Movie Review ~ Cruella

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Penniless and orphaned in London at twelve, four years later Estella runs wild through the city streets with her best friends and partners-in-(petty)-crime. When a chance encounter vaults Estella into the world of the rich and famous, however, she begins to question the existence she’s built for herself in London and wonders whether she might, indeed, be destined for more after all.

Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jamie Demetriou, John McCrea, Abraham Popoola

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As a lifelong fan of all things Disney, I must admit a certain coolness toward the canine adventures found in 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  Based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, the animated film has remained a popular title for the studio, despite having one of the most blatantly vicious villains.  A live-action remake in 1996 was just the juicy bit of rawhide star Glenn Close could sink her teeth into playing that very villainess, Cruella de Vil. So though the character still wanted puppies to make a Dalmatian coat of her own, Close’s performance somehow made Cruella less frightening and instead amped the camp.  The less said about the ill-advised 2000 sequel, the better, and you really don’t want a deep dive into the disastrous 2009 musical with its eye on Broadway that premiered in my hometown but closed on the road before the real dogs in the show had a chance to grow up and age out.

Where to go from there?  The remake had been done, the musicalization was donzo, but with Cruella still getting a fairly good reception whenever she turned up in Disney theme park shows or in television on the Disney-owned ABC’s Once Upon a Time it was clear audiences were somewhat keen to see her show up at the party.  After the success of Maleficent and its sequel, how about running old de Vil through the origin story factory and see what pops out?  To me, this sounded like an idea for the birds, not the dogs.  While Maleficient’s journey toward cursing a princess to eternal slumber might lend itself to a bit of Disney magic, where was the fun in finding out how a skunk-haired meanie developed her admiration for fur and luxury canine couture?  Not even bringing on I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie or two Oscar winning Emmas felt like it would do the trick.

Well, like a style guru who must capitulate that a checkerboard print does indeed work for all seasons, I have to say that Cruella is an absolute delight and one of Walt Disney Studios most confidently unique offerings in recent memory.  To take a villain many lovers of Disney’s animated oeuvre outright despise is a bold move to begin with, but to give her the kind of genesis the writers have (granted, it took five of them) is a wonder in and of itself.  Add to that a cast of actors that sparkle at rest and shine in action and you’re off to the races with a film that operates at full tilt for much of it’s 134-minute run time. 

An older Cruella narrates her early years when she was called Estella and Cruella was merely the name for her dark side that came out when she felt threatened or got into mischief.  Though she tries her best, Estella can’t always keep her bad side from taking over and that’s why she and her mother have to leave another school in a small village outside London and head back to the city, but not before a late-night stop at an imposing manor hosting a costume ball.  Here is where Estella takes her first steps toward life on her own and how she winds up roaming the streets of London alone, eventually meeting young pickpocket street urchins Jasper and Horace who welcome her into their makeshift home.

Years later the gang is grown-up but still at it, though Estella (Emma Stone, The Favourite) longs for a life that stimulates her passion for fashion.  Though some fancy footwork Jasper (Joel Fry, In the Earth) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, Songbird) get her in the front door for an elite department store that sells clothes by The Baroness (Emma Thompson, Late Night), London’s most chic designer.  True, it’s a janitorial job…but it’s something.  A series of right time/right place events occur, leading Estella and The Baroness to cross paths with Estella eventually joining her fashion house as their youngest designer with cutting edge ideas.  However, as she quickly learns, the demanding job comes with a price…and a very wicked boss.  Soon, an old friend Estella had locked away comes roaring back and this time Cruella isn’t going to play second fiddle to her better self. 

One need only look at the screenwriters for Cruella and a lot of what transpires in the film begins to make sense.  Writer Aline Brosh McKenna is best known for adapting The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 and there are quite a number of parallels between Cruella and that blockbuster.  There’s more than a little of that Miranda Priestly bite from Prada in Thompson’s The Baroness, though Thompson is handed even more rapid-fire one-liners and small bits of physicality that drive home her sting.  Make certain of this, Miranda Priestly is no match for The Baroness.  Then you have Steve Zissis, a long-time friend and collaborator with the Duplass brothers who are known for their quirky approach to filmmaking and fleshing out characters.  That’s evident in the supporting characters of Cruella, with a number of the secondary players far more developed than they normally would be in these types of films.  That’s how Fry, Hauser, and even Mark Strong (Shazam!) as the stoic right-hand man for The Baroness are able to sneak in and steal some small moments here and there.  Finally, Kelly Marcell worked with Thompson in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks so she knows how to write caustic one-liners for the actress and also bravely adapted the screenplay for 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey.  This experience no doubt helps with a little of that duality found in the Estella/Cruella scenes, chiefly near the film’s finale when Stone gets quite the scene that would be an 11 o’clock number if it was set to music.

Speaking of Stone, while I’ve found the actress successful in fits and spurts over the years (I still don’t agree with that Best Actress Oscar win, though, sorry!) she’s a fabulous choice to bring this classic personality to live-action life.  In her early scenes, she’s appropriately green and goofball but the more she learns of the game she has to play to get ahead, the faster she comes into focus with self-confidence.  I was nervous when her adult Cruella side first appeared because the shift is admittedly jarring, and Stone’s interpretation of Cruella’s upper-crust purr is more broad comedy than the sophisticatedly arch tones the rest of the film has been playing with.  Anything would be jostling next to Thompson though, who plays the role so brittle you expect her to crack into shards to shred anyone in her wake at any moment.  In a more creative climate, this kind of role would win Thompson an award, but the character is probably too soulless to be rewarded.

Knowing it was well over two hours going in, I tried to find places where director Gillespie might have trimmed things up, but I’m at a loss to say what could go that wouldn’t do damage to other structural parts of the story.  While it has a fairly large climax halfway through, the energy of the movie never dips.  Besides, with a driving score by Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk), wonderful production design from Fiona Crombie (Macbeth), and stunning costumes courtesy of 2-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road), there’s little reason to ever be bored – there is always something to take in.  I’d have liked to see a little less digital work in the outdoor scenes but seeing that much of Cruella was filmed on a soundstage, this was obviously unavoidable.

Parents, take note that Cruella rated PG-13 and it’s for a reason.  I’d wager it’s one of the darkest films ever released under the Walt Disney Studios logo (i.e., not Touchstone, Hollywood Films, etc) but I’m glad nothing seemed to be truly, uh, neutered.  The darker parts are meant for a more mature child, likely the ones already watching Disney Channel works that have a similar feel, like The Descendants.  If you’re one of those people that get hung up on the “dog coat” of it all, try to remember this is Disney we’re talking about.  It’s important going in to try your best to separate this movie from the 1956 film and its remake, don’t put this one in the doghouse on principle alone.  If you do, you’re going to mess a heck of a fun ride. This is a highly enjoyable endeavor, well worth the cost of renting it for a family night on Disney+ with Premier Access.

Movie Review ~ Silk Road

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The true story of Ross Ulbricht, the charismatic young tech-mastermind who unleashed the darknet website Silk Road, and the corrupt DEA agent determined to bring down his billion-dollar empire.

Stars: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Daniel David Stewart, Alexandra Shipp, Paul Walter Hauser, Jimmi Simpson, Lexi Rabe, Katie Aselton, Will Ropp, Jennifer Yun, Paul Blott

Director: Tiller Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: A handful of movies every year feel like some kind of oddball homework assignment you would have been given in school and been grateful for at the time but serves no purpose outside of a classroom teaching modern history.  You go into the movie knowing what the meaning of it all is and at least hoping to get some entertainment value out of it for the time you’re putting in.  Usually, there’s one of two performances to draw some memorable moments from or genuine unknown knowledge that can be pocketed as takeaway trivia for your next night with intellectuals as a way to impress them.  The wish and hope always is that it’s not just a bland rehash of the facts you could have quickly skimmed a magazine article about that’s been dramatized for effect.  

Released in February but totally blown down by review queue by accident, Silk Road is sadly one of those films that is never written into your memory at any point and therefore winds up being an eternal “Did I See That?” title you’ll likely watch the first ten minutes of repeatedly before realizing you’ve seen it before and turn it off.  Even writing a review some three months after seeing it I’m straining to remember some basic details so in a way it’s lucky writer/director Tiller Russell’s film isn’t creative in its storytelling and largely sticks to the order of events.  Adapting Rolling Stone columnist David Kushner 2014 article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall”, Russell’s only gutsy instinct is to give the film a bookended framework meant to create some suspense, though if you’ve ever watched a weekly procedural television show you know where it’s all headed.  And those are works of fiction. 

The film follows the rise of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, Shadow in the Cloud), a Texas native that initially started a book selling business online but eventually moved into the trafficking of illegal narcotics once his first endeavor failed.  Realizing he needed a stronger network to move his product, protect his customers, and safeguard his money, Ulbricht was a largely self-taught internet whiz that would up creating a piece of the dark web that traded in cryptocurrencies known as Silk Road.  Starting out small potatoes and winding up owning the whole crop, Ulbricht was the target of numerous government investigations both overt and behind the scenes as they searched for ways to prove his participation in Silk Road which began to attract all sorts of sordid business dealings. 

One person that became obsessed with tracking him down is DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, Pet Sematary), or, more to the point, Bowden serves as an amalgam of two different agents that tracked Ulbricht over the years.  Watching Clarke’s twitchy performance, it often feels like he’s playing two characters as well, with the actor never truly settling into the role and instead overcompensating for his discomfort by going big with everything he does.  Clarke is better than this and I honestly don’t know what he’s going for. Bowden comes across not just merely out of the loop on current tech matters but computer illiterate to the point of not knowing how to turn one on. The way Clarke pitches Bowden as on hair-trigger edge makes him feel like more of the villain of the piece than Ulbricht could ever be. 

Of course, Ulbricht is the villain and while Robinson has often been quite likable in previous roles he’s neither likable nor gives reason to root against him either.  We’re just indifferent to seeing another privileged white male float up the ranks in a origin story that feels similar in many ways to Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as portrayed in The Social Network.  Like that Oscar winning film, Ulbricht loses all of his friends and personal romantic relationships on his ascent but then realizes he likes it better being successful because he can replace people with more agreeable cronies.  The character is so aggravating that it goes beyond us not liking Ulbricht, the smarminess in Ulbricht and within Bowden makes the entire watch just drag on endlessly. 

If the low spot of the film is Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) as an early Ulbricht recruit (can I just ask something? What in the world is Hauser doing with his career that was only going up?  Performances like this, which feature him once again playing a slovenly male, support a stereotype he needs to avoid) then the bright spot is Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Dark Phoenix). Playing Ulbricht’s girlfriend, she sticks around as long as she can until she becomes excess baggage that needs to be jettisoned along with other non-essential items.  Shipp understands how to make an impression with limited screen time and I wished we had more time with her. 

A trip down the Silk Road is not a journey you’d have to make.  Instead, why not read the well-researched Kushner article right here and get the facts yourself.  It’s just like watching the movie anyway.  I had honestly expected something better from Russell having just come off of watching his fantastic (and fantastically creepy) Netflix miniseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.  While it does have some nice touches visually, dramatically this one doesn’t even make it out of the driveway. 

Movie Review ~ Songbird (2020)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 2024 a pandemic ravages the world and its cities. Centering on a handful of people as they navigate the obstacles currently hindering society: disease, martial law, quarantine, and vigilantes.

Stars: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser, Craig Robinson, Peter Stormare

Director: Adam Mason

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve boo-hoo-ed enough on here about how much I miss the experience of going to the theaters and cherishing that feeling of sitting in a darkened movie house with a packed crowd waiting for something exciting to happen.  What I don’t think I’ve spoken of is the flip side to that, the exasperation of dragging yourself out of the house after a long day of work (yes, some of us have to keep that day job), battling traffic and often out of the way theaters, and then getting a turkey of a film for your efforts.  That’s likely why so many critics get such a bee in their bonnet over not that bad films…it’s just because they were annoyed they left their house for a middle of the road piffle that was neither here nor there.

That’s why it’s been nice to not have to leave the house while watching a stinker, you literally can roll over and go to sleep if you want when it’s over; or, in the case of the dreary Sometimes Always Never, wake up first, brush your teeth, and then go to bed.  So should you happen to get the urge to commit some electronic funds to the el dweeb-o new Michael Bay produced pandemic thriller Songbird upon its release, you won’t be kicking yourself for wasting precious gas money for the round trip out to the theater.

The first movie to shoot in L.A. since the onslaught of COVID-19 shut down most Hollywood films, Songbird is an odd duck of a film that never can quite decide what it wants to be.  Shot in 19 days over the summer of 2020 and coming under early scrutiny for kinda-maybe-probably not adhering to all the health protocols put in place while filming, writer/director Adam Mason aims for a sort of ensemble feel but winds up with no one story or character that’s interesting enough to invest in.  Even worse, timely as it may be, there’s something just a tad ugly about releasing a film via Paid Video on Demand about the continued deaths attributed to COVID-23 right as many are in lockdown and facing a dark winter ahead.

In 2024, over 100 million people have died from the spread of COVID-23 which continues to mutate and is airborne.  Half of all people who contract it will die but there are a rare few that have proven to be immune to the virus, bearers of a coveted yellow bracelet that goes for big bucks on the black market. These people can roam free outdoors, though there’s not much out there to be living for.  Instead, the majority of the population exist behind glass walls and UV cleansing spaces where they receive items from the outside and take their temperature daily through an app and pray it doesn’t detect a virus.  Should they fail their test, armed guards come to take them and everyone in their house to quarantine zone (Q-Zone) from which no one returns.

Mason introduces a wealth of characters in quick order, keeping his eye on the 85-minute run time that is swiftly ticking away.  There’s bike messenger Nico (KJ Apa) who works for Lester (Craig Robinson, Dolittle) making deliveries to wealthy families like the Griffins (Demi Moore, About Last Night and Bradley Whitford, Saving Mr. Banks).  The Griffins make their money selling those yellow immune bracelets to high-paying friends and are in business with the shady head of the Sanitation Department (Peter Stormare, Clown) who doubles as the one that comes to cart people away to the Q-Zones.  Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) plays a wheelchair bound vet and associate of Lester’s who takes time in between flying his drone to follow aspiring singer May (Alexandra Daddario, We Summon the Darkness) on social media.  May, meanwhile, has a connection to one of the above-mentioned individuals that’s a bit of a spoiler so I’ll keep that one secret to myself.

That’s enough plot for most two hour films but Mason isn’t quite done – we’re not even into the main plotline yet.  Nico loves Sara (Sofia Carson) who he’s never met but talks to from behind her apartment door where she lives with her grandmother.  With their plans on starting a new life together if/when a cure is found, the Romeo + Juliet parallels are hard to miss, but it’s too bad that Apa and Carson don’t have a chemistry that could keep some sort of fire burning between the two.  When Sara’s safety is threatened, Nico has to find a way to get her out of the city before she winds up in a Q-Zone of no return…and to do that he’ll have to use his connections and resources in a short amount of time.  Ditching his bike for a motorcycle (what is this, Premium Rush?), Nico races around a danger zone of a city to avoid being caught by double-crossing government agents and making it back to Sara before she’s gone forever.

It almost feels at times that Songbird was made long before Hollywood was shut down and the filmmakers went back in post-production to overlay the words COVID in place of whatever random disease name was previously there.  Despite being sold as a pandemic thriller, there’s very little in the way of actual thrills on display and once you realize this is all going to be about finding a way for Nico and Sara to be together the interest just empties from the film in a flash.  At first, I was pulled in a bit at Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes set-up and though I shudder at the thought of our current lock-down extending, gulp, another four years the film presented at least a visually impressive view of a Los Angeles ravaged by a mass exodus.  The longer it plays, the more I grew bored with it because the characters are so bland and there are just so dang many of them.

Leads Apa and Carson are charming enough holding solo scenes to themselves but not totally ready to carry their own film yet, even forgettable fare like this.  You can see Apa possibly developing into a decent boyfriend character for a popular star down the road but not this type of nervy action hero…it’s not for him.  Carson was the better of the two on the whole, though Mason doesn’t know quite what to do with her; once she’s put in peril she becomes that sad standard female that needs saving.  I quite liked Moore as a ballsy take-charge mama bear protecting her immune-compromised daughter but when she ditches subtlety toward the end the character gets away from her.  Hauser and Daddario have worthlessly thankless parts and they know it, the less said about their awkward conversations about war, the better.  At this point, I’m not ever sure how to classify what Stormare is doing…it’s so kooky and weird that I guess in some way it works almost by accident, but this is a well he’s returned to so many times that he’s just repeating old hat characters now and collecting a paycheck.

Blessedly skipping a run in theaters and heading straight to streaming, I’m not sure how many people unable to visit their favorite local small business or go to a restaurant are going to want to watch a film about an endless plague with no hope in sight.  No time would really be right for this but is the second week of December really the best choice they could come up with?  Watch, it will snow real soon and you’ll be tempted to watch Songbird (by the way, the title makes no sense whatsoever.  What. So. Ever.) when it’s bleak and horrible out.  And you’ll feel worse after.  Don’t take the bait.  This tune is foul.

Movie Review ~ Richard Jewell

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: American security guard, Richard Jewell, heroically saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is unjustly vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist.

Stars: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  First off, let me say that I hope by the time I’m 89 years old I can remain as active and involved as Clint Eastwood has.  At a time when many of his contemporaries have taken their leave of Hollywood or reduced their profile, Eastwood is still going strong and managing to remain a prolific filmmaker.  Not only does he manage to keep making movies, but with a few minor exceptions they are often quite profitable at the box office.  So studios are clamoring for his time because he can do a lot with a little and actors want to work with him for his laid-back style and easy-going nature.  His time as an actor has made him a rather dependable director, even if he’s not always the most exciting or obvious choice.

Remember last year when The Mule was feared by so many awards pundits that saw it looming at the edges of the holiday release schedule?  Eastwood had been known before to swoop in at the last minute and upset a locked-in season…at least that’s what all these podcasters would have you believe.  That only happened once, with Million Dollar Baby and ever since then anytime an Eastwood movie quietly sneaks into theaters in late December without screening far in advance everyone gets worried it will be another scenario where the film will open and blow everything else out of the water.  It almost happened again with American Sniper, it definitely didn’t happen with The Mule (which was actually kind of interesting in a weird way), and it’s not likely to occur with Richard Jewell…though it’s already created a few waves.

I have to admit that while I was familiar with the name Richard Jewell, I had forgotten the actual details of the events and eventual outcome surrounding the 1996 bombing that occurred in Atlanta during their Summer Olympics.  I made a point not to refresh my memory before attending the screening so I could take the movie at narrative face value and look up the nitty gritty details later – otherwise I’d be spending the majority of my time noting the liberties screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) took with the facts of the case.  Based in part on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner with some material also culled from an investigative book, Ray appears to be simpatico with Eastwood in his desire to explore the breakdown of due process by the government and news media.

After struggling to maintain a position in local law enforcement, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) was working as a security guard in Centennial Park on July 27, 1996 when he saw a suspicious backpack left unattended.  Known for being an overzealous stickler that excites easily, his colleagues and police officers on duty don’t pay much attention until looking closer and finding Jewell’s hunch wasn’t off the mark.  An anonymous call into 911 warned of an impending detonation and though Jewell and others try to clear the area as best they can, the bomb goes off to devastating effect.

Hailed as a hero and becoming an overnight minor celebrity, the bright lights turn dark quickly for Jewell when a former employer notifies the FBI of his erratic behavior in the past.  When information on Jewell becoming a suspect is leaked by a top agent (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm) to a local news reporter (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect) and she in turn runs the story on the front page, it soon becomes national news.  While his mother (Kathy Bates, A Home Of Our Own) watches helplessly, Jewell is vilified in the press and hounded by federal agents and it’s only when he calls on Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, Vice) that he starts to find some solid ground to fight back on.

You don’t have to dig too deep into Richard Jewell to see Eastwood passing down a condemnation on the clumsy way this was handled and it’s true that Jewell was done a great disservice.  All he ever wanted to do was be in law enforcement and it’s a bit of a cruel joke that he was railroaded with no real purpose.  More than anything, Eastwood comes down like a twenty ton anvil on the news media and, in particular, the sensationalist journalism that prints first and asks questions later.  It’s a huge problem for Richard Jewell the person and it’s become a huge problem for Richard Jewell the motion picture.

The issue stems from the portrayal of Wilde’s character, Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs.  Scruggs is shown to be a wildcat reporter that shows up for work looking hungover and mussed, dressed like Erin Brockovich.  Standing in stark contrast to the other mumsy women that work in the office she claims are jealous of her and the stories she gets, Scruggs is later shown trading sex for stories, something her co-workers and family object strongly to.  Ray even has her indicate she’s not that good of a writer, imploring a desk reporter to do the majority of the work for her.  While Wilde turns in her best performance in years as Scruggs, it’s unfortunate she’s doing it in such a fish eye-d lens of a male gazed upon character.  Scruggs was a real person and the various men she rubs up against are fictitious creations serving as stand-in amalgams for others, so it feels a bit shameful to denigrate her by name only, especially considering the real life Scruggs passed away in 2001 and isn’t here to defend herself.

That problematic slice of the film aside, I found myself oddly compelled by Richard Jewell and I think it’s largely due to the lead performances of Hauser and Rockwell.  Both are so invested in their roles that for one of the rare times this year I was able to set aside previous roles they’ve played and let them inhabit these characters here and now.  It’s easier for Hauser to do that because he’s had less roles but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing some complex work – while he’s done the simpleton act to perfection before there’s a graceful edge he gives Jewell that elevates this above those other roles.  Rockwell is getting good at playing fired up and Eastwood gives him a long leash to play, to often pleasing results.  Together, the two men share some well-worked scenes that have a real ring of truth.

As is the case with most Eastwood films, the supporting cast is a mixture of faces familiar and new.  I still want to go on record and say that Hamm is absolutely 100% in no way a movie star and he demonstrates here again why that is.  There’s just a limited range for him to play and even when given a role with some darker edges he can’t quite find the right shade.  The real buzz from the movie is with the performance of Bates and while I always like seeing her onscreen, like Laura Dern in Marriage Story this is one of those “It’s fine, I guess” turns that don’t seem that huge of stretch from an actress we already know can do wonders.  If anything, I liked Nina Arianda (Stan & Ollie) as Bryant’s no-nonsense secretary more than the rest.  Even saddled with a hideous wig and not much meaningful dialogue, she has a presence in every scene she turns up in.

I fully know I fell a bit under Eastwood’s “stick it to ‘em!” spell of an approach but I didn’t find myself filled with a lot of regret in the act.  Eastwood and I don’t agree on a lot of things but we seem to agree that Jewell was mightily wronged.  I can see this movie appealing to a particular crowd of folks and being considered complete troublemaking propaganda to another – but at least it creates a dialogue.  I’d rather have a movie like Richard Jewell come out with its clear message (whether you want to hear it or not) that gets people talking than something you see and forget about instantly.

Movie Review ~ Late Night


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A late-night talk-show host suspects that she may soon lose her long-running show.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, Denis O’Hare, John Early, Max Casella

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you want to start your Oscar season early, it’s always a good idea to keep track of the film festivals that start to roll out in the first half of the year.  Though the more prestige films usually premiere at the international festivals in the fall, a few notable movies often will first see the light of day at South by Southwest in Austin and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.  This year, South by Southwest held the first screenings of Us and Booksmart while Sundance had, among others, The Mustang, Apollo 11, and Late NightLate Night turned out to be the big news coming out of Sundance, namely because it was purchased for distribution by Amazon Studios for an eye-popping $13 million dollars.

Quickly positioning the movie as a breezy summer comedy antidote to the ear-shattering blockbusters playing in the theater next door, Amazon has wisely learned from the mistakes of Booksmart’s too wide/too fast release and is releasing Late Night in waves.  This is helping to generate good buzz for the movie, bolstered further on the positive word of mouth it has received from audiences and critics.  Drawing justified comparisons to Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada, Late Night is a mostly entertaining film that plays off its formulaic skeleton well but also succumbs to the trappings of the genre more often than it should.

After nearly three decades as the only female host of a late-night television show, Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson, Beauty and the Beast) is seeing a steep drop in her ratings.  The new network head honcho (Amy Ryan, Beautiful Boy) has given her word her contact won’t be renewed and attributed it not just to the ratings but to how out of touch Katherine is with the rest of the world and the changing face of media.  Accused of not being an ally to other women, Katherine makes a last-ditch effort to save her show by hiring Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, A Wrinkle in Time) to come onboard as the first female writer on the all-male writing team.

Coming from working at a chemical plant as an efficiency expert, Molly has no experience in television, let alone a writers room.  Using her background to assess the shows weakness and strengths, she passes that along to Katherine and her fellow writers who don’t take kindly to the outsider telling them how to run their show.  As with all of these workplace comedies, there’s the typical hazing at the outset followed by gradual appreciation for Molly’s talent, and eventual acceptance as their equal.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it’s in the delivery that sets it apart from the rest.

Much of this credit goes to Kaling’s script which is sharp, insightful, funny, and obviously gleaned from her years as the only female writer on NBC’s The Office.  The relationship she creates between Katherine and Molly is genuinely interesting to watch and goes beyond the expected pathway of the dragon lady boss tormenting her meek staff member (though we do get a little of that in the beginning) and forms something more solid.  The movie really crackles when Thompson and Kaling share the screen, be it in arguing over a joke at the writers table or Katherine entering Molly’s territory to see what the lives are like for her staff when they go home.

It’s when the movie branches out to other characters that it gets a little unwieldy.  Kaling has a good track record with hiring her friends and it seems like she wrote parts for a lot of them in this movie.  This creates an overload of people, many of them serving the same purpose.  Though Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya), John Early (The Disaster Artist), and Max Casella (Jackie) make nice contributions here, I can easily imagine their roles being absorbed into other characters to help the movie not feel so weighed down with white guys angling for one-liners.

Though it’s positioned as a two-hander, the more I think about Late Night the more I feel this is really Thompson’s movie with Kaling as a supporting role.  To that end, Thompson is excellent as a woman of a certain age who was a trailblazer before becoming complacent.  We never do know why Katherine started to turn her back on her show (though, from what I could tell, it wasn’t that funny to begin with) but Thompson gives us an inside perspective into her initial shock at realizing she is being replaced and figuring out a way to move forward and reclaiming what is rightfully hers.  Kaling is a supportive co-star and, as always, abdicates the spotlight whenever possible to allow her fellow actors to shine.  While she has a great many funny lines, she doesn’t keep all the zingers to herself or Thompson but spreads them around the room generously.  More than anything, I was annoyed that Kaling felt the need to insert a love story into the mix of all of this because it’s so shoe-horned in.  I’m glad she was able to get Reid Scott (Venom) and Hugh Dancy (Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return) into the creative mix here but they feel like distractions from the story the movie is really wanting to tell which is the relationship between Katherine and Molly.  That the script continues to weave in other people becomes frustrating as the film progresses.

On a podcast I was listening to after seeing this someone wondered if this wouldn’t have worked a little better as a multi episode series on some streaming service and I couldn’t help but agree.  Too much of the movie felt compacted into the trim running time, leaving out key ingredients such as more of a backstory for Molly (a random cousin pops up for two scenes and is never heard from again) or more time to get to know the home life of Katherine and her husband (John Lithgow, Pitch Perfect 3).  Even with these nitpicks aside, this is a movie worth your time for Thompson’s performance alone.

The Silver Bullet ~ Late Night

Synopsis: A late-night talk show host is at risk of losing her long-running show right when she hires her first female who revitalizes her show and her life.

Release Date: June 7, 2019

Thoughts: Movie nerds like myself who keep their ear to the ground (or, more to the point, keep up to date with their podcasts) heard the buzziest film to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Late Night, the comedy written by Mindy Kaling and starring Emma Thompson. Snapped up by Amazon for a June release, Late Night features Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as an icy late night talk show host on the decline and Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time) as her new (and first) female writer.  There’s a little The Devil Wears Prada feel to this first look and I’m not hating it, but I can also tell the movie will have something more to say than just acerbic quips delivered with panache by Thompson.  I’m mostly hoping the movie can follow through with an awards-worthy performance from Thompson and make good on its festival buzz when larger crowds get a look in early summer.

Movie Review ~ BlacKkKlansman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan and became the head of the local chapter.

Stars: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though he’s often scored high marks with critics, it’s been a long time since director Spike Lee (Chi-Raq) had an outright commercial hit and with the release of BlacKkKlansman Lee finally seemed to be in position to have a movie that would cross that line.  Though the box office for the movie didn’t catch on like it very well should have, BlacKkKlansman still represents Lee’s most commercial work in years and is entertaining as all get out.

The story behind BlacKkKlansman is almost too bizarre to be true.  In Colorado in the early ‘70s, black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) goes undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan with the assistance of his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, Midnight Special).  Through a unique and increasingly dangerous set-up, Stallworth communicates with the local KKK leaders on the phone while Zimmerman poses as Stallworth whenever they need to meet in person.  Stallworth even befriends David Duke (Topher Grace, American Ultra) the Grand Wizard of the KKK and the two engage in lengthy phone conversations before ever meeting face to face.

At the same time, Stallworth becomes involved with the president of the Colorado black student union (Laura Harrier, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and their relationship becomes entwined with the dealings not only with his undercover investigation with the KKK but within his own police force.  When Duke sets up a trip to Colorado to personally initiate Stallworth as a member of the KKK, Stallworth and Zimmerman’s investigation intensifies as suspicions within the hate group start to mount.

Lee’s cast crackles with energy and keeps the movie moving through a slightly slow first twenty minutes.  It takes that long to establish some characters and get Stallworth moving from new recruit to establishing himself as an undercover officer heading up his own investigation.  Once he makes that first phone call to the KKK and sets into motion the sting operation, the film moves like a locomotive toward its conclusion that propels us from a flawed past to a complicated present and uncertain future.

Movie Review ~ I, Tonya


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Mckenna Grace, Bojana Novakovic, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  As I triple-axel my way ever closer to middle age, I’ve started to notice something all-together irritating.  Recently I’ve begun to see that movies based on real events have become less of an educational opportunity for me but more of a memory-jogging excursion into my teenage years.  Yes, I’m getting so old that I can actually remember where I was when Princess Diana died, when O.J. Simpson took that famous joyride in the white Bronco, and I definitely, 100% remember where I was during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Like most of America, I was glued to the tube watching not just the stunning athleticism on display but wondering how the drama of the previous months was going to play out.  We’ll get back to that because while ardent fans will remember who skated their way to the gold, silver, and bronze this is, after all, a spoiler-free blog and the events leading up to these Olympic games are the climax of I, Tonya.

I’ll admit going into I, Tonya with a little prejudice not just toward its subject but also it’s star.  Over the years the name Tonya Harding was equated with the horrible attack on her colleague and competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  While the tabloids were busy painting Harding as an evil conspirator, the makers of I, Tonya (including star and executive producer Margot Robbie) are more interested in showing the genesis of the famed figure skater, her struggle to the top, and her mighty (and maybe ultimately unjustified) fall from grace.

Framed by a series of interviews inspired by the words of the actual people involved, I, Tonya takes a while to stand on its own.  At first the narrative device gives the film a cheapness that isn’t helped by stars Robbie (as Harding) and Sebastian Stan (as her ex-husband Jeff Gilloly) laboring under some troublesome make-up, wigs, and facial hair to age them into their early ‘40s.  It’s when writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) do away with the tell vs. show method and cease with the random breaking of the fourth wall that the movie scores major points and takes on a life of its own.

Skating through Harding’s early years as a child phenom pushed by her chain-smoking foul-mouthed domineering monster mother LaVona (Allison Janney, The Way Way Back) into her adolescence and early marriage to the abusive Gilloly, all of the standard biopic bases are covered.  Harding comes from less than ideal circumstances and soon learns that handmade costumes and skating programs set to rock music aren’t going to win her a place in the hearts of the judges.  Looking for a more wholesome specimen to represent the world at the Olympics, the judges score Harding lower than her peers even though it’s well known she could skate rings around them.  There’s two great scenes where Harding confronts the judges, one ends with Harding hurling a gem of vulgarity and the other that makes you feel even more sorry for the young woman that just wants to be recognized for her ability, not her perceived personality shortcomings.

Harding was surrounded by people that wanted her to succeed not for her benefit but for theirs above all else.  LaVona looks to her daughter to be the bread-winner and save her from her life as a waitress, Gilloly obsessively loved his wife but couldn’t handle her need for independence after being brow-beaten by her mother and abandoned by her father.  Then there’s Gilloly’s friend and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) who hatches a jokey plan for psychological warfare on Harding’s foes that ultimately became the plot to injure Kerrigan.

I’ve struggled mightily with Robbie ever since she broke onto the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and there’s always a feeling of potential that’s never fully embraced.  While she received much attention for her role as Harley Quinn in the odious Suicide Squad and biffed it earlier in 2017 with Goodbye Christopher Robin, here she made me a believer in the accolades she’s garnered for playing Harding.  Early scenes feel awkward as the Australian Robbie adopts a trailer trash slack drawl but she eventually finds her groove, leading to a supremely satisfying turn in the final ¼ of the movie.  There’s a short scene with her attempting to put on her game face (literally) in a mirror that alone should get her an Oscar nomination.

Robbie’s ably supported by Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Janney, the latter of which goes all out as a nightmare of a woman that doesn’t have a motherly instinct in her body.  Her justification of why she behaves the way she does toward her daughter is hysterical, enlightening, and very very sad.  Playing her first coach and one of her only true allies, Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is also a strong presence in the film.  Though Robbie and Janney are getting the awards attention, for my money Hauser’s dimwit bodyguard is the one that needs a bigger spotlight for his deliriously droll performance.  It may look easy to do but his excellent timing and perfectly pitched physicality is more memorable for me than anything else.

It’s not all rosy for I, Tonya though.  Relying on some wince-inducing soundtrack choices that are far too on the nose, Gillespie throttles into his audience with too many asides to cameras and leaps back and forth in time.  While Robbie can skate, the scenes where she’s recreating Harding’s famously difficult performances are done using a double with Robbie’s face unconvincingly digitally inserted over the stand-in.  This never, ever, looks good and too often produces laughs as it seems Robbie’s face and the skater’s body are playing two different emotions.

Yet for all its wobbly construction issues I was left reeling by the committed performances and that’s what pushes this one ahead into something worth seeking out.  I’m almost positive this is the best we’ll see Robbie for a while so I’d advise to strike while the iron’s hot and see what all the fuss is about.  While Janney is wonderfully acerbic, I’d favor Laurie Metcalf’s equally troubling mother in Lady Bird over this performance if I was forced to choose in an Oscar pool.  This one might not get a perfect score, but in uncovering more about Harding than most people have seen, it gets top marks.

The Silver Bullet ~ I, Tonya

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Release Date: December 8, 2017

Thoughts: Well this looks like a wild ride. The brouhaha surrounding the infamous conspiracy involving figure skater Tonya Harding’s involvement in the injury of her competitor Nancy Kerrigan was the stuff of tabloid dreams.  Over the years Harding has faded from the public eye but  I, Tonya aims to drudge up events that have been on ice for some time.  Directed by Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours), while the movie looks like a black comedy at its bleakest and darkest (I get shades of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, no?), I’ve already heard buzz that it’s one you’re either going to get a huge kick out of or feel like you need a shower after to wash away the mean grime the film leaves on you.  I’m still nowhere near sold on the overall impact of Margot Robie (Exhibit A: Goodbye Christopher Robin) but if the Oscar rumors are true about co-star Allison Janney (Minions) then all shall be forgiven…for now.