31 Days to Scare ~ Rebecca (2020)

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The Facts
:

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
:

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.

Movie Review ~ The Irishman


The Facts
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Synopsis: In the 1950s, truck driver Frank Sheeran gets involved with Russell Bufalino and his Pennsylvania crime family. As Sheeran climbs the ranks to become a top hit man, he also goes to work for Jimmy Hoffa — a powerful Teamster tied to organized crime.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rated: R

Running Length: 210 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In 2018, Netflix finally made it into the reputable big-time with Roma, the much-appreciated autobiographical film from Alfonso Cuarón that it debuted on its streaming service just weeks after giving it a small theatrical run to qualify for the Oscars.  Nominated for 10 Academy Awards and very nearly counting Best Picture among the three trophies it took home on Oscar night, it was a sign that Netflix as a fully-fledged movie producer wasn’t a flash in the pan occurrence.  Of course, by the time Roma was topping many critics best of the year awards, Netflix already had a contender for the Best Picture of 2019 with The Irishman, their much-anticipated collaboration with Martin Scorsese.

If it seems like we’ve been talking about The Irishman for over a year, you aren’t that far off the mark.  Though making a movie with similar themes had long been on Scorsese’s dream project list, it wasn’t until Charles Brandt’s 2004 novel I Heard You Paint Houses was published that the framework of the production would start to solidify.  Tapping Steven Zaillian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to write the script and securing a reunion with his long-time collaborator/star Robert De Niro, the hefty price tag of the movie became a cause of concern for most of the established studios even though Scorsese was a much-revered Hollywood icon.  That’s when Netflix came into the mix and put up the money to give Scorsese carte blanche to make the movie he wanted to make, how he wanted to make it.

Though, Scorsese works fast, the overall production took its time. Even after filming was complete, a sizable portion of the budget and the final completion period was devoted to the special effects that would “de-age” stars De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci (among others) but Netflix was so confident in their prospects they ran an ad for the movie during the Oscar telecast.  On paper, the Oscar winning roster in front of and behind the camera seemed like a slam dunk that would be hard to beat. Now, everyone wanted to know all these months later…would this be Scorsese’s masterpiece after the cool reception of 2016’s Silence and 2013’s successful but gratuitous The Wolf of Wall Street?

I have to tell you, I was worried about seeing The Irishman and not because I wasn’t confident that Scorsese would use his resources and cast like the wise filmmaker he has shown himself to be.  No, it was that 210-minute running time (that’s nearly 3.5 hours if you don’t do math) that had me quaking in my boots.  Though I was able to see the also-lengthy Roma in theaters where I could watch it uninterrupted, I’d have to see The Irishman outside of its theatrical presentation.  I doubt this is where Scorsese would have wanted me to see it, but I figured it was an interesting experiment that would test my focus as well as get an idea of how most viewers would see this.

Fear of focus was unfounded, though, because Scorsese has given audiences a highly engaging film that takes place over several decades but doesn’t feel as long as it is.  Yes, you may have read the first 2/3 of the movie are a tad meandering but the final act rewards those who have been patient and that’s not completely unfounded.  Still, this is a movie dependent on building personal connection to the players and watching the way they move in their respective circles.  It will definitely be a turn-off to those unprepared for the commitment and maybe they’d be better off watching the movie in segments, but I think the richer experience is letting Scorsese’s crime drama unfold at its intended pace even though it could have been slightly shorter – and this is coming from a critic routinely wishing movies were more expedient.

Bookended by a voice-over narration from Frank Sheeran (De Niro, Joy) and scenes showing his later life, the majority of The Irishman is told in flashback snippets while Sheeran and Russell Bufalino (Pesci, Home Alone) travel with their wives to a wedding of the daughter of Russell’s cousin Bill (Ray Romano, The Big Sick).  We see a younger Sheeran (a de-aged De Niro…more on that later) go from being a Philadelphia truck driver to a trusted hitman for a top crime family and the effect it has on his own conscience as time moves on.  Sheeran’s relationship as a bodyguard for union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) goes from being transactional to an actual friendship and Hoffa becomes a familiar face in the home of Sheeran and his family.

When Hoffa’s actions start to become divisive within the local teamsters and eventually the mob family he’s been kept secure by, it sets off a chain of events that will come back to haunt all involved.  Hoffa has secrets on some dangerous people who don’t like to be intimidated by the rabble-rouser…and Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975 should key you into the lengths they’d go to keep things under wraps.  How Sheeran figures into Hoffa’s vanishing is where that key final hour of The Irishman comes in and by then we’ve been immersed in this world for so long that while the developments create tension they shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Also serving as a producer of the film, De Niro’s performance is such a welcome change of pace for the veteran actor.  Though he’s lately been appearing in a questionable number of throwaway pictures, The Irishman helps reestablish why he’s one of the most respected people working in the business.  He gives Sheeran a quiet reserve with a talent for remaining emotionless before, during, and after being involved with heinous crimes…yet you can tell he’s set to a low simmer on high alert at all times.  This isn’t the typical De Niro we’ve come to expect and his reteaming with Scorsese (Cape Fear) is surely to thank for that.

It was big news when De Niro and Pacino teamed up for Heat in 1995 and less of an event for their stink-bomb Righteous Kill in 2008 yet here when they share the screen it’s like the first time we’ve seen these two performers spar.  Sheeran and Hoffa had an obvious complicated relationship, with Sheeran unfortunately caught in the middle of his loyalty to his employers and his friendship with Hoffa.  For his part, Pacino turns off his overzealous acting and gives Hoffa some dimension.  There’s little of the wild-eyed Pacino that’s often on display and more of the determined pit bull Hoffa was known to be.  By easing off the gas a bit, Pacino gets a bit of a redemption after appearing in a string of movies that are well beneath his experience level.

Supposedly it took Scorsese asking Pesci fifty times to play Russell Bufalino before the notoriously reclusive actor agreed to come out of semi-retirement for his old pal.  However much prodding it took, it was absolutely worth whatever headaches he caused Scorsese in getting him signed.  The Oscar winner was well-missed and his appearance here is reason enough to watch the film in one sitting.  Though it may seem as if it’s a role Pesci can do in his sleep by this point, there’s some interesting nuances he brings that further helps to define Bufalino and not just make him a variation of the characters he’s played in Goodfellas or Casino.  I was transfixed every time Pesci was onscreen and when you add De Niro and Pacino in as scene partners you sort of can’t believe the good fortune you have to watch these three at work.

So then we get to the whole “de-aging” process that took up so much time and I have to say that it’s largely a non-intrusive device.  Had Scorsese opted for casting different actors when the characters were younger, I’m not sure if they film would have been as successful in carrying over these dynamics to their older counterparts.  On the other hand, we all know what De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci looked like over the decades they’ve been in the business and the way they’ve been “youthfulized” doesn’t quite convince in every frame.  It’s good but not great, and very likely worth the money it cost in the long run since you have consistency in actors throughout the time periods.

There are many film fans out there that think Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas is the be-all, end-all as far as mafia movies go and it’s hard to make an argument against the brilliance of storytelling in that feature.  The Irishman is successful in many of the same ways but doesn’t quite get to that Goodfellas level due to its tendency to overreach and linger when it should be continuing onward.  Even though the film is highly watchable I can’t help but think some slight trimming could have made it an even better lasting film.  Those first two hours perhaps contain scenes that don’t belong, even if they ultimately provide more insight into Sheeran’s rise to his position.

Aside from the extended length, there have been complaints over the lack of female characters and it’s an interesting conversation to have.  The women that are featured in the film are often without much dimension and, aside from a sinister scene involving Russell’s wife, fail to have any major impact on the overall story.  The most successful actress is actually the one that most people are so up in arms about.  As Sheeran’s daughter, the amount of lines Anna Paquin (The Good Dinosaur) has could be counted on two hands but her silence is almost the point Scorsese was trying to make.  Her father has proved untrustworthy for so long, her lack of communication with him speaks to the depth of her resolve to not reward him with her love or kindness.

Now that The Irishman is out in the world and people can choose the way they want to watch it, it will be interesting to see how the movie ages over the years.  Going into Oscar nominations in a few weeks, it’s expected to come out with the most nominations and I’m not counting on that very real possibility.  For once, the effort is worth the accolades and the good notices are supported by an excellent film.  And Pesci…for goodness sake, how can you be unhappy when Pesci is onscreen?

Movie Review ~ Marriage Story

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Martha Kelly

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 136 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Relationships are hard.  We all know this because we’ve all been in one and understand the complexities that go into forming a bond with someone and the work necessary in keeping those home fires burning.  Even if you love the person deeply, there are times when you need to remember the reason why you got together in the first place.  These are internal feelings hard to express not just to an outside observer but to yourself.  Now add in a shared career, living space, and the livelihood of another human being and you have a little more of an idea how much a marriage ups those stakes.

Marriage Story isn’t the first movie to explore the crumbling of a union, nor will it be the last but it’s the first one I can remember that seems to have found a way to believably get inside the hearts, minds, and psyche of two people that have decided to call it quits.  The reasons aren’t cut and dry, they haven’t been given Hollywood-ized rationales for parting ways but instead are balancing carefully weighed and emotionally resonant choices that, for at least one of them, have been agonized over.  There’s no early dramatic spike where one announces to the other “I want a divorce”, when the movie opens we’re already in that space and that’s how writer/director Noah Baumbach invites us into the private lives of a family navigating an unknown space.

Successful New York theater director Charlie (Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) have enjoyed building up their small theater company over the past decade.  She’s a former Hollywood actress that left the glitz for something more challenging and gritty, finding that in Charlie’s creative work environment.  They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and a seemingly pleasant life suggested by opening voice-overs by the two in which they extol what they like most about the other.  Turns out this is all an exercise used in mediation to facilitate an easy separation.  Charlie has hurt Nicole and she’s asked for a divorce.  She’s accepted an offer to film a pilot in L.A. and will be taking Henry with her while she films the show, Charlie will stay behind to bring their latest production to Broadway.

As the movie unfolds and a planned amicable separation turns ugly, the husband and wife become unlikely adversaries.  As parents, they become spiteful and their collaborative friendship sours.  Charlie leaned on Nicole more than he knew and when she withdraws that support he understands, slowly and too late, all that she sacrificed.  When Nicole hires a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars), the gloves come off; small incidents become fodder for character assassinations and negotiations on living arrangements bring out the worst in everyone.  Charlie enlists the assistance of two lawyers, one (Alan Alda, The Longest Ride) is more pragmatic of the situation and the other (Ray Liotta, The Iceman) isn’t afraid to get down in the mud with Nicole’s attorney.  One guess who he winds up paying a hefty retainer to.

Many have compared the film (in small theatrical release now and streaming on Netflix) to 1979’s divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer and they aren’t so off the mark.  That film is decidedly more focused on the man’s point of view and Marriage Story has a more even keel, never quite taking the side of either party but leaning every so slightly into the Nicole camp for the majority of the 136 minute running length.  Charlie is going to frustrate a lot of people (disagreeing, my partner and I had a long discussion about him after) because many of the problems with the marriage seem to stem from his lack of self-awareness regarding putting his own needs above others.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that call out, but there’s a difference between being knowingly self-centered and simply lacking the skills to separate what is important now from what is important in the long run.  Charlie falls into that latter category.

It’s not a huge secret Baumbauch (Mistress America) drew inspiration from his own shaky divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh when composing this film.  I’m not sure how much she’d appreciate this movie or how much of Nicole is drawn with her in mind but Nicole is often shown as quietly harboring resentment that she later wields at her ex-husband in sometimes cruel ways.  True, it could be a justified way of exerting some power for the first time when she felt powerless for so long, but it doesn’t always make her look like the better party.  It helps innumerably that Johansson gives Nicole layers upon layers of nuance, peeling back each cover for us and showing a refreshed person underneath.  The wife in a divorce is often relegated to a cliche but Baumbach works with Johansson to make this wife more than just a woman breaking free from a joyless union or nobly taking back her hard-won freedom, this is a woman simply saying she wants a different life and having the confidence and courage to make it happen.

Speaking of Johansson, in the same year she was so great in Jojo Rabbit, this is arguably the best work she’s ever done and it’s a performance that doesn’t peak early.  Though a lengthy speech to Dern may feel like her big moment she has more surprising scenes throughout and it’s a wonder to watch her work.  She has believable chemistry with Driver and I bought the two had formed a family with Robertson and felt that twinge of guilt she experienced when she was breaking up that unit.  I struggle with the popularity of Driver, failing to truly understand why he’s as universally acclaimed as he is and for much of the movie I just wasn’t getting the sewn up Best Actor buzz that followed him with this movie.  The final thirty minutes, however, had some pretty powerful scenes for Driver to play and he works them, especially an emotionally on-the-nose Sondheim song, like a master.  I’m not sure it’s an Oscar slam-dunk as others do, but it’s certainly worthy of recognition.  What I am scratching my head on is the fiery buzz around Dern’s divorce attorney.  Now, you won’t find a bigger Dern supporter than myself and while I found her to be a strong supporting player along with Alda, Liotta, Julie Hagerty (as Nicole’s mom), Merritt Weaver (Welcome to Marwen, as Nicole’s sister), and Martha Kelly (Spider-Man: Homecoming, as a hilariously deadpan social worker), is this an Oscar-winning role? No way.  Dern can do this kind of role in her sleep and I found it sadly lacking in the kind of levels that I normally would look to an Oscar-winning performance to showcase.

Written and directed by a man that went through a difficult divorce, Marriage Story could easily have been a way to exorcise some frustrations of that experience but instead Baumbach has brought forth a sensitive and at times understated exploration of separation.  Not just the legal pieces or the physical distance between the families but the emotional aspects of what happens when people are removed from the lives of others.  They say divorce is like a death and it’s the most telling in two moments from the movie.  One scene a character looks on a wall and sees family pictures in which they are well represented, later on after all is said and done they visit the same wall and they have completely disappeared, like they never existed at all.  It’s one of the saddest moments Baumbach captures.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ritual

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of university friends trekking through the forests of north Sweden are stalked by a malign presence that doesn’t want them to leave.

Stars: Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter

Director: David Bruckner

Rated: TV-MA

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  For a while, it seemed like Netflix was getting to be a place where cheap-o horror was coming to flourish.  I can’t tell you how many times I was enticed in by an interesting bit of artwork, description, or star rating only to be opting for something else five or ten minutes in because the movie was garbage.  Then, once the company started to become a fledgling-movie studio and wanted to be taken a bit more seriously, you could see a shift in the way they started to acquire content to release under their own banner.  While Netflix would soon get into the game of financing their own films, in order to build out their library they had to track down some quality completed work first.

That’s how they came to procure The Ritual, a nifty little horror yarn based on a 2011 novel by British author Adam Nevill.  Adapted by Joe Barton who helped to give the story a bit more of an arc and directed by David Bruckner (V/H/S), this was another one of those pleasant surprises I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did.  Like Apostle, what The Ritual may have lacked in overall prestige had it been made in the studio system, it more than makes up for in creativity and atmosphere.  Receiving a small release in the UK before Netflix bought it, it’s a movie I can see not being totally right for theaters but working better as an at-home watch.

A yearly weekend trip for a group of five university friends takes on a special meaning a year after losing one to a random act of violence.  Paying tribute to their fallen buddy by moving forward with his idea of hiking the mountains in Sweden, Phil (Arsher Ali), Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Robert James-Collier, Downton Abbey), and Luke (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) are approaching middle-age and realizing they aren’t the same kind of friends they were in their youth.  They squabble and press each other’ s buttons, clearly missing their one friend who seemed to be the glue that held them all together.  The hike isn’t half over before one is injured and they have to find a way back to town.  Opting for a shortcut through a nearby wood proves a fatal mistake as the men walk headfirst into a place of evil.  Resting for a night in a ramshackle deserted cabin filled with the kind of harbingers of doom that scream “Turn back!”, the men wake up the next morning having had visions of death in their dreams to find strange marks on their body.  As the fear of the unknown mounts, so does the paranoia.  Unable to find their way out of the forest, they delve further inward toward an unspeakable terror waiting to be fed…and it’s mighty hungry.

With a small cast and modest budget, Bruckner does good work by never letting the audience get too far ahead of the game.  There’s a lot of exposition in Barton’s script near the end that has to be conveyed without slowing the action down and it’s nice to see these important final scenes aren’t bogged down by all of this explanation.  As is often the case, the solution isn’t always as interesting as the mystery but The Ritual manages keep us engaged longer than most.  The gore is doled out appropriately and the performances from the men are nicely metered in comparison to the emotional stakes presented to them.

I hope Netflix continues to take cues from successful acquisitions like The Ritual.  While the film may be a bit cliché in some of its crude moments of violence, I liked the quieter times it focused on the men and their relationships to each other.  It produces some more than decent chills and works hard to bring its audience into the mood of the situation.  A cut above, no doubt.

31 Days to Scare ~ Apostle

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1905, a drifter on a dangerous mission to rescue his kidnapped sister tangles with a sinister religious cult on an isolated island.

Stars: Dan Stevens, Lucy Boynton, Michael Sheen, Bill Milner, Mark Lewis Jones, Elen Rhys, Sharon Morgan

Director: Gareth Evans

Rated: TV-MA

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Plenty of horror movies come and go with varying degrees of value over time.  The tried and true masterworks are like warm blankets, boons to the soul that work no matter the circumstance or situation.  Some are quick larks that entertain in the moment and fade from memory before you close your eyes for the night.  The bad ones unfortunately tend to stay in your mind because you can’t believe you’ve wasted time on something so pointless when you could have been reading that Alexander Hamilton biography gathering dust on your nightstand.  Then there are the new classics that appear on the scene and you know almost right away they’ll have an impact that remains after the last drop of blood has been shed.

It’s been nearly a year since I fired up Apostle on Netflix and it was by happenstance I caught it at all.  It totally wasn’t on my radar, even though it boasted a tantalizing cast and was written and directed by Gareth Evans.  Evans was behind the eye-popping amazement that was The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 so I was eager to get a peak at what he had conjured up.  You could tell from the beginning Apostle wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill horror film and as it played on I kept waiting for the misstep that would prove to be the expected letdown…but it never came.  This is that rare unicorn on a streaming service that arrives with little fanfare and winds up knocking your socks clear off your feet.  Anything I was expecting from the film was thrown out the window and I got so much more than I could have imagined.

Arriving on a small Welsh island at the turn of the century, Thomas (Dan Stevens, Beauty and the Beast) is looking for his kidnapped sister that he has tracked to this location.  Being held for ransom but a religious cult, Thomas poses as a new convert to gain passage into the sect and when he arrives he isn’t prepared for the danger that awaits him.  Though he finds his sister fairly quickly, getting off of the island alive won’t be as simple.  Led by the charismatic Malcolm (Michael Sheen, Home Again), the order demands blood from their followers as a way to feed the land that’s eternally…hungry.  As Thomas seeks a way off the island to safety with his sister, he needs to steer clear of the town elders and an array of suspicious eyes that are always watching his every move.  Flashbacks to his past as a Christian missionary hint of a man that’s already suffered a great deal for his beliefs, he’s not about to follow a similar fate here with these people.

With support from Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton, Bohemian Rhapsody), Thomas goes deeper into the heart of the island and discovers the mystery that lays at the heart of the cult.  Who or what is feasting on the blood of the townspeople and what is lurking in a tunnel linking the makeshift village to a cave on the coast with ancient drawings suggesting there’s a deity dwelling within the island.  Could it be the entity referred to simply as Her? Or the protective figure known as The Grinder? The answers to these questions come with a considerable bit of bloodshed and grisly gore, shown in gruesome detail by Evans.  Never one to shy away from violence, Evans doesn’t hold back here, employing torture devices used to extricate confessions from suspects and putting a meat mincer to grotesque use.

If this all makes the movie sound intense and hard to watch, well, it is.  It’s also gorgeously made and performed by a fully-committed cast.  The isolated setting and mythical undertones give the film a supernatural bent while the violent religious fanaticism provides horrors of its own as no bond proves too strong to be tested.  Not going to lie, I had to turn away a few times because the images were too disturbing, but it was strangely energizing to see such bold filmmaking conveyed with such sophistication.  Available on Netflix, this is a must-see for fans of horror of genre filmmaking.  A great selection for a Friday or Saturday night in or a rainy Sunday afternoon (after church), Apostle will rattle your cage with fire and brimstone.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Irishman



Synopsis
: A mob hitman recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa.

Release Date:  September 27, 2019

Thoughts: The pending release of any Martin Scorsese film will always create buzz but there’s a special kind of hum that’s been generated from his next film, The Irishman.  It’s not just that it marks another high profile director turning to a streaming service (Netflix) to finance and release their film but it also re-teams Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) with two of his greatest collaborators.  Seeing Robert DeNiro (Cape Fear) playing another hard-boiled gangster is all well and good but boy, it’s already a huge thrill to see Joe Pesci coaxed out of a semi-retirement in this first teaser trailer.  Add in Al Pacino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) and you have a triple-crown of heavy hitters in mafia films helmed by the godfather of the genre.  Though it’s too early to call this one a slam dunk, Netflix is likely gathering all their four-leaf clovers and betting on The Irishman to get them back into the Best Picture race they so narrowly lost last year.  

Movie Review ~ Roma


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Nancy García García

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: In a strange sign of the technological age we’re living in now, one of the most epic cinematic accomplishments of the year will likely be seen by most people first on their televisions, iPads, or (yikes) their smart phones.  Though it was given a small theatrical release for a few weeks and can still be seen in cinemas for those that live near a metro area, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma debuts for everyone else today on Netflix.

Taking place over the course of a year in the 1970s, Roma is Cuarón’s loosely autobiographical look back at his time growing up in Mexico City and the relationship his family had with their housekeeper.  Throughout the year we track the family as they go through growing pains and internal fractures, all seen through the eyes of Cleo, their maid.  As played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, Cleo has a quiet grace that suggests a world-weariness when it comes to practical matters but a striking naiveté in matters of the heart.  Over the year we get to know her, Cleo will experience her own journey (literally and figuratively) as she navigates the treacherous terrain and emotional complexity of first love.

The family takes up most of the air during the scenes inside the house but anytime we venture outside their gated walls the film explodes with sounds and sights, vividly relayed in Cuarón’s own gorgeous black and white cinematography.  There’s a freedom to these sequences that parallel the more staid existence of Cleo’s life tending to the family.  Her employers and their children are never cruel in a stereotypical movie way to her and often treat her like she’s a family member.  All tread a fine path that blur the lines between employer and employee, culminating in an emotional climax you think is the end of the film but leads into a finale Cuarón uses to drive home a bittersweet reality.

As a follow-up to his Oscar-winning work on Gravity, Roma is a bold move for Cuarón.  Not only has he taken a huge risk by teaming up with Netflix at a time when the internet service is vying for a place as a legitimate movie studio but he’s telling a deeply personal tale that doesn’t have the same commercial prospects as his previous work.  He’s cast a lead with no prior acting experience (Aparicio is a true revelation) and delivered a 2+ hour black and white movie entirely subtitled for home consumption where people’s attention span isn’t at its most focused.  Yet it’s this kind of risk-taking that has made Cuarón such an accomplished craftsman over the years and why Roma works on every level.  From the opening shot to a nerve shredding sequence ¾ through the movie that I won’t spoil for you, to the very last credit you see, this is Cinema with a capital C.

Big screen or small screen, there’s little doubt this is one of the finest movies of 2018 and one that deserves your full consideration no matter how you choose to take it in.  I was lucky enough to see it on a huge screen without outside distractions so was able to take in the sheer size of Cuarón’s masterful vision of his youth.  I’m interested to view it again on my television to see how the experience changes things, if at all.  I suspect the small but mighty performances might play even better at home while some of the majestic shots Cuarón devised might lose some impact.  If you can get to the theater, I strongly suggest making the effort.  If you can only see it from the comfort of your own home then please turn off all the lights, turn your phone off, and let the film take you away for 135 minutes.  It’s worthy of your undivided attention.

31 Days to Scare ~ Gerald’s Game

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: While trying to spice up their marriage in their remote lake house, Jessie must fight to survive when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her handcuffed to their bed frame.

Stars: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Stephen King’s novel Gerald’s Game was first published in 1992, film adaptations of the authors work had already been buzzing around for a while.  Most of King’s early books had already found their way to the screen and the well was beginning to run a little dry for marketable projects a studio could push into production.  While a King renaissance was still a few years away when his short stories were mined for more dramatic material, a few of his early ‘90s novels fell through the cracks.  With its relatively small cast of characters and abundance of inner voice monologues likely deemed too tough to adapt by studios looking to fast track flicks, Gerald’s Game kept falling to the bottom of the pile, even as lesser works got their fair shot at the big screen. Originally part of a larger planned work that included the story that became Dolores Claiborne (which found its way to the movie theaters in a drastically underrated 1995 production), Gerald’s Game finally gets its moment to shine in a first rate production courtesy of Netflix and writer/director Mike Flanagan.

It’s a beautiful day for the Burlingames as their arrive at their lake house nestled far away from neighbors and the outside world.  Hoping for a romantic weekend away to add some spice to their marital bed, every detail has been thought of.  Jessie (Carla Gugino, San Andreas) has packed a sexy new slip and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, Endless Love) brings along two shiny pairs of handcuffs.  An unexpected turn of events leaves Gerald dead on the floor and Jessie tethered helplessly to two bedposts, her screams for help echoing silently across the waters.  With no one set to arrive for days, thirst and desperation set in for Jessie…especially when she receives several visitors both real and imaginary.

Revealing more than that would ruin the game King has devised and Flanagan has finessed with King’s blessing.  Flanagan made wise choices in removing some of Jessie’s inner voices and/or consolidating them to a singular person.  The seemingly happy couple had demons that are explored over the course of the film, especially Jessie who suffered a trauma as a child that wound up affecting the choices she made for herself.

Over the past several years with films like Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and last year’s Netflix gem Hush, Flangan has demonstrated a real knack in crafting movies with good atmosphere and nice scares while digging surprisingly deep into the psyche of his characters.  Jessie is a multi-layered creation, thanks not only to Flanagan’s creative way of telling her back-story but in Gugino’s bold portrayal of a woman in crisis.  She’s matched well with Greenwood, first coming off as a genial workaholic husband before showing a more sinister side as his sexual proclivities turn aggressively frightening.  Even in death he has a hold on her, as evidenced by Flanagan letting the dead speak as one of Jessie’s imagined houseguests.

This is a Stephen King tale, though, so expect some nifty twists and turns as the action unfolds.  While Flanagan creates some remarkable tension, he isn’t hoity-toity enough to shy away from a good old fashioned shriek-inducing scare or moments of gooey-gore that had me covering my eyes.  For eagle-eared King fans, there’s also a nice little morsel that ties this film to a previous King adaptation in a most enjoyable way.

Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games when it comes to the ending.  Perhaps showing that the material couldn’t quite stretch past the 90 minute mark, Flanagan has a few finales to contend with here and none truly satisfy.  Both convenient and confusing, the final fifteen minutes are a bit of a muddle that fall well short of the superior first 2/3rds of the film.  It’s not weak enough to destroy the good-will Flanagan has roused in his audience, but a decent amount of it does evaporate.

With the pool of quality genre films getting low, Gerald’s Game is a fun addition to the good pile of available content you can stream and enjoy.  Gugino’s performance is aces and even with the few missteps mentioned above, as usual Flanagan acquits himself in the long run.  Definitely worth checking out.