Movie Review ~ The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt aids his magical uncle in locating a clock with the power to bring about the end of the world.

Stars: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Vanessa Anne Williams, Lorenza Izzo, Sunny Suljic

Director: Eli Roth

Rated: PG

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I was fairly gobsmacked when I saw the name of the director of this adaptation of the 1973 novel by John Bellairs: Eli Roth . The horror director of gross films like Hostel, Cabin Fever, and The Green Inferno was known for spearheading the rise of the torture porn movement and here he was at the helm of a family friendly film.  How was this going to turn out?  The answer: surprisingly well.

Released in the fall, The House with a Clock in Its Walls was a fun little PG adventure with just enough scares to keep older kids interested but not so many that it would keep them up at night.  It’s the kind of film I would have loved to have had around when I was a pre-teen and likely would now have on VHS, DVD, and BluRay had it been released in 1987.  Stars Jack Black (Goosebumps) and Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) are an odd couple pairing but work like gangbusters together.  Blanchett, especially, looks like she’s having a downright ball and that energy becomes infectious.  I don’t know what drew Roth to lock away the blood, guts, and gore he was used to playing with but he’s made the transition to family fare with ease.  Keep this one in mind next Halloween.

Movie Review ~ Bad Times at the El Royale

The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption – before everything goes to hell.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny, Nic Offerman

Director: Drew Goddard

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After making a sizable splash with the super fun horror film The Cabin in the Woods and then netting a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his adaption of The Martian, Drew Goddard was clearly given a wide berth for his next project.  He was also evidently given final cut of the movie because Bad Times at the El Royale winds up clocking in at a staggering 141 minutes.  Now, I’m all for movies that take their time but they have to earn their running length and, while I enjoyed El Royale for the most part there are absolutely sequences that could be trimmed or removed all together to keep the film moving along.  This is, after all, a crime drama that sees a group of strangers converging on a motel that sits on the border of two states one rainy night.  Told from various points of view (it has a Pulp Fiction vibe to it) with each person adding a piece to a complex puzzle of deception, the movie worked far better for me than some of my critic colleagues and that’s totally fine.  It’s a movie that I think will play best in a home viewing instead of in a theatrical exhibition so you can stretch out and get comfortable.  Though it’s filled with A-listers like Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Dakota Johnson (Suspiria) and Jeff Bridges (Only the Brave), it’s actually newbies Cynthia Erivo (Widows), Lewis Pullman, and Cailee Spaeny (On the Basis of Sex) that manage to be the most memorable.  Worth a look.

Movie Review ~ Widows


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Robert Duvall

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one truly unfortunate thing that happened at the movies this year it’s that Steve McQueen’s Widows failed to catch fire at the box office.  The director of 12 Years a Slave and Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl, have adapted an ‘80s UK crime series and updated it to present day Chicago and cast some of the best actors working today.  It’s a gritty, great film and that it went largely unnoticed just totally baffles me.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) turns in what I think is the best performance of her career as a woman whose life is totally turned upside down and then is tossed sideways by a series of revelations that shock her and the audience.  Gathering together a group of disparate women (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby, Michelle Rodriguez, Furious 7) to follow through on a crime their husbands were planning, just when you think you’ve figured out where the movie is going it throws in multiple twists that I just did not see coming.  It’s hard to pull one over on movie-goers but McQueen and Flynn do it twice.

Hopefully, this is one movie that people will rediscover when it arrives on streaming services and then kick themselves for missing it when it was on the big screen.  Perhaps it was marketed wrong or maybe it was released at a bad time of year, but something strange happened with Widows because this is one of the best films of the year that just totally vanished way before it should have.  Find it, see it…you’ll understand what I’m saying when you do.

Movie Review ~ Ralph Breaks the Internet


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six years after the events of “Wreck-It Ralph”, Ralph and Vanellope, now friends, discover a wi-fi router in their arcade, leading them into a new adventure.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Taraji P. Henson, Gal Gadot

Director: Phil Johnston, Rich Moore

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t a ride or die fan of Wreck-It-Ralph when it first was released.  It took me a while to find my way to the movie in theaters and though as a child of the ‘80s I appreciated the nostalgia its 8-bit arcade game lead character stirred within me it doesn’t sit high on my list of favorite Disney films.  Though the sequel was hotly anticipated I didn’t even take the time to re-watch the original before taking in this colorful follow-up that I wound up having fun at.  This one seemed to push the envelope more than its predecessor and was stuffed with enough rapid fire jokes to keep your head spinning.  There are a plethora of Easter eggs to be found, especially for those that remember the early days of the World Wide Web and recall the way you would hold your breath when AOL would attempt to connect.

John C. Reilly (Holmes & Watson) and Sarah Silverman (A Millon Ways to Die in the West) are back to voice our two lead characters with Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) joining the cast as an ally to Silverman’s character. I also got a huge kick out of two scenes featuring every Disney princess that has appeared on film, most voiced by the same women that originally brought them to life.  Slyly commenting on their storybook lives in this #TimesUp brave new world we’re living in, they were the highlight of the film.  While the animation is wonderfully eye-popping I don’t feel the movie sticks in your brain like the best of the Disney animated films do.

Movie Review ~ On the Basis of Sex


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights, and what she had to overcome in order to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Jack Reynor

Director: Mimi Leder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It seems that the ‘80s and ‘90s were the great heyday of the inspirational biopic.  These films all followed a similar formula, charting the genesis of a famous figure from history through key points in their lives.  Rarely did they tell us things that couldn’t be found by picking up a book written on the subject but there was a certain gauzy quaintness to them that felt comforting.  Actors taking on these famous names often were showered with awards (it’s largely where the term Oscar-bait came from) but when the blueprint became passé, filmmakers had to find new angles in their storytelling. Aside from a few brief flashes (Get on Up, for example) the old-school biopic machine has been shut-down.

I’d love to be able to report that On the Basis of Sex, found an interesting way to bring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story to the big screen but it’s stuck conforming to the mold of a straightforward retelling of specific moments in the history of a pioneering woman in the legal system.  Though it wisely narrows its focus to a dozen or so years in her early career, it still misses the mark in letting us see deeper into how the Brooklyn-born Ginsburg laid the early groundwork for a career that would see her elected to the Supreme Court and become an unlikely cultural icon.

Entering Harvard Law School in 1956 along with eight other women, Ruth (Felcity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) recognizes she has an uphill battle from the beginning when the Dean of students (Sam Waterston, Miss Sloane) asks her at a formal dinner why she feels she deserved a spot at the respected school that could have been taken by a man.  It’s the first of many misogynistic situations she’ll encounter throughout the ensuing decades as she attempts to join a law firm but barely can get in the door simply because she’s a woman.  Supported by her husband Martin (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name) in every endeavor, Ruth accepts a position as a professor of law at Rutgers and it’s there in 1970 when she comes across a case that will change the course of her career.

Working with the ACLU to combat a sex discrimination case against a man in Denver, CO, Ruth sees this as an opportunity to address the larger issue of numerous laws that are set-up to discriminate against women.  If she can prove that the man was discriminated against, it would help to put into record a new precedent that could be used to rewrite other laws that do not support the equality of women.  Though dogged at every step by the defense attorneys (Stephen Root, Life of the Party and Jack Reynor, Transformers: Age of Extinction) and even at times by her own friend within the ACLU (Justin Theroux, Bumblebee), Ruth soldiers on with the knowledge that the goal of impartiality between the sexes is worthy of the struggle.  Kathy Bates (The Boss) cameos in two scenes as famed lawyer Dorothy Kenyon – I would have liked to see her one more time.

I’m sure it was a benefit to the validity of the facts of the film knowing that On the Basis of Sex was written by Ruth’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman (and that she approved of the finished product will likely make future family gatherings tension-free) but one wonders what someone with less close ties to Ginsburg could have done with the material.  Ruth certainly isn’t shown without flaws but there’s an emotional guardedness to the movie that was unexpected.  I never quite warmed to any of the characters, even when they were supposedly giving inspirational speeches that were meant to elicit cheers.  The most impactful moment of the movie is it’s final shot (which I won’t spoil) but there needed to be more of these moments sprinkled along the way.

Originally set to star Natalie Portman as RBG, when the project took too long to get off the ground she departed and Oscar-nominee Jones joined the cast.  I liked her portrayal of RBG for the most part though the performance ultimately suffers from that aforementioned walled-off emotion the script doesn’t seem to want to grant any of the characters.  Her accent is a bit half-baked and she doesn’t quite look like RBG but it’s close enough to do the trick.  After playing the supportive wife in The Theory of Everything, it was nice to see the roles flipped and for her to have someone in her corner while she charted her own course.  Hammer is always a tad on the milquetoast side but this is the rare time when that passive quietness works in his favor.

Director Mimi Leder has put forth a well-executed period film that is technically sound and hums along nicely for two hours.  The audience I saw this with broke out into huge applause at the end and I saw some wiping away tears as we left so clearly it’s landed emotionally the way everyone had intended.  If I’m being honest, it lost me in some of the legal jargon at times, especially in the third act and I wish more time was spent on Ruth’s life between graduating Harvard and taking up her landmark case.  However, it’s clear there was only so much story to tell and Stiepleman was attentive to what he felt were the important details.  Those looking for a bigger picture view of the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (myself included) will likely want to check out the documentary RBG that was also released this year.

Movie Review ~ Holmes & Watson


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A humorous take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Stars: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ralph Fiennes, Rebecca Hall, Kelly Macdonald, Hugh Laurie, Pam Ferris, Lauren Lapkus, Rob Brydon

Director: Etan Cohen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s been a month since Thanksgiving but there’s a fresh turkey to be found at your local cinema.  Sadly, there’s no wishbone to be had in this bird but if there had been, you’d likely use up your wish and go back in time to select another movie, any other movie, to see instead.  Haven’t we had enough Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson yet?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic literary creations have already come to life in multiple well-made movies over the past eight decades and one highly regarded television series, not to mention we’ve already had one marginally liked comedic take with 1988’s Without a Clue.  Yet the famed duo still provide fodder for further films and when they don’t have an ounce of brains in the planning you get a movie like Holmes & Watson.

A film sure to make Conan Doyle roll over in his grave, Holmes & Watson is a dum-dum comedy featuring Will Ferrell (The Campaign) and John C. Reilly (Carnage) hoping to recreate some of the magic they found in 2008 hit Step Brothers.  While that movie was no brilliant fete of moviemaking, it looks like Lawrence of Arabia compared to this stinker.  It seems like no one bothered to think through anything above and beyond the simple character constructs everyone already knows and then unfortunately let Ferrell and Reilly fill in the blanks.  Left to their own devices, the duo entertain only themselves for a turgid 90 minutes.  Adding in unnecessary modern references and a few Trump jokes for good measure not to mention an amazing amount of bad dubbing and numerous continuity errors and you have a movie that feels cobbled together from rejected remnants of better scripts.

Opening with the meeting and eventual friendship of a young Sherlock Holmes and John Watson when Holmes is dropped off and bullied at an elite boarding school, we jump forward to an established Holmes and Watson testifying at the trial of the recently captured Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel, looking pained in every one of his brief appearances onscreen).  When Moriarty goes free and a threat with his evil touch is then made on the Queen (Pam Ferris, The Raven), Holmes and Watson jump into action with the assistance of an American doctor (Rebecca Hall, The BFG) who catches Watson’s eye.  Also providing assistance is Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as the housekeeper at Baker Street, Rob Brydon (Early Man) as Inspector Lestrade, and Hugh Laurie (Tomorrowland) as Holmes’ older brother.

Admittedly, I saw Holmes & Watson at the tail end of a long holiday weekend and sort of half dozed off around the 40-minute mark but was told by my movie-going companion all I missed was an appearance by Steve Coogan (Philomena) as a one-armed tattoo artist operating at a wrestling studio (because…of course).  My sleepiness is also likely the reason I saw the movie was written and directed by Etan Cohen and for a brief moment was filled with fear that the Oscar winning director of No Country For Old Men had played a part in this…only to realize that was Ethan Cohen.  The man captaining this sinking ship was Etan (no ‘h’) Cohen and he gave us the gems Men in Black III and Get Hard…more in line with what’s on screen.

With a cast this stacked you almost feel sorry they are ending 2018 with such a scarlet letter on their IMDb page but if there’s one good thing to come out of Holmes & Watson is that hopefully studios will think twice before giving Ferrell such a long leash in future movies.  He’s a large reason the movie fails so spectacularly, halfheartedly hamming it up for the camera like he’s sleepwalking through the second to last sketch on a March episode of Saturday Night Live.  He’s merely collecting a paycheck and dragging down a lot of better actors with him.  Looking over his movies, he hasn’t made a legitimately good one in almost a decade, box office numbers aside.  It’s time for the actor to take a step back and have a good talk with himself about what kind of actor he wants to be because he’s consistently turning up in trash.

At this very moment audiences find themselves with a plethora of solid movie choices available to them and to even consider plunking down your money for Holmes & Watson over far better fare like Roma, Mary Poppins Returns, If Beale Street Could Talk, or Ben is Back would be a real waste.  Worse, you’d be rewarding the filmmakers and stars for their bad choices.

Movie Review ~ Vice


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.

Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Allison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, LisaGay Hamilton, Alison Pill

Director: Adam McKay

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In 2015, writer-director Adam McKay made the rare successful transition from helming absurd comedies to becoming an Oscar winner for his work on The Big Short.  Whereas he was previously known for college dorm room friendly movies like Anchorman and it’s sequel, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers he was now responsible for a movie that the parents of his fans were buzzing about.  The movie that resulted from The Big Short was a fairly remarkable achievement given how complex the novel by Michael Lewis was and McKay justifiably shouldered much of the plaudits.  With that kind of clout, not to mention the big box office his comedies had already made, McKay was given a wide berth for his next movie and the super-charged political Vice is the result of an artist that has tried to use all of his bag of tricks to much less success.

Charting the rise to power of Dick Cheney from college dropout all the way to the Vice Presidency under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Vice is a peculiar film that suffers under McKay’s employment of a similar set of structural devices he used in his previous films.  There’s a lot of jumping around in time, numerous lines delivered directly to the audience, and multiple times where the action stops so a familiar face can break down to viewers what exactly is going on or give a greater description to a political term that may be foreign to audiences.  With The Big Short and it’s heavy use of Wall Street lingo, these asides proved helpful but in Vice they feel like a hindrance to the narrative thrust of the piece.  I feel like Americans are much more savvy to politics so it has the effect of being talked down to rather than it being explanatory.

Vice has a lot of ground to cover and even in 132 minutes it rarely dives below the surface to give us a view into the lives of the former VP.  We simply go through the motions seeing Cheney (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight Rises) as a younger (thinner, less bald) man, a bit of a loser until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, Her) threatens to leave him unless he changes his act.  Entering Washington politics as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) under Nixon and Ford before being ousted by a regime change when Carter was elected President, Cheney had his hand in multiple power plays along the way where he skillfully positioned himself while playing the long game.

The first hour of the film focuses on these early years while the last half is all about the Bush years when Cheney agreed to serve as the Vice President for the son of the former president.  Recognizing him as unqualified and easily manipulated, Cheney seized this opportunity to request more power and responsibility, which Bush handed over to Cheney and his cronies without much incident.  Essentially, Cheney was running the show with Bush the real figurehead that was controlled by his second in command.  With the attacks on 9/11, Cheney saw an opportunity to strike back at enemies and helped set into motion a war many of the issues we still face today generated from.  For anyone that has read a book about this political age in our country, these won’t be revelatory facts but it’s not any less frustrating to see how many of our current problems could have been avoided had the election that put Bush/Cheney into office been criminally investigated as many now agree it should have been.

Much of the hype surrounding Vice has been Bale’s performance as Cheney and I have to say the actor looks and sounds remarkably like the man.  Bale is known to be an actor that dives headfirst into his roles, both mentally and physically and the transformation here is commendable.  Still, this felt like an impression not a performance and nothing I saw on screen revealed to me anything about Cheney from an emotional perspective only from Bale’s impression of the man.  That could easily be a choice since Cheney is notoriously a hard person to pin down but I think there’s something more that could be done apart from the physical alteration he made for the role.

I’m not sure if I had an issue with Adams and her performance as Lynne Cheney or if I just didn’t like Lynne Cheney and that made me respond in kind to what Adams was doing.  In McKay’s eyes, Lynne was a Lady Macbeth for the 20th century, pushing her husband into this life and often encouraging him into his most trying periods of power.  The parallels are further drawn in an admittedly amusing scene where McKay has Lynne and Dick speaking in Shakespearan verse when discussing Dick’s consideration of taking the Vice Presidential nomination.  Adams is always a reliable presence and she and Bale have a good chemistry, perhaps they just were too believable as evil people.

McKay clearly knows how to attract a name cast.  Aside from Carell’s hammy take on Rumsfeld and Rockwell’s good ole boy ease as the younger Bush, there are nice cameos from Jesse Plemons (Game Night) as a fictional character that serves as a narrator who becomes an important piece later in the film and Tyler Perry (Alex Cross) as a morally conflicted Colin Powell.  Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) and Lily Rabe (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) have some nice scenes as the Cheney daughters, and a special shout-out to LisaGay Hamilton (Beautiful Boy) for her spot-on Condoleezza Rice.

What’s missing from the movie are the moments between these big political benchmarks.  Skipping around in time (and over the Clinton administration all together) feels like McKay is cherry picking the passages he wants to highlight and that doesn’t feel fair enough in presenting an accurate picture of what was happening in the world that could have influenced Cheney in his later years.  I could easily have seen this being a Netflix series that stretched eight hours and being perfectly content to spend that extra time with these rather morally bankrupt people.  What’s not missing from the movie?  Symbolism.  McKay is a fan of making everything Symbolic with a capital S with many fishing/lures interstitials cut into scenes when Cheney is trying to hook another unsuspecting simp into his power plays.  At first it’s creative, then it becomes cloying.  Let’s also not speak of a dreadful mid-credit scene that Annapurna Pictures should immediately remove from all prints — totally unnecessary and weakens McKay’s argument up until that point.

There was little doubt before the release of Vice that former Vice President Dick Cheney was already considered one of the greatest villains our country but under McKay’s watchful eye he’s now become one of the screen’s most diabolical forces.  Vice is one of the most outwardly liberal movies to come out of a major Hollywood studio and in a way that’s refreshing because there’s no hidden agenda.  I just wish McKay’s message was delivered in a better envelope.

Movie Review ~ Green Book


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, P.J. Byrne, Sebastian Maniscalco

Director: Peter Farrelly

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Sometimes when reviewing a movie it’s hard to wear two hats.  I know that one part of me needs to retain a critical eye and hold a film accountable for its strengths and weaknesses but then there’s also a personal side that speaks to me as that movie-goer who has just come to be entertained.  Green Book represents an odd mix of conflicts in both sectors; it’s not a movie without it’s missteps or passages that work like gangbusters but there’s a undercurrent in the way it guilelessly aims to entertain that, considering its subject matter, didn’t ultimately sit well with me.  It’s a movie I enjoyed but also has me questioning if I shouldn’t be holding it more accountable to be more than it was.

In 1962 New York City, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method) is about to start a layoff from his job at the Copacabana while the famed nightclub undergoes renovation.  Looking for a job to support his wife (Linda Cardellini, Daddy’s Home) and children as the holidays approach, he’s called in by Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) a famed black jazz pianist who needs a driver for his tour of the Deep South.  While Don could easily stay in the North and make a good living playing concerts far from the danger of the Jim Crow South, he chooses to take his trio (there’s two other white men traveling separately) to a place where segregation and racism runs rampant.

Essentially a road-trip movie, screenwriters Nick Vallelonga  (Tony’s son), Brian Hayes Currie , Peter Farrelly (who also directed), fill the film with vignettes that illustrate over and over the differences between how the North and South treated black people.  As expected in this type of formula, tough, street-wise Italian-American Tony and the refined, buttoned-up Don mix like oil and water at first with both men taking time and many miles to adjust to the others way of thinking.  Both contain certain prejudices about the other (not always presented in the way you’d expect) and over the next eight weeks through the Christmas holiday the men will have their eyes opened to seeing more of the world they are living in.

Let’s start with the bad news first, and that is that this 2018 film seems awfully like the kind of movie you’d have seen the ‘90s where racism, segregation, and overall prejudice is seemingly solved in two hours.  Many of the characters onscreen are stock character stereotypes of the people you’d expect to see in a film about the south in the ‘60s.  You have your obvious redneck racists the deeper south Tony and Don travel, you have your affluent members of society that harbor whispered racism behind closed doors, and you have the people like Tony and some members of his extended family who have just never taken the time to get to know any person of color but when they do find out that they aren’t so bad.  Then there’s Tony himself who is the epitome of every Italian goombah you’ve seen, never without a cigarette in his mouth or chowing down on some messy red sauce-d dish.  Everyone is drawn with such exaggerated, bold lines that it’s a credit to the actors who have taken the time to find different ways to shade their roles with characteristics that are more human and less cartoon…though wait until you see Tony fold an entire pizza in half and try to eat it.

The good news here is most of our time is spent with Mortensen and Ali and this absolutely makes the film worth your time.  Though Mortensen is constantly battling with the major constraints of his tough-guy (the accent and the potbelly physicality), he’s never mean-spirited and seems open-minded enough to be able to look within himself when challenged.  Whatever racism he may harbor feels like it was something he was brought up to never question because he hasn’t had exposure to another race and the more time he spends with Don gives him a different perspective.  While I still raise my eyebrows a bit at the speed of Tony’s reconsideration, recognizing that we’re looking at a Hollywood take on a true life story I appreciated that Mortensen at least shows us how he got there.

The most complex role is Ali’s as a pianist bravely venturing into the territory of his enemy as a way to experience something his life in NYC hasn’t afforded him.  Surrounding himself with mostly white culture up until that point, the trip down south is an eye opening experience for Don as well, mostly reconfirming his beliefs of the hatred and injustices that were present (and in some cases still are) in that part of America.  There is more to Don than meets the eye, giving Ali yet another layer of prejudice to play with and he does masterful work here.  There’s talk that Ali will net his second Oscar for the film and with a performance as strong as his, I can see why.  (Though, it must be said he’s absolutely a lead of the film with Mortensen and for him to campaign in Best Supporting Actor is total category fraud).

After spending his career in comedy and turning in work like Dumb and Dumber To and The Three Stooges, director Farrelly takes his first stab at drama and has made a more than serviceable movie.  While the script has some questionable areas to it, it’s a finely made film with all the period elements (costumes, sets, cars, props) all fitting well into the mix.  Though the film was an entertaining watch and I liked the performances of our two lead actors, I do wish it had something more to say about the overall tone of that era.  When the credits rolled it felt like the filmmakers were saying “and they lived happily ever after” and that just rang false to me.

Movie Review ~ The Favourite


The Facts
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Synopsis: In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, Joe Alwyn

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The last two films from director Yorgos Lanthimos were definitely an acquired taste.  The absurdist comedy The Lobster was an unlikely groundswell art-house hit in 2015 and was followed by the pitch black (and deeply deeply depressing) family drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  Both films were co-scripted by Lanthimos and challenged audiences in ways that went beyond the simple pushing of taboo boundaries, penetrating under your skin and giving you a nagging itch for days after.  Thankfully, The Favourite, isn’t as emotionally draining as those previous efforts but it does retain Lanthimos’s particular affinity for seeing the world through an off-kilter gaze.

Set in England during the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, The Favourite drops us into the mix at a time when, unbeknownst to Anne, landowners were facing an unimaginable tax increase by the monarchy to pay for the war efforts.  Sidelined by painful gout, Anne (Olivia Colman, Murder on the Orient Express) effectively handed over her political affairs to her confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) who has her own shady behind the scenes dealings.  Though she is loyal to her queen, Sarah has gotten comfortable in her role as de facto ruler, often making decisions and seemingly effecting rules based on her own interests rather than what would be the best option for the throne of England.

Arriving to disrupt this arrangement is Abigail (Emma Stone, Aloha), Sarah’s penniless and disgraced cousin.  Abigail has come to Anne’s estate to grovel at Sarah’s hem for a job but has schemes up her sleeve much like her cousin.  Quickly rising through the ranks and catching Anne’s attention, Abigail begins to pose a threat to the plum set-up Sarah has for herself.  So begins a catty fight between the two women for Anne’s affections…much to Anne’s increasing delight.  At the same time, Abigail is pursed by a rival member of Parliament (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) seeking her help in ousting Sarah from her hold on Anne and romances a baron (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) who can expedite her ascension back into respected society.

Though screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are relative unknowns, their script for The Favourite has been bouncing around in Lanthimos’s stable for nearly a decade while he waited to secure financing for the period picture.  I’m glad it took them so long to make the film because he’s assembled a remarkable gallery of players in front of the camera and behind the scenes that gives The Favourite a sumptuous sheen and elevates it from its more soap opera-y tendencies.  It’s a bawdy film with several eye popping twists and often hysterically funny with razor sharp exchanges between Abigail and Sarah – none of it would have worked unless everyone involved wasn’t totally committed to the material.

The trio of ladies that make up the leads are sublime.  Though Stone is likely the biggest star in the group and might have the strongest arc, she wound up on the lesser side of the scale for me only because it felt like she was actively trying too hard to shoehorn herself into the period setting.  Colman is a riot as Anne, showing equal parts the vulnerability of a queen balancing a painful affliction and long-standing sorrow for numerous children she’s lost with the nastiness of a monarch that knows exactly how far her power reaches and how to wield it.  The sweet balance between Stone and Colman is Weisz giving one of her all time best performances in a career that has had many great ones.  While Sarah seems at first to be going in one direction, Weisz peels back several layers to show a different lady underneath we maybe hadn’t considered…and who might still be bad but could be the lesser of two, possibly three, evils at the end of the day.

The costumes from Sandy Powell (The Wolf of Wall Street) are gorgeous, the production design by Fiona Crombie (Macbeth) is luxurious, and the cinematography courtesy of Robbie Ryan (Philomena) has all the elements of a period drama but with modern strokes that keep the eyes always interested.  All help to strike the right mood in a film Lanthimos has divided into multiple parts, like a best-selling page-turner you can’t put down.  Like Mary Queen of Scots, The Favourite isn’t quite the history lesson you think it’s going to be when you sit down but it’s an incredibly entertaining and (best of all) surprising film that’s easily one of the most accomplished films of the year.

 

Movie Review ~ Boy Erased


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The son of a Baptist preacher is forced to participate in a church-supported gay conversion program after being forcibly outed to his parents.

Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Joe Alwyn

Director: Joel Edgerton

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Based on the 2016 memoir from Garrard Conley, Boy Erased is not the first film in 2018 to tackle the tough subject of gay conversion therapy.  Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post came out in late summer and featured a similar storyline of a gay teenager sent by their parents to a religious based program orchestrated to “convert” LGBTQ youth to live lives as “straight” people.  I haven’t seen The Miseducation of Cameron Post yet but have a feeling I would have emerged from that screening much like I did from Boy Erased: sad, frustrated, angry.

After a long internal struggle Jared (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) has recently admitted to his parents that he has feelings toward men. His father (Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) is a preacher in Arkansas and obviously this news isn’t received with much compassion or understanding.  Told he can either leave his home and job or go to a program to help cure him of these impure thoughts, he’s half-heartedly agreed to the latter and has been sent to a program called Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy assessment in Texas. Accompanied by his mother (Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Jared will spend 12 days being evaluated by the staff along with other youths facing similar ultimatums.

At first, it seems like this is something Jared might actually have put some faith in.  He clearly feels what he feels but also knows that to be gay would change his relationship with his parents forever.  When the director of the program (Joel Edgerton, Midnight Special, who also adapted the Conley’s book and directed) starts to implement the teachings in increasingly destructive ways, Jared questions which life would be worse?  Living his true self and having the chance at happiness, or continuing to lie to everyone for the sake of his family.

There’s a lot of tricky terrain to navigate here but Edgerton keeps the material nicely above pithy melodrama by encouraging his talented cast to lean back in their efforts as opposed to latching on to each emphatic moment/revelation along the way.  The performances come across as natural and even the Arkansas twangs are nicely muted (Kidman’s hair has the biggest drawl of all), creating an environment that sometimes feels documentary-like.  There are times when Edgerton skates the edge of hitting us over the head (literally) with his message but overall the subject matter is presented without much editorializing.

Conley’s true tale is one of solitary survival and that’s brought nicely to the screen by Hedges in a sensitive and nuanced performance.  The movie flashes back and forth from the present when Jared is entering the conversion program to an earlier time when he’s still in high school and then further forward as he moves into college.  We see the first time he gets close to opening up to someone and wince as he undergoes a traumatic encounter with a co-ed friend (Joe Alwyn, Mary Queen of Scots) we originally think will turn out much differently.  When his coming out story seems to be cruelly told for him, it’s a painfully tense moment as he desperately attempts to find yet another way to cover up his dark secret.

As Jared’s parents, Australian mates Kidman and Crowe nicely play two sides of the religious coin.  Both love their son but one has a much more difficult journey in the path to acceptance.  Hedges shares wonderful scenes with both but it’s an exchange with Crowe late in the film that allows both characters to exorcise some long-standing issues in a most powerful way.  Crowe doesn’t have to do much but listen to Hedges but he conveys so much with his eyes and posture that he takes us on a mini-journey of the spirit in several minutes.  As in life, Edgerton doesn’t have his characters change overnight but instead he presents building blocks for a bridge between two opposing sides and lets the audience come along as the people build a pathway to understanding.

Like Beautiful Boy also released in 2018, Boy Erased is as much a look at the parents as it is about the children but in the end I found Boy Erased to be a more relatable film.  Whereas in Beautiful Boy the character at the center of the family drama was making a choice to continue in a life that was proving destructive, Boy Erased’s Jared had no choice in how he came into this world.  His journey to discovery felt more authentic and, in the end, cathartic to this viewer.

 

Rare Soap Box Moment: If you are gay or know someone that has struggled with being gay this movie will likely prove maddening.  How these types of programs are allowed to exist and are supported in numerous states is a terrible thing.  Knowing many of these have no basis in scientific fact and are still covered by health insurance is even worse.  Legislation needs to be in place to remove these programs from receiving any kind of substantiation in the medical or psychiatric because they are selling a false promise to people Being gay is not a choice but something you are born as.  No amount of therapy, prayer, or government funded programming can change that.