Movie Review ~ Them That Follow


The Facts
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Synopsis: Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, a pastor’s daughter holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.

Stars: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan

Director: Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I admit it, at my age I’ve become one of those fair weather church-goers who only venture into a pew for the holidays or for special events.  Even then, I often find myself contemplating thoughts of the coffee hour after rather than what hymn in next in my book.  I’m not going to get into a religious discussion here but I have my own communion with a higher power and don’t necessarily need the building to have that bond.  I do respect how helpful the act of “going to church” is for people, though, and have seen first-hand how it’s a lifeline for those in need of support or comfort.

I speak on religion first in this review of Them That Follow because I want to be clear that I’m no expert on the practices displayed within or pass no judgement on the churchgoing folk the film centers on.  Lately I’ve been stepping back from my Midwestern safety bubble and taking into consideration the cultures of other walks of life and using the films I see as a way to open up new doors for me to explore.  I tell you, it’s helped greatly in finding a take-away in even the most middle of the road movies I’ve seen.  Such is the case with Them That Follow, a short wanting to be a full-length movie that only simmers when it should be boiling over.

A congregation of Pentecostals in rural Appalachia are presided over by Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight) who preaches of the devil’s trickery and the need to cleanse oneself from wicked sin.  To rid oneself of sin, his congregants show their devotion to God in the handling of venomous snakes. If the snake strikes, the parishioners are left to fend off the venom on their own.  If they survive, it is Gods will and they are forgiven.  As the film opens, the church is under the watch of the local authorities investigating the death of a person that perished under these extreme circumstances.

Unbeknownst to the Pastor, his daughter Mara (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) has gotten pregnant by Augie (Thomas Mann, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a local boy that has been exiled from the church for rejecting their teachings.  While Mara contemplates her future within the community and what this baby means in the wake of her recent betrothal to Garret, a handsome new arrival (Lewis Pullman, Bad Times at the El Royale), her faith is tested at every turn.  How long can she keep the secret from her father, the man she’s been promised to, and the man she has feelings for but can’t be with?  It all comes to a head when Augie comes to visit the church and makes an unexpected request.

The poster for Them That Follow and the trailer hint of a movie with a more sinister edge but writer/directors Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage don’t have enough plot to get around any twists and turns.  What we have is a movie I think would have worked quite nicely as a short film but, at feature-length, strains to make a case for the extra running time.  I was actually surprised to find this didn’t originate as a smaller project first because the final act especially has a few taut moments that would have worked better if the first 2/3rds were trimmed down. Another distraction adding to the feeling is a slow pace that keeps the movie from finding a rhythm within this community.  You can’t have a slow-burn if you aren’t willing to light a fire in the first place.

Those skeeved out by snakes are advised to steer clear of this one.  There are ample shots of the large reptiles slinking around the forest as well as over the bodies of the church-goers throughout the film.  Despite the threat of danger, there’s little tension to be had because the filmmakers haven’t raised the stakes high enough for audiences to be holding their breath.  While Goggins relays his usual dialed up, toothy, performance it surprisingly doesn’t reach the fever pitch of fire and brimstone that would have goosed the film in positive ways.  While Englert’s quiet moments are keenly felt, she’s a bit of a non-entity when sharing the screen with more formidable co-stars.  Strangely enough, I’ve sometimes gotten Mann and Pullman confused so it was nice to see them in the same frame to clarify once and for all they are different actors.

There are a few upsides to the film.  The location filming is quite lovely.  Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) is a nice presence as Mara’s timid friend abandoned by her mother that comes to live with the Childs family.  Harboring her own feelings for Garret, she has to watch her best friend agree to a marriage she clearly doesn’t want while the man she likes has no idea she’s interested.  Dever handles this balance nicely, never playing her role too addled or selfish in the face of her love going unrequited.  Then there’s Olivia Colman, following up her Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite playing a character named Sister Slaughter who finds herself divided between her loyalty to her community and her son, Augie.  Colman’s choices are unexpected, small, and intense…all the makings of a well-thought out performance.

In many ways, I’m glad Them That Follow didn’t devolve into some gory horror film with religious undertones.  It could easily have pivoted to something completely different but not wholly unexpected but it resisted and stayed in a safe lane.  True, there is one squirmy scene near the end but it’s largely an off-screen event so there’s little horror to be found aside from the isolation Mara feels.  While it does provide some additional interest for me to learn about these snake handling communities, there’s not much about the film as a whole that’s worth circling back on with much consideration.

Movie Review ~ The Favourite


The Facts
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Synopsis: In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, Joe Alwyn

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The last two films from director Yorgos Lanthimos were definitely an acquired taste.  The absurdist comedy The Lobster was an unlikely groundswell art-house hit in 2015 and was followed by the pitch black (and deeply deeply depressing) family drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  Both films were co-scripted by Lanthimos and challenged audiences in ways that went beyond the simple pushing of taboo boundaries, penetrating under your skin and giving you a nagging itch for days after.  Thankfully, The Favourite, isn’t as emotionally draining as those previous efforts but it does retain Lanthimos’s particular affinity for seeing the world through an off-kilter gaze.

Set in England during the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, The Favourite drops us into the mix at a time when, unbeknownst to Anne, landowners were facing an unimaginable tax increase by the monarchy to pay for the war efforts.  Sidelined by painful gout, Anne (Olivia Colman, Murder on the Orient Express) effectively handed over her political affairs to her confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) who has her own shady behind the scenes dealings.  Though she is loyal to her queen, Sarah has gotten comfortable in her role as de facto ruler, often making decisions and seemingly effecting rules based on her own interests rather than what would be the best option for the throne of England.

Arriving to disrupt this arrangement is Abigail (Emma Stone, Aloha), Sarah’s penniless and disgraced cousin.  Abigail has come to Anne’s estate to grovel at Sarah’s hem for a job but has schemes up her sleeve much like her cousin.  Quickly rising through the ranks and catching Anne’s attention, Abigail begins to pose a threat to the plum set-up Sarah has for herself.  So begins a catty fight between the two women for Anne’s affections…much to Anne’s increasing delight.  At the same time, Abigail is pursed by a rival member of Parliament (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) seeking her help in ousting Sarah from her hold on Anne and romances a baron (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) who can expedite her ascension back into respected society.

Though screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are relative unknowns, their script for The Favourite has been bouncing around in Lanthimos’s stable for nearly a decade while he waited to secure financing for the period picture.  I’m glad it took them so long to make the film because he’s assembled a remarkable gallery of players in front of the camera and behind the scenes that gives The Favourite a sumptuous sheen and elevates it from its more soap opera-y tendencies.  It’s a bawdy film with several eye popping twists and often hysterically funny with razor sharp exchanges between Abigail and Sarah – none of it would have worked unless everyone involved wasn’t totally committed to the material.

The trio of ladies that make up the leads are sublime.  Though Stone is likely the biggest star in the group and might have the strongest arc, she wound up on the lesser side of the scale for me only because it felt like she was actively trying too hard to shoehorn herself into the period setting.  Colman is a riot as Anne, showing equal parts the vulnerability of a queen balancing a painful affliction and long-standing sorrow for numerous children she’s lost with the nastiness of a monarch that knows exactly how far her power reaches and how to wield it.  The sweet balance between Stone and Colman is Weisz giving one of her all time best performances in a career that has had many great ones.  While Sarah seems at first to be going in one direction, Weisz peels back several layers to show a different lady underneath we maybe hadn’t considered…and who might still be bad but could be the lesser of two, possibly three, evils at the end of the day.

The costumes from Sandy Powell (The Wolf of Wall Street) are gorgeous, the production design by Fiona Crombie (Macbeth) is luxurious, and the cinematography courtesy of Robbie Ryan (Philomena) has all the elements of a period drama but with modern strokes that keep the eyes always interested.  All help to strike the right mood in a film Lanthimos has divided into multiple parts, like a best-selling page-turner you can’t put down.  Like Mary Queen of Scots, The Favourite isn’t quite the history lesson you think it’s going to be when you sit down but it’s an incredibly entertaining and (best of all) surprising film that’s easily one of the most accomplished films of the year.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ London Road

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Synopsis: London Road documents the events of 2006, when the quiet rural town of Ipswich was shattered by the discovery of the bodies of five women.

Release Date: US Release TBD 2015

Thoughts: Hmm…a musical about a series of murders that plagued a London town a decade ago? Rodgers and Hammerstein, this ain’t…but I’ve had my eye on this UK show ever since I saw a clip on a documentary about the National Theatre where it was originally staged. Adapted into a feature film starring Olivia Colman (Hyde Park on Hudson, The Iron Lady) and, surprisingly, Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, Lawless) in addition to several real life residents of the London suburb this appears to be a challenging piece that delights in its unconventionality. Highly doubtful this will get much exposure in the U.S. so consider keeping your eye out for this one if/when it pops up on streaming video.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Cuban Fury

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Synopsis: A former salsa prodigy attempts a comeback years after his career was ruined.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts:  Reminding me of a movie I may have seen in the mid 90’s when Euro comedy imports were all the rage, Cuban Fury looks as harmless as all of those other films…and just as skippable.  Though stars Nick Frost (The World’s End) and Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) will probably make this a few notches better than the rest, overall I can’t see this picture becoming the kind of sleeper hit like Strictly Ballroom or The Full Monty were back in the day.  On the other hand, never underestimate the power of a feel good picture of the underdog getting its day…if the release is timed right Cuban Fury could be the very thing audiences will respond kindly to after a season of heavy Oscar material.

Movie Review ~ Hyde Park on Hudson

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of the love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley, centered around the weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of the United Kingdom visited upstate New York

Stars: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams

Director: Roger Michell

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When I was young, I used to take weekend visits to my grandparents in Preston MN and more often than not we would take what is known as a Sunday Drive.  This involved piling into some big Cadillac/Oldsmobile and just heading off in any given direction to see where the roads would take us.  A pleasant and quiet time with conversations that were soft and familiar, it wouldn’t be out of the question if you nodded off a bit.  Just as often you would perk up if something of interest flew by, your curiosity piqued.  Though you always knew the destination would lead you back to where you started, you ended up not minding that you took the time for the trip.

Hyde Park on Hudson is like those Sunday Drives of my youth.  It’s one of the thinnest slice of life tales you’re likely to come by this year, harmless and almost gone from your memory by the time you’ve reached your car.  Charting an affair between FDR (Murray) and his cousin, Daisy (Linney) around the time that the King and Queen of England made their first visit to the US, the film mostly sticks to its pre-destined path and offers little variance from its formulaic (if realistic) set-up.

The light-hearted, breezy trailer for the film belies its true dramatic thrust and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy that the film wasn’t played all for laughs.  Though the adulterous doings of the President and a family member (however distant) may cause you to wince a bit, director Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) and screenwriter Richard Nelson wisely steer clear of making that the true focus of the film.

The movie is most interesting in showing the relationships between FDR and the women in his life – Daisy, his mother (Wilson), his wife (Williams), and secretary Missy (Marvel).   These scenes work so well because Murray shows a totally different side to his acting as FDR.  I’ve long found Murray to be an aloof grump, thanks in no part to roles that only reinforce that feeling (though he was excellent in Moonrise Kingdom).  His FDR is a real career highlight and had the acting field not been so strong this year, he could have found himself with an Oscar nomination for his work.

The casting of Linney was a bit problematic – mostly because we’ve seen her do this work before in better films.  I’ve grown to like Linney less and less as the years go by, a talent that was once razor sharp feels a bit dull now and her Daisy is perhaps a bit too naïve, too forgiving for the thick skinned Linney to play convincingly.  Actually, I couldn’t get Laura Dern out of my mind when I was watching the film…she may have been a better choice.

Williams, Wilson, and especially Marvel do nice work in their supporting roles but its West and Colman as the visiting royalty that walk away with the movie.  Though they are playing characters familiar to movie goers (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter recently played them in The Kings Speech), they make their own mark on the Royals who are visiting the US in a thinly veiled plea for help with the impending war.

West and Murray share one of the best scenes of 2012 as they talk about the impairments both suffer (a stutter for the King and polio for the President) and how it affects the way the public and their wives see them.  It’s a dynamic scene that both actors play pitch perfectly with Murray delivering my favorite two lines spoken in a movie this year: “What stutter?”

I only wish there were more scenes like that in the movie.  Even at a relatively short 94 minutes, I felt the film dragged on in its own reverie a bit too much.  Cinematographer Lol Crawley does excellent work in filming what Production Designer Simon Bowles has cooked up in his period settings.  Also nice was a unique score by Jeremy Sams that captured the feel of the time and also the mood of the scenes.

Inexplicably rated R for an implied sex scene, Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t destined for the history books nor should it be.  It’s a nicely formed small bite of a film that gets its job done and nothing more.  I’d recommend it as a choice for a leisurely Sunday diversion.