Movie Review ~ Greta

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman befriends a lonely widow who’s harboring a dark and deadly agenda towards her.

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In my mid-teens, I used to love the made-for-TV movies that aired on the USA Television Network.  Remember those?  The modest thrillers featured an array of crazies (mothers, nannies, children, stalkers, stepfathers, etc) preying upon naïve chumps that were easily tricked and overpowered.  They were soapy, syrupy, and an absolute delight to devour on their own or in a weekend marathon where they would all start to blend together by the time Sunday night rolled around.  Watching the entertaining new thriller Greta, I found myself riding a wave of nostalgia because you don’t have to squint too hard to see that for all its handsome production values and A-list leads it’s just a gussied up made for cable movie.

Still grieving the loss of her mother, recent NYC transplant Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, Suspiria) hopes living in a new city with her college friend Erica (Maika Monroe, The 5th Wave) will help her move on.  Though she’s from Boston, Frances displays some downright Midwestern morals when she finds a purse left behind on the subway and returns it to Greta (Isabelle Huppert, Dead Man Down).  The lonely woman takes a liking to Frances and the two form a friendship that seemingly fills a void present in both of their lives.  Greta’s daughter doesn’t live close and Frances begins to enjoy spending time with the soft-spoken older woman.  That all changes when Frances discovers a secret about Greta that sets into motion a series of events revealing Greta’s true nature.

To say more about the second and third acts of Greta would be to give away some of the twists screenwriter Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, In Dreams) have waiting for audiences, most of which are telegraphed well in advance.  The film is exactly what you think it’s going to be and doesn’t stray too far from the path.  Usually, I’d huff and puff about this lack of originality but the way Greta unfolds is so nicely handled by Jordan and his actors that I found myself quite enjoying just going along for the intriguing ride.

The performances are actually the most surprising thing the movie has to offer.  It’s a great benefit that Jordan has Huppert in the title role because she brings her inherent oddity to the forefront and makes it her weapon to keep us on our toes.  We know from moment one there’s something off about her (and it seems like Frances does too) but Huppert’s sad eyes and wan smile nicely hide the rage boiling underneath her porcelain surface.  When she feels rejected by Frances she lashes out in unexpected ways, which creates an air of uncomfortable unpredictability and that’s a space Huppert seems to revel working in.

I often struggle with Moretz as an actress but her turn here feels like one of the most fully formed characters she’s tackled.  Frances has some emotional trauma that hasn’t healed and she can’t totally forgive her father (Colm Feore, The Prodigy) who appears to have moved on with his life.  Moretz wades through some of the heaviness in Wright’s script and brings forth a lonely girl in a big city that feels familiar and relatable.  We understand why she might eschew a night out drinking at a club with her party girl trust fund roommate for a quiet dinner with the widowed Greta.  And we also see why Greta’s betrayal of trust hurts her so much.

The slow boil of the first 45 minutes gives way to an increasingly hard to swallow turn of events that don’t always jibe from scene to scene.  At one point Moretz is kicking down a door with her bare foot and in the next shot she’s unable to break a window.  A character is introduced late in the proceedings for no good reason other than to up the danger ante for Frances and satisfy some unspoken violence quota.  And for a movie set in the modern day it mystifies me that Greta’s place of residence is so hard to find one character goes on what is essentially a needle in a haystack search instead of firing up Google Maps.

Jordan is a curious filmmaker with a resume that covers many genres.  He hasn’t had an outright thriller in a while but he wades into the waters quite well with interesting camera set-ups and pacing that keeps things moving along without accumulating much drag.  There are several suspenseful sequences staged with people in peril from dangers just outside the frame and it creates the desired tension.  For those that like blunt edges, there’s a bit of gore that shocks with glee.

Now that the Oscars have been given out and everyone has patted themselves on the back, it’s time to get back to business.  We made it through a particular rough January (Serenity – yikes!) and a February that saw some modest, but not huge, hits (Alita: Battle Angel, What Men Want) and before you knew it, March is upon us.  With a host of anticipated movies set for release in March, Greta is being released in a narrow window before the blockbusters arrive.  It may be getting a release without much fanfare but it’s a better film than it’s modest roll-out would have you believe. With noted caveats aside, this one is worth catching in theaters.

Movie Review ~ On the Basis of Sex


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights, and what she had to overcome in order to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Jack Reynor

Director: Mimi Leder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It seems that the ‘80s and ‘90s were the great heyday of the inspirational biopic.  These films all followed a similar formula, charting the genesis of a famous figure from history through key points in their lives.  Rarely did they tell us things that couldn’t be found by picking up a book written on the subject but there was a certain gauzy quaintness to them that felt comforting.  Actors taking on these famous names often were showered with awards (it’s largely where the term Oscar-bait came from) but when the blueprint became passé, filmmakers had to find new angles in their storytelling. Aside from a few brief flashes (Get on Up, for example) the old-school biopic machine has been shut-down.

I’d love to be able to report that On the Basis of Sex, found an interesting way to bring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story to the big screen but it’s stuck conforming to the mold of a straightforward retelling of specific moments in the history of a pioneering woman in the legal system.  Though it wisely narrows its focus to a dozen or so years in her early career, it still misses the mark in letting us see deeper into how the Brooklyn-born Ginsburg laid the early groundwork for a career that would see her elected to the Supreme Court and become an unlikely cultural icon.

Entering Harvard Law School in 1956 along with eight other women, Ruth (Felcity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) recognizes she has an uphill battle from the beginning when the Dean of students (Sam Waterston, Miss Sloane) asks her at a formal dinner why she feels she deserved a spot at the respected school that could have been taken by a man.  It’s the first of many misogynistic situations she’ll encounter throughout the ensuing decades as she attempts to join a law firm but barely can get in the door simply because she’s a woman.  Supported by her husband Martin (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name) in every endeavor, Ruth accepts a position as a professor of law at Rutgers and it’s there in 1970 when she comes across a case that will change the course of her career.

Working with the ACLU to combat a sex discrimination case against a man in Denver, CO, Ruth sees this as an opportunity to address the larger issue of numerous laws that are set-up to discriminate against women.  If she can prove that the man was discriminated against, it would help to put into record a new precedent that could be used to rewrite other laws that do not support the equality of women.  Though dogged at every step by the defense attorneys (Stephen Root, Life of the Party and Jack Reynor, Transformers: Age of Extinction) and even at times by her own friend within the ACLU (Justin Theroux, Bumblebee), Ruth soldiers on with the knowledge that the goal of impartiality between the sexes is worthy of the struggle.  Kathy Bates (The Boss) cameos in two scenes as famed lawyer Dorothy Kenyon – I would have liked to see her one more time.

I’m sure it was a benefit to the validity of the facts of the film knowing that On the Basis of Sex was written by Ruth’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman (and that she approved of the finished product will likely make future family gatherings tension-free) but one wonders what someone with less close ties to Ginsburg could have done with the material.  Ruth certainly isn’t shown without flaws but there’s an emotional guardedness to the movie that was unexpected.  I never quite warmed to any of the characters, even when they were supposedly giving inspirational speeches that were meant to elicit cheers.  The most impactful moment of the movie is it’s final shot (which I won’t spoil) but there needed to be more of these moments sprinkled along the way.

Originally set to star Natalie Portman as RBG, when the project took too long to get off the ground she departed and Oscar-nominee Jones joined the cast.  I liked her portrayal of RBG for the most part though the performance ultimately suffers from that aforementioned walled-off emotion the script doesn’t seem to want to grant any of the characters.  Her accent is a bit half-baked and she doesn’t quite look like RBG but it’s close enough to do the trick.  After playing the supportive wife in The Theory of Everything, it was nice to see the roles flipped and for her to have someone in her corner while she charted her own course.  Hammer is always a tad on the milquetoast side but this is the rare time when that passive quietness works in his favor.

Director Mimi Leder has put forth a well-executed period film that is technically sound and hums along nicely for two hours.  The audience I saw this with broke out into huge applause at the end and I saw some wiping away tears as we left so clearly it’s landed emotionally the way everyone had intended.  If I’m being honest, it lost me in some of the legal jargon at times, especially in the third act and I wish more time was spent on Ruth’s life between graduating Harvard and taking up her landmark case.  However, it’s clear there was only so much story to tell and Stiepleman was attentive to what he felt were the important details.  Those looking for a bigger picture view of the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (myself included) will likely want to check out the documentary RBG that was also released this year.

Movie Review ~ Boy Erased


The Facts
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Synopsis: The son of a Baptist preacher is forced to participate in a church-supported gay conversion program after being forcibly outed to his parents.

Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Joe Alwyn

Director: Joel Edgerton

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Based on the 2016 memoir from Garrard Conley, Boy Erased is not the first film in 2018 to tackle the tough subject of gay conversion therapy.  Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post came out in late summer and featured a similar storyline of a gay teenager sent by their parents to a religious based program orchestrated to “convert” LGBTQ youth to live lives as “straight” people.  I haven’t seen The Miseducation of Cameron Post yet but have a feeling I would have emerged from that screening much like I did from Boy Erased: sad, frustrated, angry.

After a long internal struggle Jared (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) has recently admitted to his parents that he has feelings toward men. His father (Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) is a preacher in Arkansas and obviously this news isn’t received with much compassion or understanding.  Told he can either leave his home and job or go to a program to help cure him of these impure thoughts, he’s half-heartedly agreed to the latter and has been sent to a program called Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy assessment in Texas. Accompanied by his mother (Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Jared will spend 12 days being evaluated by the staff along with other youths facing similar ultimatums.

At first, it seems like this is something Jared might actually have put some faith in.  He clearly feels what he feels but also knows that to be gay would change his relationship with his parents forever.  When the director of the program (Joel Edgerton, Midnight Special, who also adapted the Conley’s book and directed) starts to implement the teachings in increasingly destructive ways, Jared questions which life would be worse?  Living his true self and having the chance at happiness, or continuing to lie to everyone for the sake of his family.

There’s a lot of tricky terrain to navigate here but Edgerton keeps the material nicely above pithy melodrama by encouraging his talented cast to lean back in their efforts as opposed to latching on to each emphatic moment/revelation along the way.  The performances come across as natural and even the Arkansas twangs are nicely muted (Kidman’s hair has the biggest drawl of all), creating an environment that sometimes feels documentary-like.  There are times when Edgerton skates the edge of hitting us over the head (literally) with his message but overall the subject matter is presented without much editorializing.

Conley’s true tale is one of solitary survival and that’s brought nicely to the screen by Hedges in a sensitive and nuanced performance.  The movie flashes back and forth from the present when Jared is entering the conversion program to an earlier time when he’s still in high school and then further forward as he moves into college.  We see the first time he gets close to opening up to someone and wince as he undergoes a traumatic encounter with a co-ed friend (Joe Alwyn, Mary Queen of Scots) we originally think will turn out much differently.  When his coming out story seems to be cruelly told for him, it’s a painfully tense moment as he desperately attempts to find yet another way to cover up his dark secret.

As Jared’s parents, Australian mates Kidman and Crowe nicely play two sides of the religious coin.  Both love their son but one has a much more difficult journey in the path to acceptance.  Hedges shares wonderful scenes with both but it’s an exchange with Crowe late in the film that allows both characters to exorcise some long-standing issues in a most powerful way.  Crowe doesn’t have to do much but listen to Hedges but he conveys so much with his eyes and posture that he takes us on a mini-journey of the spirit in several minutes.  As in life, Edgerton doesn’t have his characters change overnight but instead he presents building blocks for a bridge between two opposing sides and lets the audience come along as the people build a pathway to understanding.

Like Beautiful Boy also released in 2018, Boy Erased is as much a look at the parents as it is about the children but in the end I found Boy Erased to be a more relatable film.  Whereas in Beautiful Boy the character at the center of the family drama was making a choice to continue in a life that was proving destructive, Boy Erased’s Jared had no choice in how he came into this world.  His journey to discovery felt more authentic and, in the end, cathartic to this viewer.

 

Rare Soap Box Moment: If you are gay or know someone that has struggled with being gay this movie will likely prove maddening.  How these types of programs are allowed to exist and are supported in numerous states is a terrible thing.  Knowing many of these have no basis in scientific fact and are still covered by health insurance is even worse.  Legislation needs to be in place to remove these programs from receiving any kind of substantiation in the medical or psychiatric because they are selling a false promise to people Being gay is not a choice but something you are born as.  No amount of therapy, prayer, or government funded programming can change that.

Movie Review ~ Mary Queen of Scots


The Facts
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Synopsis: Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: ‘Tis the season to be jolly…and to be faced with an onslaught of Oscar bait historical dramas that can arrive with hype but fade without much fanfare.  I mean, we’ve already seen what happened to Keira Knightley’s Collette earlier this fall.  Oh, you missed it in theaters?  So did I…and everyone else.  I sure hope Mary, Queen of Scots isn’t another 2018 victim of this reluctance by audiences in sitting for two hours for a period piece.  For all its historical fudging of the facts and obvious attempts to link the ill treatment of two powerful women in the past to our present state of living in a #MeToo and #TimesUp environment, this is a fantastically entertaining film that had this notorious watch-checker glued to the screen with nary a glance toward his timepiece.

I admit it’s been more than a hot minute since I’ve had a history lesson on the legacy of the English monarchy so I’m going on the good faith of the opening text that in 1561 young Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird) returned to her Scottish homeland.  Widowed by her husband, the Dauphin of France, she had a strong claim to the throne of England, then held by her first cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) but she wasn’t just able to waltz in and toss the crown on her head.  The Catholic Stuart posed a threat to the Protestant Elizabeth, not just in the religious differences of their subjects and not the least of which was that whoever produced a child first would be able to call the throne hers.

Over the next twenty six years the two women would wage a complex game of chess in which both moved players to the forefront for personal and political gain, only to be outwitted or strong-armed aside by the various men that conspired against the both of them.  “Men can be so cruel” Elizabeth is heard saying and in Beau Willimon’s script it’s clear that the men are the enemy (there’s not a single truly honorable bloke in the bunch) and women were kept under thumb despite their noble attempts to bring peace and order to their lands in the ways they, as monarchs, deemed correct.

Willimon’s experience as creator of the US adaptation of House of Cards was a good training ground for his work here.  The intricate political dealings between the two queens and their assembled privy councils make for some crackling good scenes of wit and retort and the heated arguments, desperate protestations, and whispered confidences come off well in the hands of our stars and the supporting players.  Even taking liberties with some historical points of interest and outright dreaming up a meeting with Mary and Elizabeth doesn’t feel as if a great historical injustice is being done.

First-time director Joise Rourke gives it her all in Mary, Queen of Scots, nicely blending costume drama (oh, those wonderful costumes by Alexandra Byrne, Thor!) and episodic schemes against Mary by the ones she holds closest. Originally courted by Lord Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite) as a favor to Elizabeth in the hopes she can control her cousin, Mary eventually weds Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden, Dunkrik) who has secrets of his own that come to light in one of several twists I was surprised to see. For those averse to staid costume drama, there are battle scenes with Mary leading a charge against an army set to overthrow her and double-crosses aplenty.

Ronan proves again she’s a force to be reckoned with, much like the doomed queen she is portraying. Headstrong (pun intended) but not without compassion, Ronan gives Mary a modern sensibility in a time and place where women may have had a regal title but rarely had the upper hand. Robbie, too, has strong moments in a role that could easily have delved into camp considering her prosthetic nose and the heavy clown make-up Elizabeth wore to cover-up the lasting scars of her pox ailment.

Filling out the cast are a stable full of actors playing Mary’s devoted ladies in waiting as well as Guy Pearce (Prometheus) as Elizabeth’s advisor and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as her confidante. The movie unquestionably belongs to our leading ladies and though the two actresses spend the majority of the film talking about one another, when they finally do meet up (in a scene that supposedly never really happened) Rourke gives the actresses room to breathe and resists the urge to lean into the catty nature Willimon’s script veers toward. The way cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan) moves his camera to create tension before the ladies first see each other had me on the edge of my seat.

History buffs may well reject this movie outright for its strident approach to the lives of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth but if you’re talking pure entertainment value then Mary, Queen of Scots has its head and heart in the right place.

Movie Review ~ Phantom Thread


The Facts
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Synopsis: Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: I have to say, for a few years there I was worried that Paul Thomas Anderson and I were going to have to part ways. The director of the stellar Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood had released the frustrating puzzlement that was The Master and then capped it all off with the dreadfully gauche Inherent Vice. Our relationship was on the rocks, no question. When it was announced that PTA was reuniting again with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis for an untitled tale set in the world of 1950’s fashion, I gotta say I was pretty intrigued.

Then, the worry set in. Oh no, another too serious contemplation on life that cine-snobs would drool over like the last slice of chocolate cake and the rest of us would scratch our heads at. PTA had taken filmgoers to some great places over his career but I didn’t get much out of the last two rides. Then the stakes were raised even higher when Day-Lewis (Lincoln) indicated Phantom Thread would be his last onscreen performance and he would retire from acting. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a movie. Not only does it have to be a nice bell for Day-Lewis to ring on his way out the door but it has to also hold up to the scrutiny of critics left wanting from PTA’s last efforts.

Almost immediately, my initial fears faded as Phantom Thread unspooled.

The House of Woodcock is a renowned couture house in London’s posh fashion district. With his intricate designs and supernatural attention to detail, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) has created a life and thriving business for himself and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, Maleficent) who runs the business side of things. A ‘confirmed bachelor’, Reynolds is a complicated man that has remained unchallenged for most of his adult life. Occasionally haunted by the ghost of his adored mother (literally and figuratively), he sees lasting female companionship as less important than finding inspiration in the fleeting beauty of the women that enter his place of business.

Still, there are women in his life and as the film opens his latest live-in lover/muse has come to the end of her tenure and is silently dispatched by Cyril while Reynolds enjoys a weekend getaway. It’s in the restaurant of a seaside village that he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a ruddy-faced lass that captivates him the moment she shows up to take his order. Acting on impulse, he invites her to dinner and, eventually, into his life. Alma’s arrival into The House of Woodcock creates a ripple effect that threatens to upset the balance of power between brother and sister as well as artist and muse.

In typical PTA fashion, an unspoken darkness begins to envelop the picture as it goes along and we’re never quite sure where these characters are going to end up. Following Alma as she acclimates to her new role as a kept woman who pushes the boundaries of her power, we’re treated to an inside view of the inner-workings of a high fashion house and their celebrity clientele. Royalty get the red carpet treatment from the House of Woodcock and, in an amusing episode, an aging boozy bride to be (Harriet Sansom Harris) pays a price for her very public drunken misuse of her one of a kind hand-made garment.

There is something so calming about the way PTA and Day-Lewis have constructed this multi-leveled central character. Reynolds is part mystery and part petulant child, always determined to get his way no matter who he has to bulldoze over. That attitude makes most people roll over for his every whim but not Cyril who, in one thrilling scene, takes her brother to task between sips of her morning tea. Day-Lewis and Manville work together like gangbusters, the closeness between siblings and their troubling co-dependency is evident, made even more complicated when other people enter the equation.

Krieps is a real find, going toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis (and, to a lesser extent, Manville) and keeping in step with her famously method screen partner. The final act of Phantom Thread calls on Krieps to scale a seemingly insurmountable mountain of a character flaw but climb it she does. Through audiences may be put off by some of her actions and attitude as she struggles to keep Reynolds close, there’s an oddball charm to her methods.  The dynamic between Alma and Cyril could have been explored just a smidge bit more, if only to have a few more scenes to showcase the terrific talents of Krieps and Manville.

PTA’s script is often terrifically witty when it’s not outright funny. This feels like his most accessible movie in ages and while I wouldn’t call it ‘audience pleasing’ it’s surely not the alienating watch some of his films have been over the last few years. Acting as his own cinematographer, the director captures the vibrancy of the era excellently displayed in Mark Tildesley’s (Trance) production design and Mark Bridges (Silver Linings Playbook) stunning period costumes. Special mention must also be made to Johnny Greenwood’s gorgeous score. Setting the mood of the film just as effectively as the writing and performances, it isn’t getting the attention it deserves considering the contribution it’s making.

Time will tell if Phantom Thread is truly the last time we’ll see Daniel Day-Lewis on the big screen. While I hope he’ll be enticed back if the part and process is right, if this is his swan song, it’s an amazing piece of farewell music to a career with few flaws. With its premium performances, well-constructed screenplay, patient direction, and sublime technical elements, Phantom Thread is one of the finest films of the year.

Movie Review ~ Darkest Hour

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  2017 has sure been a kind year for Winston Churchill.  The late prime minister of the UK has popped up on the small screen courtesy of John Lithgow’s award-winning supporting turn in Netflix’s The Crown, he’s mentioned favorably in Dunkirk and Their Finest, and now comes Darkest Hour where the spotlight is firmly on him.  Though in death (as in life) he has as many critics as he does fans, this is a man that clearly deserves a place in the annals of history.  Thanks to an incredible leading performance, strong direction, and a solid script, Darkest Hour is an entertaining pop-up book that’s much more than just a lesson from the past.

As the shadow of another World War looms over Europe, the British parliament is in upheaval and calling for the resignation of it’s current prime minister Neville Chamberlain (a sneering Ronald Pickup, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).  Hoping to suggest a replacement that will have enough of a rough go that his political party can sweep in to save the day, Chamberlain suggests to the King that Winston Churchill take his place.  Unliked since leading the failed Gallipoli Campaign during WWI, Churchill had been a strong voice against the Nazis back when no one was giving them or their leader much credence.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises) is leery about appointing a man he doesn’t trust but acquiesces.  Over the next several weeks Churchill steps into the role during a firestorm of opposition from every angle, eventually steering the government to reject any notions of proposed surrender to German forces.  In doing so, he gained the trust of the people as they banded together and rallied behind their sovereign nation at her most vulnerable time.

All this plot is easily accessible in your tattered history book from sixth grade but while the details haven’t changed, it’s in the telling that creates powerful filmmaking.  Director Joe Wright (Anna Karenina) has, as usual, crafted an intricate period film that’s striking in its detail and rousing in all the right places.  Working with Anthony McCarten’s (The Theory of Everything) sharp script, Wright keeps the film refreshingly nimble, making even stuffy parliament scenes crackle with energy.  Keeping his camera moving (with assistance from Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel), he stages wonderful scenes of overlapping dialogue that are not only informative but interesting to watch.

While most men in Churchill’s life gave him trouble (including a scheming Viscount Halifax played by Stephen Dillane, Zero Dark Thirty), according to Darkest Hour it’s two women that kept him in line during this difficult period.  His personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, Cinderella) starts off on the wrong foot with her demanding, persnickety boss but eventually develops into a confidant/cheerleader that he counted on.  Same goes for his steadfast wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) who isn’t afraid to point out to her husband when he’s out of line.  Scott Thomas and James are both excellent in their roles and have ample time to shine, though I often longed for more scenes with Churchill and his wife and less with Layton as the marital relationship felt that it had more of an edge.

All Wright has assembled would make for a strong film about Churchill but if he didn’t have someone to play the man himself it would have all been for naught.  Lucky for him (and us) that he hired Gary Oldman because that’s what sends Darkest Hour skyrocketing.  Oldman (RoboCop) gives the performance of his career (and what a career to begin with!) as Churchill, managing to work under superb prosthetics that transformed him into the historical figure but not letting the make-up do all the heavy lifting.  His acting radiates from within, never coming off as showboating or faux but as a real-life rendering of a man challenged to lead in a time of imminent darkness.  It’s just spectacular work and if he doesn’t win an Oscar for his efforts, well then, I just don’t know what to make of this crazy world anymore.

Special mention must be made to Kazuhiro Tsuji (Looper, The Place Beyond the Pines) for his stunning make-up work for Oldman.  It’s mighty difficult to age and fatten up the actor as he did but the seamless work should net Tsuji his first Oscar after two previous nominations.  Same goes for Jacqueline Durran’s (Beauty and the Beast) luxe costumes that manages to make even Churchill’s suits look chic.

I went into Darkest Hour not being totally in the mood for a history lesson and was surprised at how captivated I was for two hours.  Even for a story where we already know how things turn out, I was often on the edge of my seat and truly entranced by Wright’s vision and Oldman’s performance.  It’s not just a film made up of speechifying and hot air, it’s a thrilling examination of the forward momentum of a country that was cheered onward by a determined man.

Movie Review ~ Atomic Blonde


The Facts
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Synopsis: An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents.

Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Attila Árpa, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Director: David Leitch

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Pity the fool that crosses MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton and pity any audience member that second guesses the Oscar winner that plays her.  Producer and star Charlize Theron (Prometheus) has fashioned a whopper of a role for herself and assembled a crack team of players to go along for the arse-kicking adrenaline-fueled ride.  Even if Atomic Blonde doesn’t necessarily turn the Cold War spy thriller on its head, it sure gives it a helluva decent set of stylish somersaults.

Based on The Coldest City, a 2012 graphic novel written by Anthony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde is set in November 1989 during the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This is no history lesson, though, as is pointed out at the beginning of the pretzel-like plot in the center of the action film.  A MI6 agent stationed in Germany has been tasked with retrieving a watch with a list of double agents that could out several spies.  When he’s killed in action, his old flame/colleague (Theron) is been sent behind enemy lines to finish the job and find a double agent plaguing the agency.

Lorraine is barely out of the airport before she’s battling KGB agents aiming to take her out, sparring with a MI6 superior (James McAvoy, Split) who may be harboring rogue notions, and rendezvous-ing with a French beauty (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy) with secrets of her own.  All is not what is seems, however, as the twists start to come fast and furious during the final half of the picture.  Told in flashback by a battered and bruised Lorraine to two high-ranking officials (Toby Jones, Muppets Most Wanted and John Goodman, Patriots Day), Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay sometimes zigs when it should zag but overall it packs the requisite punch.

Speaking of punches…whoa.  Theron’s action sequences are of the intensely old-school rock ‘em and sock ‘em variety and they are downright thrilling.  Early toussels in a car winding through a tunnel, an apartment complex, and a stylishly cinematic brawl staged in a, well, a cinema are mere appetizing morsels for the extended battle royale grand feast.  Following Lorraine as she attempts to keep a key witness alive, director David Leitch (John Wick) makes the rumble in the East Berlin jungle  look like it was shot in one long take by cleverly disguising his cuts.  It’s not a showcase only for the filmmaker, though, as Theron smashingly bashes her way through a bunch of hapless goons down staircases and through abandoned rooms to a pulsing soundtrack of mid to late ‘80s classics.  Taking her licking, she keeps on ticking and gets believably shell-shocked, bloodied, and winded along the way.  Theron trained intensely for this role and it shows with every punch landed and every powerful kick to the chest she delivers, so much so that it’s hard to see when her stunt double steps in.

Were Theron not a producer of Atomic Blonde, I may have questioned some of the more risqué elements to the film as a product of some male ADHD fantasy featuring women in low cut blouses, high cut lingerie, or nothing at all.  However, it doesn’t feel wholly exploitative but likely in line with the source material and period setting…but on the other hand a little Theron on Boutella action has an sizable erotic charge in even its most chaste moments.

While we’re on the subject, poor Boutella is in her second summer film of 2017 that fails to capitalize on her engaging appeal.  After her mummy character played second banana to Tom Cruise in June she ends July without getting much to do but bed Theron and provide some necessary expository dialogue.  I kept waiting for her to pop in to help Theron out but, alas, the only one that seems to show up is McAvoy and his over-the-top shenanigans.

In films such as these where it’s essential for key plot points to be manipulated throughout so the twists, when revealed, have a greater “gotcha” vibe there never seems to be a satisfying resolution.  Thankfully, though Atomic Blonde has two endings too many the one it does close up shop on is a solid rounding off of any rough edges that remained.  A prequel graphic novel was released in 2016 so should this one detonate positively with audiences, it’s possible we’ll see Theron back in action in no time.  I’d welcome the return sooner rather than later.

Movie Review ~ The Danish Girl

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danish_girl

The Facts:

Synopsis: A fictitious love story inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I gotta say, I feel like the best way to enjoy The Danish Girl is to read nothing about it before and nothing about it after.  Reading nothing beforehand will help keep the story at the heart of the movie a secret for that much longer, allowing the rich performances to reveal themselves slowly.  Looking deeper into the real life events that led to the construction of the piece is bound to be disappointing as you learn how many liberties were taken with characters that have gained your trust over the previous two hours.

It was only after I’d seen The Danish Girl that I discovered the movie, adapted by Lucinda Coxon from David Ebershoff’s novel was a mostly fictitious retelling of the lives of Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.).  Artists in 1920’s Denmark, the movie presents the two as a lovely young couple that support their individual work and have an open honesty that allows them to speak truths both private and painful.  A more successful artist than his wife, Einar keeps painting the same landscape over and over again while Gerda struggles with finding her own voice through her canvas.

What begins as a silly bit of harmless dress-up uncovers a secret desire Einar has harbored that will change the path not only of his life and his marriage, but the path of many men and women in the decades that followed.  Einar spends time transitioning between himself and his female alter-ego, Lili Elbe, first behind closed doors and then in public until the line between the male side and female side is blurred and the choice to live one life becomes a necessity for survival.

An Oscar winner for his stellar work in 2014’s The Theory of Everything, Redmayne takes a similar immersive approach in his portrayal of Einar/Lili.  There’s no holding back when taking on a role with a certain set of requirements and Redmayne meets all of these challenges with believable grace and dignity.  Redmayne presents Einar/Lili not as a stereotype or freak of nature but of a human being struggling with a duality of identity that there is no precedent for.  It’s become cliché to call a performance brave but that’s simply what it is.

He’s matched step-by-step with Vikander’s layered performance as a wife supportive at the outset but who begins to have doubts as her marriage takes on a new direction and the question of what it means to be female is floated between the couple.  Some of her own value as a woman is examined and Vikander takes us through each one of these stages of transformation with a realistic hand.

Director Tom Hooper (reunited with his Les Miserables star Redmayne) is a bit too focused on the production design (which, by the way, is gorgeous from the intricate set design to the period perfect costumes) and less concerned with the narrative motion of the piece.  It’s teeters into a languid stage near its middle section when it should be ramping up its pace.

Then we get to the overall validity of the story being told and, I’m sorry to say, as important as the piece is it’s just not honest and the way the movie presents itself as truth is disappointing considering it’s a story about authenticity.  Taken as fact, the movie greatly misses the mark.  Taken as a work of fiction, The Danish Girl is a strongly acted work of revisionist history.  Here’s hoping that one day down the line a more fact-based retelling is attempted.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (June)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHastaWe 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.

June

If May was the month that studios dipped their toe in the summer waters, June was a time when they waded in up to their waists. The first weekend in June saw three high-profile releases, each catering to different audiences to mixed results.

After last summer’s disaster Tammy (my worst film of 2014) I was mighty suspicious of Spy, Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig’s action comedy. After having such success with Bridesmaids the duo reteamed for the underwhelming The Heat so it was a 50/50 shot at how well Spy would do. Lucky for us, it was McCarthy’s best performance to date and by far her most enjoyable film as a solo star. A great, game supporting cast helped make this highly entertaining.

I never watched HBO’s Entourage but felt like I knew what I was getting myself into when catching the big screen outing for the California guys navigating their way through Hollywood and a bevy of beautiful women. It was pretty on par with my expectations but I wasn’t lost in the wilderness with its plot. It was nicely made and an adequate diversion for the time I spent in the theater.

Scary films are usually left for early in the year or around Halloween but several studios were willing to gamble that audiences were ready to be spooked in the summer. First up this season was the third entry in a diminishing franchise:

                                                   Movie Review ~ Insidious: Chapter 3
insidious_chapter_three_ver6The Facts
:
Synopsis: A prequel set before the haunting of the Lambert family that reveals how gifted psychic Elise Rainier reluctantly agrees to use her ability to contact the dead in order to help a teenage girl who has been targeted by a dangerous supernatural entity.
Stars: Lin Shaye, Stefanie Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Hayley Kiyoko
Director: Leigh Whannell
Rated: PG-13
Running Length:  97 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I’ll say this for the third chapter of the Insidious franchise…it’s a lot better than the meandering second outing which strayed a tad too far away from its original mythology. A prequel to the two films, Chapter 3 focuses on a motherless girl that becomes the target of a pretty nasty specter of evil. It’s all fairly standard stuff but not quite as chilling as it thinks it is. The performances sat well with me and I loved that Lin Shaye, an actress that’s been in the biz for quite some time, was brought front and center because she ably carries the picture. I think it’s time to close the book on these films, and it didn’t go out as a total embarrassment…but it could have been handled better.

For some time now, the film I’d been most looking forward to was Jurassic World and on June 12 the film was released to thunderous acclaim from audiences and critics. It quickly broke box office records around the world and squashed any fears that the franchise had run its course. I loved it and happily saw it a second time in 3D IMAX, enjoying it even more on a repeat viewing. Now the wait begins for the next one…and I’m intrigued to see where it’s going next!

Halfway into June two dramas were released to good reviews but audiences didn’t quite seem to find them and I can only hope that they’ll find more success when they become more available via streaming services or rentals.

                                        Movie Review ~ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
me_and_earl_and_the_dying_girlThe Facts
:
Synopsis: High schooler Greg, who spends most of his time making parodies of classic movies with his co-worker Earl, finds his outlook forever altered after befriending a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
Stars: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, Bobb’E J. Thompson
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I hardly expected to well up with tears at a movie from the director of the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown and several episodes of American Horror Story. But I did. Eschewing the gauzy mawkishness of the disease of the week melodrama, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a creative tear jerker that will make your mascara run…but maybe for not the reasons you expect. It’s almost worth the price of admission to see the titles of the parodies of classic films that are produced by our lead characters…but there’s much more to love about this sweet, knowing film that had a tender heart around its rough edges. Very much worth your time.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Love & Mercy
love_and_mercyThe Facts
:
Synopsis: In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.
Stars: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks
Director: Bill Pohlad
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I almost let this one slip of out theaters before catching it and I’m so glad I did. It’s one of the best biopics (music or otherwise) that I’ve seen and features uniformly excellent performances…and this is an especially big accomplishment considering I’m not a fan of the three of the four lead actors. I normally find Paul Dano to be a bit like a marshmallow, puffy and flavorless but he presents a deeply nuanced portrait of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy that suffered from mental illness and madness for most of his life. His brilliance is expertly captured by Dano, less so by John Cusack as the elder Wilson that enters into a relationship with a car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) while being treated by a therapist (Paul Giamatti) with questionable morals. Banks is great as always and whatever annoyances Cusack, Giamatti, and Dano have provided in the past are forgiven in director Carl Pohlad’s riveting look into the mind of a troubled man.

Now that I think about it, June was a month with movies that gave my tear ducts a run for their money…never more so than the one two punch of Pixar’s latest and greatest.

Before Inside Out even started, I was wiping my cheeks thanks to their moving short Lava. Entirely set to the music of the Hawaiian islands, it’s a heartfelt tribute to love, dreams, and destiny. I bought the song from iTunes and yes, was moved to tears just listening to the beautiful melody again.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Inside Out

inside_out_ver13The Facts:
Synopsis: After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.
Stars: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Rated: PG
Running Length: 94 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Stumbling a bit in recent years by focusing more on sequels instead of original material, the genius minds at Pixar came back in full force with Inside Out, their little lesson to audiences young and old that having emotions and showing them is natural…and a good thing. It’s difficult to present a message like that in a way that will speak to young children as well as the adults in the room but by George they did it. Growing up isn’t easy and feeling the loss of childhood is painful, but the gentle hand guiding the film helps us come to terms with those emotions in the best and brightest way. The waterworks started early and kept on going through the credits. A lovely film.

STAY TUNED FOR JULY & AUGUST!

CHECK OUT MAY!

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The Danish Girl

danish_girl

Synopsis: The remarkable love story inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.

Release Date: November 27, 2015

Thoughts: Could Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) be the first actor in two decades to win back-to-back Oscars? Based solely on the trailer for The Danish Girl, it may just happen. I know, it’s bold to make that serious of a suggestion so early into the awards season and only going off a 2 ½ minute trailer…but this looks like a seriously majestic performance from the young actor. Based on the true story of one of the first male-to-female gender confirmation surgeries, it’s directed by Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) and co-stars Alicia Vikander (Ex-Machina, herself getting awards buzz), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall). With transgender people figuring so prominently into the mainstream media in the last few years, this long in development film feels timely and valuable.