Movie Review ~ Spirited

The Facts:

Synopsis: Each Christmas Eve, the Ghost of Christmas Present selects one dark soul to be reformed by a visit from three spirits. But this season, he picked the wrong Scrooge.
Stars: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani, Patrick Page, Tracy Morgan, Joe Tippett, Andrea Anders, Jen Tullock
Director: Sean Anders
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 127 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Before we journey through this Spirited review, I feel I must be transparent about a few things off the bat. That will help better frame how I came to this new musical re-telling of A Christmas Carol, one of the multitudes of versions of the Charles Dickens perennial classic. I love A Christmas Carol. I will watch a performance (or versions) of it every year and be struck by something new about the piece each time I see it. There’s a lesson to be learned from Dickens’s story of redemption, and my opinion is that the darker, the better. Let the story start from a deep, despairing place because the renewal of salvation Scrooge experiences at the end means much more; the takeaway is more impactful.

The next thing I’ll say is that I’m not generally a fan of either star of the film, Will Ferrell or Ryan Reynolds. Both actors trade in schtick, and while it has made them a boatload of money, it’s a schtick that’s beaten to death and quoted by those less talented on the delivery forever after. (“No really, I don’t need to hear that Anchorman bit again Kevin. Thank you.”) Each has occasionally struck out with work that has shown their acting chops, but to say they are comfortable with coasting along is putting it mildly. I also am not the biggest fan of Dear Evan Hansen, the multiple award-winning musical Spirited songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed for Broadway and helped adapt for the bomb-tastic 2021 musical. It even took me a second viewing to appreciate their Oscar-winning songwriting for 2017’s The Greatest Showman.

There was the dilemma I faced when Spirited was staring me down the other night. Dickens=good.  Ferrell/Reynolds=iffy.  Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) being third billed tipped the scale in the right direction, and I committed to at least starting the movie but not finishing it at that late hour. It’s rare in our house not to pause for a bathroom break or other distraction, but after the two hours was up and Spirited’s charming closing credit sequence was complete, my only regret wasn’t staying up past my bedtime but that I wasn’t able to see this joyous holiday entertainment on the biggest screen possible. (It’s in limited release now but widely available on AppleTV+ on November 18.)

Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home), Spirited takes the story we’re all familiar with (A Christmas Carol) and gives it a modern twist. Scrooge gets redeemed on his Christmas Eve night, but what about the next Christmas? And the one after that? And the one after that? The “haunt “business is a well-oiled machine and by the time we join the crew, Marley (Patrick Page, In the Heights) is running a tight ship. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani, Evil Eye), Present (Ferrell, Holmes & Watson), and Yet-To-Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan, The Boxtrolls, and physicalized by Loren Woods) get in, do their job, and pass their torch to the next on the schedule.

They’ve just completed their latest mission (a Karen-esque suburbanite played by a recognizable star), and are planning their next when Present suddenly turns his focus to Clint Briggs (Reynolds, Deadpool), a smarmy public relations exec that can spin any story (illustrated by Reynolds in a go-for-broke 11 o’clock musical number that comes around the 9:00 am mark). The only problem is Clint is classified as ‘Unredeemable’ and automatically excluded from the yearly haunt – but Present sees a challenge and, facing retirement, pushes Marley to take on Clint despite the warnings that their efforts will fail. Of course, they can’t know that Clint truly is as nasty as he looks and isn’t as easily rattled as the centuries of souls that came before him.

The screenplay (and songs) takes some unexpected turns, sometimes following the Dickens text but diverging enough, so you’re never sure where you’ll find yourself at given beats. That’s nice to find, especially for the experienced fans of A Christmas Carol, but also for those willing to let Ferrell and Reynolds try on a new side of themselves. Both are nicely musical and dance well, culminating in several smashing full-out dance numbers set to Pasek/Paul’s lively tunes and performed with dazzling choreography by Chloe Arnold. Sure, they start to sound the same after a while, and you won’t be turning the TV off humming them, but they’re clever and fun while you’re in it, and the old time pub song ‘Good Afternoon’ is a showstopping riot.

If the film drags its feet a little, it’s when we go down the rabbit hole of Clint’s past. That’s where we find good actors like Joe Tippett (Mr. Harrigan’s Phone), Andrea Anders (The Stepford Wives), & Jen Tullock (TV’s Severance) struggling with some saccharine dialogue (or, in Anders’s case, several bizarrely ugly wigs). So much effort is spent on the production numbers looking great, I wish more time were spent on the dramatic scenes being as tight. At least Spencer’s scenes are razor-sharp, and if you had seeing Spencer in a musical on your Christmas wish list, you could check that off now because she’s lovely in her few moments of musicality. Spencer is the epitome of the heart that Spirited is going for, so anytime she’s on screen, she has a way of centering everyone in the film.

There’s so little to offend here; I’d encourage you to block out the early negative buzz from some ‘unredeemable’ Scrooge-y critics who can’t see what the film is going for and ultimately achieves. It shows us a new way of approaching a story while at the same time illustrating the flaws we all examine in ourselves. The flaws can define us and make us embittered against the world, or we can take ownership of them and use them toward doing good. The message is clear, and sometimes, in the case of Spirited, it’s sung. This will be added to the holiday rotation in my home, no question.

Movie Review ~ The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Facts:  

Synopsis: A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power. 

Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Scott Subiono, Brian Thompson 

Director: Joel Coen 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 105 minutes 

TMMM Score: (9.5/10) 

Review:  I’ve written several reviews lately where I’ve had to go back and revisit my original reactions to hearing about the movie when it was initially announced – and more often than not find myself gorging on humble pie filled with my sticky words.  Basically, I’ve been proven wrong repeatedly and I’m not above admitting it.  The latest example is Joel Coen’s film version of William Shakespeare’s bloody The Tragedy of Macbeth, being released by A24 and AppleTV+.  More than any other Shakespeare, I feel as if I’ve been exposed to this work in one form or another often and questioned why Coen would use up his time on another telling as well as enlisting big-time Oscar winners Denzel Washington and his wife Frances McDormand to come along with the ride. 

I realized when the marketing machine for The Tragedy of Macbeth kicked off how wrong I was because here were two trained Shakespearean actors collaborating with a director that knows his way around a plot heavy with scheming and bloodshed.  Like the recent West Side Story and people being shocked that they ever doubted Steven Spielberg directing such a fantastic remake, why did I ever think this trio couldn’t pull it off?  Far more than fair and not the least bit foul, Coen’s take on Shakespeare’s savage tragedy is a feast for the eyes and ears. I may have thought I was over this particular play, but The Tragedy of Macbeth is so brilliantly done I can’t deny leaving feeling artistically revived.

It’s entirely possible the plot of the play, said to have been written around 1600, is still unfamiliar to some so let’s have a bit of a review session, shall we? 

After succeeding in battle, Macbeth (Washington, Flight) and his friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel, Les Misérables), both generals in the King’s army, are heading back home when both men receive a curious message about their future from a prophesizing stranger (Kathryn Hunter).  When they reach their destination, Macbeth conspires with his wife (McDormand, Nomadland) about the meaning of the stranger’s news that he would be King, eventually taking fortune into their own hands and seizing the throne through murderous acts that spiral out of control.  The ripple effect from each bloody event creates a new problem to be solved or truth to withhold, driving some to madness and others to flee.  Those that stay come face to face with their destiny in ways that were always meant to be if they had just heeded the original messages.

We’ve had a streamlined Macbeth before, as recently as 2015 with Justin Kurzel’s brutal and bloody take starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as one of literature’s most infamous couples.  I quite liked that interpretation, because aside from the luxe visuals and performances it showed that the bones of Shakespeare’s story could more than withstand excess meat being cut off the bone.  Coen takes his own slices off and the result works even better paired with Stefan Dechant’s (Welcome to Marwen) minimalist production design.  Shot entirely inside a studio without much effort to make it look otherwise, the effect is somehow even more chilling for its starkness due to the exposure the sets provide.  There’s little place to hide or mask your entrance so you better be ready for confrontation if you decide to go forth.

The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel (The Woman in the Window) is gorgeous in its risk-taking, the striking use of black and white achieves the correct effect for a story devoid of anything but “either/or” decisions.  Marvel at the simple yet intricate costumes by Mary Zophres (Interstellar), so breathtaking in their construction and clarity.  Then there are Washington and McDormand, turning in performances that best even their best, which I didn’t think was even possible.  When I think I’ve seen everything Washington has in his reserves, he comes up with something new.  McDormand I’ve learned to never underestimate and her attack on this most towering of roles is commendable.  The real star however is the brilliant Hunter as all three witches…and then some.  How this is accomplished should NOT be spoiled for you. I’ll only say it’s a smashing collaboration of actor and director, with assistance from numerous other departments.  Nominate her for an Oscar…it’s justly deserved.

For once, I think this is a movie where it doesn’t matter what size screen you see it on.  Don’t gasp, I’ll always want you to see it on the big screen (or the biggest screen in your home) but if you had to watch this on your laptop or phone, I don’t think The Tragedy of Macbeth would lose much in the clarity department.  Coen and his team of technical geniuses have made sure the movie is crisp as a new dollar bill, so you’ll be able to get everything out of it as Coen intends no matter how you happen to see it.  See it you must, though.  It’s one of the very best films of 2021.

Movie Review ~ On the Rocks

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The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Sofia Coppola

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

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

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

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

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

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