Movie Review ~ The Map of Tiny Perfect Things


The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager contentedly living the same day in an endless loop gets his world turned upside-down when he meets a girl who’s also stuck in the time warp.

Stars: Kathryn Newton, Kyle Allen, Jermaine Harris, Anna Mikami, Josh Hamilton, Cleo Fraser

Director: Ian Samuels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: It must be soul crushing to be involved in a movie waiting to be released and then seeing one with similar plot elements show up to rapturous fanfare not too long before you are set to arrive on the scene.  It’s no one’s fault here, just a case of bad timing, but one movie is bound to be compared to the other and it’s likely not going to be the one that is sitting with a high critical and audience score on the aggregator websites.  There’s no way of bypassing that comparison, however, so the best that second arrival can do is to focus on what makes their project unique and sell that over anything else.  It’s going to be an uphill battle, but it’s absolutely worth the effort seeing that it’s possible both films can wind up winning in the end.  Then consider what would happen if yet another like-plotted movie found its way into the mix after yours was released…now you’re the pickle in the middle and in a, well, pickle.   

I’m not totally sure The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is running victory laps two months after it was released by Amazon Studios.  While I saw it back in February, I sadly am only getting to this review now as I wrestle with a backlog that was unavoidable.  I didn’t want to ignore this one, though, seeing that it fits into a worthy place in a discussion on similar time loop films released over the past year.  First with Palm Springs in July 2020 and then in March’s Boss Level.  All three are different styles of film with their own pros and cons but if Palm Springs is aimed at the frat crowd, then The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is meant for that audience’s tween brothers and sisters.   

Based on the short story by Lev Grossman who also wrote the film’s screenplay, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things thankfully starts up after Mark (Kyle Allen, the upcoming remake of West Side Story) has already found himself caught in an endless loop for thousands of days where he relieves the same mundane day repeatedly.  As in every other film that has a similar set-up, the rules are the same.  The moment Mark sleeps, everything resets, and he wakes the next day with knowledge of what he learned the day before but no one else retains the same information.  The opening moments show how he’s made some good use out of this time by finding ways to help/assist his family and others in town as they go about their daily life. What he’s mostly trying to perfect now is getting a pretty girl at the town’s pool to notice him but no matter how suave, humble, polite, or impressive he comes off, he isn’t getting anywhere. 

On his latest attempt, out of the blue something changes when Margaret (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back) intervenes, shocking Mark who thought up until now he was stuck alone in this crazy cycle.  Turns out Margaret has also been in her own loop for some time, watching Mark from the sidelines and only got his attention because of her own boredom.  That doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to buddy up with Mark because Margaret has her own reasons for wanting to stay in this circle of time that are as strong as the ones Mark has for finding a way out.   His family life is stuck in a rut and can’t change until he can get to the next day and her family life is…complicated. Together, they decide that until something changes, as a way to pass the time and perhaps a way to break the repeating day they should take the time to step back and look at all the “perfect” things/moments that happen throughout the day and map them out so they know where to find them.   

Ok, so perhaps it doesn’t mine a well that is super deep for ideas or emotional nuance but there is some nice message in Grossman’s script that reminds us to stop periodically and remember to recognize the importance in small victories and what others might deem insignificant.  Bolstering those up might help change your attitude, leading to greater happiness.  It’s rather perfect for the YA crowd and I can see the film being a dark horse suggestion at slumber parties by those in the know of good films that aren’t just about kissing, boys, prom, or a terminal illness given to one of the leads.  The light touch of director Ian Samuels also gives the film a bounce and I almost wonder if The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was pushed out for public consumption too early in the year.  It has such a summer spring in its step that an April or early May date might have made more sense. 

Another fine piece of this puzzle is the casting throughout, starting with Allen and Newton as the incredibly appealing leads.  We already know that Newton is a star on the cusp of something big and its earthy roles like this that she makes seem effortless that will continue to make casting directors put her at the top of their lists.  It’s also a nice showcase of Allen who has the looks of a football quarterback but the sensitivities of the tortured poet when you get right down to it.  Rounding out the cast are Jermaine Harris as Mark’s video game obsessed friend who might always be glued to a game but still can dish out expert advice when called upon, and Cleo Fraser as Mark’s sister.  Fraser and Allen have a nice sibling arc throughout that takes a nice, believable turn and both mesh well with John Hamilton (Frances Ha) as their dad who might appear to be aimless but, like Margaret, has secrets he keeps bottled up. 

Lacking the creative zing that made Palm Springs such a riot and missing the more audacious go-for-broke attitude which gave Boss Level extra bonus points, The Map of Perfect Things finds itself in third place but don’t look at that bronze medal as a sign of a lack of confidence.  Like the recent slate of YA films put out by Amazon Studios (Selah and the SpadesWords on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts), the film fulfills on what it promises by sending out appealing leads jumping through multiple loops to get their day right.  What it might lack in originality it more than makes up for with a casual air of unpretentious self-confidence. 

Movie Review ~ Coming 2 America

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Prince Akeem Joffer is set to become King of Zamunda when he discovers he has a son he never knew about in America – a street savvy Queens native named Lavelle.

Stars: Eddie Murphy, James Earl Jones, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Shari Headley, Teyana Taylor, Michael Blackson, Louie Anderson, Paul Bates, Wesley Snipes, Leslie Jones, KiKi Layne, Rick Ross, John Amos, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tracy Morgan, Garcelle Beauvais

Director: Craig Brewer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There are good ways and bad ways to do a sequel and Eddie Murphy has seen them both.  The careless cash grab follow-up to a surprise hit never goes the way anyone wants it to (see 2000’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and Doctor Doolittle 2 from 2001) and is ultimately stymied by a studio that wants to capitalize on the popularity of a proven money-maker without worrying about silly things like creativity or furthering the character we liked.  Then there are the ‘make ‘em wait’ sequels that Murphy has had notable wins with, like 1990’s Another 48 Hrs., a more than worthy follow-up to his breakout 1982 feature film and, to a somewhat lesser extent, his two sequels to 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop.

The biggest wait of them all was the 32-year gap between 1988’s Coming to America and Coming 2 America, its long in the works sequel which is premiering on Amazon Prime after the health crisis led to its theatrical release being bypassed.  It’s a shame the film didn’t get a chance to play in theaters because this is one of those rare successes that make you wish you had a packed audience to enjoy it right alongside you.  One of Murphy’s longest lasting hits (I watched it again recently and marveled at how well it holds up, even the more problematic jokes weren’t as wince-able as I thought they’d be), it’s a sequel fans had been requesting but Murphy had resisted making because he didn’t feel the script/story were quite right.  Remember…this is from a man that made The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Norbit.  Anyway…

Now that Murphy had been experiencing a nice little renaissance over the past several years with a carefully thought-out comeback of sorts, the time was evidently right for a return to Zamunda and for fans of the original film, this is exactly the movie you’ve been asking for.  Though one could argue Murphy and a small army of writers that contributed to the screenplay simply worked back through a laundry list of favorite moments from the first movie, I’d counter and say Coming 2 America goes beyond mere fan service and moves into rewarding devotees not just of the three decades old film it follows but of Murphy’s career in general.  You’ve stuck with him all this time and here is 110 minutes of well-oiled comedy (and yes, a few creaky bits) as your prize.

Thirty years after finding his bride in Queens, NY, Price Akeem Joffer (Murphy) is a father of three strong girls and loves his life with Princess Lisa (Shari Headley, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween).  While his father (James Earl Jones, The Lion King) is in declining health, he still rules Zamunda with authority so Akeem doesn’t have to worry about the dictator from next door (literally from Nextdooria) trying to overthrow the throne…yet.  There is a problem though and with each passing day it grows more worrisome to the King.  Without a male heir to the throne, the Prince will have to find a proper husband for his eldest daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk) and she’s none too thrilled about being betrothed instead of finding her own match.  If anything, she’d rather her father just change the way things are done and let her be first in the line of succession. This is the 21st century, after all.

Through the magic of filmmaking and a slight tweaking to the original film, we eventually find out that during his 1988 trip to New York, Akeem had a one-night stand with Mary (Leslie Jones, Ghostbusters) and nine months later, when he was back in Zamunda, she gave birth to their son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler, The Opening Act).  With a viable heir to Zamunda, Akeem’s problems seem to be solved.  Now he can get General Izzi (Wesley Snipes, Chi-Raq) of Nextdooria off his back and perhaps broker further peace between them by having Lavelle marry Izzi’s temptress daughter.  Yet, like his father, Lavelle isn’t about to do what is expected of him and his arrival begins to cause more rifts within the royal house as all adjust to this new factor of the family equation.  As Lavelle is put through the trials the prove he is ready to become the crown prince while Meeka watches on and coaches her half-brother from the sidelines, Akeem learns a lesson from those around him about trusting your own self in making the decisions that will affect your future and not relying on age-old traditions.

Joined again by Arsenio Hall as Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi, Murphy easily slips back into the character and doesn’t waste much time in giving viewers what they’re looking for: Murphy and Hall under a wide array of impressive make-up designs as a half-dozen (or more) other characters that drop in along the way.  Returning favorites will show up as well as a few new ones, so keep your eyes peeled.  You’ll also be treated to a number of characters from the original and even minor one-liner players cross the screen – just for those super fans out there.  Surprising musical celebrity cameos also feature heavily in a handful of numbers, all decked out in Oscar-winning designer Ruth. E. Carter’s (Black Panther) truly eye-popping and mind-blowing costumes.  Carter always does thoughtful, beautiful work that’s pleasing to look at but in Coming 2 America she outdoes herself…and then some.

The energy and investment start at the top with Murphy and manages to have a pleasant trickle-down effect throughout the appealing cast.  It may seem at first like Hall isn’t as present as he was in the first film but he’s playing so many other secondary roles he’s plenty busy yukking it up reprising his fast-talking barber or bible thumping preacher.  I wasn’t sure at first how Fowler would fare when standing toe to toe with a number of imposing comedic figures, but he makes for a nice next generation star, as does Layne’s who is absolutely an exciting actress to keep your eye on.  SNL alums Morgan and Jones take big bites out of any project they’re a part of so are often best absorbed in small doses and director Craig Brewer nicely doles them out in a perfect amount.

Simply put, it’s a nice treat to find a sequel that feels like it went the extra mile to make it up to loyalists that have waited for it over the years.  Its plot isn’t anything super deep but it isn’t a strict rehash of the original, either.  There’s some depth to Coming 2 America with an always worthy message of charting your own path and the performances are up to par with, and often exceeding, what made the first film such a delight in the first place.  It’s entertaining as all get out and always wants you to be in on the fun.  Can’t ask for more than that.

Movie Review ~ Bliss

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mind-bending love story following a recently unemployed divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who is convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is just a computer simulation.

Stars: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson, Madeline Zima, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Joshua Leonard, Ronny Chieng

Director: Mike Cahill

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There really is nothing more depressing than watching two good actors in a mediocre movie.  Not a bad movie, mind you, just a mediocre one.  There’s something to be said about the thrill of a classically trained actor sludging their way through a total turkey of a flick (remember the big screen version of The Avengers?  No, not that one…the one from 1998?) or a bad performance by an actor in a good movie (let’s just go the easy route and say Cameron Diaz in 2002’s Gangs of New York) but I get so uncomfortable watching usually dependable stars turn up in a film that goes nowhere.  I’d rather they fail spectacularly or succeed exuberantly…anything that coasts through the middle isn’t worth the effort – there’s just too much content to warrant mediocrity.

The latest example of this is Bliss, an exquisitely commonplace driller (drama/thriller) that shows the shine of promise early on but gets increasingly duller as time goes by.  Written and directed by popular indie filmmaker Mike Cahill and starring two actors that we don’t see nearly as often as we should, I went into Bliss with no expectations or knowledge of the premise.  This gave me the advantage of being totally at the mercy of Cahill’s storytelling capabilities and his acumen in the creation of a warped quasi-reality always being called into question.  It also let me fully take in the performances of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek without the trailer spoiling key moments of surprise along the way, which it rather rudely does.  The result is a watchable but frustrating bit of hokum that doesn’t sit well with both actors and gets laughably funny at times…for all the wrong reasons.

Holed up in his drab office at Technical Difficulties, Greg Whittle (Wilson, Inherent Vice) is ignoring phone calls from his boss demanding an important meeting, promising his daughter he’ll be there for her graduation ceremony, and spending the morning drawing pictures of a luxury villa he’s never been to and a strikingly beautiful woman he’s never seen.  He’s also run out of his prescription for an undisclosed medication just at the time he seems to need it most.  As he dashes off to a meeting with his boss he wades through a crowd of co-workers all on the phone droning “We’re sorry you’re having Technical Difficulties”, one of the few clever moments Cahill has going for him. The meeting with his boorish boss doesn’t go well…at all.  Hoping to avoid the fallout, he retreats to a bar across the street and meets Isabel Clemens (Hayek, Sausage Party) and it seems like she’s been waiting for him.

Recognizing a kindred soul when she sees one, Isabel brings Greg into her circle of confidence and tells him they are actually part of a computer simulation and nothing around them is real.  The buttoned-up Greg takes one look at the dreadlocked, un-showered, dusty Isabel and can’t make that equation add up in his head…so she’ll have to prove it to him.  That’s just what she does (or does she?) over the course of several days involving various crystals, long talks in shanty towns underneath highway overpasses, and several detours through a strange new world that might be the real reality or just another simulation they need to escape from.  Meanwhile, Greg’s daughter (Nesta Cooper) is looking for her father who has gone missing and clearly needs help.  Can Isabel help Greg back to his true reality or is she just another figurative piece of a puzzle Greg has been trying to assemble for years?

While I don’t write my thoughts down as I’m watching a movie to reference later (I’ve never found notes to be helpful, only confusing me as I try to figure out what I scribbled blindly in the dark) I’m wondering if I should start writing down a number at various intervals to see what I rank the movie at key points.  If I’d have done that with Bliss, I’m sure I would have given the film high marks for its first half hour because Cahill creates a nice sense of disorientation that keeps the viewer just off-balance enough to be intrigued but not confused which leads to frustration.  It’s not hard to dig under the metaphors of what Cahill is laying out nor is it difficult to “get” what is really going on so it becomes a bit mysterious why the film doesn’t understand that we already are aware of where its headed long before it reveals itself to us.  If it had, it could have excised several long (and silly) passages that wind up meaning nothing if you go back and think it over.

That’s the oddest thing about Bliss.  Tracking it back again in my mind so much of the movie becomes almost a pointless exercise that you start to resent the time you spent on it.  Had Cahill moved his film forward with the same kind of mystery and raw energy that was found in the first third of Bliss, he might have had something unique and buzzworthy.  Instead, it’s an overly emotional in theory but emotionless in receipt attempt at a mind meld that gets weaker the longer you turn it over in your fingers.  Add to that the somewhat ridiculous scientific jargon the actors have to say without laughing and you are in for a rough ride.  You haven’t truly begun 2021 until you’ve heard Hayek say “Brain Box” with the same serious conviction as one would say “Heart Transplant”.

Speaking of Hayek, while it’s nice to see her back onscreen (and in a few scenes looking like the glam fabulous trend-setter she is) she seems completely miscast in this role, though it’s an admirable attempt at stretching past the roles she’s played in the past.  She was such a scream in Like a Boss that I wish she’d play more out-there roles like that.  Isabel it out there too, but not in the way we want her to be.  I feel largely the same way about Wilson.  He begins the film as a slightly out of it dweeb that never seems to do anything right…and sort of stays that way for the rest of the movie.  There’s just no challenge or change present in the character so where’s the appeal?  I was far more invested in Cooper’s character and the journey she goes through to follow and find her missing dad, only to see that once again he’s fallen into a pit he can’t escape from.

What little happiness there is to be found in Bliss is that it’s short but even then Cahill’s film feels much longer than that.  A very odd detour halfway through the movie has been spoiled by the trailer and while I’m not going to give that away here in case you haven’t seen it, I will say that though it was a nice reprieve it felt like padding to a tale that was only meant to be a short episode of The Twilight Zone or another anthology project.  Find your bliss somewhere else.

Movie Review ~ One Night in Miami

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, the boxer meets with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown to change the course of history in the segregated South.

Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges, Hunter Burke, Nicolette Robinson

Director: Regina King

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s seems strange to say it, but movies like One Night in Miami make me miss live theater.  There are so many moments within this impressive feature film directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Regina King when I wished I was in the same room with the actors playing the roles of key figures in the history of Black America. The way they embodied these men with such alacrity seemed to give off a kind of electricity that I’m positive would have set off a charge strong enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  In the room where a play is performed, you take notice of these types of performers and what they are giving out to you and, in turn, you give back to them as audience members.  Without that opportunity to express that though, when it just halts at the barrier of the screen, something feels unfulfilled.

I suppose that’s why I’ve struggled with my thoughts on One Night in Miami these past weeks since seeing it and wondering why it hasn’t moved me in the way that I’ve heard it has for other people.  Not that I have to fall in step with the throngs because I’ve certainly defended my share of movies to those that didn’t respond like I did…but there’s something about this particular project that’s made me a little out of sorts.  The performances in the movie are stunning and just as awards worthy as you’ve heard (but maybe not in my mind the exact people being mentioned…more on that later) and the imagined dialogue that happens within the framework of the real-life set-up has a crackle to it.  However, there’s one element missing that there is no working around that keeps the movie from ever taking a sky’s the limit flight…and it’s that old electricity I mentioned before.

Adapting his 2013 play, screenwriter Kemp Powers (already having a jolly good year as co-director and screenwriter of Pixar’s Soul) opens the film with introductions to the four men that will feature in the night’s festivities.  Civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, The Commuter) struggles with maintaining his path forward in the face of threats of violence, a visit with a family friend of NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man) in Georgia starts sweet but ends with a sour reminder of the time and place, boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Godzilla) is established as the king of the ring and a true showman, and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) makes a dreary first impression at the famed Copacabana nightclub where his crooner numbers sink like a stone to the all-white audience.  These scenes have all been added to the film and are several examples of ways that Powers and King have wisely expanded the world of the one-act, 90-minute play…and not just for an excuse to pad the run time of the feature.

It’s when we get to the bones of Kemp’s play, when the men gather at a motel room after Clay’s victory and discuss his intended conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcom X, that the film starts to back itself into a corner.  Gone are the easy ways to keep the action moving and here to stay are speeches crafted as monologues and dialogue that sounds more like back and forth talking points to cross off on a checklist.  It’s unavoidable, I suppose, that a play about a gathering of men in a motel room would turn into a movie that feels like a play.  Only in the moments when the men excuse themselves and King follows them out of the room or travels back in time do we find ourselves slipping back into the magic and mood that are attempting to be evoked.  Every time we got back into that room, I felt like it was a return to actors running their lines again, stymied by four walls that were holding them back…much in the same way their characters were lamenting the way they were being held back from doing greater things.

The good news is that the performances are so superlative that they mostly overcome this stage-y feeling that infiltrates these scenes.  All are dealt nearly impossible tasks of recreating personalities that are instantly recognizable, but King has cast her film impeccably from top to bottom.  By far the star of the film is Ben-Adir, unforgettable as Malcom X…which is saying a lot because the doomed civil rights leader has already been played brilliantly before onscreen by an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s 1992 film.  Making the role his own, Ben-Adir channels Malcolm X from some otherworldly place, and it’s not a larger-than-life performance either.  Along with Hodge’s Brown, it’s likely the quietest one in the film but instead of just blending into the scenery, that solemn silence speaks volumes as he clashes with Sam Cooke over the popular singer’s refusal to be a more visible part of the movement.

I can understand why Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke is getting the advance notices for the film and an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Category wouldn’t be out of the question, but it would be folly not to speak of Ben-Adir in those same lines.  If anything, Cooke is pushed into more of a leading character with Odom Jr. performing several songs, including a thunderous take on ‘A Change is Gonna Come’.  Strangely, as over-the-top as Clay/Muhammad Ali was, Goree is the least memorable out of the four and it’s possibly because he’s the one that isn’t given as much to do when it comes to serious-minded debate compared to actors like Ben-Adir and Odom Jr.  Even Hodge gets to take a walk outside of the motel and have his opportunity in the spotlight, plus his early scene in Georgia with Beau Bridges leaves a lingering impression, a sting that is felt for the remainder of the film.

A long-time veteran of the business that has won a truckload of awards through the years, after taking home an Oscar two years ago for If Beale Street Could Talk it’s clear that King is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the director category in years to come.  Based on One Night in Miami, there is a lot to be excited about for King’s future as well as its cast of emerging stars.  I wish Powers had been able to solve the issues that plague every play that transfers from the stage to the screen, but the additional material that’s been added at the beginning, end, and interspersed within show that there was an awareness that movement was needed in order to give the film life.  Recommended on the strength of the performances because they definitely help when the film finds itself on shaky stage bound legs.

Movie Review ~ Herself

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Struggling to provide her daughters with a safe, happy home, Sandra decides to build one – from scratch. Using all her ingenuity to make her ambitious dream a reality, Sandra draws together a community to lend a helping hand to build her house and ultimately recover her own sense of self.

Stars: Clare Dunne, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Shadaan Felfeli, Cathy Belton

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  All through November and December leading up to Christmas, I did something I never did before, I watched a whole bunch of Hallmark movies in all their holiday predictable glory.  Maybe it was because this year I just needed something safe and comforting that wasn’t going to challenge me much during a stressful time of year but the movies just keep finding their way onto my DVR and I couldn’t stop watching them.  Even now, nearly halfway though January, I’m still finishing them off and not the least bit tired of their harmless charm.  In terms of quality of film, I have to say that for as much crap as these films have received over the years, a number of the ones I watched were quite decent and not the same silly dreck as others I have seen in the past.  All in all, they were just fine films.

Watching the new Amazon Studios release Herself, I heard that “just fine” sentiment echoing around in my head a lot as well.  While the movie has its good intentions, solid performances, engaging storyline, and is well-told by the filmmakers who obviously have invested an inkling of heart into the effort, there’s nothing that sets the movie truly apart from the crowd.  For a movie that wants to push some emotional buttons in the audience, that just won’t do because ultimately, I felt that something more had to be done to go further and elevate it to a higher level than where it lands.  Not every movie has to aspire to be better than what’s come before but when you put a spotlight on yourself and ask for that comparison, you better have something that actually makes you linger in the memory for some time after the credits are done.

When her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) finally takes things too far, Sandra (Clare Dunne, Spider-Man: Far from Home, who also wrote the film) leaves him and soon finds herself homeless trying to raise two daughters on her own in Dublin.  While she’s attempting to make ends meet by taking a job as a home aid to a doctor recovering from a broken hip (Harriet Walter, Rocketman) she thinks about how to create a new life and home for her young daughters (Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara).  Then, an idea comes to her on a bus ride home and she brings it to the housing authority that has been paying for all three of them to stay in a hotel.  Why not help her buy a piece of land so she can build a house?  Ultimately, the loan she needs for the land and the house would be cheaper than what they’re paying for their hotel upkeep now.  Unsurprisingly, she’s denied the solution to her current problem by an agency that can’t see a bigger picture presenting itself.

She’s not undeterred for long, though, because just like all great feel-good movies, Sandra benefits from having the right friends in the right place at the right time and soon she’s building her house in the most unlikely of places.  As she gathers her resources for the house and a motley crew of workers to assist her in its creation, a dark shadow appears in the skies.  Though he’s continued to see his children through court-appointed visits, her husband now wants the entire family to be together again.  Yet the house is a secret from him because it’s Sandra’s chance to finally get away from him; the longer the house takes to build the harder it is to keep it out of the conversation.  Leading to a series of dramatic climaxes and intense scenes that offset the good-natured charm offered in the first hour, Herself eventually turns into a standard drama symphony with the usual notes to play.

Let me be totally clear, Herself is a perfectly fine watch, it’s one I would recommend for Dunne’s leading performance and especially her scenes later in the film.  Even if it’s these very scenes that are the most commonplace, Dunne sells them in a way that gives them a breath of fresh air.  She can’t quite erase their familiarity, though, so the audience always is two or three steps ahead of the plot, up to and including its crescendo moment.  The husband is charming enough when he is nice to lead you to believe he may have changed but Anderson does well having his true colors show just below the surface in almost every scene, proving to all of us he isn’t as good at hiding it as he thinks he is.  It’s also worth it for Walter’s turn as a once-towering professional in her field that has been hampered by illness and personal tragedy in her life.  I was worried the relationship would start to look like the one in Wild Rose which was more of a savior/lost lamb situation but Dunne and Walter make a nice team in that both are strong women who lean on each other as they walk forward.

Director Phyllida Lloyd is best known for creating the stage musical Mamma Mia!, directing the movie version, and producing its hugely popular sequel.  While there’s music to be heard here (it must be noted the soundtrack is pretty dreadful, filled with songs that are so on the nose you practically want to wipe your TV with Kleenex), Lloyd is comfortable with the drama and lets the camera linger on some emotionally raw moments.  Thankfully, abuse scenes are either shown in quick flashes or not at all, the memories are shown on the faces of the victims and that is illustrative enough.  Her handling of the dramatic storyline feels more at ease than she was with The Iron Lady, yet it’s not as if you watch the movie and can tell what the director brought to the film.  She has no signature style to speak of so you get the sense that anyone could have really directed this.

Truly, Herself was always going to face a steep climb because it’s a story that is oft-told.  A battered wife packing up and leaving her no-good husband with her kids in tow and running into hard times trying to keep her children is something we’ve seen in books, TV, movies, songs, etc.  There’s a curious lack of overall ambition to make the movie something more than what is on the surface and that is where I found myself disappointed overall.  Dunne wrote a good script and turns in a strong performance along with Walter…that should be enough, but something’s missing from the final blueprint of Herself.

Movie Review ~ Sylvie’s Love

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Sylvie has a summer romance with a musician who takes a summer job at her father’s record store in Harlem. When they reconnect years later, they discover their feelings for each other have not faded.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Lance Riddick, Jemima Kirke, Erica Gimpel, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tone Bell, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Regé-Jean Page, Aja Naomi King, Eva Longoria

Director: Eugene Ashe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With all of the delays due to the pandemic, Disney and Amazon Studios couldn’t have predicted that both would be releasing films about jazz musicians examining their lives at critical junctures around the same date in December but here we are, several days out and both Soul and Sylvie’s Love loom large ahead of us.  The two films are unique at their core and speak for different audiences, but the way they overlap is interesting to note, in particular the way that it deals with the role of influential men in the lives of the young.  This Christmas, it will be nice to see multiple options of representation for inclusive storytelling available to distinct target demographics.

One also can’t even begin to talk about Sylvie’s Love, a romantic drama from writer/director Eugene Ash that’s been in various stage of development as far back as 2014 and not mention the old-fashioned melodramas so popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when the film takes place.  Emulating the feel of a Douglas Sirk escapade that’s more big-city than Anytown, USA, Sylvie’s Love wears its many factions of homage clearly and proudly, which succeed in making it a more entertaining feature and also prevents it from being accused of not understanding that it is neck-deep in soap-opera scenarios.  Unfortunately, it bites off more than it is capably comfortable chewing on and experiences serious drag in the final 1/3, a disappointing shift in what up until that point had been a nice balance between the sudsy and the serious.

After a brief glimpse of the early ‘60s, we go back to the late 1950s where Sylvie Johnson (Tessa Thompson, Creed) is working at her father’s record store while her fiancé is overseas.  Since her mother (Erica Gimpel) runs a popular local charm school and it wouldn’t be ladylike for Sylvie to, gasp, work, Sylvie and her father (the excellent Lane Reddick, Angel Has Fallen) have to pretend she’s just watching the store and have placed a Help Wanted sign in the window, though it’s really just for show. Then musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, Hello, My Name Is Doris) walks in to apply for the job, mostly to talk more with Sylvie and also because he needs a little more income seeing that his band isn’t booking big gigs at the moment.  The job is his and, hopefully soon her heart will be too.

As expected, the two eventually fall in love despite her mother’s protestations on Robert’s profession and financial situation.  Their summer together is filled with new experiences and special moments, often conveyed by Sylvie with twinkle eyed wonder to her more experienced best friend, Mona (Aja Naomi King, The Upside) as they lay out listening to records and taking in some sun.  When Robert books a job that takes him overseas, he expects Sylvie to go with him…a decision that changes their lives together for the future.  When the film jumps back to the 60s to find Sylvie an assistant producer to a brassy TV cook (Wendi McClendon-Covey, What Men Want) and Robert a successful musician, we witness them navigate their relationship and how it has evolved, for better or for worse.

With both stars serving in some form of producer role on the film, you can tell they have a vested interest in how the characters are represented.  That may be why there’s more to Sylvie’s Love than just, well, Sylvie’s love.  Back in the day these romances always had some motivating side stories but there’s more time spent on these diversions in this instance, so much that they begin to come off as distractions from the people we do want to see more of…Thompson and Asomugha.  While it’s filled with familiar faces in supporting roles that range from the large to the tiny, none are interesting enough to pull you in their direction…well, maybe except for McLendon-Covey who Thompson’s character sees a spark in that’s being hidden by the senior producers of her show.  Casting Longoria as a fiery Latinx singer and then having her actually sing and dance was smart but, again, unnecessary since she is barely seen or established up until her late in the game production number.

The film does thrive when it’s just Thompson and Asomugha sharing the spotlight together.  Thompson tends to bring out the best in whatever costar she’s working with, human or CGI and here she’s matched with one that doesn’t need too much prodding to deliver.  A former NFL cornerback for nearly a decade, Asomugha cuts a convincing figure as a jazz musician and is a fine actor on top of it all.  Though he’s sadly part of several of the film’s less successful attempts at arch melodrama, he comes out unscathed from these sequences thanks to his honest approach to the character and to Thompson.  There’s a vulnerability to Asomugha, and in Thompson to a lesser extent, that is appealing and becomes an effective tool in keeping the audience with him along the way.  I liked that the script gave Thompson more autonomy that we usually see in films set in this era and it’s that unpredictability that keeps the movie from running too far out of gas, though it does feel like it has several endings as it makes its way to the final finish line.

Set to a gorgeous score from Fabrice Lecomte, the overall production design of Sylvie’s Love sublime and while Ashe hasn’t directed that many films, he clearly has an eye for what stands out and an ear for setting the mood. While Ashe is able to lean away from Sirk’s penchant for going overboard with strife as the film nears the conclusion, enough roadblocks are put in the way of our main couple to keep the resolution hard to figure out until the finale.  Even though an early glimpse may hint at the future, it isn’t quite the wrap-up audiences might think while watching.  It’s a completely worthy watch for those who miss an old-fashioned love story, well-told and performed, that isn’t trivialized or heavily weighted down with a coat of syrup.

Movie Review ~ I’m Your Woman

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman is forced to go on the run with her baby after her husband betrays his partners in crime.

Stars: Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Heck, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin

Director: Julia Hart

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Not that you’d have much sympathy for their luxe paychecks and high profile lifestyles, but it must be difficult for an actor to go from having a respectably decent career to becoming a sizable star nearly overnight.  We see it happen all the time now with the advent of streaming shows that release entire seasons of shows at once, often with casts of fresh faces that start a Friday as an unknown and come in Monday morning as the hottest topic over the company water cooler.  Even though actress Rachel Brosnahan had already amassed a nice tenure of television appearances under her belt, working with the likes of David Fincher (House of Cards) and Woody Allen (A Crisis in Six Scenes), it must have felt like a whirlwind when the tweed tornado that became The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel swept her up.

Originally premiering in early 2017 as part of Amazon’s old model of showing a handful of pilots, letting the consumers dictate which ones they liked, and then giving full series orders to the most popular choices, I remember watching this quirky show and appreciating it’s tommy-gun dialogue and loving its handsomely recreated period production design.  Other viewers did too, evidently, because by the end of that year the first of the three produced seasons had premiered to critical and audience acclaim.  The show was a hit and so was the cast, rocketing Brosnahan to multiple award wins and keeping her quite busy for the ensuing years.  Both a blessing and a curse, she’s now closely associated with her do-it-all, know-it-all character from Mrs. Maisel and in I’m Your Woman, her first true solo-led feature since her star-making role on the streaming screen, she’s playing another wife in a different decade…but one in a situation far more dire than her television alter ego.

The backyard of a modest home in Pittsburgh in the 1970s is where we first see Jean (Brosnahan) sunbathing in the middle of the day.  A housewife that can barely keep house or cook, her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) doesn’t seem to mind much, mostly because he’s preoccupied with shady business dealings that Jean is mostly oblivious to but occasionally just pleads ignorance on.  Despite multiple attempts to get pregnant, Jean can’t carry a child to term and she’s only just resigned herself to not being a mother when Eddie walks in the door with a baby boy that is now theirs.  Too happy to ask the kind of questions she should in this situation, Jean welcomes the baby with open arms and begins the motherly tasks she thinks she should perform, making breakfast for her child and husband (even though she can’t cook), and taking the baby to the playground (even though he’s still an infant).

A knock in the middle of the night changes Jean’s suburban peace forever.  Eddie has disappeared and his business partners can’t find him.  For her own safety, she needs to leave town under the escort of Cal (Arinzé Kene, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) another friend of her husband’s who seems to be one of the only ones that doesn’t want to harm her for information on his whereabouts.  Trusting him to keep her safe, she sets off and it’s the beginning of a journey for Jean, her baby, and eventually Cal’s family in the bonds of loyalty and security during a time when America was at war and crime was running rampant in many large cities.  While we never know what exactly Eddie was neck deep in, it’s clearly bad stuff because based on the lengths we see certain parties go to get to Jean, they feel that pressing her will elicit the necessary response from him.

Directed by Julia Hart from a script she co-wrote with her husband, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz (remember him? He’s the guy that announced “There’s a mistake, Moonlight, you won best picture” on the Oscar telecast), this is a full-bodied crime drama that will remind anyone worth their salt of the kind of picture John Cassavetes would have lensed back in the day.  You can easily see some ‘70s star taking her performance of Jean right to an Oscar nomination and not for nothing, Brosnahan’s performance is top-notch throughout.  Watching her change from a reserved kept wife to a more assertive mum on the run is a rich endeavor and she never forecasts what’s coming next.  Watching the fear rise in her eyes when trying to locate an unresponsive visitor in her house is chillingly real.

It’s not just Brosnahan that’s memorable in I’m Your Woman, which is why the performance feels slightly off-kilter at times comparead to others.  Showing up rather far into the movie, I’m not going to tell you who Marsha Stephanie Blake (Luce) is playing, not because it’s a huge spoiler (it’s not, really) but because her arrival bears some significance in Jean’s personal growth into a stronger individual.  Blake is an actress that continues to gain solid traction in the Hollywood machine and I couldn’t be happier.  Again in this film she demonstrates how to convey a range of deep emotions through the smallest of adjustments in voice or facial expression.  That’s the theater training she’s had right there on display.  As Jean’s watchman, Kene is equally impressive as someone that gives as good as he gets.  You get the sense he doesn’t care for Eddie and before he met Jean made up his mind he didn’t like her either…so it takes a while for him to divest his image he originally had of her from the woman she actually is.  As usual, the gregarious Frankie Faison (The Silence of the Lambs) is a warm presence and he nabs a fine scene with Brosnahan and a gun that has a nifty little punch to it.

Hart manages to instill fine moments of suspense throughout the film, a surprising amount actually.  I had thought the movie would be less crime and more drama but it’s actually the opposite.  The performances are first rate and it’s clear Brosnahan is made for more than a world that revolves only around Maisel.  What’s also on display in I’m Your Woman is a calling card of sorts for the writer/director, one that shows an attention to knowing the difference between homage and mere replication and creation of a charged atmosphere when necessary without altering the overall temperature of the film in the process.  Hart also has a knack with finding the right cast as well, from the leads to the supporting characters; it’s pretty perfect all around.  If there’s one thing I’d give you some advice on, try not to watch this with headphones on.  Jean’s baby is a fussy one and cries for much of the film and the wails started to get to me after listening to them through the headphones I have connected to my TV for late night watches.  Aside from the noise complaint, I’d keep your eye on (and out!) for this one.

Movie Review ~ Sound of Metal

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric

Director: Darius Marder

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  For years growing up I had that sweet Walkman with the fuzzy headphones that made listening to music great but let in a ton of outside noise.  At the time, it didn’t matter to me because this was years before noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds so I’d wrap that easily warped wire around my larger than average head and let the sound flow right into my ears.  I wanted it loud…loud enough to hear every word.  When I did get my first set of headphones that went inside the ear, I’d press them so far in they acted like an ear plug because…I wanted it loud.  I listened to the music in my car at max volume, the TV was cranked up, everything was loud loud loud…my poor parents, neighbors, and friends.  Then I went to a concert at a small club for a popular band and for some reason at this venue the sound reverberated in a way that just threw me for a loop.  I’d been to concerts before and heard seriously amplified sound…but nothing like this.  My ears rang for weeks after, blocking out voices and causing me to strain to hear anything.  I started to learn to get  good at reading lips because I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I couldn’t hear what they were saying.  Miraculously, over time, my hearing returned but that was officially it for my flirting with loss of hearing and ever since then I’ve been overly cautious about how sound affects my environment.

The opening moments of Sound of Metal (from Amazon Studios, now available to stream via Prime Video) gave me real anxiety as I watched Reuben, a punk-metal drummer for rising band Blackgammon keeping up with lead singer/girlfriend Lou as she scream-sings her way through one of their crowd-pleasing metal anthems.  The deafening music is nearly hypnotic, not in anything purposefully lyrical but in the way Reuben (Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) is following along and, eventually, in how we start to see small hints he’s noticing something slightly off in himself.  Director Darius Marder spends the next two hours following Reuben on his journey of self-discovery, beginning with a diagnosis that could limit and watching him navigate roadblocks of his own making.  Far from your typical ‘overcoming disability’ type feel-good film, Sound of Metal still has a tremendous amount of heart and deeply felt soul and its at its all-time best when no words are spoken at all.

When Reuben suddenly experiences a loss of hearing the morning after an intense Blackgammon gig, he leaves a note for Lou (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) in the RV they’re traveling on tour in and finds a local doctor that can see him. Told he has done irreparable damage to his hearing with less than 30% remaining, without expensive cochlear implants he will soon be completely deaf.  Unable to make it through the next scheduled show, Reuben admits to Lou what’s going on and fearing her former-user boyfriend will relapse due to this debilitating news she helps him find a safe space to learn about being deaf in a controlled environment.  Originally hesitant to be away from the only person that’s truly loved him, Reuben’s hand is eventually forced into joining a community of deaf recovering addicts run by Joe, a Vietnam vet and former alcoholic.

Played by Paul Raci, Joe’s tough love approach may not be anything new by the standards of this type of filmmaking but in Raci’s hands (literally) and through the script by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham (who also composed the music with sounds-designer Nicolas Becker) the role becomes the key puzzle piece that was missing in getting Reuben’s life back on track.  Not just in terms of learning how to live as a member of the deaf community but in living a fuller life using his natural talents to bring out the good in others.  Joe sees that in Reuben, fosters it, encourages it, and asks him to join the movement in helping it continue to grow.  The crux of Sound of Metal is what Reuben chooses to do with this new world that waits for him and very much wants him to be a part of it.  Does he want this new life in his community, a community that feels they are whole as they are…or does he feel like he needs his hearing to be “fixed” and rejoin Lou who has done some soul-seeking of her own after returning to France to live with her father (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace)?

This is a film of endless gifts, starting with the performances offered by the three leads.  Ahmed’s work has consistently been strong but it’s at a totally different level, full of body and spirit.  Training for six months on the drums as well as learning ASL, it’s hard to fathom the movie was shot in just four weeks.  Even if her part is minor and acts as starkly contrasting bookends, Cooke too is an actor that never fails to bring something interesting to her appearances and whether she’s letting loose as a rock banshee or displaying a softer tone crooning en français with her dad, her energy is always vibrant and palpable.  The chemistry between the leads might be a tad off, reading more like good friends and bandmates that soulmates but several of their interactions feel like good examples of character improv done right.  The supporting players, a mixture of adults and children, are pulled from the deaf community and are impressively naturalistic in what is the screen debut of most.

Sound of Metal’s secret stealth weapon is Raci’s unforgettable performance as Joe.  At first, you aren’t sure how much he’ll factor into the story but once he’s locked in place you recognize just what he’ll come to mean in the grand scheme of what Marder is going for.  Raci delivers in each scene, showing a raw talent for off-the-cuff interaction that is refreshingly straightforward.  Raci gives Joe could have been a simple repeat of so many other performances it resembles but there’s a lived-in quality and world-weariness in Raci’s eyes that you can’t fake.  It’s almost as if Marder and the crew just happened to find the exact character they had written live in living color.  Count on this performance, as well as Ahmed’s, getting to the very final talks when those end of the year award nominations start coming out – both are well deserved nominees.

There’s a bit of a full circle feeling behind the scenes with Sound of Metal.  In 2012, Darius Marder had the original story idea for The Place Beyond the Pines and would go on to co-write the screenplay with the director of that film, Derek Cianfrance.  Years later, Cianfrance was working on the idea for Sound of Metal but wound up abandoning the movie, eventually passing it to Marder who would write and direct it.  From its incredible sound design (give Becker the Oscar right now, I mean, right now) to its unflinching way of showing the frustration and fear someone losing their hearing experiences, Sound of Metal excels in its sincerity and follows it through to the bitter (sweet) end.  One of the true highlights of film-watching in 2020.  Don’t you dare miss it.

Movie Review ~ Uncle Frank

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Accompanied by his teenage niece, a gay literature professor reluctantly returns home to attend his father’s funeral.

Stars: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Jane McNeil, Michael Perez

Director: Alan Ball

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: You know how they say that some movies you can tell were based on stage plays?  There are some movies you can also tell were based on books so I kept having to remind myself throughout Amazon Prime’s Uncle Frank that this was an original screenplay by writer/director Alan Ball and did not originate from a novel.  Ball, you may recall, was the creative force behind such family-centered dramas as the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the iconic Six Feet Under for HBO where he also adapted Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels into True Blood.  There are a number of instances throughout Uncle Frank that feel as if the hand of a novelist, rather than a filmmaker, is guiding the characters and that creates a strange awkwardness that may have worked on the page but doesn’t work as well when played out by actors.

Let’s step back for a second, though.  Ball came to write the 1970s-set Uncle Frank after learning his own father might have been gay long after he had passed away.  His father’s possible more-than-friendship with a deceased boy in the past mirrors a traumatic event in the life of Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany, Solo: A Star Wars Story) a 40ish man living in New York City with his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi).  Semi-estranged from his family, namely his father (Stephen Root, Bombshell) back in a small town in South Carolina, he’s kept his sexuality and boyfriend a secret from most of his relatives for fear of incurring their ultra-conservative judgement.  When he’s called home due to a family tragedy and Wally tags along, he has to decide whether to own up to who he is and free himself of this heavy burden or go on living a lie for the sake of the comfort of others.

The set-up has all the workings of your typical coming-to-terms drama that we’ve seen done before but the way Ball opts to switch things up is to have all of these events seen through the eyes of Frank’s young niece Beth Sophia Lillis (IT, IT: Chapter Two).  Fairly clueless to all of the nuances going on in the life of her sophisticated and respected uncle, she’s unfortunately not that interesting of a character to hang a narrator’s cap on.  When we first meet her, she’s a teenager more comfortable talking to her big-city uncle than her country cousins.  He encourages her to dream big and several years later she’s a NYU student that reconnects with Frank just as she embarks a few college “firsts”: boyfriend, drinking, etc.  Then the family needs them both to return home and they begin a road trip back and its during these hundreds of miles Beth begins to understand more of where Frank is coming from and the true depth to his relationship with Wally.

To his credit, Ball has cast Uncle Frank with an assortment of value-add Hollywood players that keep the film buoyed by their welcome presence.  In addition to Bettany, Lillis, and Macdissi, there’s Judy Greer (Halloween), a goofy hoot as Beth’s mom that has a tendency to mispronounce big words that she thinks sound fancier than they are, and Steve Zahn (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as her average Joe dad perfectly content to be the son that doesn’t cause any trouble but happy to be noticed all the same.  The legendary Lois Smith (Lady Bird) is afforded a few nice zingers as Frank’s truth-speaking aunt and the never-not-great Margo Martindale (Mother’s Day) dependably delivers in the film’s get-out-your-hanky scene.

That’s where the trouble in Uncle Frank lies, though, that scene.  It’s a scene that feels satisfying in some way as a viewer but doesn’t feel correct in a realistic context of the location and time Ball has set his story.  This Kumbaya moment comes off as overly romanticized and false and while I appreciated it greatly and, yes, wiped away tears, when I really thought about it I knew it didn’t really make a lot of sense.  It’s things like that and how Ball insists on having Beth be the de facto filter and interpreter for the audience that keep Uncle Frank at a set distance from the viewer and never lets you get much closer.  Though it appears to be an inviting watch, ultimately it feels less personal and more of a clinical endeavor.  That’s far removed from Ball’s intention to explore his own father’s latent homosexuality that seemingly went unspoken throughout his life.

Eventually reaching its destination after a rocky journey, Uncle Frank had the cast and creatives to be a scenic tour into a slice of life family drama but winds up running out of gas.  That ghastly metaphor aside (and I do apologize profusely), there’s no harm meant in Uncle Frank and the performances by Bettany and especially Macdissi make this one worth a look.  Bettany is one of those actors that hangs by the fringe, always doing interesting work but rarely afforded opportunities like this to take center stage.  While Macdissi being Ball’s longtime partner and oft being cast in his projects may raise some eyebrows, his warm performance should cast any doubts of preferential casting aside.  The feeling lingers in my mind, however, that having Beth as the intrusive narrator proved a distraction and the film concluding with an overly tidy understanding robbed it of the deeper complexity and stronger message it could have achieved.

Movie Review ~ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Kazakh funnyman Borat risks life and limb when he returns to America with his young daughter to take on a pandemic as well as politics.

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Mike Pence, Rudolph Giuliani

Director: Jason Woliner

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s almost fitting that in a month where I’m running a series called 31 Days to Scare I’d also happen to screen a movie with a premise that makes me squirm more than any horror film out there.  There’s something about watching normal, everyday people being interviewed or at the center of an elaborate set-up where they aren’t in on the joke that makes me incredibly uncomfortable – it’s just not a space I like to live in, though I know it’s a sweet spot for a number of viewers.  Still, I watch through the kind of splayed fingers that I imagine many would screen a slasher film or gooey alien science fiction picture, feeling my blood pressure rise the longer the gag goes on.

Fourteen years ago, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought Borat Sagdiyev, his popular Kazakh journalist character that came to prominence on Cohen’s lightening rod program Da Ali G Show, to the screen.  That film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was made on a miniscule budget but was a runaway hit that saw its box office grow week after week and it’s title character’s quotable catchphrases enter the vocabulary almost instantly.  It also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, not too shabby for a film that featured large chunks of improvisation and introduced many audience members to the mankini.

Since that time, Baron Cohen has found ways to bring Borat back but he’s such a recognizable character that it was next to impossible to make a follow-up and capture that same innocence.  His subsequent attempts at new creations or taking the same route with other of his sketch eccentrics haven’t caught fire the same way, though Baron Cohen has gained some ground in feature films that allow him to stretch in other ways, most recently in The Trial of the Chicago 7 for Netflix.  Throughout the last year there had been rumors of Borat sightings and news of Baron Cohen’s run-ins with the law at key events gave the impression he might be up to something.

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, then, to have seen the announcement that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (shortened from, well, something longer) was not only a go but already done, edited, in the can, and ready for release on October 23 through Amazon Prime Video.  In the past, Baron Cohen said that if he did release another film that followed in the same footsteps as the original Borat it would be closer to an election to better highlight the failures of democracy and after viewing the sequel under a veil of steely secrecy I can see why.  No mistake should be made about the timing of this release, and if you’re reading this in the future remember that the third presidential debate is scheduled for October 22, the election is less than two weeks away, and someone in this film working for the Trump administration has been desperately trying to stir up trouble for the opposition in advance as a way to distract from an incident captured here that will surely come back to haunt him.

My first reaction to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that it’s missing the lightness that made the original have such near universal appeal.  In creating a character that was so misguided and culturally insensitive, Baron Cohen was able to represent a large swath of the world having their eyes opened at the same time – and in 2007 that still meant something.  Consider that since the first film was released the musical The Book of Mormon debuted to astounding acclaim and it covered similar ground using reverse satire and shockingly un-PC language to skewer topics of race and religion.  There’s an attempt to create a similar reaction in this sequel film but viewed through the 2020 lens it just doesn’t have the same impact because we’re not in that headspace of easy alignment, our division has grown too far and the message already conveyed via better methods.  So the abnormalities he’s shining a light on seem less vital and easier targets than what had once been interesting underground groups before.

Disgraced after his previous trip to America resulted in a film that embarrassed everyone in his country, Borat has spent the last decade breaking rocks in a grueling prison.  However, now that the government is pleased that “Obama’s reign of terror” is over, they are interested in making friends with their favorite supreme leader Donald Trump and, more importantly, Vice President Mike Pence and they decide to send Borat to offer a bribe of sorts to gain back the trust of the US.  Without his right-hand man (funnyman Ken Davitian is sadly missed here), Borat has only his stowaway daughter (Maria Bakalova) who becomes the back-up gift intended for Pence after the tragic demise of the first present. (Don’t ask).

Together, Borat and daughter move throughout America encountering locals who barely (unbelievably in some cases) bat at eye at the ludicrous situations a disguised Borat/Baron Cohen introduces them to and making over the daughter into a “Melania”.  A number of these sequences have the requisite effect of laughs but more than a few are in such poor taste even from a social commentary standpoint that you just feel awkward for everyone involved.  There are two people (women, naturally) that seem to take the antics seriously and, more importantly, to heart.  The time they take to have an actual conversation with the Bakalova and Baron Cohen are the most genuine moments in the film, the reinforcement of the good in our communities.  It’s worth nothing one of these women passed away after and the family is suing the producers for false representation, though I think she’s the one that handles herself with the most grace.

The moment that is sure to be talked about, though, and which I’m not going to spoil for you comes near the end of the film and it involves Bakalova’s interview with a certain former Mayor of a particular city known for its Broadway shows and Yankee baseball team.  It’s the part of the film I thought I was going to have to leave the room or not watch at all because it was too stressful…and then it takes things a step further and I was truly, completely, stunned.  If Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was looking to be part of the conversation leading up to the election…this is the scene that will make it happen.  And it should be talked about.  It’s right there on tope. That’s all I’ll say.

I still find the film lacking in an overall point, though.  The observations aren’t fresh and even the gags in the storyline (a whopping eight writers contributed to this) don’t feel that inspired.  Are period jokes, Holocaust deniers, and abortion riffs still the most shocking things that will get Americans going?  I hate to say that the production lucked out with the onset of COVID-19 but it definitely gave them more material to work with and exploit, not to mention it provided them with a key plot point that feels like the late-in-the-process script change it most certainly was.  What this feels like to me more than anything is Baron Cohen and his team having a thin idea for a plot but when they landed on something of importance within one of their typical ‘gotcha gags’ the rest was rushed to completion, forgetting to add the same creativity springing from curiosity into Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.