Movie Review ~ Harriet


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

Stars: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Zackary Momoh, Deborah Ayorinde, Vondie Curtis-Hall

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Rated: PG-13 minutes

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s been over 40 years since the last time there was a movie about the life of Harriet Tubman.  I had to check to make sure because I couldn’t quite believe her story hadn’t been told at length on film since the 1978 television movie A Woman Called Moses starring Cicely Tyson.  Yet, it’s true.   Though Tubman has had a bit of a resurgence in the last few years having been featured on the now-cancelled series Underground and was chosen to replace notorious slave-owner Andrew Jackson on the $20 in 202 (though those plans have now been put on hold because the current administration happens to like Jackson where he is), she’s been out of the verified mainstream for too long.

It’s been some time since I was in an American History class and I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know as much as I should about the key players in the Underground Railroad movement that helped so many slaves move toward freedom.  Tubman is one of the most well-known conductors on the Underground Railroad, that much I did know, but how she came to become a part of that network was an educational lesson I sorely needed a refresher course on.  While I know it plays a little fast and loose with the timeline, the new biographical drama Harriet, is a straight-forward depiction of Tubman’s life as she escaped from slavery in Maryland and made her way to safety in Philadelphia.

Beginning shortly before she flees the plantation she’s lived on with her parents and siblings since she was a child, we meet Harriet (Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale) as she’s having one of her “spells”. Suffering a head injury when she was young, she often will fall into a trance like state where she’ll receive visions she interprets as guidance by a higher power of things to come.  Married to a free man, Harriet wishes to be free herself and have children born outside the burden of slavery but when she’s denied that right and is put up for sale by Gideeon (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) the smarmy son of her late master, she knows she has to take freedom into her own hands even if that means leaving everything she loves behind.  A well-staged escape is designed for audiences to lean forward in their seats, even though we know the outcome.  Her eventual first step to freedom is the first of many moving moments in the film.

Director Kasi Lemmons (who had supporting roles in Candyman and The Silence of the Lambs before turning to directing) wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) and the two manage to pack a lot of events into a trim 125 minutes.  Obviously, this can’t possibly cover everything of importance in Tubman’s life so audiences are given a surface skim of the next years as Tubman arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) the abolitionist that came to be known as the Father of the Underground Railroad.  She also takes a room in the boarding house of Marie (Janelle Monáe, Welcome to Marwen) a free-born black woman that hasn’t had the same struggles as Harriet but through her friendship comes to understand her pain.

While this film may get dinged a bit for it’s workmanlike way it moves through Tubman’s life events, I found the way Lemmons and Howard chose to focus on her accomplishments instead of her setbacks really refreshing.  So often with movies about the horror of slavery directors feel a need to wallow in the cruelty and ugliness of that abhorrent period in our American history.  Instead of having the obligatory vicious scene of a whipping or lynching, Lemmons and cinematographer John Toll (Cloud Atlas) catch us off guard when a character takes off their shirt and reveals their scars from a previous lashing.  Seeing these reminders that will never fully heal or when Harriet recounts a beating when she was young have more of an impact the way they are presented than if we were to bear witness to them play out in real time.  Same goes for the way Lemmons reserves the use of the “n” word to punctuate a character’s hate, not make it their defining manner of speech.

Lemmons and Howard also capitalize on Erivo’s talents as an award-winning singer and feature her gorgeous voice throughout the movie.  In addition to Erivo writing and performing a song over the closing credits there are carefully selected spirituals or call outs during the film that are moving in their sound but haunting in their purpose.  While I’m not sure how historically correct it is, I’d even say Lemmons and Howard seize some opportunities to turn Tubman into a bit of an action star, with Erivo slinging a gun and hauling off a few shots from the back of a horse.  I say more power to them because it only added to the audience’s appreciation to the film.  For each nuance they give Tubman (Erivo’s headstrong portrayal is a brilliant head-to-toe transformation you won’t be able to take your eyes off of) they seem to take two or three away from other actors like Alywn or country star Jennifer Nettles playing his deeply indoctrinated mother.  Though under no obligation to give depth to characters that offered little hope or free-thought to others, Lemmons and Howard have etched out little pieces of informed info about nearly everyone else that to have these two figures so blank is curious…or maybe it’s precisely the intent.

Since her feature directing debut in 1997 with the unforgettable Eve’s Bayou (rent it, trust me, just rent it), Lemmons has been a little hit or miss in her efforts but she’s scored another win with this engaging look into the life of one of the most important women, or person, in American history.  I’d likely have sat for another twenty minutes or so had Lemmons and Howard wanted to take a little more time in the middle or even at the end for a bit more of a measured wrap up of events.  It ended a little abruptly…or perhaps I just wasn’t quite ready to leave off in Tubman’s story.  Even if Harriet doesn’t quite dig as deep as it could have, it’s a captivating film made even more enthralling by a lead performance that truly soars.

Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, David Haig, Tuppence Middleton, Kate Phillips, Stephen Campbell Moore

Director: Michael Engler

Rated: PG

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Needless to say, if you aren’t up to date with Downton Abbey it’s best to steer clear of this review until after you’ve seen the film.  I wasn’t quite caught up by the time the movie came out so had to delay my visit with the Crawley family for a week, they understood and I will also understand if you need to bookmark this review and come back when you’ve finished the sixth season of Downton Abbey.  I shan’t spoil the movie, no worries on that, but I may wind up spoiling something from that richly fulfilling final episode…so you’ve been warned.

Christmas has definitely come early to all of the ardent fans of the Crawleys, their extended family, and their staff at Downtown Abbey.  The long buzzed about movie that’s a continuation of the series which wound up its run in 2015 has arrived and it’s an absolute delight.  Delivering everything we’ve come to expect in the show and managing to provide supremely satisfying moments for every one of the major cast members, the Downtown Abbey movie is that rare instance of a television series translating beautifully to a feature length film.  It’s arrived in style with a pristine release date far removed from the late summer madness and just ahead of the more achingly serious work the fall brings us. Sure, you can quibble it’s really just a two hour “special episode” of the show…but what an episode!

It’s 1927 and a letter arrives via post to let Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Paddington) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) know that the King and Queen will be staying at Downton Abbey for one night as part of their tour of the country.   Everyone has a job in preparation for this royal visit.  As the agent of the estate, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) makes sure the grounds are in order with the assistance of Tom (Alan Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody), who becomes distracted by the arrival of a strange man with unknown intentions.  Meanwhile, downstairs in the servants quarters emotions are running high in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, Ghostbusters) fretting over the food and Daisy (Sophie McShera, Cinderella) dragging her feet on setting a wedding date with Andy (Michael Fox, Dunkrik).  Butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier, The Ritual) struggles with the responsibilities of his first big test as head butler while continuing to suffer silently as he hides a personal secret.  Now retired, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, The Witches) can’t quite relinquish his reins over the household staff, much to the withering eye of his wife (Phyllis Logan, Secrets & Lies).

There’s more family and staff to cover but I’d rather let you see for yourself where writer Julian Fellows (Tomorrow Never Dies) takes these beloved characters over the ensuing two hours.  With the royal family bringing their own staff who wind up undermining the servants at Downtown Abbey, you can imagine there’s room for mischief as well as more serious subjects of marital strife and illegitimate children.  At least no one shows up to arrest Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle, Me Before You) or his wife Anna (Joanne Froggart)…that seemed to happen every season 🙂  While I’m sure the storyline for the film had been percolating in Fellows brain for some time (and may even have been planned for the television show) he’s made good work of making the most out of the screen time each person is given in the film.  Fellows has always been good at using language eloquently and not saying something in 10 words when he could use 5 and that carries over here, too.  As such, the good-natured back and forth between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, The Secret Garden) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is as crisp and crackling as ever.  I could honestly have sat for two hours, watched these women have a slyly barbed conversation, and been just as happy.

Were the main sources of conflict, like many situations in Downtown Abbey the series, things that could be solved if people had just sat down and talked with one another instead of gossiping secondhand or outright avoiding the subject entirely?  Of course.  Yet this is something longtime fans have come to expect from the show so it’s all much easier to swallow than a standalone feature without an established rhythm. Were there characters I missed seeing?  Sure.  Both of the Countesses hysterically squabbling servants are sadly absent and the film lacks an imposing figure that presents a significant challenge to anyone.  Did I think some staff members got a little more time to shine than others?  Yeah.  Yet these characters shining now often took a backseat in the series so why not let them have their moment in the sun.

With its high flying shots of Downtown Abbey (really Highclere Castle), all the familiar locations back in play, and that gorgeous theme music used in all the right places, director Michael Engler (who directed four episodes of the series, including the finale) doesn’t have to do much but let the actors do their thing speaking Fellows words while wearing Anna Robbins (Wild Rose) gorgeous costumes.  I think the finale of the film goes on a bit too long and rather serious/emotional conversation behind closed doors is inter-cut intrusively with another scene in a ballroom, but by that time I felt I had no right complaining because up until then Downton Abbey folk had been such great hosts.  With a smash bang opening and steady box office returns, the possibility of a return visit to Downtown looks highly likely.

Movie Review ~ The Dead Don’t Die

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

Movie Review ~ The Mustang


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A violent convict is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program involving the training of wild mustangs.

Stars: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Josh Stewart

Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I wouldn’t blame you if you happened to let The Mustang trot on by you as we start to approach the jumping off point of the summer movie season. It’s not a flashy movie with superheroes dueling it out in a grand finale of a popular franchise (Avengers; Endgame) nor is it a horror film out to spook you (Us, Pet Sematary, The Curse of La Llorona) and it definitely isn’t a family film like Dumbo, though I’d argue that’s not a family film either. It doesn’t feature actors that can open a movie on their name alone and the film has been marketed accurately as a heavy drama with a main character often hard to root for.

I saw The Mustang right after taking in Captain Marvel for a second time and the experience was different though some of the feelings were the same. Both films featured strong examples of emotional resonance but whereas Captain Marvel is designed to have you sort of blasted backwards in your seat, The Mustang’s quiet grace made it a film you wanted to lean into and sit a little further forward for.

In a Nevada prison, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Danish Girl) is serving a long sentence for a violent crime we only get bits and pieces of information about. Used to serving his time in his preferred solitary confinement, he’s brought back into the general population and given a roommate (Josh Stewart, Interstellar) for the first time in years. Barely speaking more than a few words to anyone in a given day, Coleman starts a prison job maintaining the grounds but is intrigued by the horses being watched over by other inmates. He becomes fixated on one particular horse too wild to be broken and is recruited by the salty program lead (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to try to see if he can have any luck taming the beautiful horse.

Now, it isn’t hard for the audience (or Coleman) to see the obvious parallels between the prisoner and the horse and that doesn’t seem to concern director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre in the slightest. In fact, I feel the filmmakers almost go out of the way to show us how closely tied in personality the man and mustang are. Stubborn and willful could describe Coleman or the horse he names Marquis and over time the two form the bond we expect but in ways we can’t quite predict. The path isn’t easy and the film features several unsettling acts of violence (not always directed toward the horse) that don’t feel like cheap devices to gain sympathy.

At a sleek 96 minutes, The Mustang is mostly muscle and is led by a stellar performance from Schoenaerts. Over the last several years Schoenaerts has proven to be a dependable presence in films but he’s yet to truly break through to the next level of stardom in the US. His performance is as good as any Oscar nominee last year (even better than at least one) as is Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell (Contraband) memorable supporting turn as a fellow inmate that shows Coleman the literal ropes of the horse ring. A sidewinding subplot concerning Coleman’s prison visits with his estranged daughter (Gideon Adlon) skate the edge of maudlin but the two actors are so good in their strained meetings that you begin to feel just as uncomfortable in their presence as they are. Featured in just two scenes, it’s never a bad day when Connie Britton (This Is Where I Leave You) appears onscreen as a prison psychologist.

Financed with monies awarded by the Sundance Institute, The Mustang has the distinct feel of an indie drama that would go over well at the Sundance Film Festival before playing at your local art house cinema. It’s likely a bit too small to become a breakthrough hit and its release date so close to highly anticipated blockbusters will all but push this one out of your local theater quickly. So after you see Avengers: Endgame, consider saddling up to this one. Or, make this one your first choice because it won’t be around for long.

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
:

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
:

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
:

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

1

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.