Movie Review ~ Brian and Charles

The Facts:

Synopsis:  After a particularly harsh winter, Brian goes into a deep depression; wholly isolated and with no one to talk to, Brian does what any sane person would do when faced with such a melancholic situation. He builds a robot.
Stars: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, James Michie, Nina Sosanya
Director: Jim Archer
Rated: PG
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Watching a film like Brian and Charles gave me a serious nostalgia trip back to the days in the early 2000’s when I frequented our local art-house cinema. It didn’t matter what was playing (or what you wanted to see); you just showed up and hoped your movie hadn’t sold out. If it did, something often played around at the same time, and you could shift gears and see that instead. I’m not sure Brian and Charles is the movie I would have come to see at the Lagoon Theater in Uptown, MN, but it wouldn’t have been a title I would have been disappointed with being my second choice either.

Expanded from a 2019 short film, also directed and co-written by Jim Archer and the film’s stars David Earl (Brian) and Chris Hayward (Charles Petrescu), this is a seemingly simple story filled with apparently simple characters who gradually reveal themselves to be more than the sum of their parts. While it’s not filled with any tremendous moral you haven’t heard a million times over or ends up traveling in a direction you couldn’t have bought a ticket for 90 minutes earlier, there’s a rough-hewn grace to it all that makes the entire experience resolutely charming. 

A rural inventor lives a solitary life in North Wales and spends his lonely days tinkering away at creations that seldom do what they’re intended. Framed as a documentary of sorts, Brian speaks directly to the camera. He walks the audience around his farm, proudly showing off the gadgets with no actual use that have otherwise sprung from his wild imagination. Yet Brian’s growing need for a friend is starting to nibble away at him. While a local lass (Louise Brealey, Victor Frankenstein) shows interest in the eccentric inventor, he seems oblivious to her long-held admiration. It’s from his creativity (and a number of spare parts he gathers from ditches, dumps, etc.) that Charles is born. A robot that springs to life almost by accident, Charles may be Brian’s invention but soon becomes his own person. 

Watching the relationship between Brian and Charles develop provided a sweeter fulfillment than I had expected. Quickly, Brian realizes that he has to be more of a parent to Charles than a chum, which comes with a set of complications he didn’t anticipate. Charles may speak with the monotone synth voice of a robot, but his petulant attitude suggests a teen going through typical pubescent growing pains. Fixated on traveling to Hawaii and with a devoted love of cabbage (?), Charles gives Brian a run for his money. When the head of a local family of bullies sets his sights on obtaining Charles for his own, Brian will need to come out of his shell to stand up for his loved one.

There’s a quaint charm to the droll Brian and Charles that I appreciated, but I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. The humor is of a particular bent, and if you aren’t on board with it and can’t give yourself over to what it is selling, it’s best to move on. For all others willing to devote a short sit with some unfamiliar faces in a far-off side of the world, check out what this creative team has crafted. Oh, and do stay through the end credits for a closing song from Charles himself.

 

Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey: A New Era

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The year is 1927. The Dowager Countess of Grantham inherits a villa in the south of France from an old friend at the same time a filmmaker gets permission from Lady Mary to shoot a moving picture at Downton Abbey
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Michael Fox, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West, Jonathan Zaccaï
Director: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Coming off its monumentally successful five-year run in 2015, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes promised its audience clamoring for more upstairs/downstairs tales surrounding the fictionalized titular manse that a movie was in the works.  It took four years, but the 2019 film Downtown Abbey was a perfectly filling bit of big-screen fun that ultimately felt like an extended television show episode.  The creators didn’t raise the stakes any higher than necessary, and while some hint of finality was suggested for a few characters that might not have wanted to return should another chapter be ordered up, the door was left ajar for any and all to return.

Return they all do a mere three years later for Downtown Abbey: A New Era, and this time Fellows and new director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) have done what the first one didn’t want to bother with, shake things up a bit.  With its production that seemed to drop out of nowhere amid post-pandemic start-ups, there was a nice amount of anticipation for this one because it targets the same group that has been an elusive get at movie theaters for the last several years.  After all this time, would this PG-rated continuation of the hit series coax them out of their homes and back into cinemas?

I’d wager a bet that the same audiences that turned out to make the first film reach nearly 200 million at the box office will venture out for a matinee of this one. However, they may first wonder why all the rainy English countryside inhabitants are so tawny and tan.  For a while, I thought they might want to call the film DownTAN Abbey instead because of actors like Hugh Bonneville’s (visibly slimmed down) golden glow. If you’re like me and didn’t take the time to re-watch the first film before showing up, Fellowes and Curtis have demonstrated good manners and included a nice recap narrated by Kevin Doyle’s Joseph Molesley. 

We’re nearing the end of the 1920s, and wedding bells are ringing for former chauffeur and current estate manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody) just as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, Quartet), receives the news she has been left a villa in the south of France.  Unable to travel to France herself, Robert (Bonneville, Paddington) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) accompany honeymooning Tom, his new wife, along with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and her husband to visit Violet’s new property, allowing the younger set to find out more about the mysterious inheritance in the process.

Meanwhile, back at Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) reluctantly agrees to let a film crew make a movie in the family home after figuring she can put the money they are offering toward repairs the property desperately needs.  With Mary’s husband away (a convenience that is explainable at the outset but downright preposterous by the end), the director (Hugh Dancy, Late Night) takes an interest in their host, eventually getting her more than a little involved in the production. At the same time, the stars of the film (Laura Haddock, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dominic West, Tomb Raider) each make different impressions on the dedicated staff at Downtown. 

Shifting directing responsibilities to Curtis (McGovern’s real-life husband) from Michael Engler was wise. While Engler oversaw the first film with an assured hand, he perhaps brought too much of a television eye to the feature film.  Having directed numerous episodes of Downton Abbey, Engler’s movie just felt like more of the same, however welcome it was at the time.  Curtis gives the film some stamina and speed, though if anything, it’s Fellowes that lets the audience down a bit with plotlines straight out of Singin’ in the Rain and more than a few strange detours that, in hindsight, are just emotional misdirects.

Downton Abbey: A New Era ushers in more robust filmmaking, script quibbles aside.  We’re getting close to periods in history when the glitz and glamour that made the series so appealing at first will need to come to an end, and that’s when the real test of audience devotion will take place.  Wartime dramas are a dime a dozen, but what made Downtown Abbey so unique was its dreamy days before war factored in.  You can be sure there are more Downton Abbey films on the horizon, and I wouldn’t rule out another entire series to come along one of these years either. 

Movie Review ~ You Won’t Be Alone

The Facts:

Synopsis: In an isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, a young girl is kidnapped and then transformed into a witch by an ancient spirit.
Stars:  Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud
Director: Goran Stolevski
Rated: R
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  A number of the light and airy-fairy tales that populate the Disney canon of animated films originate from much darker versions of German writers in the 18th century. While they maintained much of the original work’s outline and general moral intent, these sanitized versions essentially drained the bedtime stories of their cautionary messages for children and adults alike. In recent years, the restoration of, or modern twists on, these classics for audiences have been hailed as bold or brave and, in many cases, have earned those high marks with distinction. What interests me even more than these films is the storytelling going on from scribes creating original pieces with strong parallels with the types of spooky tales handed down from generation to generation.

A strong sense of storytelling is just one of the chief reasons why You Won’t Be Alone, from Macedonian director Goran Stolevski, is such a treat. Set in the 19th century in a remote hamlet on the broad side of an imposing mountain range, there’s a relaxed, naturalistic aesthetic that could easily classify it in the much-studied folk-horror genre. The isolation of the period and place are felt quite effectively from the start by the filmmaker’s dramatically impressive use of the gorgeous elements of the location surroundings. Throughout its run time, Stolevski’s film covers more ground than is typical or expected, asking striking questions about life, death, and our humanity even as we are gripped by not knowing what may happen next.

At first, you might think you’re watching some version of a tale as old as time. An overwrought mother turns her back on her newborn for a moment, and when she looks again, a horrific figure looms over the child. It’s Old Maid Maria (the excellent Anamaria Marinca, Europa Report), a witch cursed to roam the area, shapeshifting into various creatures she kills or comes upon. (How she does this is a process not for the faint of heart…) Maria’s curdled flesh and sharp fingernails crave the child’s blood, but the mother makes a bargain to spare the baby until she’s 16, after which Maria may return and take her as her own. After all, Maria can’t go through life alone. Requiring some sacrifice, the witch takes the baby’s tongue to stop her crying and from ever speaking. Though the mother tries to hide her child on holy ground, a witch’s bond will out, and after 16 years, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) joins her new guardian in a vagabond life, ostracized from the community.

Already isolated her entire life (ala Rapunzel), Nevena uses her shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate another community to learn how to be human first, a witch second. These experiences, as both genders, give her insight into the different feelings going on inside the bodies of men and women, children and adults. Nearly all her thoughts are communicated to us in voiceover, often in simple terms but gradually growing into whole ideas that encapsulate her complete understanding of a lived life. Conveying all of these discoveries is challenging enough for one person, and while Klimoska handles the bulk of it with wide-eyed amazement, she “shares” the role with Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep), and Carloto Cotta (Frankie), each is striking a somber balance in their cycles with the witch.

It could be that others come to You Won’t Be Alone thinking it’s an all-out horror film, and they’ll likely be disappointed it’s not some witch in the woods scare-fest. I still found elements of the movie quite frightening, but not for reasons you might think. There’s a lot of sadness here, like Rapace’s rather devastating but finely tuned performance, which starts feral but becomes more controlled as she’s taken under the wing of a kindly older woman. Cotta is strong too as the male the witch inhabits, first to find out what it’s like to experience pleasure but then to discover the more private and tender moments. 

I’ve been thinking about You Won’t Be Alone ever since I saw it; the rich characters (Marinca’s sinister witch has, like most witches, a tragic backstory) and invested performances coupled with the picturesque setting push this one far ahead of most of the other movies I’ve seen so far this year. You have to give it some space to get moving, but only slightly. Stolevski’s feature film debut is assured, and a can’t miss effort for filmgoers apt to enjoy a scary story before turning the lights off at night.

Movie Review ~ The Outfit

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An expert tailor must outwit a dangerous group of mobsters to survive a fateful night.
Stars: Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch, Johnny Flynn, Dylan O’Brien, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Simon Russell Beale
Director: Graham Moore
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Though movie theaters have been open for many months now, live theater is still an unsure thing for some people. Being in an enclosed space with a few hundred people for a 90-minute movie is one thing, but what about a 2,500 seat theater with a capacity crowd? Or how about a concert venue seeing a pop star and finding yourself shoulder to shoulder with someone sneezing their way through the opening act? It definitely gives you pause. I do miss live theater, and while my season tickets to the Broadway touring shows have been getting used regularly now that more protocols are in place, the smaller venues that house plays are struggling. I find myself craving these intimate shows with unamplified actors speaking so that you have to lean forward in your seat and tilt your head a bit to hear each word. That’s theater, to me.

I thought of that kind of theater I’d been missing while watching director Graham Moore’s The Outfit, which he co-wrote with Johnathan McClain. Taking place on a snowy winter night in 1956 within several rooms of a shop in Chicago owned and operated by Leonard Burling, this is one of those tight and taut mystery/thrillers that could easily have been adapted from (or, later, into) a stage play. The dialogue is so specific and focused that you must always pay attention to catch what’s being said. It all makes a difference in what happens as the night continues. Requiring the audience to be an active participant in The Outfit leads to the skilled movie being the first sign that spring moviegoing is revving its engines, breaking the silence of this strange period in movies released as awards season wraps up. 

Moore and McClain’s script involves Burling, a cutter (“I’m not a tailor.”) who worked on the famed Saville Row in London before he lost his family due to circumstances that will come to light soon enough. Now quietly making his sharp suits and wares alongside his secretary/would-be apprentice Mable (Zoey Deutch, Vampire Academy), Burling is a man that observes more than he speaks. Turning a blind eye to the organized crime dealings secretly exchanged via a mailbox at the back of his shop, he holds his head down, which keeps him in the good graces of the important families and surely secures his safety for his silence.

On this night, the son of the most powerful gangster in Chicago has arrived for his late-night pick-up with news that a mole has been discovered, and he has possession of a recording that will reveal information about the rat. Together with right-hand man Francis (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria), Richie (Dylan O’Brien, Bumblebee) plans to expose the snitch and allow his business to flourish with the assistance of The Outfit. A syndicate of crime families from all over the country, The Outfit has operatives everywhere and is the one that reported the mole. Who is the mole? What (or who?) is The Outfit? And is the mild-mannered cutter more involved than he claims to be? 

Having seen Rylance onstage playing Shakespeare, I’m aware of the kind of rapt attention he can command from an audience, and in all sincerity, that hasn’t been fully achieved yet on film. If anything, his roles tend toward the absurd, culminating with a nearly unwatchable turn in 2021’s Don’t Look Up. I was worried we’d be getting the same Rylance runaround here, but The Outfit represents maybe his best work on film so far, even better than his Oscar-winning role in 2015’s Bridge of Spies. The layers Rylance brings to the part, peeling them back at varied paces throughout so that you can’t get too comfortable, are brilliantly done. Once you’ve figured out the solution, Rylance sheds another veneer to reveal a sheen we never considered. 

The rest of the cast works hard to get to the same level of Rylance and uniformly succeeds, starting with Deutch as a woman Burling acts with some fatherly care toward but has more to offer than simply sitting behind a desk. O’Brien and Flynn are swell as the glorified henchman for the Big Boss, Roy (Simon Russell Beale, Into the Woods), who shares some wonderfully understated scenes with Rylance. Even those that make a minor pass through the film, like Nikki Amuka-Bird (Old), leave a pleasant waft of mystery in their wake. 

The Outfit is the kind of Sunday movie you’d have liked to see when it was a tad colder out, one with which you can hunker down. There’s not anything extra that doesn’t need to be there, with Moore making great use of the expertise of cinematographer Dick Pope (Supernova) and production designer Gemma Jackson (Aladdin). They’re both Oscar-nominated and well regarded in the industry for a reason. From head to toe, tie to laces, it’s just about a perfect corker of a film that keeps you surprised on the edge of your seat right up until the end.   

The Silver Bullet ~ The Northman

Synopsis: A young Viking prince embarks on a quest to avenge his father’s murder.

Release Date:  April 22, 2022

Thoughts: If you are wondering why the spike in previews for upcoming 2022 films, attribute it to my being won over by a nagging curiosity to take a quick peek at several titles coming down the pike with intriguing premises, interesting casts, or a mixture of both. Take The Northman, for a prime example.  Viking prince and hard-scrabble armies in bloody battles? Uh, yeah!  Cast roster that reads like a MN Movie Man must-see list? You better believe it. Director known for visceral projects that aren’t aiming to please the masses but firmly establish a sense of reality even in circumstances that lean toward fantasy? Bingo! Led by Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan) and featuring Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho), Ethan Hawke (Zeros and Ones), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and featuring a rare appearance by singer/sometimes actress Björk, The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch) is already a much-anticipated title for many and you can add me to that list as well.

Movie Review ~ Wolf (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man who believes he is a wolf trapped in a human body is sent to a clinic by his family where he is forced to undergo increasingly extreme forms of “curative” therapies at the hands of The Zookeeper.

Stars: George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, Paddy Considine, Fionn O’Shea, Eileen Walsh

Director: Nathalie Biancheri

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Learning new language about the world and the experiences people go through is one of the many benefits that come with seeing as many films as I do.  I may not understand it, agree with it, or believe it but exposure to these varying viewpoints is important and vital in becoming well rounded.

All that being said, I’m not entirely sure the universe wanted me to see Wolf and after making it through the thorny flick I think I should have paid more attention to the signs.  So many cosmic roadblocks popped up to stand in my way, not the least of which was a review copy that I was trying to watch through an internet link that kept freezing up, resulting in my having to watch and then re-watch large stretches of writer/director Nathalie Biancheri’s sullen and faux-ny look inside the very real experience of species dysphoria.  More on that later though…

Despite my misgivings and troubles getting going with Wolf, I soldiered on like a good critic, though I truly should have heeded the call to turn around and find a way out of the woods.  The woods is where we start and end, though, so let’s kick things off by saying the first images we see are of a very naked human (George MacKay, 1917) prowling through the fauna in a feral state.  Like much of Wolf, the passage is seemingly random and left unexplained…the audience is obviously supposed to piece together as the film progresses that this is Jacob in the wild and he’s eventually been brought to clinic that specializes in the treatment of others that share his condition.

Species dysphoria is an experience “associated with the feeling that one’s body is of the wrong species”.  So, Jacob believing himself to be a Wolf would be a prime candidate for the program the clinic offers, with graduates leaving having exorcised their thoughts of being an animal.  Jacob arrives and is integrated with other patients that believe themselves to be, among others, a German Shepherd, a parrot, a squirrel, and a duck.  Often, these species will react toward each other like they would in the wild, keeping the clinic staff busy.  At first, Jacob doesn’t know what to make of the situation and holds back…much like a wolf would in new surroundings.

When Jacob is befriended by a girl who works at the clinic and is also a patient that thinks she’s a wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp, Silent Night), they form a bond that goes beyond the personal and into the primal. Watching others in their program fail and succeed, Jacob and Wildcat realize they’ll never conform to the clinic’s methods and hatch a plan to break out from under the tyranny of the head of the department, known as The Zookeeper (Paddy Considine, Macbeth).  However, with Jacob’s will being tested by those in authority, do they both have the strength to flee and live life on their own, as they really are?

It’s clear there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of the screenplay Biancheri has written but it’s sorely lacking from clarity onscreen.  Instead, we have weird sequences of “therapy” that come off more like tortuous abuse scenes between doctor and patient.  You can’t ever tell if Biancheri is playing some scenes for comedic effect to show how ridiculous those in power are to those that are different or if the goal is to expose prejudice in the medical profession toward people who have this condition.  I don’t doubt this exists and that the treatment is specialized, but what’s on display here comes off like a badly told joke.

It’s a shame that MacKay has taken so much time with the physicality the role demands because it’s sort of wasted in the entirety of Biancheri’s awkward and artsy-fartsy film.  Once we started getting patients dressing up like their, forgive the co-opted term, “spirit” animal, the movie began to tank for me because it’s too silly watching someone whine and pant like a dog.  MacKay’s physical transformation in Wolf is incredible but it can’t carry the picture, even if his acting is the highlight of the piece.  Rose-Depp is less successful in a role that is less interesting all around – even when she’s perched and hissing at others it comes off as the overly dramatic girl at a party wanting to get attention.  That’s what many of the patients in Wolf come off as, actually.  Desperate for attention instead of dependent on treatment.

Movie Review ~ Belfast

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Buddy is a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, whose life is filled with familial love, childhood hijinks, and a blossoming romance. Yet, with his beloved hometown caught up in increasing turmoil, his family faces a momentous choice: hope the conflict will pass or leave everything they know behind for a new life.

Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Lara McDonnell

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If they haven’t yet, the Belfast tourist board should consider asking writer/director Kenneth Branagh to film their next tourism campaign.  The opening and closing shots of Belfast, his semi-autobiographical film, show a modern-day Belfast that remembers its history and the working-class people that built it with pride.  These full color moments are fleeting, and soon we’ll be taken into the black and white past to experience a brief moment in time through the eyes of a child during a period of change.  For his family, for his neighborhood, for his country.  At the beginning, you immediately get the impression the story you are about to see is going to be something special.  At the end, you know it was.

It’s the tail end of 1969 and all Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) knows is his small community in Belfast.  At the opening of the film, the neighborhood is besieged by a mob involved with the Troubles, the decades long conflict between Protestants and Catholics which led to much violence and bloodshed.  This attack leaves the area scarred and scared and we get the impression it’s the first time the young boy has seen the idyllic idealism of his youth interfered with in such a massive way.  With his father (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) often off in England to provide for his family, his mother (Caitriona Balfe, Ford v Ferrari) rules the roost and does so with a strong arm but loving heart. 

Guided by his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds, The Woman in Black) and grandmother (Judi Dench, Skyfall) when his parents can’t be there, Buddy navigates the absence of his father by applying himself in school to impress a girl he likes and reveling in the time his dad is there. These reunions are clearly the biggest memories and some of the most cherished to recreate. While their marriage is strained by the distance, the couple bonds over their affection for their family and wanting to do what’s best.  As the violence increases and the taking of sides is demanded, choices have to be made about the future and what ultimately makes a home.  Is it where you grew up or where you rest your head at night? 

Branagh’s film is, like many autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works, episodic in nature because that’s often how our memories feel.  He’s smartly placed Buddy in a number of scenes as an observer to adult conversations, allowing his knowledge of important decisions and discussions to make sense.  It’s in that way the film comes off feeling entirely authentic yet dream-like at the same time.  Perhaps it’s Haris Zambarloukos’s (Eye in the Sky) gorgeous black and white photography but at times it does feel like we’re tooling around in someone’s stored memories, their half-remembered dreams of how they recollect certain events.

Having directed a number of films from Shakespeare drama to comedies to action and fairy tales, Branagh understands the magnitude of cinema and uses that scale for maximum impact in Belfast.  I mentioned the opening and closing are in color, but he chooses a few other moments of color to punctuate a point. I won’t give away what those are, but it’s used so well, mostly because it’s exactly the type of thing a child would remember in full, vivid color.  His screenplay is both tender-hearted, wise, and, at times, deeply funny.  For every scene that tugs at the heartstrings (like Balfe’s wondrous monologue to her husband about why she prefers to stay in Belfast) there are lovely, well-tuned moments of comedy that don’t feel shoehorned in for laughs.

Casting is essential and I’m sure it wasn’t a cakewalk having to think about what are pretty much stand-ins for your real life loved ones but Branagh (All is True) has assembled an excellent cast from top to bottom.  Aside from the impressive Hill who so ably carries the film on his small but mighty shoulders, we have Balfe and Dornan doing career-best work as his parents.  The two work believably well as a couple and as parents to Hill and the boy playing his brother.  There’s an easiness to how they act with one another and their brief musical moment where Dornan sings and Balfe dances is sure to be one of my favorite moments of 2021.  Can you ever say a word against Dench?  Speaking or not speaking, Dench is always right there in the scene and completely takes you into the world.  I think my favorite performance might be from Hinds, though, and surprisingly he’s the one that I feel has been talked about the least.  This is the one more people should be looking at because it’s secretly the heart and soul of the movie…and I think Branagh might agree because he’s clearly written in that way.

Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and already on track for a slew of Oscar nominations, this is what you’d call a “contender” and a sure-fire crowd pleaser.  It’s the perfect length and pitched just right to stir your emotions to the balanced mix of comedy and drama.   One of the very best movies I’ve seen in 2021, take this trip to Belfast and a look back into history for Branagh’s special story of growing up in a specific time and place.  Really a joyous experience that fills your cup to overflowing.

31 Days to Scare ~ Last Night in Soho

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aspiring fashion designer is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer. But the glamour is not all it appears to be and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something darker.

Stars: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg, Synnøve Karlsen, Rita Tushingham

Director: Edgar Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Time flies when you’re coming out of lockdown.  It seems like only yesterday I saw the first trailer for this mystery within a horror film directed by Edgar Wright (The World’s End) and couldn’t wait for its release date to arrive and now it’s finally here.  OK, so it was only May but that was five months ago, and a lot has happened since then.  It’s a rare pleasure when a movie is as good as it is advertised to be and it’s a true unicorn when the resulting film is just a tad bit better, and I think Last Night in Soho may inch out it’s well edited preview by a few blonde hairs.  While it’s going to divide a great number of people that want the third act to be as elusive as the first two, this is a movie that ultimately has the general consumer at heart rather than the niche crowd…and what’s wrong with that?

I tend to get a kick out of people that wish they lived in another decade.  Really?  As a (insert anything other than straight while male) you wanted to live in a different time when you had even less rights and freedom to be who you were?  Well sure, the clothes may have been wilder, and the music was better but still…you might be sacrificing liberation for the overall visualization of the time and that wouldn’t be the best.  Yet I must admit the opening of Last Night in Soho, featuring Thomasin McKenzie’s ‘60s obsessed Eloise flouncing around her time capsule-like bedroom in a dress of her own creation is a bouncy way to start what ends on a much different note.  Living with her gran (Rita Tushingham) after mum passed away, Eloise has a passion for fashion and just wants to study at a top London fashion school. 

Receiving her acceptance letter at the top of the film, this country mouse heads to the big city with many of the same dreams her mother had and, as we can tell, suppressing similar mental health issues that caused her to return home without achieving them. Eloise will be different though, and when her original living situation with an impossible roommate Jacosta (Synnøve Karlsen) doesn’t work out, she seeks out a bedsit on the third floor of an assuming row house owned by Mrs. Collins (the late, great Dame Diana Rigg, Breathe).

She’s barely settled and sleeping on her first night that something odd happens.  Always a bit of a dreamer, Elosie has a whooper.  She fantasizes she’s a new girl in town, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, Radioactive), during the swinging ‘60s who wants to make it as a singer and hopes she can do it on talent alone.  Meeting the enigmatic Jack (Matt Smith, Terminator Genisys) at a luxe club who thinks she’s the tops, he sweeps her off her feet and the world is hers for the taking.  It’s a beautiful dream world Eloise has created…so how did the “love bite” Jack gave Sandie wind up on her neck the next morning?  As the lines between the reality of Eloise and the fantasy of Sandie start to blur, the dreams of the night seep into her day. Night after night, Eloise appears to travel back in time and doesn’t exactly live as Sandie but peers over her shoulder into her world…a world that first turns dark, then violent, then deadly. 

Written by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), the film is a filled with twists and turns, not to mention some brilliant camera work and effects that have McKenzie and Taylor-Joy switching places multiple times during scenes.  One moment it’s Eloise dancing with Jack, the next it’s Sandie.  It’s disorienting and very much meant to be – yet it’s always easy to track what direction the movie is heading, just thankfully not where it will end up.  After seeing the film I’ve read the finale hasn’t sat well with people and I suppose I can see why. It’s far more in line with traditional suspense tropes and less of the dreamy quality employed so well in the first 90 minutes, but I wasn’t complaining at all.  It’s still vehemently performed by the cast – that’s undeniable.

Playing like Wright had an Argento filter on his camera, the production design is awash with Argento’s favorite bold color palettes and the Italian’s maestro’s penchant for gore that comes out of nowhere.  The film is restrained up unto a point but eventually let’s its bloody banner wave, but it has purpose.  Smith and Taylor-Joy both look like they stepped out of a time machine for their roles, even if Taylor-Joy is getting dramatically overrated (please witness her 5-minute-long YouTube version of Petula Clark’s Downtown…or maybe you shouldn’t, she sings it in the movie and takes half that amount of time).  McKenzie (True History of the Kelly Gang) has the heavy lifting to do, and she has muscles of steel by the end. It’s a nervy performance that works well in harmony with the other performers that are so still and solid.  Acting stalwarts Terence Stamp (Big Eyes) and Tushingham (The Owners) are divine in their limited screen time and what a wonderful showcase for Rigg in her final screen appearance, looking radiant. 

An ambitiously rich production that boasts eye-popping visuals and an array of period music to create a dazzling soundtrack, Last Night in Soho gooses the audience with increasing energy as it goes along. The scares are nicely timed and lingering, benefitting from delivery that has polish and an awareness of what type of movie everyone set out to make.  Arriving in time for Halloween, it’s a top-notch selection for those looking for creativity and art that jumps out at them, along with an imaginative story that dips and swerves to keep you guessing.

Movie Review ~ Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary about Anthony Bourdain and his career as a chef, writer and host, revered and renowned for his authentic approach to food, culture and travel.

Stars: Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Bourdain, David Chang, Helen M. Cho, David Choe, Christopher Collins, Morgan Fallon, Joshua Homme, Alison Mosshart, Doug Quint, Eric Ripert, Lydia Tenaglia, Tom Vitale

Director: Morgan Neville

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

AFIDocs Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’d originally caught this documentary at the AFI Docs Film Festival which ran from June 22-27 where this was scheduled pretty perfectly on Bourdain Day.  In my original review, I said that Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain was “an intriguing look at a very complicated man, a documentary that balances a warts and all approach with a deeply felt sense of loss at the empty seat at the table left by his suicide in 2018.”  I’d still stick by that statement even now, after some recent information has come out that called some of the methods director Morgan Neville used to piece together the narrative structure of the film into question.  We’ll get into that in a minute but it’s worth noting how many critics are doing such an about-face based on this nugget of news.  It’s like we’ve never been emotionally manipulated before…weird.

I’ve had my ups and downs with Bourdain over the years, starting out hot with his early entry into popular entertainment courtesy of his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential that was later turned into a very short-lived television show starring newcomer Bradley Cooper.  Bouncing right into the groundbreaking Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, a hybrid of travel/cooking show that he largely pioneered, Bourdain became known for his extreme tastes and willingness to try just about anything. That’s about when I started to drift away to less spicier meals that didn’t always seek to press the hardest of buttons with such vigor. 

Bourdain just rubbed me the wrong way, and from what I gather in director Neville’s sharp interviews in his highly glossy doc (in true Bourdain style, I might add), many of his closest friends felt that way at one time or another as well.  A few of them seemed to not like him very much at different points in their relationship…like the man that sobs recalling when Bourdain, in a depressive funk, cuts him down by saying he would never be a good father. Ouch. I’d cry too. I’d still be crying.  The world-traveling, zest for life, consume anything bad boy chef is what was presented to the viewer.  That’s the Tony many saw on camera but not the one that struggled with crippling self-doubt, depression, or a need to be loved/perfect.  Neville interviews numerous people in his life: bosses, co-workers, colleagues, ex-wives, friends, and they all paint a picture of a man that lived hard and loved at the same speed. 

At nearly two hours, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a lot of Bourdain to take and the trajectory of his life is approached by Neville in fairly standard measures, so it plays easily, even when it grows slightly staid.  The final fifteen minutes, when discussing Bourdain’s death and the aftermath are when Neville’s expertise as a filmmaker really shows and also when the emotional ripple through his circle of friends takes its notable toll.  Fans of Bourdain will, I think, find this hard to watch and rightfully so…it’s likely Neville’s point to show the impact of such an act. 

Is this perhaps why the headlines in the days up until the wide release have been all about how Neville essentially used a deep fake of Bourdain’s voice to narrate parts of the film he wanted to nudge in a particular direction?  Feeding over 10 hours of Bourdain’s voice into a computer and then using that compiled voice to speak requested “lines” seems like a big issue if we’re talking true documentary realism…right? While it may add dramatic effect to the movie for the general public, it has most certainly cost Neville any awards respect it could have earned. And this is an Oscar-winning director already.

Bourdain was a popular personality and I’m confident Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will still prove to be a project that is much sought-after and not just by foodies that know their salad fork from their dinner fork. This has crossover potential for even those with casual knowledge of Bourdain – but now I think not by those who are put off by some slick tricks by the filmmakers.

The Silver Bullet ~ Last Night in Soho

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Synopsis: A young girl, passionate about fashion design, is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s where she encounters her idol, a dazzling wannabe singer. But 1960s London is not what it seems, and time seems to fall apart with shady consequences.

Release Date:  October 22, 2021

Thoughts: I normally don’t get to have the “full” movie-going experience anymore when going to theaters.  Ha… “when I go to theaters” that hasn’t happened in over a year!  Sorry, let’s start again.

Back when I went to theaters, I normally didn’t get to have the “full” movie-going experience because there are rarely previews at press screenings.  Movie trailers in general don’t tend to interest me anymore because I can just look at the length and know they are going to show the majority of the film, so I don’t even bother.  It’s helped a great deal in going in blind, so I’ll usually just watch the first 30-60 seconds to get a feel and then shut it off.

With Last Night in Soho, I found that I wasn’t able to turn it off after 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds…I had to watch the whole thing.  An eternal caveat I need to remember is that every bad movie can be edited into a fantastic trailer but there’s something about this new Edgar Wright (The World’s End) thriller arriving in October that looks like it is up to something good.  Starring exciting up and comers Anya Taylor-Joy (Radioactive) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), it shows a lot but tells a little – the perfect kind of teaser.  Other trailers may arrive as the release date grows near, but I don’t need to see anything more.  Along with the intriguing poster…I’m sold at first glance on Last Night in Soho.