Movie Review ~ C’mon C’mon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary filmmaker bonds with his smart-yet-sensitive nephew, whose father struggles with bipolar disorder and is in the grips of a manic episode.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White

Director: Mike Mills

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The first role any actor takes after they’ve won an Oscar is always a bit of a hold your breath moment.  In the wake of being the toast of the town, can they stay true to the career they’d built up until that point and continue to perform within their chosen medium?  Or will they be tempted toward projects that are more about profit than art, resulting in their award being the only truly valuable selling point about them in terms of box office?  Perhaps they pick the right movie that fizzles at the box office.  It’s rare to get the Tom Hanks treatment and go for back-to-back wins like the actor did with 1993’s Philadelphia and then a year later in Forrest Gump

Joaquin Phoenix won his Best Actor Oscar for Joker in 2019 so he won’t be Hanks-ing it but he’ll most likely be in the mix again this year for his work in C’mon C’mon, a prime example of how to land yourself a winner directly after achieving the industry’s top award.  The performance is so good that it nearly erases whatever small discomfort this critic was harboring for Phoenix’s win in a role that was dynamically performed but found in a movie that lacked a moral center.  Paired with a first-rate child actor (newcomer Woody Norman) and a former child actor (veteran Gaby Hoffmann), under the direction of Mike Mills (20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon gives Phoenix the opportunity to show yet another side to his acting that is refreshing, honest, and true.

With her ex-husband living in another state and suffering another emotional collapse, Viv (Hoffmann, This is My Life) is unable to keep her life at home with son Jesse (Norman) on track.  So she calls in a favor from her filmmaker brother Johnny (Phoenix, Inherent Vice) to come and stay with Jesse while she tends to the boy’s father.  Unfamiliar with each other, uncle and nephew take a few days to get used to their individual rhythms and peculiarities.  Jesse, for instance, likes to role play a scenario where he’s an orphan being welcomed into the home, eventually staying for the night.  A documentarian, Johnny finds his nephew fascinating but wisely keeps him out of his latest project which involves traveling through cities, interviewing school-age children and asking a wealth of questions about growing up in this current moment in history*

As time stretches on and Viv’s stay with Paul (Scott McNairy, Non-Stop) continues to be extended, Johnny eventually has to take Jesse with him on the next phase of his documentary and that’s where the real bonding occurs.  Nudging close to middle age, Johnny has no children of his own or any potential on the horizon, so any parental traits are learned (and earned) through this time with Jesse…and as you’d imagine it’s not always easy.  Happily, Mills (who also wrote the film) doesn’t weigh the film down with a lot of “getting to know you” bumpy road introduction business.  Instead, there’s a focus on how the older man and younger boy both benefit from being in the company of the other, an approach that deepens the richness of the experience as the film progresses.

Even as a child actor, Phoenix always has had this awkward tension to his acting but there seems to be a differently wired actor on screen this time around.  He’s more relaxed and, while still soft-spoken, not dripping with the pensive and self-contained aloofness he’s often known for.  Warmth was necessary for the role and Phoenix knows it, so he’s very much tailored the work to what Mills needed for Johnny and some of that also must have come from working with Norman who is making a smashing debut.  Not the same kind of cookie cutter child actor plopped into similar dramedies, Norman (a Brit, if you can believe it) exudes wisdom beyond his young years without being precocious or cloying in the process.  He’s a good match not just for Phoenix but the style and tone Mills is going for as well.  I sometimes struggle with Hoffmann’s choices because she seems to be actively rebelling against her child star past but in C’mon C’mon she’s excellent as a do-it-all every person that realizes she needs help and is surprised at the result asking for it yields.  I would love it if this entire trio could find their way into the awards conversation because they’d all deserve it.

The unexpected moments are what make C’mon C’mon so unique and interesting, not to mention emotionally fulfilling.  In his previous films, Mills has shown such a great affinity for the people he creates so audiences that know his work have found a director they can place a certain type of trust in.  More than once, Mills hints at roads he might take which could turn rocky but then he ends up veering in another direction. On a few of these occasions, I was relieved to see the film move into a new lane because by that point, Mills had me so invested on a subconscious level that I cared about the outcome more than I originally thought.  That’s good, understated filmmaking and the result is one of the finest movies of the year.

*Be sure to stay through the credits to hear the real interviews conducted with the realy kids seen in Johnny’s documentary.

Movie Review ~ The Humans

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Erik Blake has gathered three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls outside and eerie things start to go bump in the night, the group’s deepest fears are laid bare.

Stars: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb

Director: Stephen Karam

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I admit it, I admit it.  When I saw the national touring cast of The Humans perform this tiny intimate (read: quiet) show at our cavernous local theater I fell completely asleep before the one act play was half over.  It’s not my proudest moment but writer Stephen Karam’s dialogue just lulled me to sleep, and I would have slept a lot longer if the staging hadn’t included a rather alarming sound which jolted me up.  Widely acclaimed off-Broadway before moving to the Great White Way, The Humans took Broadway by storm and snatched up several key Tony Awards before it closed and then went on tour.  I know the tour struggled for business and it’s not hard to see why.  Karam’s play is meant to be seen in an intimate setting where you don’t have to lean quite so far in to hear what each person is saying.

Karam adapts and directs his play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) in A24’s new film The Humans and at the outset I was hesitant about going back to it seeing that the last time I got involved with the family drama contained within I had a nice nap while doing so.  The first twenty minutes didn’t do anything to assuage my original thoughts. Karam’s tendency to favor natural sound and filming the actors so far back that you can’t read their lips if you can’t hear them begins as alienating but eventually transitions into something your brain adjusts to.  Once it does, it’s like a key has opened up a window and welcomed you into Karam’s Thanksgiving-set story revolving around one family and their surprisingly revealing gathering.

The two-level Chinatown apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, Minari) is where the Blake family gathers to celebrate the holiday, though the sparsely furnished and barely lit dwelling isn’t exactly inviting.  While the couple’s furniture has yet to arrive thanks to a delay with their moving truck, they’ve done their best to make Brigid’s parents, sister, and grandmother feel welcome with what little comforts they do have.  Still, there’s a tension that hangs in the air at the outset and it’s more than the usual family dynamics which often come to a head during the festive months of the year. 

Maybe it’s because grandmother Momo’s (June Squibb, Palm Springs) dementia has continued to advance, requiring Brigid’s mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, Little Women) to devote more of her time to the care of her mother-in-law.  Perhaps it’s Aimee (Amy Schumer, Trainwreck) and her recent breakup or persistent health issues.  Erik’s (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) aloofness to much of the clear strife going on in front of him is another issue that requires resolution and it’s not hard to read between the lines in Karam’s script that Erik is the character with the most broken pieces to fix and is being held together by the thinnest of protective layers.  When and how these dysfunctions flare up arrive in unexpected ways with solutions that don’t necessarily leave audiences with the answers they are used to getting.

It’s one of the strong selling points of The Humans that it stays so true to its stage counterpart…and a reason why it may be a tough nut to crack for many viewers.  It’s so stage-bound that you do feel as if you’re watching a filmed version of a live play at times, a feeling that isn’t helped by one (masterfully constructed) shot which pulls back to show the multi-level set as if we were in the balcony of a theater watching the show. 

Directorially, Karam isn’t quite a strong as the script he provided so it’s a good thing he has cast the film so exceedingly well.  Jenkins, Squibb, and Yeun are wonderful in their roles and Feldstein continues to show a talent for portraying complicated characters that aren’t afraid to be abrasive.  The vulnerability in Schumer’s solid performance will surprise a good many of her naysayers but it’s Houdyshell’s show, and you can easily see why she won a Tony for the same role on Broadway.  Karam likes long takes and that’s perfect for several of Houdyshell’s scenes that require a range of emotions to play out in real time.  While Deirdre isn’t always a pleasant person to be around, I left the film wanting to know far more about her than any other character and that’s a sure sign Houdyshell has done her job on an exemplary level.

I think The Humans is a tad too reserved to break into the noisier races this year and that’s unfortunate because Houdyshell should absolutely get noticed for her work, as should production designer David Gropman (Life of Pi) and cinematographer Lol Crawley (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) for their focused efforts on making Karam’s world come to life so seamlessly from stage to screen.  It takes a while to get its engines up to speed but when it does there are some fascinating characters created, with issues ready to be digested along with your own Thanksgiving meal.

Movie Review ~ Encanto

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Colombian girl has to face the frustration of being the only member of her family without magical powers.

Stars: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Wilmer Valderrama, Adassa, Diane Guerrero, Mauro Castillo, Angie Cepeda, Jessica Darrow, Rhenzy Feliz, Carolina Gaitán, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Maluma

Directors: Jared Bush, Byron Howard,

Co Director: Charise Castro Smith

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the release of Encanto, a milestone is reached for Walt Disney Animation Studios.  This spirited musical bursting with color and tuneful songs is the 60th feature film released by the legendary animation division.  Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the studio has had its fair share of high and low points over the ensuing 75 years and even acquiring animation pioneer Pixar couldn’t backburner their own output.  Producing many bona fide hits and Oscar winners, not to mention an array of dazzling shorts to proceed their many full-length movies, Walt Disney Animation Studios is consistently pushing the boundaries on exploring new cultures and experiences that reach out to audiences globally and Encanto is no different.

Deep in the heart of the Columbian mountains, there is a town that was created as a refuge during a time of war through the power of a miracle gift the villagers come to know as the Encanto.  The original family that started the town, the Madrigals, were blessed with an additional gift. Each Madrigal has had a special talent bestowed upon them when they reached a young age.  Some had strength, some could speak to animals, some could heal through food, each endowment was unique and often brought forth something that was already inside the person.  Every Madrigal was given this gift…except for Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, In the Heights) who failed to receive one during her ceremony and has never known why. 

It’s during the newest ceremony for her young cousin and the festivities surrounding his new ability that fissures within both the figurative magic and literal house the magic built begin to appear, causing Mirabel to investigate the history of her family further.  Clues lead her down a path that point her toward an uncle (John Leguizamo, The Night Clerk) who fell out of favor with Abuela Alma Madrigal, the matriarch of the clan, and is not spoken of anymore and the possibility that he may be affecting the current state of the miracle.  With the family seen as a source of strength for the town, Abuela Alma is pressured to keep any hints of weakness within her children and grandchildren under wraps. Consequently, Mirabel is forced to take drastic measures if she hopes to use ordinary means to accomplish an extraordinary mission.

Accompanied by a series of tuneful songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda (already having quite the good November having just released his feature directional debut tick, tick…BOOM! on Netflix last week) that are pleasing to the ear but never quite get under your skin, Encanto bursts with color and movement from the beginning.  I’m always amazed how the animators seem to find new hues in the rainbow with each film they debut, and every swirl of shaded pastel or dash of a vibrant primary palette makes your eyes bug out a little further.  There were a few moments during Encanto’s more action heavy moments that have such specific sequences of events where I wondered how long it took to storyboard the movements before the animation could happen.  It’s no wonder these films often can take years to finish. 

Directors Jared Bush & Byron Howard’s 2106 film Zootopia won an Oscar as Best Animated Feature for Disney and for a very good reason.  The animation was detailed and complex and the story supported it all with an interesting plot that balanced developed characters with some truly hilarious moments.  Much of those same elements are on display here.  The characters in Encanto feel emotionally whole and formed as humans, rather than cartoons.  When it does delve into more of the humorous parts, it is legitimately funny, and the belly laughs that emerge feel like they are emanating from a satisfying place.  While the voice acting is on target, I couldn’t help but feel like some of the voices were auto pitched to sound younger…but I can’t confirm that.

I don’t find it as easy to sit through animated films as I did even five years ago, and I think it’s because they start to all blend together after a while.  That isn’t the case with Encanto which has the aura of a bold fragrance which pleasantly lingers long after you’ve left the theater.  Adults as well as kids will find something to enjoy within the frames and kudos to Disney for continuing their efforts to travel the world in search of the next story and culture to explore.

Movie Review ~ House of Gucci

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Patrizia Reggiani, an outsider from humble beginnings, marries into the Gucci family, her unbridled ambition begins to unravel their legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately…murder.

Stars: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, Camille Cottin, Jack Huston, Reeve Carney

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 158 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If you had asked me (or many Hollywood odds-makers) a few months ago about Ridley Scott’s chances in 2021 for finally snagging that elusive Best Director Oscar he’s been chasing for years, I would have likely told you that with two high profile films releasing within the last quarter of the year he was sure to get in for at least one.  Well, despite October’s The Last Duel being quite impressive and receiving fairly good reviews from critics, the studio made a critical blunder by opening it the same weekend the repulsive Halloween Kills came out and it tanked…big time.  Now Scott is back with House of Gucci, his second time at bat this year and it’s an even bigger project (the Knights of the Middle Ages never stood a chance against Scheming Italian Fashion Designers) so the stakes are higher. 

What we have here is a limited series for TV/streaming that happens to be a nearly three-hour movie.  So, somewhere along the line a serious error was made and the script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna based off of the book by Sara Gay Forden was sent to MGM’s film division instead of its television extension.  That’s the only reason I can think of for why Scott’s film has such a sprawling enormity that it eventually creates a black hole where the final act should be.  I have nothing against a movie with a butt numbing running time and have been known to turn up my nose at those who want every movie to be 90 minutes.  The thing is this, some movies have to carry a longer running length for a variety of reasons.  What they also need to have is, well, an ending and that’s what House of Gucci sorely lacks.  An ending.

Let’s back up almost three hours to the beginning of the film, when the future looked a little brighter for Scott and company.  Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver, Annette) is out for his morning routine when he encounters a man that will change the destiny of his family and the Gucci clothing line forever.  We’ll have to wait decades (in movie time) to find out precisely what that is because we flashback to an earlier period when Maurizio wasn’t involved with his family business but instead preferred to go through life without having his legacy define him.  The moniker definitely was attractive to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga, A Star is Born), a 22-year-old who met him at a party and cleverly positioned herself in his life so in the end he couldn’t say no to a relationship, and eventual marriage, to her.  Despite the protestations of his father (Jeremy Irons, Assassin’s Creed) who believed his son’s fiancé to be a gold-digger, Maurizio was so taken with the woman that he willingly gave up his father’s favor for her.

It was years later, and on Patrizia’s behest, that Maurizio’s uncle Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino, The Irishman) convinced his nephew to come back into the fold and take his rightful place in the line of Gucci royalty.  Once Maurizio was in, so was Patrizia…and that’s when the couple began cleaning house.  Targeting relatives they had once used as pawns, like black sheep Paolo (Jared Leto, The Little Things), Patrizia and Maurizio began to recreate Gucci as the luxury brand it would eventually become…but not under their regime.  Overzealous with their power and spending, the couple would go through rocky times, eventually leading Patrizia down a deadly path. 

The question most will be interested in will be how Lady Gaga’s sophomore effort in a feature film fares compared to her Oscar-nominated turn in A Star is Born.  There was a stretch of time where many thought the singer would win the award for her truly star-making performance but it’s this follow-up which is the real test.  The result? A solid B.  She attacks the role full on and you can tell she takes her job seriously, but the intensity of the acting is all over the map from scene to scene.  Part of the blame could fall on Scott for not reeling her in a bit more and helping her understand emotional arc, but by the end she’s almost deliriously wild-eyed to the point of hilarity.  It doesn’t help the scene in question (it’s with Salma Hayek where both are trying to be incognito) is laughably bad in general but her acting here only makes it stand out that much more.

Others in the cast sort of exist in her wake, with only Leto and Pacino surfacing occasionally to tell us they are also in the movie.  For as much churn as Leto seems to stir up any time he’s in a movie, he’s an immersive actor like few are.  Unrecognizable in heavy prosthetics and a fat suit, he doesn’t let the make-up do the acting for him…this is all Leto and it’s without question the best thing in the movie.  Pacino exists in an area between Leto and Gaga, sometimes he’s on the money, other times he’s overblown.  Either version of him worked for me.  Driver is surprisingly beige in the role, failing to bring much life to the part.  Maybe he was just adrift in the sea of Gaga and didn’t have much of a life raft?  Bless her heart but Hayek (Eternals) is playing such a terrible role, terribly written and terribly filmed, and the actress does her best to make something of it.  Alas, blood from a stone.  Blood from a stone.

Scott’s film painstakingly recreates the period in which all of these infamous events take place, down to the décor and couture that were de rigueur.  The fierce attention to detail is a dream to watch and from a production standpoint House of Gucci is a huge success on a scale of moviemaking with a capital “M”.  You would expect nothing less of Scott who is a master at this type of product.  Unfortunately, all the intricate features in the world can’t save some silly side characters and acting that grows increasingly campier (including the accents) as the film progresses.  Then there’s the jittery ending which barely exists, made more disappointing because it’s handled so poorly, and you have a movie that begins by making quite the impression but leaves a bad taste in your mouth by the end.