Movie Review ~ Four Good Days

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A mother helps her daughter work through four crucial days of recovery from substance abuse. 

Stars: Mila Kunis, Glenn Close, Stephen Root, Joshua Leonard, Rebecca Field, Chad Lindberg, Michael Hyatt, Sam Hennings 

Director: Rodrigo García 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 100 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review:  Bless her long-suffering Oscar-less heart but Glenn Close is a trooper, ain’t she?  An eight-time Academy Award nominee, Close has had the good fortune to land meaty roles in more than a few unforgettable classics and deservedly earned her polite accolades for her efforts.  What she hasn’t brought home yet is that one piece of golden hardware many think she’s toiled long enough for.  While she could have won it early on for her supporting work in The Big Chill or in a more daring choice like Fatal Attraction, she very nearly grazed the glory in 2017 with The Wife.  That film definitely wasn’t her best work but the general consensus was that she was good enough to make the honor not feel totally like a sympathy nod.  Then along comes Hillbilly Elegy and a less subtle role Close seemed to gnaw on hoping it would attract the right kind of attention.  Sadly, again it was not meant to be.

While Close continues to hold out hope of a Sunset Boulevard musical film adaptation (for real, get going on that Hollywood! Close will devour that role and give you the Oscar performance you’ve been wanting all along!), until that happens, we’ll have to settle for seeing her in smaller titles like Four Good Days, rolling into theaters this weekend.  An indie drama centered on drug addiction that could have gone so maudlin and wrong it winds up being a better showcase for Close than Hillbilly Elegy ever hoped to be.  Heck, she even gets to wear another slightly questionable wig and manages to pull it off.

Close stars in this adaptation of an article from the Washington Post penned by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eli Saslow.  Though it changes the names and location of that original piece, by and large it sticks fairly close to the true story of a heroin-addicted daughter (Mila Kunis, Bad Moms) who returns home to her mother (Close, Guardians of the Galaxy) seeking shelter where she can detox.  Having been on this ride before with her daughter (thirteen times, we later learn), Deb initially refuses to let Molly back into her life or into her home but after some convincing that Molly is serious about her choice, she drops her off at rehab and hopes this will be the stay that takes.

Coming out of detox, Molly is told about a treatment that would be able to combat the sensation of getting high, a shot given once a month but only if the person has no drugs currently in their system.  To be safe, the doctor wants her to wait another four days to let her last fix work its way out.  Needing a place to stay so she doesn’t relapse in that short time, Deb agrees to let her stay with her and and her new husband (Stephen Root, Bombshell) and mother and daughter spend the next several days reconnecting over past traumas and mending bridges both had a say in tearing down.

Those expecting Four Good Days to be one of those Lifetime Television Movies will be in for a nice surprise because Saslow and co-writer/director Rodrigo García’s script isn’t as one dimensional as it might appear to be.  Yes, it practically goes through a checklist of required items in these sort of films (parent doesn’t trust, parent learns to trust, parent gets burned, child feels bad, everyone cries, lessons are learned) and there’s enough motivational quotes to make a slew of school cafeteria posters, but there’s a deeper being worked through that’s far thornier.  In addition to showing us the outcome of years of addiction, García (Albert Nobbs) is also addressing issues of enablement and accountability and that’s what winds up setting Four Good Days apart from the crowd and giving its two leading actresses many opportunities to shine.

What has always been so depressing about Close not winning an Oscar all this time is that she easily was first runner up for a number of these races.  Her training and commitment to the work makes her an ideal actress to convey empathy we can relate to.  I wouldn’t call her character dowdy but Close clearly understands where this part-time esthetician chooses to direct her energy and so we feel every weight she carries around from her life so far.  I’ve always had a fondness for Kunis (another actress that nearly made it to the Oscars with her role in 2010’s Black Swan) and am glad to see her turn up so successful in a part that is saddled with a lot of extra business which might overtake someone unable to handle it all.  The hair, the gait, not to mention the teeth (oh, the teeth!), could have all been pieces Kunis used to do the work for her but she goes beyond those outward tools and finds Molly from within.  Watch for the moment when her two young children are visiting and she’s playing a video game with her son that gets heated.  There’s a moment shared between the two of them that could go either way and you hold your breath because you know what’s she’s feeling and how she wants to react…Kunis shows it all in the smallest flutter of her eyes and doesn’t have to say a word. 

Together, Close and Kunis are dynamite and, as I imagine it would be for their characters, it’s hard for anyone else to get between them.  Root’s role is reduced to pretty much a cameo and you’ll start to wonder if Close is still married because he vanishes for so long.  There’s a nice, but brief, scene between Deb and her other daughter (Carla Gallo, We Bought A Zoo) and the contrast between their relationship and the one she has with Molly is clearly defined by Saslow and García but not in a cloying way.  There’s a number of good supporting performances, actually, even down to Michael Hyatt (The Little Things) as a member of Deb’s support group for mothers of addicts.

Released by a small studio with little advance fanfare, Four Good Days is the type of film I wish Close would be championed for and encouraged to make more of.  Same goes for Kunis.  Close has more experience in this arena but the realism without heaps of sentimentality is a refreshing change of pace for family dramas centered on drug abuse.  Ending with a Diane Warren song (another Oscar nominee for a song from The Life Ahead that went home empty-handed this year) sung by Reba McIntire that’s pretty much in line with most Warren ballads of late, the entire movie exceeds expectations with both actresses making it absolutely worth a watch.

Movie Review ~ The Little Things

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A burnt-out deputy sheriff is sent to Los Angeles for what should have been a quick evidence-gathering assignment and becomes embroiled in a crack LASD detective’s search for a killer who is terrorizing the city.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Sofia Vassilieva, Natalie Morales, Terry Kinney, Michael Hyatt, Chris Bauer, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Sheila Houlahan, John Harlan Kim, Tom Hughes, Jason James Richter, Stephanie Erb, Kerry O’Malley

Director: John Lee Hancock

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  During the recent long weekend I sat through nearly four hours of the mesmerizing documentary Night Stalker on Netflix which chronicled serial killer Richard Ramirez’s reign of terror over Los Angeles and neighboring counties in the mid ‘80s.  Here was proof positive of evil at its purest form, the killing of innocent people chosen at random with increasingly depraved brutality.  Anyone that’s ever read up on serial killers (or seen the movie Copycat) knows at least a little about Ramirez but I hadn’t truly experienced the full-on assault of his crimes until Night Stalker came along.  The fascination of the film for me wasn’t in the details of his actions, though, it was in the work of the dedicated detectives that called upon their resources, ingenuity, and plain old detective gut instinct to nab the predator.

This investigative work is always what draws me to these serial killer films and why I’ve been sad to see them fall by the wayside in recent years in favor of less complex plots that hinge more on luck than on genius.  Where are the Clarice Starlings from The Silence of the Lambs in film today?  Or a wise William Somerset from Se7en to take young recruits under their wing?  Heck, even Andy Garcia’s troubled detective in the not so beloved Jennifer 8 actually takes the time to investigate the reddest of all herrings. (I love that movie, by the by).  Even more than that, these are popular films that have entertainment value if generated with a modicum of competent thought, despite their often perilously dark subject matter.  Yet they’ve become less prestige over time and more the kind of films that top level B-grade stars frequent…rarely attracting A-list talent.  Plain and simple – we’ve been needing a movie like The Little Things to come around.

Writer/director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) has delivered an agreeably formulaic but nonetheless efficiently crackerjack excursion back in time to 1990s Los Angeles, allowing viewers to follow along in a puzzling mystery.  An opening prologue applies just enough pressure to get the blood pumping but then withdraws for a time as introductions are made all around.  After a health scare several years earlier, former L.A. detective Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has retreated to a quieter life of public service as a deputy sheriff in Kern County, two hours outside of Los Angeles.  There’s a slight apprehension when he’s sent back to the big city to retrieve important evidence in a local case and we’ll find out why (but on Hancock’s slightly drawn-out timeline) after he runs into his old partner (Terry Kinney, Promised Land) and a medical examiner (Michael Hyatt, Nightcrawler), both of whom he shares a well-kept secret with.

Deke happens to arrive at an opportune time because his previous department could use an extra set of eyes to help find a killer targeting women.  At first, lead detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) wants Deke far away from his case but once Baxter sees how the veteran lawman works, he realizes if there’s a key to catching the evil roaming the streets at night, Deke is holding it.  After examining the latest murder scene and discovering new evidence, the men are threatened with losing the case with the impending arrival of the FBI.   The two men combine their efforts in an attempt to flush out a criminal in hiding, eventually targeting a potential suspect (Jared Leto, Blade Runner 2049) who checks all the boxes to be the man they’re looking for but might also turn out to undo all the work they’ve done if he’s innocent.

Playing like a truncated season of True Detective, The Little Things doesn’t have the meat to fill out an five or six episode order on HBO but for a two hour movie that’s debuting on HBO Max, it’s a largely satisfying endeavor.  It has the appropriate amount of thrill to it at the beginning but benefits from a heat that sparks more than slow burns.  Now, this may be insufficient for some who want that slow burn gradient for their films and enjoy watching the waters rise over the nose the ears the eyes of their protagonists, but I almost found it more interesting how Hancock more or less would dunk his characters in cold water from time to time.  It’s also two mysteries in one, with the current murders being looked into while Deke has re-opened an older case that has haunted him for years.  It’s not always an equal balance between the two cases and I still haven’t decided if Hancock has resolved either fairly enough but it’s certainly more ambitious a plot than not.

You wouldn’t expect an actor like Washington to show up in film that didn’t have some extra oomph to it, would you?  While it falls into one of Washington’s more outright commercial efforts like the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, you can tell Washington is bringing more to the character than what was on the page…and what was on the page is clearly what attracted him to the role in the first place.  Deke is a flawed character with a range of setbacks he’s been working around.  His return trip to L.A. is causing him to confront those and his relationship with Baxter is a chance for further reflection on the mistakes he’s made both personally and professionally.  In typical Washington fashion, he takes what could have been an average role that a good actor could have made better and turns it into a bona fide star turn.

He’s followed pretty closely by Leto as one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen anyone play in some time.  Wearing dark contacts, a paunch, greasy hair, and a strange gait, he also takes on an affected voice that I was dubious about at first but starts to work into the freak factor if you buy into Deke and Baxter’s hunch that he’s the man they seek.  He certainly plays into their suspicions and Leto goes full, well, Leto in the performance.  I was genuinely unnerved by the actor and he’s well cast from my vantage point.  In the shadow of these two, Malek can’t help but look a little chilly and reserved.  Apparently unaware he isn’t wearing his Freddie Mercury teeth anymore, Malek always appears poised to ask Washington if he has any Grey Poupon and his attempts at being serious come off as bug-eyed confusion.  He’s just the wrong fit for the role as a family man young detective that becomes obsessed with finding this killer.  Another note about the cast in general, Hancock has amassed a fairly phenomenal supporting cast of bit players comprised of, among others, familiar faces (Lee Garlington, Psycho II in a small role as a harried landlady) and grown-up child stars (I didn’t even recognize Free Willy’s Jason James Richter as another LASD detective) – so it’s all around a strong world that’s been created for viewers.

Built on Hancock’s sometimes wobbly script that does require your rapt attention, the editing of the film is what detracts from the overall quality the most.  Several key scenes are hard to follow because, without giving any spoilers, the editor doesn’t properly establish location of certain characters.  That’s a big problem when you’re trying to put a puzzle together with only your brain storing the pieces.  My advice is to pay close attention throughout because important information about characters are given in sometimes offhanded ways, almost as toss away lines.  For a number of people, The Little Things will be seen as a creaky serial killer thriller that’s past its expiration date but it’s actually one that has outlived its sell-by window with better than average results.