Movie Review ~ Breaking

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Marine Veteran Brian Brown-Easley is denied support from Veterans Affairs, financially desperate and running out of options, he takes a bank and several of its employees hostage, setting the stage for a tense confrontation with the police.
Stars: John Boyega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Nicole Beharie, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington, Selenis Leyva
Director: Abi Damaris Corbin
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  When an actor becomes so well associated with an established franchise, it can be challenging to break away and create an independent track of their own. Audiences are so used to finding one thing they like and sticking with it that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for actors to shed those preconceived ideas of their range even before they try to expand it. Daniel Radcliffe, Robert Pattinson, and Kristen Stewart are great examples of actors who have starred in movies with loyal fan bases yet have found ample work outside their franchise safety nets because they’ve chosen projects wisely. One could argue that Tom Holland represents the opposite end, a star that excels in his one lane but struggles to free himself of these confines when he tries something new.

First gaining attention in 2015 with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Boyega has had several opportunities to travel outside the galaxy of this established entity but hasn’t quite landed the proper role to date. Supporting roles in 2017’s Detroit and 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising were fine distractions between the final two Star Wars films but never afforded Boyega the leading man role he was ultimately after. After seven years, Boyega now has a significant part to tag on his resume, and the wait was worth it. Tackling a real-life story ripped from recent headlines, Breaking is a mighty movie boasting all-in performances from its talented cast. 

Former Marine Brian Brown-Easley (Boyega) has recently disputed with the VA over his disability check, which he depends on to pay his rent. He also made promises to his young daughter, who lives with his ex-wife (Olivia Washington, The Little Things), and has other daily life costs to consider. The $850 he is owed might not seem like a lot to the VA, but it makes all the difference to Brian. That’s how he winds up walking into the Atlanta Wells Fargo Bank and slips a note to Rosa (Selenis Leyva, The Place Beyond the Pines) telling her he has a bomb. He doesn’t want any of the bank’s money, he only wants the VA to return the money they took, and the matter will be solved.

Holding Rosa and bank manager Estel (Nicole Beharie, Miss Juneteenth) hostage as swarms of police gather outside, Brian calls the local news station to ensure his story is told. Talking to a reporter (Connie Britton, Promising Young Woman) and a hostage negotiator (Michael Kenneth Williams, Assassin’s Creed), Brian’s story comes out in pieces, and everyone learns more about the man behind the threats. Rosa and Estel understand Brian’s plight but also see the tensions rising around them. They work to diffuse a rapidly escalating standoff while tactical teams unfamiliar with the human behind the crime take their stations. 

Director Abi Damaris Corbin has much responsibility with Breaking in telling the story of Brian Brown-Easley.  What happened on that day in the Wells Fargo Bank and what led up to that event. Some eyewitness accounts are used, but the information is culled from those who knew Brian and could speak to the man he was before that fateful day. Corbin has a good partner in her leading man, providing Boyega a grand stage to do powerful work that calls to mind a young Denzel Washington. There’s a depth to the work and burrowing into the mind of Brian that is hard to achieve, but Boyega goes for it and succeeds with compassion and confidence.

A trio of terrific supporting performances aids Boyega throughout. I was so used to Levya playing a scheming prison inmate in Orange is the New Black; watching her be so vulnerable as a shell-shocked bank teller was a fantastic eye-opener. You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t seen (and liked) Beharie in some movie or television show over the last decade, and she doesn’t fail to cultivate more emotional sincerity here, either. For his final film role, the late Williams (who passed away in September 2021) is as on target as ever, sliding right into his hostage negotiator role and attempting to buddy up with Brian without coming on too strong. Williams was always a highlight of any project he worked on, and that’s the case here.

While reminiscent of Dog Day Afternoon, Breaking perhaps can’t sustain its energy as well as that earlier film. Even at 100 minutes, the movie does get a little saggy in the middle and starts to drag as it tries to pick up steam into its devastating final act. That’s too bad because it starts with such fire and purpose, but when it begins to circle back on itself and become repetitive, you know something is off in the narrative editing. It’s ultimately worth it for the performances and story being told and to witness Boyega getting the level up he’s been looking for – he’s earned it.

Movie Review ~ Summering


The Facts
:

Synopsis: As their last summer before middle school comes to a close, four best friends face the uncertainties of growing up and embark on their biggest adventure.
Stars: Lia Barnett, Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield, Sanai Victoria, Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe, Megan Mullally
Director: James Ponsoldt
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  On one of my social media accounts last week, I saw a friend posting pictures of their kids in full school attire with the caption, “First day of school!”. I checked the early August date and blinked a little in shock. August? What happened to kids having June, July, and August to…be kids? No more pencils, no more books, and all that jazz?   It just seemed too early for me, and I can only imagine what those kids must be feeling (or their parents!), and it made me remember my childhood. I thought about what it was like in those final weeks of summer and getting ready to say goodbye to the friends you made and/or got closer to as you had many adventures around your neighborhood.

Your enjoyment of Summering may rise or fall on how precious you hold your memories about that time in your life. Likely, your tolerance over its shortcomings will also play a factor. That’s the struggle with a movie as earnest and ready to do good as Summering. Some aspects of the film written by Benjamin Percy and James Ponsoldt (who also directs) are substantial, but too often, there’s a shapeless maudlin gauziness that overtakes it and can make it an unbearable film to get through. The film runs 85 minutes, but it might as well have been 185 minutes for how slow it creeps by when it should be soaring.

There’s early promise in the opening act when Ponsoldt and Percy introduce us to the four young girls enjoying a typical end-of-summer day. They’ve done almost everything there is to do around town (twice) and have made many ceremonial trips to their “Terabithia,” a tree where they place favored objects found on their escapades. On their latest Terabithia trek, Daisy (Lia Barnett) finds something else nearby…the body of a man that has likely fallen from the bridge several stories up. The corpse doesn’t scare the girls as much as it makes them curious to find out who the man was. With no wallet and few clues found on his person, they set out to find his identity but wind-up learning more about their individual differences that continue to develop.

What ultimately scuttles the movie is that these four intelligent girls (one with police officer Lake Bell as their mother) wouldn’t report this right away to the authorities. Examining the body, moving it, taking pictures of it, showing these pictures to people and asking if they know the man in the picture seems so out of touch with the sensitive and sensible kids we meet at the outset. True, Mari (Eden Grace Redfield, Home Again) was hesitant and even had the most trouble keeping it from her mom (Megan Mullally, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), but Dina (Madalen Mills, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) and Lola (Sanai Victoria) aren’t putting up a fight when Daisy sets them out on this quest.

Obvious comparisons to Stand by Me are unavoidable, and you have to wonder why the screenwriters would even position their film in the vicinity of that beloved classic. Four friends finding a body during the summer and exploring how it affects their lives is the thinnest of plot descriptions for both Summering and that 1986 Rob Reiner film. I spent far too much time trying to figure out if this was a reimagining of the original Stephen King novella or truly an original story. Aside from an extra layer of having the mothers featured as prominent characters, there’s little to suggest a viewing of Summering should replace Stand by Me.

Ponsoldt gained great acclaim directing 2013’s The Spectacular Now, which contained lovely performances and sincerity, but Summering is rarely spectacular ever. It’s hard to knock a movie aimed at pre-teen girls because so few movies (or studios, or directors) show interest in them, to begin with. Admirable though it is for Percy and Ponsoldt to spotlight four young actresses and surround them with a cast of conservatively familiar faces (Mullally does best, amiably pitching her role without feeling phony), I wish they had found a more powerful story to support them. 

Movie Review ~ Montana Story

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two estranged siblings return home to the sprawling ranch they once knew and loved, confronting a deep and bitter family legacy against a mythic American backdrop.
Stars: Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Gilbert Owuor, Kimberly Guerrero, Asivak Koostachin, Eugene Brave Rock, Rob Story, John Ludin, Kate Britton
Director: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  Pre-pandemic, theaters would have been able to dedicate room for a small movie like Montana Story.  It might not have played in the theater with the most seats or drawn as many viewers on opening weekend as the big studio film that occupied the other screens down the hall, but the target audience would eventually have found their way.  In today’s climate, the movie-goer that is right for this quiet picture will have trouble locating a showing in their area…if it’s even playing at all.  That’s a shame, too, because as promising as the box office returns have been for old-fashioned fare like Top Gun: Maverick and Downton Abbey: A New Era, the age of the tiny indie has all but vanished.

In that same breath, I’ll also admit that perhaps Montana Story is a bit too quiet for its own good.  The story of siblings reuniting at their family ranch as their divisive father lay dying in the next room is not easy to warm to.  It’s a chilly film for early summer that’s beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Enola Holmes) but only sporadically possesses the kind of forward momentum to keep the bitter winds from blistering your skin. 

On the outskirts of Montana, Cal (Owen Teague, Mary) arrives at his father’s sparse ranch after the patriarch suffers a debilitating stroke that has left him all but brain dead.  As his father is tended to by a nurse (Gilbert Owuor, No Man of God) and a long-time family friend/worker (Kimberly Guerrero, The Glorias), Cal has several significant decisions to make about the future of the farm and finances.  Erin (Haley Lu Richardson, Split) comes into the mix, Cal’s older half-sister, who hasn’t been heard from in nearly a decade, ever since she argued with her father and then disappeared overnight.

Wounded by her past, Erin finds a means of repressed salvation she can control after learning of Cal’s plans to put down a horse he can no longer care for.  Deciding she’ll take ownership and bring the horse back with her out East, Erin uses this new distraction to distance herself from the conflict she’ll never fully resolve with her father.  As the siblings reconnect and discover where life has taken them both, they’ll find new understanding in the power of letting go of the past so they can be free to carve out a future of their own design.

Writer/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have gathered a solid cast together for their tale that gets off to a good start but spins its wheels after about an hour.  I enjoyed the early scenes between Teague and Owuor, easy-going conversations that revealed small details of each that didn’t feel like the clear exposition they were.  Richardson comes in red hot, wound up with angst and trepidation at the situation she will find, which creates an exciting amount of energy.  Sadly, Richardson can’t easily maintain that level of performance, and pretty soon, every performance has flattened out like the prairie that stretches out before them.  It’s never quite a secret where the film is headed, but I thought it would get there in a less mundane way.

Marketing for Montana Story encourages audiences to “See it on the largest screen you can find,” and with the movie arriving right at the start of the summer movie season, you can still catch this one in theaters if you’re quick about it.  It’s worth a look on that scale if you can make it happen, but it’s not one I’d move mountains to get to either.  There’s a splendid simplicity to the vistas captured on camera, but the actual film slips into a gray dullness that could send you snoozing if you aren’t careful.

Movie Review ~ Infinite Storm

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a climber gets caught in a blizzard on Mount Washington, she encounters a stranded stranger and must get them both down the mountain before nightfall.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Billy Howle, Denis O’Hare, Parker Sawyers
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert
Rated: R
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Over time, I’ve found certain actresses that I gravitate toward because they have a quality, a spirit, that you can’t help wanting to get behind. Australian actress Naomi Watts is on that shortlist for me. Perhaps it’s because she’s a dedicated veteran that’s given it her all in films that haven’t allowed her to be painted into a corner. Most of the time, it’s yielded successful results, but it hasn’t brought her a golden trophy named Oscar she can rest on her mantle. It’s a goal I feel Watts tries to aim for, often blatantly, and the newest effort is the survival drama Infinite Storm. Whereas her traumatic performance in the pulverizing tsunami film 2012’s The Impossible last brought her to The Academy Awards, Infinite Storm will leave her (and audiences) out in the cold.

Not that Watts doesn’t, as usual, go for broke playing an experienced climber who works as a volunteer search and rescue operator that finds herself caught in an unexpected storm. Polish directors Malgorzata Szumowska & Michal Englert take their time getting Watts to her mountain, taking audiences through her morning routine, and chit-chat with a shop owner (Denis O’Hare, Dallas Buyers Club) before she zips up and heads out. It’s an otherwise ordinary journey up Mount Washington until the weather suddenly turns, and her instincts send her down to safety. She’s not faster than the storm, though, and she gets caught up in it, along with another mystery man (Billy Howle, Dunkirk) she runs into on her way down. Without the proper equipment, she has to do the work for both of them if either is to survive.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that there’s more to the film than what you see in the trailers, but I wish I could hint that it’s worth checking out. Even the first half, which should see pulses race as Watts kicks into survival mode, fail to quicken much, and it’s primarily due to a curious lack of connection between the actors with each other or the viewer. There’s not much to grab onto, so you’re left to flail around aimlessly. That makes for a tiring experience, made more exhausting by the screenplay from Josh Rollins that consists primarily of Watts saying her companion’s name ad infinitum. She says his name (John) so much that you almost start to hope one doesn’t make it down alive…almost.

Based on a true story drawn from Ty Gagne’s article, “High Places: Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue”, I wanted Infinite Storm to operate on a scale as impressive as some of Englert’s gorgeous cinematography. Too much is lost to a blizzard of histrionics that again keep Watts from finding a prime role of which she’s been deserving. Scale this mountain at your own risk.

INFINITE STORM will be available on demand starting April 12th

Rent or buy on all major platforms including Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play & Vudu.

Movie Review ~ Sundown (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Neil and Alice Bennett are the core of a wealthy family on vacation in Mexico until a distant emergency cuts their trip short. When one relative disrupts the family’s tight-knit order, simmering tensions rise to the fore.

Stars: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Iazua Larios, Henry Goodman, Albertine Kotting McMillan, Samuel Bottomley

Director: Michel Franco

Rated: R

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Perhaps it was the subzero temperatures plaguing the Midwest these past weeks, but the opening moments of the curiously hard to classify new film Sundown truly worked some magic spell on me. A family is on vacation in some unnamed tropical locale (later learned to be Acapulco) and not doing much of anything save for moving from one high-end deck chair near their private pool to another on the beach close to the ocean. Their luxury resort staff brings them drinks to sip, but they don’t seem to be savoring anything. It looks to the viewer that this is less a vacation and more of an obligation; what some of us would consider a significant expense is simply another posh stay in paradise.

It’s the quiet prelude to director Michel Franco’s introduction of the Bennett’s. They’re the ultra-rich barons of an empire built on an industry that deals in converting flesh to food, which explains why world-weary Neil (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) gradually starts seeing more hogs haunting him as the film progresses. It’s one of the very few insights I can offer you at the outset because Franco has constructed his story to be a puzzle with pieces that can fit together in many ways and I’m not about to tell you where to begin. As you may imagine, that approach can really start to provoke a frustrating response while you’re there in the moment and involved with these brittle characters for 75-ish minutes.

The Acapulco tranquility doesn’t last long, and soon Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samba) has boarded a plane with children Colin (Samuel Bottomley, Get Duked!) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan), and Neil stays behind to find his passport. Of course, Neil knows precisely where his passport is, but he’s taken this opportunity to break free of his family and take his type of vacation. Ditching the five-star service of his accommodations for an oceanside tourist trap, he takes up with a local woman (Iazua Larios, Apocalypto) and finds himself in the company of a group who show him a different side of his destination, one with unexpected dangers and lasting repercussions in his family.

I spent a good half of the film thinking it was a story heading in one direction, only to realize that it’s the opposite with one slight adjustment in information from Franco. Reframing a movie as aloof as Sundown when you’re nearly 2/3 of the way through requires some moxie. Still, Franco, Roth, and especially Gainsbourg (always interesting, always game to play) use that surge of energy via a quite breathtaking and breathless bit of filmmaking to propel the film into its final act. Sadly, I think the movie winds up losing its forward momentum again by the time it concludes. However, that it gets so close to the finish line without evaporating under its oppressive heft of Purpose (yes, that’s with a capital “P”) speaks volumes to its performances more than anything. 

Movie Review ~ Together

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A husband and wife are forced to re-evaluate themselves and their relationship through the reality of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Stars: James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan, Samuel Logan

Director: Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  With the delta variant nipping at our heels just as much of the world was starting to get back to, maybe not a sense of true normalcy, but at least some semblance of what that mask-less reality could be, it might be difficult to encourage audiences to invest 90 minutes in Together.  We all have our own version of what this past year was like; how it felt to go months without seeing friends and family, to watch as the number of people that died as the result of poor government planning and communal adherence to mandates rose exponentially, and how we started to fear the things we used to cherish like social gatherings, hugs, and face-to-face interactions.  Knowing that, did we need to watch the couple at the center of this heavy dramedy over the course of a year rehash that same journey?

Beginning in March of 2020 during the first days of the COVD-19 lockdown in the U.K., we meet “he” (James McAvoy, Glass) and “she” (Sharon Horgan, Game Night) a couple with a kid (always roaming around the background somewhere) who aren’t on the best of terms when the film starts. They’re not exactly thrilled to be sheltering in place together, but with limited time to plan and few options in which to continue to co-parent, they talk directly to the camera and explain the current state of affairs.  They also bicker…a lot.  If you’re averse to rapid-fire dialogue between arguing couples that has bite to it, best to steer clear of this acidic pair. 

As the months go by and the death toll rises, the two experience the lows of the darkest days when information was slim and slow to come as well as the highs of being forced to get to know one another again in a pressure-cooker situation.  It’s often two steps forward, one step back, though, because inevitably any goodwill built is dashed when either the man or the woman says something that makes the other bristle.  Real life tragedy enters the picture and the movie becomes a gripping glimpse at grief and the stages that follow the process and the processor of that emotion.  It’s all handled with a surprisingly light touch and what could have been a painful exposure of re-opening old wounds instead becomes a visit to the recent past through a wiser lens of knowing better.

I suppose you could skip Together if you really are at the end of your rope with pandemic talk, but I’d encourage you to bookmark this for a viewing later because there’s some wonderful work on display both in front of and behind the camera.  Directed by Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) who shares a co-directing credit with Justin Martin and written by Dennis Kelly (Black Sea), Together premiered in the UK as a television movie back in June, just a scant month after it’s 10-day shooting scheduled concluded.  Relying hard on monologues and fourth wall breaking to heighten the theatricality of the piece, it might also be tempting to write this off as a stage-y work better suited for a live audience, yet I never felt as if this was presented via the wrong medium.

What McAvoy and Horgan lack in physical chemistry they more than make up for in a sort of old-school “sparks flying”, anything you can do I can do better, one-upmanship and that comes across nicely throughout.  Just when you think McAvoy is getting the rosier side of a thorny subject, along comes Horgan with her own staggering monologue that puts her light years away from the razor-sharp comedy she’s known for.  Apart or together, the actors are riveting to watch and Daldry works with cinematographer Iain Struthers (Florence Foster Jenkins) to keep the movement of the camera smooth and minimal, unobtrusive in not breaking the flow of the words.

It’s a hard watch, I’m not going to lie, for a number of reasons, but none should preclude you from gathering to catch the film.  Though planned and broadcast as a television movie in the U.K., Together doesn’t have that waxy feel of British TV as it makes its way over to U.S. shores/audiences.  The performances alone make it worth a recommendation and that the actors have tackled a hot button topic and kept the flames stoked only makes it a more solid thumbs up in my book.

Movie Review ~ Dream Horse

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Welsh cleaner and bartender persuades her neighbors and friends to contribute financially to breed and rear a racehorse. The group’s unlikely investment plan pays off as the horse rises through the ranks and puts them in a race for the national championship.

Stars: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Joanna Page, Nicholas Farrell, Siân Phillips, Karl Johnson

Director: Euros Lyn

Rated: PG

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When settling down to watch this quaint, PG-rated bit of molasses, I suddenly felt the urge to seek out a skein of yarn and start to knit a very large, comfy sweater.  There’s something about the tiny Welsh village setting, gentle plot mechanics, and, if not vibrantly colorful, then slightly washed-out characters which just calls for a knit one, pearl two pattern to keep your hands busy.  It will at least keep your mind from drifting too far away from Dream Horse which feels like a movie that’s been around the track a few times and is almost ready to be put out to pasture.  However, like many final laps, this one rallies at the most important moments and reminds you why the structure has worked so well time after time.

I remember seeing ads for Dream Horse last year before all the release dates shifted and I give credit to its US distributor Bleecker Street for holding on to it a full year after it was originally due to come out.  They could have moved it to a streaming release like many of their higher profile releases (Supernova comes to mind) but instead they’ve let it out of the gate right as vaccinated audiences are being told they can head back to the theater (and follow the mask mandates).  While many viewers will be clamoring for the rock ‘em sock ‘em blockbuster titles, there are a good number who will see this one as a quieter bridge to ease their way into a picture larger than their TV with a soundsystem that goes just a little higher than the one they have in their living rooms.  That it works as a pure audience pleaser at its best moments doesn’t hurt either.

Ah, but does it ever take its time getting there!  I honestly wasn’t sure Dream Horse would ever move from a trot to a full gallop during its first hour which establishes the plan made by supermarket cashier Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) to form a racehorse syndicate among a group of villagers in Cefn Fforest, a former mining town in South Wales.  Her vision is to buy a mare and pair it with a thoroughbred racing stallion.  The foal the two horses would produce would be “owned” by the group who would front the costs for all of the expenses it cost to raise the horse.  When the horse grew into its potential, any profits from championships won would be divided among the neighbors.

The script from Neil McKay tends to move quickly over some of the finer details within this initial set-up and doesn’t bother filling in some other gaps along the way (Jan has two children who we never see or hear much of which have left her and husband Brian as empty nesters) and this can be frustrating to a viewer wanting to get more character bang for their buck.  What McKay and director Euros Lyn do like to spend time with is in the mundanity of syndicate meetings that follow the typical trajectory of Jan having to convince those initially hesitant to come onboard only to then almost be ousted from her own group that suddenly feels they know better. 

Often in these sporting films the “sport” winds up being the least interesting thing on screen but in Dream Horse it’s the opposite.  Just as I was thinking the film would be a disappointing misfire, albeit a well-performed and well-intentioned one, Lyn and cinematographer Erik Wilson (Paddington 2) stage the first of several races that will raise your blood pressure far more than you’d expect.  Add in Benjamin Woodgates (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) score which is equal parts rousing and relentless and it creates a feeling like you’re right there cheering from the sidelines.  It creates a dramatically different sensation than the rest of the film, one that invests in emotions almost by accident.

Although the actress is able to disappear into most any working-class role with ease, it’s not quite the performance from Collette I think is in her wheelhouse.  I just didn’t connect with her connection to the horse, only later on when you see how the horse represents something much more than we originally think does it begin to make sense.  During the film’s laudable closing credits (done with gusto in a music hall style sing along) we see some of the real people involved, making one appreciate how well Owen Teale (Tolkien) transformed into the rough and rumpled teddy bear husband of Jan…down to the set of teeth that look assembled from the Tooth Fairy’s junk drawer.  There’s perhaps one too many leads fighting for attention, meaning Damian Lewis (Run This Town) gets overshadowed (unintentionally) by Teale and a few of the more memorable residents of Cefn Fforest.

I’d be lying if I said the final twenty minutes of the movie didn’t aid in almost entirely erasing that first stodgy hour, so while it doesn’t totally wipe the slate clean, Dream Horse crosses the finish line in a well-earned position.  It will at least help others, like me, finish up some knitting projects that went by the wayside if they watch it at home.

Movie Review ~ Together Together

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When young loner Anna is hired as the surrogate for Matt, a single man in his 40s, the two strangers come to realize this unexpected relationship will quickly challenge their perceptions of connection, boundaries and the particulars of love.

Stars: Ed Helms, Patti Harrison, Rosalind Chao, Julio Torres, Tig Notaro, Nora Dunn, Fred Melamed, Sufe Bradshaw, Anna Konkle, Evan Jonigkeit, May Calamawy, Ellen Dubin

Director: Nikole Beckwith

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I don’t want you to run for the hills or race to the comment section when you read this next sentence, but here we go.  In the realm of pregnancy films, it’s time men get their due.  There, I said it, I stand by it, and now I’ll tell you why.   

Over the years in countless films, the male members of the cast have served purposes that have largely reflected on the time the film was made.  Early movies showed men as the sole breadwinner, the one that went to work all day and came home to a clean house with dinner on the table and the kids waiting to say hello before trotting off to bed.  Then came the fight for gender equality resulting in fathers slowly taking on a more balanced piece of the household puzzle.  When stay-at-home moms went back to work, the stay-at-home dad was born and a power balance shifted yet again.  All stages of this were reflected in some part on screens big and small but one thing was always the same: the nuclear family and parenting, with ideas of men raising children on their own by their own choice almost unheard of.  As the definition of “what makes a family” has changed, so have artistic representations of an even more detailed question, “what makes a parent?”. 

That’s the question that seems to be a tiny jumping off point for understanding why a rare gem like Together Together is so welcome and important a release in 2021.  Here we have a successful, stable, single-man approaching middle age (is mid ‘40s still considered middle age? I’d like a ruling on that.) who wants to be a father, hasn’t found the right woman, and decides to seek a surrogate to carry his child.  While this situation is not uncommon, it’s not heard of as often as a woman making similar plans so the people the man meets throughout the film almost have to hear the news twice to understand what they’ve just been told.   

Thankfully, writer/director Nikole Beckwith hasn’t set out to make an awkwardly educational film about gender norms and has instead crafted a genuine, heartfelt love story between two individuals that aren’t even a couple.  Matt (Ed Helms, Vacation) is an app-designer who has hired barista Anna (Patti Harrison, A Simple Favor) to be his surrogate for the child he’s always wanted.  In their first meeting, Beckwith stages Matt’s interview of Anna almost like a strange first date with him asking her questions and receiving the type of slightly off-the-mark responses that should be red flags but somehow seem less troublesome coming from the reserved but honest younger woman.  It’s in this first scene that Helms and Harrison demonstrate a red-hot chemistry, not in a sexual way, but in that friendship rapport which is nearly impossible to capture quite like they have done. 

As both navigate through the pregnancy, Beckwith approaches a number of familiar situations that might seem to be going one direction like every other baby comedy you’ve seen before, which the filmmaker then dovetails out of from the expected territory into new terrain at the last second.  Even when it does fall back on some stale jokes and bits that have been chewed over before in other movies (remnants from previous iterations of the screenplay, I’m sure), the performers are so alarmingly charming that you sort of don’t mind they’re playing for laughs off of material way past its expiration date for originality. 

I feel like I haven’t seen Helms a lot lately but it’s nice to find him back again and playing a regular guy that has some of the same fears and phobias all of us do that pass the big 4-0.  It would have been simple for Beckwith to write Matt with more neurosis about his age and relationship status (and even easier for Helms to play these character blips) but by making him so middle of the road it makes him more relatable to everyone watching, no matter what gender you have assigned to yourself.  The star turn here is clearly Harrison who I liked a lot more in this than I have in Hulu’s Shrill where she plays someone far more caustic and harder to warm to.  Anna has quite the fleet of baggage to drag behind her and Harrison isn’t afraid to show that strain wears on her after a while.  There’s a vulnerability to Anna that’s evident from the start and isn’t constantly hidden beneath a strong veneer, making the performance unique in its approach.   

While Helms and Harrison are two fantastic leads, they have some serious competition from their supporting cast, starting with Sufe Bradshaw (Star Trek) playing their ultrasound nurse who seems to be all business, until it’s time to get real with the couple once she notices a change in their interactions.  Bradshaw is assigned a similar version of the hilariously stern role she played in Veep but it’s the right choice for this observant character.  The deadpan Tig Notaro (Lucy in the Sky) works her magic on the few scenes she appears in as a therapist with the surrogacy program meant to help Matt and Anna with any emotional support they need along the way.  However, it’s Julio Torres that almost can’t help himself from stealing each and every minute of screen time he’s in as Jules, Anna’s moody co-worker.  A former writer for Saturday Night Live, Torres achieves high levels of laughs for his hysterical one-liners and non sequiturs.   

Clocking in at an ultra-trim 90 minutes, Together Together is one of the few movies you’ll hear me say I almost wish was a little longer.  Almost.  As it is, I think Beckwith has gauged the ebb and flow of the emotions of her characters correctly and timed a truly lovely and maybe even perfect finale to roll in at just the right time.  If you don’t get paired up with Together Together now, trust that you’ll find your way to it eventually through word of mouth or by your favorite streaming service suggesting it to you.  A winning combination of actors and script elevate this to a high recommendation. 

Movie Review ~ The World to Come

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Somewhere along the mid-19th century American East Coast frontier, two neighboring couples battle hardship and isolation, witnessed by a splendid yet testing landscape, challenging them both physically and psychologically.

Stars: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott

Director: Mona Fastvold

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  There’s something strange about the way that movies have treated the love affairs between women over the last few years (and probably longer) because it seems that they just can’t catch a break.  In films like Carol, The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite, etc. the passion and connection established is born in the midst of severe strife and is more often than not left unfulfilled.  This observance is nothing new to be sure and in fact it’s what many critics and even casual film fans have noted for a number of years as one of the chief rules of love between same sex couples onscreen.  There must be pain.  Loss is a given.  Happiness is rare.  It’s the guiding principle for screenwriting, it seems.

Here we are in February of a new year and already there’s another example to prove the case.  However, there’s a lot more problematic in The World to Come than the way it shows the relationship between two dreary farmer’s wives in the mid-19th century.  Unique in that it features beautiful cinematography that is at the same time strikingly dull to behold, the entire film feels like a quilt that’s been left outside overnight during a rainstorm that you now are asked to snuggle up with.  It’s chilly, musty, wet, and heavy, offering little in the way of comfort or care.  You certainly can’t see any intricates that went into the making of it because it has been overtaken by the elements.

Adapted by Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen from Shepard’s original short story, The World to Come creaks to life with Katherine Waterston croaking through stilted narration detailing farm life with her husband (Casey Affleck, Our Friend) in upstate New York.   Though meant to convey an old-tyme-y vibe, the dialogue often winds up sounding like an outdated script from a historical walking tour; a line about Affleck’s quiet farmer needing to fetch “calico” and “shoe leather” officially did me in.  This era of living was tough, to be sure, but Waterston’s (Inherent Vice) Abigail pitches her monotone line readings far too dreary from the jump, she’s so wrist-slittingly somber that you can’t blame Affleck as Dyer for withdrawing in favor of keeping his head down to work with the farm animals that at least acknowledge his presence.

A ray of fiery happiness arrives when Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) and Finney (Christopher Abbott, Possessor) rent the farm nearby.  Sensing a kinship with the outspoken woman, Abigail becomes fascinated with Tallie and the chance for connection at a deeper level.  That Tallie responds in kind makes each day a little brighter for Abigail and she finds a new reason for maintaining the farm and herself…even while Tallie struggles to keep her own husband happy.  Finney is different than Dyer in that the more Tallie retreats from him the more forceful he becomes, and the question gets to be how far can she pull away before he either lets her go one way or another?  As the women grow closer, the danger of being found out increases but they are emboldened by their newfound freedom of emotional joy.  It won’t last…and you know that’s not a spoiler.

Norwegian actor turned director Mona Fastvold seems to understand the key to the film is the bond between Abigail and Tallie but she forgets there needs to be some sort of knowledge of the men in their lives as well to make their clandestine relationship have essential meaning in turn.  Waterston is arguably the main character and there’s just a lot of her moping around the farm avoiding her husband and checking her invisible watch wondering where Tallie is.  That’s not the sweeping romance the ads for this movie are promising, let me assure you.  So it’s almost up to Kirby and Abbott to keep the fire of the film burning hot and they can’t stoke it all on their own.  They almost get there, almost, in a tense dinner scene near the end that tells us far more about their relationship in those few minutes than we’ve learned about Abigail and Dyer in the previous sixty.   Abbott’s character is quite the unrelenting pig of a husband and he’s gotten aces at playing these type of abhorrent men…maybe too good.  For me, it came down to Kirby as the one bright spot the film has to offer and it’s the single treasure The World to Come is entirely stingy with.  Whenever she’s onscreen, there’s some pulse to it, even if it’s faint.  However, when she’s absent the movie is cold as ice.

Filmed in Romania subbing for NY, cinematographer André Chemetoff gets some picturesque shots in but most of what we see comes off as less pastoral and fertile and more grubby and worked over.  Totally incongruous with the tone and images is musician Daniel Blumberg’s obtrusive score, giving off the feeling that the composer didn’t see the film he was contributing to.  It’s just another part of the overall puzzling nature of The World to Come, composed of a bunch of pieces that might work well in their own right but fail to form a complete picture.  More than anything, I’m just over these tortured love affairs for same sex couples…this feels like a construct that should be put out to pasture.  Let love win for once, I beg of you.

Movie Review ~ The Secrets We Keep

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In post-World War II America, a woman, rebuilding her life in the suburbs with her husband, kidnaps her neighbor and seeks vengeance for the heinous war crimes she believes he committed against her.

Stars: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Dean Vincent, Madison Paige Jones, Jeff Pope, David Maldonado, Ed Amatrudo, Ritchie Montgomery

Director: Yuval Adler

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  In 1990, playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote a charged play titled Death and The Maiden which centered on a former political prisoner that has started a new life with her husband in a remote part of the world.  Though it’s been years since her torture and rape at the hands of brutal guards, she remains haunted by her memories. When she believes she has run into one of her former captors by chance, she kidnaps him and enacts revenge…even though she isn’t totally sure he is the man who assaulted her those many years ago.  The play was a hit in London and Broadway before being turned into a 1994 movie from Roman Polanski starring Sigourney Weaver.

I was reminded of Death and the Maiden often while watching the new drama The Secrets We Keep because it shares many plot points with Dorfman’s earlier work.  Though it strays from the 1990 piece is several key areas, it almost feels like a slinky remake, albeit with less of a politicized edge than Dorfman implied and Polanski capitalized on.  Director and co-screenwriter Yuval Adler and his screenwriter collaborator Ryan Covington actually wind up treading on a lot of familiar ground here, producing a film that has a meaningful message at its core but is hampered by a clumsy delivery system.  Instead of truly delving into the dark areas it hints at, it opts to keep the night light on and avoid confronting anything seriously horrific.

Adler sets the film in 1959 anytown USA where housewife Maja (Noomi Rapace, Dead Man Down) lives with her doctor husband Lewis (Chris Messina, Live by Night) and son Patrick (Jackson Dean Vincent).  Their idyllic, post WWII town is thriving with a local refinery in full bore and an influx of returning veterans expanding their families.  The film has barely caught its breath when Maja hears a familiar whistle while lounging in the park with her son and follows the sound to a man that stirs a repressed memory.  A Romanian, Maja’s family was slaughtered by the Nazis and she was raped, along with her sister, by a gang of soldiers before escaping…the survivors guilt she harbors has been crippling and it all returns with that one whistle.

Convinced she has found one of the men that committed that heinous crime against her, she quickly puts together a plan to kidnap him and force him into confessing.  Turns out, Maja is quite resourceful and nabbing the unsuspecting man (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop) and getting him set-up in her basement isn’t all that difficult…but getting him to admit who he is will be.  With Lewis involved and her desperation to get the truth becoming more important than ever, Maja will resort to anything to uncover the truth.  Yet the question lingers, has Maja accused the wrong man?  Hints at psychiatric trauma and recent therapeutic sessions suggest there’s maybe a reason to doubt her recall of the events or call into question her judgement where her family is concerned.

Though the film is filled with numerous moments of supposed tension hinging on the discovery of a man trapped in the basement of this otherwise picturesque couple, I was surprised at how little energy the movie spends to create any kind of spark in anyone or anything.  There’s this general somber tone throughout and a drained-out color scheme that makes everything feel it’s either just coming back to life or about to take its last breath.  Rapace in particular looks so suspicious, you’d think she was hiding an entire football team and their grandmothers in her basement…she always looks rattled.  When she befriends the wife of the man (played by She Dies Tomorrow director Amy Seimetz with the kind of interesting mystery the entire film needed  more of) I kept waiting for the wife to ask her to blink twice if she needed help at home.

While the production design is solid and the costumes are more than just your usual pencil skits and trousers look, everything else just seems to tow the line…and that’s too bad because there’s an important story here waiting to be told.  Messina seems to be the one that’s hopped on the right train and knows where he’s headed and Kinnaman does too, for a bit, until the character has a shift that doesn’t get to be explored fully.  I always want to like Rapace more in films but possibly with the exception of 2012’s Prometheus she’s just never been as good or well represented as she was in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films in Sweden that made her famous.  While she’s well suited for the role, it ultimately proves to be another wrong fit for the actress.

The atrocious crimes committed by German Nazis against Jews and other marginalized Europeans during WWII have been explored and exploited by the entertainment industry for years by now.  It’s gotten to the point that the horrific rapes and murders depicted in the flashbacks seen in The Secrets We Keep are easy to chalk up alongside everyday crimes we’ve been desensitized to by the television and movies we watch.  I say that not to condemn the filmmakers of this film or any other with similar themes but to put into perspective how commonplace the acts portrayed within seem to have become…and make sure we never truly forget the real lives that were affected.  That’s one key area where the film succeeds, in detailing how this trauma can infest your entire life and the lives of others if not dealt with.