Movie Review ~ All My Puny Sorrows

The Facts:

Synopsis: A heart-wrenching story of two loving sisters: one a gifted pianist obsessed with ending her life, the other a struggling writer who, in wrestling with this decision, makes profound discoveries about herself.
Stars: Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Amybeth McNulty, Donal Logue, Mare Winningham
Director: Michael McGowan
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  For all you readers of a certain age out there, do you remember when classic movies like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music were only shown once a year, making them special occasions? You’d look forward to watching them when they were broadcast on TV because you didn’t own them on VHS (what was a VHS?), and they weren’t available at the push of a button. They were often timed to a specific holiday or season, which went a long way in getting you ready for the upcoming months, both anticipating the showing and then for the time after. 

I mention this in my review of All My Puny Sorrows because this is a movie I feel should only be watched during bright summer months when the birds are chirping, the sun is out, and the grass is green. This one can get pretty bleak. Fans of Miriam Toews’s 2014 book that All My Puny Sorrows is based on will know what they are getting themselves into when approaching this adaptation from writer/director Michael McGowan. Everyone else won’t be as prepared for this overly depressing tale of two sisters battling mental illness in Canada while coming to terms with the impact their strictly religious upbringing had on their lives.

There’s space for movies like this, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about All My Puny Sorrows that makes it play like the book adaptation it is. Maybe it’s the characters’ names, Yoli (Alison Pill, Miss Sloane) and Elf (Sarah Gadon, Dracula Untold), who feel like they could only exist in an author’s mind writing a hefty tome. Or maybe it’s the countless sudsy developments that happen over 100 minutes that feel jam-packed even for a condensed version of a novel. Anything that can happen to a large ensemble of characters winds up happening to the small array of featured family here.

I have liked Gadon for a while, and she always seems to be just on the edge of breaking through into significant accolades. She’s terrific here as the sister constantly battling back demons while attempting to be a strong sister and devoted daughter. Pill’s a bit of a wild card, and while the performance is solid, the character is so all over the map that I often longed for Gadon’s less adventurous, sadder sibling. Of course, best of all is Mare Winningham (News of the World), queen of the underrated, understated performance, as their mother who never can get an honest read on her daughters until it is too late.

I found it challenging to get into this movie and make it through. There’s so much weight to it, and the heaviness it carries can’t help but rub off on the viewer by the end. In that regard, it’s hard to outright recommend All My Puny Sorrows, despite the strong performances. If the emotional rollercoaster and slight pretention of the literary structure is one you can endure, consider yourself fairly warned.

Movie Review ~ News of the World

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Covino, Fred Hechinger, Neil Sandilands, Thomas Francis Murphy, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Paul Greengrass

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  As I sit here writing this in the second week of December, I realize that News of the World might just have been the last big potential Oscar nominee I would have had to see in theaters had they still been open.  While this grand scale western starring one of the most trusted men in America had always been targeted for a Christmas release, a number of other titles that have been mentioned as awards contenders were slated to come out over the past eight months and who knows where we’d be right now if they’d all made their original dates.  Would a film like News of the World, with its simple pleasures and old-fashioned storytelling feel as touching or impactful if we’d been inundated already with dozens of “prestige” pictures all vying for our votes?

Then again, there’s one thing all of those movies didn’t have: Tom Hanks.  That good-natured, dependable force of good who can turn your frown upside down has a way with a role that makes it uniquely his.  You may be able to imagine several other equally valid stars that could play the part and serve the material with grace but what Hanks can offer in terms of sincerity and core can’t be replicated by any ‘ole matinee idol or aging ‘80s action hunk.  There’s a line near the end of News of the World that Hanks speaks, it’s an important line but not a gussied up one (nothing in the screenplay from director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies overreaches by much), and they way he pitches it and has it land found a way right into the center of my heart.  That’s talent.  It’s also why a movie like this, which is lighter on plot than a two-hour film out to be and overly episodic, even by normal page-to-screen adaptations go, lingers in the mind long after the final credits have faded.

Based on the 2016 bestseller by Paulette Jiles, the film is set in the Old West of 1870 and opens on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks, Sully) who travels from town to town reading the newspapers aloud for anyone willing to pay a dime.  Choosing his articles based on the crowd and territory, he’s part showman, part newsman, but a good man in sum and total.  In his latest journey between towns, he arrives at the scene of a deplorable crime and the one young survivor (Helena Zengel) who remains.  Rescued from a Kiowa tribe after being taken from her immigrant family as a small child, she was being transported to her only living relatives when another tragedy struck.  Realizing the only guarantee of her safe return is if he takes her, Captain Kidd agrees to accompany her on the journey home.  Speaking no English, the girl longs for the tribe that she was wrenched from, making her an orphan for the second time in her short life.  Yet the two disparate travelers set off on a harrowing journey, encountering dangers in each town they enter and every new territorial line they cross.  His advanced age and her lack of communication initially prove to be a hinderance, especially early on when they are cornered by a trio of violent thugs, but eventually they use these as tools to bring them together the closer they come to being separated forever.

Reteaming with his Captain Phillips director, Hanks revives a few of those same silently reflective scenes that made that earlier performance so effective (and, amazingly, not recognized by the Academy) yet he pitches them with the knowledge of a longer life lived and an entire war behind him.  Kidd has served his country and now serves the people by traveling around and bringing them information to make the world seem less small and their daily lives less routine.  Of course, all that keeping busy is hiding a pain within himself he can’t face, not until later on in the movie, at least.  Hanks has a way with achieving an almost instant audience buy-in whenever he shows up in a movie.  You just sort of instantly buy him in the role.  While his performance as Fred Rogers was lauded in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood last year, the movie didn’t 100% work for me but I totally bought him completely the minute he appeared onscreen.  It’s probably the confidence he exudes that brings us all under his spell…but it works every time all the same.

It was important for Greengrass and, I suppose Hanks, to find the right co-star and German-born Zengel is a real discovery.  Perfectly believable in a complicated role of a child stuck between two different worlds and three different languages, most of Zengel’s performance comes through in her expressive face and wide eyes, which cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World) captures as beautifully as he does the pristine sights of expanse from the Old West long forgotten.  It would have been easy for Zengel to tip her acting slightly more one way and lose her balancing act, making the child unbearable but she has a strong scene partner with Hanks and she encourages him to be better as well.  Holding your own against such a force couldn’t have been easy but it all adds to the emotional complexity the role requires.

The supporting players are a strong mix of familiar character actors, with Elizabeth Marvel (Inheritance) being the standout among many greats as a proprietor friend of Hanks that offers some sage advice for her sometime companion.  Marvel is one of those actresses that, when she shows up, you know that however long she’s on screen it’s going to be something you’ll be interested in watching and that’s completely true here.  I suppose Thomas Francis Murphy’s (12 Years a Slave) grotesque manager of law and order in a civilian led town that Kidd and the girl have the misfortune of riding through could be dialed down a bit, if anything this is the sequence that has the most squirm factor.  Maybe it’s because it feels like it’s out of some ghastly American take on a Dickensian Western, but then again it’s another of those episodic entries the film has which is why it may seem like it could be sliced out and removed with no one being the wiser.

A handsome production on all levels, from the visuals to the unobtrusive editing from Oscar-winner William Goldenberg (Argo), News of the World has the gleam of polish to it and deserves to look so pretty.  Accompanied by another rousing score from eight-time Oscar nominee James Newtown Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) that extends through the closing credits, this is full-scale entertainment at a high level – exactly what we’re almost owed at the end of this year.  Hanks knows what I mean.  As one of the first celebrities to experience this terrible virus, he’s been through a rough patch in 2020 but should be able to rest his head easy once the reviews for News arrive.  Read all about it and see it when it arrives on Christmas Day.

Movie Review ~ Philomena

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

ReviewPhilomena provided an interesting challenge for me.  Being a huge Judi Dench fan I was happy to see the actress back on screen in what looked to be a tearjerker drama, affording the esteemed actress another chance to shine.  On the other hand, I’ve found it very hard to warm to the other star of the film, Steve Coogan.  I’ve found his previous work to be a chore to sit through and his style of comedy unappealing.  Though I enjoyed Coogan’s very meta comedy The Trip from 2010, the horror of 2008’s Hamlet 2 still was scuffling about in my mind.

When I read more about Philomena’s true life origins and with the added involvement of celebrated director Stephen Frears, I knew that there was no keeping me back from this dramedy and I’m so happy that I went into the film as unbiased toward Coogan as I could be because he’s one of the key reasons the film winds up so damn good.

Coogan wears many hats in the film in addition to being co-star (and really, second fiddle to Dame Dench).  He co-wrote the script adaptation from Martin Sixsmith’s novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee and he also produced the film – a lot of responsibilities but he seems to have balanced it all well.

Playing Sixsmith, a disgraced political journalist used to writing hard hitting news stories that finds himself traipsing over the UK and US with the aged Philomena to find what happened to the baby boy she was forced to give up for adoption, Coogan has strong contributes to the film but mostly just gets the hell out of Dench’s way.

Dame Dench (Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is luminous as ever as Philomena, who starts the film as broken and perhaps a bit simple but gradually finds an inner strength through forgiveness that adds a hefty fuel to the film’s fire.  I won’t spoil the secrets of what Philomena and Martin discover on their journey because once you think you know where the film is headed, it opens up another door of mystery that you didn’t even know was there.

Though the film does fall into some trappings of fitting the defined beats of a real story into the framework of a movie, it overcomes them by the grace of Dench’s nuanced and heartbreaking performance and Coogan’s strong support.  Frears, too, tends to keep things moving along at a brisk clip so that you aren’t considering how convenient many of the happenings really are.

This is one of those films that creeps up on you in ways you least expect it.  You’ll want to have some tissues handy for there are multiple moments that you’ll find you’ve got something stuck in your eye.  Dench should be assured a trip to the Oscars this year for her rich work here, a complex character that has more layers that anyone could ever have originally conceived.  It’s a brilliant performance in a well groomed film.