Movie Review ~ Birds of Prey

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Pérez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong

Director: Cathy Yan

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In the summer of 2016, hopes were high that Suicide Squad could help bring back the DC Universe from extinction after the disappointing reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released earlier that year.  Seems that critics and audiences that had come to like the flashy spark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe weren’t grooving to the darker tones and turns DC was taking and while I personally thought BvS was far better than it got credit for, even I had to admit that the world needed to snap out of its mellow dankness.  Trouble was, the people behind Suicide Squad (and, likely, studio execs) course-corrected too much (largely after the fact) and delivered an awful tire-fire of a comic book movie…and made it PG-13 on top of it all.

If there was one thing that emerged victorious from the rubble of that failed effort (which is getting an overhaul reboot in 2021) it was Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, the Joker’s main-squeeze.  Robbie brought just the right amount of self-effacing fun and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness to the film, giving off the impression she was the only one who really understood what kind of movie she was in.  It definitely set the stage for her full-blown arrival to the big leagues the next year with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya followed by her regal showing for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots.  After dominating 2019 with lauded parts in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and nabbing another Oscar nom for Bombshell, she’s back to make good on a deal that was sealed shortly after Suicide Squad opened to big business and stellar notices for her…a spin-off featuring Harley and a new group of female superheroes.

I admit, I first heard about this sequel while Suicide Squad was fairly fresh in my memory and I just wasn’t on board.  While I liked Robbie in the movie I didn’t find myself eager to revisit this take on Gotham City if it was going to be the same tone and annoying approach.  My dial wasn’t turned any more to the positive side when the full title was revealed: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).  I mean…must we?  Thankfully, we aren’t required to use the full title when discussing the film so Birds of Prey this one will be forever more.  Even hearing some decent buzz from those that got an early look didn’t totally convince me.

Well…when I’m wrong I’ll say I’m wrong and I’m wrong…a little bit.  The first ten minutes of Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of obnoxious experience I feared it would be.  Crazy edits, arch characters, voice over narration that felt like it was written by a fourth grader.  Then, just as I was settling in for a rough ride the film, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, suddenly came alive and decided to find its own voice and that’s when things started to get interesting.  Sure, it maintains most of the elements that make it easily identifiable as a comic book movie but it strips away anything (and anyone) extraneous and focuses simply on the characters.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a Taxi Driver-esque character-study like Joker but it hits many of the same beats…just with more flair.

Harley Quinn (Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) has officially broken up with “Mr. J” and does so explosively (literally).  Without his protection she becomes a prime target for members of the Gotham City underworld that have been waiting to get back at her…but catching her is only half the battle.  Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) finds this out when he nabs Harley and is about to have his henchman Zsasz (Chris Messina, Live by Night) send her to that great circus in the sky until she sweet talks her way into a deal to get him a priceless diamond from a young  street-wise pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in police custody.  Finding that girl is a cinch for Harley (a police station breakout is a highlight of the film, one  many impressive action sequences) but she isn’t the only one with an interest in the teen.  There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) a Gotham City detective working with Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get the jewel and save the urchin and the hooded Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) whose own vested interest crisscrosses with all involved.

Much like she did with her script for Bumblebee, Hodson injects the film with female empowerment without laying it on thick like you’ve seen it before.  Working in tandem with Yan’s smart visual eye, once Birds of Prey sheds its slimy opening layer and finds its own fun it never stops until the fireball of a finale set at a rundown boardwalk amusement park. Kudos to the production design here…a truly imaginative funhouse was created for the battle royale that closes the picture.  I also appreciated that while the film wasn’t restricted to a PG-13 rating, Yan doesn’t take her R and run with it either…this is a movie that has violence but uses it in wise and, dare I say, fun ways.

Having more time to dig into Harley, Robbie sharpens her rough edges a bit more and that’s sometimes fun, other times a bit grating.  Like I said, it gets better as the movie goes along but the character is inherently meant to be on the insufferable side…but what makes her such a great character is that you still like her even though she’s bad.  And Robbie gets both those sides of the character right.  If there’s one thing Robbie is good at, it’s knowing when to share the spotlight.  It’s the sign of a confident star (and make no doubt about it, Robbie is a bona fine A-list movie star) who can yield the stage to others so they can shine and shine they do.  Perez is in rare form as a dedicated detective who has played by the rules and watched others with less scruples pass her by.  Skilled at comedy, Perez isn’t often asked to be on the more dramatic side and she ably holds up her end of things.  Surprisingly, Winstead’s role is smaller than you’d think, with the Huntress not having much screen time until the final ¼ when her presence is all but required.  I enjoyed Basco’s modern taken on a wide-eyed Artful Dodger and you’re either going to love what McGregor is doing or be completely perplexed.  For me, I loved it in all its slithery nastiness.  I sort of get where Messina was going in his laid back approach to the knuckles and muscle sidekick but think his performance is more Suicide Squad territory.  The one to really look out for is Smollett-Bell who sings up a storm and kicks butt like a pro.  Appearing in film/TV since she was a child, this feels like Smollett-Bell’s true arrival to adult roles and she’s undeniably one of the best things about the film.

It’s already known Robbie will be back for the Suicide Squad reboot next year but we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the rest of the Birds of Prey.  I think this first outing is absolutely worth the flight time and would welcome another adventure if the same team was brought together again.  It can’t be a coincidence that the most successful DC Comic movies have been female centered and directed by women, right?  With Wonder Woman being the spark that kept the lights on at the studio and this one impressing with its wild style, here’s hoping Wonder Woman 1984 shows everyone that we need to keep letting the women run this world.

Movie Review ~ Bombshell

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Female employees at Fox News take on a toxic male culture, leading to the downfall of media mogul Roger Ailes.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Duplass, Alice Eve, Alanna Ubach

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  I’m sure it’s because I’m a lifelong MN but I still recall that night in 1989 when Gretchen Carlson from Anoka won the Miss America pageant after impressing the judges with her talent (violin), poise, and that aquamarine gown.  I always felt that MNs should stick together and since I rooted for her so vehemently to win I obviously thought we were best friends so I was dismayed when Carlson turned up on the Fox news network in a morning show that routinely spoke out against issues that I felt strongly about.  Now I didn’t follow Carlson’s career closely, mind you, but the station was always in the media for something and she seemed to be at the center of attention – so when she was fired it wasn’t just big national news, it was buzzed about in the local press as well.

Carlson is one of a handful of familiar Fox faces that are featured in Bombshell, a true-ish account of the lawsuit Carlson initiated against her former boss and how it turned into a media frenzy that topped a once-solid empire.  Yet from the outset it’s hard to view Bombshell and not address the elephant in the room: Fox News was and is a hugely problematic news outlet with anchors known for stirring the pot, making uninformed statements, introducing unsubstantiated facts, and orchestrating countless take downs of anyone that doesn’t share the agenda they’re pushing.  An already uneasy world has been made more dangerous by the untruths they perpetrate – and now we’re supposed to sit in a theater for two hours and watch beautiful female employees at Fox sob about internal misconduct without also examining the fuel they added to their company bonfire?  It’s a hard place to get to for some, but I found my way into this world thanks to stellar performances, a sharp script, and assured direction.

As the primary elections are ramping up in 2015, anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde) prepares for the Republican Party presidential debate and doesn’t shy away from asking then-candidate Donald Trump about his poor history with women, welcoming a firestorm of criticism but drawing huge ratings for her network.   This pleases her boss Roger Ailes (a sublimely slimy John Lithgow, Pet Sematary) but makes life with her children and husband (Mark Duplass, Tammy) fraught with anxiety.  In the same period, on-air reporter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman, The Goldfinch) struggles with her own show, thought of to her as a demotion from her prime spot as the third member of Fox and Friends.  Seeing the writing on the wall, she engages with lawyers to discuss her options on suing Ailes for harassment should he fire her, willing to bring up his sordid history of propositioning female employees for sexual favors.

It seems Ailes has a long reputation of harassment that is popular knowledge among the staff, save for fresh face Kayla (Margot Robie, I, Tonya) who falls into his trap fairly quickly, with her co-worker Jess (Kate McKinnon, Yesterday) unable to warn her in time.  When Carlson is ousted and brings her lawsuit into the public, will the other women at the network stand with her or stay loyal to the powerful man that holds their jobs in his hands?  Played out over a span of a year and a few months, the case develops into something bigger when respected people like Kelly stay silent instead of picking a side – leading some to ask if Kelly wasn’t another victim of Ailes, benefited from their relationship…or both.

Working from a script by Oscar-winner Charles Randolph (The Big Short), director Jay Roach (Trumbo) uses some clever ways to introduce us to the behind the scenes happenings at the network.  A guided tour of the building by Megyn is a good way to give us a lay of the land, separating the executives from the anchors and the anchors from the assistants, etc. etc.  Roach and Randolph aren’t above having actors stop and address the camera directly, though they wisely use that oft-employed tactic sparingly so when it happens it has a greater impact.  Key people are identified by name throughout and the movie takes considered steps to let us know these are actors playing real people…there is a message before the studio logo, before the cast list in the closing credits, and again at the end of the movie — so they mean business.

It’s the casting where Roach really hit gold.  As Kelly, Theron has again gone through a transformation right before our eyes into a completely different person.  It’s admittedly harder to see at the beginning when Kelly’s hair was longer but when the short style arrives, watch out, because Theron is on the money with Kelly’s voice, mannerisms, and, with the assistance of Kazu Hiro’s (and Oscar winner for Darkest Hour in 2018) expert prosthetics, an uncanny ringer for the real person.  Though she never met Kelly before making the movie, Theron seems to understand her and what motivated her forward, giving her complexities that maybe are a bit generous at times.  Kelly was always a slight enigma, that’s partly why she struggled when she moved to NBC news, and failed to connect with a broader audience…Theron perhaps warms us up to her too much.  Kidman doesn’t look much like Carlson but with her big hair and pursed lips she has the determined look of a woman smart enough to get her ducks lined up in a row and so resourceful no one even knew the ducks were there to begin with.

Robie’s character is a composite of several different producers at Fox News so she has a bit more leeway to create the role from the top down.  After scoring high marks with a fantastic dialogue-free scene earlier this summer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, she tops that one with a hard to watch passage with Lithgow as Ailes.  Watching her face go through a range of emotions is gut-wrenching but Robie doesn’t overplay it, it’s devastating enough as it is.  Her best scenes, though, are with McKinnon who finally shows up in a movie ready to take things seriously.  By far her best work to date, McKinnon leaves her goofy shtick at the Saturday Night Live studios and works hard to be a part of the success of the film rather than being the source of the problem.

Roach has filled the rest of the cast with a truckload of amazing character actors playing a number of familiar faces from the network and the world of entertainment.  I won’t spoil them all but special mention just has to be made for Allana Ubach’s (Gloria Bell) incredible work as Judge Jeanine Pirro – it’s so close to the real thing your skin starts to crawl until you realize it’s just Ubach under all that makeup.

I still struggled with the whole Fox News of it all, though, and it took me until my second viewing and a lengthy discussion with my partner afterward to lock into what the film was missing that would have helped it along a bit more.  There’s no character present that stands in opposition to Fox News or its anchors before all of this happens, only people that turn against the women after they come forward.  So we never know if they are shunning the women themselves or the women because they work at Fox News.  Having some semblance of accountability for actions before all of the harassment business came to light would, I think, ease some of the discomfort people are feeling after seeing the movie.

Hard to deny, though, that Bombshell isn’t a slick piece of entertainment with an important, but not uncommon story to tell.  Closing with a dynamite new song from Regina Spektor, “One Little Soldier”, that sadly didn’t make the Oscar shortlist, my hope is that audiences (even the MN ones!) can put aside their differences of opinion and take the movie for what it’s trying to say.  It’s not about politics, it’s not men vs. women, it’s about saying something.  Or, as Carlson says, ‘Someone has to speak up.  Someone has to get mad.’

The Silver Bullet ~ Bombshell



Synopsis
: A few women decide to take on Fox News boss Roger Ailes and the toxic male culture he presided over at the network.

Release Date:  December 20, 2019

Thoughts: In case anyone was worried the 2019 competing projects surrounding the scandal at Fox News would create a Volcano vs. Dante’s Peak situation, it’s safe to say the muted reception of Showtime’s The Loudest Voice is a good indicator Bombshell may strike gold this December.  Though boasting Noami Watts as anchor Gretchen Carlson and disgraced CEO Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes, the Showtime limited series was a non-event and has barely made headlines.  Counter that with the, let’s just say it, riveting teaser trailer for Bombshell in which Oscar winners Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased) as Carlson share elevator space with Oscar nominee Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Kayla Pospisil and you can see why pundits are wondering if the Best Actress statue might have to be divided into thirds this year.  Theron, in particular, looks eerily like her real-life counterpart…I’m dying to see how this movie turns out.

Movie Review ~ Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern, Zoë Bell

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of directors have shown an affinity for their medium throughout the course of their careers…you kind of have to when you’re in an industry that loves a good pat on the back almost as much as they love a great opening weekend.  I’m not sure if I know of a filmmaker, however, that truly loves movies as much as Quentin Tarantino does.  Though the writer/director is notorious for his outspoken ways and has come under fire recently when some questionable actions on the set of the Kill Bill movies resurfaced, he’s never shied away from wearing his movie nerdishness loud and proud.  A fanboy for movies that range from popular classic to underground cult, Tarantino has an eclectic taste which has helped him to cull numerous reference points for his films throughout the years.

So it’s fitting that he’s finally gotten around to making a film about Hollywood, creating a story about a waning star and his stunt double crossing paths with faces both factual and fictional. Far from being an expose on the dark side of the Hollywood lifestyle, Tarantino is more interested in recreating the feel of living in this mecca that lured so many dreamers and, more specifically, how one man comes to terms with his fading career.   As with many Tarantino films, the object from the first frame is total immersion in the time and place and though it has recognizable actors from 2019 you could easily believe it was made 50 years ago.  You’ve likely heard it also has something to do with Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, and the infamous tragedy that occurred on August 8, 1969 but…more on that later.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, back onscreen after a four-year absence and reteaming with his Django Unchained director) is a former star of a mildly popular western television show looking for his next project.  Unable to rest on the laurels of his previous role much longer, he seeks the advice of a blunt talent agent (Al Pacino, Stand-Up Guys, nicely dialing down his tired Pacino-y mannerisms) who urges him to consider leaving Hollywood to star in a series of spaghetti westerns filming in Italy.  The majority of the film tracks Rick over the next two days as he prepares to film a guest spot on a television series while mulling this new international opportunity.

At the same time, Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, World War Z) acts as chauffeur, handyman, gopher, and overall sidekick to the man he takes onscreen falls for.  Earning a bad reputation in the industry for a mystery surrounding his wife, Cliff can’t get much work outside of his employ with Rick so he sticks around hoping his boss will land another role that will call for his talents.  The two men have a clear kinship that extends beyond any lines of stardom and there’s an unspoken respect and loyalty flowing both ways, which is established so well Tarantino doesn’t need to fill in any gaps for the audience into how the two were paired in the first place.

What Tarantino does do, though, is take numerous opportunities to cut away to previous jobs Rick and Cliff worked on with varying degrees of success.  It’s fun to see DiCaprio loosen up dancing and singing (terribly) on Hullaballoo and an extended sequence where Cliff has it out with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie but is quite entertaining on its own merits.  Where it gets tricky is when Tarantino indulges himself too much, taking us on long drives through Los Angeles (we get it, it’s a bigger town than we think) and burns valuable time with clips from Rick Dalton’s previous appearances.  Still, those drives through Los Angeles give production designer Barbara Ling (The Lucky One) an excuse to recreate some fantastic locales in exquisite detail.  All theaters would need to do is pump in some smog and you are right there in the heart of L.A.

The first hour of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ambles nicely into interesting territory as we get our bearings (courtesy, again, of those long car rides) but it’s Cliff’s chance meeting of a hippie waif (Margaret Qualley, Novitiate) and offering her a ride home when the movie starts to get intriguing.  When they arrive at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, CA and Cliff meets the girl’s “family” his alarm bells go off and the hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up.  Tarantino makes this not just the turning point of the movie but it’s centerpiece as well, as Cliff slowly realizes things aren’t what they appear to be and the property, which he is familiar with from his career with Rick, wouldn’t just be turned over to these creepy hippies.

Here’s where I have to give the slightest caveat of a spoiler alert coming up. While I won’t give any key plot details away I’ll need to make a few points known.  It’s not something you won’t already know.

Though many of us know about Charles Manson and his Manson Family, I was fuzzier on some of the finer details and didn’t realize until later when it was that Tarantino shifted into a slightly alternate timeline to the events as they originally occurred. The actual involvement of Manson and his followers in Tarantino’s movie is, honestly, minimal but it is a key piece of the overall story Tarantino has worked out regarding Rick and Cliff.

That means Manson victim Sharon Tate becomes a character in the film as well, showing up as Rick’s next door neighbor and giving Tarantino another real life individual with a timeline he may or may not feel the need to play around with. Though brought to life with vibrancy by a nearly silent Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), Tate is a minor player that Tarantino prefers to keep at a distance when things take a dark turn.  Clearly, he only wants to remember Tate when she was young and beautiful, even going so far as to have Robbie going to see herself as Tate in a movie but watching the actual footage of Tate in the film.  For other celebrity sightings, keep your eyes open for appearances by Steve McQueen, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, Effie Gray, in a chilling cameo), Mama Cass, and Connie Stevens.

It’s not spoiling anything to say the night of August 8, 1969 is the final destination of the movie.  The ending of the film is still a bit of a puzzlement to me and I think I’ll need to see it again to firm up my thoughts on how successful it is. I’d be interested in hearing what the families of the victims think about the way Tarantino handled the events of that night and if the choices he made moved any immovable dials in their heart.  Like most Tarantino films (and quite like 2015’s The Hateful Eight) the director pulls all the stops out for the final reel – audience members at my screening seemed to go along with it but my reaction was more muted.

The real story here are the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, arguably two of the honest-to-goodness biggest stars Hollywood has right now.  Both have toplined countless films and brought them to box office glory but combining their talents was a real win for Tarantino and a boon for the film as a whole.  As with many of his performances, I found DiCaprio good to a point, but the actor always gets to a certain level where you clearly see the effort being made and then it falls apart for me.  A scene of Rick chastising himself after a lackluster performance in a scene goes on far too long and, because we’ve already seen Rick’s vulnerability, is redundant.  It’s a good thing DiCaprio has Pitt next to him for so much of the movie because this is Pitt’s most radiant time to shine.  Wearing the barely visible faded scars of a stuntman long in the business, Pitt’s best moments are when he’s not saying anything at all but just reacting to what’s happening around him.  It’s one of his all-time great roles and, coupled with the much anticipated Ad Astra, could mean 2019 winds up being a very good year for him.

At nearly three hours, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood could arguably be trimmed by a good twenty minutes, though I think it would be at the expense of some tone setting and establishment of characters.  No question, there’s a less laborious way to get through the movie but I didn’t find myself bored, easily making it through this one more than I have numerous films half its length.  It’s a must-see in theaters and try to catch it in 35MM should it be playing in that format nearest you.  Then go read up about the people and places you see and untangle the fact and fiction braid Tarantino has weaved.

The Silver Bullet ~ Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Synopsis: A faded TV actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Release Date: July 26, 2019

Thoughts: To be honest, this first look at the 9th film from Quentin Tarantino is not what I expected.  Though this movie apparently has some connection to the infamous Manson murders that occurred a half century ago, you’d never know it by watching this teaser trailer which mostly focuses on A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) and Brad Pitt (World War Z) as a has-been star and his wise-cracking stunt double making one last go in La La Land.  You barely see Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Sharon Tate and the Manson family members pass by quickly if you aren’t paying attention.  What is there smacks of a lot of “acting” going on, especially from DiCaprio (yikes, that last shot!) and a little of that can go an awfully long way.  It’s clearly a teaser trailer for something more to come but usually Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained) offers up something a tad more enticing as an appetizer.  Still, from the looks of it he’s recreated 1969 California as only a truly fanatic film nerd could so I’m absolutely interested in the main course.

Movie Review ~ Mary Queen of Scots


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: ‘Tis the season to be jolly…and to be faced with an onslaught of Oscar bait historical dramas that can arrive with hype but fade without much fanfare.  I mean, we’ve already seen what happened to Keira Knightley’s Collette earlier this fall.  Oh, you missed it in theaters?  So did I…and everyone else.  I sure hope Mary, Queen of Scots isn’t another 2018 victim of this reluctance by audiences in sitting for two hours for a period piece.  For all its historical fudging of the facts and obvious attempts to link the ill treatment of two powerful women in the past to our present state of living in a #MeToo and #TimesUp environment, this is a fantastically entertaining film that had this notorious watch-checker glued to the screen with nary a glance toward his timepiece.

I admit it’s been more than a hot minute since I’ve had a history lesson on the legacy of the English monarchy so I’m going on the good faith of the opening text that in 1561 young Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird) returned to her Scottish homeland.  Widowed by her husband, the Dauphin of France, she had a strong claim to the throne of England, then held by her first cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) but she wasn’t just able to waltz in and toss the crown on her head.  The Catholic Stuart posed a threat to the Protestant Elizabeth, not just in the religious differences of their subjects and not the least of which was that whoever produced a child first would be able to call the throne hers.

Over the next twenty six years the two women would wage a complex game of chess in which both moved players to the forefront for personal and political gain, only to be outwitted or strong-armed aside by the various men that conspired against the both of them.  “Men can be so cruel” Elizabeth is heard saying and in Beau Willimon’s script it’s clear that the men are the enemy (there’s not a single truly honorable bloke in the bunch) and women were kept under thumb despite their noble attempts to bring peace and order to their lands in the ways they, as monarchs, deemed correct.

Willimon’s experience as creator of the US adaptation of House of Cards was a good training ground for his work here.  The intricate political dealings between the two queens and their assembled privy councils make for some crackling good scenes of wit and retort and the heated arguments, desperate protestations, and whispered confidences come off well in the hands of our stars and the supporting players.  Even taking liberties with some historical points of interest and outright dreaming up a meeting with Mary and Elizabeth doesn’t feel as if a great historical injustice is being done.

First-time director Joise Rourke gives it her all in Mary, Queen of Scots, nicely blending costume drama (oh, those wonderful costumes by Alexandra Byrne, Thor!) and episodic schemes against Mary by the ones she holds closest. Originally courted by Lord Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite) as a favor to Elizabeth in the hopes she can control her cousin, Mary eventually weds Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden, Dunkrik) who has secrets of his own that come to light in one of several twists I was surprised to see. For those averse to staid costume drama, there are battle scenes with Mary leading a charge against an army set to overthrow her and double-crosses aplenty.

Ronan proves again she’s a force to be reckoned with, much like the doomed queen she is portraying. Headstrong (pun intended) but not without compassion, Ronan gives Mary a modern sensibility in a time and place where women may have had a regal title but rarely had the upper hand. Robbie, too, has strong moments in a role that could easily have delved into camp considering her prosthetic nose and the heavy clown make-up Elizabeth wore to cover-up the lasting scars of her pox ailment.

Filling out the cast are a stable full of actors playing Mary’s devoted ladies in waiting as well as Guy Pearce (Prometheus) as Elizabeth’s advisor and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as her confidante. The movie unquestionably belongs to our leading ladies and though the two actresses spend the majority of the film talking about one another, when they finally do meet up (in a scene that supposedly never really happened) Rourke gives the actresses room to breathe and resists the urge to lean into the catty nature Willimon’s script veers toward. The way cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan) moves his camera to create tension before the ladies first see each other had me on the edge of my seat.

History buffs may well reject this movie outright for its strident approach to the lives of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth but if you’re talking pure entertainment value then Mary, Queen of Scots has its head and heart in the right place.

Movie Review ~ Peter Rabbit


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a rebellious rabbit trying to sneak into a farmer’s vegetable garden.

Stars: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As I hunkered down on a chilly Saturday for an early morning screening of Peter Rabbit there were a few thoughts going through my head. The first was a silent prayer that Hollywood didn’t take Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters and turn them into grating kooky animations. The second musing I found myself pondering was what took so long for Potter’s creations to make their way to the screen in the first place? Plenty of small screen animation adaptions featuring Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin, and more have popped up throughout the decades and a fond memory of my youth was going to see Beatrix Potter’s Christmas (think The Avengers, just with Potter’s most famous critters) over several years at MN’s Children’s Theater Company. Yet aside from a Potter biopic (the largely forgotten Mrs. Potter), there’s been little love for the woodland creatures themselves.

What a pleasure it was, then, to find that Peter Rabbit is a real delight, a rare family film that’s truly something the whole family can get something out of. For kids there’s plenty of slapstick comedy that doesn’t involve farts or other rude nonsense and for adults there are a bevy of laughs that will easily sail over the heads of tykes too young to get the humor.

In the English countryside, Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, Into the Woods) is fond of making his way into the garden of Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and filling up on his plump vegetables. Pulling his cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) in on his schemes and being cheered on by rabbit triplets Flopsy (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), days are just a series of adventures that usually end with Peter being chased by the annoyed farmer into the loving arms of his caretaker Bea (Rose Byrne, Insidious). One day, the antics go too far and Old Mr. McGregor has himself a heart attack leaving his garden and home to be overrun by animals.

In London, tightly-wound Thomas McGregor’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin) OCD ways have gotten him the heave-ho from his job at Harrod’s department store. Informed of his inheritance of a house from an uncle he’s never met and without much to keep him in the city, he treks out to see his new property in the country. Once he arrives and cleans up the place, he sets his sights on ridding himself of the vermin problem…but also starts to fall in love with Bea. The latter half of the film focuses on Thomas and Peter’s escalating war, fighting for their territory and over the lovely woman that cares for both of them.

Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck (Annie) has crafted a film that’s quite charming from the get-go. There’s sentiment for the origin of the stories (Bea is a painter that creates bizarre modern art but sketches her forest friends in intricate details, ala Beatrix Potter) but keeps enough pep in its step to not feel like a staid transfer of the books to the screen. The humor is broad and fast-paced but with a sly wink to always let the audience in on the joke. Sure, there’s a few questionable bits of mayhem (such as one moment where Peter briefly considers sticking a carrot into Old Mr. McGregor’s plumber butt crack) but the overall joy the film brings outweighs a few of these catering to the masses missteps.

Sprinkled with a soundtrack of familiar songs reimagined not to mention a few tunes Gluck penned himself and using Australia’s picturesque countryside as a stand-in for the English village of Windermere, this is a valuable film for parents to keep in their back pocket.  I found the 90 minute run time flew by and there are some nice touches from Gluck and company, such as having the live-action leads also provide voices for a few of the animals.  Along with Paddington 2, it represents a step above the usual family fare that blends live-action with animation (the result is dazzlingly seamless) and offers sure-fire matinee potential for the whole gang.

Movie Review ~ I, Tonya


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Mckenna Grace, Bojana Novakovic, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  As I triple-axel my way ever closer to middle age, I’ve started to notice something all-together irritating.  Recently I’ve begun to see that movies based on real events have become less of an educational opportunity for me but more of a memory-jogging excursion into my teenage years.  Yes, I’m getting so old that I can actually remember where I was when Princess Diana died, when O.J. Simpson took that famous joyride in the white Bronco, and I definitely, 100% remember where I was during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Like most of America, I was glued to the tube watching not just the stunning athleticism on display but wondering how the drama of the previous months was going to play out.  We’ll get back to that because while ardent fans will remember who skated their way to the gold, silver, and bronze this is, after all, a spoiler-free blog and the events leading up to these Olympic games are the climax of I, Tonya.

I’ll admit going into I, Tonya with a little prejudice not just toward its subject but also it’s star.  Over the years the name Tonya Harding was equated with the horrible attack on her colleague and competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  While the tabloids were busy painting Harding as an evil conspirator, the makers of I, Tonya (including star and executive producer Margot Robbie) are more interested in showing the genesis of the famed figure skater, her struggle to the top, and her mighty (and maybe ultimately unjustified) fall from grace.

Framed by a series of interviews inspired by the words of the actual people involved, I, Tonya takes a while to stand on its own.  At first the narrative device gives the film a cheapness that isn’t helped by stars Robbie (as Harding) and Sebastian Stan (as her ex-husband Jeff Gilloly) laboring under some troublesome make-up, wigs, and facial hair to age them into their early ‘40s.  It’s when writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) do away with the tell vs. show method and cease with the random breaking of the fourth wall that the movie scores major points and takes on a life of its own.

Skating through Harding’s early years as a child phenom pushed by her chain-smoking foul-mouthed domineering monster mother LaVona (Allison Janney, The Way Way Back) into her adolescence and early marriage to the abusive Gilloly, all of the standard biopic bases are covered.  Harding comes from less than ideal circumstances and soon learns that handmade costumes and skating programs set to rock music aren’t going to win her a place in the hearts of the judges.  Looking for a more wholesome specimen to represent the world at the Olympics, the judges score Harding lower than her peers even though it’s well known she could skate rings around them.  There’s two great scenes where Harding confronts the judges, one ends with Harding hurling a gem of vulgarity and the other that makes you feel even more sorry for the young woman that just wants to be recognized for her ability, not her perceived personality shortcomings.

Harding was surrounded by people that wanted her to succeed not for her benefit but for theirs above all else.  LaVona looks to her daughter to be the bread-winner and save her from her life as a waitress, Gilloly obsessively loved his wife but couldn’t handle her need for independence after being brow-beaten by her mother and abandoned by her father.  Then there’s Gilloly’s friend and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) who hatches a jokey plan for psychological warfare on Harding’s foes that ultimately became the plot to injure Kerrigan.

I’ve struggled mightily with Robbie ever since she broke onto the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and there’s always a feeling of potential that’s never fully embraced.  While she received much attention for her role as Harley Quinn in the odious Suicide Squad and biffed it earlier in 2017 with Goodbye Christopher Robin, here she made me a believer in the accolades she’s garnered for playing Harding.  Early scenes feel awkward as the Australian Robbie adopts a trailer trash slack drawl but she eventually finds her groove, leading to a supremely satisfying turn in the final ¼ of the movie.  There’s a short scene with her attempting to put on her game face (literally) in a mirror that alone should get her an Oscar nomination.

Robbie’s ably supported by Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Janney, the latter of which goes all out as a nightmare of a woman that doesn’t have a motherly instinct in her body.  Her justification of why she behaves the way she does toward her daughter is hysterical, enlightening, and very very sad.  Playing her first coach and one of her only true allies, Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is also a strong presence in the film.  Though Robbie and Janney are getting the awards attention, for my money Hauser’s dimwit bodyguard is the one that needs a bigger spotlight for his deliriously droll performance.  It may look easy to do but his excellent timing and perfectly pitched physicality is more memorable for me than anything else.

It’s not all rosy for I, Tonya though.  Relying on some wince-inducing soundtrack choices that are far too on the nose, Gillespie throttles into his audience with too many asides to cameras and leaps back and forth in time.  While Robbie can skate, the scenes where she’s recreating Harding’s famously difficult performances are done using a double with Robbie’s face unconvincingly digitally inserted over the stand-in.  This never, ever, looks good and too often produces laughs as it seems Robbie’s face and the skater’s body are playing two different emotions.

Yet for all its wobbly construction issues I was left reeling by the committed performances and that’s what pushes this one ahead into something worth seeking out.  I’m almost positive this is the best we’ll see Robbie for a while so I’d advise to strike while the iron’s hot and see what all the fuss is about.  While Janney is wonderfully acerbic, I’d favor Laurie Metcalf’s equally troubling mother in Lady Bird over this performance if I was forced to choose in an Oscar pool.  This one might not get a perfect score, but in uncovering more about Harding than most people have seen, it gets top marks.

The Silver Bullet ~ I, Tonya

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Release Date: December 8, 2017

Thoughts: Well this looks like a wild ride. The brouhaha surrounding the infamous conspiracy involving figure skater Tonya Harding’s involvement in the injury of her competitor Nancy Kerrigan was the stuff of tabloid dreams.  Over the years Harding has faded from the public eye but  I, Tonya aims to drudge up events that have been on ice for some time.  Directed by Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours), while the movie looks like a black comedy at its bleakest and darkest (I get shades of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, no?), I’ve already heard buzz that it’s one you’re either going to get a huge kick out of or feel like you need a shower after to wash away the mean grime the film leaves on you.  I’m still nowhere near sold on the overall impact of Margot Robie (Exhibit A: Goodbye Christopher Robin) but if the Oscar rumors are true about co-star Allison Janney (Minions) then all shall be forgiven…for now.

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.