Movie Review ~ The Grudge (2020)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a young mother murders her family in her own house, a single mother and detective tries to investigate and solve the case. She discovers the house is cursed by a vengeful ghost that dooms those who enter it with a violent death.

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, Demián Bichir, Betty Gilpin, John Cho, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve always liked to look at the start of a new year as a way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.  What a perfect time to forget about old annoyances, unmet goals, and the resolutions from the previous year that you didn’t stick to.  For this critic embarking on his ninth year of being a one-man reviewing band on this site, it’s also a fine time to hope that the next year of movie-going will be a smooth ride, where every film is a winner and each expectation I have going in is met.  Though 2019 shaped up to be a rather strong year for film in those final few months there were some bumps along the way…with some real rough patches especially in the horror genre remake/reboot realm.  If you read my end of the year review you’ll know I put the trash update of Child’s Play as my #1 worst movie in 2019 and unfortunately we are only two days into the new year and I already have a likely candidate to be (dis)honorably mentioned 12 months from now.

Always wanting to support my beloved horror films I was silly enough to take myself to see Sony’s restage of The Grudge thinking that it would be the scary new vision of 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge it made itself out to be.  Instead, writer/director Nicolas Pesce squanders a talented cast and decent production values in a film that is schizophrenic at best, incoherent at worst.  The films in this series have always suffered from issues with structure and there is barely a framework in place before Pesce starts to tear it all apart. Coming off of two well received movies, 2018’s Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother from 2016, Pesce was an intriguing choice to take on this reboot but brings none of the style he showed in those smaller movies with his first foray into franchise territory.  This is Horror Movie 101, with lame-o jump scares favored over any kind of build up of suspense or furthering of the narrative action.

After the death of her husband, Detective Muldoon (no first name given ever) packs up and moves with their son to Cross Creek, PA, where they have a chance at finding a new normal.  Her first day on the job she’s partnered with Detective Goodman (another character not given the benefit of a first name) and they are sent to the woods where a decomposed body has been found in a locked car.  Tracing the body back to a house with a bloody past, Goodman wants to turn the investigation over to the federal authorities and forget about it but Muldoon can’t resist doing some work on her own.  Once Muldoon enters the infamous house she starts to experience strange events that can all be tied back to a family that had been murdered two years prior…and whatever caused all that trouble before is now after her.

If you’ve never seen it, the original Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge is quite an effective entry in J-Horror.  I remember catching it at a small theater in my town when it received a limited release and receiving good chills for my effort.  When I heard the original director was coming to the US to remake the film in partnership with Sam Raimi (Oz: The Great and Powerful), I was curious to see how Hollywood would handle it.  The 2004 version of The Grudge followed it’s foreign predecessor pretty closely and was a decent if completely unnecessary effort; setting much of it Japan with a largely American cast had its own problems, though and it’s non-linear format didn’t flow as easily overseas.  A quick sequel was pushed into production and the 2006 result was a steep nosedive in quality and logic.  I never got around to seeing the third film, released in 2009, but skimming reviews for it online it appears I didn’t miss much.  Stepping back from the 2020 version a bit and squinting, you can see where a new twist on The Grudge may have sounded appealing to the studio heads at Sony.

I have to believe that something happened between Pesce’s pitch and the film being released that changed what was originally intended.  Made for a small-ish $10 million dollars, there was a real opportunity to make a suspenseful film that took the haunting elements from the original movies and placed them in a new story.  Instead, the movie is stuck in the same old narrative rut that proved so problematic in the past.  Set between the years 2004 and 2006 (why?), Pesce has really made four mini-episodes showing how the cursed house has taken deadly action over the years and then thrown it all into a wood-chipper before piecing it back together.  It never allows the action to find a rhythm because there’s no impetus to when or how the storylines diverge from one another.

One moment you’re in 2006 where Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) and Goodman (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) are investigating the body in the car, the next you’re back in the past watching married real estate agents (John Cho, Searching and Betty Gilpin, Isn’t it Romantic?) dealing with their own tragedy who make the mistake of taking on the spooky dwelling.  Aside from the original family who meet a gruesome fate, the other noteworthy arc involves a man (Frankie Faison, The Silence of the Lambs) who has called upon a euthanasia supporter (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) to help his ailing wife (Lin Shaye, Insidious: The Last Key) transition.  Of all the plots Pesce juggles this is the one that I wanted to know more about, thanks to the performances of all three actors…especially Weaver.  The way Weaver reacts to the horror she sees made me wish she had better material to work with…but she gives it her all anyway.

Actually, all the actors deserve some pat on the back for imbibing what sensibility was possible into their roles.  Riseborough is such a fascinating actress but struggles with a character that becomes more hyperbolic as the film goes on.  Pesce makes a concerted effort to pause the action while Riseborough works through her emotions but since we have no real sense of who she is these slow sections become annoying, making the film feel longer (much much much longer) than its 94 minutes.  I’m not sure if Bichir ever spoke above a throaty whisper but I’m definitely sure Cho and Gilpin didn’t know they were in a horror movie until after the movie was finished.  Both look bewildered instead of scared.  You can always count on Shaye to bring us back on track and her few scenes as a woman that has become unhinged due to the house consistently find the right tone.  I also found William Sadler’s (Freeheld) brief appearance to be approaching the right ballpark of where Pesce should have taken things.

A clumsy film to kick off 2020, hopefully audiences won’t take the bait with this new version of The Grudge and allow this series to just disappear.  The only thing good about seeing this is that everything else you watch this year is bound to be better…but maybe that’s me being too hopeful again.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Quiet Place Part II

Synopsis:  Forced to venture into the unknown, the Abbott family realize the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.

Release Date:  March 20, 2020

Thoughts: When A Quiet Place debuted in 2018, it became a sleeper hit and earned co-writer/director/star John Krasinski major kudos in Hollywood for delivering an old-fashioned thriller that capitalized on restraint.  One strong point about it is that is Krasinksi and his team wrapped things up so well it felt like a sequel wasn’t necessary…but you know how a movie studio desperate for a non-franchise hit reacts when a minor budgeted film strikes gold.  Yep…another chapter of A Quiet Place is completed and waiting for its March release and here is the first full trailer.

Sneaking a small teaser into theaters several weeks ago, I sort of thought that might be a nice place to end the marketing and preserve some mystery.  After all, we knew who was coming back (Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns who nearly earned an Oscar nomination for the first film), Noah Jupe (Ford v. Ferrari) and Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck) so aside from that we didn’t totally need the lengthy preview that Paramount just released.  If you haven’t seen the first film or want to keep Part II spoiler-free, I suggest you refrain from watching this…as nicely put together as it is, I’m not sure I wanted to know certain things before seeing the finished movie.

2019 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

Hello!

It’s the 31st of December and I’m furiously typing away to put together my end of the year list.  Forget about me making a Best of the Decade list — I’d be working on it for weeks.  Instead, take a read at the movies that have sparked joy in me over the past twelve months and which have made my eyes glow red with anger. 

This year I made a promise to myself to review every new movie I had the good fortune to screen/see in theaters and I’m pleased to see that I kept that promise throughout.  It required more of my time and involved prioritizing some work but I feel the end result was worth it.  I hope to continue that as we approach the NINTH year of The MN Movie Man.  What a wild ride.

Although I’m slightly aghast at the amount of movies I saw this year (look below, I’m a bit horrified to reveal the number here), I’ve learned a lot by seeking out films that are off the beaten path and not just sticking to the mainstream releases.  Critics nowadays seem to be only bringing attention to movies that are easily accessible but I think we should all be working harder to push ourselves into highlighting and championing the smaller films that are being pushed out of theaters by an endless array of blockbusters (which I also quite like, by the way).  If you’re a critic and reading this — I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release.  It was a huge creative step forward for me this year — try it for yourself!

As always, I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence in my blog. Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.  

If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Twitter (@joemnmovieman), follow me on Instagram, and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.

Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)

5. Us – It was just two years ago that Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut Get Out landed on top of my Best of 2017 list. Fears of a sophomore slump were put to rest with the arrival of Us, a more straight-forward horror film from Peele that frightened me something good. There’s less of the social commentary that was present in Get Out but Us does have some interesting things to say if you read between the bloody lines. This was one of the few movies I saw twice in theaters and both times it was highly effective, thanks in no small part to Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible lead performance. Back in March I felt like Nyong’o could be an Oscar contender and hopefully in a few weeks it will happen – she’s part of an excellent cast telling Peele’s twisted tale. So good.

4. Apollo 11 – After the languid First Man in 2018, I thought I had had my fill of space movies for a bit and certainly didn’t think there was there anything more to learn about the Apollo missions that hadn’t already been covered. Then Apollo 11 snuck into theaters and sent me out of orbit with praise. A staggering documentary that features an astonishing amount of never before seen footage remastered so that it looked like it was filmed yesterday, watching this brought out the happy tears in me. Gorgeous to look at and filled with edge-of-your-seat moments, it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

3. The Farewell – The good buzz on The Farewell followed it into theaters after it debuted to strong acclaim in Sundance. From director Lulu Wang and based on her real life family, it’s a sweet but not saccharine look at a different culture and the way they choose to deal with death. I appreciated there were so many opportunities for viewers like myself to learn more about Chinese customs in addition to watching a beautifully touching story unfold. Known for her more comedic work, Awkwafina logged an impressive dramatic debut but the movie belongs to luminous Shuzhen Zhao as the grandmother kept in the dark by her family about her recent diagnosis of a terminal disease. You’ll cry, but not for the reasons you’d expect.

2. 1917 – Among the many successes that 1917 can claim is keeping my attention during what is traditionally a rough genre for me. Diverting from your standard war film tropes, writer/director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns side-step the landmines of recreating a well-known incident from the first World War and opt to go with something more personal. Shot to look like the entire two hour movie was filmed in one take, aside from its stunning achievement in cinematography it has two appealing stars and a moving story to tell. I was fully engaged from frame one until the last credit onscreen and once this opens wide in January 2020 I think audiences will feel the same way.

1. A Hidden Life – I’ve spent the last two months since I saw A Hidden Life thinking about it almost daily and while I knew it would be in my top five of the year, it’s ability to stay so emotionally fresh with me kept pushing it higher up in the ranks. I honestly could have flipped a coin between this and 1917 but in the end writer/director Terrence Malick’s magnificent film was the only choice for me. Though it has disappointingly been given a paltry release, I’ve been urging everyone to get to the theater and see this pronto because it has some truly majestic moments that deserve to be viewed on the big screen. Malick’s film centers around a Austrian conscientious objector during WWII and the devastating effect it has not just on him but his family struggling to keep going in his absence. It’s a somber film but filled with some of the best views I saw all year and two quietly powerful lead performances that hold it all together. It will still have an impact on the small screen but if you have any chance to see A Hidden Life at your local moviehouse…do it. It’s my favorite film of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Parasite (2019), Ad Astra, Avengers: Endgame, Bombshell, Crawl, Doctor Sleep, Knives Out, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Premature, Queen & Slim, Ready or Not, The Irishman, Saint Frances, The Kid Who Would Be King, The Mustang

5. Dumbo (2019) – Even though Disney will wind up the year the most profitable studio thanks to their owning most of the big franchise pictures that made billions, they can’t escape that they released some stinkers in 2019 as well. You’ll notice their live-action remake of Aladdin is down in Dis(Honorable) mentions and while a live-action The Lion King didn’t totally sully the memory of the animated original it didn’t make the kind of money it was predicted to. I actually enjoyed the new Lady & The Tramp on Disney+ but Tim Burton’s update of Dumbo was a real mess. Adding new characters, taking what was a simple story, and drowning it in excess, it was an eye-sore and it made my butt-sore. They say an elephant never forgets but they’d definitely make an effort after watching this three-ring disaster.

4. Serenity (2019) – One of the first movies I saw in theaters last January was the much-delayed Serenity. Boasting a bevy of A-list Oscar favorites, this mystery wanted to be steamy and twisty but would up being a laughably bad attempt at meta-filmmaking that was sunk quickly after opening. Relying on one totally crazy twist that isn’t hard to spot, actually, viewers didn’t watch the movie as much as they sort of just bore witness to it all falling apart in front of them. I like almost everyone in this and would never turn my nose up at a modern day noir, but the route Serenity travels on is too far-fetched. Jump ship on this one fast.

3. Her Smell – Numerous critics I respect have Her Smell on their Best of the Year list and would probably be wide-eyed to see it as my #3 worst of the year but this experience in agony was too much to handle. Star Elisabeth Moss earned praise for diving head-first into the role of a self-destructive singer whose years of hard living alienate her from everyone she loves but it comes off like Moss was just riffing in rehearsal and it was caught on camera. The move alienates you almost from the start and spends it’s first hour following Moss as her character embarks on a repulsive spiral into darkness. Full disclosure – I watched this for about twenty minutes before fast-forwarding to the latter half which I had heard made the first part worth the wait. It didn’t.

2. Aquarela – I honestly have never tried so hard not to fall asleep in the middle of a movie than I have watching this documentary. Boasting new filming techniques and shown with a frame rate to create images that felt close to lifelike, the bells and whistles can’t mask this is a supremely boring film. Charting various forms of water, it’s almost entirely dialogue-free and set to a score that will have you plugging your ears if you haven’t already run for the door. About halfway through, I got the feeling audiences were being tested on their stamina in finding the end purpose and eventually allowed myself to close my eyes. I didn’t fall asleep but could have easily conked out – yet I kept one eye open just so can say that “I Survived Aquarela”.

1. Child’s Play (2019) – Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the original Child’s Play from 1988 was some untouchable classic – because watching it again shortly after seeing this heinously awful remake (as a palate cleanser) reminded me the one that started it all has its share of clumsy moments. Yet it remains a well-oiled machine of a film, occasional issues aside. That’s not the case with this ill-advised update that’s almost insulting to watch. No real thought went into this, including the performances. Aubrey Plaza should be fined some sort of audience taxation for her dreadful acting – the crummy new doll is even a better actor than her. I was so mad coming out of this movie…and I’m still mad today. Worst of the year, no question about it.

Dis(Honorable) Mentions: Aladdin (2019), Yesterday, Vox Lux, Trick (2019), Lucy in the Sky, Climax, Brightburn

Most Misunderstood: Alita: Battle Angel – this is one that had so much potential but perhaps was too big of a reach even for it’s high-flying filmmakers. I enjoyed this overblown sci-fi film boasting impressive visuals and a motion-captured leading actress. True, this was adapted from an Asian source and the American-ization of it didn’t help, but I have a feeling this is one that people will discover as time goes on and wonder why the hinted at sequel never materialized. A disappointing box office take likely means we won’t get a follow-up on the same scale…but perhaps goodwill will win out.
Honorable Mention: Black Christmas (2019)

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2019 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Angel Has Fallen – A silly Gerard Butler vehicle gets some extra attention on my end of the year list? Well it deserves it for being an entertaining entry in Butler’s surprise franchise that casts him as a government agent protecting our national security. The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, was mediocre but fun while the sequel, London Has Fallen, is ghoulishly terrible. I didn’t have high hopes for this one because it seemed to come out of nowhere, but the sneak attack worked to its advantage. Totally was better than I ever thought it would be.
Honorable Mention: Midway (2019)

Two Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should: Wild RoseLuce – I already feel like I’ve been talking about Wild Rose too much and I’m building people up to be let down but it truly is one of those rare indie films that has the goods but not many people have caught on yet. Star Jessie Buckley (Judy) turns in one of my favorite performances of the year, her acting is grand but her singing is off the charts. She could record an album tomorrow and have an entirely other career if she wanted. Sort of in the vein of A Star is Born but not nearly as tragic, it’s my new “go-to” when people ask me what they should watch.
Special mention to Luce for featuring Octavia Spencer’s best performance to date, which ironically isn’t getting any attention in the end of the year awards. What Spencer does in this adaptation of a play is nothing less than extraordinary and coupled with star on the rise Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Waves), Naomi Watts, and Tim Roth you have a recipe for a movie that’s challenging and will spark discussions after. Absolutely keep your eye open for this one to show up on streaming services soon.

Others to Consider:

Absentia
American Factory
Border (Gräns)
Capernaum (Capharnaüm)
Fighting with My Family
Food Coop
Haunt
Juliet, Naked
Minding the Gap
Science Fair
Secrets & Lies
Swallow
Sweetheart
Tea with the Dames
The Boys from Brazil
The Invitation
The Lost City of Z
The Slumber Party Massacre
The Wedding Banquet (Xi yan)
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
Vampire Circus

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2019
Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 150
Total Movies Seen at Home: 286
Grand Total for 2019 (not counting films seen multiple times): 430
Where I Saw the Most Movies – Showplace ICON (46!!)

Movie Review ~ The Irishman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the 1950s, truck driver Frank Sheeran gets involved with Russell Bufalino and his Pennsylvania crime family. As Sheeran climbs the ranks to become a top hit man, he also goes to work for Jimmy Hoffa — a powerful Teamster tied to organized crime.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rated: R

Running Length: 210 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In 2018, Netflix finally made it into the reputable big-time with Roma, the much-appreciated autobiographical film from Alfonso Cuarón that it debuted on its streaming service just weeks after giving it a small theatrical run to qualify for the Oscars.  Nominated for 10 Academy Awards and very nearly counting Best Picture among the three trophies it took home on Oscar night, it was a sign that Netflix as a fully-fledged movie producer wasn’t a flash in the pan occurrence.  Of course, by the time Roma was topping many critics best of the year awards, Netflix already had a contender for the Best Picture of 2019 with The Irishman, their much-anticipated collaboration with Martin Scorsese.

If it seems like we’ve been talking about The Irishman for over a year, you aren’t that far off the mark.  Though making a movie with similar themes had long been on Scorsese’s dream project list, it wasn’t until Charles Brandt’s 2004 novel I Heard You Paint Houses was published that the framework of the production would start to solidify.  Tapping Steven Zaillian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to write the script and securing a reunion with his long-time collaborator/star Robert De Niro, the hefty price tag of the movie became a cause of concern for most of the established studios even though Scorsese was a much-revered Hollywood icon.  That’s when Netflix came into the mix and put up the money to give Scorsese carte blanche to make the movie he wanted to make, how he wanted to make it.

Though, Scorsese works fast, the overall production took its time. Even after filming was complete, a sizable portion of the budget and the final completion period was devoted to the special effects that would “de-age” stars De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci (among others) but Netflix was so confident in their prospects they ran an ad for the movie during the Oscar telecast.  On paper, the Oscar winning roster in front of and behind the camera seemed like a slam dunk that would be hard to beat. Now, everyone wanted to know all these months later…would this be Scorsese’s masterpiece after the cool reception of 2016’s Silence and 2013’s successful but gratuitous The Wolf of Wall Street?

I have to tell you, I was worried about seeing The Irishman and not because I wasn’t confident that Scorsese would use his resources and cast like the wise filmmaker he has shown himself to be.  No, it was that 210-minute running time (that’s nearly 3.5 hours if you don’t do math) that had me quaking in my boots.  Though I was able to see the also-lengthy Roma in theaters where I could watch it uninterrupted, I’d have to see The Irishman outside of its theatrical presentation.  I doubt this is where Scorsese would have wanted me to see it, but I figured it was an interesting experiment that would test my focus as well as get an idea of how most viewers would see this.

Fear of focus was unfounded, though, because Scorsese has given audiences a highly engaging film that takes place over several decades but doesn’t feel as long as it is.  Yes, you may have read the first 2/3 of the movie are a tad meandering but the final act rewards those who have been patient and that’s not completely unfounded.  Still, this is a movie dependent on building personal connection to the players and watching the way they move in their respective circles.  It will definitely be a turn-off to those unprepared for the commitment and maybe they’d be better off watching the movie in segments, but I think the richer experience is letting Scorsese’s crime drama unfold at its intended pace even though it could have been slightly shorter – and this is coming from a critic routinely wishing movies were more expedient.

Bookended by a voice-over narration from Frank Sheeran (De Niro, Joy) and scenes showing his later life, the majority of The Irishman is told in flashback snippets while Sheeran and Russell Bufalino (Pesci, Home Alone) travel with their wives to a wedding of the daughter of Russell’s cousin Bill (Ray Romano, The Big Sick).  We see a younger Sheeran (a de-aged De Niro…more on that later) go from being a Philadelphia truck driver to a trusted hitman for a top crime family and the effect it has on his own conscience as time moves on.  Sheeran’s relationship as a bodyguard for union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) goes from being transactional to an actual friendship and Hoffa becomes a familiar face in the home of Sheeran and his family.

When Hoffa’s actions start to become divisive within the local teamsters and eventually the mob family he’s been kept secure by, it sets off a chain of events that will come back to haunt all involved.  Hoffa has secrets on some dangerous people who don’t like to be intimidated by the rabble-rouser…and Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975 should key you into the lengths they’d go to keep things under wraps.  How Sheeran figures into Hoffa’s vanishing is where that key final hour of The Irishman comes in and by then we’ve been immersed in this world for so long that while the developments create tension they shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Also serving as a producer of the film, De Niro’s performance is such a welcome change of pace for the veteran actor.  Though he’s lately been appearing in a questionable number of throwaway pictures, The Irishman helps reestablish why he’s one of the most respected people working in the business.  He gives Sheeran a quiet reserve with a talent for remaining emotionless before, during, and after being involved with heinous crimes…yet you can tell he’s set to a low simmer on high alert at all times.  This isn’t the typical De Niro we’ve come to expect and his reteaming with Scorsese (Cape Fear) is surely to thank for that.

It was big news when De Niro and Pacino teamed up for Heat in 1995 and less of an event for their stink-bomb Righteous Kill in 2008 yet here when they share the screen it’s like the first time we’ve seen these two performers spar.  Sheeran and Hoffa had an obvious complicated relationship, with Sheeran unfortunately caught in the middle of his loyalty to his employers and his friendship with Hoffa.  For his part, Pacino turns off his overzealous acting and gives Hoffa some dimension.  There’s little of the wild-eyed Pacino that’s often on display and more of the determined pit bull Hoffa was known to be.  By easing off the gas a bit, Pacino gets a bit of a redemption after appearing in a string of movies that are well beneath his experience level.

Supposedly it took Scorsese asking Pesci fifty times to play Russell Bufalino before the notoriously reclusive actor agreed to come out of semi-retirement for his old pal.  However much prodding it took, it was absolutely worth whatever headaches he caused Scorsese in getting him signed.  The Oscar winner was well-missed and his appearance here is reason enough to watch the film in one sitting.  Though it may seem as if it’s a role Pesci can do in his sleep by this point, there’s some interesting nuances he brings that further helps to define Bufalino and not just make him a variation of the characters he’s played in Goodfellas or Casino.  I was transfixed every time Pesci was onscreen and when you add De Niro and Pacino in as scene partners you sort of can’t believe the good fortune you have to watch these three at work.

So then we get to the whole “de-aging” process that took up so much time and I have to say that it’s largely a non-intrusive device.  Had Scorsese opted for casting different actors when the characters were younger, I’m not sure if they film would have been as successful in carrying over these dynamics to their older counterparts.  On the other hand, we all know what De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci looked like over the decades they’ve been in the business and the way they’ve been “youthfulized” doesn’t quite convince in every frame.  It’s good but not great, and very likely worth the money it cost in the long run since you have consistency in actors throughout the time periods.

There are many film fans out there that think Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas is the be-all, end-all as far as mafia movies go and it’s hard to make an argument against the brilliance of storytelling in that feature.  The Irishman is successful in many of the same ways but doesn’t quite get to that Goodfellas level due to its tendency to overreach and linger when it should be continuing onward.  Even though the film is highly watchable I can’t help but think some slight trimming could have made it an even better lasting film.  Those first two hours perhaps contain scenes that don’t belong, even if they ultimately provide more insight into Sheeran’s rise to his position.

Aside from the extended length, there have been complaints over the lack of female characters and it’s an interesting conversation to have.  The women that are featured in the film are often without much dimension and, aside from a sinister scene involving Russell’s wife, fail to have any major impact on the overall story.  The most successful actress is actually the one that most people are so up in arms about.  As Sheeran’s daughter, the amount of lines Anna Paquin (The Good Dinosaur) has could be counted on two hands but her silence is almost the point Scorsese was trying to make.  Her father has proved untrustworthy for so long, her lack of communication with him speaks to the depth of her resolve to not reward him with her love or kindness.

Now that The Irishman is out in the world and people can choose the way they want to watch it, it will be interesting to see how the movie ages over the years.  Going into Oscar nominations in a few weeks, it’s expected to come out with the most nominations and I’m not counting on that very real possibility.  For once, the effort is worth the accolades and the good notices are supported by an excellent film.  And Pesci…for goodness sake, how can you be unhappy when Pesci is onscreen?

Movie Review ~ 1917

3


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two young British privates during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Sam Mendes

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we come to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, many have been looking back at the past ten years in movies and musing on how the medium has evolved.  Could we have predicted ten years ago that a service that used to deliver DVDs by mail would become a heavy-hitter film studio producing movies that are becoming more and more friendly with Oscar?  Would we know that the biggest hits in the end-of-the-year box office tally would be dominated by franchise pictures and the mid-budgeted flicks that kept theaters packed in the ’90s would largely be wiped out?  Even the way we watch movies has changed from having to physically go to the video store to nowadays when we can view thousands of choices at the press of a button.   What hasn’t changed is the process of getting out of your house, battling traffic, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with others to have a shared experience of movie-going.  Sure, the seats are reserved now and more comfortable (and heated!) than your chairs at home but there’s no comparison to being in a cinema seeing a movie on the big screen.

Films about the first World War aren’t as common as those set in WWII (like 2019’s Midway), Vietnam (2015’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam), or in more recent wars that still play a large part in our daily news headlines.  The Peter Jackson-produced documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was a staggering piece of filmmaking using real footage from the first World War but for me it wasn’t able to overcome some narrative challenges that were almost unavoidable considering the approach.  That’s why the imminent arrival of movie like 1917 is so exciting to me.  Here’s a large scale war film that, overdone as the genre may be, strives to be something unique and not just because of its well-publicized “one-shot” cinematography.

By 1917, the “war to end all wars” had been going on for four years and had claimed thousands of casualties.  Shortly after the German armies had retreated from their trenches in France, officials received intel the German drawback from their enemies was a well-set trap and now a British battalion of over 1,500 men was walking straight into an ambush.  Two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Blinded by the Light) and Schofield (George MacKay, How I Live Now) are called up and tasked with delivering news of this ensnarement to the front lines before men are sent to a slaughter they are unaware of.  Though the stakes are already sky high for the British forces, the importance of success is even greater for Blake because his brother is in the company that will be sent out on the attack first, facing certain death.  The two young men set off on a breathless mission through enemy territory that will bring them up through idyllic countryside that masks hidden dangers and enemy-built trenches designed to slow their progress.

Based partly on the recollections of his grandfather, director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and the two have crafted a corker of a war movie that hits the ground running and doesn’t offer much reprieve over 119 minutes.  That forward motion is largely a direct result of Mendes working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) to shoot the entirety of the picture as if it was one long interrupted take.  Without these obvious moments of cuts, the effect on a viewer is something akin to a relentless rollercoaster with moments of flattened cruising that are small respites to harrowing drops and spins.  It’s clear there are moments when Deakins had to cut to use a different camera but aside from a few obvious splices they are hidden so well you’d have to be focused solely on finding these moments to really see them.

Utilizing state-of-the-art technique, “how’d they do that” camera moves, and lighting nighttime scenes to increase their intensity tenfold, it could have been easy for the movie to become all about this trickery but thankfully everyone involved doesn’t let the technology overshadow the story.  Mendes helps this along with the casting of Chapman and especially MacKay as the young men on a mission who risk their lives to get their message into the right hands.  Chapman’s bravado at the outset hides the fear of arriving too late to save his brother while the more world-weary MacKay has his eyes further opened as he encounters civilians and other troops along the way.  The two aren’t totally familiar faces to audiences and that works to the advantage of the immediacy and “anything can happen” created by their mission.  The inclusion of more known names/faces such as Mark Strong (Shazam!), Andrew Scott (Victor Frankenstein), Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch) could be seen as a distraction but all play their roles succinctly without much preening for the camera.

This is really a boffo film that knocked my socks off.  I’m not usually so enamored of movies about the war but there’s something in the humanity on display from Mendes and Wilson-Cairns that moved me on a whole other level.  Aside from the jaw-dropping filming from Deakins that is truly incredible (if he doesn’t win the Oscar this year, I’d be stunned) there is rarely a frame that feels out of place or extraneous.  While some war movies can drag on and be a punishing sit, 1917 uses its running time wisely by never letting the characters (or the audience) rest too much.  As I watched the film I became conscious that I was holding my breath for a few reasons.  First off, the tension created was so spot-on and could only be achieved by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.  The second is that I didn’t want this spell to be broken and for Mendes and his team to make a misstep.  Thankfully, I believe Mendes achieved the mission he set out for and 1917 is one of the very best movies of the year.

Movie Review ~ Little Women (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s been 151 years since Louisa May Alcott wrote her classic novel Little Women and it seems over that time there have been as many adaptations of it on stage and screens big and small.  There’s just something timeless about Alcott’s tale of sisters moving through stages of their lives that has spoken to countless generations.  Whether you come from a big household or were an only child (like me), there’s something relatable and warmly familiar about the March family, allowing readers to latch on to a particular character and know them well enough to say “I’m a Jo” or “She’s more of a Meg”.  No matter how many times we’re exposed to the material, we still laugh at their comedic moments and cry when the reality of life steps in.

Having read the book on more than one occasion and keeping a certain fondness for anything it inspired (stage play, musical, miniseries, film), I could easily call myself a fan and am always willing to give any new interpretation the benefit of the doubt.  Heck, over the holiday break I even watched the made-for-television movie The March Sisters at Christmas, a modernized version of the story that took some giant liberties with the source material.  (For the record, it wasn’t half bad.)  What makes it difficult for me is that I think the much-loved 1994 version is the epitome of success in translation to the screen.  Though it had been seen in theaters before in 1933 and again in 1949, something about the ‘90s version just hit all the right notes for me, making it indelible and hard to measure up to.  Even so, when I heard Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) was taking on the duties of writer/director for a 2019 take on Little Women, I was interested to see what she would do with it and where it would land on the scale of successful retellings.

For those not familiar with the source material, the bones of Alcott’s story remain the same.  The Civil War is going strong and Father (Bob Odenkirk, Long Shot) is on the front lines, leaving his wife Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story) and their four daughters to keep the household going for the duration.  Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson, The Bling Ring) strives to lead by example, eagerly anticipating a domestic life with a husband and children.  That’s quite the opposite of headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan, The Host) the de facto leader of the siblings who makes great plans to roam beyond the confines of their Concord, Mass homestead.  Shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects) is the calming presence, taking solace in her piano playing while the youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar) longs for a romanticized life rubbing shoulders with the elite.

Drifting into the March orbit at various times are a sour Aunt (Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins) anxious to see her family lineage continue on well-funded and neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy) whose curiosity and friendship with the sisters quickly turns into something deeper and more heartbreaking.  Also playing a part in the episodic developments as the years go by are Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), tutor John Brooke (James Norton, Mr. Turner), and Mr. Bhaer (Louis Garrel, The Dreamers), a professor staying in the same boarding house as Jo when she moves to New York City.  As the girls turn to women, they experience love and loss while striving to find their place not just in the outside world but in the small haven they’ve created within the walls of their childhood home.

Thankfully, there are a lot of things to recommend in this adaptation and I largely enjoyed it, even if there are some interesting choices made that don’t always feel effective.  It should please fans of the novel, although I’m not sure how easy it would be for newcomers to the story to get into the hearts and minds of our favorite characters. Though set in the appropriate period, Gerwig’s modern voice is front and center and while it doesn’t change the overall impact of Alcott’s novel the emotional beats are delivered in a different way than ever before.

Following up her semi-autobiographical breakout hit Lady Bird, Gerwig has made the intriguing choice to take a non-linear approach to Little Women.  Instead of a straight narrative that follows along the years with the family, events are chopped up and rearranged to function as memories or recollections.  What this accomplishes is giving the characters the opportunity to look back from the other side of conflict which eventually starts to wreak havoc on the way audiences are involved and invited into the story.  I found the first hour a bit of a struggle to stick with and, though well performed by Gerwig’s cast, difficult to keep up with because it bounces around so much.  The second hour is more of a challenge to talk about without giving away a crucial bit of plot but suffice it to say turns that in the past had me reaching for the Kleenex barely registered a sniffle in this telling.  That’s unfortunate because there’s such rich opportunity to explore the complexities of the heart but how can you take any time for emotion when the next scene may take place years prior, undoing whatever loss we’ve just seen?

The casting announcements for this were exciting at the time because Gerwig has assembled a dynamite team of actors that aren’t necessarily known for being overly earnest with their material.  What’s needed is honesty, not an overselling of what is essentially a near perfect piece of American literature.  In that respect, the cast is successful; however there are a few elements that I just couldn’t quite get over.  For one thing, it’s never clear the ages of the sisters.  Pugh looks the oldest of all and she’s playing the youngest while Watson feels like she’d be a more adept Beth than a Meg.  Ronan is a wonderful Jo, skillfully presenting her stubbornness without being obnoxious, eventually exposing the raw vulnerability beneath a lifetime of building up a hard-ish surface.  Amy is often seen as the flightiest of the March sisters but Gerwig and Pugh have confidently grounded her, showing the character is more worldly-wise than she’s ever been previously given credit for.  I quite like Scanlen’s take on Beth, even though she (like her character) gets overshadowed by the other women she shares the screen with.

Not surprisingly, Streep is a wry gas as a fussy relative who is “not always right.  But never wrong” and Cooper’s sensitive take on the kindly neighbor is fairly lovely.  The two main suitors Gerwig has cast are likely the most problematic for me.  As Jo’s elder boarding house friend, Garrel doesn’t create much in the way of sparks with Ronan.  It’s a distinctly flat performance and you wonder why Jo would ever have her head turned even a fraction the way Garrel handles the material.  I know Gerwig thinks Chalamet can do no wrong but he’s not well-suited for the role of the pining boy next door.  Certain finalities of his character don’t ring true, which is perhaps what Gerwig was going for, but it weakens Laurie’s relationship with two key March sisters.  Chalamet has the acting chops to give it a go but isn’t the right choice for the role.

In the car on the ride home, I became one of those purist people that wanted this new Little Women to be the way I imagined it to be.  I rattled off a list of things that didn’t sit right to my partner, citing the 1994 version as my ideal way to tell the story.  That’s not fair to Gerwig or her team, nor is it doing right to the movie as a whole.  Just as each generation has discovered Alcott’s everlasting story, so too should a new audience be exposed to the Little Women through their own version on screen.  I hold the 1994 effort in high regard and, clearly, this one trails that in my book, yet it shouldn’t ultimately define how it stacks up historically.  The tagline for the movie is “Own your own story.” and it can serve as a reminder that the version we have in our head will always supersede anything we can see from another perspective.

Movie Review ~ Uncut Gems


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A charismatic jeweler makes a high-stakes bet that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. In a precarious high-wire act, he must balance business, family and adversaries on all sides in pursuit of the ultimate win.

Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian

Director: Benny Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I feel like I usually start some of these review posts with “I was too old for” or “This was before my time” but today I get to say that I’m the perfect age to remember when Adam Sandler rose from a popular utility player on Saturday Night Live to a blockbuster movie star.  Happening almost by chance if you really think about it, his dimbulb comedies that played on his goofball charms became quotable and rewatchable fluff that made Sandler millions but didn’t exactly endear him to critics.  Audiences and studio heads loved him but his movies became 90 minutes to fear for reviewers as the years went on.  Truth be told, the quality took a nosedive as well the more Sandler looped in (and relied on) his stable of friends.

Efforts to go straight netted good feedback, like 2002’s Punch Drunk Love and, to a lesser extent 2004’s Spanglish.  In these films it was evident that when Sandler took himself seriously there was something more to him than silly Cajun accents and arrested development man-child characters.  Yet he always fell back on these easy riffs, making it difficult to figure out what he really wanted to do with his career.  A recent multi-million dollar deal with Netflix gave him freedom to create his own projects and the results…haven’t been spectacular.  Only a slight caper comedy, Murder Mystery earlier in 2019, had some spring to its step and that was largely due to costar Jennifer Aniston dragging Sandler along.

So why are we back at the tail end of 2019 again talking about Sandler?  Well, after gaining considerable attention for his work in 2017’s serio-comic The Meyerowitz Stories with director Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), he’s teamed up with another buzzy director (actually directors) for Uncut Gems and not only has it brought Sandler the best notices of his career but it might just earn him an Oscar nomination.  He’s already picked up numerous critical acclaim, a few early awards, and a handful of nominations in upcoming ceremonies but the real test will be if Academy voters can look past the dreck he’s participated in and appreciate what he’s put into his performance here.

Howard Ratner (Sandler, Blended) is in trouble.  It’s 2012 and he’s in debt up to his ears.  Borrowing money from one person to pay another, his life is in a constant state of motion of over the counter offers and drop in deals where his bad investments and gambling has put a target on his back.  Operating as a jeweler in the Diamond District of New York City, he thinks his luck is about to change with his acquisition of an uncut opal just arrived from Africa he plans to put up for auction.  Unable to resist showing off his nest egg, when an recruiter (Lakeith Stanfield, Knives Out) Howard pays under-the-table snags basketball superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself, admirably) and brings him by to look at some merchandise, Howard lets the opal out of his sight…and that’s when things start to go downhill rapidly.

Balancing an estranged wife (Idina Menzel, Frozen II) and a mistress (Julia Fox) with her own eccentricities and complications, Howard spends the next days tracking his opal while staying ahead of a swarm of the NY loan shark underbelly that have come to collect.  His brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian, The Stuff) and his henchmen are ones he’s most wary of, for good reason, and a tense family dinner masks the deadly animosity present between the two men.  As the auction draws near and Howard continues to make wrong turns that get him deeper into the dirt, can he right his sinking ship without taking others down with him?

Written and directed by brothers Benny and Joshua Safdie, I suspect audiences will respond to Uncut Gems the way they viewed most of Sandler’s earlier comedies, with a mixture of exasperation and exhilaration…but for different reasons.  This is 135 minutes of stress for Howard and, in effect, the viewer as we are sitting right on his shoulder throughout.  With an almost voyeuristic nature, we watch as Howard interacts with all manner of people that work around the Diamond District.  I’m not sure, but I’d bet many of the people appearing in these scenes actually worked in the stores where the scenes were filmed.  There’s an authenticity to the dialogue (it has to have taken the prize for most uses of f**k in 2019) that almost instantly lends credibility to the film and Sandler in particular.

As indicated by the advance notices, Sandler is remarkable.  Though playing a character hard to root for because you see him making the wrong turn five blocks ahead of the street sign, there’s a charisma he lends Howard where you can’t totally write him off.  A scene late in the film where he explains himself exposes a openness that doesn’t soften him so much as documents the path some vulnerable people take when their self-destruction goes unnoticed for too long.  There’s a burden this character carries from the moment we meet him, you can almost see it weighing him down the minute he appears on screen and Sandler keeps that sense of needing to unload right through to the end.  It’s real follow through and a mature performance from someone that has peddled so long in immaturity.

In addition to Sandler, there’s several supporting performances of note.  I wasn’t familiar with Fox before this film but you can bet she’ll be turning up on Hollywood’s radar after enough people have seen this.  Taking what could have been a thankless cliché riddled role and making it far more complex, Fox might first seem intrusive to the proceedings in the first hour (which is intentional, I think) but hold fast, the wait for her usefulness is worth it.  On the other side of the wedding ring, Menzel is dynamite as Howard’s annoyed wife who can’t wait to divorce her cheating husband and just wishes she could tell more people about it.  Known more for her stage work and voicing the Frozen films, Menzel impresses big time in her first substantial dramatic role in front of the camera.

I don’t think Sandler will have a problem getting critics to see his performance in Uncut Gems but I’m wondering if his longtime fans will turn out to see him put his ribald routine to the side, at least for the moment. (His next film is titled the not-promising Hubie Halloween and is directed by Steven Brill who has been behind the camera for numerous Sandler gigs).  He’s amassed a new generation of fans via Netflix, hopefully they’re willing to follow him into this new-ish territory and my wish for Sandler is that he sees how green the grass is on the serious side of the street.  Even if he makes a movie like Uncut Gems for every two dumb comedies he makes, I think we’ll have made some progress.

Movie Review ~ A Hidden Life


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter faces the threat of execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II

Stars: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz, Alexander Fehling

Director: Terrence Malick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 173 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it seemed like director Terrence Malick was going to be gone forever.  After directing the well-liked Badlands in 1973 and oft-revered Days of Heaven in 1978, he went into a self-imposed exile for twenty years before returning with The Thin Red Line.  Meticulous with his details and often giving more weight to the visuals of his work than the overall narrative, Malick’s films are instantly recognizable and can sometimes be heavy handed explorations of introspection, nature, the universe, etc. Reaching a kind of zenith with the polarizing The Tree of Life, his recent films have been less structured and more free-form experiments…and they haven’t achieved the same kind of critical or box office success as his previous efforts.

Malick has returned to his narrative storytelling in A Hidden Life and it shows why, with only a handful of films to his credit over the past forty years, he’s still one of the greatest directors we have.  Jettisoning the loosey-goosey triviality of his last films, this represents a more determined focus on finding strong characters and putting them up against seemingly impossible obstacles to overcome.  The Malick we know is on display in the breathtaking cinematography and attention to small interpersonal moments but there are also new discoveries aplenty showing the filmmaker embracing this difficult tale of hardship and sacrifice as more than just a sorrowful chapter in history.

It’s early in 1939 and nestled in the Austrian mountainside is St. Radegund, a small hamlet that has provided shelter and quietly solid living far from the pains of the distant developing cities for generations.  The supportive community shares a special bond of respect and it’s where Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, Allied) has always called home.  Married to his sweetheart Fani (Valerie Pachner, The Ground Beneath My Feet) they work their land and have carved out a good life for themselves, which is all they have ever wanted or asked for.  The outside world has other plans for them, though, and when war comes to Germany, Franz performs his civic duty and signs up for service.  While Franz is in basic training, Fani keeps the farm going with the assistance of her neighbors and relatives.

During that brief moment in time when it seemed the war was coming to an end, Franz returns to his wife and three young daughters but their time together in their bit of heaven is all too brief.  He’s called back to his responsibilities in the army but now is asked to swear an allegiance to Hitler, an oath he cannot give.  Franz can see where his country is heading and objects to the path he’s being asked to tread, by rejecting this statement he is in effect rejecting Germany.  Before returning he asks the advice of Bishop Fliesser (Michael Nyqvist, John Wick) only to find the religious figure has already made questionable allowances for his own survival.  Deciding to lead with his heart, Franz refuses to comply with the promise and is swiftly jailed for being a conscientious objector, a crime punishable by death.

As Franz awaits trial, Fani tries push through new hardships at home but is increasingly ostracized by the villagers who have heard about her husband.  Friendships turn cold, professional relationships sour, loved ones become bitter enemies; yet the love between Fani and Franz endures, even during the darkest times.  Numerous people meet with Franz during his time in jail in order to sway him to change his mind.  His lawyer (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Mustang), growing impatient, wants nothing more than to get him to simply sign a statement and free himself of a certain fate.  A Nazi judge, portrayed with almost a Pontius Pilate edge by the late Bruno Ganz (who, like Nyqvist, passed away before this movie was released), gives Franz an opportunity to make him understand his reasoning…but would it really make a difference?

There’s a haunting feeling hanging over A Hidden Life from the start.  Even though Malick and cinematographer Jörg Widmer (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) fill the screen wall to wall with some of the most gorgeous images you’ll see all year, there’s a semblance of sadness to it all.  The first hour before the war truly intervenes in the happy life of Franz and Fani, the camera lingers over the daily mundane work and bold promise of a rich harvest.  Then, when Franz is called away and life takes a turn the views stay on an epic scale, but you feel the empty space far more than you did before.  The final hour is when Malick slips a bit with a few scenes/characters that feel extraneous and slightly too inward facing but it’s shored up sharply in anticipation of its poignant finale.  Without spoiling anything, there’s a solemnity to the final act that’s handled with respect but a certain frankness of reality that Malick has never shied away from.

What Malick winds up with is one of the most moving and stunningly beautiful movies I’ve seen.  Along with a gossamer score from James Newton Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), this is the kind of film you’re so grateful to get the chance to see on a big screen in all its glory.  I can’t even imagine seeing this for the first time on a small screen because the way it’s constructed it’s essentially meant to be experienced on this grand, almost overwhelming scale.  It helps that Diehl and especially Pachner are excellent in their roles because with all this scenic beauty it would be easy to forget there is a story about real life humans happening in front of it all.  Diehl’s soft-spoken sensitive soul could have been a bit milquetoast, but he makes it work by demonstrating a balance between internal struggle with dedicated resolve.  I loved Pachner’s performance, probably more than some of the Best Actress nominees that have been gaining a lot of attention these past few weeks.  Most of her dialogue is in voiceover so it’s her face that we rely on to inform where her emotions are taking her.  When she’s shunned by the town and ignored by those she trusted, her dignity in soldiering on is as strong an act as anything her husband is going through.

Don’t let the running length scare you.  I am the king of seat squirming and watch checking and I was so enraptured by this that the first time I glanced at my watch was around two and a half hours in.  Though it debuted strongly in Cannes earlier in 2019, A Hidden Life is arriving in theaters with little fanfare and that’s a real pity.  I know it’s a crowded season with a host of well-reviewed and, let’s face it, happier and shorter films to catch but to miss this one (and especially to miss it in a theater) would be a big mistake for any fan of movies, Malick, or plain old good storytelling.

Movie Review ~ Bombshell

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Female employees at Fox News take on a toxic male culture, leading to the downfall of media mogul Roger Ailes.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Duplass, Alice Eve, Alanna Ubach

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  I’m sure it’s because I’m a lifelong MN but I still recall that night in 1989 when Gretchen Carlson from Anoka won the Miss America pageant after impressing the judges with her talent (violin), poise, and that aquamarine gown.  I always felt that MNs should stick together and since I rooted for her so vehemently to win I obviously thought we were best friends so I was dismayed when Carlson turned up on the Fox news network in a morning show that routinely spoke out against issues that I felt strongly about.  Now I didn’t follow Carlson’s career closely, mind you, but the station was always in the media for something and she seemed to be at the center of attention – so when she was fired it wasn’t just big national news, it was buzzed about in the local press as well.

Carlson is one of a handful of familiar Fox faces that are featured in Bombshell, a true-ish account of the lawsuit Carlson initiated against her former boss and how it turned into a media frenzy that topped a once-solid empire.  Yet from the outset it’s hard to view Bombshell and not address the elephant in the room: Fox News was and is a hugely problematic news outlet with anchors known for stirring the pot, making uninformed statements, introducing unsubstantiated facts, and orchestrating countless take downs of anyone that doesn’t share the agenda they’re pushing.  An already uneasy world has been made more dangerous by the untruths they perpetrate – and now we’re supposed to sit in a theater for two hours and watch beautiful female employees at Fox sob about internal misconduct without also examining the fuel they added to their company bonfire?  It’s a hard place to get to for some, but I found my way into this world thanks to stellar performances, a sharp script, and assured direction.

As the primary elections are ramping up in 2015, anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde) prepares for the Republican Party presidential debate and doesn’t shy away from asking then-candidate Donald Trump about his poor history with women, welcoming a firestorm of criticism but drawing huge ratings for her network.   This pleases her boss Roger Ailes (a sublimely slimy John Lithgow, Pet Sematary) but makes life with her children and husband (Mark Duplass, Tammy) fraught with anxiety.  In the same period, on-air reporter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman, The Goldfinch) struggles with her own show, thought of to her as a demotion from her prime spot as the third member of Fox and Friends.  Seeing the writing on the wall, she engages with lawyers to discuss her options on suing Ailes for harassment should he fire her, willing to bring up his sordid history of propositioning female employees for sexual favors.

It seems Ailes has a long reputation of harassment that is popular knowledge among the staff, save for fresh face Kayla (Margot Robie, I, Tonya) who falls into his trap fairly quickly, with her co-worker Jess (Kate McKinnon, Yesterday) unable to warn her in time.  When Carlson is ousted and brings her lawsuit into the public, will the other women at the network stand with her or stay loyal to the powerful man that holds their jobs in his hands?  Played out over a span of a year and a few months, the case develops into something bigger when respected people like Kelly stay silent instead of picking a side – leading some to ask if Kelly wasn’t another victim of Ailes, benefited from their relationship…or both.

Working from a script by Oscar-winner Charles Randolph (The Big Short), director Jay Roach (Trumbo) uses some clever ways to introduce us to the behind the scenes happenings at the network.  A guided tour of the building by Megyn is a good way to give us a lay of the land, separating the executives from the anchors and the anchors from the assistants, etc. etc.  Roach and Randolph aren’t above having actors stop and address the camera directly, though they wisely use that oft-employed tactic sparingly so when it happens it has a greater impact.  Key people are identified by name throughout and the movie takes considered steps to let us know these are actors playing real people…there is a message before the studio logo, before the cast list in the closing credits, and again at the end of the movie — so they mean business.

It’s the casting where Roach really hit gold.  As Kelly, Theron has again gone through a transformation right before our eyes into a completely different person.  It’s admittedly harder to see at the beginning when Kelly’s hair was longer but when the short style arrives, watch out, because Theron is on the money with Kelly’s voice, mannerisms, and, with the assistance of Kazu Hiro’s (and Oscar winner for Darkest Hour in 2018) expert prosthetics, an uncanny ringer for the real person.  Though she never met Kelly before making the movie, Theron seems to understand her and what motivated her forward, giving her complexities that maybe are a bit generous at times.  Kelly was always a slight enigma, that’s partly why she struggled when she moved to NBC news, and failed to connect with a broader audience…Theron perhaps warms us up to her too much.  Kidman doesn’t look much like Carlson but with her big hair and pursed lips she has the determined look of a woman smart enough to get her ducks lined up in a row and so resourceful no one even knew the ducks were there to begin with.

Robie’s character is a composite of several different producers at Fox News so she has a bit more leeway to create the role from the top down.  After scoring high marks with a fantastic dialogue-free scene earlier this summer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, she tops that one with a hard to watch passage with Lithgow as Ailes.  Watching her face go through a range of emotions is gut-wrenching but Robie doesn’t overplay it, it’s devastating enough as it is.  Her best scenes, though, are with McKinnon who finally shows up in a movie ready to take things seriously.  By far her best work to date, McKinnon leaves her goofy shtick at the Saturday Night Live studios and works hard to be a part of the success of the film rather than being the source of the problem.

Roach has filled the rest of the cast with a truckload of amazing character actors playing a number of familiar faces from the network and the world of entertainment.  I won’t spoil them all but special mention just has to be made for Allana Ubach’s (Gloria Bell) incredible work as Judge Jeanine Pirro – it’s so close to the real thing your skin starts to crawl until you realize it’s just Ubach under all that makeup.

I still struggled with the whole Fox News of it all, though, and it took me until my second viewing and a lengthy discussion with my partner afterward to lock into what the film was missing that would have helped it along a bit more.  There’s no character present that stands in opposition to Fox News or its anchors before all of this happens, only people that turn against the women after they come forward.  So we never know if they are shunning the women themselves or the women because they work at Fox News.  Having some semblance of accountability for actions before all of the harassment business came to light would, I think, ease some of the discomfort people are feeling after seeing the movie.

Hard to deny, though, that Bombshell isn’t a slick piece of entertainment with an important, but not uncommon story to tell.  Closing with a dynamite new song from Regina Spektor, “One Little Soldier”, that sadly didn’t make the Oscar shortlist, my hope is that audiences (even the MN ones!) can put aside their differences of opinion and take the movie for what it’s trying to say.  It’s not about politics, it’s not men vs. women, it’s about saying something.  Or, as Carlson says, ‘Someone has to speak up.  Someone has to get mad.’

Movie Review ~ Cats

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Stars: Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Laurie Davidson, Mette Towley, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Ray Winstone

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: PG

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The much anticipated arrival of the long in the works big screen adaptation of the stage musical CATS is forcing many of its closeted fans out of their cozy hiding nooks.  Before, we were able to slink away with our vinyl record of the London cast (or, if you’re an extra special fan like me, a coveted CD copy of the French cast with its shattering version of the hit anthem Memory) but now…now we’d have to stand up and be counted.  I’ve always been and out and proud supporter of CATS the musical (and the animal), having been taken to countless tours of it growing up and even seeing it solo in its original London home, revolving seatbank and all (look it up…you don’t know what you were missing).  It was glorious having those actors in wild make-up, punk wigs, leotards, and legwarmers writhing around the stage and the aisles in an athletic song and dance spectacle.

Rumors about the musical making the transition from stage to screen had been going on for so long it even became a joke in the play Six Degrees of Separation, with a charming young man conning a gaggle of socialites with promises of cameos in the upcoming film version his father was working on.  Yet no one was quite able to figure out how to translate what was happening on the stage into cinematic form.  Should it be entirely animated?  Do you use the original costumes?  Do you use real cats and just animate their mouths?  A gussied up version of the stage show was filmed but, while professionally made and performed, it lacked that immediacy that gave the live experience it’s spark.

Along comes director Tom Hooper, an Oscar winner for The King’s Speech and riding high off bringing another blockbuster musical to the screen, Les Miserables.  Supposedly, Hooper had a special affinity for CATS and had long wanted to bring the show to theaters and, seizing on the opportunity along with screenwriter Lee Hall (Rocketman), partnered with Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment to finally make it happen.  A star-studded cast of obvious and not-so-obvious names were gathered and using new motion capture technology were turned into dancing felines, trilling out the ear worm-y songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber based on the poems of T.S. Eliot.

It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Hooper’s film version of CATS.  A surreally bizarre journey through the backalleys of London that follows a group of cats on one special night, I guess the emotion that best describes the experience for me is uncomfortable. There’s something off-putting from the start as the overture plays introducing us to this miniature world of alley cats (known as Jellicles) that come to see new arrival Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who has been tossed aside by her owner.  Guided by Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), Victoria is introduced to the various cats of the group, some who are competing that very evening to be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, All is True) to go to the Heaviside Layer, a mystical place where Jellice cats are reborn once a year.

There’s Jennanydots (Rebel Wilson, The Hustle), a pudgy housecat and orchestrator of a Busby Berkely dance routine with mice and cockroaches, the plump and pompous Bustopher Jones (James Corden, Into the Woods) who prides himself on being the ‘stoutest of cats’, and the fast-tapping Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) a cat toiling the days on the railway.  During the night, Victoria meets the suave Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the aging Gus (Ian McKellen, Beauty and the Beast), and the sometime magician Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson, The Good Liar) before running afoul of the troublemaking Macvity (Idris Elba, Miss Sloane) and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift, The Lorax, turning up over an hour into the movie and not worth the wait), his henchwoman.  Watching on the sidelines is Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson, Chi-Raq) a former glamour cat on a downward spiral who has been ostracized from the group.

Like the stage show, the movie is pretty much sung-through, with 23 songs to cover over 110 minutes, including a new tune written by Swift and Lloyd Webber that didn’t even make the Oscar shortlist.  Most are handled with serviceable panache from the cast, though Corden manages to overplay an already exaggerated character and Wilson positively butchers her comic number with a reedy, unpleasant squeak of a voice.  Derulo has fun with his song but it’s so broken up by the frantic camera work and choreography that it doesn’t show off his full range.   Dench, originally cast as Grizabella in the first London production before snapping her Achilles Tendon during rehearsals, has a full circle moment here appearing as the wise, revered matriarch of the herd.  The voice is shaky and breathy but manages to make sense thanks to her performance of the songs themselves.  I’ve been a bit put off by the Grizabella’s getting younger and younger over the years and questioned Hudson’s casting at first but she winds up turning in the most emotionally grounded and guileless rendition of Memory I’ve heard in a long time.  Perhaps the intensity is turned a little high too early, but it worked for me – transcending the strange CGI cat they’ve turned her into.

Ah, the CGI.  I’ll say this.  Some of the designs work better than others.  Dench for instance, looks fairly convincing and it’s mostly because she’s not required to move much.  Anytime there’s motion involved the effect becomes quite startling and while Hooper filmed the actors on an actual set they’ve done something in the conversion to kitty that makes it look like they’ve been Photoshopped on a background…and not convincingly so.  The look of the cats are a bit strange too, some are wearing clothes while others are, I’m guessing, naked.  Wilson has one scene where she’s flat on her back, legs open, scratching her inner thighs and I audibly gasped.  What is this all about?  What made the dancing work well on stage was the impressive choreography executed with style – in Hooper’s computer generated world the cats perform Andy Blankenbuehler’s sinewy moves with some digital assistance.  That doesn’t evoke much awe.

I wonder if CATS was ever destined to be made into a good movie or if this is the best Hollywood had to offer.  I definitely think the effects could have been kicked up a notch; we should be further along than what’s on display here and the best scenes in a movie with actors turned into singing CGI cats shouldn’t be when they’re standing still.  Yet it’s these very moments that have stuck in my, uh, memory more than the sequences that I felt were ghastly at first watch.  I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing this, it’s absolutely something you should see just to say you saw it…but don’t judge the show by the movie.  And get that French CD if you don’t believe me!