Movie Review ~ Saint Maud

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pious nurse who becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.

Stars: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Marcus Hutton

Director: Rose Glass

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it was looking like Saint Maud was going to be the one that got away.  Making its debut all the way back at 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival where it was acquired by red hot indie studio A24,  then on quite a roll with next-gen horror fare like Midsommar, Hereditary, In Fabric, and Green Room.  Early trailers were enticing, hinting at something different than your usual religious experience horror outing, and filtered through a uniquely female lens, something the sub-genre was sorely missing.  Originally supposed to debut in April 2020 but then, well, you what happened; Saint Maud became a long-standing casualty of the great 2020 shuffle and only recently received its release on a smaller scale than was intended.  As it turns out, perhaps it was a good thing the movie eluded me for so long.  While it gets off to a swell start with haunting imagery, committed performances, and a claustrophobic set-up suggesting a mountain of dread ahead, it plays its hand too early and effectively leaves a solid 40 minutes that can’t live up to what came before.  For all the talk about it eschewing the trappings of other religion-based horror films, it actually manages to fall into lockstep with every one of them until the climax that, while one doozy of a final kick in the rosary beads, is more inevitable than it is thrilling.

In a dullish town on the English seaside, Maud (Morfydd Clark, The Personal History of David Copperfield) is the newest hospice nurse assigned to care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Run This Town), a caustic former dancer turned choreographer moving into the final stages of terminal cancer.  We’ve seen the bloody remnants of the last job Maud (then known as Katie) held and since then she’s found God which has led her to Amanda’s doorstep.  At first, Maud seems to be just what Amanda has needed in a nurse.  She listens to her patient and humors her whims to a point but stays firm in the care she administers and the boundaries she sets.  Pallid Amanda drops her acidity towards her caregiver and indulges her as well, listening to Maud’s recounting of a recent conversion to the church and giving her the kind of attention only someone experienced in nurturing young souls could pull off without making it seem as phony as it most definitely is.  If only Maud knew of Amanda’s lack of sincerity.

The bigger problem is that Amanda is still Amanda deep down and her late-night trysts with Carol (Lily Frazer, The Gentlemen) start to light the fire and brimstone under Maud, especially when she finds out the online hook-up has been accepting money when their visit is over.  Of course, Amanda isn’t about to be ordered around on a personal level by her younger, ultra-religious nurse, which puts their working relationship to the test.  It all comes to a head as Maud begins to unravel under the weight of what she believes is her duty to “save” Amanda before she dies while at the same time battling her own snarling demons that are causing her to act on some very basic instincts of her own.  Consumed (or possessed?) by the need to purify the soul, Maud sinks far beneath the dizzying swirl of her fractured reality.

The opening act of writer/director Rose Glass’s horror film is spooky and, at times, quite scary in a real-world, unsettling way.  Maud is so innocuous with her intentions that the little ways she tries to subvert Amanda’s way of living is troubling at first, disturbing around the halfway mark, and totally unknown by the end.  It’s as if Glass knew how she wanted to start things and how it would end but wasn’t quite sure how to fill in some major gaps of action in the middle third.  That results in a long period of time where Saint Maud goes off the rails in the clunkiest of ways, focusing on Maud’s journey into the black abyss and it’s frankly not nearly as interesting as anything else in the movie.  We’ve seen characters like Maud go through these trials before and they’ve been far more effective in intent and execution, not that Clark doesn’t commit to the character with a bravura performance that keeps the film with a hearty pulse.

Where Glass has found the steeliest strength in Saint Maud is the casting of her two main character and I’d argue that Clark and Ehle’s scenes alone would have been enough for the movie to be a larger success had the above-mentioned passages been truncated or excised all together.  The dynamic between the two women is skilled, the electricity palpable.  I could just easily have believed Glass’s screenplay began life as a script for the stage and might imagine it would make for excellent material for actresses to use in scene study down the road in a few years.  Though Clark can hold her own (when it’s just her), Saint Maud’s fervor drops considerably when Ehle isn’t somewhere nearby and we’re lucky Glass has given her several boffo moments throughout.  The remaining supporting cast tend to blend together, dwarfed by the large shadows cast by the strong stars.

Like many movies that get their fuel from the mystery of religion, Saint Maud derives a number of its shivers from the unknown.  Though it does resort to jump scares on occasion, much of the actual terror the posters and pull quotes proclaim come more from witnessing the disturbing decay of the supposedly pious and downward spirals we are unable to stop from happening in the third act.  Without spoiling anything, I’ll say the final few minutes did give me the heebie-jeebies, leaving this viewer with one or two lingering images that I’d like to quickly forget.  However, it’s all to send a shock wave through your system and the attempt at being so bold at these very last moments have a bit of a smell of last-ditch desperation to them.  Some penance is needed for this not being the holy terror it could have been, though Clark and Ehle’s performance makes it worth it for a time.

Movie Review ~ On the Rocks

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.

Stars: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate

Director: Sofia Coppola

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Let’s have it out right now at the start so we can move on.  I’m not a fan of Lost in Translation and I don’t get it’s appeal.  Whew.  There, I said it and I feel better.  Do you?  Sorry, but that film just didn’t land with me and I know I like a bunch of movies that may leave you wondering if I have a sane bone in my body but Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning screenplay left me freezing.  I guess I could watch it again and see if my mood on it has changed but…I just don’t think so.  Her subsequent films have been a mixed bag too, with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides being right on target and Marie Antoinette making 2005 buzz with its charisma and style.  I was marginally sold on The Bling Ring but less enthused with her remake of The Beguiled, which is all to say that I approached her new film On the Rocks (which has been playing in theaters and now premieres on Apple+) very carefully.

The story of an almost-40 New York mother of two (Rashida Jones, The Sound of Silence) who suspects her busy husband (Marlon Wayans, The Heat) of cheating on her with his co-worker could have easily been another in a long line of crestfallen big city women in crisis movies that you’d rent from Redbox and then forget about forever.  Yet Coppola has made one of the more interesting films of the year by casting one of the more interesting actors working today and giving him his best role in quite some time.  That moves On the Rocks from the watch it and forget it column to the watch it, talk about it, think about it, tell all your friends about how good Bill Murray is in it sort of deal.

At first, Laura (Jones) isn’t sure her successful husband Dean has strayed in their marriage.  A half-awake Dean has returned from a lengthy flight and when he flops into bed and she greets him, he appears surprised to hear her voice.  She actually writes off the incident and even believes the rational reason he provides when she finds the make-up bag for his co-worker in his luggage.  Then she has lunch with her retired art-dealer dad Felix (Murray, Moonrise Kingdom) and that’s when he plants the germ of a seed of doubt in her mind and proceeds to help her nurture it.  A notorious womanizer that has struggled to stay faithful himself, he seems to know what he’s talking about.  Even though Laura doesn’t want to believe the hard to believe signs, maybe her dad is right…but does she want to risk her marriage on a hunch?

Coppola’s film is mainly a drama, a family drama no-less, but there are elements of a number of different genres present.  It’s a buddy film in the way that Laura leans on Felix for support during this strange period of her life as it doesn’t appear she has any female friends she can open up to, surely not the self-involved women (including a scene-stealing Jenny Slate, Zootopia) at her children’s school.  There’s a road trip adventure quality to it as well when Felix convinces Laura to follow Dean to Mexico to surprise him on a co-workers only trip in the hopes of finding him with another woman.  It’s a mystery too, as the audience is never quite sure how allegiant Felix is to his daughter – we feel like he wants the best for her but it’s also clear that for as much shameless flirting and grandstanding gladhanding as he does, she may be his only true connection and if she remains so devoted to Dean where does that leave him?

I wish Coppola had a bit more to say about these relationships in her wrap-up because the conclusion is definitely nowhere near as interesting as the carefully laid out (and highly enjoyable) first ¾ of the movie.  There is a feeling too that had Wayans been a more dynamic actor the stakes may have been raised a bit higher.  As it stands he’s just not on the same level as Jones who in turn isn’t at the same level as Murray.  So you have three different actors all at differing levels of range – sometimes that doesn’t make a difference but in emotionally fueled movies like On the Rocks it does become part of a make or break discussion.  Murray is fantastic, easily the best and brightest he’s been in years – fingers crossed he gets some recognition for this effort – and I hope Coppola continues to explore this side of her narrative storytelling.  Just work on the ending.

Movie Review ~ Boys State

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.

Director: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Show of hands.  How many of you out there reading this have been watching your favorite news network and watched the politicians of our great nation squabbling over some pithy thing while a huge issue goes unresolved and thought to yourself “Geez, they’re acting like children!” You’re raising your hand right now, aren’t you?  Ok.  You can put your hand down and continue on.  Yes, it’s true that more often than not, politicians are no longer looked at as the distinguished men and women that are elected to serve for the people but more as misbehaving children and petulant teens.  Actually, having watched Boys State I think that comparison isn’t fair to teens because this insightful and surprisingly agile documentary shows that maybe the young leaders of tomorrow already have something on their elder statesmen and women: decorum.

Let’s back up a bit.  When I first saw the preview for Boys State I was expecting something far more wince-inducing to get through.  I fully thought I’d be grimacing during this look inside the yearly event sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary and held in every state.  Began in 1935 by a Loyola law professor and an American Legion chairman, the program has expanded throughout the country and is a massive event for high school juniors that gives them a crash course in the day to day operations of local, county and state government.  Throughout their weeklong stay, the students will elect their own officials and debate issues that are of importance to them, all in service of understanding their roles in government and politics.  Being elected to office looks mighty good on a college admission application, too.

Though every state offers programs for boys and girls, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss choose to focus solely on the 1,000+ strong Boys State event that was held in Texas several years ago and what they’ve captured is pretty eye-opening.  Instead of the staunch conservative red-blooded American indoctrinated teenagers I thought we’d be spending two hours with, we’re instead greeted with a diverse cast of interesting personalities that come from different backgrounds and perspectives.  Make no mistake, all of the boys McBaine and Moss follow have been painstakingly chosen to play a role in a certain unspoken narrative but it’s not as manipulative as it might seem on the surface.  There is good representation of all sides for the most part and gun control seems to be the lynchpin much of the action hinges on, but even though viewers may disagree on the politics of the subjects the kids themselves are kind of great in their own way.

As anyone who has ever been to summer camp without their close friends accompanying them can attest, your first moments off the bus in a new group of people your own age is scary.  Though students mostly stay with their cities so they at least know a few familiar people, I’d have to imagine a sea of largely white faces must be intimidating for the few minority members that are in attendance.  Even so, it isn’t hard for socially conscious René Otero to find his place in the crowd or for the popular and gregarious Robert Macdougal to ingratiate himself with anyone he decides to charm.  Then there are those that have to work a little harder, double amputee Ben Feinstein has a game plan going into the week that could prove to make him a hero or villain at the end of it all.  Finally, the quiet Steven Garza wants to get to know people on an individual basis and treats even the brief responsibilities of mock government with respect.

How these four and others will work together within two opposing parties is the stuff of good documentary filmmaking – you’ll be highly engaged and maybe alternatively enraged at some of the tactics that go on.  Cheering on small victories leads to laughter at deserved losses for those unprepared to go toe to toe with more qualified candidates…much like the enjoyment we may get in seeing our current government officials challenged.  Don’t be surprised to find yourself holding your breath when votes are tallied and decisions announced and keep a tissue handy because a tear or two might fall – not for any reason other than seeing some goodness in the next generation that many leaders are sorely lacking in.

Available on Apple+ and arriving just after the first batch of primary elections have wrapped up, I imagine Boys State will generate some more buzz as the November elections get underway.  My hope is that the way these young men conduct themselves is used as an example of how decorum and acceptance can be a good fit in politics and that inclusion, not exclusion benefits everyone in the end.

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 ~ Waves


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Traces the journey of a suburban African-American family as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss.

Stars: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr.

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: There’s a part of every movie going experience that I dread the most.  No, it’s not battling traffic to get to the theater or praying the person next to me isn’t a talker/texter/cruncher.  It’s not even a fear of being disappointed by a highly anticipated title I’ve been counting down the days to or hoping the seat I’m going to be occupying will allow me to cross my legs (I’m tall and these tree trunks need to be stretched!) that gives my brow a slight bead of sweat.  It’s the thought of being asked immediately by my neighbor when the credits roll “What did you think?” or worse, being asked to write it down.  I totally understand these quick takes are necessary for feedback and want to do my best to provide an honest answer but I usually need time to process what I’m feeling just a tad longer.  Often, my responses are pretty dumb (no, really) and I wind up feeling differently the more I ponder.

Take Waves, for instance.  After 135 minutes of fairly intense drama, my first reaction wasn’t entirely positive.  Knowing the film had strong buzz from its festival circuit debut coming in to the screening gave me a framework for what I was going to see but the initial response was in answer to the emotion I felt at the experience and not the movie.  Does that make sense?  The more I thought about the film and it’s complex look at a seemingly picture perfect family that begins to break down the less personal emotion I attached to it and the more critical analysis I was able to apply.  I still can look at the film for how it made it feel but the overall consensus is now based on more than that hot take in the moment.

Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce) is a Florida teenager in the middle of a successful senior year.  He’s popular, a good student, he’s in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and he’s a star athlete.  The achievements haven’t come without hard work and we see how much he’s pushed by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, Frozen II) to train and stay on task. Stepmother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) senses he may be taking on too much but doesn’t want to get in between father and son, and it doesn’t appear that his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell, Escape Room) pays much attention to the comings and goings of her more outgoing brother.  Life for this family goes on without much disruption — everyone stays in their own lane.

An injury that threatens to derail his plans for the future is the first fissure in Tyler’s picture perfect life but it won’t be the last.  A physical set-back becomes the least troubling bit of business for the young man as what seemed to be a solid groundwork turns out to have been constructed on something entirely more delicate.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults takes Tyler down a believably troubled path of self-destruction that’s hard to watch, mainly because of how quickly it all happens.  From one issue springs two more, which open up old wounds that never truly healed.  What starts as a fall from grace for Tyler has a ripple effect for the entire Williams family and it leads to a devastating turn of events that changes all of their lives forever.

And that’s only half of the movie.

Around the midway point, Shults changes the protagonist to Emily to track her high school experience after the events that have already transpired, and it feels like an entirely different film all together.  Where the preceding hour was a vibrant mélange of a world constantly in motion that barely took a breath, the brakes have now been slammed and we’re slowly examining the aftermath of a tragedy with the people often left with more questions than answers.  Using Emily as a focal point for intuiting the grief that remains after a loss, Shults eschews making her a social pariah in her school but instead quickly gives her a confidant in Luke (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) a socially awkward boy in her class that knows her story and likes her anyway, which comes as a surprise.

As their relationship deepens and becomes something more mature, Emily begins to see the difference between a partnership that is working and one that isn’t.  That’s how a subplot with Ronald and Catherine is introduced, giving Brown and Goldsberry a bit more to work with than they had earlier in the film.  It’s here where Shults starts to veer into overly familiar territory with the couple being written a little broadly and making discoveries that are expected and overly dramatized.  When Shults sticks with Tyler in the first hour and Emily and Luke in the second the real authenticity is found and from there comes powerful moments that will resonate with anyone wishing they had spoken up sooner or intervened on someone’s behalf earlier.

Leaving the screening of Waves I originally found myself favoring the first half because it was the more tangible piece, the easier and more straight-forward narrative to grab onto.  As he did earlier in the year with the underseen Luce, Harrison is an undeniable force onscreen and he’s someone you want to know more about, even if you already know you won’t ever truly figure them out.  The more I sat with the movie, though, I couldn’t get that second section out of my mind.  It’s not as easy to interpret and it goes slack far more than it should, but when it gets in its groove there’s some riveting stuff going on, providing Russell with a handful of excellent scenes that she often plays solo.  I’m not sure if it was Shults intention to make any scene featuring adults feel intrusive but they do, I kept wishing for less of Goldsberry (who is otherwise strong) and Brown (who pushes the dramatics too much) and more with the honesty of their children.

Released by the rising indie distributor A24, Waves fits perfectly into their model of championing burgeoning filmmakers like Shults and for his third high profiled film he’s shown continued advancement in storytelling and technique.  By and large, Waves finds Shults navigating new territory and even the small diversions into oft-traveled waters don’t take away from the lingering bit of sadness that follows you out of the theater. It’s also quite well made, another Shults trademark.  The cinematography and ever-present score are nigh-hypnotic and the performances from Harrison and Russell fuel the kinetic energy that keeps Waves riding high.

See, I just needed a little more time and then I could come up with something a little more thoughtful.  My apologies to my patient screening reps 🙂

Movie Review ~ The Death of Dick Long


The Facts
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Synopsis: Dick died last night, and Zeke and Earl don’t want anybody finding out how. That’s too bad though, cause news travels fast in small-town Alabama.

Stars: Michael Abbott Jr., Andre Hyland, Virginia Newcomb, Sarah Baker, Janelle Cochrane, Poppy Cunningham, Jess Weixler

Director: Daniel Scheinert

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Credit must be given to A24 studios for consistently finding interesting voices to add to their stable of filmmakers regardless of their wide-spread appeal.  While the studio has scored high in 2019 with their box office and/or critical hits The Farewell and Midsommar, they’ve released smaller films like Climax and Gloria Bell which can politely be described as appealing to niche audiences.  I appreciate they continue to stick with their commitment to providing a platform for new filmmakers, and it’s within that spirit of appreciation I find myself developing a curious fondness for The Death of Dick Long.

Receiving a small release at select theaters this weekend, The Death of Dick Long premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January and was a buzzed about title thanks to its, ah, unique central premise.  I’ve yet to watch any promotional material for this movie so I can’t say how much may have been hinted at or spoiled in advance, but I went in totally blind and didn’t have a clue what I was in for – and that’s how I suggest you approach this weird yet weirdly engaging film as well.  I will say, though, there will come a point in the movie where you’ll have to make a decision how far you’re willing to go along with the premise and as much as I wanted to suck it up, I couldn’t quite clear that hurdle and not for the reason you may think.

After their weekly garage band practice, longtime friends Dick, Zeke, and Earl spend the rest of the evening (and the title sequence) partying it up, drinking, shooting off fireworks, and carousing before retiring into a nearby building.  The next thing we know, Zeke and Earl are transporting an injured Dick to their local hospital, depositing him anonymously and then heading home.  Never thinking Dick would perish from his injuries, the men wake to a heap of trouble and find their friend dead, a bloody car to dispose of, and an array of family, friends, and law enforcement that aren’t aware of the extent of their involvement.

The first hour of the film is fun in a bumbling Cohen Brothers-esque way, with Zeke (Michael Abbott, Jr., Mud) trying to clean-up their mess only to make things worse with each lie he tells.  Keeping his story straight for his wife and child gets increasingly difficult, especially when the mother and daughter start to compare stories.  He gets little help from Earl (Andre Hyland, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) a stoner working a dead-end job with a kooky sorta girlfriend (Sunita Mani) and not much to his name.  When a weary sheriff (a delightfully droll Janelle Cochrane) and her deputy (Sarah Baker, Life of the Party) take on what they think is a small missing person case only to find it snowballing into a major crime, things heat up quickly and that’s when writer Billy Chew lets the cat out of the bag.

The circumstances surrounding Dick’s death are the big mystery and I won’t reveal it here but it will throw you for a loop.  I certainly didn’t see it coming and was as stunned as many of the characters in the film are.  When Zeke’s wife (a fantastic Virginia Newcomb, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) finds out, her reaction of stilted surprise will echo most audience members.  It’s after all this is revealed that Chew and director Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man) find themselves painted a bit into a corner.  Once we know what happened, the movie becomes almost instantly less enjoyable and more concerning is its lack of exploration into what is quite a sensitive subject.  I can’t tell if Chew was using it as a shock plot device or if there was intention to say something bigger.  The subject has been broached in film before, but never tossed aside as quickly as it is here.

That leaves the overall enjoyment of the movie squarely on the shoulders of the actors and it’s nice to report they carry it well.  Abbott and Hyland are good foils for each other and though Abbott is the clear lead of the movie and has the more difficult surface terrain to navigate, I think Hyland is doing the more intricate work on the underneath.  It’s easy to play a pothead loser but there’s an ingrained dopiness to him that goes beyond the norm.  Newcomb has to run a gamut of emotions as Zeke’s wife and while the script has her zig zagging rather unexpectedly in her actions, she’s believably bereft of emotion when her husband makes his admission to her.  I got a huge kick out of Cochrane as the exasperated sheriff and really loved what Baker was doing as the not-quite-bright but not totally inept deputy.

I can imagine this would be fun to discuss after and my biggest regret is screening this one solo.  Without another person to turn to and ask “Did you just see that.” it doesn’t quite feel real. Now, I’ll have to wait until others have had a chance to find out about The Death of Dick Long.  It’s one that will benefit from good word of mouth but doesn’t have a few key ingredients to push it into the cult status it seems to want to be placed in.  A noble effort, but not quite there.

Movie Review ~ The Farewell

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.

Stars: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Ines Laimins, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo

Director: Lulu Wang

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: In recent years, I’ve come to be mighty skeptical of any movie that has buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival. Though the fest has produced several hits throughout its time, lately its been more infamous as a birthing place where great, good, and so-so movies without distributors get gobbled up by studios who then don’t know what to do with them. The great ones see their releases totally bungled, the good ones rarely find a wide-release, and the so-so ones usually get the most eyes on them.  Thankfully, most of the just plain bad ones disappear quickly into your streaming service library.

This year the two movies that I heard the most about were female-led and female directed. The first to arrive was the moderately well-reviewed comedy Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. Though it was positioned well by Amazon Studios as counter-programming to the summer blockbusters that were in full swing when its June release date rolled around, it tanked. Big time. So big that its rumored jobs were lost at Amazon Studios and a complete revaluation of their film acquisition policies in progress. As much as I would have liked to see that film do better business considering the stars, I kind of get why it didn’t catch on. Though it had laughs, I didn’t leave the theater wanting to tell my friends about it.

The same can’t be said about the other Sundance favorite now arriving in theaters. I’m telling all my friends, family, co-workers, and even a few people off the street that look like they’d be up for it about The Farewell. Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical dramedy is the absolute most winning film I’ve seen all year, equal parts comedy and drama and never less than 100% authentic in its emotions. It’s a film that starts strong and just continues to build and take root in your heart over the next hour and a half. If a PG rated film like this can’t get families (with older children) into the theater and be a sleeper hit of the summer, then nothing can.

While waiting to see if her grant proposal is approved, a thirty-year-old struggling writer in New York City arrives at her immigrant parents house to do, what else?, her laundry. It’s here Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) learns her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of terminal lung cancer. Her father (Tzi Ma, Skyscraper) is grief-stricken while her mother (Diana Lin) explains to Billi that the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis but instead will gather in China to say their goodbyes under the pretense of a shotgun wedding for Billi’s cousin. What’s more, Billi can’t come along because she won’t be able to keep the secret. Recognizing this will be her only chance to say goodbye, Billi makes her way to China several days after her parents, surprising them and threatening to upend the plan.

Over the course of the multi-day wedding celebration, Billi gets an education about China’s cultural complexities of withholding a terminal diagnosis from a loved one and how it’s not just about “lying” but about showing respect for their final days. Additionally, she finds a greater understanding of her parents difficult immigration to America and grapples with the ripple effects it had on her upbringing. While Nai Nai stresses over crab being served at the wedding instead of lobster, her family is agonizing over making sure she doesn’t accidently see her test results and finding a way to say good-bye without actually saying it.  As the family participates in numerous traditions leading up to the big day, we get a small insider view of Chinese culture and, while certainly not comprehensive, it’s valuable to be a fly on the wall for many of these celebrations, discussions, and remembrances.

Though it sounds like the makings of a dreary, teary film (and trust me, there are tears), Wang’s film is overflowing with life and demonstrates an assured way with comedy as well, drawing laughs from unlikely places and characters. Much of the comedy comes from the differences between cultures and customs but there’s a fair share of one-liners that are howlinginly funny. Family reunions are stressful enough and with emotions dialed up, everyone is on edge and that leads to a number of funny sequences and some especially awkward wedding speeches.  All of the moments feel unexpected and off-the cuff, never straying into the saccharine areas we think they’re going to go and which they maybe might have the tendency to lean.

Known for her stand-up and previous comedic roles, Awkwafina does, if not a complete 180, then a 165 degree turn as Billi. Finding a way into the comedy without being the center of it, she also doesn’t grit her teeth to get into the drama of the film either. This feels like an actress taking on another role and knocking it out of the park, not simply a comedian stretching outside her comfort zone and achieving an unexpected bullseye. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are wonderful as her parents, both getting key scenes with their daughter that tell us much about their life and love for their family, with Lin specifically tackling a difficult arc accepting responsibilities for how she raised Billi. The real standout here is Zhao Shuzhen in a performance that has Best Supporting Actress (or at least a nomination written all over it). Warm, wise, and always with a twinkle in her eye, each frame of film she’s in is enriched by her presence and each line of dialogue is of sage import. It’s fairly unforgettable, as is her final scene.

Sure to be the best film to come out of the lackluster summer of 2019 and absolutely the one of the top movies of the year, The Farewell is a real treasure to be treasured. I haven’t stopped thinking about it nearly a week after I’ve seen it, nor can I stop telling people how good it is. Opening in limited release before expanding wider, this is one to keep your eyes open for because I have the feeling this is the “little film that could” hit everyone has been waiting for.

Movie Review ~ Midsommar


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Stars: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhem Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe

Director: Ari Aster

Rated: R

Running Length: 140 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: For all the unfettered glee I feel every time a new horror movie comes out, such as the recently released Annabelle Comes Home, and as much as I love a gooey creature feature like the upcoming Crawl, I must admit to experiencing an overwhelming bout of anxiety when staring down a screening like Midsommar. It’s not just because I knew it clocked in at nearly two and a half hours, either, but it’s something about films of this particular genre of horror that I find deeply unsettling. Watching what should be idyllic slowly turn into a nightmare with no escape is what I imagine it must feel like to be in a pot of water slowly brought to a roiling boil.

Though it feels like it’s been out longer, it’s only been a year since writer/director Ari Aster dealt his first major blow to my nerves with Hereditary. The 2018 jaw-dropper came out of the festival circuit with a great deal of buzz and mostly delivered on its promise of classy scares wrapped up in a family drama. Lead by an astoundingly terrific performance by Toni Collette, the movie only stumbled in its final moments. The first time I saw the film that final misstep was enough for me to dismiss it almost completely but revisiting it later and watching it with a more holistic view of the characters I found more to appreciate in Aster’s vision. I still really hated that ending, though.

My hope is that you haven’t been inundated with trailers for Midsommar yet and my advice is to avoid any additional previews or clips for the film before seeing it. That way, you can let the tension build at Aster’s pace and not be waiting for particular images or sequences you already know are coming. This is a deliberate movie that takes it’s time toying with the audience and I’m guessing that’s going to alienate the shifty moviegoer that expects a scare every ten minutes. Like Hereditary, Midsommar isn’t in any rush to reveal its secrets or play by a standard set of rules.   Also similar to Aster’s previous work, his sophomore film makes some strangely calculated missteps that have the completely wrong effect on the audience at the worst possible time.

Before the title card pops up, Aster has already given the audience a taste of the kind of emotional toll the movie will take. Still reeling from a recent trauma, Dani (Florence Pugh, The Commuter) is invited by her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, On the Basis of Sex) to tag along on a summer trip to Sweden with his three friends. All are attending a midsummer festival in the remote village where Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren) grew up. Anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper, All Good Things) feels this is the perfect subject for his ongoing thesis while Mark (Will Poulter, We’re the Millers) is there for the girls and life experience. Already on the fringe for being seen as Christian’s emotionally troubled girlfriend, Dani’s presence adds a layer of fraught tension into what was to be a freewheeling trip of a lifetime.

Arriving in the commune as the nine day celebration is about to begin, the group is welcomed with open arms by the friendly folk and are eventually introduced to the culture and rules of the land. Right off the bat, the weirdness of the place is palpable but Aster wisely tempers that by having Dani and her friends not turn into crass, ugly Americans. Instead, they are presented as identifying the customs as strange but recognizing a cultural specificity they just might not understand immediately. This helps the audience, too, in accepting why the visitors don’t pack it up and hit the road the moment the first ominous event occurs.

I’ll stop with giving away more of the plot at this point because once the festival truly begins all bets are off and nothing can really prepare you for what happens. Yes, some of the events are probably what you think they are but there are more turns that you won’t be able to see coming. I wasn’t able to watch several parts of the film, the visuals were just too upsetting and not simply because of any violence or gore but because of some emotional sadness that is attached to what occurs. Like Hereditary, there’s little pleasure to be derived at what befalls the characters (good or bad) and by the time the film ended I was appropriately rattled.  Make no doubt about it, as extreme as Hereditary was in parts, Midsommar aims for a higher squirm factor and achieves it with fairly little effort.

Without a strong lead, the film wouldn’t have been as effective as it was and Aster lucked out again with a perfect star. Pugh is still gaining momentum in Hollywood and no matter how well this does at the box office I expect the movie to help increase her cache for future projects. While it doesn’t afford her quite the satisfactory journey as Collette was given in Hereditary, there’s plenty of meat on the bone for Pugh to chew on. Reynor’s character is trickier and without giving too much away you have to get to a certain place with him for the climax to work and I didn’t quite make it. Still…major kudos to him for participating in a scene that will likely be the most talked about and shared on the internet. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with particularly good attention paid to the casting of the villagers. Down to the smallest walk-on role Aster has chosen people that I completely believed were a part of this tribe.  Extra special notice to Gunnel Fred as Siv, the materfamilias of the commune that welcomes the outsiders in and then expects their full participation as the festival reaches its most pivotal ceremony.

Do I feel the movie could have been shorter? Sure, I mean two hours and twenty minutes is a long time to spend with these themes and this type of extreme experience. It’s an unsettling film and while it takes an unfortunate turn near the end that elicited mood-shattering laughs from the audience, it manages to get back into its lane by the time the credits roll. With Hereditary, I was willing to give it another go because the family dynamics were something I was interested in exploring a bit more. While I enjoyed Midsommar and understood its themes, I’m not certain it’s one I could see again…there’s just too much sadness involved.  Still, if you can stomach it and have a hunger for elevated horror this is one to seek out and sink down into.

The Silver Bullet ~ Midsommar



Synopsis
: What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Release Date: July 3, 2019

Thoughts: Horror movies are always a bit divisive between elitist critics and populist cinephiles but 2018’s Hereditary managed to unite them almost universally.  It took me a second watch to truly appreciate what writer/director Ari Aster was going for and even then I still had issues with the finale.  That aside, I’m looking forward to Aster’s next summer screen scare, Midsommar and from the looks of this second trailer audiences are in for another squirmy ride through some very freaky goings-on.  I like that the film is set completely in the daylight, giving Aster and his actors little room to hide – I just hope this time the ending can live up to everything that has come before.

Movie Review ~ Gloria Bell

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A free-spirited woman in her 50s seeks out love at L.A. dance clubs.

Stars: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Caren Pistorius, Holland Taylor, Michael Cera, Sean Astin, Alanna Ubach, Brad Garrett, Rita Wilson, Jeanne Tripplehorn

Director: Sebastián Lelio

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I already have a conflicted relationship with remakes in general and the internal battle I wage with English language remakes of foreign films is even greater. If a film is so revered in its native language why can’t it exist on its own merits and let audiences discover the film on their own terms in their own time? Must it always be necessary to, let’s face it, pander to the lazies that can’t be bothered to put on their reading glasses? It frustrates me mostly because rarely are these U.S. remakes in the same league as their foreign counterparts so the lasting impression most audiences have are watered down versions of what were dynamic originals.

An added complexity to the American remake is when foreign directors adapt their own film for the English language. This is not a new concept. George Sluzier remade his dynamite 1988 thriller Spoorloos in 1993 as The Vanishing and turned it into a tepid vehicle for Jeff Bridges. Michael Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games made it’s remake debut on our shores in 2007. In 2002 Takashi Shimizu released Ju-on: The Grudge two years before he would direct an English language remake that is getting yet another remake in 2020.

The latest auteur circling back to his own work is Sebastián Lelio, the Oscar-winning director of 2017’s Best Foreign Film A Fantastic Woman. Based on his surprise 2013 hit Gloria, Gloria Bell is one of those rare remakes that allows both films to stand on their own without either suffering by comparison. Each may have the same story to tell and center on a woman of a certain age not often well represented in mainstream cinema but Lelio and star Julianne Moore bring a profound depth and realism to the character and her adventures. This helps the movie out of the remake shadow and into it’s own vibrant light.

Fiftyish divorcee Gloria Bell (Moore, Still Alice) lives in Los Angeles and is a manager at an insurance company by day and a dance club denizen by night. Spending her drive to and from work singing along to hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Gloria has two children she has a typical relationship with and a few good friends she can confide in. She’s living her life…but maybe not her best life. Her nights on the dance floor are a way for her to go into her own world and lose herself and it’s there she catches the eye of Arnold (John Turturro, Fading Gigolo) another divorcee with his own baggage that quickly gets laid at her feet. As her relationship with Arnold starts to take off and throws her some unexpected curveballs, Gloria takes stock of where she finds herself and starts to enact more control of her life than ever before.

The ups and downs of the relationship between Gloria and Arnold won’t be unfamiliar to most of us but the way things play out may be. A great scene involving Arnold being introduced to Gloria’s adult children (Michael Cera, This is the End and Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines) and her ex-husband and his new wife (Brad Garrett, Christopher Robin and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct) leads to some fairly awkward and embarrassing developments. It all culminates in one downright infuriating deal breaker that’s not just forgiven (though, admittedly, not easily) but actually repeated later on in the film.

The beauty in Lelio’s film and Moore’s performance is that much of the journey Gloria goes on doesn’t come in what we hear but in what we see. It’s how we see Moore and Turturro interact that informs where they are in their relationship, it’s how Moore carries herself after suffering a set-back before squaring her shoulders that tells us how quickly she bounces back from disappointment. There’s so much happening internally that it could be easy for the movie to feel small but it’s largely filled with truly lovely moments.  It also helps that I genuinely had no idea where the movie was headed and where things would wind up for Gloria.  There was no telegraphed path to conclusion or hints at what the next turn would be — such is life.

Aided by a strong soundtrack of popular tunes not to mention an intriguing score from Matthew Herbert, the film gets the overbaked sunniness of Los Angeles completely right and always places our leading lady in locations that feel like the real world. She lives in the style of apartment and drives the type of car someone with her job would and Moore, as usual, totally loses herself in the role. Though the film does have some melancholy moments laced throughout it ends with a hopeful bang (and, of course, on the dancefloor) as Moore takes us through a whole range of emotions as Laura Branigan’s Gloria plays in the background.  It’s easy to see why many people are highlighting this last scene as a standout but it’s just one of many moments in the film that showcases the star becoming one with the material/character.  Another winning performance from Moore and a worthwhile film to see.