Movie Review ~ All the Old Knives

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two CIA operatives, and former lovers, reunite at idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea to re-examine a mission six years ago in Vienna where a fellow agent might have been compromised.
Stars: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Ahd, Corey Johnson, David Dawson, Orli Shuka, Jonjo O’Neill
Director: Janus Metz
Rated: R
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Right now, on Broadway, ex-James Bond Daniel Craig and Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga have just started previews for their new production of Macbeth. Down the street, married couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick appear in a revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. These are just two examples of famous names in the industry that find themselves on the Great White Way in a play that’s often based mainly on scenes featuring just two people onstage, talking. That’s how some films start too, live on stage and then adapted into films. Some can easily break the bonds of being stage-bound, and others are enterally trapped in that theatrical flourish that can’t so handily be swept to the side.

In hindsight, I wasn’t surprised to learn All the Old Knives had been originally announced as a project for Chris Pine back in 2017. I was astonished to discover that the film wasn’t the product of a stage-to-screen adaptation but was instead written by Olen Steinhauer from his 2015 novel of the same name. So much of the movie involves characters (usually two) sitting across from one another talking that I could have imagined it being plucked from some short-lived Broadway run and expanded for the silver screen. Either way, All the Old Knives features several old tricks that will justifiably get the knives out for Steinhauer and a cast of likable, if bland, actors.

It’s been years since colleagues Harry Pelham (Pine, Wonder Woman 1984) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton, Solo: A Star Wars Story) have seen one another, not since she left him the day after their CIA office was involved with a mission that led to the deaths of hundreds of people on a hijacked aircraft. Recent intel has indicated a leak within their agency tipped off the hijackers, and Harry has been tasked by his boss (Laurence Fishburne, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) to suss out the mole. A phone call traced to one of the offices narrows it down to two people, so Harry pays them a visit. 

The nightmares of that day still plague Celia. Agreeing to meet Harry seems like a good way to close that chapter of her life. While their meeting at a coastal restaurant in wine country begins as benign reminiscing, it quickly evolves into a relitigating of the days leading up to the event and its immediate aftermath. As the evening stretches on and the bottles of wine keep coming, more truths are exposed between former flames who thought the other had been honest throughout their time together. By the end of the night, who is interrogating whom? 

Steinhauer keeps our heads spinning by having multiple people tell their version of the story, each with slightly different perspectives. I don’t think Steinhauer deliberately tries to confuse the audience or pull a fast one. Still, the effect of the repetition without consistency winds up creating a mind jumble anyway. Danish director Janus Metz teams with cinematographer (and fellow Dane) Charlotte Bruus Christensen (A Quiet Place) to give the past a steely blue hue and the present a shiny, almost waxy, glow. Also waxy, Pine in several bad wigs as we travel through distinct time periods. The worst is a longer one that gets more unruly as the film wears on, but Pine has competition from other cast members in the lousy wig department. Newton has several questionable fitted coifs as well.

There’s a problem with the film staring us straight in the face, and it’s a big one. The two stars have next to no chemistry. Now I know that Michelle Williams was initially set to star opposite Pine but dropped out when this was delayed, so maybe that combo would have worked better. Newton’s movie could have been better with a more exciting co-star, and Pine’s performance might have leveled off a bit sooner had he acted opposite someone who wasn’t so far ahead of him. Newtown is just too good of an actress to operate in the same hemisphere Pine (a pleasant actor that’s never going to win an Oscar) is living.

With a home stretch that drags out interminably long after providing a half-hearted attempt at a cop-out ending, any way you slice it, All the Old Knives is a bit of a lumbering mess. That being said, I would have paid a top price to see the same stars (yes, even Pine) on stage doing the same piece. I could readily see this operating as a slick piece of live theater that employs a small cast enjoying some juicy roles. It’s overstuffed as a film but sized right for the stage. Watch it (if you must) and see if you agree.

Movie Review ~ Master

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.
Stars: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray
Director: Mariama Diallo
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Working in the business for the last twenty-two years, I’d say it’s high time that a star like Regina Hall began to get her due. With a little over a week to go before she joins Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes as the host of the 94th Academy Awards, Hall is staying busy with the release of her new movie for Amazon Studios on Prime Video, Master. It’s the kind of role that several actresses could have played and done quite well with, but there’s something about how Hall approaches the character that helps her stand out from the crowd. It helps the movie too.

Full disclosure time. I had heard about Master after it premiered at Sundance to some enthusiasm and from naysayers that found problems with writer/director Mariama Diallo’s resolution to an otherwise entertaining blend of real-life horror based on the currently charged racial climate and standard genre tropes. I shrug off these festival notices as foul-moods from the un-showered and those waiting in endless lines only to watch one movie and then race to another. I watched Master at home and, without any pressure, absorbed the film, its timely observances on culture, privilege, and the way we masquerade our societal prejudice.

Hall plays Gail Bishop, recently promoted to new housemaster at the upstate NYC college where she teaches. With its primarily white student population, the college is attempting to be progressive but hides a dark past of systemic racism that’s never been appropriately dealt with. As Gail dives into her new role and feels its limitations, Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) begins her first year alongside a white roommate (Talia Ryder, West Side Story) and peer group. Informed on the first day she’s staying in the same room that one of the college’s first black students hung herself in years earlier, it isn’t long before Jasmine is having visions of something coming for her. First when she sleeps, then when she begins an old habit of sleepwalking, then while she’s awake.

As if dealing with ghostly business isn’t enough, Jasmine crosses paths with Gail when she files a complaint against a black teacher (Broadway star Amber Gray) she feels has graded her unfairly. This complaint coincides with the teacher’s evaluation for tenure, putting Gail in a difficult position having to choose between securing her friend’s future or siding with her colleagues who feel she’s not qualified. The college and its hallowed halls are full of many secrets, though. Eventually, Jasmine’s investigation into her nightmarish visitor and Gail’s escalating oddities around her own house will intensify into a series of reveals that will open their eyes to a more insidious evil they hadn’t prepared for.

I recently watched one of Diallo’s short films and can already tell she’s a director with a voice we will be hearing from for a long time. She possesses a way not only with composing beautifully shot scenes but in capturing a more profound emotion out of her actors. Hall, Renee, and Gray have such razor-sharp snap to their scenes, and while some can be attributed to the talent all three possess, much of that credit has to go to Diallo’s observant script. Any supernatural element introduced is accounted for somehow, driving home the message that sometimes the fear we manifest and spread is often very much of our creation.

A lot is going on in Master, and you almost wish the old days of AOL chat rooms were available or the Twitter feeds weren’t such a cesspool of dreck. Otherwise, you could get on these resources and engage with others who have a similar experience with the movie and have trouble articulating it to those who haven’t seen it. Yes, the ending might be too on the nose for some and could bite off more than its prepared to swallow. I found that it ended right about when it needed to, answering the right questions and asking even better ones.

Movie Review ~ Lucy and Desi

The Facts:

Synopsis: Explores the unlikely partnership and enduring legacy of one of the most prolific power couples in entertainment history.
Stars: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Laura LaPlaca, Eduardo Machado, Charo, Journey Gunderson, Gregg Oppenheimer, David Daniels, Norman Lear, Desi Arnaz Jr.
Director: Amy Poehler
Rated: PG
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: We’re a little less than a month away from the Academy Awards, and one of the big questions of the night is if Nicole Kidman will win her second Best Actress Oscar for playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.  Inspired by one pivotal week in the life of Ball and her husband, Cuban entertainer Desi Arnaz, on the set of their series I Love Lucy, Aaron Sorkin’s film has been met with various cheers and jeers by fans and casual filmgoers alike. Some think it focuses too much on the showbusiness side and not enough on the personal; others feel the Hawaii-born but Australian-raised Kidman had no business playing the American as apple pie redhead. Yet there’s that notable trend in Hollywood where awards are concerned…they love to pat themselves on the back, and if they have an award in their hand while doing it, all the better.

Whatever the current temperature on Kidman is (Javier Bardem & J.K. Simmons also snagged Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations), there’s a new documentary available on Amazon that might tip the scale one way or another in her direction. Lucy and Desi was directed by comedian Amy Poehler (Moxie) and has been given the blessing of the children of the legendary television stars, with their daughter Lucie playing a prominent role in the movie as a keeper of the keys historian of sorts for her parents. Gaining that advocacy says a lot for a piece that examines the turbulent relationship of the duo who began their careers as individual draws but eventually became synonymous with a picture of domestic life that cast a shadow on the rest of their careers.

With audio recordings made by Ball, who had put the stories and memories down (and then away) for later use, Poehler structures a standard format documentary which only occasionally springboards into tangents the general public may not have been aware of going in. What Lucy and Desi does wonderfully well is take its time focusing not on the wedges that drove the gifted artists apart but what drew them together in the first place and kept them in each other’s lives even after they had divorced. In this film, as in Being the Ricardos, Arnaz is shown to be a keen man of business who tirelessly worked to build a legacy for his family. Arriving from Cuba with nothing (after once being among the wealthiest families), he watched his mother struggle and spent most of his life attempting to recreate their prosperity and gain her approval.

Even if Kidman may not have looked exactly like Ball, the stories told by her daughter and the wealth of footage of public appearances and private home movies show just how well the actress captured Ball’s off-screen presence. The Ball we knew best was the bubbly television housewife always in a jam and involved in a bit of slapstick comedy. In reality, Ball was a force to be reckoned with that wasn’t a natural comic but was highly gifted at it all the same. She had to work and rehearse it, but when she got it, nobody was better because she understood there was an art form to making people laugh. That’s why the show she created with Arnaz has endured for decades.

The documentary loses a bit of its edge when it pulls into the station to talk about the dissolution of the marriage, implying it was more of a personality conflict than anything else. Sorkin’s movie and many reports suggest that Arnaz was a womanizer, but the documentary makes no mention of any extramarital affairs. It’s absolutely within the family’s right not to want to open that door because it is, after all, a private matter that wasn’t in their contract with the public. It does seem odd to not even make a passing reference to it because it is so well known.

Fast-moving and chock full of fun information on Hollywood throughout the decades, I thought Lucy and Desi ended rather abruptly on the heels of a moving passage surrounding the final months of Arnaz’s life. Brought together by their daughter before he passed away, she recounts that time spent together, and that’s when you arrive at seeing these celebrities as people, rather than gawkable movie stars. Punctuated with an emotional kicker you’ll have to see for yourself, before you know it the credits are rolling, and that’s all there is. I could have watched another hour of material but recognize the story Poehler was telling the viewer is about the couple together, not their individual lives apart. That’s another story to recount entirely.

Movie Review ~ I Want You Back

The Facts:

Synopsis: Newly dumped thirty-somethings Peter and Emma team up to sabotage their exes’ new relationships and win them back for good.
Stars: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez, Mason Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Jami Gertz, Isabel May, Luke David Blumm
Director: Jason Orley
Rated: R
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With Valentine’s Day racing toward us, many will be looking for that perfect movie to mark the day, one that matches with the mood they feel best fits the situation. Some may feel drawn to the weepy romance of true love lost, others prefer a madcap comedy that sends lovebirds on the run from a rogue they’ve crossed paths with, or maybe your kind of movie has nothing to do with Cupid’s biggest day of the year. February 14th might be the time you decide you finally need to check Lawrence of Arabia or Cujo off your list. Whatever your target is, libraries, theaters, and streaming services have you well covered. 

As is typical whenever a holiday is near, there’s even last-ditch effort fresh content making a play for your attention, and I Want You Back is one of those movies, and I think it’s one worth considering. Available for free to Amazon Prime Members, this Amazon Studios production features a familiar-sounding set-up that manages to rise above recognizable cliches based almost solely on the striking appeal of its two stars. While the new Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson film Marry Me is opening in theaters and PeacockTV, this easy-to-like production should find a sizable audience who spot it on the Prime Video homepage.

Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger get the awkward stuff out of the way first, with Emma (Jenny Slate, On the Rocks) and Peter (Charlie Day, Vacation) getting dumped by the respective partners, much to their total shock. Peter’s long-time girlfriend Anne (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire) is an elementary teacher longing to pursue her passion for acting but feeling like it’s Peter’s lack of ambition which is the main factor holding her back. Personal trainer Noah (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) has tired of his years pushing Emma to figure out what she wants to do with her life and has met someone new, a pastry chef (Clark Backo, No Running) who has her own bakery. Neither dumpee takes the split very well, and that’s how both find each other nursing their wounds in the stairwell of the generic office complex where both work generic 9-5 jobs.

Realizing quickly they are bonded when it comes to being broken up with most egregiously, Emma and Peter make a pact to support one another through this challenging time. It’s an arrangement that morphs into a plan to block their exes from being happy with their new partners. So, Peter will befriend Noah and, through that bro-ship, remind him what he gave up. Emma will, in turn, ingratiate herself with Anne’s drama teacher boyfriend (Manny Jacinto, Bad Times at the El Royale) by working on his production of Little Shop of Horrors and seduce him away. 

Going into the film, I didn’t think it would be possible to hold my interest for nearly two hours because these movies always tend to end in the same way. The question is always then how will the script keep the ones we know are meant to be together apart just long enough for them to conclude it’s not someone else they want but the person closest to them all along? That lack of suspense can make everything that happens between the first meeting and walk into the sunset feel like filler if you don’t have the right combination of actors, but director Jason Orley (The Intern) has found gold in Slate and Day. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been Day’s biggest fan so far in his film career. While I know he carries a dedicated fan base from his long run with TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Day’s raspy-voiced chirp hadn’t won me over quite yet. The opposite was true of Slate, who I came into the evening enjoying quite a lot. In a strange reversal, I found Day to be the stronger of the two and responsible for more of the heavy lifting and feeling more comfortable with it. We know that Emma has issues around being serious, but a little too much of that acidity can wear an audience down.   Day applies the right amount of bite to his feelings on their situation, making his journey as detailed but allowing audiences to continue to empathize with his broken heart. 

Helping everything along are a few inspired moments of comedy supplied by both stars. Even Day’s typical nervous uncomfortable banter comes across as well-tuned to the character he’s playing, and Slate takes that and plays off it nicely. Not to be outdone, Slate gets a surreal sequence when she finds herself stepping in at a last-minute technical rehearsal of the junior high musical she’s faked her way into working on. The hilarious image of her singing a duet with a boy half her height and not nearly old enough to drive is one that will stay with me (in a good way) for some time.

Where I Want You Back cuts some corners are the supporting players. It’s not an issue with the actors, but how the exes are written. It’s much easier to root for Emma and Peter to wise up and see they don’t need the people who dumped them if the characters are sour, and that’s mostly how Aptaker and Berger have sketched them. Anne lacks faith in Peter and projects her lack of drive on him, which then causes him to question his own goals. Did Emma need Noah to remind her she hasn’t done much with her life, or did she need a supportive partner that walked alongside her? It’s bad enough in movies when one character is blinded by a love that has long since burned out, but here we have two. At least Rodriguez and Eastwood soften some of those coarser edges. Eastwood has a strong showing here, and it’s one of his best screen roles so far in a career that hasn’t been as dependable as his famous father.

I know that not everyone embraces Valentine’s Day as the happiest of holidays, and maybe it is one of those days that’s been craftily promoted through the years by the greeting card companies. There is a way to take back the day, and that’s through making Valentine’s Day about you more than any commercial product. If you find yourself single, celebrate “you.” Those with significant others should have something up their sleeve. I’m not saying that surprising them with a movie night on the couch with I Want You Back wouldn’t earn major brownie points…but a brownie couldn’t hurt either.

I Want You Back will be available on Prime Video
Friday, February 11

Movie Review ~ A Hero

The Facts:

Synopsis: Rahim is in jail for a debt he can’t repay. When a plan to restore his reputation and family goes awry, he unexpectedly gains unwelcome notoriety through a misunderstanding that spirals out of control.

Stars: Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabande, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee, Sahar Goldoost, Maryam Shahdaie, Ali Reza Jahandideh, Ehsan Goodarzi, Sarina Farhadi, Farrokh Nourbakht

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Looking at the scope and scale of the nominees that compete for the Best International Feature Film Oscar each year, it’s a remarkable achievement to find yourself nominated. I mean, consider that compared to the relatively small number of films deemed eligible in the other categories, many from only English-speaking countries. To get enough voters not just to see your movie, be moved by it, vote it higher than dozens of others, and then narrow it all down to five nominees? Yeah, that’s a big deal. Now consider the directors who have films that have shown up in this category multiple times. Going further, think of those that have won…and more than once. It’s a smaller number than you might think, and Iranian-born filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is one of them.

Coming into 2011 with an almost sure thing with the universally loved A Separation (which was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay in addition to winning the, as it was then called, Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Farhadi was back at the ceremony in 2016 to win again with The Salesman. I liked both of those films but felt that all the early praise for them robbed me of my full enjoyment at the surprise of discovering them on my own. While Farhadi has been at the helm of several movies between his Oscar wins and last directed Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz back in 2018, it seems that it could be his time to return to the ceremony…and A Hero would justify the recognition by the Academy.

While it may not rise to the same level for some as the earlier films, which established Farhadi as a director of great esteem, A Hero does assert his talent for telling stories using complex characters in leading roles. Preferring to expose the flaws in us all, with A Hero Farhadi is documenting how good intentions can spiral out of control and wind up doing more harm than good. As Rahim Soltani (a shatteringly good Amir Jadidi) finds out, the more he embellishes a lie he’s designed with innocence, the further he paints himself into a corner from which he can’t get out of without damaging the intricate work he’s done on himself to impress others.

In jail for failing to pay back a debt, Rahim is released on his own recognizance for a small stretch to make arrangements to repay the debt.  While he’s out, the plan he had previously made with his love Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoost) to use the gold coins she’s found in an unclaimed handbag to pay his debtor backfires due to the cost of gold decreasing. Pivoting and attempting to avoid being questioned about the coins by his suspicious sister, Rahim tries to find the bag’s owner from within prison and hopes a reward may be offered. When the bag is picked up by the rightful owner (who promptly vanishes) and Rahim becomes a celebrity due to his purported selfless heroism for returning the coins and not stealing them, it becomes his literal get out of jail free card. 

Used as an example by the prison, his family, and a local charity as an example for reform, Rahim’s story is soon questioned. Those with a stake in his actions that got him to this place want answers. His debtor still wants to be paid, and the charity would like to find out more information about the woman who picked up the bag and, more importantly, learn more about how and when Rahim came into possession of the bag in the first place. With a learning-disabled son to provide for, a lover to protect, and his freedom on the line, Rahim charts a dangerous course ahead to solve a mystery of his creation before the clock runs out on the goodwill being bestowed on him.

Moral questions like these, deeply complex ones at that, are hard to come by in mainstream films, which is why Farhadi’s movie is so much appreciated. Not only does A Hero speak to the suspenseful lengths people are willing to go to get what they feel they are entitled to, but also how blindly others accept words as truth without any fact-checking before making up their minds. The film is abundant with questions that make for good post-discussion chatter with friends and posit what you would do in a similar situation. 

Movie Review ~ Hotel Transylvania: Transformania

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Van Helsing’s mysterious invention, the “Monsterfication Ray,” goes haywire, Drac and his monster pals are all transformed into humans, and Johnny becomes a monster.

Stars: Brian Hull, Jim Gaffigan, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, Fran Drescher, Brad Abrell, Asher Blinkoff

Director: Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska

Rated: PG

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Now that we’re in the second decade of this site, I find that I’ve had more opportunities to go back and revisit some of the reviews I did in that first year and aside from noticing that my love for run-on sentences hasn’t changed, I’ve also seen that my taste in specific genres has.  Maybe it was the younger me that wasn’t quite as hard to entertain but back then I derived a lot more thrill from an upcoming animated release, especially one that spoke to my style of dark humor.  That’s why I developed such a fondness for darker kids fare like Coraline and ParaNorman (still do) and also why each time a new Hotel Transylvania film was released I was eager to book a stay.  If anything was going to resurrect nostalgia that had been buried up to its neck by dreck, this was the franchise to do it.

The first Hotel Transylvania in 2012 was a dynamic, if not overly inspired, PG comedy that brought together a number of famous monster characters and made them family friendly.  Dracula was now a single-dad running a hotel catering only to creature clientele with his friends Frankenstein, the Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi, The Dead Don’t Die), the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland), and the Invisible Man (David Spade, Tommy Boy) also pitching in.  When Dracula’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez, Dolittle) falls in love with human Johnny (Andy Samberg, Palm Springs), who waltzes in not knowing that his kind is not so much catered to as served by the caterer, it forces Dracula to reevaluate his protection of his daughter.  The 2015 sequel branched out the story nicely by including the in-laws, Johnny’s parents and Dracula’s dad, both of whom come into play after the birth of Dracula’s first grandson.  I didn’t do a formal review of the last film from 2018 but the colorful vacation cruise storyline gave Dracula his own love interest in the form of a Van Helsing relative.

For the opening of the fourth chapter, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, the Hotel has gone through some renovations and like the Holiday Inn near my grandparent’s house that removed the jacuzzi between our Thanksgiving and Christmas stay in 1991, it hasn’t been for the better.  Gone are original voices of Dracula and Frankenstein, Adam Sandler and Kevin James, replaced with Brian Hull and Brad Abrell (only Hull makes an attempt to recreate Sandler’s sound) and Genndy Tartakovsky, the director who spearheaded the previous three entries is only credited with the story on this stay.  New directors Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska come from the land of SpongeBob SquarePants, a factoid I read up on after the movie concluded but which makes total sense when you consider how the story develops and the strangely bright tone it takes.  Not only is it the weakest entry, wisely skipping a theatrical release and heading straight for a debut on Amazon Prime, it feels far removed from the trilogy it is following.  If this is the direction the Hotel Transylvania industry is headed, I think I’ll look for a different place to visit in the future.

On the eve of Hotel Transylvania’s 125th birthday, Dracula is planning to retire with wife Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn, Bad Moms), leaving the business to his daughter and her husband.  During a conversation with the free-spirited Johnny, Dracula balks after hearing his planned ‘improvements’ to the hotel and instead tells him it’s impossible to give the hotel to a non-monster, causing a despondent Johnny to turn to wacky Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan, Them That Follow) for help.  It just so happens the mad scientist has a tool that can change humans into monsters…and vice versa.  Using the “Monsterfication Ray”, the goofy Johnny is transformed into an equally goofy dragon. When Dracula finds out what he innocently misled Johnny to do and then accidently changes himself into an ordinary human, breaking the ray in the process, the two will need to work together and travel across the globe for a solution…before their wives find out.

Generally, unless you’re working with an exemplary example of skilled writing and creative storytelling, an animated film can start to feel stale after it’s introduced the characters and settled into finding the way toward a happy ending.  Almost from the start, Transformania gets gummy and can’t shake some sense of exhaustion.  It doesn’t help that taking Dracula and Johnny out of their environment and putting them into a South American one feels more like it’s a comfort to its directors than the core audience and fans of the series.  The most exciting scenes remain those featuring the darker, more spooky creations of the computer animation wizards at Sony Animation Studios and there are some nice comic bits after Dracula’s friends turn themselves into humans.  Who knew Frankenstein was such a hunk? 

If you or your kids are fans of the series, by all means fire Hotel Transylvania: Transformania up on Amazon Prime and continue your adventures with the gang.  It’s worth the watch more for the B plot involving the side characters reacting to their transformation than anything going on in the A plot.  There’s just nothing new to the father/son-in-law bonding story audiences (yes, even kids) haven’t been exposed to and better through other films.  I’m sure this is a franchise that could go on longer, yet there is a sweet finality to the movie where it could end here and it would feel right.  Money will always win out…but here’s hoping the keys get turned in and the lights shut off soon. 

Movie Review ~ Being the Ricardos 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Lucille Ball struggles in her personal life with husband Desi Arnaz amid cheating allegations, existing under the watchful eye of the FBI for being a potential communist threat, and much more. 

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale,  Jake Lacy, Alia Shawkat, Linda Lavin, Clark Gregg, Ronny Cox, John Rubinstein 

Director: Aaron Sorkin 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 125 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8/10) 

Review:  There was a time during one high school summer when I worked a job that ended at such a late hour that there was nothing much on television to watch but episodes of I Love Lucy.  Consequently, over the ensuing years I’ve found it comforting to fall asleep to the comedic stylings of Lucille Ball, be it on her landmark television program or her subsequent shows that didn’t feature her husband Desi Arnaz.  While I’m not an expert of all things Lucy, I know what I know so knew enough to realize that casting Nicole Kidman as the legendary comedienne was a big risk for writer/director Aaron Sorkin.  It was also a decision that sent fans reeling, wondering how the Aussie star could believably take on the New York Ball’s signature look and sound. 

As was the case with the woman she’s portraying, it’s wrong to underestimate Kidman, like, ever.  The Oscar-winner has proven time and time again that while she may not always pull off transformations on the physical side of the aisle, it’s not even necessary when you have the spirit of a person nailed to perfection.  You see, Kidman achieves something amazing in Sorkin’s new film Being the Ricardos: another carefully built performance by the actress from the inside out, reliant less on recreation & more on essence. It’s Lucille Ball, for sure, and precisely the razor sharp, vulnerable, very human star she certainly was.  

A trend recently with biopics, at least those bound by a feature-length run time, is not to take on the enormity of a life story because two hours is just not enough time to cover it all.  It certainly wouldn’t have been able to go into the kind of detail a Hollywood legend like Ball (or even Arnaz) would have deserved…I mean you’d need at least 45 minutes to discuss that disastrous 1974 movie version of the musical Mame alone!  I digress.  What Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) does is what he does quite well, find a point of time to focus on and then use that as the center with which to spring out the life events that helped get these people to this point.  And it works wonderfully here.

Maybe this is more well known but I had no idea there was a week of time in the early part of the run of I Love Lucy where Ball was under scrutiny by the McCarthy hearings and was accused of “being a Red” …and not just because of her hair.  The fallout from the first accusation and the potential for more over the ensuing week are played out while the cast rehearse a new script set to be taped in front of a live audience at the end of the week.  The stress of it all brings up once smoothed-over fissures in the Ricardos marriage, old rivalries between Lucy and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), and further ostracizes the writer’s room (made up of Jake Lacy, Rampage, Alia Shawkat, Green Room, and executive producer Tony Hale, American Ultra) from everyone.

I loved the behind the scenes view of I Love Lucy and the various contributors (all well-cast by Francine Maisler & Kathy Driscoll) to its success from creation onward. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) is strong as Desi, a most unenviable task for a persona often seen as the villain of the Desilu love story. Bardem and Kidman (Aquaman) don’t really look like their real-life counterparts, but it honestly doesn’t matter in the slightest.  If much time had been spent to achieve more of a resemblance, I think audiences would have focused too much on that and not on the acting both Oscar winners are doing.  Of all the actors Sorkin has brought together for his film, J.K. Simmons (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) and Arianda (Richard Jewell) are the closest to impression but are fantastic in the undertaking.  There are times when both are eerily similar to the William Frawley and Vivian Vance. It’s well-known the two didn’t get along in real life and if you didn’t know it before, you’ll know it after this movie.

Yes, you’ll see some famous scenes that have been recreated but they are part of a larger (good) idea Sorkin employs by showing viewers how Lucy would put together comic moments.  It’s always hard to gain access into the workings of a person’s “process” but Sorkin’s method has an appropriately cinematic flair that achieves its goal while also providing a nice jolt of nostalgic recognition.  Releasing in theaters before debuting on Amazon Prime in time for the holidays, Being the Ricardos is the kind of biopic I appreciate, one that doesn’t bite off more than it can chew yet remains satisfying. 

Movie Review ~ Encounter (2021)

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Two brothers embark on a journey with their father, a decorated marine trying to protect them from an alien threat. 

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Lucian-River Mirage Chauhan, Aditya Geddada, Rory Cochrane, Janina Gavankar 

Director: Michael Pearce 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 108 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4/10) 

Review: Similar to feeling aghast when a designer on Bravo’s Project Runway sends a model down the catwalk not entirely dressed for success, there’s little I like less than seeing a film with good actors stuck in flimsy material.  You understand the desire to branch out and try for work that’s off the beaten path, different from the norm, but in that same vein it stands to reason the effort should also have point and purpose that make it worth your while.  It’s especially strenuous when the actors involved are so good that they usurp the material and almost make something of it and sadly that’s where we have to put a film like the new movie arriving on Amazon Prime, Encounter.

Starring Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, this is one of those movies harboring a twist that you sit through the whole movie wondering why it’s even being kept under wraps as long as it is.  In the spirit of the nature of this site and also out of respect for the filmmakers, I’m not going to spoil it but if you can’t spot where Encounter is headed almost from the moment Ahmed’s PTSD-suffering ex-marine starts spraying himself with a can of bug repellant to ward off the insects that burrow into your skin and change you into mindless drones…you need to get out more.

There’s an impressive opening to Encounter and for at least those opening moments I was interested to see what director Michael Pearce, who got a big jump to his burgeoning career with the wildly wonderful chiller Beast in 2017, had in store for us.  Watching a mosquito infect a human bloodstream with a creepy crawly organism absolutely made me start feeling itchy all over and so Pearce gets the audience into the appropriate mood but fails to keep us there for much longer, mostly because that’s the extent of the impressive ideas. 

Once that concept is established that’s pretty much all there is to Encounter and so we’re just following Malik Khan (Ahmed, Sound of Metal) as he “saves” his two young sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) from his ex-wife and her new husband who he believes have been infected by the organism. Of course, his ex and the authorities don’t see it so much as saving as child abduction. With the help of Hattie (Octavia Spencer, Thunder Force), Malik’s understanding parole officer and the one person he has reached out to, a determined lawman (Rory Cochrane, Antlers) sets out to find the three Khans before it’s too late.

The performances in Encounter are enough to recommend the movie, I think I can safely say that.  Even though the film stretches on to nearly two hours, I do feel as if the work that’s being done by Ahmed and especially the two young actors playing his boys is well-formed enough to be worthy of keeping your attention.  It’s just the flimsy, also-ran plot that might make you doze off at various points.  If you’ve seen a movie like 2016’s Midnight Special, you might be aware of what you’re in for…just on a less ambitious narrative level. 

  

Movie Review ~ Mayor Pete

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With extraordinary access to the candidate, an inside look at the 2020 Pete Buttigieg campaign for President of the United States.

Stars: Pete Buttigieg, Chasten Buttigieg

Director: Jesse Moss

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  As I began watching Mayor Pete, I started to get this uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I suddenly began to long to check a bunch of news sites that had laid dormant in my history for over a year and felt the urge to confirm the events of the last twelve months hadn’t all been some Dallas-style Bobby-Ewing-was-just-in-the-shower dream.  That PTSD related to the November 2020 election is still alive for many, and this documentary about the race to secure Pete Buttigieg as the Democratic nominee for President wasn’t the first major media I had faced that reminded me what our country went through.  It was, however, one of the more interesting looks inside the inner workings of a campaign that sought to change and challenge the status quo.  While it doesn’t delve quite as deeply as it could, there’s an interesting portrait provided of a hometown boy makes good while living his life in a way many sadly still condemn. 

Full disclosure, I was never going to vote for Pete Buttigieg to be on the ballot for President.  As a gay man myself, trust me, it had nothing to do with his home life or anything like that.  It was simply that I had other candidates that I leaned toward more at that time.  I think the former Mayor of South Bend, IN has a strong political future and after watching this new documentary streaming on Amazon Prime from director Jesse Moss (Boys State) I’m inclined to think we’ll see him around for a long time. 

The current Secretary of Transportation under President Joe Biden, Buttigieg made the bold move to run for President without holding an office higher than his Mayoral post.  While not unheard of, experience is such a key factor for many voters that his lack of political years in office as a governor or senator meant he faced an uphill battle, not to mention he was also an out gay man married to his husband, Chasten.  Conservative America had only recently elected the first African American president and still was unsteady about a woman holding the top elected office…would they accept a gay man in that same position? 

The film shows that Buttigieg didn’t seek to “normalize” himself as much as refocus the discussion on the things he thought really mattered to the American people…and how that largely succeeded in advancing him far into the races for a time.  Working with his skilled team of young and hungry staff, including senior communications director Lis Smith, a strong and at times foul-mouthed (hence the R-Rating) powder keg, Buttigieg parlays his inexperience in the larger political arena into a benefit in being the change people were seeking for 2020.  For what it’s worth, you can see the idealism present before, during, and (importantly) after the campaign.  If Buttigieg was greatly discouraged with the overall outcome, Moss doesn’t show it and I don’t get the impression this is a total puff piece by the director.

It can be, at times, though.  I think the film skims the surface of the personal life of Buttigieg and rarely digs too deeply into his family history or much in the way of his life with Chasten.  If this was going to be about the man that wanted to be President and lost, giving more context into who he is would help so the next time he’s up to bat there is more info out there for people to draw from.  Keeping those chapters out of this book makes the story feel incomplete and Buttigieg winds up still being that frustrating enigma he was, which I believe cost him the overall primary votes.  It has to be said that his husband also has some…interesting ideas about how much he should be involved and included.  I’m not saying he has an Eva Peron vibe to him but…Don’t Cry for Chasten, South Bend.

Far from a frivolous composition but lacking greater detail to make the story come off as complete, Mayor Pete is a perfectly entertaining watch for ninety minutes and should make fans of his on any level happy.  If you voted for him, you’ll enjoy seeing this process unfold.  If you didn’t vote for him but liked the energy he brought in challenging his more experienced colleagues, I think you’ll appreciate watching the way he thinks about politics and his place in it.  All those that voted for the other guy…maybe give this a watch and see how a friendly, but still competitively agile, campaign can be run by intelligent staff.

Movie Review ~ The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The extraordinary true story of eccentric British artist Louis Wain, whose playful, sometimes even psychedelic pictures helped to transform the public’s perception of cats forever.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Stacy Martin, Sharon Rooney, Hayley Squires, Aimee Lou Wood, Adeel Akhtar, Julian Barratt, Asim Chaudhry, Indica Watson, Sophia Di Martino, Taika Waititi, Olivia Colman

Director: Will Sharpe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: As has often been the cast for the past several years, actor Benedict Cumberbatch has two movies that are arriving near the end of 2021 that are playing at a number of film festivals.  One film is a bit elusive and hard to see unless you are attending one of the most prestigious events.  The other one is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  One film is getting the actor much acclaim and buzz about another Oscar nomination after his stoic turn in 2014’s The Imitation Game.  The other movie is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  Available at quite a number of film festivals over the past several months, you can see Amazon Studios and its other producers fighting a losing battle to get some traction on The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the secondary Cumberbatch movie. However, with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog readying for release on Netflix, it’s lights out for this twee bit of falderal that sparks early only to be undone by it’s overreliance on puffy artistry on the back end.

Look, before I saw this biographical drama, I had no clue the English artist Louis Wain played such an integral role in helping the domestic cat gain such popularity in Europe through his artwork.  As a dedicated cat lover (an animal that has a box for its own litter which it also covers for you, keeps it distance when it’s not in the mood to be bothered, and can tell when bad weather is approaching is A-OK in my book!) I am ever in his debt for normalizing the attitude toward cats in his country because many of those feelings became popularized the world over.  I was unfamiliar with his art before a viewing of director Will Sharpe’s film and the recreation of his style and technique through the screenplay Sharpe co-wrote with Simon Stephenson (Paddington 2) were fascinating bits of mechanics to watch – it’s everything else that surrounded it that became so befuddling.

Perhaps it’s the feeling that Sharpe was grasping for a style and tone that didn’t completely make sense all the time.  The opening stretch and final hour are flighty bits of quirkiness that feel curated and calculated, like what someone attempting to be irreverent with the life of a colorful character would put on screen.  By all accounts, the mental health issues that plagued Wain and various members of his family were present for a long while but only presented themselves rarely over the years until they became more serious in his older days.  It was during his romance of the family governess (Claire Foy, Breathe) when Wain found his true happiness and it’s also when Sharpe’s movie gets into its best and most easily accessible mode.

The early marketing materials and trailers I saw of the movie suggested the Foy/Cumberbatch relationship was going to be far more rambunctious, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Yet it turned out to be my favorite parts of the movie.  The two have such a natural ease of working together and I can’t help but think that it’s Foy that consistently brings out the best in her male costars, melting some icy actors down and letting audiences see the softer sides.  She absolutely lets us see another side of Cumberbatch, a far more tender one that finds himself caring for another when he previously felt like that part of his life would never come to pass.  These are the meat the film feasts on…but the meal can’t last forever and before too long it’s back to the same old ticks and tricks once more.

I’m all for biographies that color outside of the lines (and The Courier’s Suzie Davies production design along with Paddington’s Erik Alexander Wilson’s cinematography are never lacking for bold color choices) but it has to circle back to a point – something The Electrical Life of Louis Wain takes an awful long time to get to.  Along the way Sharpe stops to create several beautiful moments (a shot of Foy and Cumberbatch sitting in a meadow is gorgeous) but it’s balanced with far too many repetitive scenes of Wain fighting with one or more of his disapproving sisters.

Controversially, I’m not as sold on Cumberbatch as most are.  I loved him for Sherlock but have since found him to be decidedly hit or miss with his work, feeling that perhaps he’s more limited in his range than we’d care to admit.  He’s not bad in this new film but he’s been better in others that are about far less important people and ideas.  Fans of his will want to check out The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, all others should save their Cumberbatch Cinema of 2021 for The Power of the Dog.