Movie Review ~ Pieces of a Woman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A heartbreaking home birth leaves a woman grappling with the profound emotional fallout, isolated from her partner and family by a chasm of grief.

Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails

Director: Kornél Mundruczó

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Most of the time, I enjoy going in blind to movies and not knowing quite what I’m getting myself into.  It helps keep the experience fresh and expectations at a minimum, allowing the movie to stand on its own two feet and make the best impression based on my gut reaction to it.  There are times, however, when being tipped off to something that may be hard to watch is welcome and the older I get the more I appreciate these small hints to buckle up and prepare.  While not delving into full spoiler territory, I often will let you, dear reader, in on these moments as well because I know that many of you find value in these ‘heads up’ warnings so you can decide on your own if the movie is right for you as a whole or if it’s just one section you need to grapple with.  There is power in decision making…and it’s only a movie, after all.

Chances are, if you’re keeping any kind of track on the film world these days (and at this point who isn’t starved for any kind of soapy awards talk) you’ve heard Pieces of a Woman mentioned and its harrowing opening.  Prior the title even being shown, there’s a solid thirty minutes of prologue featuring a traumatic home birth that is shot in excruciatingly real detail, casting the viewer as a voyeur on an event that will change the lives of a young couple and their midwife forever.  It’s agonizing to watch but brilliantly performed by star Vanessa Kirby (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) along with Shia LeBeouf as her husband and the wonderful Molly Parker playing a substitute midwife called on to fill in at the last minute.  Though its meant to look like one shot, I’m not entirely convinced it was done in one take…but it’s impressive nonetheless the way it all unfolds in a short span of time.

Adapting their multi-media stage production first produced in Poland, director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber translate the work to the screen with a fierce intensity in these opening moments, creating a scene we can’t look away from even though we know what’s coming.  Though we get the briefest glimpse of what their life is before that fateful evening (she has some vague office job, he’s a blue collar construction worker in the middle of a bridge build, both feel the judgmental weight of her wealthy mother who holds money over them as means of control), it’s that one night that comes to define them for the rest of the movie.  I suppose that that’s why the film is never as successful after those first thirty minutes, despite Kirby’s supersonic performance throughout and Ellen Burstyn’s (Lucy in the Sky) dynamic turn as her brittle mother facing her own shortcomings through her daughter’s personal loss.

I wish I could tell you more about Pieces of a Woman but there’s just not that much to it after it comes out guns a blazing.  It’s a lengthy film, though, and Mundruczó and Wéber disappointingly fill the majority of it with the standard themes of a marriage falling apart before our eyes.  A union unraveling after the loss of a child isn’t all that uncommon in film so there has to be some kind of hook to it that sets it apart but there’s not enough meat to go around for everyone, especially with an actor like LeBeouf circling the herd and hungry.  While he manages to inch back into good graces with illuminating turns in films like The Peanut Butter Falcon, LeBeouf’s acting is becoming more troublesome to watch.  Though he’s cast as a bit of a louse who apparently got his crap together with help from his wife, it’s unsettling in light of recent events in the actor’s personal life to see him get aggressive with Kirby’s character, not that she intimidates easily.

In all honesty, the film works best when it’s solely following Kirby and cuts out LeBeouf completely.  Her journey throughout the film is the most intriguing and special, anyway.  Everyone expects Kirby’s character Martha to grieve in a particular way and when she doesn’t, treats her like she’s doing it wrong…which only infuriates her more.  It all comes to a head in a grand scene between mother and daughter that is bound to net both Kirby and Burstyn well-deserved Oscar nominations when the time comes around.  Until this point in her career, Kirby has played second (or third) fiddle in her projects but she’s in first position here and commands the screen at all times.  She’s closely followed by Burstyn who, after all these years in the business, still finds a way to create a character that may have limited screen time but has a backstory that could fill volumes.

Aside from those leads, Mundruczó has shown a curiously strong instinct for casting.  Comedian Iliza Shlesinger (The Opening Act) is primarily known for her raunchy specials but plays it straight and looks remarkably like Kirby…I 100% believed they were sisters and Burstyn’s adult children.  Uncut Gems co-director/writer Bennie Safdie takes a turn in front of the camera as Kirby’s brother-in-law and the director does quite nicely with his role.  There’s not a lot for the usually dependable Sarah Snook (The Dressmaker) to do but as a family member/lawyer, she still gets a prime opportunity to get entangled in the family drama in more ways than one.  In her short time on camera, Parker (Words on Bathroom Walls) has to make a big enough impression so that we remember key pieces of info for later on in the movie when she becomes a focus of a public witch hunt.  While it leads to the film’s least realistic yet strangely satisfying sequence, it does get the three most interesting actors (Kirby, Parker, and Burstyn) very nearly in the same shot.

With 2020 turning out the way that it has, it’s nice to continue to celebrate strong female roles like the ones delivered by Kirby and Burstyn but I can understand if Pieces of a Woman is too much for some to take on.  Between the pain of watching the opening sequence unfold, especially for those that have suffered the loss of a child, and any unease that could be triggered by watching LeBeouf considering some unpleasant allegations leveled against him recently by his ex-girlfriend, this has a lot of reasons why it would be a challenge to queue up to.  I’d encourage you to consider it though, because Kirby’s performance is pretty amazing and the more I sit with Burstyn’s the more I’m convinced it’s one of her greatest onscreen roles.  If only the film were more about them…and shorter.  Much shorter.

Movie Review ~ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tensions rise when trailblazing blues singer Ma Rainey and her band gather at a recording studio in Chicago in 1927.

Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown

Director: George C. Wolfe

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Since April, Broadway and musical theater fans have been starved for ways to watch live performances and have had to settle for pre-recorded shows from the archives of regional and national theaters or newly produced live streams that don’t always go off without a hitch.  Nothing is going to replace that feeling of actually being in the theater, shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbor, hearing the rustle of the programs, the annoying cellphone noise, and, of course, the badly timed cough which will only be more of an annoyance in the future.

As theaters continue to look for alternative arrangements until the lockdown on Broadway playhouses has ended, Netflix has been bringing a little bit of Broadway to audiences in ways they may not even realize.  First there was the September adaptation of the revival of The Boys in the Band, then the recent movie version of the fun musical The Prom (sadly, not provided to me in time for an official review), and an upcoming taped recording of Diana, the stage musical that was in NY previews when COVID-19 shut down Broadway in April 2020.  Jury is still out on how Diana will fare and The Prom transitioned nicely to the small screen but The Boys in the Band, though entertaining, felt like the stage-bound play it was…and that’s not the only stage-to-screen adaptation premiering on Netflix before the end of 2020.

Looking at the cast for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix is enough to make one want to shell out the price of a premium ticket to see a production of August Wilson’s 1982 play in person on the New York stage.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) is the real-life “Mother of the Blues”, one of the first African-American professional blues singers who recorded her music early on, becoming a pioneer in that field for her race and gender.  In Wilson’s play, a fictionalized recording session for Ma Rainey and her band that quickly goes off the rails, there’s a real fire to the dialogue and it bristles with the sweat and heat of the late 1920s summer day it takes place on.  The scenes between the veteran band members and Levee the cavalier trumpeter crackle and anytime Ma Rainey gets fired up demanding the respect and quality treatment her white agent provides his other clients, the electricity starts to create massive sparks.

The trouble is, this isn’t live on stage or even a performance that was filmed to be broadcast later.  It’s an adaptation using Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay and directed by George C. Wolfe.  That it doesn’t have the same verve and pulsating rhythm Wilson’s work has when seen in the intimacy of the live-theater setting isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors, but it does have to fall on someone, somewhere.  The scenes feel stagey, almost more-so than any stage-to-film movie I’ve seen in recent memory and it becomes so reverential to Wilson’s work that it begins to do damage to the motivation of the piece.  At least Denzel Washignton’s superior adaptation of  Wilson’s Fences in 2016 was able to find ways to open-up the story beyond the backyard setting of Wilson’s original work.  Keeping everyone cooped up is part of what makes the tension boil over during the recording session, true, but there are a number of interludes that could have more movement and Wolfe has directed enough films to know how to keep the camera moving while continuing to establish character.

What the film also has is the responsibility of carrying star Chadwick Boseman’s (Black Panther) final performance in a leading role before tragically passing away earlier in 2020 after a private ongoing battle with cancer.  A genius actor with years ahead of him, I think a number of people want this film and the performance to be at a certain level of greatness as a way to memorialize him and that’s unfair to put all that weight solely onto the actor.  Thankfully, while the film may not live up to the expectations I had going in, Boseman  does and turns in a haunting performance…another in a long line of winning acting choices the young actor had under his belt when he passed away.  You can’t hang the whole movie just on him but he’s definitely due the kudos of his performance being a knockout.

As for Davis, the role tends to overwhelm her just like her outward appearance and prosthetics threaten to overtake her performance at times.  It’s odd; the garish eyes and glittering teeth, body glistening with sweat and ample bosom feel like they are from a different iteration of this character.  Pictures of the real Ma Rainey are shown at the end and none of them have the type of matted, dripping, ghoulish make-up we see her in throughout the film.  I don’t doubt it is historically accurate but I would have loved to see some kind of context for the look so we have a comparison.  Match that with a voice that is supposedly Davis with some “extra help” (that needs to be investigated) and there’s something that just feels like the dial was turned too far with this one…Davis is one of the best actresses working today and if this were onstage I’d probably be insanely crazy for how good she was.  On screen though, it comes off as overkill.

Where more attention should really be paid is the three supporting actors making up the rest of the band.  Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and especially Glynn Turman are dynamite as old friends who have seen it all as members of Ma Rainey’s bad.  They have the war stories to tell of their touring days with her and the injuries to back them up.  There’s also pain bubbling below the surface and it takes a wild card like Levee to raise the heat while they wait for Ma Rainey to get ready to sing.  Each get a nice moment in the spotlight with Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) emerging as the mediator between the band and Ma Rainey and Turman (Bumblebee) hilarious at one point but ultimately heartbreaking in the film’s final moments.

Even at a short 94 minutes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels longer than it should.  It’s one of those watches that you wind up feeling like you should be getting more out of for your own sake more than the sake of the movie and that’s when you need to let go and admit a movie just isn’t working for you.  Boseman’s final leading performance is a memorable turn and he’s surrounded by top-tier talent in supporting roles, but everyone is working with material that is unavoidably stage bound and immovable.  Watch the movie now but seek out a live performance of it when things get back to some sense of normalcy in 2021 (hopefully!).

Movie Review ~ Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her father’s death, a cold-hearted woman named tries to sell her hometown’s land to a mall developer, ending the seasonal Christmas cheer in the town.

Stars: Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski, Jenifer Lewis, Treat Williams, Jeanine Mason, Josh Segarra, Mary Lane Haskell, Matthew Johnson, Selah Kimbro Jones

Director: Debbie Allen

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  For many people, Disneyland in California or Walt Disney World in Florida is the stuff that magical memories are made of and they aren’t wrong in reporting back that a visit there makes them feel like a kid again.  I’ve visited the Orlando location several times and returned home with a visible pep in my step so I speak from experience.  However, for the longest time my sights were set squarely on another mecca: country singer Dolly Parton’s Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN.  It eluded me for decades but several years ago, on the drive back from a Memphis wedding, my partner and I booked a stay at Parton’s new DreamMore Resort which included a day pass right next door to the main event.  It was finally time.

Already stunned by the beauty of the majestic Great Smokey Mountains we saw from our bedroom in the impressive resort, I was probably always destined to shed a tear when entering the front gates.  Needless to say, I cried upon arrival and just allowed myself to take it all in throughout the day while walking through the pleasant as pie country amusement park.  From the entertainment (a number of which featured members of her extended family) to the rides (which seemed to be sized to only fit Dolly herself) to an entire section lovingly devoted to her memorabilia, this was absolutely everything I thought it would be and more.  I left the park even more of a fan of Parton’s than I already was…and by that time I’d already seen her several times in concert (once from the front row) so that’s saying something.

I take the time (and two paragraphs) to lay that groundwork for you to emphasize that the Netflix release of Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square was a big deal for me.  Big deal.  Aside from the Dolly Parton-ness of it all, this was a Christmas musical with 14 new songs written by Parton.  Sounds like a certified winner, right?  With Parton’s previous Netflix specials and movies faring well and her general tendency to drift toward material that suited her, it felt like an event that was timed right and ready to drop before Thanksgiving. Well, there’s good news and bad news for all of you that, like me, have been waiting for this one for some time.  Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.  The bad news is that this is a chintzy, flimsy, mawkish-ly earnest bit of holiday fruitcake that is overperformed and underdeveloped with not one ounce of subtlety to be found.  The good news is that for the majority of viewers, none of that will matter in the slightest.

Directed and choreographed by the legendary Debbie Allen in a big Atlanta soundstage decorated (think department store holiday display) to look like, what else, a town square, the film opens on Parton (Joyful Noise) dressed like a beggar singing about the meaning of Christmas and shaking a box asking for “Change”.  Never mind Parton’s boasting a full smokey-eye with eyelashes that could shovel snow and enough lipstick to lacquer a red wagon.  It all leads to a traditional introductory  opening number that Allen stages with full high-kicking, wide-armed, glee by a roster of townspeople that are 75% nubile bodied show dancers and 24% actors that move, with the final 1% consisting of a distracting middle-aged male ensemble member that appears to be having some kind of emotional crisis.  You’ve met everyone in the cast within the first five minutes and also know where the film is heading, too.  It’s not that different from any number of these holiday themed films but you can’t be faulted for expecting something with a little more creative energy than what Parton, Allen, and screenwriter Maria S. Schlatter cook-up.   Parton’s songs have people singing exactly what they’re feeling, almost down to core functions like walking, talking, and breathing.

The gist of it all is that mean ‘ole Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, gamely making her way through a character that feels like it was written by different people from scene to scene) has decided to sell off the tiny town named after her family for a tidy sum to a mall developer.  She’s swooped in to give everyone the news days before Christmas and a number of those that live and work on the square unsurprisingly balk at this last-minute yuletide bulletin.  The sassy hairdresser and former mayor Margeline (Jenifer Lewis, The Addams Family) is a long-time friend of Regina’s and can’t understand why she’s become so mean…and sings about it.  Former flame Carl (Treat Williams, Second Act) specializes in antiques and wishes that things with Regina had ended differently…and sings about it.  The young pastor (Josh Segarra, Trainwreck) and his wife (Mary Lane Haskell) are childless but draw strength from their faith and belief that there is a purpose for everything…and sing about it (a few times).  Local pub owner and widower Mack (Matthew Johnson) along with his daughter Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones, Hidden Figures) are facing a tough Christmas…and they sing about it, individually.  Then there’s Regina’s put-upon assistant Felicity (Jeanine Mason) who takes a lot of guff from her employer but manages to keep smiling, while singing and dancing, maybe it’s because there’s more to her than we are led to believe at first.

Popping in and out at key points is Parton who is undoubtedly the best thing about the 98-minute film.  Maybe it’s because she wrote the songs, maybe it’s because she’s just a natural at selling this kind of phony-baloney sort of schmaltz, but whenever she’s onscreen the movie takes on a glow that just isn’t present when she’s away.  It goes to show you the power of star quality and that magic “It” factor so many celebrities struggle with.  Parton has always had it effortlessly and it shows here, almost undeniably so.  Decked out in a number of beaded, fringed, bangled, and spangled white outfits (she’s an angel, by the way), her songs are spunky and fun and unlike some of the other actors she seems to truly believe in what she’s singing about.  Corny as it all may be, that unfettered sincerity goes a long way in improving what grows cold in the hands of others.

That’s evident in people like Segarra who is an unfortunate quasi-leading man.  As the town’s pastor, Segarra is the exact opposite in the sincerity department and could learn a thing or two from his composer and central star.  Though Haskell (a veteran of Parton projects according to her IMDb page) attempts to bring their relationship to a more realistic plane, Segarra wants to employ far too much pathos to a not that complex part and in doing so makes it, frankly, a bit creepy.  He also has a strange speech pattern that feels like he’s taking Schlatter’s dialogue and putting them into couplets – a perfunctory cherry on an all-around bizarre performance.  Williams is his usual dashing self and sings well, though his relationship with Baranski is not exactly deep.  If anything, it’s young Jones that steals things away from her older scene partners with her natural screen presence.  Though it’s one of the most inexplicable numbers in the film, her duet with Baranski was solid.

I’d almost watch the film again because in the larger numbers I found that I solely focused on the ensemble…but only because they are so uniformly distracting.  Never have I seen so many odd moments of pulling focus not just caught on film but kept throughout the editing process.  The one ensemble member I mentioned above you can actually tell they tried to cut away from at times but even then you can’t totally excise his peculiar reactions and wacko dancing.  In several scenes set in a church, keep your eyes on the children who are visibly bored and must have worked long hours.  Near the end, one of the young candle holders visibly yawns not once but twice…right around the time you’re probably doing the same thing. It doesn’t help Parton’s strangely tuneless songs have key ensemble members stepping out to deliver lyrics that are unequivocal jaw-droppers.  For example, when throwing out ideas how to keep Regina from selling the town, one female square dweller sings out with a big toothy smile “Strip her!”.  ‘Strip her’?  Like, naked?  Ok, then.  Don’t even get me started on the wince-inducing vogue-ing gay men that pop up to deliver all the zingers Lewis deemed too trite for even her to say.

So…with all of the negatives, why do I think none of this makes a heap of a difference?  The same reason why Hallmark and Lifetime keep churning out an endless supply of mediocre to poor holiday films each year, it’s not the quality that matters it’s the intent and Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square has it’s heart in the right place.  It’s absolutely not the movie I thought it would be and totally not close to the type of intelligent and stylish output I know the people involved are capable of…but I think it will provide some form of warmth to a large number of people during this strange holiday season that lies before us.  I’d be foolish to underestimate the power of Parton’s fanbase or not consider how starved audiences are right now for this sort of goofy distraction so while I personally found this to be not up to snuff when taking into consideration who was behind it all and rated it accordingly, I wouldn’t fault any of you for loving the ever-lovin’ heck out of it.  I’d still beg of you to watch Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey first because that film wound up being the sort of intelligent and heartfelt event I was hoping Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square would be.  There’s room for both films in your queue so watch them both and determine for yourself which speaks to you more.

Movie Review ~ Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An imaginary world comes to life in a holiday tale of an eccentric toymaker, his adventurous granddaughter, and a magical invention that has the power to change their lives forever.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Ricky Martin, Kieron Dyer, Justin Cornwell, Lisa Davina Phillip, Hugh Bonneville, Sharon Rose

Director: David E. Talbert

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Just because we’re getting close to the holiday season, I’m going to give you a little insider information about how screenings sometimes come our way.  Critics are often able to take a look at upcoming titles and afforded the opportunity to explore them further to see if they’re something that might appeal to their readers or make for good coverage.  As I was browsing the November releases, I passed over Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey without giving it much of a sideways glance and, stupidly on my part, this was mainly because of the title.  Having recently made it through all of 45 seconds of Hubie Halloween before waving the white flag, I somehow got it in my mind this was something similar.  Then, by chance, I happened to see a small clip in an ad before a random internet video and knew I had to correct my error and fast.

Terms like “instant classic” get tossed around pretty easily but they rarely apply, however I’m going to go out on a snow-covered limb here and bestow said title on Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey but insert ‘holiday’ in there for extra clarity.  We all have our favorite films to watch as the year winds down and celebrations begin for whatever holiday we observe, and my Christmas movie list is a dense one – impossible to get through in a single year.  No matter, it didn’t take long into writer/director David E. Talbert’s extravagant original musical premiering on Netflix to realize that this was a bona fide winner and one that would endure in my household for years to come.

Like the best Christmas stories, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey begins on Christmas Eve in front of a crackling fire with a Grandmother (Phylicia Rashad, Creed) telling her two grandchildren a different kind of yuletide tale than they are used to.  Cracking open a book that is literally a well-oiled machine, she introduces Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell, Chi-Raq) a brilliant inventor who lives with his wife and young daughter in a small town where his toy shop is the delight of all that enter.  His young apprentice, Gustafson, wants to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, as does his inquisitive daughter.  With his latest creation, a sleek toy bullfighter named Don Juan Diego that has been given autonomy to move about on its own, Jeronicus is poised to never have another worry for his family once he can mass produce the Don Juan doll.

However, with his independence comes a desire to be a singular creation so Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin) convinces Gustafson to rob Jeronicus of his sketches and ideas in exchange for success on his own.  This sets the appreciate on a path to greatness while the mentor’s life takes a tumble.  Flash forward several decades and Jeronicus (now played for Forest Whitaker, Out of the Furnace) is alone, having been forced out of the toy business and estranged from his adult daughter (Anika Noni Rose, Body Cam).  The arrival of his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills), who also shows a keen knack for invention and mathematics, coincides with the bank threating to foreclose on his home/shop just as Christmas draws near.  As the spirited Journey draws her recluse grandfather out of his shell and discovers an unfinished invention that could save his business, the now-famous but creatively challenged Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland) gets wind of another project that could be his if he plays his cards right.

As you can probably tell, the plot for the film is not that far from your typical holiday fare with talk of bankers seizing property if bills aren’t paid by Christmas Eve and villains that are bad but only in so far as to twist their moustaches really furiously when they don’t get their way.  Talbert has stayed well within the bounds of the PG rating and hasn’t, like a number of family films as of late, pushed against its boundaries to see how scary he could get away with it being.  This is a fine film for the entire family to watch, young and old, and its entertaining as all get out.  It’s basically a storybook come to life where the stakes aren’t incredibly high but the feelings tied to them are.  Ordinarily, a familiar-feeling plot such as this would get old fast but it’s that pleasant coziness that makes these holiday films such easy to devour treats.

Talbert has already struck a nice mood out of the gate with Rashad’s serene setting of the stage and our colorful introduction to the world of Jeronicus Jangle, brought to life with a mixture of gorgeous CGI and brilliantly designed stop-motion sequences to compliment the bountiful production values.  I’m not sure how much money it cost to make the film but it looks stunning, from the handsome set design to the richly detailed costumes layered with the kind of eye-catching colors and textures so appealing you can almost get a sense for what they feel like.  So before much of anything happens in the film, you’re already kind of struck by what you’re seeing.  Then the music starts.

I guess I knew Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey was a musical but by the time the first song hits it comes on like a locomotive and is a full-out, full-cast introduction to the Jangle toy shop.  There’s plenty more where that came from with John Legend, Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, and Michael Diskint contributing songs along the way.  Not all of them are going to be ear worms but they’re all sung well by the film’s cast and there’s not an outright stinker in the bunch (a song or a voice).  Thankfully, Talbert doesn’t cram a song in every five minutes, letting them develop naturally out of his story…which he originally intended as a stage musical.  With a few tweaks and adjustments here and there, I can imagine this making the transition to the stage rather easily.

The cast is uniformly great across the board as well, with dependable stalwarts like Rashad and Rose knowing exactly the emotions to mine and just the amount of pressure to put on your tear ducts to get them going.  Rose, in particular, had a dynamite run of 15 minutes or so where she rips the roof off of a John Legend song and then gets to show off her acting range in a great scene.  I’m not usually a fan of Key (sorry, not sorry) but have to admit his singing voice was solid and his presence in his musical numbers was pretty thrilling.  Martin has the toughest role because it’s the one that’s the least interesting – no one cares about the villain in these tales and by the middle of the film you’ll likely forget there’s even this B storyline still in play.

You’ll want to keep your eye on three key performances.  As a love weary postmistress who pines for Jeronicus, Lisa Davina Phillip is a riot as she tries to catch his eye.  It’s a campy, over-the-top performance that’s far afield from any other in the film but she makes it work thanks to her winning sincerity (though I was surprised to see her singing voice was dubbed by stage actress Marisha Wallace).  I was totally knocked over by Whitaker, too.  In my experience, the Oscar winner can often come across flat and unlikable but watching his heart get unfrozen by his young granddaughter will truly bring a tear to your eye.  Then there’s Mills in a star-making turn as a young girl finding where she fits in by daring to dream big.  An excellent role model for girls and boys, BIPOC or other, Journey is a next generation kind of child heroine – celebrations all around.  With all the singing and dancing she has to do, it would have been entirely easy for this to have been cast with a “child performer” but Talbert has found that rarity…a star.

With the emphasis on family, the focus on celebrating goodness, and recognizing the power of forgiveness, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has its prime moments when its poised to attack your emotions.  I’m an especially easy target but if I do cry, I’m typically a one eye tear kinda guy…this was a two eye cry, though, so make sure to have a hankie ready.  You’re apt to shed a tear not because the film is sad but because after a 2020 that has had more than its share of downs, it’s wonderful to get right to the end and be gifted a film that leaves you with a lot of “ups”.  Do yourself a favor a gather around the Netflix queue with your friends, family, or fly solo for Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey this Christmas, it’s a present that I think will keep on giving long after the holidays are over.

Movie Review ~ Hillbilly Elegy

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A Yale law student drawn back to his hometown grapples with family history, Appalachian values and the American dream.

Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There’s a strange feeling that overtakes you when you realize you’re watching a bad movie.  Not a bad movie like most of us would think of it.  You know, like, the cheap-o films with bargain basement production values and actors that can barely convince you they’re from this planet.  No, there is another kind of bad movie and it’s the deadliest of them all…the prestige picture that goes south right under the otherwise hyper-sensitive noses of everyone involved.  Maybe they all knew it was imploding and couldn’t get out of the wreckage or maybe, apparently like everyone involved in the 2019 big-screen version of the Broadway musical CATS, they didn’t realize it until the release date was pending.

I’d heard the tiniest sliver of buzz around Hillbilly Elegy as it was getting ready to roll out, mostly due to the involvement of two long-overdue Oscar never-winners in supposedly meaty parts.  This adaptation of J.D. Vance’s popular, but controversial, 2016 memoir of his life growing up in Ohio had a load of baggage attached to it, not the least of which was its partisan political issues that festered at its core.  Would the film be able to rise above these red state/blue state dividers especially during an election year where half the country supported a leader that’s morally and ethically bankrupt and still be able to maintain the heart of what Vance had to say about a poverty-laced upbringing that eventually led him to a criticized choice regarding his own survival?

Honestly?  I don’t know what to report back to you on what screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) has found at the center of Vance’s story because Hillbilly Elegy is a mess on a number of levels that it’s difficult to know what to target first.  It’s an old-fashioned, paint-by-numbers take on a timeless story of rising above one’s own circumstance given no nuance by Taylor, nor provided any assistance from director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who is absolutely the wrong director for this type of tale.   Through a series of scenes that hop between J.D. as a boy (Owen Asztalos, with a face always in a perpetual state of surprise) and as a Yale law student (Gabriel Basso, who actually looks like an older version of Asztalos) Taylor and Howard walk us through Vance’s often harrowing account of life with his drug-addicted mother (Amy Adams, Vice) and tough-love grandmother (Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs).

I could go on about the vignettes that take up the lion’s share of Hillbilly Elegy but they are executed so haphazardly and with maximum focus on the extreme edges of the actors performance that they start to resemble cartoons as the movie progresses.  The opening scene, at the good-byes of a large family reunion in Appalachia, sparked some interest for me but once we get back to the city living of JD it goes right into one turbulent event after another.  Running down a checklist of required scenes in these types of films like the middle of the street ruckus that all the neighbors come to gawk at, the uncomfortable moment where some city folk get educated on not looking down on “hill people”, clothes being thrown over balconies onto yellowed lawns…they’re all here.  Yet even with all that, you’d be hard pressed to remember any characteristic of these people other than their bad traits…even their names fade from memory.  In fact, it would be a miracle if you could name any of the supporting characters by the time the film concludes.

Two people you will remember from the movie are Adams and Close but not necessarily for the reasons they’d want you to.  Nominated for the Oscar six times now, Adams can’t quite find that role that’s going to get her across the finish line and I fear we’re getting into that arena where it’s not happening or if it does happen it will be a cumulative reward instead of it being deserving for the actual role she’s nominated for.  There’s no chance of that happening here, though.  While I like Adams for the most part, she grabs for too much and comes back with fistfuls of air, at times to our own wincing embarrassment.  It’s a strange swing and a miss for Adams and I wonder if the role would have been better suited for an actress less well known without all of that awards-hopeful dreams attached to it.

Strangely, though you’d think her part would be the more problematic what with the wig, glasses, mottled skin, and endless supply of 6XLT t-shirts and carpenter jeans she wears, Close gets better the more we get used to her.  She also does what every true A-list star does best…make everyone else look as good or better in shared scenes while still performing the ever-loving heck out of her own part.  Close may get poked fun at for her seven Oscar losses but she stands the best chance out of anyone to get a nomination and might just deserve it.  The performance is Close through and through, played straight to the back of the theater and making you feel like you’re the only one in the room with her. (Side note, I saw Close recreate her Tony-winning role in Sunset Boulevard a few seasons back and can confirm this phenomenon is true.  I was in the balcony but often felt like I was sitting next to her…she’s that good at bringing you in).  Close wants that Oscar so bad she’s practically gnawing on it and while I’d much rather see her get it for the long in the works movie of Sunset Boulevard, I wouldn’t cry my eyes out if this is the one that sealed the deal.

I wish that the two JDs were as strong as their alpha females.  Basso is a bit of a black hole when it comes to being a scene partner, he’s not bad but merely serviceable and this should be a star-making role.  Six or seven years ago this would have been Chris Pratt’s role and he might have had a better take on this character.  Credit to Asztalos for having several rough scenes to get through but, again, there’s no nuance to anything he’s doing.  The dial seems to have three settings (all breathing through the mouth) and nothing much more than that goes on in his performance.  For what little she has, Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) gets a few good moments but disappears for long stretches where we wind up forgetting to miss her.  Speaking of disappearing, as JD’s law-student girlfriend poor Freida Pinto (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) wins the Laura Linney in Sully Supporting Partner Who Just Talks On The Phone award because all she seems to be there for is to chat with JD and offer words of encouragement from miles away.

Arriving just as a bitter election cycle has ended (or has it?), the timing for further discourse on the merits of Hillbilly Elegy seems wrong.  I’m not sure Taylor or Howard even registered there were deeper issues to discuss that bubbled below the simple story of JD pulling himself away from a family troubled by drug use and not being able to make ends meet.  It’s there, though, and I can see why the book became a bit of a lightning rod for those that live in that area Vance high-tailed it away from.  Surprisingly, Howard has been making some good documentaries lately like this year’s Rebuilding Paradise. That film about the California wildfires focused on how communities work together to solve problems.  Funny, then, that in directing Hillbilly Elegy he seems to take no interest in another community also working on solving issues from within.

Movie Review ~ The Life Ahead

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In seaside Italy, a Holocaust survivor with a daycare business takes in a street kid who recently robbed her. The two loners become each other’s protectors, anchoring an unconventional family.

Stars: Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye, Abril Zamora, Renato Carpentieri, Babak Karimi

Director: Edoardo Ponti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’ve talked about cinematic blind spots here before and how I admit to having a few glaring ones that I wear with some shame.  I’m still working on filling in my gaps of knowledge for my Akira Kurosawa and Charlie Chaplin histories but often times another will spring up, unannounced.  Well, I’ve discovered a new one that I have to discuss with you and I just realized it while watching legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren’s return to film after a 10-year absence in The Life Ahead (La vita davanti a sé), premiering on Netflix.  I didn’t think it was as bad as it was but after looking over her filmography, I am seriously delinquent in my Loren filmography.  I don’t think I’ve even seen her landmark Oscar-winning performance in Two Women (La ciociara) which made her the first foreign actor to win an Academy Award.

So, while I work on adding titles from the Loren library to my queue it’s worth noting what a life this actress has had.  Over a career that is now entering it’s seventh (seventh) decade, Loren had worked regularly up until a decade ago when she decided to take a break to focus on her family.  Married for 50 years to Italian film producer Carlo Ponti until his death in 2007, she’s returning now in a movie directed by her son in their third pairing as director/star.  Adapted from Romain Gary’s 1975 novel The Life Before Us, interestingly enough the book was already made into an Oscar winning foreign film before, 1978’s Madame Rosa starring Simone Signoret who some might claim as the French equivalent of Sophia Loren.  It’s a feast of a role and any actress worth their salt would make a banquet out of it.  Moved from the original setting of France to modern day Italy, Ponti’s The Life Ahead has brought his mother back to the screen with the same fire and passion that has made her one of cinema’s greatest treasures.

Ponti and his co-adapter, playwright Ugo Chiti, begin the film at the end (maybe) and then flashback six months prior to show how we got there.  A Senegalese orphan named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) spots Madame Rosa (Loren) at the open air market, a pair of expensive-looking candlesticks lazily hanging out of her shopping bag.  He steals the bag, knocking her down in the process and, unable to pawn them off for cash to the local drug dealer, he stashes them with his things which is where Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) finds them.  Knowing Madame Rosa as a patient, Coen brings Momo to return the stolen items…a meeting that doesn’t go well for either party.  Still, sensing an opportunity that has presented itself, Coen wonders if Madame Rosa would mind taking Momo in for a short time while Coen finds a better place for the boy to live.  Though she’s already watching over two children that have been left in her care, Madame Rose is tempted by Coen’s monetary offer and finds room for the child that doesn’t trust anyone and is sadly used to be shuffled around.

It’s not going to be hard for you to guess how this all turns out but The Life Ahead is less about the overall predictability of the friendship and deep connection that forms between Momo and Madame Rosa and more about the small moments along the way.  We get the sense that it’s been a while since anyone has cared about Momo and though Madame Rosa is brusque and has rules, tough love is still love and he needs everything she has to offer.  She, too, needs the kind of watchful and unflinching eye someone that is used to the horrors of life can take on.  A Holocaust survivor that became a career prostitute after the war, Madame Rosa has serious effects of PTSD that no one who hasn’t witnessed death firsthand could understand.  Though her past career might be seen as a black mark by some, Madame Rosa is actually a respected member of her tiny neighborhood and she uses her connections to get Momo a job with a kindly local shopkeeper, though he’s already begun selling drugs on the sly and gotten quite good at it.

What The Life Ahead does so well, especially in its modern setting, is portray a new kind of “family” in normal terms without it ever being about the difference that exist between them.  In addition to the unlikely pair, there’s a transgender neighbor (the excellent Abril Zamora) and the topic of her gender is only briefly touched upon – and it’s never an issue or pivot point for any action of great importance to the story being told.  That’s the thing about foreign sensibilities toward sexuality and class, it doesn’t interest them half as much as basic human interaction and getting under the surface to see what motivates emotion.  Everyone is treated as a person first and foremost and that gives them all an equality which rings completely true.  The only lack of development Ponti and Chiti could be faulted for are a handful of side characters, like the chief drug dealer who is portrayed as a kind of Fagin to Momo’s Oliver and the relationship is so ill-defined that it never totally worked for me.

What does work in every way is Loren’s glowing performance and Gueye as her incredible costar.  Even after all these years, Loren knows how to create the fine details of a character that tells you deeper truths that go beyond the surface.  This type of work needs no translation to come across loud and clear.  I’d go so far as to say that Gueye steals the movie from Loren, though.  What a stunning find, so honest in every scene and so natural in his instincts.  Watch a sequence where Momo joins his kingpin on the dancefloor and becomes the center of attention, you can see him come alive with confidence right before your eyes and the effect is truly magical.

All the being said, there’s something overly conventional about The Life Ahead that’s hard to shake away.  The plot feels familiar because the set-up has been done numerous times before, even if the ending is a certifiable tearjerker.  It all ends with a Diane Warren (The Hunting Ground) song that will likely be the songwriter’s 12th nomination but I’m not so sure this is going to be the one to get her over the finish line.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘Io Si (Seen)’ is another typically lush Warren soaring tune but is it as impactful as some of her other entries?  Tough call.  One thins is certain, Loren is back in the game in a big way and might find herself an Oscar nominee at age 86.  It may not be the most original and quintessential star-vehicle but you get two for the price of one in The Life Ahead thanks to Loren and Gueye’s unforgettable work.

31 Days to Scare ~ Cadaver

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the starving aftermath of a nuclear disaster, a family of three attends a charitable event at a hotel, which takes a dark turn when people start to disappear.

Stars: Gitte Witt, Thomas Gullestad, Thorbjørn Harr, Maria Grazia Di Meo, Kingsford Siayor

Director: Jarand Herdal

Rated: NR

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Something that’s been nice about having a huge Netflix library at your fingertips is that not only does it grant you access to a number of domestic titles, it provides an opportunity to see what’s going on in world cinema, almost without you knowing it.  So instead of watching those movies you’d forgotten you liked from your childhood you can take a chance on a cop show from Poland or a romantic comedy from China.  If you really cannot stand the subtitles, go ahead and turn on the dubbing because as anyone that has fallen asleep at the tail end of a movie and woken up during the credits can attest, most Netflix content is dubbed into a number of different languages.

For October, Netflix again has brought US audiences scary original content from other countries and my interest is always piqued to see what foreign cinema has to say about the genre.  Europeans have a much different sensibility toward some areas that Americans feel more reserved about so I always expect the unexpected when approaching something from overseas.  You think the family pet won’t die in a movie from Greece?  Think again.  They wouldn’t possibly let a child perish in the jaws of a beast in that Ukrainian monster mash…or would they?  All bets are off and so are the gloves so it’s best to roll up your sleeves, sit back, and leave predictability at the door.

Owning my Nordic roots, I couldn’t help but feel some pull towards watching Cadaver from Norway.  This film, written and directed by Jarand Herdal, looked interesting from the brief synopsis Netflix provided and the thumbnail image…and masks in general scare me so it seemed like a safe bet.  And it’s a good one too, one of the better offerings to come out of these original films.  While it may not pull the wool completely over the eyes of expert viewers trained in these types of puzzle box mysteries, it does an admirable job keeping up its air of trickery for the duration.

In an unnamed city in an undetermined future, a family of three lives off of what they can scrounge from the burnt out wreckage of their town after an apparent nuclear disaster that might have been a purposeful way to cleanse the population.  Food is dwindling and they can hear the angry shouts of rioting survivors drawing ever closer with sirens following close behind.  Leonora “Leo” (Gitte Witt) is a former stage actress who stares at her image on an advertisement for a production of Macbeth while helping her husband Jacob (Thomas Gullestad) find sustenance to feed their young daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman).  Whatever hope they had for salvation dwindles by the day and the cinematography reflects the darkening of their confidence.

Then, a glimmer of some good luck with an invitation for those remaining in the town to come to the glittering hotel on the hill to see a show…with a dinner provided.  The majestic hotel is something all of them look at with envy and to be invited in and with free food seems to good to be true.  Wanting to give their daughter some kind of happiness, Leo and Jacob clean themselves up and make their way to meet their host, the almost Willy Wonka-like Mathias (Thorbjørn Harr, Bel Canto).  After they’ve filled their bellies, Mathias gives more info about what the people can expect…and why they have to wear the featureless golden masks as they roam the tricky halls of the hotel.

That’s a good place to leave off because Cadaver has several tricks up its sleeve, which would be no fun to spoil for you, and Herdal pulls them off rather nicely in a production that looks expertly designed.  There’s more to the hotel than meets the eye and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what Mathias had planned for the evening’s entertainment, even if it maybe came at the expense of a few lives.  It’s a mischievous film at times, deliberately leading you astray and then correcting itself by adjusting what we’ve previously seen…so it doesn’t totally play fair.  It also leaves several threads pretty scraggly and that nags at me, not that items aren’t resolved because hey, that’s life, but because I feel like they weren’t deliberately left that way, they were forgotten.

Carrying the film is Witt as the young determined mother already reaching the very edge of a breaking point before entering the hotel but challenged again once the night begins and a true nightmare ensues.  Her gradual shift from her own personal excitement at the opportunity to get out and, as an actress, see a show, to panic at knowing something is wrong, to frantic quick thinking when she figures out what’s happening is a solid study in a performance being metered out intelligently.  Gullestad and Harr are nicely cast as two sides of a gentlemen’s coin in Leo’s life, one is her protector and the other is a tormentor and there are times when we start to question which side is which.

A rather dull resolution is the only negative report I could give but even that didn’t turn my stomach from what was up until then an appetizing and entertaining meal.  It’s more suspenseful than scary but does have its ghoulish charms once you get into the meat of what Mathias is up to with his turncoat staff in the hotel.  At a brisk 86 minutes, Cadaver has a way with toying with your expectations that I think discerning audiences will appreciate.  It’s definitely worth a late-night watch with the lights-out.

31 Days to Scare ~ Rebecca (2020)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.

Stars: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Anna Dowd, Bill Paterson

Director: Ben Wheatley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Ah…remakes.  They’re a funny thing, aren’t they?  Sometimes you find a film that is so perfect that to remake it would seem like blasphemy but with a clever way in and enough time between the original it just might work.  Then there are the re-dos for the sake of lining the pockets of investors and those, dear reader, never turn out well.  What about the remake that is perfectly fine, entertaining but sort of listless and doesn’t really fit into any category in the good or bad column?  These are the ones you have to think a little harder about, because they require some effort to review.  To make that final judgement you’ll have to dig a little deeper in your feelings.

First published in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s (The Birds) gothic novel Rebecca has been a best-seller that has never gone out of print and it’s not hard to see why.  There’s a little something for everyone in the story of a shy girl who falls for a haunted man and it’s no wonder that director Alfred Hitchcock saw fit to turn the novel into a film in short order.  Nominated for 11 Oscars and winning two in 1940, including Best Picture, Rebecca set a high water mark for slow-burn mysteries that didn’t need to boil over to be highly effective.  The performances in Hitchcock’s film are legendary, particularly Judith Anderson’s unnerving presence as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Over the years, Rebecca has been adapted for a number of mediums, and if you want a good lunchtime read, look up the lawsuit surrounding the failed attempt to bring it to Broadway as a musical.  It’s a doozy.  Yet for all the various versions of the work it’s been quite some time since the material was reexamined and provided a fresh adaptation and that’s what’s been worked out in a new production debuting on Netflix.  With a screenplay by Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black), Joe Shrapnel (Race), and Anna Waterhouse (Seberg), that pays homage to the novel in ways the 1940 version couldn’t while providing its own tweaks along the way, this Rebecca is grand in scale and design yet somehow less atmospheric than the original Oscar winner and I think I have an idea why.

First…let’s talk plot.  Lily James (Darkest Hour) plays a young girl (it took me until ¾ of the way through to remember we never learn her first name) who has no family to speak of caught up in a whirlwind romance with handsome widower Maxim de Winter while working for a aging ninny (Ann Dowd, Bachelorette) in Monte Carlo.  Accompanying him back to Manderley, his opulent English seaside estate presided over by the perilous head of household, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, Military Wives), it’s obvious from the start this new life is going to be a tough adjustment.  Not that she receives much help from her husband (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) or the household staff, many of who seem to still be loyal to the first Mrs. de Winter.

The longer the new Mrs. de Winter stays at Manderley, the more curious she becomes with her predecessor and the power she seems to have had over everyone.  More than that, it feels as if Mrs. Danvers is actively trying to keep Rebecca’s seat at the table unoccupied for her eventual return…meaning the new bride should be careful who she trusts.  With her new husband sleepwalking often into the wing of the house he shared with Rebecca, occasional visions of a mysterious woman in a red dress, and a cliffside boathouse holding secrets that will reveal more about the goings-on at Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter launches her own fact-finding mission to discover the truth.  Then, a body is found nearby.

It was exciting to find out this new Rebecca was being directed by Ben Wheatley who was behind the terrifying Kill List from several years back (an early entry on 31 Days to Scare, by the way).  I knew Rebecca wasn’t exactly a “scare” kind of picture but more of the “dramatic suspense” sort of genre so I’m shoehorning this in a bit but I expected Wheatley to take this a little further than he does…and even then it’s not as sharp as it could have been.  Instead, I think Wheatley and the screenwriters focused on making their film a classy-first affair and resisted the urge to sully it with anything that could detract or distract from the love story (haunted or otherwise) at its center.  Fans will either appreciate that (if you like the book) or be disappointed (if you like the director).  Me, I leaned more toward the appreciation side of the fence because it’s all handled with a high level of craftsmanship, from the striking costumes to the gorgeous production design.  What it lacks in high stakes it makes up for in high quality.

Casting was key to this and I wouldn’t have wanted to fill the shoes of any of the three leads – all of them had an uphill battle but I think they all slid down the other side without any skinned knees.  Hammer likely struggles the most but only because it’s the toughest nut of a part to crack and he’s following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier…unenviable.  Still, he looks great in a suit (though doesn’t look remotely like he belongs in this time period).  First becoming a start on Downton Abbey, James curiously also doesn’t quite look like she belongs in this era, although her change from naïve girl to devoted wife is quite convincing.  Make no doubt about it, the best role in Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers and Scott Thomas enters the film, sits down, puts her napkin in her lap, and proceeds to make a meal out of her role and then finishes everyone else’s plate for good measure.  Nothing will ever erase Judith Anderson’s searing performance but Scott Thomas comes awfully close…it’s a treasure.

I need to go back and watch the 1940 Rebecca again because I failed to do that before watching the new version; however I almost preferred to go in with just the memories of the original on my mind and not having it quite so fresh.  That way, I didn’t have the ghost of that haunting me like the woman herself haunted all the people at Manderley.  I think this new version acquits itself nicely.  It looks terrific and has two solid performances and one that’s a must-see.

Movie Review ~ The Trial of the Chicago 7

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of seven people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Daniel Flaherty, Noah Robbins

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: All of these years I knew I had a good education in high school and in college.  I keep up with the news, I read books, I watch enough Jeopardy! and movies and television to know a thing or two about a thing or two but I almost comically have to admit something.  History buffs, please put down your virtual stones and don’t hate me but I wasn’t familiar with the Chicago 7 before I fired up The Trial of the Chicago 7, now available to stream on Netflix.  Weird, right?  The names Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin were familiar to me for other reasons and I was surprised that such an event could occur that I wouldn’t have at least peripherally tied to the trial over some medium.  Hey, you learn something new everyday, though, so I guess my lesson this particular week was related to the historic court case charging seven individuals with various crimes related to demonstrations and protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

If you’re thinking this hyper-politically charged time we’re living in would be a prime time for a retelling of a landmark case brought by the government under not so honorable circumstances, you’d be correct.  Add writer/director Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) to the mix and you have sparks flying with Sorkin’s traditional rapid-fire banter helping to establish mood and place, not to mention character and intent from the start.  Right off the bat we feel like these are well-formed individuals because even if they may not talk like us (Sorkin’s prose is great but, let’s face it, no one talks like he writes) they are speaking a language that instantly engages you in small ways, helping to paint a picture in your mind.

The events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago are doled out gradually once the film has introduced us to the defendants by way of brief glimpses into their preparing to head to the event.  Passing glimpses at Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) & Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp, The Hustle), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch, The Invitation), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, Serenity) & Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, Les Misérables), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins, The Assistant), John Froines (Danny Flaherty, Hope Springs) show all signs point to the men having fairly benign plans for the day. From there, we jump forward to Washington D.C. when a young attorney (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Premium Rush) under a new administration is prodded into the prosecution of eight men that were arrested in connection with a string of crimes the former administration had declined to prosecute.  How we get from eight men to seven is something Sorkin will illustrate as he takes us through the lengthy trial that goes on for multiple months and is governed by a tyrannical judge (Frank Langella, Robot & Frank) who may be losing his mind.  A defense attorney for the majority of the men, William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance, The BFG), struggles to make his case in the face of prosecutorial tampering and a judge that doesn’t remember some of his own rulings.

Little doubt remains that this trial was a huge miscarriage of justice and had enormous complexity given the scope of the charges and men involved.  Sorkin’s film also feels equally enormous with a lot of ground to cover and a clock ticking down to get it all in.  What I thought would be the film’s climax turned out to be the first of several false ones and it started to drag as it approached its second hour, a rare occurrence for a Sorkin film that often chugs along with the energy of a locomotive.  Perhaps it’s due to the structure of having to tell so many competing storylines that rarely converge on each other or more likely its because not all of the Chicago 7 are as interesting as the rest.  It might even come down to performance…because I think there is great acting going on here as well as some goofy attempts at faux-counterculture attitude.

For instance, I think Baron-Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman is a strong interpretation of the social activist known for his courtroom antics and outspoken public behavior.  Baron-Cohen is known for creating these larger than life roles that are often obnoxious and finally he’s playing a character that is actually obnoxious and he manages to make him a comfortable fit.  On the flip side, recent Emmy-winner Strong is completely out to sea as Jerry Rubin, giving the exact type of nuts and berries performance you’d expect when you hear the word “hippie” – no surprises here.  I think Rylance could have done this part in his sleep and he looks at half-mast for most of the film, as does Redmayne who feels more concerned about maintaining his American accent and keeping his hands in his pockets than delivering a single focused line-reading.  The best acting going on in the film is far and away Langella as the lunatic judge who terrorizes the defendants, jurors, prosecution, and probably anyone he comes in contact with.  Still one of the finest actors working, Langella should be justly rewarded for his wonderful work.

While I ultimately appreciated the history lesson and education brought on by The Trial of the Chicago 7, it’s fractured time frame and tendency to tell instead of show gets a bit oppressive after some time.  The court moments are the most energetic and where Sorkin finds the best sequences to shine.  That’s when things really pick up and a rhythm is established.  It’s when we head out of that space where The Trial of the Chicago 7 becomes, well, a trial.

Movie Review ~ Enola Holmes

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The Facts
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Synopsis: When Enola Holmes-Sherlock’s teen sister-discovers her mother missing, she sets off to find her, becoming a super-sleuth in her own right as she outwits her famous brother and unravels a dangerous conspiracy around a mysterious young Lord.

Stars: Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, Louis Partridge, Helena Bonham Carter, Adeel Akhtar, Fiona Shaw, Frances de la Tour, Susie Wokoma

Director: Harry Bradbeer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I think we can all agree that by this point, that sly detective Sherlock Holmes has had his fair share of the spotlight in movies and television shows.  If you run a search for Sherlock Holmes in IMDb you’re going to get a truckload of results…and that’s only those with his name in the title.  Think of the all the movies with Holmes as a leading or secondary character that take the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creation into numerous different directions, some for the good (1979’s much liked Murder by Decree) and many for the bad (take your pick but 2018’s ghastly Holmes & Watson springs to mind).  The brilliant reimagining for the BBC in 2010 made Benedict Cumberbatch a star and the big-budget 2009 film and it’s gargantuan sequel in 2011 solidified Robert Downey Jr.’s A-List status in stone.

So if Sherlock was considered played out, how to further the Holmes lineage in new and interesting ways?  The answer came in the form of six books written by Nancy Springer that followed Enola Holmes, Sherlock’s much younger sister.  Raised solely by her mother after her father’s death, both Sherlock and his brother Mycroft were out of the house by the time Enola was born, leading the now teenage girl to grow up not really knowing her siblings.  Springer’s books were published between 2006 and 2010 and now the first one has been adapted into Enola Holmes, a film originally intended for release by Warner Brothers this past summer that was eventually bought by Netflix on account of the pandemic.  If this origin story and initial adventure is any indication, Netflix has scored a win with a promising new franchise on their hands.

On the morning of her 16th birthday in 1884, Enola Holmes (Millie Bobbie Brown) discovers that her ever-present mother (Helena Bonham-Carter, Cinderella) has vanished from their sprawling and overgrown country home outside London, apparently leaving no clue as to where she’s gone.  As Enola’s only companion, teacher, and guardian, this is a puzzlement as it’s not like her to just disappear without a trace so Enola sends word to her brothers in the city who arrive in short order.  Stodgy Mycroft (Sam Claflin, Me Before You) isn’t surprised their flighty mother took off, begrudgingly accepting the responsibilities for taking in Enola as his ward. The more laid-back Sherlock (Henry Cavill, Justice League) likely has already figured out where she’s gone and how tight her shoelaces were tied when she left but defers to his more tightly-wound brother in the decision-making process.

Enola, however, can’t wait around forever and when Mycroft attempts to ship her off to a boarding school run by a perilous headmistress (Fiona Shaw, Pixels, a brittle riot) she sets off on her own after making a hidden discovery that points her in the right direction.  Along the way, she crosses paths with the Lord Viscount Tewskbury, Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge, Paddington 2) , a young runaway she assists in evading a treacherous henchman (Burn Gorman, Pacific Rim) dispatched for murderous purposes by someone close to the boy.  Not letting herself be distracted by another mystery when she has her own familial problem to solve, Enola continues to track the disappearance of her mother, which may have ties to the growing women’s suffrage movement.

With Jack Thorne’s (Radioactive) script often episodic in nature, the film tends to resemble the chapter book it’s based off of, with tiny little adventures or plot advances happening in small chunks throughout.  It gives the entire film, which is by and large entirely delightful, an ever so slight stutter and never lets it achieve a smooth ride.  Director Harry Bradbeer makes his feature film debut after years of building a respected career in television and he uses that history of handling short form storytelling to bring a liveliness throughout, even if it often lacks true connectivity.  It’s a handsome production, with the period recreated beautifully in the sets and reflected faithfully by the costumes.

With only Netflix’s Stranger Things and last year’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters as the majorly significant items on her resume, I haven’t yet hopped on the Millie Bobbie Brown train yet but I’m willing to buy a ticket after this.  It’s a role perfectly suited for her and she delivers the right amount of spunk and heart, never making Enola too coy or aggravatingly precocious but finding the exact right balance that makes her come alive.  Much of the movie involves her speaking directly to the audience and it wouldn’t have worked as well if Brown didn’t have the right attitude, but whether it be a glance at the camera or lines delivered straight out to us, she really commands your attention.

Acting as a producer of the film as well, Brown has wisely surrounded herself with a nice array of talented supporting players, from Bonham Carter playing pitch perfect as her mother with a hidden life we only just start to skim the surface of to Frances de la Tour (Into the Woods) as the Lord’s grandmother who takes a liking to Enola.  Claflin’s role is rather humorless so he’s stuck with a bit of a downer part, the most villainous non-villain in the film and he’s playing the brother supposedly seven years older than Sherlock…even though he’s three years younger than Cavill.  Cavill is an inspired choice for Sherlock and while the film has made news lately for being named in a lawsuit by the Conan Doyle estate for showing Sherlock as “too emotional”, I didn’t find Cavill to be overtly emo more so than Cumberbatch or Downey, Jr.  It’s wholly Brown’s circus, though, and even Cavill playing the world’s leading detective can’t steal her spotlight for any amount of time.

At 123 minutes, this a long film and while it may entice younger viewers and parents might find the opening 80 minutes to be fairly light, there’s a dark turn as we get to the home stretch that I wasn’t quite expecting.  It is rated PG-13 and earns it in that final half hour when things get violent and scary in ways I’m not sure were entirely necessary, especially for a movie hoping to build into future installments that parents could confidently leave their children in the care of.  That being said, for mystery lovers in general and especially those that like the Sherlock Holmes film adaptations that strayed with cheeky humor from the original Conan Doyle tales, you’ll want to see the first adventure of his sister because Enola Holmes is just getting started.