Movie Review ~ My Spy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A hardened CIA operative finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family.

Stars: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Ken Jeong, Devere Rogers, Greg Bryk

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The last movie I had on my schedule to see in theaters before the pandemic shut everything down was My Spy and to be honest it was a film I was considering skipping all together.  Sometimes you just have to say no to movies you don’t think you’ll like, right?  I know that makes me sound less like the well-rounded critic I profess to be but if you are going in with some preconceived notion that predetermines you to not like the film, you aren’t going to give the movie a fair shot…and that’s almost worse, right?  I offer this up at the beginning of my review for My Spy because when the film was eventually snapped up by Amazon to be released via the streaming service and an opportunity to review it at home came up – I was desperate for a comedy to watch and accepted the mission with little reservation.

Again, dear reader, I say to you that The MN Movie Man is not infallible and I’m not sure if my craving for a laugh overcame my critical eye or what but I found My Spy to be the kind of easy to digest fun that is a rare treat to enjoy.  It’s a harmless endeavor that showcases the continued appeal of Dave Bautista and makes a stronger case for the wrestler turned actor to keep headlining projects that show him flexing not only his muscles but his comedic chops.  Further, bypassing a theatrical release and going straight to streaming was the best thing that could have happened to My Spy because it gives the film a fighting chance to be seen/enjoyed by more than just the target family audience…which it’s not even a great fit for.

Freshman CIA agent JJ (Bautista, Skyfall) biffs a major weapons trade as the film opens, a big blunder that doesn’t sit well with his boss (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians, in his umpteenth iteration of the perpetually annoyed authority figure role) who quickly busts him down to a low impact stakeout in Chicago.  Paired with nerdy tech Bobbi (Kristen Schaal, Toy Story 4) that has a fangirl crush on JJ’s agent status, the two are keeping an eye on the sister-in-law and niece of a French baddie trying to build a nuclear bomb.  What should be an easy and uneventful assignment gets complicated when wiser-than-her-years fourth-grader Sophie (Chloe Coleman) figures out what JJ and Bobbi are up to.  Blackmailing the CIA agent into being her friend, protector, and trainer in all things spy, Sophie puts the tough as nails JJ through the ringer and, not wanting to further get in trouble with the home office, he complies.  Visiting school for career day, ice skating in the park, and making a good impression on her mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley) are all part of the bargain in balancing his double life, even as the danger of Sophie’s uncle draws closer.

Though it has its moments of originality here and here, I couldn’t help but think that the script from Erich Hoeber (The Meg) & Jon Hoeber (Battleship) reminded me an awful lot of Kindergarten Cop.  Thankfully, it reminded of the good parts of that movie and director Peter Segal (Second Act) keeps things moving along with workmanlike efficiency.  It’s largely a predictable affair but then again you likely didn’t go into My Spy thinking you’ll be surprised by the plot – it’s best to just fire it up and let it roll.  It has some geniune moments of fun and they don’t all come at the expense of low brow jokes and gags — even the usually grating Schaal has a few potent zingers that land right on target.

The main thing that’s wrong with the film at the end of it all is that I’m not sure who the target audience is.  Carrying a PG-13 rating and justly earning it thanks to violence and other content behooving some parental caution, this wouldn’t be a movie for families to enjoy in line with their PG movie night.  It also wouldn’t be something I think would appeal to the Bautista base that know him from the Guardians of the Galaxy films.  That leaves it in a strange limbo place where the audience will have to find it on their own which is why I think the streaming platform was the best place for it to debut.  If you do choose My Spy (as a guilty pleasure watch or otherwise), do so with confidence because it’s far better than it looks and more entertaining than you’d think.

Movie Review ~ The Vast of Night


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator and charismatic radio DJ discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.

Stars: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer

Director: Andrew Patterson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  With all the technology, ease-of-access, and overwhelming intrusions we have in our daily lives, it can be easy to wistfully wish we lived in a more simple time.  Maybe it’s back in the 80s when music was more fun and movies were just…better.  Or how about the 70s when gas was cheap and we could invest in the big ideas of tomorrow?  You could go to the 60s if you wanted to witness a true time of change and advancement…the list goes on.  Yet to do that you’d also have to take all the bad things that existed then as well.  For a boatload of cultural reasons I can’t even get into here, while the 50s were a grand time for film and television I would never want to return to that period of history.

In the late 50s and early 60s, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were popular with television audiences and each week offered up a new story of the strange and unusual.  Oft-imitated over the years but never truly matched, these shows pushed the boundaries for storytelling in a smaller medium and have had great staying power over the years that followed.  Watching them now, they may seem quaint by today’s standards but it doesn’t diminish their overall impact and originality.  Inviting you in for tales of unexplained phenomena, it inspired generations of filmgoers.

You can clearly see that screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger have spent some time thinking about these shows because their new movie The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the home-spun tales of an era long-since passed.  Instead of feeling reverential to an old formula, however, director Andrew Patterson uses the film’s limited budget to his advantage and creates an unusual and entertaining little marvel.  Employing a clever opening device to suggest this might be just another episode of an on-going anthology, The Vast of Night takes its time to settle in but once it grabs you it doesn’t let go.

Charismatic teenager Everett (Jake Horowitz) is helping set-up for his small town’s big Friday night event: the high-school basketball game.  In the first of several long tracking shots Patterson uses effectively, Everett winds his way through the gymnasium fixing sound equipment, benignly tormenting a friend in the band, and making sure he can leave for his nighttime job as the town’s radio host/DJ with all systems go.  He’s soon snagged by the younger Fay (Sierra McCormick) who has a new sound recorder she’d like some help with, a perfect way to maybe get close to a boy she has a secret crush on.  She’s also on her way to work as the switchboard operator so Everett escorts her and the two discuss life in the town and plans for the future.

The talky first half hour or so of the movie may put off viewers coming to the film looking for immediate results but I’d urge you to stick with it.  I found myself shifting a bit in my seat, too, but establishing these characters proves valuable later when Fay overhears a strange noise through her switchboard and contact with the neighboring towns is cut off.  Enlisting Everett’s help and his listeners, the two are eventually led down an increasingly dangerous path that has roots in the town’s history.  As the truth is uncovered and an impossible explanation starts to form, the two teenagers will be faced with saving their town from an unnamed entity.

I could easily see The Vast of Night having been adapted from a radio play (ala War of the Worlds) from back in the day.  With it’s long stretches of dialogue and specific sound design, the movie feels more tuned to your aural senses than your visual senses at times.  There are moments when closing your eyes and just listening give you the feeling you are more in the scene.  While it’s light on what most would deem “scares” this has a handful of admirable “thrills” to it, scenes that will send that shiver ripple up your spine and make you bring the blanket further up over your nose.  Knowing this was the first time effort from the director and screenwriters, it’s an impressive debut.

The two leads are appealing and I felt they could have popped out of the time period, particularly  McCormick with her gangly gait and cat-eye glasses.  Horowitz also nicely avoids the pull to play his character as a smart-aleck know-it-all…even though that’s kind of what he is.  We have to like these two and it’s pretty much right from the beginning we are on their side and along for the ride.   While the majority of the supporting cast is either heard through the switchboard/radio or seen in brief, Gail Cronauer has a memorable scene as a townswoman Everett and Fay visit who may have answers to what is occurring this dark night.

In some parts of the country I know that The Vast of Night is playing at drive-ins and I would love to have seen it on a big screen like that when it was good and dark.  At a trim 89 minutes the film zips along and is best enjoyed all in one bite, resist the urge to take breaks because this one is all about the momentum that is built up. Especially after the first half hour when our heroine and hero get to work, you’ll want to buckle in for their nighttime adventure.

Movie Review ~ The Goldfinch


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A boy in New York is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Aimee Laurence, Denis O’Hare

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 149 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I was in school, I like to think I was pretty good with my homework. Sure, there were times when I wound up working late on calculus, having procrastinated my way into an all-nighter but for the most part I was on top of things. One thing I never failed to follow through on was doing any assigned reading.  However, I’m admitting now in this public forum that lately, in my advancing age, I’m getting bad at finishing books. I’ll start them all the time but then I get distracted and can’t make it to that final page. If a movie is based on a book, I do everything I can to read it before I see it and in these last few years it’s often come down to the wire to get in those last chapters.

I give you that brief backstory because it helps illustrate how disappointed I should have been with myself for not reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning 2014 novel The Goldfinch before the film adaptation was released. You know what? I got on the waiting list for the library and waited months and months for it to be my turn. When I finally got the hefty novel home, I took one look at it in all its 794-page hardback glory and decided on the spot I was going to give myself a well-earned pass on attempting it.

I feel no shame.

In fact, having seen the movie I’m wondering if I was better off with not having any pre-conceived notions going in. With nothing to live up to, the film could make a play for my attention without striving to be exactly what I had envisioned in my head. I purposely avoided delving too deep into the plot or matching characters to actors prior to seeing the film but rather let the screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn, Closed Circuit) have a crack at telling me a story. It’s a long story, though, and one that doesn’t quite shake off its creaky contrivances and some muddled performances.

Narrated by protagonist Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), we see how he lost his mother at a young age, when a bomb is set off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Barbours, a rich family with a son that attends Theo’s prestigious prep school, soon take in Young Theo (Oaks Fegley, Pete’s Dragon). Initially hesitant to get too close to this broken boy, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes) warms to his love of fine art and kind spirit that shines even during his most dark days. Yet Theo has a secret he’s keeping from everyone and it involves a priceless painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, and a mysterious man he meets in the rubble after the bomb goes off. Both will lead him on journey forward while shaping his future from a past he wants to forget.

Straughan has a challenge in parsing down Tartt’s epic into a watchable two and a half hours and it winds up working some of the time. Having to manage two timelines with the younger Theo and the grown-up man he becomes gets a little tiresome over the course of the film, only because Theo as a boy is so much more interesting than the enigma he turns into. Every time the action switched back to Elgort in the present there is a marked dip in energy and curiosity into the mystery at the center of it all. It helps that Fegley is an assured talent, steering clear of your typical child actor trappings and giving the impression he’s an old soul trapped in the small frame of a youngster. The same can’t be said for Elgort who labors mightily with the material, rarely letting go and totally losing himself in the role. Sure, there are Big Acting scenes where Elgort puts himself through an emotional ringer but there’s a thread of falsehood running through his work that lets the character and, in the end, audiences down.

It’s a good thing, then, that Crowley has filled the supporting roles with such unexpected (and unexpectedly solid) actors. As is often the case, Kidman is terrific as a WASP-y Upper East Side wife, rarely without her pearls and pursed lips. Even in old age make-up later in the film, she manages to give off a regal air. Kidman always gives her characters sharp edges yet the performance never lacks for warmth. Luke Wilson (Concussion) was a nice surprise as Theo’s deadbeat dad that brings him to Nevada to live with his new wife (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave, gnawing on the scenery like it was a turkey leg) but doesn’t seem to have interest in being a parent. Wilson so often plays soft characters but he gets an opportunity here to show a harder side and it works to his advantage.

I struggled a bit at first with Finn Wolfhard (IT, IT: Chapter Two) and his Borat-adjacent accent as young Theo’s bad influence best friend but he eventually won me over, though Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk) as the older version of Wolfhard’s character rubbed me the wrong way from the jump. Ashleigh Cummings gets perhaps the best scene in the whole movie as older Theo’s unrequited childhood love, I just wish her character was better conceived. She gets all this wonderful material and then pretty much vanishes. Also absent for long stretches is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), turning in the most memorable performance in the movie. Wright has long been a valuable character actor, never quite making it to A-List leading man status but showing here you don’t have to be the focus of the film to effectively steal the show.

Crowley’s best move was to get Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) to lens the film. Deakins is a master behind the camera and his gorgeous work here is another reminder that he’s one of the all-time greats. Everything about the movie looks wonderful and feels like it should work but there’s a curiously absent beating heart that holds it back from reaching the next level, one that I’m guessing would have pleased fans of the book more. For this audience member coming in blind, I found it to be a watchable but only occasionally memorable literary adaptation of a celebrated work.

Movie Review ~ Brittany Runs a Marathon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman living in New York takes control of her life- one block at a time.

Stars: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Sarah Bolt, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If you take a step back and look at the films released this summer and don’t consider the box office returns, it’s been a good year for female-led movies.  Finding their way to theaters (but, sadly, not always wide audiences) were Booksmart, Late Night, The Farewell, and maybe, if you’re feeling generous, even The Hustle.  All had strong points of view and boldly entered the arena, often in direct competition to highly anticipated and better advertised franchise blockbusters.  Aside from The Farewell, which continues to build on positive word of mouth, these movies suggested changing tides of appetite only to find themselves in discounted theaters within weeks of their release dates.  Destined to find their audiences when they hit streaming services, it doesn’t diminish the sting of feeling these should have done better.

The latest movie likely to fall under the same scrutiny is Brittany Runs a Marathon and it might just stand the best shot of breaking the cycle of summer underperformers.  Directed by Off-Broadway playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo making his feature film debut and inspired by the life of his best friend, this is a charming comedy that finds a nice balance between humor and drama.   I found a lot to laugh at within the movie but an equal amount of the time I was struck by how insightful it was into the inward struggle we all face when standing in front of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Approaching 30 and yet to shed the carefree lifestyle that worked for her in her early 20s, Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell, Office Christmas Party) works as a part time usher at a small NYC theater and doesn’t do much else.  Her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee, Wish Upon) is dating a handsome Wall Street-type and enjoys partying and late nights just as much as Brittany does.  Visting her doctor in hopes of snagging a prescription for Adderall, she instead leaves with a recommendation to lose forty to fifty pounds to avoid ongoing health concerns.  Having an “a-ha” moment, Brittany takes stock of her situation, where she is, and where she wants to be. Unable to afford a gym, she begins to run outdoors, eventually joining a running group on the suggestion of Catherine, (Michaela Watkins, Wanderlust) a woman in her building.  Teaming up with Catherine and another newbie runner Seth, (Micah Stock), the trio set their sights on training for the NYC Marathon, each with their own personal reasons for wanting to cross the finish line.

To earn extra money, Brittany becomes a daytime house/dog sitter, eventually meeting Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect) who takes over for her at night.  While the two squabble like brother and sister at first, it isn’t hard to see where the good-natured fighting will lead…though it does take an intelligent route getting there.  As Brittany continues to train and sees her body changing, she overlooks that it was never about an outward change that needed to happen but an adjustment from within that was necessary.  Unable to be vulnerable even with her closest friends or accept their support in the simplest of matters, Brittany may lose everything she’s worked for if she can’t knock down the walls she’s put up to defend herself.

On the surface, Brittany Runs a Marathon might look like your standard offering of girl makes a change to better herself and the wacky ways she does it but Colaizzo isn’t interested in doing anything the old-fashioned way.  Yes, the movie is packed with humor both smart and smart-alecky but there’s never a time when the script is out to make fun of its title character.  It doesn’t spare her, though, from being held to the same human decency standard as everyone else.  Just as we wince when low blows are leveled at Brittany, when she does the same to another person late in the film, we hold her accountable as well.  Kudos to actress Sarah Bolt for her small role being on the receiving end of a particularly nasty putdown from Brittany and for the way she responds — it’s easily a top highlight of the movie.

I’m used to Bell’s more raunchy and ribald performances, often broad and playing to the back wall of the theater next door to the one you’re in.  So, it’s refreshing to see her, not so much restrained, but offering up a different side that’s just as entertaining.  She’s in every scene so if we didn’t like the character or the actress the movie would be in big trouble, but Bell clearly was the right person for this job.  The performance is strong and arguably one of the best of the year.  I also liked Ambudkar as her comic and romantic counterpart.  There’s a chemistry in both areas and that goes a long way in keeping the less funny moments afloat.  Watkins and Stock do serviceable supporting work, though some late breaking efforts to bring their personal lives into the mix feels like Colaizzo biting off more than he can chew in 103 minutes.  I’d rather have learned more about Brittany’s backstory, the only information we get are in snippets from her brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and even those are sometimes hard to track.

I think it’s important to look at the movie not for what it’s putting Brittany through but what the ultimate goal is.  The point of the movie isn’t for us to watch her lose weight.  It isn’t about her running the marathon.  It’s a way to show there is value in everyone no matter what they are capable of or hope to achieve.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness and offering help is not a sign you don’t believe in someone’s ability.  That Colaizzo is able to weave that message in among a hearty supply of appealing situational comedy and lively performances is a real gift.

Movie Review ~ Late Night


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A late-night talk-show host suspects that she may soon lose her long-running show.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, Denis O’Hare, John Early, Max Casella

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you want to start your Oscar season early, it’s always a good idea to keep track of the film festivals that start to roll out in the first half of the year.  Though the more prestige films usually premiere at the international festivals in the fall, a few notable movies often will first see the light of day at South by Southwest in Austin and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.  This year, South by Southwest held the first screenings of Us and Booksmart while Sundance had, among others, The Mustang, Apollo 11, and Late NightLate Night turned out to be the big news coming out of Sundance, namely because it was purchased for distribution by Amazon Studios for an eye-popping $13 million dollars.

Quickly positioning the movie as a breezy summer comedy antidote to the ear-shattering blockbusters playing in the theater next door, Amazon has wisely learned from the mistakes of Booksmart’s too wide/too fast release and is releasing Late Night in waves.  This is helping to generate good buzz for the movie, bolstered further on the positive word of mouth it has received from audiences and critics.  Drawing justified comparisons to Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada, Late Night is a mostly entertaining film that plays off its formulaic skeleton well but also succumbs to the trappings of the genre more often than it should.

After nearly three decades as the only female host of a late-night television show, Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson, Beauty and the Beast) is seeing a steep drop in her ratings.  The new network head honcho (Amy Ryan, Beautiful Boy) has given her word her contact won’t be renewed and attributed it not just to the ratings but to how out of touch Katherine is with the rest of the world and the changing face of media.  Accused of not being an ally to other women, Katherine makes a last-ditch effort to save her show by hiring Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, A Wrinkle in Time) to come onboard as the first female writer on the all-male writing team.

Coming from working at a chemical plant as an efficiency expert, Molly has no experience in television, let alone a writers room.  Using her background to assess the shows weakness and strengths, she passes that along to Katherine and her fellow writers who don’t take kindly to the outsider telling them how to run their show.  As with all of these workplace comedies, there’s the typical hazing at the outset followed by gradual appreciation for Molly’s talent, and eventual acceptance as their equal.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it’s in the delivery that sets it apart from the rest.

Much of this credit goes to Kaling’s script which is sharp, insightful, funny, and obviously gleaned from her years as the only female writer on NBC’s The Office.  The relationship she creates between Katherine and Molly is genuinely interesting to watch and goes beyond the expected pathway of the dragon lady boss tormenting her meek staff member (though we do get a little of that in the beginning) and forms something more solid.  The movie really crackles when Thompson and Kaling share the screen, be it in arguing over a joke at the writers table or Katherine entering Molly’s territory to see what the lives are like for her staff when they go home.

It’s when the movie branches out to other characters that it gets a little unwieldy.  Kaling has a good track record with hiring her friends and it seems like she wrote parts for a lot of them in this movie.  This creates an overload of people, many of them serving the same purpose.  Though Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya), John Early (The Disaster Artist), and Max Casella (Jackie) make nice contributions here, I can easily imagine their roles being absorbed into other characters to help the movie not feel so weighed down with white guys angling for one-liners.

Though it’s positioned as a two-hander, the more I think about Late Night the more I feel this is really Thompson’s movie with Kaling as a supporting role.  To that end, Thompson is excellent as a woman of a certain age who was a trailblazer before becoming complacent.  We never do know why Katherine started to turn her back on her show (though, from what I could tell, it wasn’t that funny to begin with) but Thompson gives us an inside perspective into her initial shock at realizing she is being replaced and figuring out a way to move forward and reclaiming what is rightfully hers.  Kaling is a supportive co-star and, as always, abdicates the spotlight whenever possible to allow her fellow actors to shine.  While she has a great many funny lines, she doesn’t keep all the zingers to herself or Thompson but spreads them around the room generously.  More than anything, I was annoyed that Kaling felt the need to insert a love story into the mix of all of this because it’s so shoe-horned in.  I’m glad she was able to get Reid Scott (Venom) and Hugh Dancy (Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return) into the creative mix here but they feel like distractions from the story the movie is really wanting to tell which is the relationship between Katherine and Molly.  That the script continues to weave in other people becomes frustrating as the film progresses.

On a podcast I was listening to after seeing this someone wondered if this wouldn’t have worked a little better as a multi episode series on some streaming service and I couldn’t help but agree.  Too much of the movie felt compacted into the trim running time, leaving out key ingredients such as more of a backstory for Molly (a random cousin pops up for two scenes and is never heard from again) or more time to get to know the home life of Katherine and her husband (John Lithgow, Pitch Perfect 3).  Even with these nitpicks aside, this is a movie worth your time for Thompson’s performance alone.

The Silver Bullet ~ Late Night

Synopsis: A late-night talk show host is at risk of losing her long-running show right when she hires her first female who revitalizes her show and her life.

Release Date: June 7, 2019

Thoughts: Movie nerds like myself who keep their ear to the ground (or, more to the point, keep up to date with their podcasts) heard the buzziest film to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Late Night, the comedy written by Mindy Kaling and starring Emma Thompson. Snapped up by Amazon for a June release, Late Night features Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as an icy late night talk show host on the decline and Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time) as her new (and first) female writer.  There’s a little The Devil Wears Prada feel to this first look and I’m not hating it, but I can also tell the movie will have something more to say than just acerbic quips delivered with panache by Thompson.  I’m mostly hoping the movie can follow through with an awards-worthy performance from Thompson and make good on its festival buzz when larger crowds get a look in early summer.

Movie Review ~ Cold War (Zimna wojna)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the 1950s, a music director falls in love with a singer and tries to persuade her to flee communist Poland for France.

Stars: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Ferency, Borys Szyc

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In 2015, director Pawel Pawlikowski made a giant splash with Ida, his gorgeous Oscar-winning work that tracked a novice nun making a road trip with her aunt to learn more about her past before taking her vows. It was stunning film, easily earning its place on the best-of year lists and further establishing Pawlikowski’s late-career resurgence in his Polish homeland. The story felt personal to the director and he’s gone even further with his latest work, Cold War, using the lives of his parents tumultuous relationship to serve as the basis for the story.  Like Ida, critics that have embraced Pawlikowski’s sparse narrative and Lukasz Zal’s (Loving Vincent) stunning black and white cinematography have met Cold War with rapturous applause. Unlike that earlier work, however, Cold War lives up to its title in more ways than one; I found it almost impossible to find a way to connect with it on any level whatsoever. Though it boasts two lovely lead performances and is grand to look at, it’s not just cool to the touch…it’s frozen.

In post war Poland, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a government gathered group assembling a folk ensemble to tour as a way to bring back authentic tradition to their ravagaed country. It’s at the auditions and rehearsals for this troupe that he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) a headstrong woman with a questionable past that might not be the most talented but is certainly the most compelling performer. As the tour proceeds, the two find their attraction growing and when their repertoire changes to be more propaganda based they must decide if they will stick it out or attempt to run away to France.

At 89 minutes, Pawlikowski doesn’t leave much room for filler and even though the film takes several leaps ahead in time that can make your head spin it does have a decent forward momentum. I did find it a little challenging to track some of the secondary characters we were evidently supposed to keep tabs on because when long gone faces suddenly reappear after years you don’t get much chance to remember their names and how they fit into the story.  You almost need a cheat sheet to stay with the comings and goings or the supporting cast, strong as they are.

The film benefits largely from Kulig’s strong-willed turn as a woman wanting a better life but feeling trapped by her past. You absolutely get the intended feeling she wants nothing more than to chuck it all and run away with Wiktor if there weren’t the secrets she harbors keeping her from being able to turn away from her present circumstances. Kot, too, places his role with a plaintive quietness that works well with Kulig’s more aggressive tendencies. When the two are together, sparks fly. When they are apart, things slow down.

Pawlikowski nabbed a Best Director nomination for his work here and that’s a bit of a head-scratcher in my book, especially considering someone like Bradley Cooper didn’t get on the list for A Star is Born. As the director and co-writer, Pawlikowski is mostly the one to blame for the film having some pacing and narrative problems that keep it almost entirely at arm’s length. Perhaps it was because I saw the film at home and didn’t get to experience it on a big screen to let Zal’s crisp Oscar-nominated camera-work invite me in…but Pawlikowski’s films are so quiet and personal that it feels like this was just a story that wasn’t suited for me.

31 Days to Scare ~ Suspiria (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper, Lutz Ebersdorf, Sylvie Testud

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Though Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria has long been considered a giallo classic, filmmakers have been trying to remake it for decades. Most recently, it was going to be a project for Natalie Portman and director David Gordon Green, until arguments over the budget caused the in-demand duo to move on to other projects. Portman, who had begun training for the dancing in Suspiria, went on to win an Oscar for Black Swan, which was considered by many to be a film in the same vein. Though he had put a lot of heart and soul into his vision of Suspiria, even casting the film with some impressive names, Green wouldn’t delve into horror again until 2018 when he successfully rebooted Halloween.

The person that brought the project to Green was director Luca Guadagnino who met with Argento and his co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi to get their blessing to remake the film. With Green on to other projects and Guadagnino gathering strong accolades for his work, plans continued to simmer until it was officially announced in 2015. Three years later we have what Guadagnino considers an homage to the original film instead of an outright remake. Though the original Suspiria will always have a place in the horror history books for it’s gorgeous production design and creative visuals, Guadagnino’s version is the superior one with the director and screenwriter David Kajganich holding nothing back. It may lack the color and vibrant gothic-ness of Argento’s vision but it takes the morsel of an idea Argento set on the plate and turns it into a five course banquet of riches.

Once again, the film is set in 1977 but the political unrest at the time is felt throughout and becomes a secondary character at times. Televisions broadcast news of a plane hijacking and there are demonstrations in the street from youths rebelling against their parents and grandparents who are being held responsible for the atrocities conducted in WWII. Into this mix comes American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey) who has arrived from the safety of her Mennonite upbringing. Growing up Susie always felt out of place in her devout and traditional family but an early exposure to the Markos Dance Academy creates a strange pull to the modern dance pieces they originated. It was her dream to attend and after an impressive audition she is granted a spot in the company.

Susie has shown up right after the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz, Dark Shadows) who we see at the beginning telling her therapist Jozef Klemperer that she thinks the academy is being run by witches. When Patricia vanishes completely, Klemperer begins to investigate on his own which will drum up painful memories of his past and endanger his future. At the same time, Susie is drawn deeper into the darkness that haunts the academy as well as the intoxicating aura of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive) who takes her under her wing.

The bones of the film Argento created are still there, with Susie’s friends falling prey to an unseen evil but Guadagnino takes things further into more psychologically complex territory. With no male actors playing a major role in a film directed and written by men, the movie is completely void of a male point of view, a smart move made by Guadagnino and Kajganich to get out of the way of the imperious actresses hired to play their sinister characters. Suggesting the witchcraft at play is part of the undulating movements by the dance students and choreographed by Blanc, Guadagnino and Kajganich move away from our traditional thoughts of spells and sorcery.

As Susie, Johnson gets her best role to date, showing just how much the Fifty Shades series failed to utilize her strengths. Far more nuanced than the original character portrayed by Jessica Harper (who pops up in an important supporting role here), Johnson’s Susie is innocent but not naïve, green but not inexperienced, clever but not all-knowing. Where she begins at the start of the movie and where she ends are light years apart and Johnson skillfully takes us step by step through her journey. As Susie’s friend that begins to get more suspicious of her beloved academy and teachers, Mia Goth conveys a nice amount of terror as she becomes a target of evil and Moretz’s brief appearance fits in nicely with the paranoia of her character.

Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has populated the staff of the academy with brilliant European actresses, all notable stars in their own right. It’s Swinton who is given center stage in not one, not two, but three different roles and the performances are, as expected, brilliant. That Swinton could so believably play multiple parts (and ages, and genders) is another tribute to her willingness to lose herself entirely in a role. The filmmakers at first tried to deny she was playing more than her central role of Madame Blanc but it quickly become a well-known fact that she was also playing Klemperer. The third role she’s playing I leave it to you to find out on your own.

As a horror film, the movie delivers the shocks in several truly disturbing sequences that I’ve honestly had trouble shaking off. If you get woozy at the sight of blood this is definitely not the film for you as the last third of the movie is drenched in the red stuff. That being said, the violence is effective because it is so straight-forward and horrifying, some of it coming out of nowhere. A dynamite sequence interspersed with the troupe performing a new piece is a harrowing experience. There are also quiet moments, such as an outstanding epilogue that conjure the kind of emotions not usually felt in a horror movie.  Special mention must go to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for his first feature film score that is all moody creepiness and melds perfectly with several of Guadagnino’s uncompromising sequences.

As is the case with many of these overtly arty horror films, Suspiria isn’t for everyone…nor should it be. At 152 minutes it’s a commitment but one that I felt flew by in a flash. Your experience will likely be different than mine, but I’m hoping people go into this one with their eyes wide open, knowing it’s a challenging film on many levels. I found it to be a largely unforgettable winner and a loving homage to the 1977 original.

Movie Review ~ Beautiful Boy


The Facts
:

Synopsis:  Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years.

Stars: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Ryan

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: After so many landmark films about the perils of addiction have been made featuring numerous memorable performances, it takes a special story not to mention top flight actors and on-the-ball filmmakers to make the case for another entry. What is different about this story that sets it apart from what has come before? Where and what is the message? Is there a lesson to be learned? A final thought to hold tight to? It’s an uphill battle of questions for even the most talented of professionals to answer which is why the final take-away from Beautiful Boy is that it’s a respectably well made film of a story that feels too familiar.

Based on the popular memoirs from journalist David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy documents the journey both men go through as they deal with Nic’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. A child of divorce, Nic was a bright young man who became entangled with narcotics at a young age and continued to use through his attempts at going to college and after his various stints in rehab. Bouncing between his parents that tried in their own flawed way to pull their son out of his darkness, Nic (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name) continually hit rock bottom but couldn’t stay sober for long stretches of time. He becomes homeless, despondent, overdoses, and watches as friends (some of whom he brought into his drug orbit) overdose as well. It’s a pattern that repeats itself often throughout the film, to intentionally maddening results for David (Steve Carell, Foxcatcher), his wife (Maura Tierny, Insomnia), and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan, Goosebumps)

Chronicling this frustrating journey, screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion) effectively blends elements from both memoirs that give a narrative through line but never truly fleshes out the lasting effects Nic’s addiction has on the two men and the people in their lives.   I almost wish they had chosen one perspective to focus on and stuck with that or done a better job at sectioning off David’s story and telling that in parallel to Nic’s side of things at the same time. As it stands, we get bits of pieces of this long road the Sheff family traveled without being able to stop and explore the territory.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen (director of the stunning Oscar nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown), the movie is slow to get started but does have some highly effective moments when it starts to cut its own path. We’ve all seen movies about addiction but the recovery aspect isn’t something covered in detail that often. The film works best when we see Nic on the other side of his binges and trying to put his life back together. These passages work so well because when he eventually falls victim to his addictions again we feel that grief right along with everyone else. When David finally stops trying to aggressively parent Nic and treats him like an adult with consequences, it’s a powerful moment for him (and the actor playing him) – I wish there were more moments like this throughout the movie but they are few and far between.

As indicated, the performances are good but not totally revelatory. While I applaud Chalamet’s approach to the role I didn’t fully find myself immersed in his performance as I thought I would. So unforgettable in his Oscar-nominated role in Call Me By Your Name, his work here feels like aspiring actor effort instead of fully formed. He hits the notes and looks the part but doesn’t quite deliver from the inside. I have much the same issue with Carrell, though the comedic actor fares better because he’s given a less obvious arc toward ownership of his shortcomings to help his son. Carrell has more moments to shine and work though some of the pain David experienced as he struggles to be a considerate parent to his troubled son but also an attentive father to Nic’s young half siblings.   Ryan and especially Tierney provide strong support as well as the maternal figures in Nic (and, let’s be honest, David’s) life.

It’s Oscar season so it’s not hard to see why Beautiful Boy is being released near the end of the year. It feels like Oscar material that we’re supposed to like because it has so many prestige people involved. It’s a good film and one I’d ultimately recommend, but in several key areas it misses the mark to be something to consider in the “best of” lists critics and audiences are starting to make for themselves.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suspiria (2018)

Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the troupe’s artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Release Date: November 2, 2018

Thoughts: Whoa, this remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic looks far better and way more terrifying than I was expecting. Coming off of 2017’s lauded coming of age drama Call Me by Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino makes a major shift in tone for this creepy tale of a European dance company ruthlessly run by a coven of witches.  From this brief look, the feel of the film seems in line with Argento’s stylish masterpiece but also doesn’t come off like a carbon copy.  With stars Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Chloë Grace Moretz (The 5th Wave), and original star Jessica Harper top lining and buzz steadily building based on early screenings of key intense scenes, Suspiria is one fall film to keep your eye out for…and then cover them in fear.