Movie Review ~ Moxie

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Inspired by her mom’s rebellious past and a confident new friend, a shy 16-year-old publishes an anonymous zine calling out sexism at her school.

Stars: Hadley Robinson, Amy Poehler, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Lauren Tsai, Josephine Langford, Ike Barinholtz, Marcia Gay Harden, Sydney Park, Clark Gregg, Patrick Schwarzenegger

Director: Amy Poehler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Nostalgia is funny thing when it comes to the high school experience.  I wonder how many youths that have graduated within the last decade during the biggest boom of social media will look back on their time during what everyone knows is the most awkward period of growing up.  Those freshman through senior years can be quite influential for the person you will become, at least for the next few years into whatever comes after high school.  It’s entirely why movies and television shows about this age group have been so appealing over the years, changing through the decades to reflect the current state of what life is like for those living it.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would not have flourished in the environment that exists for teenagers nowadays.  Not only is there added pressure in the realm of academia but thinking about the extra layer of technology allowing for anonymous cyber bullying and the sharing of personal information among classmates is enough to keep you up past your bedtime on a school night.  Then there are the social, racial, and gender norms which are going through an upheaval with the advent of politics becoming more radicalized, finding the next generation of leaders suffering the consequences for a system that doesn’t support their choices.  Sexism and misogyny run rampant and without anyone to call it out, it will continue unchallenged.

In Jennifer Mathieu 2017’s YA novel, Moxie, the author posits what would happen if an unassuming high school junior suddenly took it upon herself to push back against the imbalance in the way women and other marginalized groups are treated by other students, teachers, and school administrators.  An early fan of the book was comedian Amy Poehler (Sisters) and after directing the easy breezy gal pal comedy Wine Country for Netflix in 2019, she signed on to film an adaptation of Moxie for the streaming service and take a small supporting role as well.  Taking cues from a screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, Poehler wisely avoids making Moxie into a simple girl power tale that winds around expected corners on its way to a syrupy ending.  Working with a talented cast of up and comers, Poehler instills a strong message without going overboard in dramatic histrionics to make her point.

The start of a new school year means Vivian (Hadley Robinson, Little Women) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are one year closer to graduation and then off to the smarty pants college they plan to go to together.  They’ve gotten used to their place in the school hierarchy and Vivian especially has resigned herself to remain unnoticed, though long-time platonic friend Seth (Nico Hiraga, Booksmart) has had a definitive growth spurt over the summer.  Is it her imagination or does he seem awfully talkative with her in their morning class together?  While Vivian musters  about the courage to check in with Seth, she notices that high school quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Daniel Isn’t Real) is already giving new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) a chilly welcome after she doesn’t respond to his phony charm act that others have fallen for.

At first, Vivian turns a blind eye to Mitchell and encourages Lucy to do the same, but as the taunting gets worse and more behavior goes unchecked, she impulsively puts together a crude manifesto of sorts after uncovering a suitcase filled with her mom’s old paraphernalia from her days as a rabble-rouser in her high school.  Distributed anonymously around the school and credited to “Moxie”, the ‘zine’ becomes a tool of empowerment for a number of students at the school and a hot button issue for everyone else.  Rules are broken, voices are raised, and the usual way of doing things is challenged by a growing number of students that find they have a voice and there is strength in numbers.  As the identity of Moxie is sought, Vivian struggles with keeping her secret from a new group of friends while maintaining her old relationship with Claudia and being honest with her single mother (Poehler) who doesn’t understand why her daughter is suddenly shutting her out.

I’m going to say something a little controversial for all you Wine Country fans out there.  While I found that film to be a lot of fun for a Friday night, it had some uneven spots that left me feeling it was missing something overall.  Perhaps it was just a case of having too many good people to choose from – the cast was an abundance of riches and I never felt like I got a healthy sampling of any one of them.  With Moxie, I feel as if Poehler worked out some of those directing kinks because it’s a far superior film where pacing is concerned and since it’s been cast with a number of fresh faces it doesn’t come with a lot of expectation attached to it.  Instead, Poehler has thought about who should play the adults and filled those roles with the likes of Marcia Gay Harden (Grandma) as the school principal who doesn’t make life easy for Vivian and her friends, Clark Gregg (Live by Night) in a minor role playing a co-worker of Poehler’s, and Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad) as a hapless teacher that never can quite be on the right side of an argument.

Where Moxie shines the most is its strong cast playing the high school students aching to be valued for more than what they look like on the outside.  As Vivian, Robinson is an inspired, naturalistic presence that convincingly goes from a shy not-quite wallflower into a more confident dance like no one’s watching activist in her own right.  With Tsai holding the more cautious side as her longtime best friend and Pascual-Peña the bolder new kid on the block, both actresses’ lived-in performances offer Vivian opportunities to lead or become a better leader.  As other Moxie girls that get into the act, Sabrina Haskett, Sydney Park (Wish Upon), Anjelika Washington all have nice moments along the way, with Haskett especially going through a nice moment in standing up for herself in front of others.  It’s no fun playing the bad guy and Schwarzenegger seems to be enjoying himself at least, so there’s that.  Get ready to swoon over Hiraga playing the kind of compassionate boy every mom (or dad) would want their daughter (or son) to date.

You could nitpick at a few things along the way, sure, like the way the film either introduces threads of ideas and then completely abandons them (two characters kiss and then their relationship is never mentioned again, a trans character auditions for a musical which is supposedly a big deal but there’s no follow-up) or it drops in something out of left field.  Yet in some way, the script resembles the mind of a teenager in that way.  Everything is important in that very moment and sometimes it remains at the forefront and maybe it goes away quickly…or that incident they were mad about years ago they’re going to bring up now just because they need to be angry about something…anything.  That could also be me rationalizing some gaps in the writing or editing.

Netflix has done well by their teen audiences over the past few years and Moxie is another sign they know their audience, as well as another vote of confidence on Poehler’s evolution as an artist.  Her role in the film is just enough to satisfy your fix for her onscreen (not that I would have begrudged a scene or two more) but it’s clear she wanted to focus to be on a new crop of talent, giving voice to a different kind of conversation. Keep being a part of these forward-moving films, Netflix.

Movie Review ~ I Care A Lot

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A court-appointed legal guardian defrauds her older clients and traps them under her care. But her latest mark comes with some unexpected baggage.

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Peter Dinklage, Chris Messina, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Nicolas Logan, Kevin McCormick, Michael Malvesti, Liz Eng, Alicia Witt

Director: J. Blakeson

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A lot of good came out of 2014’s Gone Girl.  For one thing, after the cool reception of the big screen adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it gave director David Fincher an opportunity to bounce back with another hotly anticipated film based on a number one bestselling novel.  Then there was leading man Ben Affleck’s comeback story that was just kicking off after a Best Picture Oscar win for 2012’s Argo and the general feeling in Hollywood that he was robbed of a Best Director nomination.  Though he was soon to feel the heat from the comic book nerdom in the unwinnable battle of playing Batman for several films in the ill-fated DC Extended Universe, he was an interesting choice for the role but ultimately a smart move on Fincher’s part.

The real reason we’ll continue to talk about Gone Girl long after people have stopped debating the merits of the book vs. the movie is Rosamund Pike’s Oscar-nominated performance as a missing wife that may not be as missing as we’re led to believe.  Pike won critics and audiences over in how she brought this character that was so complex and unreliable on the page to life, adding in extra nuances the book wasn’t able to supply due to the limitations of its medium.  The character is unforgettable in so many ways and some of that is the collaboration between Pike, her director, and her co-star but it’s mostly Pike allowing an at times unlikable character to speak up and out, eventually burrowing under our skin to strangely become someone to cheer on.

After all the hoopla, you’d have expected there to be more to the Pike peak and while the actress had a solid resume before the film and nomination, her films over the last half decade have been slightly on the lackluster side.  Most have been supporting turns that haven’t allowed her the chance to shine like she could and when she does take center stage, like in 2020’s Radioactive, the films don’t quite rise up to meet her.  It’s a thrill to report, then, that right off the bat in 2021 Pike is back with I Care a Lot, the supremely entertaining new Netflix movie that premiered back in September 2020 at the Toronto International Film Festival where it received a nice round of notices.  Even better, Pike’s character feels like a slight riff on her Gone Girl persona and while it doesn’t seek to repeat the same work she did there, you see similarities in the characters so much that you almost wonder if Pike wouldn’t consider Amy from Gone Girl and Marla from I Care a Lot kindred spirits.

Meet Marla Grayson, a court-appointed guardian for a number of elderly or at-risk adults that need her expertise.  According to the law, she has access to their finances and authority over where they live, their medical care, their routines, and what they eat.  Even if they have family that are living, as long as she can convince the court she is better suited to take on these adults as her ward, she’s in charge.  It’s a wicked little con, this predatory guardianship masquerading as elder care, and no one is doing it better than Marla Grayson.  Sadly a concept based in reality, predatory guardians search for seniors with a history of health issues and either get them to sign over their rights or have the courts make the final call.  Once the guardianship is in place, it’s hard to get it dissolved without the person under the care making a direct statement they are well enough to care for themselves.  Easier said than done considering how these elderly individuals are “cared for” with the types of treatment they are subjected to by their “guardians.”   With her razor-sharp bob, perfect make-up, and always on trend clothes, Marla (Pike) is the very picture of having her act together.  How could the court see her as anything but looking out for the best interest of her clients?

Working with her second in command and live-in lover Fran (Eiza González, Paradise Hills), Marla is always looking for that perfect mark, or ‘cherry’, someone with no immediate family or living relatives that could show up to get in her way or claim any inheritance monies at the time of death.  One day, that fruitful horse comes in for Marla in the form of Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest, Let Them All Talk), a woman in her late ‘60s living alone in a big, beautiful house and sitting on a pile of cash.  Jennifer’s doctor is getting a kickback from Marla by tipping her off to patients that may be good targets for her type of service as is a local nursing home manager that can charge a lot of funds for his care services so all it takes is a stop in family court (without Jennifer present) and an emotional plea for Jennifer’s ‘safety’ and Marla has a new ward and what looks to be a big payday.  Before Jennifer knows it, her house is gone and her possessions have been auctioned off with Marla using the money from the sale to pay her own salary.  There’s just one rather large problem…this ward isn’t as alone in the world as Marla thinks.

Writer/director J. Blakeson wisely eschews the “based on true events” angle that could have been taken and opts instead for an original story that allows for a healthy helping of ice-cold bitterness traveling throughout a number of the characters.  In some films, this could become a real drag and stagnate into sameness fairly quickly but Blakeson’s film has such an energy to it that watching people take bites at one another only propels it forward with more adrenaline.  Marla is unapologetic in her mission to succeed and isn’t deterred by threats on a verbal or physical level.  While we don’t get much in the way of her backstory save for a brief (and telling) reference to her mother, an early confrontation between her and the son of a ward gives the impression she made a decision a number of years back to face all challenges head on and suffer any consequences as a result with open arms.

As one of maybe ten people on the planet that has yet to watch Game of Thrones, I can’t say I’ve yet joined the Peter Dinkalge (Three Christs) fan club based on the films I’ve seen him in so far, yet his co-starring role in I Care a Lot is likely the most I’ve enjoyed him from start to finish.  His first appearance is long after the tone of the film has been set by Pike and Blakeson, so he struggles with some adjustment at first and even if he arguably never fully gets that balance right, he makes a nice foil for Pike and a worthy sparring partner in several scenes near the end of the picture.  I only wish he wasn’t always trying to be a ‘character’ instead of just letting his acting happen naturally…he consistently appears to be working harder than everyone else for no real reason and it winds up shining the wrong spotlight on him.

It’s Pike’s picture all the way no matter how you spin it and it’s a shame there likely isn’t room for her on the Oscar ballot this year because here’s another complicated female role that deserves recognition.  Far from a decent human, insanely stubborn, and comically driven to succeed by stepping over anyone and anything without saying ‘excuse me’, Marla will still earn your admiration in spite of all her behavior.  That’s says a lot not just about Blakeson’s screenplay but in how Pike has layered Marla to have more to her than we originally see.  It’s not a softer side, per se, but it is someone that just wants to be taken seriously and to play by the rules…even if the rules may not ultimately be fair.  Movies that walk an edge like this and make an anti-hero the star of the show can be a turn-off for people but I appreciated that Blakeson saw Marla’s character through to the uncompromising end…her hard shell exterior isn’t an act so don’t waste your time waiting for her to break.

Regrettably faltering right when it needs to fly the highest, I Care a Lot almost makes it to the finish line maintaining the high level of entertainment it kept up pace with for its run time…and that’s too bad because it gets so close.  Take that as a minor quibble if you will but it nagged at me, especially seeing that Blakeson seemed to have everything so snappy and under control.  All said, this is one of the best Netflix offerings in recent memory and makes for an all-around crackling watch.  Don’t miss it.

Movie Review ~ Malcolm & Marie

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A filmmaker and his girlfriend return home from his movie premiere where smoldering tensions and painful revelations push them toward a romantic reckoning.

Stars: Zendaya, John David Washington

Director: Sam Levinson

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  As an only child, there were plenty of times growing up when I had “opportunities” to learn from my “mistakes” and much of these lessons were in how my words were received to others.  My parents, like many of yours, were fond of the phrase ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’ and that’s a motto I’ve tried to stick with through the years, to varying degrees of success.  It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  Meaning, sometimes even though you think you’re saying the right thing, you aren’t sincere, and it shows.  Still…words matter and even removing a passive aggressive delivery can’t hide the fact that you just said something you ought to be taken to task for.  Flipped around, ‘It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.”

That’s what I thought while watching the new Netflix film Malcolm & Marie, which has become a bit of a hot button topic of conversation in the movie world thanks to its dissection of film and film criticism during an eventful two hours.  Made over the summer when COVID-19 was in full swing, the project gained some attention because of its two in-demand stars and the way they came together to not only fund the project but see that it was carried out under strict health guidelines.  The small crew huddled together in quarantine for two weeks before shooting and many had multiple jobs on the set.  It was clearly a labor of love by committed artists that cared deeply not only for telling the story but for finding an outlet of creativity during this strange time.

I’d like to report, then, that Malcolm & Marie was worth the time and effort but unfortunately, it’s ever so slightly the talky drab dud I feared it would be.  It’s strange, though, because I didn’t regret a minute of the film.  Watching stars John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Zendaya (The Greatest Showman) bicker, make-up, fight, and emotionally evade one another throughout a stunning house in Carmel, California in glorious black and white was a rich experience.  There are a few scenes that are truly beautiful to behold and as a whole the film is never, absolutely never, boring to look at.  It’s just when we start to delve deeply into writer/director Sam Levinson’s annoyingly pugilistic screenplay that you’ll want to reach for the mute button.

Arriving home after the premiere of his new film, Malcolm (Washington) is energized but what he feels will finally get him noticed by mainstream audiences.  His past films have only been seen as genre fare (read: black) and he longs to be considered with some of the greats and not just his fellow respected black filmmakers.  For now, though, he’s on cloud 9 and with drink in hand and James Brown playing throughout the house he’s dancing while Marie (Zendaya) is clearly feeling something a little different after their night out.  A harmless mistake before the premiere, likely brought on by the energy of the evening has been eating away at her and she can’t let it go.

Cooking macaroni and cheese (there’s no promotional tie-in here but if you’re watching this late at night you’ll definitely wind up wanting a bowl of your own) she lays out her grievances and it only slides downhill from there.  The two battle over their thoughts of Marie’s perception of the mistake (a sleight of attribution on Malcolm’s part) and, eventually, on Marie’s overall contribution to their marriage and Malcolm’s professional endeavors.  Did Malcolm steal pieces of Marie’s life to make his latest success and if so, why didn’t he cast his actress girlfriend in the role that could have helped her career advance as way of repaying the support she’s offered him?  As most fights go, there are low blows and then jabs that hit even darker places that couples don’t easily bounce back from.

The centerpiece of Malcolm & Marie, however, doesn’t even involve Marie and it almost seems like Levinson has been building to this point throughout.  It’s a profanity-laced diatribe from Malcolm on the state of film and the critics that review it that goes on and on and on, an endless barrage of holier-than-thou observances and notations of a century worth of filmmakers.  Though slanted through the viewfinder of a black man, you can clearly hear Levinson’s voice on the other side and how it’s transparently leveled at all naysayers that may take an opposing view to the film.  Feeling like a way Levinson can say what he wants to say but not really “say” it, the whole speech comes off as a cheap shot and poor sportsmanship…though Washington gives it one heckuva good read.  Too bad it instantaneously sucks what little momentum Washington and Zendaya had worked up for the rest of the movie.

Independently or together, Washington and Zendaya are impossible to look away from and both actors make you wish they had collaborated on a film that took their strengths and used them for something more interesting or less mouthpiece-y.  I think Malcolm & Marie might have even worked if it would have removed Malcolm’s unfiltered rant and excised one or two of the “artful silences” that have been kept in but as it stands this couple becomes hard to listen to by the end and all you want to do is watch them turn out the light and sleep.  Then at least they’ll, for once in the night, not have any hurtful things to say or demons to battle.

Movie Review ~ Finding ‘Ohana

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A summer in rural O‘ahu takes an exciting turn for two Brooklyn-raised siblings when a journal pointing to long-lost treasure sets them on an epic adventure with new friends, and leads them to reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage.

Stars: Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson, Owen Vaccaro, Kelly Hu, Branscombe Richmond, Chris Parnell, Marc Evan Jackson, Ricky Garcia, Jonathan Ke Quan

Director: Jude Weng

Rated: PG

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Each year I try to make a promise that I’ll challenge myself to explore/review more films from a certain genre and one that I find I sometimes gloss over are the midrange family films that often are forgotten in the mix of available titles.  These aren’t your Disney animated films aimed at younger audiences nor are they the more adult leaning fare masquerading as all-ages family entertainment but those going after the elusive market of the 9-15 year-olds that are the budding consumers of today and up and coming leaders of tomorrow.  This really sparked for me after seeing Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey back in November and being totally knocked out by that Christmas-themed musical which went on to be an extremely popular title on Netflix over the holidays. In the past, I’ve skated past similar features because I’ve definitely aged out of that category and, well, didn’t feel my review would add much to the conversation.  It’s a new year…so I figured we’d try another one of these out.

On the outside looking in, Finding ‘Ohana felt like the type of movie that I would have probably begged to see in theaters when I was a 10-year-old but sitting here thirty years later didn’t exactly scream “must see” to me.  However, those feelings were set aside once I heard an early description of the film invoke the magical two-word phrase that will perk up the ears on any child raised in the ‘80s: The Goonies.  Yes, the beloved 1985 pre-teen adventure film that set many a kid on the hunt for buried treasure was used to describe this new film set on the island of Oahu premiering on Netflix and after that I pretty much blacked out with glee until I was ready to hit play on the screener.  I mean, having recently re-watched all of the Indiana Jones films (yes, even the fourth one) my appetite for unearthing hidden gold was at full-bore so there was no way I was missing the chance to continue that feeling.  An added bit of fun was finding out that Ke Huy Quan, one of the young stars of The Goonies, had a small role in the film as well – two worlds colliding…a positive sign.

At 12 years old, New Yorker Pilialoha “Pili” is a Geocache champion on her way to a camp in the Catskills for pre-teens with similar talents when she and her brother Ioane “E” move with their mother (Kelly Hu, Strange Days) to Hawai’i to care for their grandfather (Branscombe Richmond, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) who has fallen ill.  Though originally born in the area they now visit, the city raised kids don’t have any real connection with their island heritage or the history of their people, an important piece of culture their grandfather hopes to teach them while they are there.  With their widowed mom distracted helping her father heal and deal with mounting bills, siblings E (YouTube star Alex Aiono) and Pili (newcomer Kea Peahu) are always at odds but try to stay out each other’s way…a hard task when there’s little to do without WiFi.

Exploring her grandfather’s make-shift art studio like the natural discoverer she is, Pili finds a journal supposedly obtained from a pirate that emerged from the wilds after hiding a fortune in gold  obtained as the result of a mutinous shipwreck. Passed down through their family for generations, no one has been able to locate the treasure by following the clues…but they didn’t have Pili’s smarts in dissecting clues.  Before long, Pili has become obsessed with finding the lost treasure and sets out to claim it with a little help from brainy neighborhood friend Casper (Owen Vacarro, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) and, eventually, E and his island crush, Hana (Lindsay Watson).  Together, the four will pass through nooks and crannies, cross between large cavern ledges where lava flows several stories below, swim through sunken tunnels, and traverse waterfalls as they seek their fortune while finding strength as a team.

While Finding ‘Ohana is sadly not the next Goonies (or even the next Jingle Jangle), it makes its own mark in other ways that are commendable. First and foremost, the focus on family is and always will be something I’ll admire the movie for wrapping its arms around with such affection.  There’s a richness and validity to the way screenwriter Christina Strain injects the film with moments that reinforce the importance of coming home and remembering your ancestors, the living and the dead.  Loving those that are gone and continuing to celebrate their lives is another way of paying respect to their memory.  The message may be drilled in a little tighter than necessary by the end, but as adults that have likely experienced loss and understand the “why’s” maybe we need those words a little less than the target audience that will surely be devouring the film and pick up on its themes of familial bonds.

Carrying a PG rating keeps the stakes relatively low for all involved so the perils the four find themselves in as they go further in on their quest for treasure aren’t ever that dangerous, and in turn aren’t that exciting.  There’s no huge puzzle to solve like at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or what the entire final hour of The Goonies undertakes but it does allow for the production team to get creative with the sets they create to look like the inside of caves or tunnels that have been unoccupied for centuries.  While the final set unfortunately looks like an overdesigned waterpark at the Wisconsin Dells, there’s a nice little section by a rainwater pool lit by luminescence in the walls.  Mostly, though, parents should know the PG rating comes from the script’s rather crude obsession of talking about boy’s nipples and several mentions of an actual anatomic butthole.  I just…don’t get it.

Director Jude Weng is making her feature film debut and delivers Finding ‘Ohana as a mostly pleasant affair that, with the caveat just mentioned, should make for a nice family movie night for the old kid crowd.  I think it’s slightly too long running nearly two hours and could easily have been trimmed down by twelve minutes or more without losing any of the positive impact the non-adventure/action scenes had.  I definitely wouldn’t touch the final 15 minutes in which Weng and her cast find some lovely little moments of connection to each other and the audience.  And it all culminates in a fun credits sequence that reinforce what we already have felt…that this cast really enjoyed each other and making the film.  I think, with the right frame of mind, you might enjoy it too.

Movie Review ~ Penguin Bloom

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When an unlikely ally enters the Bloom family’s world in the form of an injured baby magpie they name Penguin, the bird’s arrival makes a profound difference in the struggling family’s life.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Rachel House, Felix Cameron, Abe Clifford-Barr, Gia Carides, Leeanna Walsman, Lisa Hensley, Randolph Fields

Director: Glendyn Ivin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  What I loved most about one of my all-time favorite critics Roger Ebert is that he could review a movie that was a top awards contender or the ninth sequel in a once popular franchise film and give them both equal considerations based on their individual merits.  He didn’t compare the two to each other, he didn’t contrast the ninth sequel with the fourth sequel or ponder what could have been done in the sixth one to make the eighth lay better groundwork for the film he was watching then.  He reported back to you how he felt about that movie on that day and often would revisit a film later and talk about how his experience changed over time on a second or third watch.  I know I’ve looked over reviews I’ve done in the past for this site and couldn’t believe the high (or low) scores I’ve given a film.  However, that’s where I was at the time and I have to trust my opinion I formed back then.

Maybe that’s my preamble apology (or is it excuse?) for what I’m going to say in the next few hundred or so words about Penguin Bloom, premiering on Netflix January 27th.  Here’s a movie, based on a real-life family in New Zealand, that couldn’t be more predictable and made up of your standard formulaic elements that go into films surrounding overcoming adversity.  It’s a kitchen sink flick that tries to fit as many issues in as possible and I’m half-amazed they couldn’t find a way to stick in a pair of bumbling thieves for a late in the game attempted bird-napping but, alas, screenwriters Harry Cripps & Shaun Grant (True History of the Kelly Gang) stick closely to the adaptation of the book from Cameron Bloom & Bradley Trevor Greive.  Yet the fact remains that I wrapped up the film with a genuine warmth I didn’t have before I started it and it’s largely due to its admirable unwillingness to hide from its own mawkishness.

On a 2013 family vacation in Thailand, active mom and nurse Sam Bloom leaned back on a balcony railing and her life changed forever.  Falling nearly 20 feet to the concrete pavement below, she was paralyzed from the waist down…but she was alive.  With three young boys and a photographer husband she would now have to rely on, the once unstoppable force of nature had the wind knocked out of her sails and fell into a deep depression when faced with her new normal.  Rarely venturing out of the house and refusing the extra care offered by family and friends, life is going on for Sam and the rest of the Blooms but nothing is flourishing.  That’s the point where director Glendyn Ivin opens the film and while we get glimpses of life before the accident and small snippets of the horrific event itself, the action primarily is focused on the Bloom house and Sam’s life within.

Noah Bloom (Griffin Murray-Johnston) narrates the film, watching as his mother (Naomi Watts, Luce) exerts great energy to even pull herself up into a sitting position.  Frustrating easily, she hasn’t quite mastered her way around their oceanside home yet and her wheelchair makes it difficult/impractical for her to accompany her outdoors-y sons to the beach or through their various daily adventures.  Husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, Love, Actually) helps as much as he can, but backs off when his wife feels lorded over.  Her busybody mother (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) pays frequent visits, never missing an opportunity to point out something her once go-getter daughter could be doing differently and showing that even in the face of permanent paralysis, some mothers think there’s no excuse for having a dirty house.  Mostly, Sam sits alone, looking at a wall of pictures of their life of abundant activity before Thailand.

While exploring the beach, the boys find an injured magpie that fell from its nest and bring it home in hopes of nursing it back to health.  You can take one guess who is the most against the bird (named Penguin) at first and then I’ll let you go double or nothing to predict who will form the greatest bond with Penguin over time.  The discovery of the injured bird the boys can nurse back to health and the way the bird seems to intuit family behavior is the tip of an iceberg of metaphors the screenwriters have placed along the way. The movie is just chock-a-block with parallels to how, among other bits, the healing of Penguin starts the healing process in Sam that you start to chart the course of where the journey for both human and bird will wind up.  Unable to perform a miracle and restore their mother/wife back whole, there’s an unspoken knowledge among the Bloom men that their attention for this bird represents all that they wish they could be doing to help their family member.

To the great credit of the film, this isn’t a Mr. Popper’s Penguins sort of situation where it becomes more about magpie antics than serious minded drama but there is a general light tone to the movie, even in its darker passages.  A particularly upsetting sequence near the end is tough to watch, but only because the movie has lined you up perfectly to be targeted for that emotional reaction.  (No, that’s not a spoiler, by the way.)  It was refreshing to be diverted away from some of the oft-traveled roads in these types of films or at least have the scenery not be exactly what you think.  More often than not, even when the most predictable of moments arrive they aren’t dwelled upon long enough for viewers to squirm within the familiarity.  It’s also not a movie with Watts chatting with a magpie and working out her emotions as if in a one-woman tour de force, it’s hard to describe but both are good scene partners in some strange way.

Speaking of performances, there’s solid work going on throughout the picture from the always underrated Watts turning in gold star work on a silver star picture.  I don’t always love her choices in roles or films – she’s flirted with the Oscars a few times and has never been the right choice to win.  She has the chops to get one, but it can’t be for roles like this…not that it comes across like she’s trying for it here with her relaxed showing.  Not a fan of The Walking Dead here so I’ll have to trust you that Lincoln is dependable in the long run; he’s serviceable, if not all together memorable as your typical supportive husband and the same goes for Weaver in a role that feels too constricting for the quality of work she’s capable of.  The boys are all fresh-faced and naturalistic, with Murray-Johnston handling himself nicely but coming up just a tad short in a pivotal scene.  By far, the best performance in the film is Rachel House (Soul) as a kayak instructor that enters the Bloom’s life at the right time.  House brings a special kind of light to the picture in her few short scenes and, don’t tell anyone, but there were times when I wondered what was going on at her character’s house because she was able to create something unique in her character that generated interest to know more.

At a short 95 minutes, the film develops a nice zeal with threads of harmony in the final act and found some moving scenes for Watts to shine. While it can be a hair on the heavy-handed side as it makes that final climb up to its conclusion, it doesn’t overburden you by staying in that weighty area for too long and instead chooses to keep its head up as it focuses on the bigger picture. Ultimately, Penguin Bloom is a pleasantly pleasant sort of film from Down Under and one that feels like it was the best one that could have been made from the story it wanted to tell.

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

2


The Facts
:

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.