Movie Review ~ Promising Young Woman

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The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Emerald Fennell

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Like a Boss


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Best friends Mia and Mel run their own cosmetics company — a business they built from the ground up. But they’re also in over their heads financially, and the prospect of a buyout offer from an industry titan proves too tempting to pass up.

Stars: Rose Byrne, Tiffany Haddish, Salma Hayek, Billy Porter, Jennifer Coolidge, Karan Soni, Ari Graynor, Jessica St. Clair, Natasha Rothwell

Director: Miguel Arteta

Rated: R

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I always get a little nervous when I rip off the December 31 page on my calendar and see that I’ve come to the end of another year.  It’s not because of any resolutions I’ve made or due to price increases on insurance/rent/medical benefits/you name it, no, it’s something else entirely.  I know that when January 1 rolls around the movie landscape changes from studios trying hard to push out their best products for award consideration to their driving their dump trucks straight into your local theater.  It’s long been known that the first few months of the year are a good time to get rid of movies that could have issues or ones the executives have little faith in.  Maybe a film has been sitting on the shelf for several months and there’s a perfect weekend in January when nothing else like it is coming out (I’m looking at you, Dolittle), perhaps the end of the year holiday schedule was just too busy and they couldn’t wait for summer so why not let ‘er rip now (Bad Boys for Life)…you get the picture.

In the last few years, though, there has been an interesting turning of the tides and not every movie released in the first several weeks of the year are those surefire turkeys.  The barren wasteland of January has started to find some green and the studio heads have caught on that a tidy profit can be made with the right marketing and a keen sense of counter-programming.  That had to be the thinking behind getting the new raunchy comedy Like a Boss in position to open against big-time Oscar favorite 1917 during its opening weekend.  Made for ¼ of the budget of that wartime epic, this 83 minute (well, 79-ish without credits) comedy is a surprisingly pleasing bit of drop-in entertainment that succeeds on the merits of its appealing stars.

Mel (Rose Byrne, Spy) and Mia (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip) are life-long friends, roommates, and business partners.  Not a lot has come between them over the years and they’ve parlayed their yin/yang relationship into a marginally successful cosmetics company.  Mel is the more corporate focused of the two, with Mia contributing to the creative aspects, though both are shown to be well-informed business women that do their homework when it comes to where their money is going and who is controlling it.  In their late 30’s but living life like they’re still in their early 20’s, their friends wish they’d settle down even if that means spending less time together outside of work.

Just as Mel is about to tell Mia their business is suffering a cash flow problem, a messenger from the multi-million dollar Claire Luna industry (Karan Soni, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) arrives and lets the women know Claire has been following their business and wants to own a piece of their company.  Mel is ecstatic, seeing this as the miracle solution they needed while Mia is wary of the quirky Claire getting into bed with the dynamic duo.  Turns out she should be worried because Claire (Salma Hayek, Savages) has her eyes on more than just a piece of Mel and Mia…and she’ll resort to dirty tricks to get what she wants.

If this all sounds like the set-up for a ABC sitcom or a rejected sequel to Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (and there’s another connection to that movie in here as well) then I don’t think you’d be too far off the mark.  There’s little meat to the plot bones but the script by relative newcomers Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly is fast paced and amusing.  I’ll get back to the three leads but in addition to them, the supporting players are all aces.  Jennifer Coolidge (Austenland) and scene-stealing Billy Porter as employees of the ladies are put to good use, delivering some silly one-liners but not overstaying their screen welcome.  I also enjoyed a trio of wedded gal pal confidants for the ladies played by Jessica St. Clair (Wanderlust), Ari Graynor (The Guilt Trip), and Natasha Rothwell (Love, Simon) who are there to listen and respond, and blessedly aren’t armed with a repulsive anecdote about married life.  Usually these domesticated female characters are there to show what frigid harpies they’ve become since getting hitched but thankfully the script allows them to be genuine.  Credit also to the screenwriters as well for not pushing a front and center love interest  – it would have been so easy to complicate things by giving one of the women a boyfriend from one of the rival beauty companies Claire handles but that would just shift the focus from the central friendship and make the movie longer in the process.

The movie is about our lead trio though and director Miguel Arteta (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) brings out some interesting sides to each.  We all know Haddish can navigate her way around a punchline and a litany of filthy jokes (if you can make it through the first five minutes of the movie you’ll be fine) but Arteta doesn’t just let her stay in that wacky zone forever.  She has several serious moments that believably resonate and it fits her well.  I’ve always gotten the impression that Byrne has a penchant for these kind of comedic roles and she looks to be having fun with her time in Like a Boss.  She gets to sing, dance, and battle a drone…though I do wish she wasn’t again cast as the more unlikeable person of a duo.

The sheer reason to see the movie, however, is for Hayek’s bonkers turn as Claire Luna.  In a flame colored wig (the end of which I could often see coming up off her forehead, incidentally), brassy contacts, and stuffed into a mélange of tight clothes and sky high shoes Hayek bulldozes through each scene she’s in and I can’t tell if it’s terrible or brilliant but I know I loved it.  It’s one of those bold character choices only an actress completely confident and without a shred of doubt in her work could make and Hayek has shown over and over again she’s that kind of actress.  Just watch the way she interacts with each person and piece of scenery throughout — this is someone that has truly thought about what she’s bringing to the set.  It’s an unpredictable delight.

It’s easy to find the things to pick apart in the film and I admit I thought I’d come out on the other side of seeing Like a Boss with a list of things about it I didn’t care for.  I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed myself, though, because it felt like a nice palate cleanser from the last few months, which is exactly what I think it was intended as.  It’s certainly not the best work any of these actors will do nor will it make any kind of best (or worst) list when we rip off that December 31 page of 2020 but for what it is and where we are now, it gets the job done.

Movie Review ~ Austenland

austenland

The Facts:

Synopsis: Obsessed with the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”, a woman travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman.

Stars: Keri Russell, J.J. Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, Rupert Vansittart, Georgia King

Director: Jerusha Hess

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy…rough waters ahead my dear readers.  Look, I’m no Jane Austen purist so I’m totally in favor for all these new slants on the world that Austen has created.  You want some Zombies with your Pride and Prejudice?  Great!  How about putting a few Sea Monsters in Sense and Sensibility?  Go for it!  Have an idea to take Emma and morph it into a high school comedy with valley girls Beverly Hills?  Go write Clueless!  Just for the love of Mr. Darcy, make it interesting…and good.

Sadly, the makers of Austenland didn’t heed my advice and instead have brought Shannon Hale’s novel (which I haven’t read) to gloomy life in a film that with this cast and this story would have been better suited to play on the Lifetime channel.  Everything about the film is mediocre, from the milquetoast lead performance of Keri Russell to the bland direction from Jerusha Hess (making her directing debut after co-writing Napoleon Dynamite and the epically awful Nacho Libre).

The exceedingly thin set-up has our Austen-obsessed leading lady (named Jane, natch) who blows her entire life-savings on an immersive experience at Austenland, a retreat in England that caters to every custom of the time period in which Austen’s characters lived.  It’s a very novel (pun!) concept, actually, that’s sadly not taken as seriously as is necessary if the writers had really wanted to go the distance.  I would have preferred the film be truly immersive and have these modern characters go without any modern trappings and show what comedy comes from the complete absence of the 21st century influences.  Instead we have a film with its high button shoes planted ungainly in both time periods.

For a film that’s idolizing one of the most popular female writers in history, the women are probably the least interesting people on screen.  In addition to Russell’s non-mesmerizing turn we have Jennifer Coolidge recycling her dim-bulb shtick that gets old before the actress has time to squeeze herself into a corset. Every facial expression, every line reading is given a hypodermic shot of Looney Tunes (the animated kind, not the state of mind) and it rubs you the wrong way like parmesan cheese on a rusty cheese grater.  One notch down from Coolidge is Georgia King (from the dreadful and thankfully cancelled TV comedy The New Normal) who plays her character as if Marilyn Monroe had waltzed into Mansfield Park.  Literally hopping from one scene to the next, King’s comedy is more puzzling than hilarious.  Jane Seymour’s (Live and Let Die) role is so uninteresting that the movie itself forgets about her two thirds of the way through.

If the movie has any success, it’s thanks to the men.  As the man standing in for the Mr. Darcy type, JJ Feild gets nearly everything right…from his initial exasperation at another troupe of ladies arriving in the fantastically designed countryside estate to his gradual realization that he’s kinda falling for Jane (though she’s so wishy-washy you have to wonder why).  Flitting through his dandy role, James Callis is tasked with fending off Coolidge’s cougar-like advances and seems to have a great time with the cat and mouse game.  Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) helps loosen Russell up and their scenes have a nice pop to them.  Who will wind up with whom turned out to be different than I thought, the only real surprise the movie has to offer.

I have to laugh at some of the critics that have called out the fact that there aren’t a lot of guests at Austenland.  With servants outnumbering the paying customers about 70 to 1, I found that element of the movie totally believable.  Promising an experience tailored to each visitor in which they are the only focus, why wouldn’t the powers that be want to keep the guest list small to achieve the kind of escapade that they are going for?  It’s a non-issue when there are so many other things wrong with the movie.

Perhaps this one would be good for people to discover at home on cable…which is where the movie should have premiered.  Its ambitions are so small and its potential so low that it’s hard to fathom why the movie was released in theaters at all by Sony Pictures Classics.  It’s a bargain basement affair…even with the handsome production design and strong supporting turns by a stable of game male actors.  If only the women weren’t so terribly tedious…Jane Austen wouldn’t approve.

The Silver Bullet ~ Austenland

austenland

Synopsis: Obsessed with the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”, a woman travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman.

Release Date:  August 16, 2013

Thoughts: Jane Austen has it all.  Endless TV and movie adaptations from and inspired by her handful of popular novels and now her very own theme park.  Well, at least the theme park created for Austenland, a frothy looking comedy that feels like it should have played on the Hallmark Channel over the Labor Day weekend.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the film looks nice and breezy thanks to some comedic input from Jennifer Coolidge but there’s something a little lacking in star Keri Russell.  It almost feels like this was intended to be a star-vehicle for someone else and Russell was a fourth or fifth choice.  Still, never underestimate the power of Austen and her ticket selling abilities.