Movie Review ~ The Lost Daughter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A professor’s seaside vacation takes a dark turn when her obsession with a young mother forces her to confront secrets from her past.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: There’s something to be said for investing in a two-hour movie with a central character that’s hard to like.  We’ve had to root for anti-heroes in a number of films in theaters and television over the years and it takes a certain type of character (and actor) to be able to pull of that fine tight-rope act of leaning into the unlikability of a persona but not overstep so far that you lose the audience.  It’s the ultimate trust-fall test to bet the house that viewers will turn up to be attentive to (and even eventually root for) an individual that we might otherwise recoil from.  Oscar-winner Olivia Colman has played brittle before and her success as Queen Elizabeth on The Crown has largely come from her ability to “staunch” like the best of them…so we already know she can win us over.  What do you do when the movie as a whole is hard to like, though?

While I haven’t read the source novel on which The Lost Daughter was adapted from, it’s not very hard to see the literary bones and stumbling blocks in the structure of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s version.  The actress, making her feature film directing debut as well as logging her first screenplay, takes Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel (which was translated from its original 2006 Italian version) and brings the psychological drama off the page with a fine cast of actors who struggle through a serpentine plot that gets more turned around on itself the longer it plays.  Each time you feel momentum is gaining on plot or performance, a new element is introduced to distract and take you out of the energy the film was building.  It creates a strong discord over time, eventually alienating the viewer almost entirely, giving a full pardon to us to let our minds wander.  It’s a pity too, because the movie is chock full of dynamic actors dutifully delivering in their assigned roles.

Gyllenhaal (Batman Begins) opens The Lost Daughter with one of my least favorite plot devices: the flash forward/backward. (Ugh!) We see a brief glimpse of a time other than when most of the action takes place.  Maybe it’s before, maybe it’s after but we’re soon with Leda (Colman, The Mitchells vs. The Machines) as she arrives at a Greek seaside village for a quiet holiday on her own.  Single and with two adult children, she’s free to do as she pleases and at first it looks like that will be keeping her own schedule on the tranquil beach and flirting (badly) with the sea-salty landlord (Ed Harris, The Abyss) she meets on her first night.

The serenity doesn’t last long.  Another family joins her at the beach, a large group that boisterously descends, or rather invades, the space and overtakes the area.  Determined to keep her holiday on her terms and able to tune them out for the most part, it’s only when she refuses to relinquish her space to them that their orbits truly collide.  It’s also when she notices Nina (Dakota Johnson, Our Friend), a young mother of a toddler that never gives her a moment of peace.  Seeing this woman struggle to find some second to gather her thoughts acts as a trigger for Leda, drudging up memories of her own past when she was young (played by Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) and hoping to balance motherhood and her own dreams of status in the educated world.

It’s here that Gyllenhaal creates a fork in the road for viewers as well as a gap that continues to widen for the rest of the film.  On the left is the older Leda who is there when Nina’s young daughter disappears briefly only to discover something else has been taken when she returns.  A greater mystery is then uncovered, creating a creeping sense of dread that Leda’s safety is at risk from Nina, her shady husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Bly Manor), and their extended family…or is it the other way around and does Leda harbor a dark side that’s ready to swallow all of them up? 

The second and, sadly, far less interesting fork is the one we’re continually pulled back to…that of the younger Leda’s life with her children who need their mother but are so clingy they begin to drive her away.  Her need for attention turns into desire for validation and, not finding that at home, she looks to a more mature colleague (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) who provides that outlet for her.  This section is meant to show why the older Leda acts the way she does but never fleshes out the history enough for us to have that full picture etched for us, or even halfway shaded in.  Brief conversations in both timelines hint at Leda’s mother playing a part in her feeling unwanted and that transference easily passing through her to her children. Gyllenhaal never explores that, and it feels like a missed opportunity…for us and for the actresses who are more than capable of taking on those tricky corners of the heart.

While a beautiful name, those with knowledge of Greek mythology will pick up on the scholarly burden that comes with the name Leda who was the wife of a King when a most famous God took a liking to her.  An unwilling bedmate (i.e. by force) to Zeus who masqueraded as a swan, the story goes that she wound up laying two eggs that hatched into children.  It’s a thinly veiled metaphor for what the older Leda goes through, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find she gave herself that name – she often acts like such a martyr it would feel in line with the character. 

Of course, it’s not Colman’s doing that she’s tasked with a most difficult through line to play and if anything works best about the movie, it’s her.  Displaying her usual bravado in making risky choices that pay off, she isn’t afraid to go to awkward places in her acting or let uncomfortable silences linger longer than they have to.  The scenes with Colman and Johnson are first rate, as is one scene early on between Colman and Dagmara Domińczyk (The Assistant), Nina’s cousin who has the initial run-in with Leda and attempts to make peace. 

There’s a lot of buzz around Gyllenhaal’s screenplay and it’s a bit of a puzzlement for me.  Any juggling of timelines is always looked on with favor but aside from a few admittedly knock-out scenes that appear to be building to something but amount to little more than a puff of smoke, there isn’t anything remarkable about the assemblage of The Lost Daughter.  It’s the performances that stand out far more than the script or the direction, both of which are serviceable.  This includes everything right up to the ending which could have been punctuated better to close out Gyllenhaal’s debut by finally finding its footing.  Instead, it literally trips and falls without much fanfare. 

Down From the Shelf ~ The Green Knight (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men.

Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Ralph Ineson

Director: David Lowery

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  I grew up watching the 1963 Disney film The Sword and the Stone almost on a loop but have oddly kept much of Arthurian legend at a distance for most of my adult life.  I’m not sure why I’ve avoided the sword and sorcery films to date, perhaps it’s the medieval setting and just seeing too much torture and carnage in cheap action/horror films over the years.  Yet when I come across one of these films, I find that I’m definitely up for a nice battle between knights and a good (bad) witch or two and the bigger the production the better.  That’s why I was so surprised that I let The Green Knight slip through my fingers in its initial release in July 2021 where it received a round of enthusiastic reviews.

Recently re-released into theaters timed to the Christmas holiday, I decided to give a blind-bought 4K UHD BluRay a spin to go with the spirit of the season and putting the disc into the player felt a bit like cracking open a gold-leafed copy of a well-told tale.  Gorgeously conceived, tremendously performed, and beautifully told, The Green Knight is one of those films you stumble upon and then stumble out of, shaking your head in disbelief at just how wonderful it actually is.  Often when I hear of these types of indie endeavors and how instantly cult-status-approved they become, I’m wary about giving them too much consideration.  However, in this case all the ballyhoo and flag waving was well-earned – this is lighting in a bottle good stuff and as intricate in its design narratively as the costumes are in their fine details.

Take this as a litmus test.  If you don’t get a little tingle anywhere in your body watching the first minute of the movie, a spooky, moody introducing of the tale of Sir Gawain, then perhaps you aren’t quite in the headspace for it that day.  Only go forward once you feel the tingle.  That way you can be prepped for the story of the impetuous Gaiwan (Dev Patel, The Personal History of David Copperfield) the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris, Macbeth) who has lived his life unimpeded until the day his mother (Sarita Choudhury, Evil Eye) conjures the titular character.  When the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, The Tragedy of Macbeth) arrives in Camelot and challenges the Knights of the Round Table to a daunting task of bravery, it is Gaiwan who steps up and faces the magical Knight. Tasked with reuniting with the Green Knight in a years’ time on his home turf, Gaiwan spends the next year partying with his commoner love (Alicia Vikander, Tomb Raider) and not thinking too much about the fate that stands before him.

When the year is up, Gaiwan is set to keep his promise and treks forward through a perilous journey that will present adventure, deception, and distraction leading up to his second encounter with the Green Knight.  Through various episodes with a mourning ghost (Erin Kellyman, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier), a rascally fox, a rogue scavenger (Barry Keoghan, Eternals), and a Lord (Joel Edgerton, Boy Erased) and Lady (Vikander, again), Gaiwan will be tested not just on his strength of spirit but on his willingness to stay the course in the face of a certain fate that was foretold to him. 

For those following his career, director David Lowery is keeping his fans always surprised.  Scoring an indie hit with 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints before turning course with the lovely 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, he followed that up with 2017’s A Ghost Story and then the quiet but bold Robert Redford caper comedy The Old Man & the Gun.  Now he’s taking on this project, which is completely different than anything he’s done, and he’s presented a completely realized take on Arthurian legend…and it feels so clear and concise that you’d think he’d been planning it for decades. 

Though not an obvious candidate from the outside, Patel is the right choice for Gaiwan, getting to the heart of the boy as he becomes a man through his journey of self-discovery.  The transition isn’t easily achieved and not without a great deal of fear, all nicely conveyed through work by Patel and Lowery in conjunction with a crackerjack production team.  The cast member with the longest association to the piece was Vikander and using her in multiple capacities was a good call; it plays with the magic surrounding the world that’s been created and also allows for Vikander to get a first-rate monologue in the second half of the film.  Like me, you likely won’t realize you’ve been holding your breath until she’s done speaking. 

Clocking in at the perfect length and never lingering on any shot or sequence longer than it has to, The Green Knight is proof positive that Lowery continues on a winning streak and remains a director that must be tracked.  His attention to the production side is exquisite but how he pairs that with the emotional way into the story is also worth taking note of.  We need more of these kinds of directors that can work to meld both disciplines, the physical and emotional, together.  The Green Knight is an example of it being done to perfection.

Down From the Shelf ~ Scrooge (1970)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A musical retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel about an old bitter miser taken on a journey of self-redemption, courtesy of several mysterious Christmas apparitions.

Stars: Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, Michael Medwin, David Collings, Anton Rodgers, Suzanne Neve, Frances Cuka

Director: Ronald Neame

Rated: G

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Asking someone what their favorite Christmas (or holiday adjacent) film is a risky endeavor because it can often draw some distinct lines in the sand between friends.  Are you a Love, Actually fan or do you gravitate more toward The Holiday?  Would you choose National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation over Home Alone? What if you had to decide between It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street? Then there’s the all-important question of them all…is Die Hard a Christmas film or is it just a convenient holiday the action revolves around? 

Myself, I’m hard to pin down on any of the questions above (except for Die Hard, which I DO believe is a Christmas movie, and the sequel is absolutely not) but there is one thing that happens every year…a version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens must be watched and there’s no compromise on that.  You could go classic (1951’s much loved telling with Alastair Sim), animated (Christmas Carol: The Movie from 2001 is underseen but is better than you’d think and has Kate Winslet singing!), Muppet-ed (1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol), modern (1988’s Scrooged), or revamped (Ebbie, the 1995 TV movie with Susan Lucci as a female Scrooge) but it’s got to be recognizably Dickens.

The one I find myself drawn to more than any is 1970’s Scrooge, a musical version adapted by Leslie Bricusse who also wrote the music and lyrics to a dozen songs plus the score.  Not only is it remarkably faithful to the original story by Dickens, but the lavish production also has some of the best performances that set a high bar for any future interpretation you’ll see.  Aside from a few outdoor shots set in the springtime (a quibble I’ll pick on later), the entirety of the movie was shot inside studios lots on massive Victorian-style sets that are convincing in their size and scale.

Like my recent review of The Tragedy of Macbeth, I’m not going to simply assume everyone knows the story of A Christmas Carol and provide a brief refresher if you’re new or if it’s been a while.

Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge sees the pending Christmas holiday as little more than a nuisance to endure while giving his one employee, Bob Cratchit, the day off to spend with his humble family and sicky son, Tiny Tim.  A curmudgeonly skinflint, Scrooge loans money to townspeople and then charges rates of interest too high for them to pay back, eventually either seizing their property or using their pending debt to extricate services (or maybe just simple human interaction?) from them.

On Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after his business partner Jacob Marley died, Scrooge is visited by Marley’s Ghost, a chained and pained specter who tells Scrooge his fate will be just like his…but worse.  A visit from three ghosts has been set and Scrooge will need to pay heed to the information they provide if he has any hope of fixing his future.  Looking into the past, present, and future with the trio of phantoms, Scrooge is given the opportunity to see himself as he was and how he’s thought of now when no one knows he’s there.  At the same time, Scrooge learns more about himself and his own wrong choices that could be made right…if given the chance.

I have a long history with A Christmas Carol, having acted it in onstage professionally on and off for nearly a decade and seeing it as an audience member in theaters across the country so I feel as if I’m a good judge of how the story can be told well and where it can falter.  It needs to begin with a certain bit of dark turmoil, an uncomfortable place many American companies and productions don’t like to operate in, before it can achieve a transformation in its central character.  That’s why the British-made Scrooge works as such a bright representation of the story, because it understands these beats and hits them with just enough force for the audience to register the necessary emotional intent.

The performances and music do a great deal of help with that as well.  As the title character, the late Albert Finney (Skyfall) is fairly magnificent and not just because he was 34 years old and more than believably playing a man in his 60s.  Finney also plays Scrooge when he’s younger during the always lengthy Ghost of Christmas Past section.  There’s a bit of strangeness in this telling when older Scrooge is watching a younger Scrooge who in turn is having a memory of another time when it is summer – so the film gets away with some snow-free and sunny outdoor location filming…sneaky!  Personally, I always like the Ghost of Christmas Past the way Dame Edith Evans plays it, with a bit of a hard school marm snap to show Scrooge who is boss right off the bat.  It’s in nice contrast to Kenneth Moore’s gregarious Christmas Present.  Though it’s rumored he didn’t care for working on the film, Sir Alec Guinness (Murder by Death) is a brilliant Marley and while his song is likely the weakest in the film (and heavily cut in the final edit, to be fair), his acting choices are top notch.

Speaking of the music, Bricusse opens the film with a booming chorus proclaiming “Sing a song of gladness and cheer, for the time of Christmas is here. Look around about you and see, what a world of wonder this world can be!”  This credit sequence, played over hand-painted pictures from British illustrator Ronald Searle is a grand, nostalgic way to begin and previews the entirety of the action so close your eyes if you want to avoid spoilers!  Though esteemed critic Pauline Kael (in my opinion, wrongly) thought the music was “forgettable”, Bricusse wound up with an Oscar nomination for his work and truly has a way with an earworm so don’t be shocked if you’re humming a note or four in the days following.  It’s especially hard to rid yourself of the Oscar-nominated “Thank You Very Much”, used twice in the film to good effect.  (The other two Oscar nominations Scrooge received were for Costume Design and Art Direction.)

Whatever your holiday movie of choice is, don’t let anyone tell you it’s “not Christmas-y enough” or “not the right version” because this is the time to choose experiences that gives us comfort and joy more than anything else.  For me, Scrooge, directed by Ronald Neame (two years before he made The Poseidon Adventure) brings a lot of those feelings to the surface and as I grow older, I find myself responding more to smaller flashes near the end when you see the magnitude of not just what Scrooge is doing in the moment but what he recognizes as how his life will change for the better because of these kind gestures.  That’s part of the lesson Dickens has cleverly hidden in his text and the most enduring productions, like Scrooge, have captured so well.

Movie Review ~ Licorice Pizza

The Facts:  

Synopsis: The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973. 

Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Christine Ebersole, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ryan Heffington, Nate Mann, Joseph Cross, Danielle Haim, Este Haim, Moti Haim, Donna Haim 

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 133 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review:  Some filmmakers get to a point in their careers where they can evoke a particular response in their devotees just by performing the most mundane of movie marketing tasks.  Take Paul Thomas Anderson (or PTA, if you will, and you must if you are in the PTA fandom universe) and the release of his newest film, Licorice Pizza. The director debuted the simple poster for his coming-of-age story set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 and according to the internet activity you’d have thought it was an undiscovered Rembrandt being displayed for the first time.  Following up with a trailer edited in typical PTA style to give you a taste of the movie without much of the flavor and the eyes of #FilmTwitter collectively rolled back in their head, unable to sustain the force of such wonder.

Then there was me, over in my corner, wondering what the fuss was about.  Sure, I’ve had my rocky relationship with PTA over the years and often felt like he’d wandered away from the fray more than he partied down with the crowd, but that’s just my particular preference.  I get that PTA’s signature auteur-ism is what the film cognoscenti take pride in dissecting with loud voices in small crowds or displaying on their homemade media shelves filled with every one of his movies, and while my IKEA shelf certainly contains the PTA old school essentials like Boogie Night and Magnolia, you won’t find later efforts like The Master and certainly not Inherent Vice.  He won me back with the elegant Phantom Thread, tearing at the seams of a spikey relationship (while somewhat examining his own marriage to Maya Rudolph in the process), but each new movie feels like starting over again with him.  So the poster and the trailer and the crazed early buzz were taken in with several pinches of Kosher salt.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, I finally had my bite of Licorice Pizza and found it, unsurprisingly, meaty. There were some slices of PTA’s episodic yet extremely loosey goosey structured film that I favored more than others and absolutely understand the hype for its star Alana Haim, but at the same time it’s a film that drifts when it should be forging ahead and drags when it could use a significant boost of energy.  Fueled by a blazing soundtrack and a colorful cast of supporting characters that help balance out Haim’s less successful co-star, PTA’s film is his most easily accessible and commercially minded film to date and that’s going to attract a number of new viewers to get on his bandwagon.

Inspired by the stories PTA heard from child actor turned producer Gary Goetzman as well as his own observances, Licorice Pizza opens with Alana Kane (Haim) first meeting Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) as he waits in line to have his high school photo taken.  Charming the bored young woman nine years his senior with his quick wit and stories of his time as a child actor, by the time Gary says “cheese” he’s made a bold pitch to get her to meet him for dinner.  Intrigued by the teen, she goes, and the two form a quick bond based on his not-so-secret pining and her pretending not to recognize just how much he’s fallen for her. 

This isn’t your typical romantic pairing, however.  Gary and Alana wind up being more than potential love interests after they go into business selling the latest hot craze in CA at the time: waterbeds. With Gary’s days as a child actor fading and Alana’s career as a would-be ingenue starlet ending before they even began (a lengthy interlude with Sean Penn as Jack Holden should have been excised completely, it’s the weakest part of the film), they recruit their equally young friends to be employees in their enterprise, a get-rich-quick scheme that pays off…for a time.  They even manage to snag a celebrity client and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Jon Peters, the infamous Hollywood hairdresser who became an enfant terrible film producer and boyfriend to Barbra Streisand, is where the best material in Licorice Pizza begins to take form.

It helps if you know about Peters, his attitude and style, his penchant for violent outbursts and pompous actions of egotistical preening.  Cooper (Nightmare Alley) nails the man in an eerie way and I don’t doubt the real deal was just as terrifying to come face to face with as he is shown here, though it winds up coming across with a comic effect more than anything.  This entire sequence where Alana, Gary, and a few of their cohorts make a delivery to the home Peters shared with Streisand in the Hollywood hills featuring a series of mishaps is what the movie is leading to and then never manages to live up to later on.  If only the rest of the film were this funny and smartly constructed.

It can’t be stressed enough how correct all the advance word about Alana Haim was.  The more you hear about a performance the less it seems like it could actually be as good as they say but Haim is a terrifically engaging, unique, talent that brings something interesting to the role.  Perhaps not an A+ right out of the gate but skirting pretty close and consistently the one person in the film that gets most of her laugh lines right.  It likely helps that her actual family plays her two sisters (the trio form the Grammy-nominated band bearing their surname) and parents as well.  If only Hoffman was as strong as Alana…or shows the same kind of raw honesty his father, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, did.  I didn’t buy him in this role and while Gary and Alana are supposed to feel mismatched, the actors shouldn’t and it’s largely due to Hoffman that they do.

Aside from Bradley Cooper’s good turn and Penn’s (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) removable one, Harriet Sansom Harris (Memento) gets a killer scene as Gary’s edgy agent that pulls no punches and hasn’t yet been cited by the PC Police.   The PC Police would definitely be knocking on the door of John Michael Higgins (Pitch Perfect 3), as a restaurant owner with a revolving door of Asian wives who has a rather horrendous way of talking to them. Though his storyline was a bit extraneous and fit into that episodic feel, Benny Safdie (Pieces of a Woman) does good work as a politician Alana gravitates toward.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Christine Ebersole (The Wolf of Wall Street) as a Lucille Ball-ish star that Gary has to make appearances with and Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a rival for Alana’s attention.

Controversy swirled very briefly around Licorice Pizza because of the age discrepancy between Alana and Gary but y’know what, I’m not even going to go there.  Plenty of films have had the situation flip and no one mentions it.  Besides, PTA handles the nuances of their relationship so kindly on both sides of the coin that whatever the outcome of their time together, both will be in each other lives for longer than we’ll ever be.  Never striving for meaning that is too deep or analytical was a refreshing respite in PTA’s examination of emotions and he’ll likely bounce back with something totally different.  For now, we should enjoy our meal that’s been put in front of us.  It may be extra long, er, large but it’s filling.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Northman

Synopsis: A young Viking prince embarks on a quest to avenge his father’s murder.

Release Date:  April 22, 2022

Thoughts: If you are wondering why the spike in previews for upcoming 2022 films, attribute it to my being won over by a nagging curiosity to take a quick peek at several titles coming down the pike with intriguing premises, interesting casts, or a mixture of both. Take The Northman, for a prime example.  Viking prince and hard-scrabble armies in bloody battles? Uh, yeah!  Cast roster that reads like a MN Movie Man must-see list? You better believe it. Director known for visceral projects that aren’t aiming to please the masses but firmly establish a sense of reality even in circumstances that lean toward fantasy? Bingo! Led by Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan) and featuring Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho), Ethan Hawke (Zeros and Ones), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and featuring a rare appearance by singer/sometimes actress Björk, The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch) is already a much-anticipated title for many and you can add me to that list as well.

Movie Review ~ Sing 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Buster Moon and his friends must persuade reclusive rock star Clay Calloway to join them for the opening of a new show.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Bobby Cannavale, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Halsey, Letitia Wright, Bono, Jennifer Saunders, Chelsea Peretti, Nick Offerman

Director: Garth Jennings

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As animated films have developed into more sophisticated works over the last two decades, they’ve been praised for their efforts to include their adult audiences in on the fun just as much as their target audience.  The feeling from the studios seemed to be, “why not engage the grown-ups taking these kids to our movie at the same time.  It will likely attract more ticket-buyers who won’t mind taking their small ones to a particular title instead of the more mature content they might drag them to instead.”  (Truly, anything to keep an adult from bringing anyone under 14 into an R-Rated movie is absolutely fine by me!)  This attitude toward inclusion of all ages has led to a boon in business and writing that is more finely tuned, something I appreciated.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that unspoken truce between studios and adults has waned more than a little bit and a number of animated films have become little more than ninety-minute noise machines, swirls of color that pass by without leaving any lasting impression on the viewer.  At least the reviewer that has a driver’s license, votes, and pays taxes.  I know I’m not the target audience for a movie like Sing 2 so ultimately all that matters is what a youngster comes out of the film feeling.  In that light, take my review as thoughts for the adults that may be considering this title over another to watch with their kids or even a solo trip based on their film preferences….because if you ask a child what they think about Sing 2 after all 112 minutes are up (yes, nearly two hours long), they’ll give it a guaranteed thumbs up. 

It’s been a minute since Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Serenity) rebuilt his decaying theater, saved by a kindly patron (Jennifer Saunders, Isn’t It Romantic) who witnessed the talent from a motley crew of animals with various hang-ups who participated in a singing competition.  Still selling out crowds, Moon wants to take the show to the next level, but a visit from a talent agent speaking on behalf of tycoon Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale, Annie) tells them they aren’t up to snuff.  Undeterred, Moon gathers his top talent (including Reese Witherspoon, Mud, as a mother pig with confidence issues) and heads to meet Crystal in person and in the process winds up pitching an over the top show starring a reclusive singer (Bono) without having the faintest idea of how to pull it all off. 

It’s simple to see how writer/director Garth Jennings plans to connect the dots from the start, so the best you can do is wait to see which songs Jennings chooses to use.  As in the first one, the voices on display from the cast are surprisingly strong from actors that aren’t (or weren’t at the time of the original) known for their singing.  Taron Egerton (Rocketman) performs a powerhouse version of Coldplays “A Sky Full of Stars” while Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) makes a loud entrance with “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s.  Bono’s presence means a good supply of U2 songs are touched on and the band contributes an original song that isn’t half bad.  The bummer is that so many of these singing moments are brief snippets of songs.  Coming out so soon after West Side Story and tick, tick…BOOM! when we basked in the glow of full-scale musical numbers, this feels like a Cliff Notes version of what a musical should be.

I imagine the first film is one a number of parents will have on as background noise to keep their kids occupied while they wrap their presents, and it might be wise to wait until Sing 2 is available next Christmas to do the same.  It’s not worth the time (or cash) to travel to the theater for that family event, not when there are other titles with better lessons out there (Encanto springs quickly to mind, available soon on Disney+) hitting stronger notes.

Movie Review ~ The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Facts:  

Synopsis: A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power. 

Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Scott Subiono, Brian Thompson 

Director: Joel Coen 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 105 minutes 

TMMM Score: (9.5/10) 

Review:  I’ve written several reviews lately where I’ve had to go back and revisit my original reactions to hearing about the movie when it was initially announced – and more often than not find myself gorging on humble pie filled with my sticky words.  Basically, I’ve been proven wrong repeatedly and I’m not above admitting it.  The latest example is Joel Coen’s film version of William Shakespeare’s bloody The Tragedy of Macbeth, being released by A24 and AppleTV+.  More than any other Shakespeare, I feel as if I’ve been exposed to this work in one form or another often and questioned why Coen would use up his time on another telling as well as enlisting big-time Oscar winners Denzel Washington and his wife Frances McDormand to come along with the ride. 

I realized when the marketing machine for The Tragedy of Macbeth kicked off how wrong I was because here were two trained Shakespearean actors collaborating with a director that knows his way around a plot heavy with scheming and bloodshed.  Like the recent West Side Story and people being shocked that they ever doubted Steven Spielberg directing such a fantastic remake, why did I ever think this trio couldn’t pull it off?  Far more than fair and not the least bit foul, Coen’s take on Shakespeare’s savage tragedy is a feast for the eyes and ears. I may have thought I was over this particular play, but The Tragedy of Macbeth is so brilliantly done I can’t deny leaving feeling artistically revived.

It’s entirely possible the plot of the play, said to have been written around 1600, is still unfamiliar to some so let’s have a bit of a review session, shall we? 

After succeeding in battle, Macbeth (Washington, Flight) and his friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel, Les Misérables), both generals in the King’s army, are heading back home when both men receive a curious message about their future from a prophesizing stranger (Kathryn Hunter).  When they reach their destination, Macbeth conspires with his wife (McDormand, Nomadland) about the meaning of the stranger’s news that he would be King, eventually taking fortune into their own hands and seizing the throne through murderous acts that spiral out of control.  The ripple effect from each bloody event creates a new problem to be solved or truth to withhold, driving some to madness and others to flee.  Those that stay come face to face with their destiny in ways that were always meant to be if they had just heeded the original messages.

We’ve had a streamlined Macbeth before, as recently as 2015 with Justin Kurzel’s brutal and bloody take starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as one of literature’s most infamous couples.  I quite liked that interpretation, because aside from the luxe visuals and performances it showed that the bones of Shakespeare’s story could more than withstand excess meat being cut off the bone.  Coen takes his own slices off and the result works even better paired with Stefan Dechant’s (Welcome to Marwen) minimalist production design.  Shot entirely inside a studio without much effort to make it look otherwise, the effect is somehow even more chilling for its starkness due to the exposure the sets provide.  There’s little place to hide or mask your entrance so you better be ready for confrontation if you decide to go forth.

The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel (The Woman in the Window) is gorgeous in its risk-taking, the striking use of black and white achieves the correct effect for a story devoid of anything but “either/or” decisions.  Marvel at the simple yet intricate costumes by Mary Zophres (Interstellar), so breathtaking in their construction and clarity.  Then there are Washington and McDormand, turning in performances that best even their best, which I didn’t think was even possible.  When I think I’ve seen everything Washington has in his reserves, he comes up with something new.  McDormand I’ve learned to never underestimate and her attack on this most towering of roles is commendable.  The real star however is the brilliant Hunter as all three witches…and then some.  How this is accomplished should NOT be spoiled for you. I’ll only say it’s a smashing collaboration of actor and director, with assistance from numerous other departments.  Nominate her for an Oscar…it’s justly deserved.

For once, I think this is a movie where it doesn’t matter what size screen you see it on.  Don’t gasp, I’ll always want you to see it on the big screen (or the biggest screen in your home) but if you had to watch this on your laptop or phone, I don’t think The Tragedy of Macbeth would lose much in the clarity department.  Coen and his team of technical geniuses have made sure the movie is crisp as a new dollar bill, so you’ll be able to get everything out of it as Coen intends no matter how you happen to see it.  See it you must, though.  It’s one of the very best films of 2021.

Movie Review ~ Nightmare Alley (2021)

The Facts:  

Synopsis: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is. 

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany 

Director: Guillermo del Toro 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 150 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8.5/10) 

Review:  ‘Tis the season for directors that just ‘get’ movies to be coming back to theaters with a vengeance.  Filmmakers that simply understand the language of cinema and the power of the medium have had some time to either tweak their projects that were delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown or have been continuing to work through the pandemic to finish their anticipated flicks on schedule.  And it’s so good to have them back because as much as we like to believe that moviemaking is more and more like a collaborative process, when all is said and done the buck stops with the director because it’s their vision that dictates what the tone of the film is going to be.  That’s why you can spot a Steven Spielberg (West Side Story) movie from a mile away or recognize the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) as it draws near, not to mention waffling around an Adam McKay satire (Don’t Look Up) and deciding if it’s for you or not.

Another director that has become instantly recognizable is Guillermo del Toro and maybe more than anyone I’ve already mentioned the Oscar-winner for The Shape of Water has a signature style that couldn’t possibly be anything else but him.  The early trailers for Nightmare Alley were classic del Toro, with the noir-ish period setting that we know was set in the past but how far in the past was anyone’s guess, well, if you hadn’t already read the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham that inspired it.  Not just a well-respected filmmaker but a celebrated film fan as well, del Toro engineered those trailers and even the marketing of Nightmare Alley to be as mysterious as can be, keeping hidden the true plot of the film and it’s worked out wonderfully in creating interest to see just what is down this Alley of del Toro’s creation.

While you won’t get any spoilers out of me, I will say that like many of the foreboding places that frightened us when we were young, Nightmare Alley is a movie that gets less intriguing as more light leaks onto the shadowy plot, but for a time it does it’s work considerably well.  It also gives some already strong actors even more rich moments to add to their lifetime achievement reels.  If only the plot could be as finely etched as the performances that are floating through the piece, then we might have had something as grand as del Toro wanted to give us. 

Joining a traveling circus to escape a past we learn in doled out fragments, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) remains a silent mystery for most of the first hour of Nightmare Alley.  Observing the carnies and hucksters who entice onlookers into the cheap freak show, he eventually moves onto working with Pete (David Strathairn, Nomadland) and Zeena (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) on their clairvoyant act.  Learning the secrets of their success becomes an opportunity for Stan and before you know it, events occur which send Stan out into a world removed from the carnival folk where he puts the “powers” he has gained to use as a way of reinventing his life.

Years later, he’s working with fellow former performer and girlfriend Molly (Roony Mara, Side Effects) in a sophisticated act for high-paying customers when an elegant but hard-edged woman (Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) tries to trip him up and expose him as a fraud.  How this woman plays into Stan’s life and what is means for his future is where the real story of Nightmare Alley begins…and where this part of the review has to end because I wouldn’t dare reveal the twists which begin to entangle with deadly results anyone that gets too close to Stan.

An overly hesitant first act/hour is mere set-up for Blanchett to swoop into del Toro’s grandly staged Nightmare Alley and remind us all how much she loves her job. In a cast of VPs, she’s ready for noir, elevating each scene to its chilling maximum potential.  The centerpiece scene between Blanchett and Cooper is a considerable crown jewel of filmmaking for 2021 and is rightfully being shown ad nauseum in clips for the film and in campaigns for both actors for awards consideration.  I don’t know if the movie will make it across that line but if anyone has the potential to get there, it’s Blanchett for her gorgeously mysterious and dangerous efforts here.

As expected, del Toro provides visuals that are impressive without being needlessly flashy. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, The Possession, a long-time collaborator with del Toro, clearly speaks the director’s language and their work in tandem gives the film its flawless period look, along with Tamara Deverell’s beautiful production design. Though overly episodic at times and more simplistically predictable than I would have anticipated, it’s also stunningly rendered by its creative team. Expect to leave Nightmare Alley wishing to have had just one more scene for a few characters left dangling. The 150 never-boring minutes you spend in your seat with Cooper and company does fly by, though.

Movie Review ~ Don’t Look Up 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Two low-level astronomers must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth. 

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Melanie Lynskey, Himesh Patel 

Director: Adam McKay 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 145 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4/10) 

Review:  Maybe Don’t Look Up is a movie that is meant to be seen by an audience full of people primed to enjoy this type of salty satirical look at climate change and current state of affairs, because it was like an echo chamber at my press screening.  Not that all of us weren’t getting the jokes or comedy being tossed (more like direct line thrown) at us by writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) from a story by David Sirota.  We did.  We very much did.  I just don’t think that I personally found much to giggle about in this achingly overlong comedy that overstays its welcome because it can and doesn’t subject itself to its own brand of scrutiny when it should.  I had to see this one in theaters, but you can see it at home…maybe that’s the way to do it so you can break it up into chapters and consume it in smaller, more digestible bites.

McKay’s comet comedy Don’t Look Up hits the political satire button harder than it must, resulting in a sporadically humorous watch that features a few surprisingly funny turns from a larger-than-life cast.  Yet for all those random moments of spontaneous glee, it honestly doesn’t have that much to say outside of its central message about the danger of misinformation and wide-spread issues related to misuse of social media to educate the world in a global crisis.  Almost as if he determined that the concept was “good enough”, McKay falls into obvious dialogue traps and paints himself into a corner by the end so that even a decidedly conversation-starting finale feels like a laborious task because of what we’ve gone through to get there.

At first, finding an unidentified comet careening through the solar system is an exciting discovery for astronomy student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy) and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street).  However, once Randall charts the journey of the comet, he determines that it’s on a course straight for Earth and that in six months’ time it will achieve impact and kill everyone on the planet.  Of course, the two feel like sharing the news will result in decisive action but they encounter a series of roadblocks and red tape not just in reporting the information to the President (Meryl Streep, Still of the Night) and her son and chief of staff (Jonah Hill, Sausage Party) but in being able to talk about it at all.

With the months ticking down and their claim being refuted first by scientists with higher stature, then politicians more interested in reelection, and finally by a tech magnate (Mark Rylance, The BFG) who sees the mineral rich comet as a way to harvest more materials for his business, the two are tested personally and professionally as to how much outside pressure they can withstand and who they can trust.  Eventually, popular news outlets and television personalities (including Cate Blanchett, Nightmare Alley, as a capped-tooth talk show host) prove tempting distractions from the time-sensitive solve-for no one seems to be worried about.  Can everyone put their differences aside and agree about the problem at hand before the Earth is destroyed?

McKay has been gifted with a dynamite cast, a saving grace that will without a doubt sell this movie to multiple interest groups who will show up for their favorite celebrity.  Most of them wind up doing a good job too, like Ariana Grande delivering a fantastically foul (and truly epic) put-down to DiCaprio. Speaking of DiCaprio, I can’t decide if he was giving a middling Leo performance or a great Philip Seymour Hoffman one. Watching him bluster around as a hypochondriac, easily addled middle-aged father of grown children is kind of surreal and, I dunno, satisfying? In the Battle of Capped Teeth, Blanchett out flosses Rylance by not letting the teeth do the work. Rylance isn’t just resting on laurels; he’s reclining in a performance we’ve seen before.  He’s giving by far the weakest performance here and as much as I’ve liked him before, I feel like his time doing these types of sotto-voce cardigan roles are over.  Blanchett really goes for it, unafraid to get her hands dirty and Lawrence too bites down hard on her character’s anger, letting it boil over to great effect.

It’s inescapable that Don’t Look Up is way too long and could be ever so much shorter if McKay had trimmed out some of the less interesting pieces, many of which involve DiCaprio’s character falling from personal grace and secondary characters being revisited when we didn’t care about them in the first place.  It’s overstuffed and Thanksgiving was weeks ago by now.  The credits at least can be shortened.  I made the mistake of leaving early because they were eternally long and of course there was an extended post-credit scene that was quite important…so don’t make my mistake and be sure to watch that ending.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Lost City


Synopsis
: A reclusive romance novelist on a book tour with her cover model gets swept up in kidnapping attempt that lands them both in a cutthroat jungle adventure.

Release Date:  March 25, 2022

Thoughts: Just this month, Sandra Bullock returned to the public eye after being gone for a spell with a solid performance in the heavy Netflix drama The Unforgivable.  In February, Channing Tatum will headline Dog, a comedy with heart that will be his first onscreen appearance in five years.  These two A-listers are audience favorites that have been sorely missed and in March the two will combine forces for The Lost City and from the looks of this first trailer, both will give us exactly what we like best about both.

Yeah, it may be frightfully reminiscent of Romancing the Stone and I’m not totally confident of the chemistry between the two paying off like we think (though considering Tatum replaced Ryan Reynolds who Bullock also had iffy sparks with in The Proposal…I’m hedging my bets it’s all good) but…sometimes you just want movie stars to be movie stars and flex their more than capable muscles to charm our pants right off.  Throw in Brad Pitt (not just “Brad Pitt” but “Long Hair Legends of the Fall Brad Pitt”!) and The Lost City officially tips the scale into hotly anticipated territory.