Movie Review ~ The Good House

The Facts:

Synopsis: A wry New England realtor’s compartmentalized life begins to unravel as she rekindles a romance with her old high-school flame and becomes dangerously entwined in one person’s reckless behavior.
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney
Director: Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review:  Sigourney Weaver is one of our great actresses and undoubtedly one that should have an Oscar on her mantle by now. For her blistering work in Aliens, the 1986 sequel to her 1979 career-changing breakout Alien, she received the first of her Best Actress nominations for taking her lone survivor part up another level, pairing a fully-realized dramatic role with an action heroine. Two years later, her next nomination for Gorillas in the Mist gave viewers the opportunity to get to know the work of a primatologist who wasn’t afraid to be disliked for conserving the mountain gorillas she felt compelled to protect. That same year, she easily could have walked away with Best Supporting Actress for her wicked turn as the boss from hell in Working Girl. She might have taken it if she had not been nominated for Best Actress. 

Throughout her career, Weaver has been a dependable presence and, more importantly, a game contributor to whatever project she signs onto. That’s allowed her to work in multiple genres with many directors that have used her well. She’s even at the point of making cameo appearances and receiving the rapturous reception that indicates the level of appreciation the movie-going public has for her. When the time is right, and the role is just so, you get the feeling that her awards run will be a swift victory.

I’m not sure how much The Good House was intended to be positioned to get Weaver into the race, but this will not get her over the finish line. Based on Ann Leary’s 2013 bestseller, the film was initially set up to star Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro. I remember this announcement well because I tracked down the book and had it on my bookshelf for a few years until Streep dropped out and the project fell silent. With Weaver recruited to star alongside her previous two-time co-star Kevin Kline, the New England seriocomedy fell into the hands of directors Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky, who had directed films separately before but never together.

That individuality of style becomes skittishly apparent after a breezy opening suggesting The Good House might be a charming bit of matinee fun, especially for fans of Weaver and Kline. The setting is picturesque, the script by Thomas Bezucha (Let Him Go) and the directors has a crackle to it, and the faint suggestion of the supernatural is enough to draw you in quickly. Weaver is Hildy Good, the top real estate agent in her little hamlet, providing for herself, often supporting her two adult children, and staying abreast of all the goings on (i.e., gossip) in town. If someone is moving out, she knows why and she has the scoop on any newcomers seeking the perfect place to call home.

Sharing office space with a therapist (Rob Delaney, Home Sweet Home Alone) who is considering switching gears to a busier metropolis, Hildy has a prospective new listing to focus on and a potential new friend in an unhappily married housewife (Morena Baccarin, Last Looks) who has only recently arrived. Then there’s Frank Getchell (Kline, The Starling), a jack-of-all-trades handyman and former flame who lives close by and might still hold the same brand of blazing torch Hildy has been secretly keeping for him. Plus, Hildy has a gift for mind-reading, a talent she’s happy to oblige when asked to bring out at dinner parties.

All of this presentation of normalcy is a glazed veneer for what’s underneath the surface of Hildy’s carefully structured life, and it’s peeking below this shell where audiences should find the good stuff in The Good House. Instead, it’s where the most significant weaknesses lie. That’s when we notice Weaver working furiously to drum up cohesion with the actors assigned to play her ex-husband and two daughters. There’s no interplay to suggest any of these people have ever met, let alone were married or were a parent to the actresses assigned as their children. 

This large discrepancy becomes key when more of the plot is revealed, including Hildy’s alcoholism. The film shifts from Hildy trying to keep her life in line to Hildy literally trying to say within the lines of the road. While Sigourney Weaver (Copycat) has perhaps one of the cinema’s most fantastic takes to the camera during an intervention that becomes more about the people intervening than anything, the shift in tone is so jarring and breaks the tranquil spell we were under that the movie never recovers. Not even with the sweet romance between Hildy and Frank and certainly not in the film’s latter half when infidelity, blackout drinking, and townspeople with moods that change on dime start to overwhelm Weaver’s strong performance.

Unfortunately, Forbes and Wolodarsky couldn’t tighten all this up more; there are about five extraneous characters for every one we want to invest time in. There’s genuinely something living in The Good House at the beginning I wanted to see more of. Weaver is always worth the effort, and it’s never a bad day at the movies when Kline is playing it free and easy. Their scenes together are by far the best, even though the script has Weaver hysterically (embarrassingly?) telling a pot-smoking Kline to “put down that jazz cabbage.” At least we won’t have to wait long for more Weaver; she’ll be seen soon in Avatar: The Way of Water and Call Jane.

 

Movie Review ~ Gigi & Nate

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young man’s life is turned upside down because a near-fatal illness leaves him a quadriplegic. Moving forward seems near impossible until he meets his unlikely service animal, Gigi – a curious and intelligent capuchin monkey.
Stars: Marcia Gay Harden, Charlie Rowe, Josephine Langford, Zoe Colletti, Hannah Riley, Jim Belushi, Diane Ladd
Director: Nick Hamm
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 114 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  When I go to the movies now, I miss as many previews as possible because they give away so much of the coming attractions they are advertising. (Don’t believe me? Check out the trailers for The Invitation or Ticket to Paradise, and tell me what more the movie has to offer.)  If I happen to be subject to the previews, I’ll divert my eyes or cover my ears to absorb as little as I can, but I recently made the exception when I was in an IMAX theater, and the trailer for Gigi & Nate came flashing across the screen. I’m a sucker for a cute monkey movie, and I “ooohed” and “aahhed” along with the rest of the audience there to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I didn’t expect much from the film, which looked serviceable at best, sentimental sap at its worst, but the monkey was in it, so I was sold.

Oh, those previews, they will get you every time!

Gigi & Nate is a perfectly fine film that will reach its target audience and hit them right in the sweet spot. It’s competently made and features an appealing cast that gets the job done without sullying any reputation along the way. It lacks the drive to be more than its plot description and the will to change stories about overcoming significant obstacles from a small screen feel to big screen achievements. Adorable monkeys may get the butts in the seats but using them as a device to entice in a film that questions the morality of using wild animals for service feels a bit tuneless. Throw in the more questionable use of a non-disabled actor to play a person with quadriplegia in a business consistently accused of discrimination, and the family friendliness starts to fade. You start to think less about Gigi & Nate and more about right and wrong.

Eh, pish-posh.

That’s the critic’s brain diving deep into this account inspired by a real story of a boy who lost the use of his body below the neck after an infection and the service animal who assisted him in finding a new outlook on his life situation. I think we can dial it back a bit and take the movie for what it is, a ‘means-well’ take on an oft-told tale, like Penguin Bloom did just a year ago on Netflix. In that film, Naomi Watts was ‘rescued’ by a cute penguin, but in Gigi & Nate, Charlie Rowe (Rocketman) plays Nate Gibson, who is with his family on a 4th of July celebration at their lake home when he develops an infection that becomes life-threatening.

Flashing forward, we see Nate in a wheelchair living in a specially designed guest cottage behind his parent’s house as he struggles to adjust to his new reality. A suicide attempt leads his tiger mom (a wild-wigged Marcia Gay-Harden, Moxie) to follow through on her promise to pursue locating a service animal for her son, to the dismay of his father (James Belushi, Wonder Wheel). The latter doesn’t understand how a monkey will make things better…until the movie determines its time for him to learn. The arrival of Gigi (played by Allie, the monkey) means changes for the household, which includes another at-home sister, a wise old granny (Diane Ladd, Joy), a dog, and the occasional visit from a college-age sister and her boyfriend whenever an added dose of tension is needed.

It takes longer than you might think to get our title stars together. While we see Gigi at the film’s beginning as she is rescued from a rundown roadside attraction, the monkey goes missing for a decent amount of time as we are introduced to Nate and his family. There’s so much of this groundwork (adding to the film’s lengthy run time) that you almost forget the monkey is part of the mix until she’s introduced about halfway through. Even then, she has little to do, and this is not a movie that trades on riotous passages of monkey mayhem. Unless you count a raucous party scene where Gigi has one too many…  It all climaxes in a big legal drama where everyone says the right words most compellingly, yet strangely you feel unmoved. 

Not quite a family film, considering its PG-13 rating and adult subject matter, I wonder who the audience for Gigi & Nate will ultimately be. I think there’s value in the story being told, but I wish director Nick Hamm had found a way to use an actual actor in a wheelchair for the role of Nate. It would bring a different authenticity to the piece and give it a purpose that extends past its feeling of sameness. That’s no slight against Rowe, who does what he can with a limited-range role, often upstaged by the monkey (even the CGI one), but at least he has Harden to work with because she improves any scene. Not worth tossing out of the cage, but it won’t stick around long in your heart either.

Movie Review ~ Emily the Criminal

The Facts:

Synopsis: Down on her luck and saddled with debt, Emily gets involved in a credit card scam that pulls her into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, ultimately leading to deadly consequences.
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon
Director: John Patton Ford
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Actors can frustrate you after a while when you see them toiling away in roles and projects that aren’t taking full advantage of their talent. Some of that is due to getting comfortable in that well-paying pigeonhole, but it takes real guts stepping away from what is reliable and leap into the unknown. Make the wrong choice, and you could become a joke for being perceived as reaching too far out of range. Choose correctly, and you’ve demonstrated a versatility that will keep you working forever.

While Aubrey Plaza has been in a wide variety of films since she began in the business almost two decades ago, she’s traded on a particular comedic approach to her roles that hasn’t always worked for me. It’s started to grate on me after a time, so much so that I went from wanting to see her mix it up to not knowing if I wanted to see more. Recently, she’s been slowly trying the dramatic side of her acting on for size, and she jumps into the deep end with Emily the Criminal. The result is an absolute revelation, not just of Plaza doing a galvanizing complete 180 turn but realizing there’s potential for her to go even further.

With a felony charge on her permanent record, it’s next to impossible for Emily (Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) to get a well-paying job to help her pay off the mountain of debt she’s facing. Maxed out credit cards and student loans spell living paycheck to paycheck in her shared Los Angeles apartment. Working at a catering delivery service to pay the bills has put any plans for the future on hold. Hopes for a better job have her waiting for her childhood friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Late Night) to get her an interview at her competitive ad agency. Emily might be called a struggling artist if she had any energy left to pursue her former dream.

Desperate for money, a co-worker passes along info for an under-the-table gig run by Youcef (Theo Rossi, Army of the Dead). This opportunity will take Emily into an unfamiliar world of criminal dealings for which she isn’t prepared. Initially tentative about getting involved, she is gradually enticed by the prospect of making money quickly and finds that she’s better at it than anyone might have guessed. Impressing her new boss and finding a mutual attraction is growing, Emily begins to focus solely on her side gig until a series of bad decisions catch up with them all.

First-time filmmaker John Patton Ford directs from his script and gives Emily the Criminal a breathless pace without making it ultra-flashy or breakneck. It’s surprisingly tense, and more than once, I found that I was holding my breath as Emily landed in another troublesome situation. Ford’s script avoids falling into the despair of most films about felons, keeping the politicizing to a minimum and instead aiming to make the most entertaining movie possible. Yes, there may be a plot hole here and there, but they’re tiny compared to the enormous amount of running time that successfully hits the bullseye. 

The supporting players are a solid bunch. I liked Echikunwoke as Emily’s friend, who may be trying to give her a leg up if it doesn’t hold her back. While both are from New Jersey, Echikunwoke’s character has better adapted to the phony detachment Los Angeles airs, something Emily has little time for or skill with. A brief scene with Gina Gershon (With/In: Volume 2) is fun but too short. An enormous amount of chemistry (not just the romantic) fuels Rossi’s performance as Emily’s entry into the criminal world. Rossi’s another good actor in the game for a while who feels like he’s continually poised to make a move to the next level. 

Plaza’s the star attraction here, and rightfully so. As Emily moves from visitor to the underworld of crime to active participation, we watch her adjust her view of the world. You’d think the changes would initially be subtle, giving way to Emily emerging as a full-time fraudster, but Plaza instead rallies against that. Emily’s shift from debt-laden and soul-crushed to seeing a glimmer of hope is quick and grasping, hungry for the opportunity to get her head above water. When she reaches a precipice and stands on the edge, things get more tentative, and she must make hard decisions. Plaza handles these tonal shifts believably and with an intensity that has you rooting her on even as you know she’s on the wrong side of the law.

In films like Emily the Criminal, as in life, not everyone gets a happy ending, and you’ll have to see for yourself how the chips fall for Emily and Youcef. Each participant is active and engaged with the movie they’re making, which goes far in keeping the audience on the edge of their seat and off balance. The film is getting a release that’s perhaps too small and niche to get the kind of notice Ford and especially Plaza deserves for their work, but it would be a shame to miss out on a thriller made with such confidence.

Movie Review ~ Aline

The Facts:

Synopsis: The youngest of a hardworking French-Canadian couple’s 14 children is propelled to global music superstardom in this fictional musical dramedy, freely inspired by the life of Céline Dion.
Stars: Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud, Roc LaFortune, Antoine Vézina, Jean-Noël Brouté
Director: Valérie Lemercier
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 128 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I remember the exact moment I heard there was a movie gathering buzz ahead of its debut at Cannes inspired by the life of everyone’s favorite power chanteuse, Céline Dion. I was listening to a podcast, and the words “Céline,” “Dion,” and “biopic” were said, and I blacked out. When I came to, there were some brief details mentioned that I didn’t entirely take in fully, something about how the star was playing the role, but it was mostly centered on the snark being directed toward the just-released trailer for Aline. I didn’t even wait for the podcast to end. This news was too important to delay. I gathered my wits, set myself up in front of my crystal clear 4K OLED TV, and fired up YouTube to watch Aline’s first look.

I’m one of those who needs a little bit of time to take in something the first time I see it. I find it challenging to blurt out complete declarative statements right away; I need to get a few more views under my belt. With Aline, I knew, I just knew, that it was going to be my kind of film. As strange as the approach to telling Dion’s life is, not to mention how plum cuckoo, its method of execution winds up being, leave your preconceived notions at the door. This film is a case where no preamble descriptor can fully prepare you for an energy wave that hits you when the movie begins. That same jet force carries you for the next 128 minutes until a finale that had me on my feet.   

There was no way Dion or her team would allow a movie based on her life to be made without some strong arm of control, so famous French star Valérie Lemercier decided to go a different route. Using Dion’s life as a muse and taking on the structure of a standard biopic, Lemercier and co-writer Brigitte Buc have wound up with a condensed tale of a natural-born talent’s rise to fame. In Aline, we watch her humble roots as one of 14 children born to a family of gifted musicians to becoming a worldwide celebrity selling out shows for years in Las Vegas. Along the way, the singer (here called Aline Dieu) falls in love with her manager Guy-Claude Kamar (Sylvain Marcel), attends the Oscars, yearns for children, and struggles to free herself from an image imposed on her by an opinionated mother and a demanding fanbase. 

Sounds pretty average, right? Ah, but wait. We haven’t gotten to the exciting twist yet. Here’s the hook that director, co-writer, and star Valérie Lemercier uses that is throwing some potential views off. The adult Lemercier (58 as of this writing) portrays Aline at every stage of life, from childhood to the present. Through a mixture of effects, costumes, and old-fashioned movie magic, many of these moments are convincingly done, even when she’s playing a small child. To answer your question, yes, it does take a bit to get used to its weirdness. You can tell it’s an adult playing a child, but the vision of Lemercier’s de-aged face on a small body somehow works all the same. The more I accepted it, the easier I found myself giving over to other aspects of the film that also colored outside the lines of an expected Dion biopic.

Favorite moments of Dion’s life are created, but only just so. There’s her big Oscar moment singing the theme song from Titanic, but on a much less regal scale. Dion’s hit songs are played throughout, with Victoria Sio providing the singing voice, but not all are presented in chronological order. So, you have a song playing at her wedding that hadn’t been written yet and other anomalies that keep the film hovering at that high concept fantasy level (and likely out of reach for Dion’s lawyers), which helps propel the movie forward. It’s only at the top of the last thirty minutes, when Lemercier and Buc add a completely fictionalized scene in Vegas, that the film loses some of its charms, albeit briefly.

Lemercier surprised many recently when she won the Best Actress award at the 47th Annual César Awards, France’s highest honor in acting. Suddenly, the film that started as a joke on a podcast was getting the respect it honestly deserves. Considering all that Lemercier has put into the film and turning in a deeply committed, sincere, and overall, just damn well-acted performance, she’s already riding high on my best of the year list. It’s a performance that sticks with you long after the film has finished…and what a note to go out on. The finale is so simple but filled with the power most movies only imagine they could muster that late in the game. If you made it to that point and weren’t knocked out by her work, I don’t know how you couldn’t be convinced by what she does in those few minutes.

I’m excited this is finally out for more people to see because Aline is a movie that will thrive as more viewers have the opportunity to discover it. If there is any justice, Lemercier’s name can stay on the forefront of people’s minds for the next nine months and gain her awards consideration on our shores because it’s the type of gutsy work that should be recognized. Don’t miss this one. If you’re on the fence, hop on off and take a look – you’ll be happy you did. As Dion herself sang…”What do you say to taking chances?”

The Silver Bullet ~ Aline

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Synopsis
: The life story of Canadian singing sensation Aline Dieu.

Release Date:  January 21, 2022

Thoughts:  It was back in June when I heard there was a “Celine Dion biopic” premiering at Cannes and let me tell you I literally dropped what I was doing the moment the first trailer arrived shortly thereafter.  I didn’t post anything about it when it opened at the festival to some surprisingly positive reviews but now that it is arriving in theaters in January, I think it’s time to share the wealth of Aline, the ‘fiction freely inspired by the life of Celine Dion’.

I’d be so interested to read more about the logistics of using Dion’s life story and her music but not her name or the names of those in her life.  I’m at least glad that writer/director/star Valérie Lemercier’s approach appears to be one of genuine sincerity and not mocking the French-Canadian who has been such an easy target over her amazing career trajectory.  It’s an odd way in, that’s for sure, but I think it looks completely bizarre in the best way possible.  You better believe I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for this one the moment I can see it because as a longtime fan of Dion I’m truly fascinated in what this film has to offer.

Movie Review ~ Joe Bell

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An Oregonian father pays tribute to his gay teenage son, embarking on a self-reflective walk across America to speak his heart to heartland citizens about the real and terrifying costs of bullying.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Morgan Lily, Gary Sinise, Tara Buck, Ash Santos, Igby Rigney, Cindy Perez

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Part of this review is going to include a minor spoiler of the movie, because it will be next to impossible to discuss it in any depth without including this bit of information.  It’s nothing that hasn’t been shown in the trailer but on the off chance you have yet to see the preview or don’t know the basic premise of Joe Bell, feel free to stop reading now and come back once you’ve watched it. 

You ready to move on?

We’re forging ahead with this review, so be ready.

OK…let’s go.

Living in a small town in the northeast corner of Oregon, Jadin Bell was singled out for being different.  The only openly gay student at his high school, he was a member of the cheerleading team and while his parents did their best to support him in the way that they knew how to, lack of true understanding of what it meant to be an ally left Jadin without the resources he needed to deal with the bullying he endured at school.  With few friends and an administration that didn’t stand up for him, he saw little hope for the future.  At fifteen, he hanged himself from the school’s playground equipment,

A devastating loss for his family, Jadin’s death sends his father Joe (Mark Wahlberg, All the Money in the World) into a depression.  Always prone to moody outbursts, he directs his anger at Jadin’s younger brother (Maxwell Jenkins) while his wife Lola (Connie Britton, This is Where I Leave You) looks on, unable to help her husband out of this darkness.  Then, an idea occurs to him.  Joe didn’t stop the bullying when Jadin came to him and asked for help, but he could tell others about his son and what could happen if harassment went unresolved.  He’d further hammer home that point by walking from Oregon to New York, where Jadin hoped to go to college after graduation.  As Joe makes his way across the country, he meets a number of individuals from all walks of life that have been in his shoes in one way or another and the impact they have on his life continues his own evolution of thinking. Accompanying him at times in Joe Bell the film would be Jadin himself.

The conceit of a dead character popping up to speak to a live one and acting as a kind of guide from the other side isn’t anything we haven’t seen done countless times before.  In fact, since I saw Joe Bell earlier this week, I’ve already watched another movie coming out in early August that employs the same narrative gimmick…sometimes to better effect.  What the speaking spirit often accomplishes for the screenwriter is the opportunity to have a two-way conversation on a solo journey of self-discovery.  The walk that Joe Bell is taking is purportedly to raise awareness on high school bullying and the devastating effects it can have, but it is more about his own atonement than anything else.  Having Joe’s deceased son Jadin present for long stretches of his walk, acting as a challenging sounding board adds to that immediacy for an emotional response from an audience but doesn’t always further the overall journey from a storytelling perspective.

Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, both of whom won an Oscar for adapting Brokeback Mountain in 2005, I believe Joe Bell wants to tap into that same poignancy which made that earlier work such a memorable milestone in modern cinema.  Unfortunately, though the true story on which the film is based is incredibly moving (and has more surprises than you may initially think), the way it has been assembled as a film doesn’t open itself up in the same kind of way that Brokeback Mountain did.  Though both films have a timeline that jump back and forth, Joe Bell’s important items have happened long before the movie begins and we spend a good sixty-minutes piecing together what led up to the events in La Grande, Oregon in 2013. 

It’s not meant to be a pleasant watch and I’m not suggesting it should be.  I’m not even saying the events should be laid out in chronological order.  The true element to the story means that certain events need to stay as-is and I appreciate that Ossana, McMurtry, Wahlberg, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green resist the urge to give Joe a huge speech where he suddenly becomes a great orator.  This is a man that isn’t good with words or grand statements.  He’s blunt, rough around the edges, and often says one thing when meaning the other.  So many of us have parents or know parents that are like that, and Joe Bell is no different.  What happens is that there begins to exist a disconnect between the emotion of the piece and the emotion of the true story it’s based on.  Things start to pile on as the film nears its conclusion and you can start to feel Jadin’s voice drowned out amongst all the mawkishness of the redemptive arc Joe is undergoing.  Is this Jadin’s story we’re meant to hear and understand or Joe’s?

In the title role, Wahlberg gives it his all as the dad trying to do good but missing the mark because when he didn’t know what else to do he just resorted to how he was raised.  I think Wahlberg did service to the real person and kept it as true as could be and that’s to be respected.  Reid Miller as Jadin has a bit of a wider field to play with and this is the performance that should be studied carefully.  His flashback scenes are deeply emotional and hard to watch, considering you know how it all turns out.  The “on the road” scenes where he’s tagging along as his dad goes on his cross-country walk are a little less focused. I’m not sure I needed to hear the two actors do quite so much of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ but then, I digress.  There’s never a time when Britton is not completely dependable and a value-add to a film, but I was genuinely surprised when Gary Sinise (Ransom) showed up as a small-town sheriff with a tender-heart. It’s a small part in a much larger story, but in a short amount of screen time Sinise makes a big impression.

Originally thought to be an Oscar play for Wahlberg before the pandemic hit in 2020, the mediocre reception Joe Bell received when it played the festival circuit (when it was called Good Joe Bell) last year put that dream to rest and that’s really for the best.  This is a film that shouldn’t be made for awards consideration.  Joe Bell would be a fine model to point to as someone that attempted to make good of something bad and the movie largely follows suit. 

Movie Review ~ The Courier

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Iva Šindelková, Željko Ivanek

Director: Dominic Cooke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: At first glance, you may be wondering why an espionage drama with an accent on the drama was opening in theatrical release during a pandemic the same weekend a major superhero movie was debuting on a streaming service at home.  Wouldn’t most audiences be otherwise engaged devouring the much-anticipated arrival of the four-hour epic that is Zack Snyder’s Justice League, especially after the reviews were deservedly glowing?  Ah…but let’s not forget the art of counterprogramming because I think Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, the studio and distributor behind The Courier, was going for everyone else who weren’t comic book inclined and up for something a little less gargantuan.  It’s a smart move to match a surprisingly smart film, one that is far better than its staid title and dusty looking premise would otherwise imply.

I’ll be upfront and say that these murky spy thrillers are becoming slightly old hat to me, especially after seeing them done so well in stalwarts like any of the early James Bond films, 1973’s The MacKintosh Man, or even in homegrown films such as Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View.  Heck, even Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of The Courier, has had his run at the spy game before in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or in his 2014 Oscar Nominated role as Alan Turing in the WWII tale The Imitation Game.  Last year’s A Call to Spy was dismally dull and I half expected The Courier to turn out in much the same way: dry and demanding of your rapt attention with not a lot to show for it all when the lights come up.

So it was refreshing to find almost from the start there is a palpable current of energy running through the film.  It’s subtle, and the movie couldn’t ever be classified as suspense-driven or even ramped up enough to get your pulse racing (unless you get all a flutter seeing Cumberbatch’s bare backside), but it’s there and it separates The Courier from the rest of the pack.  That’s what also elevates the story of English businessman Greville Wynne’s involvement with MI6 during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis from coming off as a forgotten footnote during an important historical incident.  Screenwriter Tom O’Connor and Dominic Cooke aim to inform but don’t forget the entertainment part of moviemaking at the same time.

When USSR military intelligence agent Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) reaches out to the American embassy via a covert coded message with news that current leader Nikita Khrushchev is fast-tracking nuclear plans that would lead to war, MI6 and the CIA step in.  Their goal: find a way to pass information back and forth with Penkovsky to obtain precise information that will prevent Europe and the US from entering a high stakes battle with the Soviet Union.  Recognizing they need someone the Russians wouldn’t suspect but who could also handle the assignment, Wynne’s name is floated due to his business dealings throughout Europe.  At first, the upstanding Brit needs some convincing, but when reminded of the whole Queen and country pledge, he agrees and begins traveling back and forth to meet with Penkovsky.  Keeping both of their wives unaware of their dealings, the men strike up a friendship over time, and this personal relationship begins to threaten their overall mission, alliances, and allegiance when Khrushchev’s secret police get a whiff that a mole has burrowed its way in.

After a not-so-great showing in The Mauritanian back in February, Cumberbatch is back in the groove, nicely tuning into Wynne’s businessman persona at the outset of the film and letting the weight of the deception start to chip away at him over time.  The lies he tells his wife (an underused but still powerful Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) threaten to destroy the peaceful life he had previously held at home.  While he serves his country gladly, the aftereffects and extraordinary price Wynne will pay may be too great to come back from.  On the other side of the border, Ninidze is a strong counterpart to Cumberbatch as a father and husband with his own set of secrets to hide.  Struggling with similar fears that spring from seeing traitors executed in front of his eyes, he knows what’s in store for him if he’s caught.  The film largely belongs to the two men, but aside from Buckley there’s a very Mrs. Maisel-y performance from Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) as a CIA handler and an always welcome appearance from Željko Ivanek (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Brosnahan’s superior.

What a pleasant surprise to find this nifty little package being delivered with some confident finesse during an extended awards season that’s seen all types of overly earnest films sputter out.  Originally seen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival under the title Ironbark (a much better title taken from a code name that’s used by one of the operatives), it was filmed in 2018 and finally seeing a release now.   Though it’s not eligible for anything and definitely isn’t going to be on the radar for next year’s haul, it’s a strong showing for everyone involved and a worthy way to spend two hours.  I can’t quite recommend running out to theaters to catch The Courier but when it arrives for home viewing I would encourage you to give this one a spin.  Wynne’s involvement in the civilian spy business is fascinating to learn about and is carried off well by a cast and production team that funnels their energy and resources in the right direction – and it makes all the difference for an audience to understand the subtleties between a story that is told once and one that bears retelling in the future.

Movie Review ~ The Glorias

Available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s itinerant childhood’s influence on her life as a writer, activist and organizer for women’s rights worldwide.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Kimberly Guerrero, Enid Graham

Director: Julie Taymor

Rated: R

Running Length: 147 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  One thing 2020 has definitely needed is more empowerment.  We’ve gone through this year feeling like we’re just behind in a lot of ways, from our health to our control over what happens within our government, even to what goes on in the neighborhoods we want everyone to feel safe in.  No one wants to be at odds with each other (at least I don’t think the majority of us do) and it becomes draining to watch news reports on the great division that appears to be widening between numerous groups that used to be able to find common ground.  The rise of social media and the ability for those that hid in the shadows to now speak their hateful rhetoric from the comfort of their anonymity has only added fuel to that and the spiral just continues downward.

That’s why in some small way a biopic like The Glorias feels like a welcome bit of relief right about now, even though it too focuses on an upward battle for acceptance and understanding in the face of adversity.  While a number of documentaries have been made and work has been written about the activist Gloria Steinem over the years and just in the last decade alone, this is the one that has sprung from her own words and is based on her 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road, written when she was 81.  Adapted by celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl, directed by lauded auteur Julie Taymor, and starring two Oscar winning actresses sharing the role of Steinem at various points in her adult life, on paper The Glorias feels like a project that sounds like an ideal convergence of the right people.  Why, then, does it wind up feeling like a artistically curated Cliff Notes version of a colorful life, only finding some true resonance with its audience in its final half hour?

I honestly doubt a life as large and full as Steinem’s could ever be fully captured in a feature film and to whittle down eight decades into 140-some minutes does seem like a Herculean task, but Ruhl does her best by not taking the traditional biopic route.  This is not a straight-timeline kind of film, but rather one that seems to go from one memory to another, at least at first.  That may be frustrating for audiences that are used to seeing where someone began and watching their life unfold until they wind up in the present (or their version of the present if it’s a person that’s no longer with us) and discover what they learn along the way.  Here, Ruhl and Taymor make use out of the multiple Glorias (Becky’s Lulu Wilson and IT: Chapter Two’s Ryan Kiera Armstrong’s play younger Glorias) to replace others seemingly at will as a way of commenting on what is to come in her life or in service of reflection on her past.  It’s cinematic trickery that works some of the time, mostly when Julianne Moore (Still Alice) as the eldest Gloria subs in for one of her younger counterparts who may not have found her authoritative voice yet but it gets a little showy if a smaller one takes over for an adult.

This narrative alignments also makes it harder to review The Glorias in such a straightforward way.  Taymor and Ruhl jump around through different periods of Steinem’s life with such apparent abandon that it’s a bit of a whirlwind.  One moment we’re with the youngest Gloria (Armstrong) as she dances with her huckster father (a stalwart Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) on the music hall pier he owns before he packs up the family and hits the road in search of another easy money opportunity.  The next thing we know, Taymor has us with ¾ Gloria (Vikander, The Danish Girl) on her travels through India or her early journalist days where she goes undercover working at the Playboy club.  Then we’re back to teenage Gloria (Wilson) caring for her bedridden mother (an excellent Enid Graham) before meeting the Gloria in full bloom Gloria (Moore) as she comes into her own as an activist fighting for the ratification of the ERA, forms Ms. magazine, and in her later years develops a friendship with Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero, A Wrinkle in Time), the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

What I found the most interesting in The Glorias was not the typical biographical data that makes up the usual films of this type.  Steinem’s upbringing, dealing with a dreamer Father that lived in the clouds and a Mother who toiled away making up for his frivolity, doesn’t feel so dissimilar than many that would go on to champion the rights of women who served unnoticed for so long.  Though Steinem had a number of relationships over the years (and was questioned often about them in interviews), the film bypasses any of these tangents in favor of exploring her friendships with other women, including feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe, Harriet), U.S. Representative and a leader of the Women’s Movement Bella Abzug (Bette Midler, Hocus Pocus), and civil rights activist Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).  Those that watched the FX series Mrs. America earlier this summer may be surprised to see how little the ratification of the ERA fits into the film, it’s almost a good thing to have watched that nine-episode series because it gave more context to conversations between Gloria and Bella that those who aren’t as familiar with the movement might feel a bit at sea in.

As she does with all of her projects, Taymor brings a keen eye to The Glorias but occasionally lets her artsy side get the best of her.  This is never more obvious than a misguided sequence where Moore’s Gloria steps in to respond to an interview question on live television and sends the studio into a Wizard of Oz-ish tornado that’s not entirely rendered with the same style or polish as other flights of fancy.  Another animation of the Hindu goddess Kali that becomes the first cover of Ms. magazine feels awkward and a tad childish in the context of what has been a more maturely delivered movie until that point.  Taymor’s blending of dreamy fantasy works best when its done subtly, like when the camera that’s focused on one Gloria will pan back to show another iteration of Steinem gently resting her head on the shoulder of her younger self.  It’s brief specialties like these that Taymor is so adept at that The Glorias needs more of throughout.

Even as it races through the decades, it’s when The Glorias finally slows down a bit in Steinem’s later years that Taymor and Ruhl strike something special.  Moore ages forward and with the help of believable prosthetics manages to look remarkably like Steinem without becoming a grotesquerie of plastics in the process.  These quieter later scenes of The Glorias make up for the frenetic earlier part of the movie and lead to a final transition that I should have seen coming a mile away but didn’t.  When it happens, you suddenly realize that Taymor and Ruhl have done what they set out to do and connect Steinem’s past to our present with a graceful sincerity.  Essentially, they hand the film back to their subject as a way of communicating “If this is what Gloria Steinem’s legacy is to be, then let the final word on the matter be hers.”  And, simply, it is.

Movie Review ~ Words on Bathroom Walls


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenager coping with paranoid schizophrenia hopes his new experimental drug treatment will help him navigate high school and the outside world.

Stars: Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, AnnaSophia Robb, Beth Grant,  Andy García,

Director: Thor Freudenthal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  History has not been kind to mental illness or those that have struggled with it and that’s largely due to a lack of information.  We are often scared of what we don’t know or don’t understand.  So many of the disorders that are now easily diagnosed were previously unidentifiable to those outside of a certain circle of doctors and researchers.  Many suffered and were shut away in asylums when they could have received treatment and its with the advancement of science, medications, and plain old discussion that have helped to bring some normalcy to what is often not perceived as typical normal behavior.

There’s a certain trepidation I have when I hear a movie dealing with teen mental illness is coming out because I don’t want it to be given a glossy veneer nor do I want it to be a doom and gloom scare affair.  There needs to be a nice balance that encourages those who may be dealing with a condition to speak to someone without fear of being mocked or made to feel less-than.  I wasn’t familiar with Julia Walton’s 2017 novel Words on Bathroom Walls that screenwriter Nick Naveda has adapted into the new feature film but went in knowing it was going to be tackling a big issue in the area of mental health: schizophrenia.  A number of movies have played the “voices in my head” episodes of psychosis for laughs or as plot devices that further elements of a larger idea but here was a film whose main character spends nearly the entire film finding ways to cope with competing personalities that only he can hear and see.

High school is already a hormone-laced, emotionally confusing time for the average teenager but senior Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer, All the Money in the World) is also dealing with the presence of three distinct personalities that began as voices in his head and now pop up regularly.  Hippie Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, The Way, Way Back) appeals to Adam’s more serene side while horndog Joaquin (Devon Bostick, Tuscaloosa) hangs around waiting for the excitement to begin.  It’s when The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian, The Mule) gets riled up that things go south though because that signals an episode Adam won’t be able to control is about to take over.  Manifesting in the filmworld as black tendrils of smoke or another CGI effect of questionable quality that interferes with Adam’s ability to go about his day, these episodes make an already demanding schedule that much more difficult.

After losing it and injuring a student at his last school, Adam transfers to a parochial academy for his final year in the hopes of getting his diploma and staring culinary school and starting his dream career as a chef.  His single mom Beth (Molly Parker, The 9th Life of Louis Drax) wants that for him too, but has her reservations after numerous medical trials have failed to stop his manic episodes from happening.  It’s during this time he meets the clever Maya (Taylor Russell, Waves, Escape Room), a fellow senior who, in addition to a nice side business of selling papers and other assorted contraband to her wealthy classmates, is the valedictorian of their class.  Initially resistant to her efforts to peel off his guarded layers for fear she’d uncover his secret, it’s when he finds out certain truths about her own life that he changes direction and opens his heart to her in the process.  With a new man (Walton Goggins, Them That Follow) in his mom’s life and a stern nun (Beth Grant, Flatliners) keeping an eye on him at school, Adam starts a final trial of an experimental drug which silences the voices but may have other consequences that could make the trade-off not worth it in the end.

Director Thor Freudenthal’s feature film representation has largely been in movies aimed at younger audiences (though his television work is definitely more on the violent/dramatic adult side) so he clearly has an established comfort level working with young actors but this represents a real step up in the maturity level.  It did take a bit for the movie to hook me, though, but I attribute that to an ungainly first act that had trouble finding it’s focus and staying in one place for too long.  It’s all exposition to get us to that first meeting between Maya and Adam and that’s when Freudenthal strikes some serious gold.  If Plummer is a convincing, if a bit overly earnest lead, when sharing scenes with Parker and Goggins, he’s made exponentially better when paired with Russell’s sensitive and intuitive classmate and potential love interest.  As she’s done with her galvanizing performance in Waves and even in cheesy schlock like Escape Room, Russell makes bold choices that are often unexpected, never uninteresting.  I also quite liked Parker, an actress that seems to have continued to work steadily in well-reviewed but easy to forget roles…she just needs that one key movie to get her to that next level.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Garcia (Jennifer 8) as a priest Adam has a convivial relationship with where matters of faith don’t enter in.  Garcia’s brief supporting performance is, ahem, spirited and memorable.

Running far too long and clocking in at nearly two hours, I’m still not sure I came out the other side more well-educated to the chronic illness but I found myself watching in appreciation for the frankness in the way the movie handles the final act.  It’s definitely following a long-standing formula set by the high-school movie gods in which normal societal rules don’t apply if you just have to stand up and make a speech, but Words on Bathroom Walls winds up translating from the walls of literature to the screen with a comfort and a qualified quality.  Like another emotional YA film releasing today, Chemical Hearts, it stands in solidarity with those that might need extra support for reasons we may not totally understand.

Movie Review ~ The Secret: Dare to Dream


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Miranda Wells is a hard-working young widow struggling to raise three children on her own. A powerful storm brings a devastating challenge and a mysterious man into her life.

Stars: Katie Holmes, Josh Lucas, Jerry O’Connell, Celia Weston, Sarah Hoffmeister, Aidan Pierce Brennan, Chloe Lee, Katrina Begin, Sydney Tennant, Samantha Beaulieu

Director: Andy Tennant

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If this were a normal summer, we’d be neck deep in sonic boom blockbusters and hyperactive animated family entertainment at theaters by this time.  The majority of the touted releases would have seen their big debuts and faced the critical eyes of audiences around the world, hopefully making their money back and more.  When the pandemic closed movie houses around the globe and forced studios to shift their tentpole pictures months or years out, it left a rare opening for films less reliant on a built in fan base to get seen and that’s why smaller (mostly horror) movies like Relic, The Wretched, The Rental, Valley Girl, Miss Juneteenth, and Palm Springs have all posted decent numbers in their limited releases at drive-ins.  Now it’s not mega-money, the #8 film at the recent box office made $535 bucks, but at least it’s something.

If a movie like The Secret: Dare to Dream had kept to its original release date, it would have shown up in mid-April right before the heavy hitters started to appear but even so it’s hard not to see the film for the keen bit of counter-programming it is.  As someone that can take or leave these soapy romantic dramas but isn’t totally averse to giving one a chance, I was curious to see what a film based on a 2006 new-agey self-help documentary and its spin-off book would look like.  Though it doesn’t come armed with a doctrine as obvious as I anticipated, there’s an underlying message of goodness to be found and for once it doesn’t feel strained.  It’s more formulaic than the theory of relativity, but also, oddly, almost compellingly watchable in the way these types of easily digestible movies so often are.

Louisiana widow Miranda (Katie Holmes, Woman in Gold) is keeping her head above water even as the bills pile up and the life she thought she had planned slips through her fingers.  Her children are your typical movie youths running from temperamental teen to pony-loving grade schooler, yet they all manage to band together to help boost mom’s spirits when they can.   Their grandmother (Celia Weston, The Intern) wishes Miranda would sell their large but in need of repair house and marry a local entrepreneur (Jerry O’Connell, Wish Upon) but there’s something keeping Miranda from starting a new life.  Opportunity presents itself the same day a hurricane is set to hit their town, when she winds up in a fender bender with Bray (Josh Lucas, Ford v Ferrari) who just happens to be looking for her.  She doesn’t know it yet, but Bray has business with Miranda that becomes the Big Secret the movie holds onto until the Big Reveal near the end.  In the first of many wholly unbelievable plot contrivances, Miranda welcomes this total stranger into her home without question and the only one other than the grandmother that seems to find this odd is the viewer.  Charming though Lucas may come across on screen, he does appear a bit squirmy in the balmy humidity of a Louisiana hurricane season; why Miranda would accept him so effortlessly, especially with her young children present, is a mystery.   Evidently, stranger-danger is a thing of the past.

At the outset, you can feel the influence of the source material on the movie and the situations screenwriters Bekah Brunstetter, Rick Parks, and Andy Tennant (Grease 2) place Miranda and Bray in.  The film stops cold when Bray walks the children through a demonstration with magnets on the laws of attraction, a tenet of The Secret which makes the claim that thoughts (good and bad) can change a person’s life directly.   There’s a bit of mumbo-jumbo to suggest some magic in the air with this power of positive thinking having some influence on wishes coming true but almost as soon as these instances appear, they seem to be abandoned for more straight-forward dramatic storytelling that’s familiar and predictable.  Also serving as director, Tennant has helmed his fair share of rom-coms and while the movie isn’t big on laughs it does have the tiniest bit of a spring it its step and a sliver of a sense of humor which helps it from being taken too seriously.

Audiences will know the ending long before Miranda and Bray do so your enjoyment of the movie hinges on what you think of its stars.  Holmes has grown from a child star into a nicely committed actress, very much at home in these types of mom/comfort-giver roles and while there’s not a lot of range shown she finds a nice balance in the material so that it doesn’t teeter into overly saccharine.  Dealt a bit of a tough hand, Lucas has to battle back some early creeper vibes…the more you tell yourself this is a PG romantic drama the more you’ll convince yourself he isn’t there to do any harm to Holmes or her kids.  You feel especially bad for O’Connell in a totally thankless role as Miranda’s would-be suitor.  He barely gets an introduction or a proper good-bye.  Perhaps the most interesting character is meant to be the most irritating and that’s Weston as the fuddy-duddy grandmother that’s always a pest, until she does an about-face because the film needs her stamp of approval.

Take away all the rhetoric and hokey nonsense that the filmmakers don’t even stick with for long and there’s an occasionally interesting and comfortably casual viewing experience.  There are certainly more aggressively cheerful movies in recent release attempting to elicit the same type of audience reaction to far less successful results…I’d watch this one again before I’d get anywhere near something like the soggy Fisherman’s Friends, for instance.  To be clear, The Secret: Dare to Dream is as average as they come (don’t even get me started on that dreadful title) but truth be told it managed to keep me engaged far longer than I thought it would.