Movie Review ~ All My Puny Sorrows

The Facts:

Synopsis: A heart-wrenching story of two loving sisters: one a gifted pianist obsessed with ending her life, the other a struggling writer who, in wrestling with this decision, makes profound discoveries about herself.
Stars: Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Amybeth McNulty, Donal Logue, Mare Winningham
Director: Michael McGowan
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  For all you readers of a certain age out there, do you remember when classic movies like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music were only shown once a year, making them special occasions? You’d look forward to watching them when they were broadcast on TV because you didn’t own them on VHS (what was a VHS?), and they weren’t available at the push of a button. They were often timed to a specific holiday or season, which went a long way in getting you ready for the upcoming months, both anticipating the showing and then for the time after. 

I mention this in my review of All My Puny Sorrows because this is a movie I feel should only be watched during bright summer months when the birds are chirping, the sun is out, and the grass is green. This one can get pretty bleak. Fans of Miriam Toews’s 2014 book that All My Puny Sorrows is based on will know what they are getting themselves into when approaching this adaptation from writer/director Michael McGowan. Everyone else won’t be as prepared for this overly depressing tale of two sisters battling mental illness in Canada while coming to terms with the impact their strictly religious upbringing had on their lives.

There’s space for movies like this, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about All My Puny Sorrows that makes it play like the book adaptation it is. Maybe it’s the characters’ names, Yoli (Alison Pill, Miss Sloane) and Elf (Sarah Gadon, Dracula Untold), who feel like they could only exist in an author’s mind writing a hefty tome. Or maybe it’s the countless sudsy developments that happen over 100 minutes that feel jam-packed even for a condensed version of a novel. Anything that can happen to a large ensemble of characters winds up happening to the small array of featured family here.

I have liked Gadon for a while, and she always seems to be just on the edge of breaking through into significant accolades. She’s terrific here as the sister constantly battling back demons while attempting to be a strong sister and devoted daughter. Pill’s a bit of a wild card, and while the performance is solid, the character is so all over the map that I often longed for Gadon’s less adventurous, sadder sibling. Of course, best of all is Mare Winningham (News of the World), queen of the underrated, understated performance, as their mother who never can get an honest read on her daughters until it is too late.

I found it challenging to get into this movie and make it through. There’s so much weight to it, and the heaviness it carries can’t help but rub off on the viewer by the end. In that regard, it’s hard to outright recommend All My Puny Sorrows, despite the strong performances. If the emotional rollercoaster and slight pretention of the literary structure is one you can endure, consider yourself fairly warned.

Movie Review ~ The Duke

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1961, Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver, steals Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.
Stars: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Goode
Director: Roger Michell
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  I know you’ve been wondering, so I’m going to break the suspense. I’m often asked what’s the worst thing about reviewing movies. Simple question, easy answer: reviewing good actors in a not-so-great film. You’d think it would be painless to review bad movies, but it’s honestly not fun because, as a true-blue movie fan, you want to like everything you see. They can’t all be winners, though, and sometimes they are downright stinkers. That’s the case of The Duke, a doubly sad affair because it is the final film from director Roger Michell, who passed away in September 2021. 

I had an inkling the film was in trouble because it had been moved around in the release schedule so many times, and for a small movie with two Oscar-winning stars in the middle of awards season, that’s an odd occurrence. While it picked up a few nominations in the UK, groups shut the movie out of any awards discussion stateside, and you can see why. It’s a total turkey, a dramedy without much moving drama or witty comedy to prove a worthwhile watch to fans of anyone involved. Also, there’s something to be said that the trailer for the film gives away absolutely everything that happens in the movie.

Dry to the point of breaking into a million pieces, the story of a London taxi driver (Jim Broadbent, Dolittle) who stole a priceless portrait from the National Gallery and became a hometown legend after he confesses feels like a slam dunk. Yet as played by Broadbent, the character is so unlikable, dotty, and disagreeable from the start that you aren’t ever convinced to be on his side, at least not long enough to stand with him against the government which was determined to prosecute him. It’s also hard to warm to his wife, played with typical stiff upper lip gusto by Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold). While Mirren’s resolve works typically to her favor, it offers her nowhere emotionally to grow, certainly not in her relationship with her husband and definitely not with their son, Fionn Whitehead (Voyagers).

Michell directed many films that had charm coming at you from all angles (hello, Notting Hill!), but The Duke is curiously absent of anything resembling persuasive charisma, and I was eternally grateful it clocked in at a decently short 96 minutes. Anything longer would have been a true prison sentence for audiences.

 

Movie Review ~ Top Gun: Maverick

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When he finds himself training a detachment of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission the likes of which no living pilot has ever seen, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell faces an uncertain future while confronting the ghosts of his past, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Danny Ramirez, Monica Barbaro, Manny Jacinto, Val Kilmer
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review:  I think it’s safe to say that we’ve had our share of star movies over the past several years. You know what I’m talking about, too. Films that are the real draw more than any living, breathing actor or actress appearing in the picture. It’s like a long-running Broadway show in that, at a certain point, it doesn’t matter who is playing the leading role; it all depends on if the audience is willing to pay out money to see the machine at work. A seemingly endless stream of Marvel, DC Comics, franchise, and known content have clogged up theaters even before the pandemic, and now that’s all audiences want to spend their money on. It takes a bold movie with hot word of mouth (like the ongoing box office smash Everything Everywhere All at Once) to break through the noise. And it takes a movie star.

If anyone could bust through that wall of sound, it’s going to be an actor that’s been literally trying to break the sound barrier for years. Superstar Tom Cruise has had his fair share of bad press during his career and especially over the past half-decade, but what he continues to deliver is a breathlessly impressive supply of limit-pushing adventures that put the capital “C” in Cinema and remind you why you pay that extra fee to watch movies on the most giant screen you can find. His Mission: Impossible films have morphed from the kitschy fun of the original to mind-boggling action epics. Last onscreen in 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, with a two-part capper to his Ethan Hunt character from that series starting in 2023, Cruise is sliding back into theaters with a film that has been finished for a few years but has been delayed due to the pandemic. 

For a while, it felt like a sequel to the bombastic classic 1986 film Top Gun would never see a theatrical release. Already coming off to some like a stretch project thirty years too late, Cruise made it a point to let detractors know he’d been approached for a follow-up on multiple occasions, but it wasn’t until now that a script came together that felt right. With better technology and the opportunity to have actors trained to fly the jets (and film themselves as well!), Cruise could give fans a second chapter that would be worth waiting for. No one could have expected how long the wait would be, though. Intended for release in July 2019 (yes, 2019), it was bumped back for a myriad of reasons along the way. The important thing is that Cruise held out to keep Top Gun: Maverick from being a victim of the studio’s wave of pandemic straight-to-streaming offloads…and we should be forever grateful.

Thirty years into his career in the U.S. Navy, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise, Rock of Ages) has remained a test pilot, passing up promotions to stay airborne and avoid the dreaded desk job of senior officers. Currently working on a hypersonic test jet at the film’s start, when he breaks protocol and is targeted by a commanding officer for permanent grounding, he’s called back to familiar territory at San Diego’s Top Gun training program. His skills are needed to oversee a new mission carried out by an elite group of the best recent graduates, many of whom weren’t even born when he was in their shoes. One of the pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now), isn’t thrilled to see Maverick onsite due to their complicated family history. Fans of the original will make the connection (and it’s no spoiler), but I’ll let screenwriters Ehren Kruger (Dumbo), Erin Warren Singer (Only the Brave), and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) connect the dots while you watch.

Rekindling a romance with old flame Penny (a barely-there character from the original and the substitute for Kelly McGillis, who, like Meg Ryan, sadly doesn’t return for the sequel, though other familiar faces do), Maverick balances questioning the need for stability at his age with, well, feeling the need for speed. You can guess what wins most of the time, but credit Cruise and Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) as Penny for creating a mature, age-appropriate relationship that is allowed to take center stage believably and often without a lot of dialogue. Connelly is so good (and eternally, impossibly beautiful) at conveying whole paragraphs with just an eye movement, that she makes one of the best Cruise love interests I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s the kind of non-mushy romantic involvement that even audiences coming for full-throttle action won’t mind pausing for.

Not that the film doesn’t have the pulse-pounding, nail-biting action to keep you alternately on the edge of your seat or pushed back gripping your armrests. Making good use of the IMAX cameras it was filmed on and incredible cinematography seamlessly blending the actual flying from any green screen, it’s as realistic an action-adventure as you’ll see this side of a documentary or Navy-approved training video. Credit to Cruise and the actors for going the distance and putting in the work to make it look accurate. Working with a mission more in-depth than the first film could have brought more complex challenges to keeping engagement, but it’s an easy-to-follow film with easy-to-root for high stakes.

Like an authentic ’80s summer sweltering blockbuster, it has a power anthem from Lady Gaga with a needle drop at a perfect position. It was a fantastic move to have its theme weaved into the score throughout. I still like the Oscar-winning Giorgio Moroder/Berlin song from the first film best, but I am glad Gaga and Hans Zimmer didn’t simply remake that classic. Gaga has a serious chance to win another songwriting Oscar for her fist-raising barn burner that rounds out one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the movies in my recent memory. If you’ve been waiting weeks, months, or years (?) to head back to the theater…Top Gun: Maverick is the film to break your fast. See it on an IMAX screen as big as you can find with a great sound system and you’ll get the full impact. Waiting until streaming will not do at all. Top Gun: Maverick is a must-see in general, but you can’t miss it in the movie theater.

Welcome to Summer 2022.

Movie Review ~ Torn Hearts

The Facts:

Synopsis: A country music duo seeks out their idol and ends up in a twisted series of horrors that force them to confront the limits they’d go for their dreams.
Stars: Katey Sagal, Abby Quinn, Alexxis Lemire, Joshua Leonard, Shiloh Fernandez
Director: Brea Grant
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Horror is a genre that can be mighty deceiving to unsuspecting audiences, creating many unhappy campers that have selected their watch based on shaky marketing. Sure, the poster looks spooky and slick, but the film is a bottom-of-the-barrel cheap-o endeavor that barely rises above home movie footage. So, you must be smart and look at the studio releasing it. You can tell a lot from the production company that either puts their money into the movie as a financer or picks up the film after completion for distribution. Either way, they’re putting a stamp of approval on it that speaks to their brand.

Admittedly, Blumhouse Productions have a line of stinkers in their roster, and this is going to be a positive review of Torn Hearts, so I’m going to leave them out. Instead, let’s focus on the good ones that far outweigh the bad apples. Titles like Paranormal Activity, Get Out, Happy Death Day, The Purge, and the 2018 Halloween are their bread and butter, not to mention all their numerous sequels. While the pandemic slowed the pace of their production slightly, they had no trouble ramping back up quickly once cameras were rolling again. However, not all are meant for big-screen releases, and that’s where an intriguing effort like director Brea Grant’s Torn Hearts comes in. Debuting through Blumhouse Television and EPIX (as well as other pay-to-play sites like Amazon Prime), it mixes a dangerous cocktail of bold ambition, country music, and bloody brutality.

Nashville country duo Torn Hearts checks most of the boxes that signal they are ready to begin a long career in the business. Jordan (Abby Quinn, Little Women) is the songwriter and guitarist singing harmony along with Leigh (Alexxis Lemire, The Half of It), who tackles the melody while playing tambourine. Leigh is the more marketable of the two, and both know it, though they also recognize they are stronger working as a team than as solo artists. While Leigh is dating their manager (Joshua Leonard, Four Good Days), Jordan can’t stand to see her friend fall into that cliché trap. 

A chance introduction to country superstar Caleb (Shiloh Fernandez, The Evil Dead) hints at the possibility of opening for him on tour, but the women wind up with what they imagine to be a real jackpot. Caleb came close to recording a comeback single with the antisocial Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal, Pitch Perfect 2), half of a sister act that retreated from the public eye after Harper’s sister killed herself while she watched. Caleb gives Jordan Harper’s address, and before you know it, the women have skipped their early morning recording session for a quick jaunt to meet their idol. 

They find a nervy, finger-tapping recluse who resists meeting them at first but, after sizing them up, decides to hear them play. Seeing something in both women reminding her of what she once had with her sister, Harper invites the duo to stay and collaborate on a song…or so they think. Preying on both of their insecurities in increasingly manipulative and violently bizarre methods, Harper tests their strength as individuals to see if they have what it takes to remain unified or if their idea of fame is more focused on a solo spotlight.   

I feel that Torn Hearts might have still worked if it hadn’t had celebrated television star and former Bette Midler backup singer Sagal in a central role, but it absolutely would have lacked the bite Sagal brings. There’s a certain authenticity, especially in the limited singing Sagal is allowed to do, that makes you believe her unhinged character has the potential for enacting any mayhem she chooses. Sagal is working in The Zone, and it elevates the film from a random horror/thriller to a level of more sophistication. She’s supported nicely by Quinn’s acerbic Sara Gilbert in Roseanne-esque take on an alternative modern woman in country music. If Lemire winds up feeling a bit soft, it’s only due to writer Rachel Koller Croft designing her to be a bit of a limp noodle throughout. Besides, once Sagal enters the film around twenty minutes in, all you’ll be wanting is more more more of her.

Director Grant balances time between acting (so great in The Stylist and Lucky) and directing (12 Hour Shift) and clearly has a talent for this genre, especially for creating strong female protagonists (even if they are off their rockers) with a clear point of view. I appreciate that Blumhouse Television and EPIX is making room for filmmakers like Grant and Croft and giving roles to actresses like Sagal while expanding the careers of Quinn and Lemire. All have experience in the industry, but the extra exposure of a well-made release like Torn Hearts increases their value.

Movie Review ~ Shepherd

The Facts:

Synopsis: Haunted by the recent death of his wife, widower Eric Black seeks solitude as a shepherd on a remote Scottish island. As the bleak desolation of the foreboding landscape and terrifying visions overwhelm him, Eric is pushed to the brink of madness.
Stars: Tom Hughes, Kate Dickie, Gaia Weiss, Greta Scacchi
Director: Russell Owen
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  If you are anything like me, when you’re exhausted and not wanting to put forth much effort, there are types of movies you look for as you scroll through a queue on a streaming service by going off the displayed image alone. Maybe you’ll read the description. Maybe you’ll watch a trailer (for me, the first 30 seconds or so). Maybe you’ll do a quick IMDb search to ensure the film doesn’t have a 2.2-user rating. Usually, though, you point, click, and go for it. Shepherd is a film you watch because you’ve gone to the horror section, seen the creepy cover, read the words “remote Scottish island,” and decided that brief blurb sold you.

A recent widower (Tom Hughes, Infinite) struggles to adjust to life without his wife, who had perished in a car accident and whose body was never recovered. Early on, there’s a suggestion from his mother (Greta Scacchi, so glamorous in 1990s Presumed Innocent, now dressed to look like a potato sack marm) that the wife had affairs. Perhaps that’s why the man can’t fully reconcile with her death…or the loss of the baby she was carrying at the time. Over coffee, he finds a want ad for a shepherd with lodging in a lighthouse on a desolate piece of land off Scotland’s coast and seizes that opportunity to escape his memories. 

Wouldn’t you know it, alone with just his dog and several sheep to keep him company, all he has are dark recollections of the past that begin to haunt his present? The grizzled boat captain with the milky eye (Kate Dickie, Prometheus) who brought him over speaks as if she can see through secrets he has hidden away, but does she have something to do with the odd occurrences which start to happen to him? What of the figure in black that appears as a harbinger of doom and draws ever closer, urging him to repent? Are these happenings all in his mind, the result of a grief-stricken husband that hasn’t yet fully dealt with his loss, or are they the result of guilt manifested as supernatural spooks biting at his heels for eternity? What if it’s not in his mind, and something genuinely is out to get him?

I want to say that writer/director Russell Owen’s chilly thriller cuts some new ground in the genre, but Shepherd is a generic ghost tale that otherwise gets the job done much of the time. Working through a pre-made checklist of necessary things that go bump in the run-down lighthouse, Owen creates a pleasant mood for most of his feature film but never makes a case for it being anything you feel the need to recommend to a friend. It simply suits its purpose, and that’s that. Shock jolts arrive and dissipate, tension mounts and releases, the sun goes down, and it comes up. You can hear the pages flipping, almost as if Owen and his crew are working through a textbook.

Not one to completely write off, Shepherd does have good work from Hughes and especially the dependable Dickie who never met a line she can’t make into some ominous portent of doom. Primarily a solo exercise for Hughes, it helps that the actor holds our attention for most of the (too long) run time. Would this have been trimmed up to 80-ish minutes, it would have allowed the tension to remain tighter longer and kept the weaker passages filled with paint-by-numbers drama out of it completely. If you toss this one on around 9:15 pm, you’ll be through by 11:00 pm and ready to jump into bed with a nice little zing of fright. Any earlier, and you’ll be wanting more to fill your plate; any later, and you’ll be snoozing.

Movie Review ~ Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thirty years after their popular television show ended, chipmunks Chip and Dale live very different lives. When a cast member from the original series mysteriously disappears, the pair must reunite to save their friend.
Stars: John Mulaney, Andy Samberg, Will Arnett, Eric Bana, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, J.K. Simmons, KiKi Layne, Flula Borg, Dennis Haysbert
Director: Akiva Schaffer
Rated: PG
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: It’s hard to believe it now, but the original run of Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers on The Disney Channel was just three “seasons” that ran a little over a year, starting in 1989. That was prime time for me, and I vividly recall that whole cartoon programming block on the popular premium channel. Once it entered syndication, it would often air with DuckTales (another favorite) and TaleSpin (take it or leave it), but with the two chipmunks long being a favorite of mine since tiny tyke-hood, I was hooked on everything Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers was serving up. As Disney+ enters its newest evolution in reexamining its content library, there’s been a trend in remaking or rebooting to varying degrees of success. 

This past Christmas, a low-down dirty shame of a movie came out called Home Sweet Home Alone. Daring to advertise itself with the tagline “Holiday Classics Were Meant to Be Broken” and break them, they sure did. A travesty of a reboot (or continuation, it was never clear), it was a dismal mess and didn’t bode well for any future project that might be coming down the pike. You’d imagine the blood draining out of my face when I saw the poster directly above this review for Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. “It’s not a reboot, it’s a comeback.” Here they go again with a clever tagline that kicked up some dirt at reboots while jockeying for a place on a higher bar. Disney was setting itself up for the same failure as before, right?

Initially, I was going to put on Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers for background noise in my hotel room during an out-of-town work trip. It wasn’t one I was totally duty-bound to review, so… what’s the harm in just having it playing on the side? Then something strange happened. The film began, and I started laughing at jokes that I would never have understood fully as a kid, but I completely LOL-ed at them because they were specifically targeted at adults that were kids at the time the original series was released. Writers Dan Gregor (Dolittle) and Doug Mand appear to have been given carte blanche to give a highly detailed take on an animated children’s show and turn it into an Easter Egg hunt for big kids that now have a mortgage to pay.

The world of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is similar to the Toon Town of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, with animated and live-action characters interacting normally. Cartoons are filmed like regular movies, and if you have the right amount of money, hand-drawn animated figures can “upgrade” themselves to computer-generated versions in order to stay relevant in the looks-obsessed society of today. Before we get to the present, we look back at the past with Dale’s (Andy Samberg, Palm Springs) voiceover telling the origin story of how he met Chip (John Mulaney, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) in grade school when both were social outcasts. Teaming up to become a comedy duo, they took their act to Hollywood, where they eventually landed a plum gig on, what else, Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers. When Dale gets tired of playing the silly second banana to Chip, he makes a play for solo fame but loses both of their careers in doing so.

Thirty years later, someone has been stealing famous cartoon characters and selling them to the black market as digitally altered bootlegs. When old castmate Monterey Jack (Eric Bana, The Finest Hours) vanishes after reuniting the two former friends, the odd couple will need to put aside their past differences and use their fictitious crime-solving techniques in a real-world setting. Working with a disgraced detective (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk) to elude an underbelly of criminal older toons (one that “won’t grow up” sure did) while trying to locate their friend, the duo meets up with familiar faces from their glory days as well as blink-and-you missed-them famous cartoons that will consistently surprise you.

This rollicking plot bursting with creativity at every turn is great news for long-time fans like me who leave the 97-minute film with a boost but might be problematic for parents trying to introduce their kids to their chipmunk chums from yesteryear. There are far too many “inside baseball” jokes that won’t resonate with children that don’t remember waiting a whole week for the next episode of a show that you couldn’t start over again immediately. Chock full of connections to many early ’90s cultural touchstones which brought me glee, I couldn’t help but wonder what an oddity this would feel like to someone with no frame of reference.

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a fun ride, engineered for an audience mature enough to get the rapid-fire nostalgia-rich jokes but not too mature to avoid taking a chance on a reboot, sorry, a comeback of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers in the first place. The solid, sensible voice work from Mulaney and Samberg gives the furry stars the type of personalities you might have anticipated them having were they to have offscreen personas. Finally, director Akiva Schaffer (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) stays mindful of plot and pacing, never letting the comedic action linger too long in one place. Far better than you’d expect and one I’m more than open to revisiting, Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers isn’t one to let slip through the cracks.

Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey: A New Era

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The year is 1927. The Dowager Countess of Grantham inherits a villa in the south of France from an old friend at the same time a filmmaker gets permission from Lady Mary to shoot a moving picture at Downton Abbey
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Michael Fox, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West, Jonathan Zaccaï
Director: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Coming off its monumentally successful five-year run in 2015, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes promised its audience clamoring for more upstairs/downstairs tales surrounding the fictionalized titular manse that a movie was in the works.  It took four years, but the 2019 film Downtown Abbey was a perfectly filling bit of big-screen fun that ultimately felt like an extended television show episode.  The creators didn’t raise the stakes any higher than necessary, and while some hint of finality was suggested for a few characters that might not have wanted to return should another chapter be ordered up, the door was left ajar for any and all to return.

Return they all do a mere three years later for Downtown Abbey: A New Era, and this time Fellows and new director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) have done what the first one didn’t want to bother with, shake things up a bit.  With its production that seemed to drop out of nowhere amid post-pandemic start-ups, there was a nice amount of anticipation for this one because it targets the same group that has been an elusive get at movie theaters for the last several years.  After all this time, would this PG-rated continuation of the hit series coax them out of their homes and back into cinemas?

I’d wager a bet that the same audiences that turned out to make the first film reach nearly 200 million at the box office will venture out for a matinee of this one. However, they may first wonder why all the rainy English countryside inhabitants are so tawny and tan.  For a while, I thought they might want to call the film DownTAN Abbey instead because of actors like Hugh Bonneville’s (visibly slimmed down) golden glow. If you’re like me and didn’t take the time to re-watch the first film before showing up, Fellowes and Curtis have demonstrated good manners and included a nice recap narrated by Kevin Doyle’s Joseph Molesley. 

We’re nearing the end of the 1920s, and wedding bells are ringing for former chauffeur and current estate manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody) just as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, Quartet), receives the news she has been left a villa in the south of France.  Unable to travel to France herself, Robert (Bonneville, Paddington) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) accompany honeymooning Tom, his new wife, along with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and her husband to visit Violet’s new property, allowing the younger set to find out more about the mysterious inheritance in the process.

Meanwhile, back at Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) reluctantly agrees to let a film crew make a movie in the family home after figuring she can put the money they are offering toward repairs the property desperately needs.  With Mary’s husband away (a convenience that is explainable at the outset but downright preposterous by the end), the director (Hugh Dancy, Late Night) takes an interest in their host, eventually getting her more than a little involved in the production. At the same time, the stars of the film (Laura Haddock, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dominic West, Tomb Raider) each make different impressions on the dedicated staff at Downtown. 

Shifting directing responsibilities to Curtis (McGovern’s real-life husband) from Michael Engler was wise. While Engler oversaw the first film with an assured hand, he perhaps brought too much of a television eye to the feature film.  Having directed numerous episodes of Downton Abbey, Engler’s movie just felt like more of the same, however welcome it was at the time.  Curtis gives the film some stamina and speed, though if anything, it’s Fellowes that lets the audience down a bit with plotlines straight out of Singin’ in the Rain and more than a few strange detours that, in hindsight, are just emotional misdirects.

Downton Abbey: A New Era ushers in more robust filmmaking, script quibbles aside.  We’re getting close to periods in history when the glitz and glamour that made the series so appealing at first will need to come to an end, and that’s when the real test of audience devotion will take place.  Wartime dramas are a dime a dozen, but what made Downtown Abbey so unique was its dreamy days before war factored in.  You can be sure there are more Downton Abbey films on the horizon, and I wouldn’t rule out another entire series to come along one of these years either. 

Movie Review ~ Dual

The Facts:

Synopsis: Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life.
Stars: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Theo James, Maija Paunio, June Hyde
Director: Riley Stearns
Rated: R
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It’s always tough to be second.  I’m not talking about the First Runner up for Miss Universe or those who finish mere tenths of a breath behind the top racer in the Daytona 500.  What I mean is arriving at a Halloween party wearing a costume you toiled over for days only to enter right after someone in a store-bought ready-to-wear ensemble that puts your handmade one to shame.  It’s the same way for movies.  No matter how good a movie might be if it’s similar in plot to one that has recently come out, the act of comparison alone could be enough to sink the flick before it even has a chance to make its impression on audiences.

We have a bit of a funny situation with Dual, the new thriller with science fiction elements from director Riley Stearns.  The story of a woman being told she’s dying and being offered the chance to clone herself to ease the pain of the loss for her family and friends bears a striking resemblance to December’s Swan Song, an AppleTV+ release.  That Mahershala Ali and Glenn Close drama was decidedly excellent but flew so low under the radar it failed to catch on in key end-of-year discussions when it desperately needed to gain traction.  Despite it being much deserving of an Oscar nomination for Ali, it only managed a BAFTA and Critics Choice nom and a handful of outer circle critical nods. 

That wound up being good news for Dual. While many critics were fond of Swan Song (i.e., those who had the opportunity to have it practically delivered to their doorstep), it’s a mostly unknown entity, so Dual’s cloning plot could skate by without suffering much in comparison.  The two films couldn’t be more different in their style, not to mention tone and overall entertainment.  Where Swan Song walked through some deeply emotional territory and used its running time to take audiences on a moving journey of loss and acceptance, Dual is the opposite.  Chilly and aloof, it’s overly methodical and leads to a plodding pace that makes the action feel so very much longer than it is.  Darkly satirical in its best moments and artfully inert at its worst, Stearns and his cast spend the film in a frustrating dance with the audience, always leading with too much force and never on beat with the natural rhythm of language.

The briefest of prologues show a man (Theo James, Archive, a far more exciting sci-fi thriller) doing his best to avoid death by crossbow from an assailant we can’t see.  One of the men eventually overtakes the other, attempting to outmaneuver his opponent in front of a somber crowd of spectators. A supposed secret is revealed that anyone who watched the trailer or read the synopsis will already know.  Shifting focus over to Sarah (Karen Gillan, Oculus), we get only fringe information at the outset on the woman, mostly about secret indulgence in vices while her boyfriend (Beulah Koale, Shadow in the Cloud) is gone on an extended business trip. 

When Sarah begins coughing up blood and is told she has a terminal stomach disease, she reacts quite the opposite one might expect.  You feel Sarah has been written (or is being played by Gillan) as slightly on the spectrum. While that gives the character some engaging angles when confronting the serious situations she’s about to face, it’s perhaps a bit too mannered a demeanor overall.  By the time she meets her clone (given blue eyes by mistake, and thus a 10% discount), the two are as alike in robotic responses as they are in looks.  As the compliant clone gets to know Sarah and the loved ones who don’t seem to like the original much, what was meant to be a balm for their sorrow turns into the accessible girlfriend/daughter they had always wanted.

This shift of gears to the clone being more appreciated than her inspiration is when the movie began to get interesting, especially on the heels of Sarah figuring out her terminal diagnosis was false and now she’d be forced to fight her clone to the death.  Unskilled in defense, she turns to a cheap trainer (Aaron Paul, Need for Speed) who walks her through everything she needs to know to be as prepared for the ultimate battle of self.

There are flashes of the fun black comedy Dual wants to be at various times throughout the 94-minute film, but too much of it runs on a stilted stutter.  Sarah’s interactions with a riotously blank doctor (June Hyde) are golden, as are many scenes that find her loosening up with Paul and learning to love letting her guard down.  Stearns doesn’t seem to feel the same way because we’re quickly back to monotone back and forth between the Sarahs with the original suffering one injustice after another.  Ostensibly taking place in the future but blessedly free from looking futuristic, it’s a low-key production that lets the script do the work and actors pull up the slack.  As stated above, Gillan’s choices for the role are intriguing but make it hard to get near enough to the character to find compassion.  Capped by an ending amounting to a significant shoulder shrug and heavy sigh, Dual needed to feel more singular to stand out.

Movie Review ~ You Are Not My Mother

The Facts:

Synopsis: Char’s mother goes missing in a North Dublin housing estate. When she returns, Char is determined to uncover the truth of her disappearance and unearth her family’s dark secrets.
Stars: Hazel Doupe, Paul Reid, Carolyn Bracken, Ingrid Craigie, Jade Jordan, Jordanne Jones, Katie White, Aoife Spratt
Director: Kate Dolan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: If you’re a fan of horror like me and struggle to find something new to view, you’ve probably done something like what I try now and then.  You’ll search “Best Horror films on <insert streaming service> right now” and see what luck you have.  Between some obvious choices of mainstream fare making their debut on your service of choice, there’s always an unknown title that turns out to be a hidden gem.  The internet may be a cesspool at times, but this is a case when it is good for something.

This new Irish horror film from director Kate Dolan is one that I’m pretty sure will become part of this list once enough people get a chance to see it.  The title alone, You Are Not My Mother, has a lot of eye-catching heft to it, and, as it turns out, so does Dolan’s effective screenplay and creepy production.  Dolan gives her audience a nimble and rewarding ride by bringing you in with what you think are tropes associated with the straightforward family dynamic drama and then changing sharply into the richly detailed mythology of folk horror.  Local flavor in the performances elevates the picture further, making it an authentically felt experience.

Teenager Char (Hazel Doupe, The Shadow of Violence) is used the stares from the townspeople in her small Irish village.  After all, she’s the child of Angela (Carolyn Bracken), who is known for her mental health struggles over the years.  Bearing a visible scar on her face from one of her mother’s episodes, Char is mainly friendless and tries to make it through the day without attracting the attention of neighborhood bullies Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) and Kelly (Katie White).  Living with her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) eases some of the tension because she’s experienced with keeping an eye on Angela. Still, even Rita can’t explain where Angela has disappeared to now.  Unable to find her mother for days, there’s little anyone in the town can (or wants) to do to find her.

When Angela does return, something is different, and Char sees it right away.  The darkness that plagued her has lightened, the willingness to be involved is finally there, and the mother she wanted has returned.  Yet, this strange about-face doesn’t seem entirely correct, and a late-night peek between a door jam reveals to Char why she should be afraid of Angela…and what evil she has brought back with her.  As her mother tries to draw her nearer and bullies circle her like vultures, Char needs to rely on inner strength to battle her growing demons.

Dolan directs her first feature after spearheading several shorts over time. The result is a confident debut that draws out uniformly good performances, especially from Doupe and Jones as Char’s nemesis that, like all bullies, has more to her than meets the eye.  Giving these characters more personality and depth than usual helps create a real-world space for this horror to invade and more reason for audiences to invest time in wanting them to survive.  Despite some iffy special effects near the end, all of the playing field Dolan is working with in You Are Not My Mother has a ring of truth to it, so you can feel that chill up your spine just as much as the characters do.  This solid effort is one to watch for and not scroll by so easily.

Movie Review ~ Better Nate than Ever

The Facts:

Synopsis: 13-year-old Nate Foster has big Broadway dreams. There’s only one problem — he can’t even land a part in the school play. But when his parents leave town, Nate and his best friend Libby sneak off to the Big Apple for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove everyone wrong.
Stars: Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Joshua Bassett, Michelle Federer, Norbert Leo Butz, Lisa Kudrow
Director: Tim Federle
Rated: PG
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When I watch movies now, I tend to compare them to movies I saw when I was of a certain age.  With the nostalgia trend in full kick, audiences approaching their mid-forties are fond of finding their new The Goonies or Gremlins or Fast Times at Ridgemont High… to name a few.  Of course, nothing is going to be or beat those films because they were of their time and so perfect for that point in the history of when they were made.  Then there are the movies I see that I wish had been made when I was a kid.  Plenty of titles I see now would have been so great to see when I was younger and the Disney+ offering Better Nate Than Ever is an excellent example of that.

Yep, I’m one of those theater kids (maybe now I should call myself a former, or reformed, theater kid?) who had big Broadway dreams when I was in high school and probably for some time before that.  While I now know there were oodles of old MGM/Warner Bros. movies about guys and gals that fled to NYC with the lights of the Great White Way dancing through their brains, back then, I didn’t know from what was in the small section of the video store I frequented.  Had Better Nate Than Ever, with its plot of a teen that ditches school and heads to NYC for a Broadway audition, been available to me, I indeed would have found it, loved it, and probably been a stowaway on a Greyhound to NYC along with my best friend too.

Based on former Broadway dancer Tim Federle’s bestselling novel, Better Nate Than Ever is cute family entertainment that reaches the rafters with heart and ambition, even if it doesn’t always land its double turns.  Directed by Federle, who also adapts his novel, the movie centers around Nate Foster (newcomer Rueby Wood), a 13-year-old Pittsburgh teenager who lives for the stage even if he can’t get a lead role in the school play.  His best friend Libby (Aria Brooks, Harriet) is often by his side but doesn’t have quite the passion for acting; she just wants to be where Nate is, unlike Nate’s brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) who it appears wants nothing to do with him.  When Nate’s parents go on an unplanned weekend trip and then leave their boys alone to care for themselves, Libby convinces Nate to quickly bus it to NYC to audition for a Broadway musical which they both think could be his big break.

Of course, hijinks ensue as the two teenagers run into several obstacles as they travel as unaccompanied minors across state lines and into The Big Apple, where the promise of stardom awaits Nate.  Never mind he hasn’t auditioned at this level before and is unprepared for the process, stage parents, competitive auditioners, or unexpected wardrobe malfunctions mid-audition.  Also, though Nate knows his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow, Like a Boss) has lived in NYC as an actress for some time, the bad blood between her and his mom convinces him not to ring her up just in case she mends fences and turns him in.  Who do you think is the first person he runs into before his audition?

The overall air of fantasy permeates the entire short run time of Better Nate Than Ever, down to a few well-staged but quite stage-bound musical numbers that don’t do much to add anything but padding.  If the entire movie was a musical, I could see these interludes adding something, but they are so sporadic as to feel like afterthoughts.  I’d almost have rather seen this done as a full-on musical to demonstrate Nate’s talents further.  As it is, Wood is a charming performer possessing a pleasant voice but operates on a somewhat limited range in that regard — you can feel their voice is almost ready to break/change. 

The film is saved by a commitment to telling a story for all the Nates who could be watching it, seeing their opportunity to shine and pursue their dreams, either locally or on a larger scale.  There’s a strong message that success doesn’t have to be big to be important or worthy and to celebrate every win.  That reinforcement is critical to share with everyone, especially developing minds, as they figure out what makes them happy and fills their cup.  I know I would have taken a lot away from this if a VHS copy of the movie found its way to my player back in the day.  For that, I give Better Nate Than Ever a solid standing ovation.