Movie Review ~ Together Together

1


The Facts:

Synopsis: When young loner Anna is hired as the surrogate for Matt, a single man in his 40s, the two strangers come to realize this unexpected relationship will quickly challenge their perceptions of connection, boundaries and the particulars of love.

Stars: Ed Helms, Patti Harrison, Rosalind Chao, Julio Torres, Tig Notaro, Nora Dunn, Fred Melamed, Sufe Bradshaw, Anna Konkle, Evan Jonigkeit, May Calamawy, Ellen Dubin

Director: Nikole Beckwith

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I don’t want you to run for the hills or race to the comment section when you read this next sentence, but here we go.  In the realm of pregnancy films, it’s time men get their due.  There, I said it, I stand by it, and now I’ll tell you why.   

Over the years in countless films, the male members of the cast have served purposes that have largely reflected on the time the film was made.  Early movies showed men as the sole breadwinner, the one that went to work all day and came home to a clean house with dinner on the table and the kids waiting to say hello before trotting off to bed.  Then came the fight for gender equality resulting in fathers slowly taking on a more balanced piece of the household puzzle.  When stay-at-home moms went back to work, the stay-at-home dad was born and a power balance shifted yet again.  All stages of this were reflected in some part on screens big and small but one thing was always the same: the nuclear family and parenting, with ideas of men raising children on their own by their own choice almost unheard of.  As the definition of “what makes a family” has changed, so have artistic representations of an even more detailed question, “what makes a parent?”. 

That’s the question that seems to be a tiny jumping off point for understanding why a rare gem like Together Together is so welcome and important a release in 2021.  Here we have a successful, stable, single-man approaching middle age (is mid ‘40s still considered middle age? I’d like a ruling on that.) who wants to be a father, hasn’t found the right woman, and decides to seek a surrogate to carry his child.  While this situation is not uncommon, it’s not heard of as often as a woman making similar plans so the people the man meets throughout the film almost have to hear the news twice to understand what they’ve just been told.   

Thankfully, writer/director Nikole Beckwith hasn’t set out to make an awkwardly educational film about gender norms and has instead crafted a genuine, heartfelt love story between two individuals that aren’t even a couple.  Matt (Ed Helms, Vacation) is an app-designer who has hired barista Anna (Patti Harrison, A Simple Favor) to be his surrogate for the child he’s always wanted.  In their first meeting, Beckwith stages Matt’s interview of Anna almost like a strange first date with him asking her questions and receiving the type of slightly off-the-mark responses that should be red flags but somehow seem less troublesome coming from the reserved but honest younger woman.  It’s in this first scene that Helms and Harrison demonstrate a red-hot chemistry, not in a sexual way, but in that friendship rapport which is nearly impossible to capture quite like they have done. 

As both navigate through the pregnancy, Beckwith approaches a number of familiar situations that might seem to be going one direction like every other baby comedy you’ve seen before, which the filmmaker then dovetails out of from the expected territory into new terrain at the last second.  Even when it does fall back on some stale jokes and bits that have been chewed over before in other movies (remnants from previous iterations of the screenplay, I’m sure), the performers are so alarmingly charming that you sort of don’t mind they’re playing for laughs off of material way past its expiration date for originality. 

I feel like I haven’t seen Helms a lot lately but it’s nice to find him back again and playing a regular guy that has some of the same fears and phobias all of us do that pass the big 4-0.  It would have been simple for Beckwith to write Matt with more neurosis about his age and relationship status (and even easier for Helms to play these character blips) but by making him so middle of the road it makes him more relatable to everyone watching, no matter what gender you have assigned to yourself.  The star turn here is clearly Harrison who I liked a lot more in this than I have in Hulu’s Shrill where she plays someone far more caustic and harder to warm to.  Anna has quite the fleet of baggage to drag behind her and Harrison isn’t afraid to show that strain wears on her after a while.  There’s a vulnerability to Anna that’s evident from the start and isn’t constantly hidden beneath a strong veneer, making the performance unique in its approach.   

While Helms and Harrison are two fantastic leads, they have some serious competition from their supporting cast, starting with Sufe Bradshaw (Star Trek) playing their ultrasound nurse who seems to be all business, until it’s time to get real with the couple once she notices a change in their interactions.  Bradshaw is assigned a similar version of the hilariously stern role she played in Veep but it’s the right choice for this observant character.  The deadpan Tig Notaro (Lucy in the Sky) works her magic on the few scenes she appears in as a therapist with the surrogacy program meant to help Matt and Anna with any emotional support they need along the way.  However, it’s Julio Torres that almost can’t help himself from stealing each and every minute of screen time he’s in as Jules, Anna’s moody co-worker.  A former writer for Saturday Night Live, Torres achieves high levels of laughs for his hysterical one-liners and non sequiturs.   

Clocking in at an ultra-trim 90 minutes, Together Together is one of the few movies you’ll hear me say I almost wish was a little longer.  Almost.  As it is, I think Beckwith has gauged the ebb and flow of the emotions of her characters correctly and timed a truly lovely and maybe even perfect finale to roll in at just the right time.  If you don’t get paired up with Together Together now, trust that you’ll find your way to it eventually through word of mouth or by your favorite streaming service suggesting it to you.  A winning combination of actors and script elevate this to a high recommendation. 

Movie Review ~ Wildcat (2021)

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: After militants ambush her convoy in the Middle East, an ambitious reporter is taken captive and held hostage. Now forced to confront her troubled and traumatic past, she desperately searches for a way to bring down her captors and survive with her life intact.

Stars: Georgina Campbell, Luke Benward, Mido Hamada

Director: Jonathan W. Stokes

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Sometimes, the mantra “It’s just a movie” works not just to help you through watching a particularly hard sequence in a film but also at the end when you need to summarize it for yourself.  It’s neither dismissive nor offering of praise, it’s short but not too short, it’s open-ended for you to add more if you want or just slap a period on at the end and call it a day.  It’s not the deepest evaluation/critique you can give a film, nor is it the worst (that would be “Eh.”) but it might be the most utilitarian when a filmmaker hasn’t left you much to digest by the time the credits roll.  This week, I can give some examples for the new Middle East set war thriller, Wildcat

It’s just a movie. A reporter (Georgina Campbell) has been ambushed in Iraq by extremists that have killed all but one solider (Luke Benward, Life of the Party) in her party and both have been brought to a secret location where they are held hostage. While the solider is routinely subjected to the kind of vicious torture in an adjacent room we only hear at times, we get a front row seat for several of her fingernails being yanked out with a pair of rusty pliers.  Using her exposed nailbeds as pressure points, the leader of the group (Mido Hamada, American Sniper) seeks to discover her true purpose in the city and if she’s actually a CIA agent traveling undercover.  The activists want codes to the American embassy, and they believe either she or the solider can provide them…and both know once they obtain that info their lives will be useless.  So begins a one-room cat-and-mouse game, mostly between the captive and her captor as she plans an escape while feeding false information to bide her time, information that if found to be fake would mean certain death. 

It’s just a movie. For all the tension this summary would seem to rouse, writer/director Jonathan W. Stokes strangely never lets you forget you’re in your own home watching this play out on screen.  There’s nothing transporting about the ambience of the piece, save for some mighty committed performances from Hamada and especially Campbell.  The film opens with that genuinely unnerving fingernail pulling and I had hoped some of that energy level would/could be maintained, considering Wildcat didn’t have a robust running time.  Unfortunately, the rest unspools almost in little vignettes between Campbell and Benward as the last solider alive, peppered by appearances of Hamada and another, more proficient torturer (Maz Siam) who handles the unpleasant dealings as if he’s plucking out an eyelash. 

It’s just a movie. I half expected to find that Wildcat was an adaption by Stokes of some play because it’s so self-contained and feels like it would lend itself well to the urgency of a one act theatrical experience.  That way, the tension could easily be ratcheted up with more plausibility because live audiences tend to suspend their disbelief at a greater rate than movie audiences will for these types of films.  Some of the contrivances of the plot, especially in its disappointingly conventional third act and even more traditional conclusion, just don’t work if you aren’t fully swept away by the action.  Stokes never manages to get our attention long enough to bring us to that place. 

It’s just a movie. One movie can make the difference in a career, and this could definitely serve as a calling card for Campbell in the near future.  While she’s been an active presence onscreen for over a decade and received good notices before, she anchors Wildcat with such strength that my opinion of the movie improved after a reconsideration based solely on her performance.  She’s onscreen for nearly all 93 minutes and must juggle several different priorities throughout, maintaining a detailed gameplan for each.  That’s hard work for just one person and while Hamada is a strong scene partner throughout and Benward gets better as the film goes on, Campbell is on target from the moment you see her. 

It’s just a movie.  So there you have it.  Wildcat joins a long litany of war films that have one large goal but forget to mark small victories along the way.  These are just as important as meeting your end target and getting from Point A to Point B.  You can tell from the get-go where this one is headed but spend some energy over the first forty or so minutes figuring out if anything will deviate from the expected.  When it doesn’t, you settle in to watch it follow a well-worn course. After all, it’s just a movie. 

Movie Review ~ Mortal Kombat (2021)

1

 
The Facts:  

Synopsis: Washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young, unaware of his heritage, and hunted by Emperor Shang Tsung’s best warrior, Sub-Zero, seeks out and trains with Earth’s greatest champions as he prepares to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe. 

Stars: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Ng Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Matilda Kimber 

Director: Simon McQuoid 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 110 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6/10) 

Review: In 2013, as part of my In Praise of Teasers series I featured the still-burned-in-my-brain teaser for the 1995 adaptation of the classic SEGA game Mortal Kombat.  With its throbbing electronic score, flashy editing, hype-inducing character introductions, and hints that every teenage boy’s favorite video game was about to spring to three-dimensional life, Mortal Kombat was poised to clean-up at the box office when it was released that August.  And it did…to a tune of over 70 million here in the States and nearly that overseas.  For a modestly budgeted film, this was a win.  Here’s the thing about that PG-13 movie though: it was missing a key element that made the video game such a adrenaline boost to play and wound up for many fans feeling defanged, bloodless, and watered-down.   

A sequel recast a number of players and went nowhere and soon after video games shifted to different arenas and interests as the ‘90s gave way to a new millennium.  I honestly hadn’t even thought about Mortal Kombat (the movie or the game) for years until I heard that Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema were partnering up for reboot of their franchise, this time allowing the film to embrace the ultra-violence present in the game and giving longtime fans their long awaited bloodsport.  An early trailer released mid-pandemic landed at a perfect time to rack up the best kind of fan buzz, so once more the stakes were high for another Mortal Kombat movie as it powered up for a rematch with audiences. 

Shortly before the release date, to generate even more fervor, Warner Brothers released the first seven minutes of the film on its partnered streaming service HBOMax and I can totally see why.  The opening prologue contained in those seven minutes takes place in a remote 17th century Japanese village where Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada, Life) is forced to defend his family from the onslaught of chilly killer Bi-Han (Joe Taslim, The Raid: Redemption) and his deadly assassins.  It’s an energizing way to start the film and if I saw those seven minutes and were on the fence about heading to the theater to watch the rest of the movie in IMAX or finishing it at home on a much smaller screen, in less concerning times I might have been checking for seats at the first showing the day the film came out.  And I think everyone at the studio is counting on those previewing the preamble to have that same thought. 

The honest thing to do would have been to show the first seventeen minutes as those give you a little better idea of what director Simon McQuoid and writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham have concocted to follow that promising beginning.  For as fun as it is to finally see the violence of the game on full display in its gory glory, as jaw-dropping a vision it winds up being watching hearts ripped out and sharp objects plunged into every conceivable nook and cranny of the human body that hasn’t already been broken or broken off, you begin to realize that the whole fun of playing Mortal Kombat the game was, y’know, playing it.  Not watching it. 

Moving from the past to the present (or maybe slight future?) we’re given info about the ongoing battle between Outworld and Earthrealm.  Outworld, led by sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han, Skyscraper, preening so hard throughout the film it almost borders on a drag performance) dominates in Mortal Kombat, fights to the death that determine the rulers of both worlds.  Outworld is one victory away from having Earthrealm under their control and Shang dispatches his top warrior, Sub-Zero (also played by Taslim) to hunt down Earthrealm’s greatest remaining warriors to eliminate any hope of them winning.  Over in Earthrealm, a motley crew of underdogs have assembled at the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano, Battleship) for their training, hoping to find their unique power that will assist them in defeating Sub-Zero and his horde of vicious killers. 

As far as plot goes, that’s all Russo and Callaham seem to lay down as their base and about an hour in you realize that it’s all been designed to get contenders in various locations to do battle with only the bare minimum of exposition between set-ups.  For acting purposes, that’s fairly good news for the likes of Lewis Tan (Deadpool 2) as Cole Young, an MMA champion haunted by visions of Hanzo Hasashi now transformed over time into a vengeful spirit waiting to take his revenge.  He can take a licking and keep on ticking (never damaging his movie-star good looks, natch) but Tan’s lack of true conviction in any of his line readings robs the film’s lead of some much-needed empathy when it’s desperately needed.  At least Tan can get the lines out without looking like he’s laughing, not so for Jessica McNamee (Black Water:  Abyss) as Sonya Blade.  Either McNamee was trying for something that didn’t translate or she just gave up, but the lone female of the group is a serious let-down.  He’s supposed to be the most annoying (and he is, trust me) but Josh Lawson (Bombshell) as Kano goes a special extra mile to make his character atrociously unlikable.  It’s only Mehcad Brooks as “Jax” Briggs and Max Huang as Kung Lao that create the type of fully realized creations that don’t let the script limitations impact their own work.  

The film mostly belongs to Taslim and Sanada, though, so much so that they wind up smartly bookending the movie with fight sequences that are a thrill to see no matter what size of screen you view it on.  Well-staged and filled with moves the camera can follow and pick-out nicely, McQuoid and his crew obviously spent a great deal of time figuring out how they wanted to present these passages and made sure they looked the best for maximum impact.  As with several of the fights during the film, there comes a moment when you sort of inadvertently let out a whoosh of air, aware that you’ve been holding your breath a little too long. 

The film is worth seeing for how it differs from the 1995 version, both in the way it takes itself a little more seriously and the way in which it accepts its origin as a video game at the same time.  Understanding it can have its cake and slice and dice it too, Mortal Kombat isn’t a flawless victory, but it finishes the job with style.