Movie Review ~ The Woman in the Window (2021)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An agoraphobic woman living alone in New York begins spying on her new neighbors only to witness a disturbing act of violence.

Stars: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Once upon a time, the big screen adaptation of a best-selling suspense novel would have been cause for some semblance of celebration.  Bringing to life characters readers had only imagined and finding the right way to recreate the puzzle the author had designed might be a challenge but when everything lined up perfectly the result was a surefire blockbuster that left fans of the novel happy and movie studios flush with cash.  Saturation of the market over the past decade has led to novels being written like adaptations of movie scripts…almost like the writers were already imagining the hefty checks they’d receive for selling the rights to the film versions.  So, while we’d get the rare winner like David Fincher’s sleek take on Gillian Flynn’s unstoppable hit Gone Girl and, to a lesser extent, an effectively serviceable read on Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train two years later, the number of page to screen adaptations was on the decline.

While it wasn’t ever going to change the dial significantly on this downward trend, 20th Century Fox’s release of A.J. Finn’s megahit novel The Woman in the Window at least represented a rarefied bit of sophistication in a genre that wasn’t always known for its refinement.  Helmed by Joe Wright, a director with a fine track record for telling visually appealing films that had a deeply rooted emotional core and adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (who also appears in the film), no stranger himself to adapting work for other mediums, the film seemed like it had prestige in its very building blocks.  Add in a coveted cast with a combined total of 14 Oscar nominations between them and you can see why initial buzz had this, like Gone Girl, on many an early shortlist as potential awards candy upon its release. 

Then the problems began.

First, and this was going on even before the film got off the ground, author A.J. Finn was revealed to be a pseudonym for Dan Mallory, an executive editor at publisher William Morrow and Company who published the novel.  Mallory’s shady past came to light in a earth scorching article published in the New Yorker which detailed how he very likely lied, cheated, and schemed his way through his educational upbringing and career to date.  That this was reignited during the film’s production did no favors for it’s promotional promises.  Then early test screenings received poor scores leading to reshoots and rewrites, which isn’t uncommon, but the poisonous word spread fast that the movie was in trouble. 

Caught in the crosshairs of the Fox/Disney merger, the finished film languished in limbo until Disney sold it off to Netflix who adios-ed a theatrical release because of the pandemic and is now releasing it a full year after its originally announced date.  Adding unspoken insult to injury, the cast and production team are doing no press for the film…making it look like no one has any confidence in it.   Really, who can blame them?  The past year the film has been made a mockery of by gossip hungry columnists, bloggers, and podcasters and the punchline of many jokes at its expense.  The movie and its actors have been set-up to fail, and I’d say that many of those reviewing the film are going in prepared to dislike it and ravage it just because it’s an easy target. 

I’m happy to spoil their fun and report that The Woman in the Window isn’t anywhere as bad as we’ve been led to believe nor is it even a minor misstep compared to some of the dreck major studios still put out and screen a number of times before opening wide.  A film lost in the shuffle of studios in flux and the victim of negative press because of its author, the tumble it has taken shouldn’t be a signifier of the quality of the effort of those involved.  It may take a while for the cord to be pulled tight for viewers, but once Wright (Anna Karenina) and Letts (Lady Bird) stop trying to find a way to emulate Finn’s inner monologue narrative of the leading lady and start bringing their own strengths to their responsibilities, the movie truly takes off with a bang.

Agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, American Hustle) doesn’t have much to do but wander around her spacious NY brownstone in between getting blackout drunk on glasses of wine and watching film noir.  Separated from her husband and her child because of a trauma that slowly comes into focus, her fear of leaving the house has gotten so bad she can’t even take one step out of her front door without passing out from anxiety.  One of her comforts is keeping track of the goings-on in the neighborhood and its her luck the house across the street has a new family that will soon become a major part of her life. 

She first meets Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger, News of the World) when he comes to drop off a housewarming gift and shortly thereafter meets his mother (Julianne Moore, Still Alice).  When Alastair Russell (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour) pays her a visit, his greeting is chillier which might explain why Anna sees the family fighting later and then a scream in the night followed by what looks like Ethan’s mother covered in blood.  Calling the police (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) to investigate turns up nothing suspicious in the house but a different woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) claiming to be Alastair’s wife.  Convinced of what she saw and determined to prove the Russell’s are hiding something, Anna does what she can from the confines of her house to find out what happened to the woman she met days earlier.  However, with her new neighbors on to her snooping, a basement tenant (Wyatt Russell, Overlord) with a violent past, and secrets of her own that may implicate more than we’re aware of initially, is there any one person we can honestly trust?

Fans of the book will be pleased with the way Letts brought Finn’s book to life, tightening up some of the crinkly edges of his storytelling and removing complexities that made an already hard to swallow situation that much more far-fetched.  It’s still achingly reminiscent of third-rate Hitchcock (take a shot every time you think of Vertigo or Rear Window…and for that matter drink a whole whiskey highball for the film’s outright duplication of 1995’s excellent CopyCat) but considering how chintzy it could have been in less assured hands, this comes off as far classier than it has any right to be. 

Speaking of (W)right, credit goes to the director for elevating the film with his eye for detail and willingness to take chances on some striking visuals that leave an impression.  No spoilers but at one point Anna sees something inside the brownstone that shouldn’t be there, and it’s so beautifully shot that you forget for a moment you’re watching a thriller.  In the same breath, I’ll say there’s also an icky bit of cheek-y gruesomeness that was so shocking I gasped…and not one of those quick whisps of air kind of gasps but the type you hear when you’ve been underwater for three minutes and just reached the surface.

Did anyone come out of Hillbilly Elegy looking as bad as Adams?  Say what you will about the source material, some of director Ron Howard’s choices, and a few of the supporting performances, but for an established actress like Adams to turn in such a tacky routine was incredibly disappointing.  In all honesty, The Woman in the Window doesn’t start out great for her either and I began to wonder if Adams hadn’t lost a little of that luster that made her so appealing when she burst onto the scene.  I don’t know if it was because later in the film is where the reshoots happened or what, but the latter half of the movie is when Adams appears to not be taking the role to the mat like it’s her Oscar bid for the year.  This is not an awards type of film and by the time they got to reshoots I think she knew it…so she’s much more game to lean into the Olivia de Havilland/Barbara Stanwyck type of character this is modeled after.  Having the most fun of everyone is Moore, kicking up her heels and really enjoying the free spirit of her character – it’s the most relaxed the actress has been in a long while and it was fun to watch.  Not having any fun?  Oldman, white-haired, crazy-eyed, and wild-voiced, his performance looks cobbled together from all of his bad takes.

Is The Woman in the Window in the same league as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, two other novels turned films with leading characters that are unreliable in their narration and unlikable at times?  For my money, I’d put this on the level of The Girl on the Train as an adaptation that has come to the screen with promise that is mostly fulfilled.  It’s a better adaptation than The Girl on the Train was, that’s for sure, and to equate the movie with the failings of its author is wrongheaded.  The mystery at its core is kept decently secure until the finale and while you won’t be biting your nails with suspense throughout, it builds to a proper climax that proved satisfying.  Released as part of Netflix’s summer movie season, it’s a solid selection for a weekend viewing – especially considering many would have paid more than the price of a monthly subscription to the service to see it in theaters anyway.

Movie Review ~ The Glorias

Available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s itinerant childhood’s influence on her life as a writer, activist and organizer for women’s rights worldwide.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Kimberly Guerrero, Enid Graham

Director: Julie Taymor

Rated: R

Running Length: 147 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  One thing 2020 has definitely needed is more empowerment.  We’ve gone through this year feeling like we’re just behind in a lot of ways, from our health to our control over what happens within our government, even to what goes on in the neighborhoods we want everyone to feel safe in.  No one wants to be at odds with each other (at least I don’t think the majority of us do) and it becomes draining to watch news reports on the great division that appears to be widening between numerous groups that used to be able to find common ground.  The rise of social media and the ability for those that hid in the shadows to now speak their hateful rhetoric from the comfort of their anonymity has only added fuel to that and the spiral just continues downward.

That’s why in some small way a biopic like The Glorias feels like a welcome bit of relief right about now, even though it too focuses on an upward battle for acceptance and understanding in the face of adversity.  While a number of documentaries have been made and work has been written about the activist Gloria Steinem over the years and just in the last decade alone, this is the one that has sprung from her own words and is based on her 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road, written when she was 81.  Adapted by celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl, directed by lauded auteur Julie Taymor, and starring two Oscar winning actresses sharing the role of Steinem at various points in her adult life, on paper The Glorias feels like a project that sounds like an ideal convergence of the right people.  Why, then, does it wind up feeling like a artistically curated Cliff Notes version of a colorful life, only finding some true resonance with its audience in its final half hour?

I honestly doubt a life as large and full as Steinem’s could ever be fully captured in a feature film and to whittle down eight decades into 140-some minutes does seem like a Herculean task, but Ruhl does her best by not taking the traditional biopic route.  This is not a straight-timeline kind of film, but rather one that seems to go from one memory to another, at least at first.  That may be frustrating for audiences that are used to seeing where someone began and watching their life unfold until they wind up in the present (or their version of the present if it’s a person that’s no longer with us) and discover what they learn along the way.  Here, Ruhl and Taymor make use out of the multiple Glorias (Becky’s Lulu Wilson and IT: Chapter Two’s Ryan Kiera Armstrong’s play younger Glorias) to replace others seemingly at will as a way of commenting on what is to come in her life or in service of reflection on her past.  It’s cinematic trickery that works some of the time, mostly when Julianne Moore (Still Alice) as the eldest Gloria subs in for one of her younger counterparts who may not have found her authoritative voice yet but it gets a little showy if a smaller one takes over for an adult.

This narrative alignments also makes it harder to review The Glorias in such a straightforward way.  Taymor and Ruhl jump around through different periods of Steinem’s life with such apparent abandon that it’s a bit of a whirlwind.  One moment we’re with the youngest Gloria (Armstrong) as she dances with her huckster father (a stalwart Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) on the music hall pier he owns before he packs up the family and hits the road in search of another easy money opportunity.  The next thing we know, Taymor has us with ¾ Gloria (Vikander, The Danish Girl) on her travels through India or her early journalist days where she goes undercover working at the Playboy club.  Then we’re back to teenage Gloria (Wilson) caring for her bedridden mother (an excellent Enid Graham) before meeting the Gloria in full bloom Gloria (Moore) as she comes into her own as an activist fighting for the ratification of the ERA, forms Ms. magazine, and in her later years develops a friendship with Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero, A Wrinkle in Time), the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

What I found the most interesting in The Glorias was not the typical biographical data that makes up the usual films of this type.  Steinem’s upbringing, dealing with a dreamer Father that lived in the clouds and a Mother who toiled away making up for his frivolity, doesn’t feel so dissimilar than many that would go on to champion the rights of women who served unnoticed for so long.  Though Steinem had a number of relationships over the years (and was questioned often about them in interviews), the film bypasses any of these tangents in favor of exploring her friendships with other women, including feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe, Harriet), U.S. Representative and a leader of the Women’s Movement Bella Abzug (Bette Midler, Hocus Pocus), and civil rights activist Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).  Those that watched the FX series Mrs. America earlier this summer may be surprised to see how little the ratification of the ERA fits into the film, it’s almost a good thing to have watched that nine-episode series because it gave more context to conversations between Gloria and Bella that those who aren’t as familiar with the movement might feel a bit at sea in.

As she does with all of her projects, Taymor brings a keen eye to The Glorias but occasionally lets her artsy side get the best of her.  This is never more obvious than a misguided sequence where Moore’s Gloria steps in to respond to an interview question on live television and sends the studio into a Wizard of Oz-ish tornado that’s not entirely rendered with the same style or polish as other flights of fancy.  Another animation of the Hindu goddess Kali that becomes the first cover of Ms. magazine feels awkward and a tad childish in the context of what has been a more maturely delivered movie until that point.  Taymor’s blending of dreamy fantasy works best when its done subtly, like when the camera that’s focused on one Gloria will pan back to show another iteration of Steinem gently resting her head on the shoulder of her younger self.  It’s brief specialties like these that Taymor is so adept at that The Glorias needs more of throughout.

Even as it races through the decades, it’s when The Glorias finally slows down a bit in Steinem’s later years that Taymor and Ruhl strike something special.  Moore ages forward and with the help of believable prosthetics manages to look remarkably like Steinem without becoming a grotesquerie of plastics in the process.  These quieter later scenes of The Glorias make up for the frenetic earlier part of the movie and lead to a final transition that I should have seen coming a mile away but didn’t.  When it happens, you suddenly realize that Taymor and Ruhl have done what they set out to do and connect Steinem’s past to our present with a graceful sincerity.  Essentially, they hand the film back to their subject as a way of communicating “If this is what Gloria Steinem’s legacy is to be, then let the final word on the matter be hers.”  And, simply, it is.

Movie Review ~ Gloria Bell

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A free-spirited woman in her 50s seeks out love at L.A. dance clubs.

Stars: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Caren Pistorius, Holland Taylor, Michael Cera, Sean Astin, Alanna Ubach, Brad Garrett, Rita Wilson, Jeanne Tripplehorn

Director: Sebastián Lelio

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I already have a conflicted relationship with remakes in general and the internal battle I wage with English language remakes of foreign films is even greater. If a film is so revered in its native language why can’t it exist on its own merits and let audiences discover the film on their own terms in their own time? Must it always be necessary to, let’s face it, pander to the lazies that can’t be bothered to put on their reading glasses? It frustrates me mostly because rarely are these U.S. remakes in the same league as their foreign counterparts so the lasting impression most audiences have are watered down versions of what were dynamic originals.

An added complexity to the American remake is when foreign directors adapt their own film for the English language. This is not a new concept. George Sluzier remade his dynamite 1988 thriller Spoorloos in 1993 as The Vanishing and turned it into a tepid vehicle for Jeff Bridges. Michael Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games made it’s remake debut on our shores in 2007. In 2002 Takashi Shimizu released Ju-on: The Grudge two years before he would direct an English language remake that is getting yet another remake in 2020.

The latest auteur circling back to his own work is Sebastián Lelio, the Oscar-winning director of 2017’s Best Foreign Film A Fantastic Woman. Based on his surprise 2013 hit Gloria, Gloria Bell is one of those rare remakes that allows both films to stand on their own without either suffering by comparison. Each may have the same story to tell and center on a woman of a certain age not often well represented in mainstream cinema but Lelio and star Julianne Moore bring a profound depth and realism to the character and her adventures. This helps the movie out of the remake shadow and into it’s own vibrant light.

Fiftyish divorcee Gloria Bell (Moore, Still Alice) lives in Los Angeles and is a manager at an insurance company by day and a dance club denizen by night. Spending her drive to and from work singing along to hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Gloria has two children she has a typical relationship with and a few good friends she can confide in. She’s living her life…but maybe not her best life. Her nights on the dance floor are a way for her to go into her own world and lose herself and it’s there she catches the eye of Arnold (John Turturro, Fading Gigolo) another divorcee with his own baggage that quickly gets laid at her feet. As her relationship with Arnold starts to take off and throws her some unexpected curveballs, Gloria takes stock of where she finds herself and starts to enact more control of her life than ever before.

The ups and downs of the relationship between Gloria and Arnold won’t be unfamiliar to most of us but the way things play out may be. A great scene involving Arnold being introduced to Gloria’s adult children (Michael Cera, This is the End and Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines) and her ex-husband and his new wife (Brad Garrett, Christopher Robin and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct) leads to some fairly awkward and embarrassing developments. It all culminates in one downright infuriating deal breaker that’s not just forgiven (though, admittedly, not easily) but actually repeated later on in the film.

The beauty in Lelio’s film and Moore’s performance is that much of the journey Gloria goes on doesn’t come in what we hear but in what we see. It’s how we see Moore and Turturro interact that informs where they are in their relationship, it’s how Moore carries herself after suffering a set-back before squaring her shoulders that tells us how quickly she bounces back from disappointment. There’s so much happening internally that it could be easy for the movie to feel small but it’s largely filled with truly lovely moments.  It also helps that I genuinely had no idea where the movie was headed and where things would wind up for Gloria.  There was no telegraphed path to conclusion or hints at what the next turn would be — such is life.

Aided by a strong soundtrack of popular tunes not to mention an intriguing score from Matthew Herbert, the film gets the overbaked sunniness of Los Angeles completely right and always places our leading lady in locations that feel like the real world. She lives in the style of apartment and drives the type of car someone with her job would and Moore, as usual, totally loses herself in the role. Though the film does have some melancholy moments laced throughout it ends with a hopeful bang (and, of course, on the dancefloor) as Moore takes us through a whole range of emotions as Laura Branigan’s Gloria plays in the background.  It’s easy to see why many people are highlighting this last scene as a standout but it’s just one of many moments in the film that showcases the star becoming one with the material/character.  Another winning performance from Moore and a worthwhile film to see.

The Silver Bullet ~ Bel Canto

Synopsis: A world famous opera singer becomes trapped in a hostage situation when she’s invited to perform for a wealthy industrialist in South America.

Release Date: September 14, 2018

Thoughts: It’s been four years since Julianne Moore won her long overdue Oscar for Still Alice and she’s largely avoided the Best Actress curse popping up in interesting, if underperforming, films like Wonderstruck and Suburbicon.  In 2018 she’s back with two interesting projects: Gloria, a US remake of a popular Chilean film and this adaptation of Ann Patchett’s bestseller which casts Moore as a opera singer who becomes a hostage and political chess piece in a South American uprising.  Written for the screen and directed by Paul Weitz (Admission, Grandma, Being Flynn) and co-starring Ken Watanabe (Godzilla) I have to say this looks more important than entertaining.  Also, while I’m glad they are being transparent that Moore’s singing voice is dubbed by the legendary Renee Fleming based on the few shots of her singing I’m a bit nervous it’s going to look too fake-y.  In the end, it’s Moore that appeals to me so I’m always interested in her work…but Bel Canto feels like it has an uphill battle in front of it.

Movie Review ~ Suburbicon


The Facts
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Synopsis: A home invasion rattles a quiet family town.

Stars: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac

Director: George Clooney

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: You should thank your lucky stars that the trailer for Suburbicon was so terrible. When I first watched it and reviewed it, I was unsure if I’d even be interested in seeing what should have been a slam-dunk from a bunch of talented A-Listers in front of and behind the camera. Though I often turn my nose up at the thought of seeing a movie with a lousy trailer, there’s really no way I was going to miss one directed by George Clooney, co-written by the Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!), and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac.

So…into the screening I went with low expectations and a general puzzlement as to what was in store. Thankfully, here’s a rare example of a good movie with a stinker trailer…as we all know it’s usually the other way around. While Suburbicon definitely has its drawbacks, this dark comedy is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent memory that feels like it has a brainwave and not just a faint pulse.

Opening with an ad for the community living offered by the Suburbicon development, audiences will be quick to spot something missing. There are ads boasting the quality of the house of the future, the robed choir, the supermarket, and the shopping mall. Pictures of families with gleaming white grins from all over the country that have flocked to the suburbs are on display. The one thing we don’t see? Minorities. This point is driven home in one of the first scenes that show the neighborhood aghast when a black family moves in and that’s when all kinds of heck breaks loose.

Well, actually that’s what is happening in one part of the neighborhood. The new family shares a backyard with the Lodges and they’re really the main focus of the movie. While the concerned citizens of Suburbicon rally themselves into a frenzy to try to oust the peaceful newcomers in increasingly violent protests, they aren’t privy to the deadly dealings developing in the Lodge house. Husband Gardner (Damon, Promised Land), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Moore, Wonderstruck), their son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and Rose’s twin sister Maggie (also Moore, Still Alice) are terrorized one night by two men Gardner seems to know. In true Coen fashion, there’s a dark secret beneath this evening meeting that sets into motion sundry dealings that will impact each member of the Lodge family. Saying more might reveal more of the tricky workings of Suburbicon’s third act so let’s just say when a curious insurance agent (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) starts poking around, it spells trouble for Gardner and company that can only be solved by copious bloodshed.

Where this movie feels so strong is in the fact that everyone involved with Suburbicon seems to understand what movie they’re in. Not only is this evident in the period setting (with its Formica tabletops, gingham aprons, and rolled dungarees) but in the way that deception and anger were allowed to boil just beneath the surface. Never belying the cheerful façade painstakingly put on by the men that went to work, the women that stayed home, and the kids that wanted to grow up to be just like their parents, Clooney (Tomorrowland) and his actors play it largely straight and let the material do the work for them.

That’s also where the movie shows a bit of weakness. Trusting the material this implicitly leads some actors astray and not everyone is successful in their time-warp back to Suburbicon. Damon feels like he’s coasting here, probably because he’s played this type of flawed family man a few times already. Moore definitely knows her way around a period costume and plastered on smile and manages to make both her characters distinct without drawing them too broadly different…they are twins after all. Jupe is a real find and often steals the movie right out from under his co-stars that have already been showered with awards for their previous work. If there’s one person that gets it note perfect it’s Isaac as a complex investigator who susses out something is up in the Lodge house. As usual, Clooney fills out the supporting players with a wacky variety of kooks of all shapes and sizes.

I went into Suburbicon thinking that it would drown in Clooney’s apathy toward this “simpler time” but he doesn’t treat anything with a wistful eye. The story being told here just happens to be set in the ‘50s but there’s nothing saying it couldn’t easily have taken place in present day and been able to suggest the same inequalities in society. Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov worked on the script with the Coens so it’s easy to see where one group started, and one group stopped. While the Coens love a good shot of cynicism, leave it to Clooney to inject some emotional honesty right alongside it.

Movie Review ~ Wonderstruck

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Cory Michael Smith, Tom Noonan, James Urbaniak

Director: Todd Haynes

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: We’re all about honesty at The MN Movie Man so I’ll admit that I was a little sleepy when I caught an early preview of Wonderstuck a few weeks back. Seen on a double screening day, I struggled greatly not only keeping up with its ping-pong-y plot but just staying awake for the new film from well-liked director Todd Haynes. Based on Brian Selznick’s thick tome that’s a hybrid of novel and picture book (much like his previous hit Hugo which found its own way to screens a few years back), Selznick also wrote the screenplay and one wonders what Haynes would have done (or could have done) had he run the whole show.

Taking place in two time periods that eventually collide in unexpected ways, Wonderstuck spends a good hour just to get moving and another half hour after that to provoke the kind of wonderment I think the filmmakers were going for. For those first sixty minutes I was largely at sea with the two tales. One features a motherless boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon) in the ‘70s who loses his hearing in a freak accident before running away to find his unknown father. The other trails deaf-mute Rose (the exceptional Millicent Simmonds) as she embarks on a quest to track down her favorite Hollywood actress (Julianne Moore, Still Alice) making a return to the New York stage following the advent of talkies in the late ‘20s.

Ben’s story is displayed in the vibrant, pulsating with color world of the ‘70s while Rose’s is presented in somber black and white silence. No matter how good or bad his movies are, the one thing you can absolutely say about a Todd Haynes film is that the production design will be flawless and that’s certainly the case here. Production designer Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) recreates two totally different eras of NYC with a master’s touch. I totally marveled at the depth of detail evoked by each period…if this isn’t an Oscar front-runner already, it surely will be as more people in the know see it.

How the stories eventually come together is a mystery that isn’t as easy to solve as you may first realize. The disparate time periods would suggest a different solution than Selznick arrives at but by the time we get to our destination the film has overstayed its welcome every so slightly and explained more than it showed how it all came to be.  It does help that the performances across the board are delivered with a strong sense of conviction.  Fegley’s frustration at his loss of hearing, the loss of his mother (Michelle Williams, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later), and the needle in NY haystack he’s out to find is crushingly felt as is Simmonds wish for independence despite the limitations others perceive her as having.  Moore, as usual, makes a strong showing in dual roles that are polar opposites of each other.

To its credit, the final fifteen minutes are exceptionally moving and send you out of theater better than when you arrived…but at the same time I wish the film had found another fifteen minutes to excise. It wants to be a family art-house prestige picture but can’t get out of its own way to find a stronger rhythm that will hold the attention of young and old alike. That’s all well and good for the previous films that Haynes has directed like Carol or Far From Heaven, these films had the benefit of playing to an adult audience looking for a sophistication. If Wonderstruck is able to find that family audience, I think that’s wonderful and I hope it happens. However, parents should take this one in first to determine if their kids are up for something challenging.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Suburbicon

Synopsis: This is a tale of very flawed people making very bad choices. This is Suburbicon.

Release Date:  October 27, 2017

Thoughts: Oh goodness, what to say about this weird little trailer?  Though it boasts an appealing array of stars in front of and behind the camera, I’m just not sold on moving to Suburbicon at first glance.  As is the case with most previews lately, too much is given away in the trailer, apparently leaving very little to entice audiences to want to know more.  Director George Clooney (Tomorrowland) and writers Joel and Ethan Coen (Hail, Caesar!) are going to have to bank on more than just fans of Matt Damon (Promised Land), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), and Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) to get the word out about this tough sell.  To me, it looks too much like it will feature the worst of the Cohen’s back of tricks and Clooney’s strange directorial missteps.  While I’m always intrigued about films set in this era, it already feels like it’s going to be a chore to sit through this one.

Movie Review ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As the war of Panem escalates to the destruction of other districts by the Capitol, Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant leader of the rebellion, must bring together an army against President Snow, while all she holds dear hangs in the balance.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Michelle Forbes

Director: Francis Lawrence

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Unlike many readers of Suzanne Collins trilogy of novels, I wasn’t as disappointed in the final entry as most.  For me, all three books had their high and low points but Mockingjay was the one that felt like it had the most consequences within its pages.  It wasn’t an easy read with the fates of several characters being painfully revealed so it was with great trepidation that I approached The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 because I knew what lay ahead.

I still feel deep down inside that Mockingjay should have been released as one long movie.  Audiences are willing to sit through a three hour (cinema) tour if the characters are appealing and the story engaging and I spent the first hour of Part 2 thinking that it came across as the middle part of a longer film, opening with the part where the action dips and audiences are given a breather before the final act begins.  It was a mistake on my part to not re-watch Part 1 before because the film isn’t concerned with bringing anyone up to speed.  Needless to say, I can’t write a review of Part 2 without including some spoilers from the previous films so…you’ve been warned.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook, as usual investing herself 130%) is still reeling after being violently reunited with a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), her former ally and would-be love interest.  That pushes her back into the arms of brawny Gale (Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2) and she still can’t seem to make-up her mind as to who she believes she should be with.  There’s no time for dewy eyed romance though with the final drive underway by the rebel army to seize the Capitol and destroy President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People) before he can deploy more troops to wipe them off the map.

With the rebels being led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, Still Alice, looking fierce with a short haircut, cat-like contacts, and a wardrobe that feels Jetsons-esque) under the advisement of Plutarch (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, in his last film role), Katinss finds a way back to the front line after being remanded to merely being the figurehead mascot of a force of people fighting for their freedom.  Katniss has her sights set on Snow and will do anything to be the one to end his reign, if she (along with a small band of allies and officers) can avoid the booby trapped city blocks that lie ahead.

I never noticed it until my partner pointed it out to me but with its prominent golden eagles and red color schemes, the leaders in the Capitol have a distinct Nazi vibe going on.  Themes of oppression and barbarism plague our real-life news feed and Collins’ novels tapped into some of that.  While her world has definite fantastical elements, the underlying message of independence hard won is prescient.

The film is light on softness, deciding instead to keep its edges razor sharp and unforgiving.  It’s not, I repeat not, a movie parents should remotely consider bringing their young children to.  I’d ask parents to heed the PG-13 rating and know that it probably should have carried an R due to the amount of violence and frightening sequences of death.  The carnage here is a far cry from the good old days of the first movie where young prospects picked each other off to become the victor of The Hunger Games.  Here, the losses are devastating and uncompromising…making for emotional and exhaustive viewing.

After taking over for original director Gary Ross, Francis Lawrence (no relation to our star) has helmed the remaining films and done so without making concessions.  From the production elements to the costume design and make-up, there’s a fully realized world on display, one that resembles ours but feels distant.  Is it futuristic?  Other-worldly? Yes and yes…but it also feels like it could be happening mere years from now.  That’s a scary thought and one not to dwell too much on.

Since the first film was released, Jennifer Lawrence has become a true movie star with an Oscar under her belt yet she doesn’t show any signs of boredom with her involvement here.  Other actresses may have started phoning these in once the first checks had cleared but Lawrence takes her job seriously…maybe a bit too seriously at times.  No matter, the film has become the success it has largely due to her and the emotional depth she’s brought to a complicated character.  Hutcherson too has evolved nicely over the course of the films, not just as his character but as an actor.

The main players involved are all given their due (even if Hoffman’s final speech is relegated to being read by Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me) and the good-byes have a sting to them.  Watch the final shot of the exquisitely styled Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) as Effie Trinket and you’ll see how so much can be sadness can be conveyed with a single expression.  I wish there were more for Jena Malone to do as Johanna Mason, a tough as nails former victor that both reviles and envies Katniss.  Malone made a grand entrance in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and has been a value add to the series ever since.  The final moments of the film may come off as maudlin and treacly to the more jaded among us but it feels like a fitting tying off of a well taken care of commodity.

There’s talk of the studio working on a new sequel or a prequel and I would beg of them to drop it.  There’s plenty more YA literature waiting for their moment in the cinematic sunshine and the four films that have comprised The Hunger Games franchise have earned their chance to be distinguished.  Don’t muck it up.

Movie Review ~ Freeheld

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The Facts:

Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell

Director: Peter Sollett

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Why didn’t I like Freeheld more? That’s a question that hasn’t necessarily kept me up at night since the screening but it’s one that has stuck with me over the course of the last several days. As an advocate for equality for all and a sucker for a triumphant true story (not to mention a dedicated fan of Julianne Moore) I thought going into it that I’d emerge with a tear-stained face and strong sense of due justice…but instead I left dry-eyed and frustrated.  What should have been a slam dunk missed the net entirely.

The story of a lesbian couple fighting for equality regarding pension benefits has some mighty heft to it, so much so that it inspired the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name. In a solid, moving 40 minutes we met Laurel Hester, a 23 year veteran of the New Jersey police force battling terminal lung cancer and the system that says she can’t leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree. As Laurel’s health fades and the odds stack up, a community of support forms around the women, changing the law in the process.

That’s a story! And the dramatization of that short should at least come close to the emotional impact the documentary had. Sadly, it’s a terribly clumsy affair that loses its footing early on and can’t rally enough to make it to a satisfying finish line. Though it features typical good work from Moore (Still Alice), Ellen Page (The East), and Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), it has its share of performances painted with broad strokes, weakening the overall effectiveness of a movie that never feels organic or personal.

Most of the problem likes with Peter Sollett’s stodgy direction and Ron Nyswaner’s ham-fisted script. It’s especially surprising that Nyswaner stumbles as hard as he does considering her wrote the far more effective Philadelphia in 1993. That movie was about justice and this one is about equality but Nyswaner doesn’t seem to know the difference because there’s a lack of overall tone. One moment it’s a tender love story and the next it’s a camp-fest with Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) woefully miscast as a gay Jewish civil rights activist played like an even more amped up version of his character from The Office. Carell is so very bad that he overwhelms everyone whenever he’s onscreen, no small task when you’re sharing space with the likes of Moore.

It’s a film with dialogue that seems taken verbatim from a sensitivity training video or a pamphlet on the gay rights movement. The “bad guys” tote religious beliefs and incredibly general stereotypes, unmoved by any example presented showing that gay people love their partners just like everyone else, the “good guys” dole out mighty preachy sentiments about acceptance and equality. It just never feels honest, even though it’s well intended.

Another big problem I had was that I never bought Moore and Page as a couple. Both actresses capably portray their characters but we’re supposed to believe in their bond and I never did. So it made it harder to relate to the situation the real-life couple found themselves in. Instead it becomes a film about Moore dying before justice is served, instead of the struggle for equality that Hester herself wanted to be front and center.

It says something when the most memorable thing for me was the song played over the end credits.  “Hands of Love” was written by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes and performed beautifully by Miley Cyrus and it’s the one chance the film has for an Oscar contention.

Is the film important to see?  Sure, if you’re wanting to have a larger discussion with someone on the continued fight for equality for all.  But as a dramatization of real life events that led to a landmark change in the law, it’s an overall letdown.

The Silver Bullet ~ Freeheld

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Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Release Date: October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Julianne Moore (Still Alice) might want to pick out another redhead friendly clothing ensemble because Freeheld could nab the actress another season pass for end of the year rewards. Starring alongside fellow Oscar nominees Ellen Page (The East), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel), this true life drama concerns the fight for equality by two lesbian life-partners. While the trailer dips into some TV-movie-of-the-week-ish maudlin speechifying, I’m hoping that screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who penned the similar Philadelphia, also Oscar nominated) finds the honesty in the midst of the sentimentality.