Movie Review ~ Jojo Rabbit


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

Stars: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, Alfie Allen, Taika Waititi, Stephen Merchant

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: As I was watching Jojo Rabbit a few weeks back one thought kept running through my mind and it was this: “Gosh, I hope people get this is satire when they see this.”  Now, I’m not saying our society has become overly sensitive and far be it from me to use a gross phrase like ‘cancel culture’ with any literal purpose in my review but let’s face it, in the past few years there’s been a strange urge to jump on seemingly innocuous thoughts, words, and deeds and make them into what they aren’t.  Plenty of ideas and texts are out there that were obviously meant to harm, so it takes a little restraint to step back and look at the big picture to separate the serious from the satire.

Jojo Rabbit is a clear satire of anti-hate rhetoric and it couldn’t be clearer of its intentions.  Yet I sat through the screening so worried that no one was going to get the joke and take the film literally.  There are some horrific jokes concerning Nazis, concentration camps, genocide, and misogyny (to name but a few) yet they are presented in such a way that if you aren’t in on the joke you might be squirming in your seat during the opening credits when young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) skips with carefree glee around his tiny German village “heil-ing” all his friends and neighbors.  I admit it took me a few introductory scenes to thoroughly settle into writer/director Taika Waititi’s sardonic structure before I gave over fully.  Once I did, I found a lot of heart in addition to the laughs.

A 10-year old member of the Hitler Youth, Jojo is off to his first training camp with his best friend Yorki (an adorably scene-stealing Archie Yates) and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok).  With Hitler as his imaginary friend, you can imagine the kind of pep talks Jojo gets as he begins his service and in Waititi’s hands Hitler is presented as an easily excitable, petulant, man-child that provides Jojo some moral support but not always the best guidance.  Teased at camp for his sensitive nature in an arena of hate, he gets the nickname Jojo Rabbit from his fellow Nazi buds and makes a bold gesture as a way to show them he’s stronger than he looks.  When an injury sidelines Jojo, he’s put to work in the office of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, Vice) distributing propaganda while his single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) works to make ends meet.

Often left at home alone, Jojo is surprised to discover his mother has hidden a young girl (Thomasin McKenzie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in the walls…and she’s Jewish.  Having lost her parents and everyone else she cares about to the war, Elsa has no one to depend on but Rosie’s kindness and has developed a steely exterior that matches well with Jojo’s extreme indifference to a girl he feels he’s supposed to hate on sight.  With imaginary Hitler encouraging Jojo to study this girl so he can file a detailed report later on (in a manifesto with a title that becomes a running joke), Jojo gets closer to her and both find out they have more in common than they think…or what they’ve been taught to think.

For all the comedic elements to Jojo Rabbit, there’s an even deeper emotional core running through the center of the movie and I was surprised as how moving the film becomes as it goes on.  With several unexpected twists (and one downright jaw-dropping one), Waititi keeps audiences involved with Jojo and Elsa’s story but never lets them get ahead of the action.  We all know how the war ended but I had no idea where their stories would wind up.  The outcome surprised me and was par for the course with the rest of the film which never followed the path I thought it would.

Walking the fine line of comedy are a strong roster of actors, some appearing only in brief cameos.  Stephan Merchant (Logan) and Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic) may pop in for a moment but they each get at least one hefty laugh; Wilson in particular gets one of the best jokes in the entire movie.  While I like Rockwell and feel he’s been on a nice roll the past few years, his role here skewed a bit too farcical compared to the other players.  On the other hand, I often struggle with Johansson but found her work as Jojo’s strong-willed but vulnerable mother to be incredibly moving.  The real stars are McKenzie and Griffin who carry the film with conviction – two young talents handling difficult subject matter but doing so with a mature sophistication.  Really stellar work.

Expected to be a major player at the Oscars, Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. In the last 11 years, 10 of the winners have received a Best Picture Oscar Nomination.  It will certainly divide people and that’s a good thing because even with the satire carefully identified it might not be the movie for you, but I’d hate to see the movie discounted solely for the fact that people didn’t get it’s sardonic tones.  Waititi adapted, produced, directed, and stars in this and deserves some credit for magically making something so audacious work so well.

Movie Review ~ Lucy in the Sky


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Astronaut Lucy Cola returns to Earth after a transcendent experience during a mission to space, and begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Coleman Domingo, Tig Notaro, Jeffrey Donovan, Ellen Burstyn

Director: Noah Hawley

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems that in Hollywood they have a much easier time giving men kudos for taking on challenging work and, more specifically, challenging characters.  I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen based on buzz touting the leading man doing something extraordinary by going the extra mile for a role or disappearing deep within a character.  Hold on to your knickers if that same actor appears as someone unlikable or unrelatable because that’s where the awards chatter begins.  Even in 2019, there are several actors being mentioned for major awards that are doing good work but…work that’s awards worthy?  I’m not so sure.

Natalie Portman has always been an interesting actress to me.  Feeling wise beyond her years from a young age, she managed to bypass the teenage comedies that stunted many of her peers and graduated to adult fare and populist entertainment early in her career.  Nabbing an Oscar-nomination at 23 for Closer before winning one at 29 for Black Swan, Portman never settled into one genre or budget-range, preferring to choose projects based on the scripts and directors instead.  She didn’t get quite enough praise for the divisive Annihilation in 2018 and, well, the less said about the annoying Vox Lux, the better. I was hoping Lucy in the Sky would be a return to the kind of Portman performance I had enjoyed in the past, one that was a little more grounded and connected.

The biggest problem I found in this story loosely (very loosely, it turns out) inspired by the true-life story of a NASA astronaut that traveled thousands of miles and assaulted the mistress of her married lover and former co-worker was that it strayed so far from the truth.  I can understand changing some of the details to protect the innocent but screenwriters Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, and Noah Hawley (who also directed) have made so many bone-headed changes that what remains is only a sanitized shadow of what really happened.  Also, one important (and, ok, sensationalized) detail has been completely excised.  So the story has been reduced to just another spurned lover tale we’ve seen done countless times before.

Astronaut Lucy Cola has returned to Earth after a journey to space that has left her, as it has many, a changed person.  As she shares with her fellow astronauts, things just don’t look the same on the ground once you’ve seen the entire globe from space.  Living in Texas with her husband and a niece left with them by her irresponsible brother, Lucy sets her sights on returning to space on the next mission in order to feel that same high she felt before.  During her highly competitive and intensive training, she finds a connection with Mark, another astronaut readying for his own mission and the two begin an affair that will cause Lucy to spin-out of the orbit she has set herself in.  Now, as she feels her stability going out of balance and feeling pressure from Erin, a younger recruit, just as eager as she once was, Lucy’s actions get more erratic until she makes series of decisions that will forever change the course of her life.

Always a problem inherent in movies with cheating spouses is that the cheaters face an uphill battle from the audience when they finally have the face the music.  Are we supposed to feel sorry for these characters for getting caught up in a mess of their own making?  Do we excuse Lucy (Portman) walking out on her husband (Dan Stevens, Apostle) because he’s too…nice?  What about Erin (Zazie Beetz, Joker), Lucy’s competition at work vying for a spot in the next space shuttle mission and for the attention of Mark (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm)?  How much does she factor into what ultimately happens between Lucy and Mark?  Ultimately, aren’t all of these people (save for maybe the jilted husband) kind of awful in their own way?  Hawley also awkwardly places Lucy’s niece on the frontlines for much of this action, alternately as an observer and as a participant and that feels like an inconsiderate adjustment to this story.  Involving a pre-teen in this adult sphere of responsibility isn’t appropriate, no matter how out of touch Lucy begins to get.

Hawley has assembled a hard-working cast that feels like they were possibly signed up for a different kind of movie.  Though it starts with some promise, it eventually comes apart at the seams and not rapidly…it’s a slow slog to the finish line. Along the way there are some quite good scenes with Portman convincingly speaking about how much harder it is for women to get ahead in her line of work and conveying the desperation for perfection and achievement.  I also enjoyed what little we see of Ellen Burstyn (Interstellar), though Hawley seems to only want to use her for a few foul-mouthed punchlines.  The more manic the film gets in its latter half, the weirder Portman’s Texan twang gets and I have to wonder if it wasn’t almost intentional.  It’s as if she’s learned to tone down her drawl to compose herself but when she starts to unravel she reverts back to a Yosemite Sam pattern of speech.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say Lucy in the Sky represents the kind of performance that should get Portman the same kind of accolades she received for Jackie or her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan but it is representative of the kind of askew work she seems inherently drawn toward.  Despite a brief foray in recent years into Marvel blockbuster territory with Thor and Thor: The Dark World, Portman has squarely appeared in harder sell pics that take some time to warm up to.  Portman can’t seem to help herself in taking on women with rough exteriors that are cool to the touch but have a fire burning inside waiting to be released.  That she’s found a way to make each one distinct in the way they go about freeing themselves from turmoil is a testament to her creative approach.  It doesn’t quite work to her advantage ultimately in Lucy in the Sky but I can’t imagine anyone else attempting it with such force.

The Silver Bullet ~ Antlers



Synopsis
: A young teacher discovers her troubled student’s father and younger brother harbor a deadly supernatural secret. Taking the boy into her care, the teacher must fight for their survival against horrors beyond imagination.

Release Date:  TBD 2020

Thoughts: Never judge a book by it’s cover and never judge a movie by its title.  The first time I heard about a horror film coming out called Antlers, I wrote it off as another nature run amok schlock fest.

Wait though, take a look at that poster.  It’s kind of creepy and a little intriguing.  Ooo…it’s produced by Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toto (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)?  It’s starring Keri Russell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and Jesse Plemons (Game Night), two interesting actors that seemingly make intelligent, thoughtful choices on their projects?  Hey now, you say it’s directed by Scott Cooper, the same guy that gave us Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace and it’s being distributed by indie offshoot Fox Searchlight?  Ok, but let’s wait and see about the trailer.

(Watches trailer with its eerie imagery and scant details that give little about the plot away that hasn’t already been provided in the promotional materials.)

OK. I’m sold.

Movie Review ~ Ready or Not


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A bride’s wedding night takes a sinister turn when her eccentric new in-laws force her to take part in a terrifying game.

Stars: Samara Weaving, Andie MacDowell, Mark O’Brien, Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Nicky Guadagni

Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of people are planning end of summer bashes to celebrate the highs and lows of the last few months.  After all, before it’s time to settle into more serious fall endeavors, it’s nice to be able to blow off some steam with a devil-may-care bit of frivolity.  When Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw barreled into theaters a few weeks back, I thought that would be the fun party to send a rather middling summer off with a bang…but it turns out there was one final blowout waiting around the corner.  Though it was made for a fraction of the budget of the majority of movies released over the past three months, Ready or Not bests them all with its dark sense of humor and creativity.

As I mentioned in my review of the spoiler-heavy trailer for Ready or Not, I was nervous going in the filmmakers had given away too much of the plot too soon.  Coming out on the other side of the credits I can say that yes, some fun moments have been diminished if you’ve been exposed to the preview too often but, surprisingly, it didn’t lessen the impact the movie had overall.  While some horror movies released to theaters are perfectly fine to pass on in favor of waiting for home consumption, this is one of the rare cases of a genre title you would benefit from seeing in a theater packed with like-minded individuals out for a good time.  My audience ate it up and I’ll bet would be willing to come back for seconds.

At a trim 95 minutes, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett waste no time introducing us to Grace (Samara Weaving, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as she rehearses her vows before her wedding.  Marrying the estranged scion of wealthy family that made their fortune off board games and other profitable endeavors, she can already tell her in-laws will be a handful.  An orphan that grew up in the foster care system, she loves her fiancé Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, Bad Times at the El Royale) and is willing to put up with a few days of weirdness at the massive Le Domas estate in exchange for a lifetime of happiness and the promise of a permanent family.  With their engagement, Alex has returned to his family with his bride-to-be in tow and though his mother (Andie MacDowell, Magic Mike XXL) is happy to have her son back the rest of the family seems curiously on edge.

Later that evening, before the bride and groom can enjoy their first night together, Alex lets Grace know about a family tradition all new members must go through at the stroke of midnight.  Grace will have to play a game with them, a game to be chosen through a secret ceremony, and while she initially laughs off this requirement as another Le Domas quirk, the actualities of what await her are the stuff nightmares (and entertaining horror films) are made of.  Unfortunately for Grace, the game she’s selected to play is the deadliest one of all and it sets the stage for a hunt that takes no prisoners and might not leave any survivors.  You see, the Le Domas family is no ordinary self-made clan but one that came to their status with a little…help.  It’s this assistance the family is willing to kill to protect and before she knows it, Grace is playing hide and seek from a pack of vicious psychos with varying degrees of bloodlust.

Surprisingly, first time feature screenwriters Guy Busick & Ryan Murphy (no, not that Ryan Murphy) manage to pack an amazing amount of exposition and ideas in without slowing down the action too much.  There’s an astounding array of backstory and context provided and it all makes sense in a weird, twisted way.  The characters they’ve etched out are kooky but deadly and, when put in the hands of a game ensemble of actors, spring to life.  You never are quite sure if all the family members are playing the game or playing along and that helps extend the mystery surrounding the origin of the game longer than I expected it to.  With the huge mansion’s hidden passages and shadowy hallways, you feel just as in the moment as Grace does, not knowing who will pop out when or what awaits her around the next corner.  Or what weapon they’ll be wielding.

Weaving is well-cast as Grace, ably taking on the pursued with a mixture of strength and fragility.  Though she’s running for her life around the house and grounds in her increasingly tattered wedding dress, she always has an air of, well, grace about her and that makes her an endearing heroine.  It helps that she’s not been written like a limp noodle, obviously drawing from her self-sufficient past to steel herself in the present fighting off these family fiends.   O’Brien, too, works well as the son knowing the secrets of his family but hoping his new bride can overcome years of passed down history and stay alive.  MacDowell and Henry Czerny had some good moments as Alex’s parents but the film is continually stolen by Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, a scowling shock-haired relative who doesn’t have time to mince words.  Guadagni has some incredibly well-timed line deliveries and is at the center of the film’s biggest shocker and most satisfying moment.

Obviously working on a small budget, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett stretch their monies to give Ready or Not a handsome and gothic-lite look.  Filming in Canada and using a number of local actors and crew, they’ve also invested wisely in stand-out make-up effects that give the blood and violence an extra amount of oomph.  There are two scenes of gore in particular that I had to watch through squinted eyes.  Even their finale managed to stay true to the tone of what came before, finding a well-timed laugh amidst an unexpected bit of shock and mayhem.  While I would have wanted perhaps a bit more polish on the film as a whole, particularly in the final act, I left the theater wholly satisfied and ready to play this game again.  I can see this one having high replay value and Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are clearly a team that will rise in demand for more clever work in this genre.

Movie Review ~ The Aftermath


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Post World War II, a British colonel and his wife are assigned to live in Hamburg during the post-war reconstruction, but tensions arise with the German who previously owned the house.

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Kate Phillips, Alexander Scheer, Tom Bell

Director: James Kent

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you glanced at the poster for The Aftermath and thought it was going to be more prestigious than it actually turns out being. I mean, you have period dramas #1 go-to-gal Keira Knightly front and center looking striking flanked by the brooding stares of Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgård. If you did further investigation you’d find out it was a post-WWII drama adapted from a bestseller which adds a little more fuel to the thinking that this would be a decent bit of counter-programming for a discerning adult audience as we move into the spring movie season. Alas, despite some handsome production values and the presence of the aforementioned stars, The Aftermath comes up far short of being anything to get excited about. Just a few steps up from a television soapy melodrama, it’s a strikingly ordinary bit of filmmaking that doesn’t bother to uncover the rich layers suggested by the source material or the performances the actors are trying to give.

Based on Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name, the film opens with Rachael (Knightley, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) traveling to Hamburg to meet her husband Lewis (Clarke, All I See Is You), a colonel in the British Armed Forces. The couple lost their only child during the war as the result of a Nazi attack so Rachael traveling to the heart of Germany is anything but a welcome journey for the still-grieving mother. As she travels by train, she sees the devastating impact the war has had not just on the physical structures but on the emotions of the people that were left behind. Now, after its defeat, the country has begun the arduous process of rebuilding their cities under the watchful eye of foreign nationals.

Lewis has commandeered a sprawling mansion for his military operation in Hamburg, which displaces the owner of the house a widowed German architect Stefan (Skarsgård, The Legend of Tarzan) and his young daughter, Susan (Flora Thiemann). Surprisingly, instead of fully asking Stefan to leave, Lewis attempts to forge new lines of compassion and allows the father and daughter to stay in the attic. This drives a deeper wedge between Lewis and Rachael, who can’t believe her husband is taking pity on anyone that might have been a Nazi sympathizer, though Stefan claims he was not. Eventually, Rachael begins to soften not only to Susan but to Stefan and before you know it…there’s a love triangle afoot.

Having not read the book, I’m not sure how many liberties director James Kent and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse took with the source material. Certainly there’s a decent set-up for a steamy romance between Germany and Great Britain but it’s handled in such a paint-by-numbers manner that there’s no thrill to any of it. At first, Rachael can’t stand Stefan but then she gets to know him and, guess what, she starts to like him! To their credit, Knightely and Skarsgård do their darndest to drum up some sparks but their early friction fails to lead to a bonfire of passion when they get down to it. Skarsgård especially looks totally lost and unsure how to handle a character that should be more complex than the screenwriters make him out to be. Only Clarke manages to work his way toward something interesting, presenting a man trying to forget the painful memories of his past by losing himself in the present.

The Aftermath may turn out to be one of those films you make time for on a sick day when you want a starry drama but don’t feel like investing too much in anything happening on screen. You could honestly fall asleep for part of the movie and wake-up without losing much in the way of plot. Some movies are slow-burns, this one is just slow.

Movie Review ~ The Old Man & the Gun


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Based on the true story of Forrest Tucker and his audacious escape from San Quentin at the age of 70 to an unprecedented string of heists that confounded authorities and enchanted the public.

Stars: Robert Redford, Casey R, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Tom Waits, Elisabeth Moss

Director: David Lowery

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Hollywood legend Robert Redford has decided to call it quits (at least in the acting department) so The Old Man & the Gun can safely be considered his silver screen swan song.  And what a way to go.  Redford (The Company You Keep) stars as Forrest Tucker, a career criminal working with two other men (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) responsible for a series of bank robberies.  When he wasn’t breaking out of prison he was eluding the authorities, all while keeping much of his personal life a secret.  We meet up with Tucker in his later years as his bank robbing days are drawing to a close and he’s contemplating hanging it all up for good.  Helping him with this decision is a burgeoning romance with Jewel (Sissy Spacek, Carrie) who presents an alternative future for him that doesn’t have to involve constantly being on the run from the law.

Casey Affleck (The Finest Hours) is the police detective assigned to the case and we get a peek into his life at home as well, a nice benefit audiences usually aren’t afforded in these quiet types of movies.  Usually, if the family of a police officer is featured prominently in a movie it means they are in some sort of danger down the road but writer-director David Lowrey (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon) has them in the picture to help give Affleck’s character the same depth afforded to Redford’s.

Redford skated so close to an Oscar nomination for All is Lost several years back and it’s looking likely he’ll miss the cut again this year.  His work is so good in The Old Man & the Gun that it would be a shame for it to go unnoticed because the film and the actor have quite a spring in their step.

Movie Review ~ Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Lee Israel falls out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella

Director: Marielle Heller

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I know we’re always supposed to be able to gaze beyond the actor and see them for more than their past roles but there was a moment in Can You Ever Forgive Me? that I looked at its star Melissa McCarthy and marveled that this was the same actress that frantically pooped in a sink in her Oscar nominated turn in Bridesmaids.  Though McCarthy has spent the years after her nomination in mostly comedic roles (Tammy, The Boss, The Heat, Life of the Party), she takes a striking detour for this true story based on the autobiography of author Lee Israel.  Gone (mostly) are the overzealous line readings desperate for laughs and the physical humor that had her laughing before we could.  In its place is an honesty McCarthy hasn’t yet showed on screen but is wholly appreciated.

In 1991 Lee Israel was a struggling writer of biographies.  Though she was a New York Times bestselling author, she’s suffering from a serious case of writer’s block and her agent (a brilliantly sardonic Jane Curtin) finally levels with her that ‘no one wants a biography on Fanny Brice’.  If Israel can’t find another topic to write about (and fix her brusque personality at the same time) her agent can no longer advocate for her with publishing houses.  Faced with unpaid rent and a sick cat, Lee resorts to selling a personal letter she received from Katherine Hepburn to a local collector, Anna (Dolly Wells, Bridget Jones’ Baby). When she comes across several letters stashed away in her materials on Fanny Brice and then nabs some more cash for those, Israel comes up with a plan.  She can use her own literary talents to falsify personal letters from celebrities and sell them to the collector willing to pay cash.  Soon, she’s writing in the style of Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Marlene Dietrich and seeing her bills disappear.  Looping in sometime friend and drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) to her scheme, her ambitions get loftier even while her grand plan starts to crumble around her.

Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) really gets the aesthetic of the material and creates a rather sad view of New York in the early ‘90s.  There’s little color to the film and it’s mostly played out in bars, bookshops, and apartments that have the kind of authenticity often difficult to convey on film.  She’s aided by the marvelous script from Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) who hone in on the personal problems the otherwise verbose Israel kept packed away.  There’s hardly one false or extraneous line of dialogue here, the hallmark of a well-crafted screenplay.  Adding to the atmosphere is Nate Heller’s jazz infused score that manages to mirror the inner thoughts of our characters and sets them to orchestral music.

In her mousy brown bowl cut and dull clothes that feel like constraining armor, McCarthy totally disappears into Israel and turns in her most accomplished work to date.  Israel was an out lesbian unlucky in love (largely by her own doing) and the mature unexpected flirtation between Israel and Anna will have you rooting for her not to mess it up.  By all accounts Israel kept most people at an arm’s length and a conversation with her former lover (the fantastic Anna Deavere Smith) gives great insight into what it was like to be her partner.  All of these nuanced moments are handled expertly by McCarthy.

As Jack Hock, Grant also has several brilliant moments to shine. Whether its smooth talking his way into Israel’s inner circle of one or sweet-talking collectors into buying Israel’s fake letters once they refuse to buy from her directly, he’s utterly captivating.  With his purring voice and steely eyes, Grant’s Hock is always playing either for fun or for his own benefit.  When Hock makes an honest mistake and gets upbraided by Israel for it, you can see the hurt and embarrassment he feels at failing a person he considered a friend.

In fact, Can You Ever Forvgive Me? doesn’t have one bad performance in the bunch.  Even the smallest roles are cast to perfection and many familiar character actors pop up in small parts.  I especially liked Curtin’s beleaguered agent who is maybe too nice to fully give Israel the boot but doesn’t hold back when giving her honest advice.  Then there’s Wells as the sensitive Anna who takes a liking to Israel, willing to look beyond the rough exterior and hoping to get a glance at what’s underneath.

I went into the movie not totally sure what ended up to the real Israel and I’d advise you to do the same.  Not knowing creates some genuine tension and I found myself unbelievably rooting for her to get away with it all because McCarthy has moved us to be squarely on her side.  This is a crowded year for acting recognition and while Grant is sure to get an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn it’s not a sure thing that McCarthy will be on the final list for Best Actress.  That would be a shame because, like Bridesmaids, this is a chance to reward an actress for bringing an unexpected performance to the screen.

Movie Review ~ The Shape of Water


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a 1960s research facility, a mute janitor forms a relationship with an aquatic creature.

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: First impressions are everything and the underwater opening shot of The Shape of Water got in good with me.  Over the credits, director Guillermo del Toro navigates us through hallways submerged in water as if hazily coming out of a dream before revealing that’s exactly what’s happening.  It’s a beautifully artsy way to introduce his adult fairy tale and it sets a tone that’s well-maintained throughout.  This is an artisan that knows his way around strong visuals but sometimes struggles with a narrative to match those impressive sights.  Over-indulging with Pacific Rim but bouncing back nicely with the criminally underrated Crimson Peak, del Toro reaches new heights (or depths?) with The Shape of Water.

Living above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) has been mute since an injury as an infant left her unable to speak.  It’s a quiet life ruled by routine, whether it be her standard breakfast or her “personal” time she makes sure to take every day.  Her job is mundane but she has a friendly co-worker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station) and Giles, a kindly closeted neighbor to keep her company.

The lives of all three are altered significantly by the arrival of a secret experiment into the research facility.  A living, breathing sea-monster has been captured in South America and has been brought to the test center to be studied, observed, dissected.  Under the watchful eye of the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and the scholarly interest of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Trumbo), the creature is kept chained in a tank and routinely tortured by his captor.

While cleaning the laboratory one night, Elisa connects with the creature and sees kindness in him where others see fear.  Over the next days they find a common language that leads to deeper understanding and maybe…love.  Set during the height of the Cold War with the threat of Russian spies everywhere, Strickland takes no chances in protecting his find at all costs, so when Elisa hatches an escape plan for the creature and brings Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins, White House Down) along as her co-conspirators, they face an obsessive hunter out for blood.

As is typical of a del Toro picture, the period details are precise down to the backsplash tiles in Elisa’s apartment.  An ardent fan of monster movies from Universal Studios, del Toro has intelligently put together this picture as a loving homage to his youth while relaying a very present message of acceptance at the same time.  The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), is filled with main characters that would be considered outsiders, or “other”, yet their position in the plot isn’t there to exploit what makes them different.  There’s even a sweet scene where fantasy and reality collide when Elisa imagines herself in a big budget Hollywood musical, featuring the creature as her dance partner.  It’s these bits of whimsy that parallel nicely with the darker turns the film takes in its final half hour.

Hawkins has next to no dialogue but conveys so much in her expressive face.  It’s difficult stuff to invite an audience so far inward but Hawkins has the goods to captivate us throughout.  While Spencer has played (and will continue to play) this type of whip-smart tough cookie roles before, there’s an added layer of angst in her personal life that ups the ante for her.  Jenkins continues to be a value add to any project he’s involved with, his gay illustrator longs for any kind of connection and his personal and professional rejections are heartbreaking to watch.  If all goes to plan, Stuhlbarg will be in three movies nominated for Best Picture this year (Call Me by Your Name and The Post being the others) and as a man harboring dangerous secrets he’s resplendent as always.  No one plays a nasty villain quite like Michael Shannon and while I’d long for a chance to see him play a Giles-like role someday, he’s a nice nemesis for Hawkins and company.

There’s going to be those that find the romantic relationship that develops between Elisa and the creature (marvelously played by Doug Jones, Hocus Pocus) to be troubling.  On the way out of the screening I heard one audience member remark they weren’t aware the movie was about bestiality and honestly, to reduce the movie to that is missing the mark entirely, especially when you take into account the open-for-further discussion ending.  I found the relationships between all of the characters incredibly moving and authentic, especially the dandy scene with Elisa pleading with Giles to help her save the creature.  If they know what’s happening is wrong and do nothing to help him, what makes them any better that Strickland and others who want to destroy something that is different?  It’s a lesson our country needs to hear right now and del Toro knows it.

Movie Review ~ Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes

Director: Martin McDonagh

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I’m going to not-so-secretly admit something I’ve been holding inside for a few decades now, I never understood why Frances McDormand won Best Actress for Fargo in 1996.  Now, I don’t want to take anything away from McDormand because she’s been a consistent actress since she began but I’ve been scratching my head over the years about that win (maybe that’s why my bald spot grows bigger each year…).  Sure, her performance was rock solid and deserving of attention but I always felt it was more of supporting role that landed in the wrong category in an otherwise weak year.  I’m ok with it…I just don’t understand it.

Now that we have that out of the way, let me say that McDormand’s performance in the new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is truly one for the record books and worthy of all the awards that can be thrown at her.  This will, I’m sure, enrage McDormand (Promised Land) to no end seeing as how in interviews she laments these types of accolades but if ever there was a role best suited for her, it’s this one.  Mildred Hayes is wily, profane, blunt, and honest and McDormand pulls absolutely no punches as she takes this woman through an emotional journey that might not heal her broken heart but slaps a strong band-aid on it so she can solider on.

At the start of the movie, Mildred is driving on a backcountry road near her house that isn’t used as much now that a new highway has gone in.  Noticing three billboards in disrepair displaying fragments of advertisements from years past, she gets an idea that sparks a furor in town, reopening old wounds for the town that have never healed for Hayes and her family.  Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered and no one has as of yet been brought to justice.  The police don’t even have any suspects or leads to go off of.  Feeling like the justice system has failed her, she rents space on the billboards and puts up two statements and a question meant to shock the police force and it’s chief (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2, in a damn fine performance) into action.

Action is taken all right, but the energy generated is more toward Mildred and creating various forms of pressure put on her to take the billboards down.  Most of the town loves its revered family man chief of police, especially his troubled deputy (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) who takes the billboards as a personal attack.  Already in trouble with a police brutality charge likely racially motivated, the deputy becomes unhinged and is willing to do whatever it takes not to help Mildred’s cause but to impel her into silence.  Lucky for her (and us), Mildred isn’t one to back down as she shows when a dentist friend of the chief chastises her and then attempts some oral surgery without anesthetic.

Director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh scored a sizable indie hit with 2008’s In Bruges and followed that up with the clever Seven Psychopaths.  As he’s shown in film and even more with his skilled plays, McDonagh isn’t afraid of a little blood, violence, and profanity and he brings the big guns to Ebbing.  People get burned, shot, bloodied, thrown out second floor windows, and most of those are only periphery characters.  All that brutality might be something to recoil from but McDonagh balances the bloodshed with multiple emotional punches to the gut in the form of developments you’ll be hard pressed to see coming.

This is a twisty, twisted narrative and it works throughout the film.  When you get to go to a lot of movies each year you begin to see sameness to what you’re watching but with Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri I felt like I was seeing a picture with a purpose.  The performances are note-perfect (especially anytime McDormand and Rockwell share the screen) with effective supporting turns from John Hawkes (Lincoln) and Mildred’s ex-husband, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) playing their son, Peter Dinklage (The Boss) as Mildred’s would-be suitor, and Clarke Peters (John Wick) as another police chief who comes into play late in the film.  I also enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) as the man who rents the billboards out to Mildred and pays a costly fee and Sandy Martin (Lovelace) as Rockwell’s ornery mother. For a movie so bleak it can be hard to stick an effective ending in but McDonagh manages to tie the picture up without a tidy bow that remains wholly satisfying.

With the emotional knob cranked up to 12, this isn’t an easy movie to watch but it’s one I can’t recommend highly enough.  It’s a story that feels like it could happen anywhere and, sadly, probably has and that makes it all the more resonant to this viewer.

Movie Review ~ Goodbye Christopher Robin

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A behind-the-scenes look at the life of author A.A. Milne and the creation of the Winnie the Pooh stories inspired by his son C.R. Milne.

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Stephen Campbell Moore, Alex Lawther, Richard McCabe, Nico Mirallegro, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Director: Simon Curtis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Lord, do I love Winnie the Pooh. A longtime fan of that honey-loving bear, I admit that I first came to the Hundred-Acre wood via the now-frightening live-action television series that first aired on the Disney Channel. Remember that one? The one with the puppets that rarely blinked and sometimes talked without moving their mouths? I watched a few minutes of an episode recently and was aghast at how scary it was to me as an adult, obviously I was much less critical (and less easily terrified) when I was six or seven. Anyway, I digress. What I mean to say is that it was only as I became an adult that I went back to the works of A.A. Milne and read the source material that served as a jumping off point for Disney animators and Imagineers.

So that’s all a preface to say that I had high hopes for Goodbye Christopher Robin, a look into the life of the famous author and his family and how he created the world of a hungry bear and his forest dwelling friends. While the early previews promised a heart-tugging drama (don’t worry, hearts are tugged are tears are shed) it didn’t hint that the film winds up to be pretty boring in its heavy first half before finally finding its footing nearly an hour into its runtime.

Coming back from the first World War, playwright Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) struggles to adjust back to civilian life. His socialite wife Daphne (Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad) not so much longs for a child but thinks that it will do her marriage good. The arrival of Christopher Robin Milne (first played by Will Tilston, then by Alex Lawther) is a rough one, mostly because it’s hinted that Daphne wasn’t aware exactly where babies come from…literally. Quickly hiring a nanny nicknamed Nou (Kelly MacDonald, Brave), the parents resume their showbiz lifestyle, often leaving their son for weeks on end as they travel.

It’s only when Milne grows tired of “making people life” and after he moves his family to a beautiful estate in the English countryside that the father is forced to get to know his son. With his wife flying the coop back to London after becoming exasperated at his sluggish ways and Nou off to care for her ailing mother, Milne starts to explore the woods and that’s when the stories are born. First as a play-game and then put to paper and illustrated, the tales of Christopher Robin and his woodland friends become a sensation, blurring the lines between the real boy and the boy featured in his father’s books. This creates a growing resentment from Christopher Robin that permeates his entire childhood, a childhood that may have been stolen away by a limelight he didn’t ask for.

Director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) along with screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan front load the movie with too much Milne moping. A.A. and Daphne are painted as such neglectful ninnies that your heart goes out to their son that can’t find a way into their social circle. Raised to be caring and compassionate by his adored nanny, his life is ultimately sheltered which makes the instant celebrity he achieves so difficult to deal with. Excellently played by young Tilston, the movie takes off when he’s center stage and the same goes for anytime MacDonald is onscreen (why people aren’t mentioning her for an Oscar nom is beyond me) as the sole voice of reason.

I’m not sure if it’s because Robbie is so painfully miscast that her character comes off so horribly but it’s got to factor into the equation. Robbie is a bit of a puzzle actress, she’s never great but seems to be given the benefit of the doubt in Hollywood more often than she should. She’s certainly terrible here, botching her accent and aging too gracefully as the years pass by. When Gleeson ditches his eternal scowl he becomes a tolerable presence but both A.A. and Daphne were so clueless to the pain they were causing their son that it’s a hard thing for an actor to overcome without some blowback.

Goodbye Christopher Robin’s middle section that explains how these fondly remembered characters were created is the best part while it’s poor opening and rushed closing provide an imbalance that the movie can’t recover from. Truth be told it has some emotional heft as it nears the conclusion, but it doesn’t feel totally earned and the tears are delivered via a fairly manipulative plot device that might put some audience members off. I for one was a little miffed at the game that was being played, I just wanted to know more about why the characters were playing it to begin with.