Movie Review ~ Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A loving mom becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Her leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Judy Greer, Emma Nelson, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I want to take this very public forum to officially chastise myself for not finishing Maria Semple’s popular bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette before the movie opened.  Though the release date for the film was delayed twice, I just never got around to completing what I heard was a fun read.  I literally carried the book around in my bag for months and it still was passed over in favor of other fiction I had on my list to get to.  Blame summer going too fast, blame a busy schedule, but definitely blame me for not getting my butt in gear.

I’m wondering if I had finished the book what I would think of the film version that’s finally seeing the light of day after the aforementioned release date shifts.  Some in Hollywood viewed this as a sign the movie was in trouble but others looked at its Oscar-nominated director, its Oscar-winning star, and the adaptation of the still popular novel as a slam dunk for a late summer sleeper hit, like Crazy Rich Asians was in about the same spot last year.  While I can’t say for sure if fans of the novel will be pleased, I can say that while the film isn’t an outright misfire and has a few spirited moments, it’s suffering from a curious lack of purpose, a feeling echoed by the titular character.

From the half of the book that I did read, the film seems to hew closely to Semple’s examination of Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) a middle-aged mother living with her successful husband Elgin (Billy Crudup, Jackie) and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in a dilapidated reform school on the outskirts of Seattle.  Unlike most mothers that have children at Bee’s prestigious school, Bernadette doesn’t have time for the PTA or social activities but instead prefers to stay in her home away from the outside world.  Her daughter is her best friend and her husband is her ally but not her confidant. Her only real connection is through Manjula, her assistant in India that is delegated much of the household planning.

When Bee reminds her parents they promised her she could have anything she wanted if she maintained her grades at school, she chooses a trip to Antarctica, which sets into motion a series of events that will change the Fox family forever.  Socially awkward Bernadette is terrified of the thought of leaving the comfort of home, bringing back memories of her life before Bee came along when she was a sought after architect whose brilliant designs made her a top name in the business.  Disappearing from her career after a highly publicized debacle, a meeting with a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying) opens up the wounds from the past right around the same time the family is about to leave for their trip.  What happens next is a journey of self-discovery not only for Bernadette but for the entire Fox clan…and disappointingly it’s not exactly the amusing mystery you think it’s going to be.

I find it fascinating that director Richard Linklater was attracted to this project.  Though Linklater has shown up in different genres over the years, most recently with the genius Boyhood in 2014 to the all-out fun of Everybody Wants Some! in 2016, he feels like an odd fit for a movie about a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The special charm the director has in eliciting the unexpected isn’t found here, even from the usually reliable Blanchett who can’t ever decide if she’s playing high drama or marginal camp.  It’s a quirky movie and I appreciated that it embraced some of its weirdness…but it didn’t go far enough in my book.  A key ingredient is just not there and it feels like the movie is held back because of it, never truly finding its footing, though it does feature several rather swell sequences.

At 103 minutes, I’m wondering if Semple’s comedic meditation on a woman feeling constrained and fleeing into the most unexpected of remote hiding places might have worked better with a little more heft to it.  Why not have it be a four or five episode mini-series on HBO or some streaming service that could have let Linklater and Blanchett breathe a bit more?  It doesn’t feel like a project that needed to be a feature film in any way.  There are enough supporting characters like Kristin Wiig’s (The Skeleton Twins) tightly-wound mom that can’t stand Bernadette, the strange appearance of Judy Greer (Halloween) feels like much of her performance was left on the cutting room floor, or any number of the small cameos from Linklater’s friends would have provide plentiful material to justify extra time.  Instead of going deeper in with Bernadette and her family, we only skim the surface and that doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.  What is there feels curtailed and constrained…Bee and Bernadette are supposedly close yet there are some major life events from Bernadette’s life Bee doesn’t know about?

Where the film does have strong points in calling out the struggles people feel at certain points in their life when they know they have so much going for them but can’t overcome some obstacle, be it real or imaginary.  They have the kindling and matches but can’t make the fire.  Bernadette knows she has a creative mind that is wasting away in her rundown manse but fear of repeating her past mistakes is keeping her locked away in the prison she’s made for herself.  There’s some good reflection of that very real feeling on display and for that, I give the movie much credit.  If only that clear message wasn’t surrounded by so many hazy tangents.

Movie Review ~ Jackie

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ve found that the mention of the Kennedy clan is, at this point in American culture, met with either exhaustion or adulation.  Countless documentaries have been made over the years and it seems like a new and noteworthy book finds its way to shelves every other month.  That doesn’t even count the movies.  So, suffice it to say, the woes of the Kennedy’s are known and easily accessible to anyone that cares to investigate further.

So why Jackie and why now?  We’ve seen the first lady portrayed on screens big and small (and even on stage in a one-woman show) but we’ve never seen it quite like this before.  Taking a page from recent biopics that focus on one small window of time in the life of a historical figure, Jackie is an exceedingly engaging film that welcomes us to stare and gawk at the tragedy that changed the direction of our nation.

Jumping back and forth and around and through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay pulls the attention away from the president to focus on Jackie herself and how her grief revealed a woman bolder and stronger than even her closest allies realized.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín may be an out of the box choice for this American as apple pie film but perhaps being un-enamored with the legendary Kennedy family was needed to tell this tale with such uprightness.

As Jackie, Natalie Portman (Thor: The Dark World) gives the performance of her career and gets my vote for Best Actress of 2016 for the way she buries herself in the role.  The funny thing is, you always know it’s Portman but you see and hear Jackie through and through.  I was worried that her pronounced Kennedy accent would be a distraction and, honestly, it is but mostly because no one else in the cast rises to the same level of technicality in their work.  Even so, the performance is bravely honest when it shows Jackie at her most brusquely direct and emotionally powerful when she lets her guard down and her sorrow bleeds through. Here is a woman that knew the power of media (visual and print) and made a point to stay in the public eye in the days after the assassination so no one would forget the price she and her children paid.  Though Portman is featured in gorgeous costumes and is always pristine (even when covered in blood), the performance lacks any kind of vanity.  Truly exceptional work is on display here.

With a leading role sketched with such skill, the supporting characters need to be on point too and for the most part Jackie’s support staff get the job done.  Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) is nicely understated as a White House staffer/confidant, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) plays a fictionalized reporter Oppenheim uses as a framing device and serves as the voice of the people, and John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) turns up late in the film as a priest attending to Jackie’s questions of faith.  The only major disappointment is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) sonorously taking on Bobby Kennedy with neither the accent, looks, or charm that is profoundly needed.  Sarsgaard sticks out like a sore, unconvincing thumb…especially in scenes featuring him with Jackie and JFK.

Along with Madeline Fontaine’s glorious costumes and Jean Rabasse’s beautifully articulate production design, Mica Levi (Under the Skin) has composed a most unusual and original score that you’re either going to love or hate.  Nearly always conveying a mood that is opposite to what is happening on screen, it gives another layer of depth to feature film about a family possessing public vs private personas that often are in competition with each other.

Audiences going to see another recreation of JFK’s assassination or conspiracy surrounding it are advised to steer clear as Jackie is about the woman behind the president and the storm she weathered behind closed White House doors while she remained strong in public for a nation in mourning

The Silver Bullet ~ Alien: Covenant

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Synopsis: The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it is actually a dark, dangerous world, whose sole inhabitant is the synthetic David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

Release Date:  May 19, 2017

Thoughts: Anticipation was high back in 2012 when director Ridley Scott’s mysterious Prometheus arrived veiled in secrecy.  Was it a prequel to Alien or wasn’t it?  Early previews gave few clues and neither Scott nor 20th Century Fox did much to fill in the blanks.  Prometheus sharply divided audiences and critics, some appreciating that Scott reached further back than mere prequel territory while others loathed it with a vitriol usually reserved for a Transformers sequel.  Personally, I loved it and saw it several times on the big screen; it’s cliffhanger ending only made me more curious about what would happen next.  The answer comes next May with Alien: Covenant and this first look is a neat (if overly gory/spoiler-y) intro to a film that looks very different than its predecessor.  Perhaps Scott (The Martian) and screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Spectre, Hugo) are trying to please the fans and detractors of Prometheus at the same time.  Riding that fine line would be good, I just hope they don’t overcompensate and make a faded copy of the original entry.  Aside from Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Noomi Rapace (Dead Man Down) returning in their roles, star Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) certainly is going full-on Ellen Ripley and I’m interested (and a little nervous) to see how actors like Danny McBride (This Is the End) and the recently added James Franco (Sausage Party) figure into the mix. It’s worth noting that Alien: Covenant was originally intended for a release in October 2017.  It was then moved up to August before settling into a prime summer release date in May.  That’s a very good sign of a studio confident they have something big…let’s hope so.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jackie

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Synopsis: Following the assassination of her husband, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Release Date: December 2, 2016

Thoughts: No matter how much people try to predict it, the Oscar season is always filled with twists and turns. A few months ago, Jackie wasn’t even on the radar for many pundits but it’s sneaking in at the last minute and could upset an already full Best Actress pool.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman’s (Thor: The Dark World) performance of the former first lady is getting raves but I’m already seeing the late night sketch shows parodying her Jackie accent. She’s dead-on with it, no question, but it takes a while to get used to. Co-starring Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Billy Crudup (Spotlight), and John Carroll Lynch (Hot Pursuit), look for Jackie to be part of the conversation as we move toward peak award season buzz.

The Silver Bullet ~ 20th Century Women

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Synopsis: The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s.

Release Date: December 25, 2016

Thoughts: If Annette Bening (Girl Most Likely) were to write an autobiography at this point in her career (which is far from it’s expiration date, btw) she might think about titling it “Always an Oscar Bridesmaid” because she’s been runner-up four times now.  Looking over who she’s lost to (Whoopi Goldberg, Hilary Swank {twice!}, Natalie Portman), I feel the right person always won…but it’s gotta be Bening’s time sometime…right?  Her latest bid arrives (with already good buzz for her nomination chances) with 20th Century Women, a 70s set drama about a trio of women and how they affect a young boy growing up in California.  Director Mike Mills guided Christopher Plummer to an Oscar win for Beginners — might he work the same magic for Bening?  Hope so.

Movie Review ~ Spotlight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup

Director: Tom McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: More than anything, Spotlight reminds us what true journalism used to look like.  In this day and age of up to the minute coverage that often relies on conjecture, I think we as a public have forgotten what it meant to do your homework, cite your sources, and deliver honest news.  Sensationalism may have sold more papers but it wasn’t the driving force behind most true-blue journalists.

That’s the overall message I took away from writer/director Tom McCarthy’s slow burn look into the investigative unit of the Boston Globe (the Spotlight team) that first uncovered the molestation scandal within the Boston Archdiocese.  Setting into motion a global outcry for justice, the members of the squad took their time in gathering information, pounding the pavement, asking the tough questions, and documenting the horrifying answers.

Drawing justified comparisons to All the President’s Men and filled with several genuinely troubling passages where shocking admissions of guilt are made as off the cuff remakrs, there’s nothing salacious on display.  If anything, audiences may start to pull their hair out that Spotlight didn’t come forward with their evidence sooner…but to jump the gun before all the facts had been hammered out would have left them open to doubt when there was little to be had.  They put their careers on the line to tell this story the right way and in doing so they likely saved lives.

Singling out any one person doesn’t feel fair because Spotlight is the very definition of an ensemble film.  McCarthy has cast his movie well starting with Michael Keaton (RoboCop) as the team lead that ultimately makes the call when they bring their findings forward.  Mark Ruffalo (Thanks for Sharing) is the impassioned champion of the down-trodden that wants to push forward even though his journalistic side tells him Keaton’s path is the right one.  Rachel McAdams (The Vow) underplays her role so much that the actress basically disappears inside herself while Liev Schrieber (Fading Gigolo) crackles as the editor-in-chief that prods Spotlight to keep going.

The film isn’t flashy or overly sentimental so as a whole it’s not as ingrained in my memory like other films I’ve seen in 2015.  It does have several moments, though, that are hauntingly present when anyone brings up the film.  It’s easy to see why it’s been heralded as one of the best films of 2015, it’s old-fashioned in construct and forward thinking it its execution.

The Silver Bullet ~ Spotlight

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Synopsis: The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Release Date: November 6, 2015

Thoughts: A drama that looks to be along the lines of All The President’s Men, Spotlight is a glimpse into the investigation by the Boston Globe that wound up exposing a now-famous cover-up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. This material could have been delivered in any number of cinematic ways and has been covered in one way or another in documentaries already…but director Tom McCarthy has assembled some top-tier talent for this dramatization. Oscar nominees Michael Keaton (Minions), Mark Ruffalo (Thanks for Sharing), and Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer) join Rachel McAdams (The Vow) and Liev Schreiber (Fading Gigolo) as journalists seeking to uncover the truth and dealing with the landslide of backlash. It’s an important story to tell and I’m hoping that the roster of stars on board bodes well for its overall success.