she’s set to move to Paris with her new boyfriend and wants to be certain her father is taken care of when she moves a greater distance away.  The issue is left unresolved, at least for that day.

Naturally we assume the man (Paul Gatniss, Christopher Robin) sitting in Anthony’s flat the next morning is Anne’s new boyfriend but no, it’s more complicated than that.  For Anthony and for the audience.  Anthony has woken up in his flat but it’s really Anne’s.  And it’s not the Anne we/he knows, but a different Anne (Olivia Williams, Anna Karenina) who isn’t moving to Paris.  When Anthony gets upset over the new people in “his” flat, Anne offers to go out for groceries, but returns as Colman’s different Anne with a new caretaker (Imogen Poots, Vivarium) and, later, a different boyfriend (Rufus Sewell, Judy).  This rapidly changing cast, not to mention an apartment with walls and furnishings that are rarely in the same position twice, are meant to confuse and disorient the viewer as they do our titular character.

At the center of it all in nearly every scene is Hopkins, giving the performance of his career.  Rocketing to worldwide acclaim in middle-age with his Oscar-winning role in The Silence of the Lambs after an already healthy career, Hopkins has spent the last thirty years in a wide variety of roles.  Some of those roles have paid the bills while others have filled his cup for artistic expression, and I can imagine The Father likely filled his cup to overflowing.  The performance put on film here is surely one that will be remembered forever, indelibly linked with the actor and not for reasons that have to do with his recent Oscar win over another actor.  The fact of the matter is that Hopkins presented the best performance by any actor in any movie (male, female, or other) in any film in any language in 2020 so his award was well deserved.

It’s not just Hopkins that gives the Oscar-winning Zeller and Hampton screenplay steadfast support.  I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Colman overtake Glenn Close’s work in Hillbilly Elegy for Best Supporting Actress for her compassionate contribution to the film.  While both women lost to the towering work from Yuh-jung Youn in Minari, Colman had a definite shot and the win would have been warranted for the way she balanced the sleight of hand required of the role.  Sharing one of the best scenes of the film (it’s hard to choose just one) with Hopkins, Poots holds her own as the young caretaker charmed by her new charge who lets her guard down when she should be more responsible with her feelings.  While he’s made a nice career out of playing rakish characters, Sewell finds new nasty nooks to explore here and the underrated Williams also is afforded several rich moments alongside Hopkins.  The wealth is spread evenly but the treasure is ultimately held by Hopkins.

An exquisite film in every aspect from the costumes to production design, The Father is a movie that will definitely sneak up on you.  Much more than your standard tearjerker, it’s a brilliant exploration of degeneration that avoids sinking too far into morose sentimentality.  The emotions it does evoke are strong and will hit you like a ton of bricks.  Don’t expect to shake this one easily after seeing it because it will linger in the back of your mind for weeks after, mainly as you recall the enormity of the performance Hopkins has given.

Movie Review ~ French Exit

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat.

Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald

Director: Azazel Jacobs

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’d seen Grease 2 several dozen times before I ever knew there was a Grease.  My counting skills aside, to this day I’ll still go to the mat for the cult-favorite silly sequel to one of the biggest movie musical hits of all time.  Yes, I know that you have thoughts about it and want to defend the legacy of Travolta and Newton-John but from my earliest days all I knew was that the leads of Grease 2 were the most beautiful people in the world, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all friends?  All these years later I’m still a devoted fan of Michelle Pfeiffer (and Maxwell Caulfield appears to be living his best life too) so will always be excited when a new Pfeiffer pfilm comes our way.  The bonus in 2020 was that her newest was generating the type of early buzz that suggested this could be Pfeiffer’s year to return to the awards circuit.

Writing this nearly a week after the Oscars, I think back to when I originally saw French Exit and held out hope that Michelle Pfeiffer might wind up with her first nomination in nearly thirty years.  While the resulting film may not have fallen into line with the titles Pfeiffer was associated with in the early days of her prestigious career, the performance she gave in it pulsated with just the kind of eccentric vibrancy that usually gets noticed by voters.  Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt and adapted by the author himself, this film is out there, to put it mildly, and Pfeiffer’s darkly funny and brittle socialite is the nucleus the entire action swirls around.

Rich NYC widow Frances Price (Pfeiffer, mother!) has almost run out of money after not doing much of anything since her grossly affluent husband (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) died twelve years prior.  Never bothering to work or pass along a sense of wealth management to her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back), mother and child find themselves in a bind when told they have a limited amount of funds to work with.  Neither has any particular talent or skill so their options are limited if they want to stay in their tony Manhattan digs.  Deciding its better to leave on top and wanting more time to figure out a plan, Frances sells almost everything they own and cashes out their accounts before anyone can come to collect on the bills that have been piling up.

Traveling by sea with a pile of dough and avoiding unnecessary customs questions in the process, the duo (along with Small Frank, their unique cat) travel to Paris.  On the way over, Malcolm has an intimate encounter with a kooky medium (a very fine Danielle Macdonald, I Am Woman, continuing a trend of being an MVP in a cast of strong supporting players) that can spot death, which tends to get her into trouble on a cruise made up of largely elderly passengers.  After arriving in Paris and ensconcing themselves in the flat of an old friend of Frances, there isn’t much to do but sit and wait for what comes next.  But what comes next?

That’s where French Exit gets its foot stuck in the door and never manages to wedge itself out.  DeWitt’s novel is a surreal bit of frivolity that involves a surprise twist I won’t reveal here but when it’s uncovered it moves the film from deadpan humor to a new level of cosmic comedy that not everyone is going to be able to roll with.

Perhaps they’ll find some diversion in Valerie Mahaffey’s (Sully) side-splitting turn as a zany widow desperate for friends who lures Frances and Malcom to a Christmas party under false pretenses.  Mahaffrey is a veteran character actress that’s as underrated as they come and it’s a shame the film didn’t heat up for Pfeiffer because I’d expect if it had then Mahaffrey would also have gotten recognized for her scene-stealing work.  Had the film only added Mahaffrey’s character to the mix it may have remained in a comfortably droll zone that reveled in its quirky charm but instead it continues to add multiple characters, few of whom are actually interesting or integral to the central figures of the plot.  Besides Hedges, on his second crazy cruise movie of 2020 after Let Them All Talk, who is unusually uncomfortable looking, the remaining cast (including Green Room’s Imogen Poots) feels like they are always annoyingly elbowing to get at a spot at the table next to the star of the film.

It all comes down to Pfeiffer, though, and director Azazel Jacobs capably brings out a wicked twinkle we haven’t seen in quite some time.  Reveling in reciting DeWitt’s biting dialogue and rolling her eyes whenever Mahaffrey’s character is trying to ingratiate herself to Frances, Pfeiffer has spoken about her affinity for this project, and it shows.  While it didn’t propel her to the finish line for any statuettes when the year was wrapped, it garnered her some of the best notices she’s received in a number of years.  There’s a reason Pfeiffer has had a lasting career in Hollywood and French Exit is a solid reminder of why she continues to surprise us.

Movie Review ~ Land

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of an unfathomable event, a woman finds herself unable to stay connected to the world she once knew and retreats to the magnificent, but unforgiving, wilds of the Rockies.

Stars: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens, Warren Christie, Brad Leland

Director: Robin Wright

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It’s always intriguing to me to see what actors will eventually try their hand at directing.  Some stars will go their entire careers without stepping behind the camera, preferring to stay in front of the lens and leave that responsibility to someone else.  Others move to it naturally early on, even doing double duty which can lead to great success (like a number of Clint Eastwood films) or middling returns (see any Zach Braff movie for perfect examples) but it’s always the actors that come to the directing chair later in their career that tend to bring a sage sense of purpose to the piece.  Now, let me be totally clear about that observation.  That doesn’t always equate to a perfect film or even one that is ultimately worth your time, but it should at least warrant your attention because in this business, experience does stand for something. 

It’s actually a surprise it’s taken veteran actress Robin Wright so long to helm her first feature film.  With almost a dozen episodes of her Netflix show House of Cards under her belt, a proper movie was obviously next in line and Land turns out to be a smart choice as her debut.  Instead of juggling too many spinning plates at once, Wright has opted for this small, intimate drama that’s nearly a one-character piece that takes place almost entirely in a single location.  That gives her the opportunity to feel her way through the movie and take the time to get it right, leaving the more difficult directorial duties for another film later down the road.  The result is a solid, if admittedly slight, showcase for Wright as a director and star.

An unknown trauma has led Edee (Wright, Blade Runner 2049) to monumental decision: she’ll leave her former life, family, and friends behind in favor of the isolation of a ramshackle cabin in the Wyoming Rockies.  With no electricity, running water, or means of communication (her phone gets discarded soon after she arrives in the nearest town), Edee is choosing not only to go it alone but to make life as tough on herself as possible.  Through wordless vignettes over her first few days, we get the impression Edee is not exactly the outdoors-y type, however this isn’t a story of a woman from the city triumphing over the harsh wilderness but a restrained piece about grief and how everyone deals with theirs differently.

Facing down her sorrow in a cabin that leaks and learning to live off the land as she goes, winter is right around the corner and the bitter cold nearly breaks her after a series of setbacks curtails what successes she has achieved up until then.  Around that time is when screenwriters Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam introduce Miguel (Demián Bichir, Chaos Walking), first as a saving grace when Edee needs it most but eventually as more than just someone Edee can have outside contact with. Both seem to gain something from the other during their quiet discussions and a shared friendship develops, allowing Edee to see the value in her own humanity again. 

With the changing of the seasons comes a changing in the tone of the film and before you know it, Wright has snuck in and changed the piece from a solo study on loneliness to one of kinship and reaching out to others…but only so far.  I appreciated that Wright and the screenwriters manage to maintain a sense of truth to their central character throughout because it’s tempting in these types of stories of sorrow to be overly redemptive or apologetic for feelings/emotions.  The loss Edee has gone through is enough to set anyone back a step or five and maybe following through with her plan to go it alone is what she needs, not as a defense mechanism but as the salve for her wound to heal.

Wright’s performance is strong as expected and she easily handles the rigors of wearing both hats.  Working with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski to capture some incredible scenic vistas, it’s a small production but doesn’t wind up feeling like a small movie.  Running a scan 89 minutes (with credits), Wright engineers her picture and her performance like a long-distance sprint and there is some kind of palpable energy coming at the viewer throughout which lets the film fly high, even when Land is at its most grounded.

Movie Review ~ Things Heard & Seen

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An artist relocates to the Hudson Valley and begins to suspect that her marriage has a sinister darkness, one that rivals her new home’s history. 

Stars: Amanda Seyfried, James Norton, Natalia Dyer, Karen Allen, Rhea Seehorn, Alex Neustaedter, F. Murray Abraham 

Directors: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini 

Rated: NR 

Running Length: 119 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7.5/10) 

Review:  You may want to check your calendar a few minutes into the new Netflix thriller Things Heard & Seen because it has the air of an autumn thriller we usually don’t get in the late spring with summer on the horizon.  Not that I’m complaining.  In the least.  Representing the type of paranoid domestic suspense film that used to be perfect popcorn fare for moviegoers, it will likely remind viewers of a certain age of a number of movies from the early 2000’s when tension started to mix with the supernatural.  Fun films to spend a rainy afternoon with, they were the early subgenre to fall victim when studios focused more on franchise starters and titles with name recognition.

Thankfully, streaming services have found good success with these modestly budgeted thrillers and have been able to attract a wealth of interesting talent.  Some (like May’s The Woman in the Window) have been acquired from their original studio after an intended theatrical release was derailed by the pandemic while others have been produced in-house, and that’s the case for this Netflix film likely to please those searching for an elevated ghost story. In fact, it will remind genre fans of a similar sophisticated blockbuster suspense film, and the comparisons are striking at times and often in the most favorable way possible.  To give away the title could be considered a spoiler (only slightly) so I’ll make you work for it.  It came out in 2000. It’s directed by an Oscar winner that remade a Roald Dahl film in 2020 and stars two bona fide A-Listers, one who is soon to reprise a famous role for the fifth time and the other who made a splashy film debut 40 years ago in the sequel to the then-biggest movie musical of all time.

In Things Heard & Seen, Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried, Scoob!) has her dream job in NYC restoring art while her husband George (James Norton, Little Women) works on his dissertation.  She leaves all that behind when George completes his thesis and lands a job at a small college in upstate New York where they soon move with their young daughter.  The quaint farmhouse George has found for them to live has potential and with its proximity to his work it appears to be perfect.  Ah, but we all know that nothing is ever ideal for long and soon ghostly apparitions are appearing to Catherine who doesn’t recognize what they signal at first but eventually realizes they are pointing her toward an evil that exists in her new home and possibly to one that has been with her all along.

The film hits the expected beats with a satisfying timbre.  There’s the shadowy figure standing in a doorway as someone walks by.  A sudden movement of a piece of furniture is helped to an additional jolt by the cinematographer jerking the camera suddenly toward the action.  More than that, though, is the uneasiness we feel from the real-life insidiousness Catherine uncovers in her own world.  Struggling with an eating disorder (we aren’t five minutes into the film before we see her bulimia in action) gives Catherine her own demons to deal with, but they are nothing when held up against the history of the farmhouse or the truth about the families that have lived there before.

Adapted with some liberty by writer/directors Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (Girl Most Likely) from Elizabeth Brundage’s moody and complex 2016 novel, All Things Cease to Appear, the re-titled Things Heard & Seen makes some wise choices in structure for a new medium. Tightening up the plot by liberally holding back information from the viewer (a choice that may frustrate some the more that is revealed), Springer Berman and Pulcini convincingly keep the suspense building to a frenzy and that’s when it gets a little harder to talk about.  It’s not that the final act doesn’t live up to a rather energizing 90 minutes or so, it’s that the last half hour feels less constructed with care than what has come before.  The movie doesn’t leave off where the book does so perhaps this was a compromise on the part of the directors, but it will definitely prove to be divisive.  

What keeps the movie from idling in low gear is Seyfried’s invested performance as the frustrated wife and mother trying to keep herself together when largely left to her own devices.  She’s been relocated to the middle of nowhere with no friends and no job and on top of that has to contend with hidden secrets that emerge out of the woodwork.  Seyfried takes all of this in stride and never lets the histrionics of the role get the better of her.  I mean, with Norton playing George as this pompous, self-important knob of a man I wondered why Catherine didn’t just knock his block off but it clearly means both actors are doing the work convincingly.  Speaking of Norton, his role is every bit as difficult to wend through as Seyfried’s – the film sets him up from the start for audiences to think of him one way and he leans into that, gradually at first and then full throttle by the end.  It was a pleasure seeing Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (Lady and the Tramp) show up as the chair of the department at George’s college and his belief in the teachings of a scholar who wrote on heaven and hell will play a key piece in connecting with the Claire family.  I also really enjoyed Rhea Seehorn’s feisty role as a busybody teacher acquaintance of George that pals up with Catherine, only to find herself snooping up the wrong tree.  

While Springer Berman and Pulcini are good with a number of details throughout the film that find payoffs running the the gamut from just decent to incredibly satisfying, there are unfortunately some threads that never get picked up or explored to their full extent.  I can’t help but wonder if the movie wasn’t trimmed a bit for time and pace because while it never drags there are spaces where it feels as if passages were excised.  Slowing things down isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have the strong material to keep audiences on the edge of their seat. The swerve of the change is fairly swift and jarring, out of synch with the relative ease the rest of the production employed. Several characters get left on the wayside, only to appear after an hour or more’s absence with barely an explanation not just to why we haven’t seen them in so long but how it is they haven’t even been mentioned.

Having already spent some time in a haunted house last year with You Should Have Never Left, Seyfried’s second stay is far superior entertainment with a more cohesive narrative and characters you want to invest additional time with. Things Heard & Seen is handsomely made and with its nice attention to period detail has that era down but not done to death.  Ratcheting up twists and turns exponentially as it sails toward its conclusion, that ending is going to be a telling factor in the reactions people have so my advice would be to skip what you may hear about the end and judge the film on its own merits and not it’s ever-so-slightly amorphous final fifteen minutes.