Movie Review ~ Brazen

The Facts:

Synopsis: A prominent mystery writer and crime expert hurries back to her family home when her sister is killed and her double life as a webcam performer is revealed, ignoring the warnings of cool-headed detective and getting involved in the case.

Stars: Alyssa Milano, Sam Page, Malachi Weir, Emilie Ullerup, Matthew Finlan, Colleen Wheeler, Lossen Chambers

Director: Monika Mitchell

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: We’re ever so slightly into January but I can’t quite shake the cozy comfort of one of my favorite seasons of the year…and it’s not Christmas.  No, it’s the cycle of holiday movies produced en masse for television by a growing number of networks and streaming services, aiming to pummel their target audiences with enough easy to digest 90-minute treats to fill a Santa-size stocking.  Like a greedy kid in a small-town candy store about to go under but saved at the last minute by a hard-working single gal from the big city, I always go a little overboard in gathering my selections each year, finding that my time is more limited than I would like to get through them all.  So, it’s around now when I start to gradually remove myself from these holiday affairs and get back to the reality of films where icicles can be used as weapons, not decorations.

Luckily, every now and then a movie like Brazen comes along and it’s a nice blending of both worlds that helps me ease my way back into the swing of things.  There’s a feeling of familiar efficiency to suggest this adaptation of a popular Nora Roberts mystery novel from 1988 was produced quickly, with experienced director Monika Mitchell (The Knight Before Christmas) casting dependable actors well-versed in the one take turnaround to guarantee deadlines are met.  It also hits the right notes in being just scandalous enough to make a younger viewer wish it went further but keep watching to see if it does and an older viewer to think it goes as far as necessary but secretly wanting just a small flash of flesh. 

Celebrated mystery writer Grace Miller is riding high on the success of her latest novel when her estranged sister (Emilie Ullerup) calls, asking that she visit.  Dropping everything and expecting to find her sister in serious trouble, she instead finds her younger sibling holding down a job as a schoolteacher at a prominent school and attempting to get her son back from her well-connected and wealthy ex.  Within days, however, her sister is found slain and her double life as a webcam model is exposed, sending Grace into a tailspin as she works with the detective living next door (Sam Page) to find the killer…a killer that continues to strike.

I was surprised to find that the novel Brazen is based off of was nearly 34 years old because it’s made it to the screen without much alteration if I’m reading the synopsis correctly.  Yes, it often comes off as a lengthier and better produced episode of a crime drama you’d see on network TV, but at the same time that’s selling short the work that Milano and Page are doing with the material.  It’s standard-fare mystery-solving, with a number of red herrings and the typical fingers pointed at the most obvious (read: slovenly or repulsively creepy) characters, but the two leads believe in the material enough that you can’t help but take them as seriously as they are taking it.  How Grace manages to make her way into the investigation is a stretch by any tinkering of plot mechanics, but the way Milano pitches it, I might have been convinced to let her take over the case as well.

For a film that largely has to do with webcam modeling, it’s quite chaste…like so many movies that take place at strip clubs where all the dancers are wearing bras and underwear.  It’s just another way the film simply wants to remain neutral.  Not aiming to upset anyone (save for the more conservative Roberts fans that bristled at the casting of the dependably outspoken Milano in a leading role), Brazen is a harmless 96-minute weeknight watch that leaves the door open for a sequel.  While I can’t find any info that Roberts herself continued this character in future novels, I’d imagine the team of writers who brought Brazen to Netflix could come up with another case to solve that would check the same boxes.  There’s a real lack of this kind of entertainment on the streaming site and if they were all made with such awareness of who they are all showing up for, why not throw some money at them and make a few more?

Movie Review ~ The Lost Daughter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A professor’s seaside vacation takes a dark turn when her obsession with a young mother forces her to confront secrets from her past.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: There’s something to be said for investing in a two-hour movie with a central character that’s hard to like.  We’ve had to root for anti-heroes in a number of films in theaters and television over the years and it takes a certain type of character (and actor) to be able to pull of that fine tight-rope act of leaning into the unlikability of a persona but not overstep so far that you lose the audience.  It’s the ultimate trust-fall test to bet the house that viewers will turn up to be attentive to (and even eventually root for) an individual that we might otherwise recoil from.  Oscar-winner Olivia Colman has played brittle before and her success as Queen Elizabeth on The Crown has largely come from her ability to “staunch” like the best of them…so we already know she can win us over.  What do you do when the movie as a whole is hard to like, though?

While I haven’t read the source novel on which The Lost Daughter was adapted from, it’s not very hard to see the literary bones and stumbling blocks in the structure of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s version.  The actress, making her feature film directing debut as well as logging her first screenplay, takes Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel (which was translated from its original 2006 Italian version) and brings the psychological drama off the page with a fine cast of actors who struggle through a serpentine plot that gets more turned around on itself the longer it plays.  Each time you feel momentum is gaining on plot or performance, a new element is introduced to distract and take you out of the energy the film was building.  It creates a strong discord over time, eventually alienating the viewer almost entirely, giving a full pardon to us to let our minds wander.  It’s a pity too, because the movie is chock full of dynamic actors dutifully delivering in their assigned roles.

Gyllenhaal (Batman Begins) opens The Lost Daughter with one of my least favorite plot devices: the flash forward/backward. (Ugh!) We see a brief glimpse of a time other than when most of the action takes place.  Maybe it’s before, maybe it’s after but we’re soon with Leda (Colman, The Mitchells vs. The Machines) as she arrives at a Greek seaside village for a quiet holiday on her own.  Single and with two adult children, she’s free to do as she pleases and at first it looks like that will be keeping her own schedule on the tranquil beach and flirting (badly) with the sea-salty landlord (Ed Harris, The Abyss) she meets on her first night.

The serenity doesn’t last long.  Another family joins her at the beach, a large group that boisterously descends, or rather invades, the space and overtakes the area.  Determined to keep her holiday on her terms and able to tune them out for the most part, it’s only when she refuses to relinquish her space to them that their orbits truly collide.  It’s also when she notices Nina (Dakota Johnson, Our Friend), a young mother of a toddler that never gives her a moment of peace.  Seeing this woman struggle to find some second to gather her thoughts acts as a trigger for Leda, drudging up memories of her own past when she was young (played by Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) and hoping to balance motherhood and her own dreams of status in the educated world.

It’s here that Gyllenhaal creates a fork in the road for viewers as well as a gap that continues to widen for the rest of the film.  On the left is the older Leda who is there when Nina’s young daughter disappears briefly only to discover something else has been taken when she returns.  A greater mystery is then uncovered, creating a creeping sense of dread that Leda’s safety is at risk from Nina, her shady husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Bly Manor), and their extended family…or is it the other way around and does Leda harbor a dark side that’s ready to swallow all of them up? 

The second and, sadly, far less interesting fork is the one we’re continually pulled back to…that of the younger Leda’s life with her children who need their mother but are so clingy they begin to drive her away.  Her need for attention turns into desire for validation and, not finding that at home, she looks to a more mature colleague (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) who provides that outlet for her.  This section is meant to show why the older Leda acts the way she does but never fleshes out the history enough for us to have that full picture etched for us, or even halfway shaded in.  Brief conversations in both timelines hint at Leda’s mother playing a part in her feeling unwanted and that transference easily passing through her to her children. Gyllenhaal never explores that, and it feels like a missed opportunity…for us and for the actresses who are more than capable of taking on those tricky corners of the heart.

While a beautiful name, those with knowledge of Greek mythology will pick up on the scholarly burden that comes with the name Leda who was the wife of a King when a most famous God took a liking to her.  An unwilling bedmate (i.e. by force) to Zeus who masqueraded as a swan, the story goes that she wound up laying two eggs that hatched into children.  It’s a thinly veiled metaphor for what the older Leda goes through, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find she gave herself that name – she often acts like such a martyr it would feel in line with the character. 

Of course, it’s not Colman’s doing that she’s tasked with a most difficult through line to play and if anything works best about the movie, it’s her.  Displaying her usual bravado in making risky choices that pay off, she isn’t afraid to go to awkward places in her acting or let uncomfortable silences linger longer than they have to.  The scenes with Colman and Johnson are first rate, as is one scene early on between Colman and Dagmara Domińczyk (The Assistant), Nina’s cousin who has the initial run-in with Leda and attempts to make peace. 

There’s a lot of buzz around Gyllenhaal’s screenplay and it’s a bit of a puzzlement for me.  Any juggling of timelines is always looked on with favor but aside from a few admittedly knock-out scenes that appear to be building to something but amount to little more than a puff of smoke, there isn’t anything remarkable about the assemblage of The Lost Daughter.  It’s the performances that stand out far more than the script or the direction, both of which are serviceable.  This includes everything right up to the ending which could have been punctuated better to close out Gyllenhaal’s debut by finally finding its footing.  Instead, it literally trips and falls without much fanfare. 

Movie Review ~ Don’t Look Up 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Two low-level astronomers must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth. 

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Melanie Lynskey, Himesh Patel 

Director: Adam McKay 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 145 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4/10) 

Review:  Maybe Don’t Look Up is a movie that is meant to be seen by an audience full of people primed to enjoy this type of salty satirical look at climate change and current state of affairs, because it was like an echo chamber at my press screening.  Not that all of us weren’t getting the jokes or comedy being tossed (more like direct line thrown) at us by writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) from a story by David Sirota.  We did.  We very much did.  I just don’t think that I personally found much to giggle about in this achingly overlong comedy that overstays its welcome because it can and doesn’t subject itself to its own brand of scrutiny when it should.  I had to see this one in theaters, but you can see it at home…maybe that’s the way to do it so you can break it up into chapters and consume it in smaller, more digestible bites.

McKay’s comet comedy Don’t Look Up hits the political satire button harder than it must, resulting in a sporadically humorous watch that features a few surprisingly funny turns from a larger-than-life cast.  Yet for all those random moments of spontaneous glee, it honestly doesn’t have that much to say outside of its central message about the danger of misinformation and wide-spread issues related to misuse of social media to educate the world in a global crisis.  Almost as if he determined that the concept was “good enough”, McKay falls into obvious dialogue traps and paints himself into a corner by the end so that even a decidedly conversation-starting finale feels like a laborious task because of what we’ve gone through to get there.

At first, finding an unidentified comet careening through the solar system is an exciting discovery for astronomy student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy) and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street).  However, once Randall charts the journey of the comet, he determines that it’s on a course straight for Earth and that in six months’ time it will achieve impact and kill everyone on the planet.  Of course, the two feel like sharing the news will result in decisive action but they encounter a series of roadblocks and red tape not just in reporting the information to the President (Meryl Streep, Still of the Night) and her son and chief of staff (Jonah Hill, Sausage Party) but in being able to talk about it at all.

With the months ticking down and their claim being refuted first by scientists with higher stature, then politicians more interested in reelection, and finally by a tech magnate (Mark Rylance, The BFG) who sees the mineral rich comet as a way to harvest more materials for his business, the two are tested personally and professionally as to how much outside pressure they can withstand and who they can trust.  Eventually, popular news outlets and television personalities (including Cate Blanchett, Nightmare Alley, as a capped-tooth talk show host) prove tempting distractions from the time-sensitive solve-for no one seems to be worried about.  Can everyone put their differences aside and agree about the problem at hand before the Earth is destroyed?

McKay has been gifted with a dynamite cast, a saving grace that will without a doubt sell this movie to multiple interest groups who will show up for their favorite celebrity.  Most of them wind up doing a good job too, like Ariana Grande delivering a fantastically foul (and truly epic) put-down to DiCaprio. Speaking of DiCaprio, I can’t decide if he was giving a middling Leo performance or a great Philip Seymour Hoffman one. Watching him bluster around as a hypochondriac, easily addled middle-aged father of grown children is kind of surreal and, I dunno, satisfying? In the Battle of Capped Teeth, Blanchett out flosses Rylance by not letting the teeth do the work. Rylance isn’t just resting on laurels; he’s reclining in a performance we’ve seen before.  He’s giving by far the weakest performance here and as much as I’ve liked him before, I feel like his time doing these types of sotto-voce cardigan roles are over.  Blanchett really goes for it, unafraid to get her hands dirty and Lawrence too bites down hard on her character’s anger, letting it boil over to great effect.

It’s inescapable that Don’t Look Up is way too long and could be ever so much shorter if McKay had trimmed out some of the less interesting pieces, many of which involve DiCaprio’s character falling from personal grace and secondary characters being revisited when we didn’t care about them in the first place.  It’s overstuffed and Thanksgiving was weeks ago by now.  The credits at least can be shortened.  I made the mistake of leaving early because they were eternally long and of course there was an extended post-credit scene that was quite important…so don’t make my mistake and be sure to watch that ending.

Movie Review ~ The Unforgivable 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Released from prison into a society that won’t forgive her past, a woman seeks redemption by searching for the sister she left behind. 

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond, Aisling Franciosi, Tom Guiry, Rob Morgan, W. Earl Brown 

Director: Nora Fingscheidt 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 112 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review: Once you find out that Sandra Bullock’s newest film for Netflix is based on Unforgiven, a 2009 three-episode limited series originally shown on British airwaves, it starts to make sense why this feature film feels like it’s missing something that would make it feel complete.  It’s not that Bullock’s presence back on screen, her first since 2018’s massive hit Bird Box, isn’t welcome because it most definitely is, but it’s that The Unforgivable doesn’t seem up to the standard we have for the Oscar winner.  The meatiness that must have been present in the lengthier version explored in the miniseries would have made this feel less of your standard presentation of redemption and given all the actors, not just Bullock, additional layers to uncover. 

Released from prison for good behavior after serving part of her time after being convicted for the shooting death of a small-town cop twenty years earlier, Ruth (Bullock, Gravity) is assigned to a parole officer (Rob Morgan, Don’t Look Up) who isn’t about to go easy on her.  Not that she’s a barrel of laughs, either.  The weight of the years in prison have clearly taken their toll on the parolee and her solid stance, rough edges, and clipped response to questions speak to a woman that didn’t just make it through prison, she survived.  Unsurprisingly, cop killers have a difficult time behind bars and while it’s not discussed you wonder how much abuse Ruth suffered from those in power while she was locked away.  Through flashbacks, we see the circumstances by which the crime occurred and there’s little doubt of her involvement in the officer’s slaying, having acted in the spur of the moment to avoid eviction for her and a much younger sister from her family farm.

Unable on her own to contact her now young adult sister (Aisling Franciosi) who lives with adoptive parents (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond, Gemini Man) that have shielded from her true identity for decades, Ruth engages a lawyer (Vincent D’Onofrio, The Magnificent Seven) that she happens across when she visits her old home…he lives there now with his wife (Viola Davis, Widows) and sons.  Shielding them from her truth but not totally hiding it either, she finds a sympathetic ally in the legal nature of the husband but not the moral core of the wife.  While she is befriended by a co-worker (Jon Bernthal, The Accountant) at the fish factory job her parole office finds for her, she also secures her own employment putting her carpentry skill to use building a shelter for the homeless.  The past hasn’t forgotten about her or the people in her life though, and the sons of the slain cop have kept an eye on the woman they feel has gotten off too easy. 

The multiple storylines and character arcs scream miniseries, and you can imagine how each episode would have dealt with juggling all of these in a much tidier way.  As it is, screenwriters Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles never successfully bring anything to the forefront and so nothing has the desired impact necessary for us to grab onto.  Not that they haven’t given us one or two characters we wish we had more time with.  Why cast the dynamic Davis in a role that is largely dormant for the run time and further, why would she take this low impact part?  Davis and Bullock work so well together in their short amount of screen time you wish the movie were more about them.  I’d have taken less of the revenge storyline featuring Tom Guiry (Wonder Wheel) and Will Pullen (Goat) as two sons so enraged at the injustice of someone leaving jail early that they’re willing to commit a crime that would send them to jail in return.  These types of plot developments make little sense even to a casual observer, how does it not make sense to two people?  I also liked the relationship formed between Bullock and Bernthal, a highly underrated actor that gets a nice chance to shine with a character that’s not big on words but grand on making efforts to connect.

The time has long since passed when Bullock has had to prove herself a strong dramatic actress, so the range shown her is no big surprise.  The performance is perhaps oversold just a teeny bit but there’s little care for artifice in her acting and she works nicely with director Nora Fingscheidt to not turn every intense passage into an Oscar-clip ready moment.  Overly strong production values and an ever-present Hans Zimmer & David Fleming (Dune) score add to the sophistication of The Unforgivable, so even if it’s lacking in a feeling that it’s the whole package because it’s been trimmed for the overseas remake, there is still a sense of an above average narrative that’s worth a look.

Movie Review ~ Single All the Way

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Desperate to avoid his family’s judgment about his perpetual single status, Peter convinces his best friend Nick to join him for the holidays and pretend that they’re now in a relationship. But when Peter’s mother sets him up on a blind date with her handsome trainer James, the plan goes awry.

Stars: Michael Urie, Philemon Chambers, Luke Macfarlane, Jennifer Coolidge, Kathy Najimy, Jennifer Robertson, Barry Bostwick

Director: Michael Mayer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: During the throes of the coronavirus, I became somewhat of a Hallmark Christmas movie afficionado, so I know from sappy holiday entertainment.  There’s a specific formula to these films and it never changes.  This makes them predictable and safe, easy viewing to decorate your house and tree to but rarely the kind of project you truly stop what you’re doing and pay rapt attention.  This is no dig to the actors (though some of them do have a particular Canadian, um, charm) but instead is a tribute to their consistent uniformity which gives us a happy ending when a least one woman in a red dress kisses one man…but only at the very end, and after someone has drank hot cocoa and sung “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” 

One thing that hasn’t been explored much until recently are stories from different viewpoints, representing the true world and multi-whatever families that exist.  Hanukkah movies now show up, movies specifically for black audiences are available, and there are also offerings for gay and lesbian fans as well.  Last year Hulu released the delightful comedy The Happiest Season and several networks had their own films featuring gay couples or storylines.  This year, Netflix gets into the game with its high-profile comedy Single All the Way, a bit of light Christmas fun that may not be fresh as fallen snow but is as warm and inviting as your favorite grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. 

Working as a specialist in social media (they have those now? Oh yes, yes, they do) Peter (Michael Urie) is based in Los Angeles getting ready to head back to his New Hampshire hometown for the holidays. This year, he’s finally able to get the meddling family members constantly trying to change his single status off his back thanks to a good-looking doctor boyfriend…who turns out to be a dud.  Sweettalking long term roommate Nick (Philemon Chambers) into saying they finally made it official as partners, they can’t even get the lie out before Peter’s mom (Kathy Najimy, Hocus Pocus) announces that she’s performed a Christmas miracle and set Peter up with the town’s newest eligible gay bachelor…the hot new trainer/ski instructor at the local gym.

With Peter testing the waters with hunky James (Luke Macfarlane), Nick realizes the feelings he has for his roommate are actually more like love and if he doesn’t move fast he may lose everything.  When Peter contemplates moving back to New Hampshire, his two young cousins rally the rest of the family to meddle against him being with James and instead recognizing that he really needs to be with Nick.  As the Christmas pageant organized by Peter’s outlandish Aunt Sandy (Jennifer Coolidge, Promising Young Woman, stealing every millisecond she’s on screen) draws near, can the two men realize that friends can be more and love is a risk worth taking?

Theatrical director Michael Mayer has helmed several low-key film projects over the years, most in the dramatic field but it’s no shocker that he works wonders with this spritely comedy that is a real gift for holiday watchers of all persuasions.  Even if Urie has made a career out of playing the same character over and over again, he’s perfected it by now and it works well for Single All the Way because Peter is not brittle nor is he too soft.  There’s a median line he walks and while he’s aggravating in his indecision at times, you do see it is coming from the right place of knowing he should be on a different path.  Philemon James is a standout, a solid co-star for Urie and even if he’s the obvious choice from the get-go, his unassuming nature makes his blossoming into a confident suitor all the more believable. 

I do question if it’s by the magic of Christmas we’re supposed to believe that Jennifer Robertson (another MVP actor, this time from Schitt’s Creek, relying on playing the same character again) is Najimy’s daughter but then again casting in these holiday movies is always a little fuzzy.  Mayer at least gets the second suitor perfect in Macfarlane, the openly gay actor makes for a dreamy option for Urie’s character and at times you may find yourself shouting at the screen when Urie bows out of future dates with him.  The rest of the cast is filled in nicely by an array of agreeable performances that let the stars shine – everyone just wisely stays out of the way of Coolidge because when she’s onscreen no one else is the focus. As it should be.

Is Single All the Way a film that’s going to be added to a yearly roster of Christmas titles?  Probably not, but then again none of these Hallmark-y films ever are for me, personally.  It’s still a wonderful, harmless option for those that tire of the same old gazebo ending and want to see more representation of the world as we all know it to be.  Also…I didn’t spot any fake foam snow and that’s always a plus!

Movie Review ~ Mixtape (2021)

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a young girl accidentally destroys the mixtape that belonged to her mother, she sets out to track down each of the obscure songs on the cassette.

Stars: Gemma Brooke Allen, Julie Bowen, Nick Thune, Audrey Hsieh, Olga Petsa, Jackson Rathbone, Diego Mercado, Anthony Timpano, Kiefer O’Reilly, Lucas Yao

Director: Valerie Weiss

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Well darn, here we are in the second week of December and it’s at this point that a lot of smaller movies are going to slip through your fingers.  There’s a silver lining to it, though, because usually this means you’ll find these movies after the first of the year, call them a hidden gem, and forget that I told you about them months earlier.  Don’t worry, I won’t be mad at you…too much.  Here’s one such film that I’ll tell you about now, but you may not make time for right away.  I think you should give it a try now because it’s better and far more adult and meaningful than it’s wacky marketing make it out to be. Whatever the case, be sure to scribble down Mixtape so you don’t forget entirely.

Based on an original story by Stacey Menear and directed by Valerie Weiss, the film is set during a time I know quite well…the final days of the 20th century when we all felt as if the world was either going to end or some horrible disaster would occur.  While all the adults were freaking out, most of the youth were going about their daily business, like Beverly Moody (Gemma Brooke Allen) who just wants to survive the perils of Middle School.

Living with her mail carrier grandmother (Julie Bowen, Life of the Party) ever since her parents were killed in a car crash when she was barely a toddler, Beverly never knew anything about her parents and her grandmother isn’t that willing to talk about them, especially her daughter with whom it appears she had a fraught relationship with and unresolved issues.  Exploring a basement full of junk, Beverly finds an old cassette tape of music and promptly ruins it, but not the paper insert listing all the songs.  At a local vintage music store run by Anti (Nick Thune, The Right One) and with the help of several new friends she picks up along the way, Beverly begins to gather the songs passed between her parents and gains some insight into who they were at the same time. 

At its barest bones, Mixtape is an adolescent dramedy focusing on a girls need to find out more about her parents and having to work around a grandmother that still hasn’t come to terms with the loss.  Digging deeper, there’s a true maturity to the screenplay from Menear and the performances Weiss gets out of her young actors that elevates Mixtape to a higher level than what it initially appears to be.  There is a lot of loss to be dealt with here, not just between two generations of mother and daughter but of communication between grandmother and granddaughter.  The two only have each other to lean on and they get along wonderfully…but this one huge elephant in the room only grows bigger and has begun to take up more space than they have to offer. 

I’ve searched for a better word but perky is the best way I can describe Allen in the lead…it just comes to mind when I think of her animated performance and the way she can switch from the humorous to the hurt.  She plays well off of her older co-stars and just as nicely with the other young actresses playing her unexpected partners in crime who also do some growing up through helping Beverly.  Thune is also notable, mostly for not making his older guy hanging out with younger girls (not by choice, they kind of force their way into his store) come off so non-creepy.

Honestly, I went into Mixtape thinking it would be a lot like Moxie, the Amy Poehler-directed girl power picture from earlier in 2021 but I wound up liking this one far more than that.  It’s got a sweeter heart and a deeper story to tell.  When you do make your way back to Mixtape and press play, remember who told you about it first and, like most of the “sad” mixtapes were signed, think of me always! 

Movie Review ~ Bruised

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A disgraced MMA fighter finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.

Stars: Halle Berry, Adan Canto, Adriane Lenox, Sheila Atim, Danny Boyd Jr., Shamier Anderson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denny Dillon, Valentina Shevchenko, Lela Loren, Nikolai Nikolaeff

Director: Halle Berry

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There are few actors working in Hollywood today that I find myself actively rooting for more than Halle Berry.  An actress that had long paid her dues in television and a run of forgettable features in the early ‘90s before becoming the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for Monster’s Ball, Berry has a knack for finding herself in terrible projects but coming out smelling like a rose.  I recently watched her in the 1996 stinker The Rich Man’s Wife and, aside from believably pulling off a character named Josie, she managed to elevate what should have been a TV movie of the week to something worthy of a cinematic release. A continuing role in the X-Men franchise has kept her afloat when the big swings don’t pan out, but Berry has never gotten back to that same level of promise she showed around that Oscar era.  I mean, the now 55 year old survived the disaster that was 2004’s Catwoman so she must have nine lives of her own.

One glance at Bruised may give the impression that Berry has found the exact kind of project that could be the significant comeback story she has been looking for.  As the director and star of this gritty story following a retired MMA fighter working her way back into the ring for personal redemption at the same time the son she gave up when he was a baby is left on her doorstep, the film’s logline reads like it was tailor-made for an actress with just the kind of gumption Berry has leagues of.  Even considering that Berry wasn’t the first choice for either role (originally, Nick Cassavetes was signed on to direct Blake Lively), her history as a dedicated MMA fan made her an ideal selection because she understood the sport, athletes, and sacrifice required. It doesn’t quite work out as planned…but, we’ll get to that.

Jackie Justice (Berry, The Call) used to be someone special in the brutal sport of MMA cage fighting until she lost her nerve and walked away from it all.  Years later she’s barely scraping by, working odd jobs she often loses due to her temper.  Living with her boyfriend (Adan Canto, X-Men: Days of Future Past) who wants her to get back into the ring, Jackie simply wants to forget that part of her life, but the past has a way of delivering a right hook when she least expects it.  That sly jab comes when the six-year-old son she abandoned as an infant is dropped off by her pill riddled mother (Adriane Lenox, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) in the middle of the night.  Refusing to speak after seeing his informant father gunned down, Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.) was told his mother was dead so this woman before him, worked over by life, is difficult to accept.

With the added responsibility of a child to take care of, Jackie begins to clean up her act.  That means ridding her life of several of her addictions, both chemically and personally.  It takes a while for Michelle Rosenfarb’s script to get around to taking care of business and it’s one of Bruised’s drawbacks that the film moves slowly through several situations that should be more incidental than they wind up being.  Basically, it keeps us from meeting Jackie’s new trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim) for that much longer and that is just…not acceptable.  As it turns out, this is the most interesting character in the entire film and after we are introduced the viewer spends the rest of the film waiting for them to show up again.  It helps that Atim is such an electric presence onscreen that they could be playing a Bingo card and I’d want to watch them buy groceries.

That a secondary character moves into being the central character the viewer relates to speaks to another problem with Bruised.  Ostensibly the leading character is Jackie but for much of the film she’s so flimsy that it’s hard to find a way into her side of things.  Berry doesn’t help matters with a performance that’s overly earnest in the fight scenes and way too dialed back in the quieter moments.  If it’s worth anything, the scenes with Jackie and Manny or Buddhakan are the best of the best because it allows all three performers to shine the brightest.  There’s no question Berry is a gifted actress and once she has less to contend with in terms of moving pieces around her, she’s right on target. 

Built around a handful of fight sequences and trainings for the fight sequences, I was a little disappointed at how poorly filmed and edited the early scenes were and it didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the final match, what the entirety of the movie was building to, would be much better.  Surprisingly, while I often find these “grand finales” a little overwrought, Berry pulls out all the stops physically and as a director.  You can tell she wanted to get this section, out of all of them, correct and that quest for perfection shows. 

Like the central character, Bruised is often rough around the edges and needs some time to settle down and relax.  Once you get past the some of the scratchier elements that Berry can’t quite smooth out, there’s a fairly decent film to be found with several nicely tuned performances.  It’s not going to be Berry’s new calling card or a golden ticket back to the Oscars, but I think it will continue to open her up to new opportunities like this.  If anything, I was appreciative to be let into Berry’s MMA fandom through this dramatized story that finds occasional emotional resonance through its strongest supporting performances.

Movie Review ~ tick, tick…BOOM!

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship, and the pressures to create something great before time runs out.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, MJ Rodriguez, Richard Kind, Judith Light, Ben Ross

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  As a life-long RENThead and a true RENT-aholic*, I was already quite familiar with the 2001 off-Broadway production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! before it was made into a Netflix movie by musical theater Swiss Army Man Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I was also aware that Miranda had starred in a smaller concert version of the show which seemed like a natural fit for him.  Miranda, the multiple award-winning composer/lyricist behind In the Heights and the behemoth known as Hamilton was greatly influenced by RENT’s late composer, and the two have lead strikingly similar career paths.  It’s not hard to see how Larson might have had the same type of trajectory as Miranda has rightfully enjoyed had he not passed away so tragically at age 35. 

I had reached a bit of a Miranda saturation point when this film was announced and if I’m being really real with you (like, really really real), tick, tick…BOOM!! always felt like a minor cash-in on RENT’s juggernaut rocket ship took off.  What started as a solo show by Larson was adapted into a one-act play that was a small success off-Broadway but nothing on the scale that RENT had.  It went on to do quite well regionally but it served more to show that Larson was a good songwriter from the start…but that even good songwriters wrote some clunkers at the beginning as well.  The impending arrival of the movie didn’t set off any major bells or whistles to me because it wasn’t one I felt strongly about either way.

So, take it from that perspective as I write that in the days since I’ve seen tick, tick…BOOM! I’ve been unable to get it out of my head, and not just the music.  The performances given by the cast Miranda has assembled and what the director has brought to the screen surpasses anything that had been put onstage before.  Screenwriter Steven Levenson bounces back from the disastrously bad adaptation of Dear Evan Hanson with a positively inspired take on how to further mold what was once a one-man show.  Miranda takes all of these elements and then puts a Broadway polish on it all, the cherry on the top of what is already a musical theater fan’s starry-eyed dream come true.

While the 2001 stage version wasn’t as direct, the movie layers the real-life story of Larson’s life as a struggling artist over the existing script and it amazingly works.  I wasn’t sure at first how much I wanted to see Larson’s life essentially made into a musical, an existing musical even, but everyone involved treats it with such respect, grace, and dignity that it doesn’t come off as either too serious or overly sentimental.  This is sincere moviemaking through and through and if it had leaned in either direction too far it would have collapsed in on itself.  Levenson’s screenplay is sturdy enough to hold together.

The glue, or cement rather, that solidifies it though is Andrew Garfield’s mesmerizing performance as Jonathan in what is without a doubt career-best work for the actor.  Put aside the fantastic dramatics he brings to the more emotional side of the character but from all the documentaries, books, film clips, etc. I’ve seen over the years in conjunction with RENT, Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) has Larson the person down to an eerie “T”.  He looks like the composer and easily conveys the charm everyone that knew him always speaks of.  And when he’s not speaking, his singing is first rate.  All the singing in the film is soaring and, in another extremely smart move, Miranda switches between Garfield as Larson performing the show with an onstage cast (including Bad Boys for Life’s Vanessa Hudgens and Broadway powerhouse leading man Joshua Henry, Winter’s Tale) and what are often their “real-life” (movie-wise) counterparts, Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) as girlfriend Susan and Robin de Jesus (The Boys in the Band) as Michael.

Much of the film (and the play) is leading to Larson’s composition of “the song”, a powerhouse ballad he’s been trying to create for his new show.  Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (played by The Cabin in the Woods’s Bradley Whitford sometimes and the real man himself on voicemails) encouraged Larson to keep writing and, if you believe the musical, it’s his advice that kept him searching for this major movie moment.  It’s very much worth waiting for and what existed onstage as a satisfying 11 o’clock number for an actress turns into something far more surprising here.  Then there’s even more movie to come.  I won’t spoil it but Miranda and company continue to blur the lines between what is the solo show, the musical, and the movie musical in clever ways throughout. 

Sure, the musical retains at least one of the songs that fails pretty spectacularly (mostly because it sounds achingly like the title song from RENT) but then again you have to remember this was written first.  Of all the movie musicals that have been released lately, this might be my absolute favorite in terms of overall success in transition from stage to screen.  It’s hard to expand these worlds and while In the Heights worked wonders with its transition, what Levenson and Miranda have accomplished here with tick, tick…BOOM! is sort of amazing.  The show now lives on in another completely new form separate from the original creation by Larson and the updated version reconstituted after his Pulitzer Prize winning musical became a revolutionary touchstone.  I would never be so bold as to make a statement like “Jonathan Larson would have loved this.” but I can say that as someone that was so moved (and changed) by the work that Larson has put forth and a fan of his for decades, this was a monumental undertaking with an exceptional execution.  Do not miss this one.

*What’s the difference between a RENThead and a RENT-aholic?  Well, RENTheads are fans of the show that have seen it more than five times and have won the lottery to sit in the front two rows at least once.  RENT-aholics have traveled across more than two state lines to see the show from any vantage point…and yes, I’m certified as both…and not just in NYC!

Movie Review ~ Red Notice

2

The Facts:

Synopsis: An Interpol-issued Red Notice is a global alert to hunt and capture the world’s most wanted. But when a daring heist brings together the FBI’s top profiler and two rival criminals, there’s no telling what will happen.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Plenty of movies (and good movies) have sailed into financial and critical success based on the charisma of their leading players.  The story may be lackluster and the efforts behind the scenes could be minimal, but get a bona fide movie star, or a combination of stars, in your film and just watch how a dud can turn into a winner.  I’m betting that anyone seeing the trailer for Red Notice, now streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters, could have guessed the film was going to be all about its three huge A-listers and the energy they are known to bring to their projects.  How would they have known these same celebrities would be leaving all their valuable (and turns out much needed) screen presence at home? 

Likely the laziest action thriller I’ve seen in years, Red Notice also accomplishes what previously could have been thought to be impossible: making its charming stars totally devoid of personality.  Wait, you may be thinking, is this guy telling us that not only are Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) bland walking posterboards where superheroes once stood but Rampage’s Dwayne Johnson is too?  Oh yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you.  Writer/director Rawson Marshal Thurber (We’re the Millers) reteams with his oft-collaborator Johnson after their enjoyable Central Intelligence in 2016 and cheesy but fun Skyscraper in 2018 for this hollow bit of blah which is at its best, casually distracting and at its worst, so forgettable from scene to scene that when it inevitably reveals a set of double crosses you aren’t even sure who was originally loyal to whom.

A National Treasure-y plot using historical artifacts finds three eggs belonging to Cleopatra being the MacGuffin in which the adventure centers on.  The location of two of these eggs are known but the third is a mystery.  Of course, it isn’t, or else why would Reynolds as super thief Nolan Booth be trying to gather all three eggs for a rich Egyptian and collect a hefty finders fee before equally skilled cat burglar The Bishop (Gadot) can beat him to it?  Trying to stop them is John Hartley (Johnson) an American copy tracking Booth and The Bishop who only wants to protect the eggs, having a severe distaste for con artists and criminals due to some strained family history with thieves.  Forced to team up with Booth when The Bishop frames them both and gets them tossed in a Gulag style prison, Hartley traverses the globe with his new cellmate while an Interpol agent (Ritu Arya, Last Christmas) attempts to keep a handle on all three, trusting no one.

It’s a mystery to me just what transpired to have Red Notice turn out as bad as it did.  Maybe it’s because all three roles are too easy for these stars and they are coasting on autopilot.  Made during the pandemic, this was a fast way to stay afloat and perhaps start a new franchise in the process.  I hope the thinking wasn’t that they’d get it right in the second round because this original outing is so limp and uninspired, I wouldn’t want to travel down the block with any of them again.  The only one of the three that seems to marginally understand the assignment is Gadot, but there’s such little chemistry with either of her co-stars (not entirely her fault) that the role winds up sort of flailing in the wind and feeling like a supporting player instead of a third lead.  Banter between Johnson and Reynolds is tired and uninspired and so much of the movie is digitized even the international adventure of the movie feels phony, so you can’t feel involved or engaged for any length of time. 

For a movie of this size and stature, there’s been a relatively quiet amount of publicity for Red Notice and now I know why.  It plays fine as an extremely thin spy flick and nothing more.  It’s the type of uneventful movie with easy solutions that doesn’t bother to explain why a bunker hidden for decades could be found under less than an inch of dirt or why a car that hadn’t been started for almost a century runs like a top with barely a sputter.  It’s because the screenplay said so and nothing else.  If the movie doesn’t bother to think too deeply about why it exists, why should we?

Movie Review ~ Passing

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1920s New York City, a Black woman finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend who’s passing as white.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe

Director: Rebecca Hall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Movies are by design a visual medium so it’s always worth noting when one comes along that manages to hit several different senses at one time.  Audiences are so trained to respond to what they see flash across the screen in bold exclamation points that a quieter, more fragile film like Passing may require a bit of an adjustment period.  As black and white images slowly fade in and come into focus while lilting sounds of voices layer in, the viewer is brought into this dream-like period-piece based on novelist Nella Larsen’s acclaimed, but often little known, 1929 novel.  Adapted by actress Rebecca Hall (The Night House) making her directorial debut and streaming on Netflix, it’s a delicate portrait of two women living complex lives nearly a century ago.

Out shopping for a book her children desperately want at an upscale store in New York City, Reenie Redfield (Tessa Thompson, Sylvie’s Love) is “passing” and hoping to not be found out.  Her ancestry has allowed the black woman with light skin to move among white society at times, but fear of discovery weighs heavily on Reenie and her marriage to a man of color and children that could not pass makes full immersion in that life impossible.  This day however she retreats into a posh whites-only hotel to get out of the heat and is spotted, but not for the reasons she is afraid of. 

Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga, Ad Astra) is also at the hotel, sees her childhood friend across the room, and instantly reaches out to reconnect.  Married to a smug racist (Alexander Skarsgård, The Aftermath) who isn’t aware of her mixed heritage or her life passing as white, she now longs to be with “her people” and sees Reenie as a lifeline to her past.  Used to getting, or rather taking, what she wants, Clare invites herself into Reenie’s circle of friends and community, attending events for the Negro Welfare League and using her allure to charm Reenie’s children and husband Brian (André Holland, A Wrinkle in Time).  All this while continuing the charade that she’s a white woman with another life outside the Redfield’s Harlem home. 

Don’t think that Passing is some sinewy thriller in the Fatal Attraction vein though. Hall’s film is very much a character study of Clare and Reenie and how both women have adapted to the norms of society, albeit in different ways.  Clare has used the advantage of hereditary and a bit of performative ambition to carve out the life of luxury she dreamed of growing up without much of anything while Reenie has found a different way to achieve equality with her neighbor and even the opposite gender.  There is a constant threat of danger in the way Clare was living; you get that sense just by the few breathless moments that Reenie felt she was found out in the early part of the movie.  To fully live a life passing as white, the film is telling us you had to be willing to deal with the ultimate consequences.  Reenie understands this but can’t accept that Clare wants to have it both ways – and that’s where the conflict between the women grows.

The two actresses have a heavy task in balancing their power struggle that rears up in the final act.  It’s less of an all-out brawl but there is some maneuvering, though how much of it exists only in the mind of the increasingly tenuous Reenie is debatable.  Hall and Thompson go down that instability route bravely and humanely, always paying respect to the high wire both intelligent characters were walking.  Thompson’s impressive as always but it’s Negga’s performance that stands out just a little more and I think it’s intentional.  Clare is meant to be this galvanizing force that commands attention and draws focus and Negga can only oblige the script and Hall’s sensitive direction.

Shot by Edu Grau (Boy Erased) in a smaller aspect ratio to give it an even greater feeling of the era and largely free of incidental music outside of a rather onerous piano refrain from composer Devonté Hynes (Queen & Slim) that is purposely repetitive to a wincing fault, Passing is just a gorgeous movie from performance to design.  Even in black and white you can tell how rich the costumes from Marci Rodgers (BlacKkKlansman) are and see the intricate details in Kristina Porter’s production design.  I always worry about how a deliberate film like this will play on a streaming service where a viewer can be easily distracted, and I wish I had seen this on the big screen where I could be totally brought into this experience.  There’s little doubt that Hall has made a wonderful first feature; one that engages history, culture, and class in a sophisticated dialogue with two iridescent performances forming its core.