Movie Review ~ Promising Young Woman

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be — she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs from the past.

Stars: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown

Director: Emerald Fennell

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Allow me to be totally shallow for one brief review and talk about the impact of COVID on theaters, ok?  It’s completely inconsequential in the big picture, I know…but I have a point to make, I do!  Of the numerous things the pandemic has robbed movie goers of over the last year, the one I’m starting to miss the most is that word of mouth buzz that spreads like a low hum and reaches new places.  Stretching beyond the periphery of the regular film fan and past the casually interested film movie goer, there’s always a few movies each year that permeate the conversation in surprising ways and that’s just not a phenomenon that can occur when only a handful of theaters are open for limited business and most films are watched online.  Anticipated movies arrive and are forgotten, sucked into the vortex of the 24 hours news cycle.

It makes me sad to think about the watercooler conversations that would have been had over a razor-sharp film like Promising Young Woman and the way it obliterates your expectations at every turn.  The more you think you know about the characters, the further away from the truth you get and that’s due in no small part to the dynamic pairing of writer/director Emerald Fennell and star Carey Mulligan.  Together, the two women have delivered the best film of 2020 (in my opinion), one that holds its unblinking focus dead ahead on a prize some may feel isn’t worth winning.   It’s going to frustrate a lot of people as much as it electrifies others but there’s no denying it’s the most ‘alive’ film you’re going to see in quite some time.  Entertaining is probably too genial a word for it…it’s a Movie with a capital “M” and it gives you a full course meal to digest.

When we first see Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan, Far From the Madding Crowd), she’s in no condition to be out alone at a bar at last call.  Barely able to stand and definitely not in a position to give consent to anything other than a cab ride directly home, she’s instead offered a ride by a guy (Adam Brody, Ready or Not) who seems like a decent fellow at first…until he decides a detour to his apartment for a nightcap might be a better option.  It’s not.  What transpires between them in his bachelor pad is not going to be spoiled by me but he’s not the first man to pick up Cassie Thomas and regret it the next morning.  She’s gotten good at this.  He’s another name in a well-worn black book she keeps.  And there will be more.

By day, Cassie works at a coffee shop alongside Gail (Laverne Cox, Bad Hair), having dropped out of medical school for reasons that will become clear as the movie progresses.  Living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Like a Boss and Clancy Brown, Lady and the Tramp) who seem to keep their daughter at arm’s length by her request, Cassie’s life consists of working by day and roaming the bars at night.  These worlds co-mingle in surprising ways when she has a chance encounter with a former med school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham, The Big Sick) who asks her out.  Their date doesn’t just create a spark between them but adds fuel to a long-burning ember of revenge which comes alive again, setting Cassie on a wickedly twisted path forward in order to make good on a promise she made in the past.

To say more of the plot or what’s motivating Cassie would be to give away too much of Fennell’s fantastic first feature film, a boffo debut being made after cutting her teeth on high-profile work as the showrunner and writer of the second season of Killing Eve.  I wasn’t crazy about where that show went with its sophomore season, but Fennell nails her outing on the big screen, creating a project with the darkest of corners to venture into and making even the sunnier stretches have an ominous haze hanging over it.  Take for example Cassie’s lunch reunion with the HBIC of her college class (Alison Brie, The Rental) that’s now a suburban mom and watch how it turns into a potentially dangerous encounter for one of them after several glasses of wine.  That’s nothing compared to what Cassie dreams up for a former teacher (Connie Britton, American Ultra) that’s now the Dean of her almost alma-mater.  You don’t generally see women taking this kind of advantage of other women in film, but Fennell doesn’t let anyone off the hook for wrongdoing…and trust when I say anyone.

With several Britney Spears songs included in the soundtrack and one chilling all-string version of ‘Toxic’ that sets-up the blistering final act, it’s no coincidence Mulligan has been styled to look like a doppelgänger of the singer.  There are times when she looks so much like the one-time pop princess that I actually had to close my eyes and shake my head to remind myself it wasn’t her.  The resemblance is just…uncanny.  Her commitment to the role is extraordinary and she’s tasked with taking a woman with complications that could be seen as the problem and making the audience root for her.  If this was told from a different perspective, her character would be seen as the villain, but it never comes across that way in this narrative and it’s because Mulligan keeps Cassie understandably aggravated at her inability to effect change in the usual way…so she resorts to her own methods to yield the desired results.  In some bizarre way, it makes her more relatable than most of the “good” people in films.  It’s a performance that has layers you can peel back for days, one of the absolute best of 2020.

The supporting cast that’s featured in roles that range from cameos to vital parts of the plot are also 10s across the board, from Burnham’s mild-mannered and lovable potential mate to Molly Shannon (Hotel Transylvania 2) in a brief turn as the mother of someone that plays a key part in Cassie’s plan.  Even the men that show up as the ones we’re supposed to loathe (I’m not going to name them just in case it goes into spoiler territory) are well done for their carefully balanced methods of keeping them arch enough to be a bit cartoon-ish but also realistic enough to fear them should they ever get the upper hand.  There’s not a bad apple in the bunch but all are playing fourth fiddle to Mulligan who could probably play the entire orchestra on her own without breaking a sweat.

It’s been two months now since I’ve seen Promising Young Woman and it made the #1 spot on my Best of 2020 list based on it’s staying power for ping-ponging around in my head all this time.  It’s such a brilliantly made film that breaks down some key barriers between men and women and the lengths people will go to get what they want.  What some people will shrug off in a man’s actions, they object to in a woman’s and vice versa.  Fennell takes aim at these antiquated notions and levels the playing field with a cautionary tale of the true price of revenge.  Don’t you dare pass it up.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Inside Llewyn Davis

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I went into Inside Llewyn Davis with a bit of trepidation at the thought of two hours of melancholy set to a folk music score.  You see, I don’t seem to have it in my bones to have quite the love affair with the Coen Brothers as most dedicated cinephiles do.  For every homerun they hit (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Blood Simple) they produce their fair share of fouls (Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty) as well.

It tends to go that for every great Coen film, two mediocre ones follow and with their last picture being 2010’s commendable remake of True Grit I was expecting to be disappointed in their latest creation.  While Inside Llewyn Davis may have won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, it isn’t pitch perfect but I found it to resonate in the right spots.

Llewyn Davis is a young-ish folk singer in New York in the early 60’s trying to strike out on his own after his former singing partner tosses himself off a bridge.  Playing in smoky clubs with names like The Gaslight Café and the Gate of Horn, he’s clearly a talented singer but his general ‘why not me’ attitude has soured him and alienated him from friends and family.  Over the course of the week we get to know Llewyn we see him make all sorts of personal and professional mistakes in a journey that proves to be less about gaining a greater self awareness of past wrongs and more about an inner awakening of the direction his life is headed.

The screenplay by co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen is pretty maudlin and curiously lacking the usual crackle they instill in their dialogue.  Even with that spitfire patter absent, the film is dryly funny with many scenes soaked through with an acidly salty banter between Llewyn and the like.

As our titular anti-hero, Oscar Isaac (Won’t Back Down, The Bourne Legacy) possesses a helluva voice that fits perfectly into the folksy tunes compiled by dynamo music producer T-Bone Burnett.  Each scene seems to have a song to go with it and the film is most surely at its assured best when Isaac, Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby), Justin Timberlake (Runner Runner), and Stark Sands (Broadway’s Kinky Boots) are plaintively singing in their quiet way.  I’m not a huge folk music aficionado but these music sequences (all set realistically and not staged like a musical) were the moments I was truly transported within the film.  The songs are so good, in fact, that the movie could have excised all the dialogue and just kept the songs to tell the story and the effect would be the same.

Where the film struggles are the moments between the songs when the situations get a bit routine.  Though a wayward road trip with John Goodman (Flight, Argo, ParaNorman, Stella) and Garrett Hedlund  has moments that exemplify the quirkiness that put the Coen Brothers on the map, too often we’re treated to the same incidents were Llewyn screws up and is reprimanded…usually by a woman so it comes across as mundane brow beating.

Though the film is fairly somber, I left with a song in my step feeling more refreshed than I have at other Coen films.  Like all of their films it’s a quiet affair best taken in in some small dinky theater with sticky floors and non-stadium seating…exactly the opposite of the refurbished classic theater I saw it in.  Even so, this earns a recommendation for Isaac’s strong leading performance and a soundtrack you’ll want to get your ears on pronto.

Movie Review ~ The Great Gatsby (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Adelaide Clemens

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

Trailer Review:  Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It would be hard to graduate high school without having had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby”.  A treasured tome for some and a hollow warning on the price of the American dream to others, the novel wasn’t a success when it was first released and only became popular after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940.  Over the years it’s been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) but the key core of the novel’s brilliance has never been truly captured accurately.

This 2013 version of The Great Gatsby also misses the mark of what made has made the novel so timeless but it does capture the mood and feel of the era the best of any previous incarnations of the work.  Yes, it’s over the top, flashy, and delirious at times…but so were the roaring 20’s!  Director Baz Lurhmann has been faithful to the book as much as possible and utilized a well conditioned cast to the best of all of their collective abilities.

It’s the summer of 1922 and NYC is in the middle of Prohibition and right on the cusp of some major social change.  The days of wine and roses are numbered with The Great Depression right around the corner but no one is the wiser as they roll down their stockings, bob their hair, spend money like there’s no tomorrow, and dance the night away in speakeasies and at Jay Gatsby’s massive Long Island mansion.

Our narrator/moral center is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and as the film opens he’s relating a story of love and loss from the icy confines of a sanitarium.  Unable to bring himself to speak the words, he begins to write and so truly begins the story of how he found himself a bystander to a doomed love triangle between his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained), his cousi Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis), and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty).

All of the elements from Fitzgerald’s novel come to life under the stellar work of production designer Catherine Martin (who also designed the jaw dropping costumes and happens to be Mrs. Lurhmann).  The green light that sits at the end of the Buchanan’s dock and acts as a beacon to Gatsby across the bay, the watchful billboard of a forgotten optometrist, even the classic lines and descriptive phrases are nicely incorporated courtesy of Lurhmann and Craig Pearce’s everything but the kitchen sink script.

That being said, even with everything in place there’s a severe lack of “the underneath” as I like to call it.  While the characters move around this gossamer landscape enacting acts of love and revenge, there’s precious little sympathy for any of them…which is largely the way Fitzgerald wrote them.  That may be hard for some people to get over when watching the film but Fitzgerald didn’t see these people as heroes in need of salvation but as indictments of the time and place in which they flourished.  Even so, I kept wishing there was more blood and guts on display rather than just flesh and bone.

Strangely, I’m not usually a fan of most of the leads in The Great Gatsby.  DiCaprio is constantly mentioned as one of our great actors and while I can give it to him that he’s turned in solid work in the last decade I haven’t thought his work was that underappreciated.  He was refreshing in Django Unchained and should have nabbed an Oscar nomination for his efforts but it’s with The Great Gatsby that I finally saw in DiCaprio the actor that I think he should be.  The haunted and deeply fragile Gatsby seems the most natural fit for DiCaprio and he’s quite acceptable in the part.

Mulligan is making a habit of playing these delicate, bird-like characters and this just seems another exercise with Mulligan using the tricks she’s accumulated in her cinematic wheelhouse.  Though I think she’s ultimately well cast, those familiar with her work won’t see anything truly new.  DiCaprio’s best friend Maguire is well suited for playing the closest thing Gatsby has to a best friend and thankfully ditches his puppy-dog mumble technique to really deliver as the flawed narrator of the piece that isn’t so innocent in what happens over the course of the film.

Edgerton makes a strong showing as Tom Buchanan, a man that doesn’t appreciate what he has until it’s nearly gone.  Though having an affair with a mechanic’s wife (Isla Fischer who’s better here than she is in Now You See Me), he clings to Daisy when he sees her getting close to Gatsby.  Ultimately, Tom sets into motion the tragic final act of the piece involving the mechanic (Jason Clarke, so good in Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless), all the while knowing what the outcome will be.

Special mention needs to be made for Elizabeth Debicki’s strong supporting work as golf pro Jordan Baker, a friend to the Buchanan’s, Gatsby, and Nick.  Though she could be viewed as working all sides, in Debicki’s capable hands the role is smoothed out and is the best representation of a character that would believably be living and breathing during the 20’s.  Keep an eye on this actress, she’s fascinating to watch.

Much has been made of Lurhmann teaming with rapper Jay-Z to bring a modern sound to the film and I was nervous after hearing early reports that the film was sidelined by its soundtrack.  So I was happy to see (well, hear) that the music is worked in rather unobtrusively to the film and in some cases works to heighten the happenings onscreen.  Lana Del Rey’s spine chilling “Young and Beautiful” is laced into several scenes in a few different iterations, its lyrics and sound perfectly capturing the longing and fears of our characters.  Other efforts, like Beyonce’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” don’t land right but that’s the problem of the re-working of the song not the movie.

Filmed in 3D, the first half of the movie is very much like previous Lurhamann efforts…meaning that it’s fast edited within an inch of its life.  The editing really represents what’s happening on screen because the first part is a fever dream of excess and confusion.  When Gatsby and Daisy are reunited (in a scene that I’ll admit had my pulse racing) the movie settles down and only works itself up again as it careens into its finale.

Though it was brought to television in a 2000 effort starring Mira Sorvino, the last time Gatsby was on screen was in 1974 starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  While that sounds like ideal casting, the final effort was a dreadful bore – it’s 1 minute longer than this version but feels like an hour.  Though this still isn’t the perfect Gatsby, for me it’s dang close.  Still without a vibrantly beating heart, the movie swirls and twirls around you and is more engaging than you might think.  Ultimately, it’s a film that’s been on my mind a lot in the last few days and one that is worth seeing in the theaters.

The Silver Bullet ~ Inside Llewyn Davis

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Synopsis: A singer-songwriter navigates New York’s folk music scene during the 1960s.

Release Date:  December 6, 2013

Thoughts: Just hearing the Coen Brothers names sends most cinephiles into a delirious ecstasy of some certain magnitude.  The oddball films the brothers have created over the last three decades have scored high points with critics and audiences alike and though each film isn’t a winner (I’ve found they have a 50/50 success rate) there’s something to be said for their particular style that’s instantly recognizable.  Their newest feature is Inside Llewyn Davis and if the first preview is any indication, it’s classic Coen through and through.  Though John Goodman (Flight, Argo, Stella) gets some nice laughs I found myself sinking lower and lower in my seat because I feel it’s a film I’m going to enjoy in a sideways sorta way – one I’ll appreciate but not love.  Highly anticipated, expect this one to be on the Oscar watch list when it’s released in December.