Movie Review ~ Old

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family on a tropical holiday discovers that the secluded beach where they are staying is somehow causing them to age rapidly, reducing their entire lives into a single day.

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Kathleen Chalfant, Alexa Swinton, Nolan River, Kylie Begley, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Alex Wolff, Emun Elliott, Thomasin McKenzie

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Looking back over the director credits for M. Night Shyamalan, I’m wondering if we weren’t the ones that ultimately set him on his shaky trajectory in the late 2000’s after the cool reception that greeted 2004’s The Village.  Yes, I know viewers still bristle at the mere mention of Shyamalan’s sixth feature film and first to break his major winning streak of uniformly positive reception from critics and audiences alike.  The “big twist” everyone had come to expect felt like something overly orchestrated by a director wanting to be appreciated for rug pulling than for what came before and after and ticket-buyers weren’t having it. 

This led to a downward spiral for the Oscar-nominee who broke so big with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and his two follow-ups after The Village, The Lady in the Water in 2006 and The Happening in 2008, were dull flop-a-roos.  Several more disasters would be released and a so-so TV series on FOX would come before Shyamalan would bounce back quite nicely with 2015’s The Visit with Split coming out just a year later in 2016.  Nicely tying into 2000’s Unbreakable, he used Split’s success to complete a trilogy with Glass in 2019 and parlayed that film’s moderate success into a new deal with Universal for two additional films he would direct. (This is above and beyond Servant, the creepy under the radar half-hour series that’s been renewed for a third season on AppleTV+). 

The first film to meet that new deal is Old and, surprisingly, it’s not based on one of Shyamalan’s original ideas.  Instead, it’s inspired by Sandcastle, a graphic novel by Swiss artists Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters.  Given to him as a gift by his daughters, Shyamalan responded to the illustrated tome’s themes Levy and Peeters dabble into when they weren’t revealing how a secluded beach in paradise becomes a nightmare for a group of vacationing tourists.  Reviewing what types of family-based stories Shyamalan has been compelled to tell in the past, it’s not hard to see why he felt a kinship with the creators of Sandcastle or why he thought he’d like to bring those ideas to life on screen.  For a while, Old even feels like something new.  Then…some tired tricks resurface.

Arriving with their two children at a luxe resort in an unnamed tropical utopia (the movie was filmed in the Dominican Republic), Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) and Guy (Gael García Bernal, Coco) are hoping for one last relaxing vacation before reality sets in.  Already planning to separate before the trip was set into motion, life-changing medical news has arrived for one of them which suggests this might be the final time the four of them can spend together as a family.  At least they are truly being waited on hand and foot, thanks to Prisca stumbling on the hotel on the internet and getting a great deal for the week.  The kindly hotel manager suggests a day trip to a private beach that is sure to impress and the foursome, wanting to kick back, swim, and sun, only need to be pointed in the right direction.

Dropped off at the beach by their driver (Shyamalan, popping up in his usual cameo) along with a doctor (Rufus Sewell, Judy), his trophy wife (Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon), their 6-year-old daughter, and his mother, they make the short walk to the beach through a towering rock wall, and it is indeed the private haven the manager promised it would be.  There is already someone there though, a famous artist (Aaron Pierre) Prisca’s daughter instantly recognizes and who soon becomes the first clue that something isn’t quite right at the beach.  Before we know more, a third couple (Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung) shows up and our beach party seems to be complete.  Then…the first dead body is found.

In the interest of your own enjoyment of Old, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination and say that up until that point, Shyamalan had done a solid job of carefully gathering a bunch of strings together he could ably pull taught.  Though featuring a lot of stock characters (the doctor is a controlling bore, the trophy wife is a looks obsessed snob), he’s cast the film with enough interesting actors that you are curious to see where their beach journey to The Twilight Zone will lead them.  Even the first few developments where they figure out something supernatural (or otherwise) is taking control over them and preventing them from leaving, Shyamalan maintains a great deal of tension while we fret right alongside the characters in true peril.

It’s only when we start to get long gaps in between events do you see how flimsy the structure of the piece actually is, how repetitive the attempts to leave are, and how helpless the characters act when they could be taking fuller charge of the situation.  The worst thing about it is that up until this point, many of these people were portrayed as independently minded, intelligent beings but somehow once they get a little sand in their swimsuit, they don’t put up much of a defense when challenged.  That’s why nearly the entire midsection of the film is simply a series of false starts and fake outs, never gaining any momentum until the end when secrets are revealed, giving the story more of its purpose and creating a renewed interest in what’s been happening.

To his credit, I think Shyamalan is going for exactly the movie Old is.  He wanted these pauses when families could talk about growing older and reflecting on watching parents age as their children experience life that has begun to move at a rapid pace all around us.  It’s an odd construct for a horror film of this nature and doesn’t always feel in harmony with everything else going on but…I do see where he’s coming from.  Perhaps part of the problem I had with it all is that I never believed Krieps and Bernal had breathed the same air for more than two hours before we first see them, much less been married for over a decade.  There’s just no chemistry there so attempts to create dramatic sequences for the two of them don’t have anywhere to go.  The most successful couple in the film is probably Amuka-Bird (The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Leung (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) who manage to create some kind of connection in the little amount of downtime they are afforded.  I also have to say that while Lee has to play some silly scenes in the first half of the film, Shyamalan certainly gives her a few memorable bits in the latter sections.

I wouldn’t recommend you keep your distance from Old because as jumbled up as the middle section gets, the bookends do manage to redeem it on pure curiosity alone.  You can’t help but be drawn into the world Shyamalan has created and that’s a gift he’s always maintained.  He’s the type of writer/director that easily ensnares you into the theater with an intriguing story, only to leave you slightly disappointed the tale isn’t quite as he originally described it.  He thinks it’s better than what he promised.  You wish it were better than what you got.  That’s nothing new. 

Movie Review ~ The Father

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Ayesha Dharker

Director: Florian Zeller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Throughout film, there have been movies and performances that have tackled the subject of Alzheimer’s and dementia or shown us the effects of the disease in striking detail.  You can go all the way back to 1981’s On Golden Pond for an example and find titles like The Notebook, Away from Her, Robot & Frank, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Still Alice, and 2020’s Relic in the years since.  Each had it’s own approach to illustrate the impact to the person as an outside observer but none have been able to walk audiences through the actual experience of what it’s like from the inside out. Diving down deep below the surface of a debilitating condition of the mind, The Father aims to show audiences what it’s like to be inside this head of someone suffering from a disease which robs one of their memories.  It’s a cinematic trick achieved with no special effects or CGI assistance, relying instead on masterful writing and the kind of acting that comes along once in a blue moon.

Hard to watch but almost impossible to look away from, director and screenwriter Florian Zeller leads us down a twist-filled path where nothing is what it appears to be.  He adapts his own play (with original translator Christopher Hampton) and while I have yet to see this onstage it sounds like nothing was lost in the transition from stage to screen.  That Zeller and Hampton were able to capture the same magic that earned the theatrical piece rave reviews across the globe is something in and of itself due to the complexities inherent in the storytelling and overall production, but this is a property that lends itself well for a film adaptation.

Anne (Olivia Colman, The Favourite) has arrived at her father’s flat after he’s scared off another caretaker with suspicions of stealing.  He’s misplaced his favorite watch and Anthony (Hopkins, Thor) is convinced the woman Anne hired to keep an eye on him pocketed it when he wasn’t looking.  This isn’t the first time he’s “lost” his watch or leveled accusations of this sort and Anne is worried – she’s set to move to Paris with her new boyfriend and wants to be certain her father is taken care of when she moves a greater distance away.  The issue is left unresolved, at least for that day.

Naturally we assume the man (Paul Gatniss, Christopher Robin) sitting in Anthony’s flat the next morning is Anne’s new boyfriend but no, it’s more complicated than that.  For Anthony and for the audience.  Anthony has woken up in his flat but it’s really Anne’s.  And it’s not the Anne we/he knows, but a different Anne (Olivia Williams, Anna Karenina) who isn’t moving to Paris.  When Anthony gets upset over the new people in “his” flat, Anne offers to go out for groceries, but returns as Colman’s different Anne with a new caretaker (Imogen Poots, Vivarium) and, later, a different boyfriend (Rufus Sewell, Judy).  This rapidly changing cast, not to mention an apartment with walls and furnishings that are rarely in the same position twice, are meant to confuse and disorient the viewer as they do our titular character.

At the center of it all in nearly every scene is Hopkins, giving the performance of his career.  Rocketing to worldwide acclaim in middle-age with his Oscar-winning role in The Silence of the Lambs after an already healthy career, Hopkins has spent the last thirty years in a wide variety of roles.  Some of those roles have paid the bills while others have filled his cup for artistic expression, and I can imagine The Father likely filled his cup to overflowing.  The performance put on film here is surely one that will be remembered forever, indelibly linked with the actor and not for reasons that have to do with his recent Oscar win over another actor.  The fact of the matter is that Hopkins presented the best performance by any actor in any movie (male, female, or other) in any film in any language in 2020 so his award was well deserved.

It’s not just Hopkins that gives the Oscar-winning Zeller and Hampton screenplay steadfast support.  I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Colman overtake Glenn Close’s work in Hillbilly Elegy for Best Supporting Actress for her compassionate contribution to the film.  While both women lost to the towering work from Yuh-jung Youn in Minari, Colman had a definite shot and the win would have been warranted for the way she balanced the sleight of hand required of the role.  Sharing one of the best scenes of the film (it’s hard to choose just one) with Hopkins, Poots holds her own as the young caretaker charmed by her new charge who lets her guard down when she should be more responsible with her feelings.  While he’s made a nice career out of playing rakish characters, Sewell finds new nasty nooks to explore here and the underrated Williams also is afforded several rich moments alongside Hopkins.  The wealth is spread evenly but the treasure is ultimately held by Hopkins.

An exquisite film in every aspect from the costumes to production design, The Father is a movie that will definitely sneak up on you.  Much more than your standard tearjerker, it’s a brilliant exploration of degeneration that avoids sinking too far into morose sentimentality.  The emotions it does evoke are strong and will hit you like a ton of bricks.  Don’t expect to shake this one easily after seeing it because it will linger in the back of your mind for weeks after, mainly as you recall the enormity of the performance Hopkins has given.

Movie Review ~ Judy

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts.

Stars: Renée Zellweger, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Bella Ramsey

Director: Rupert Goold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s so strange to look back at this same point last year before Bohemian Rhapsody had been released.  The buzz on the movie wasn’t great and star Rami Malek impressed in photos as late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, but how would he be in action?  We all know how that turned out: with Malek mystifyingly sailing into a Best Actor Oscar win for a hammy performance in a heavily sanitized biopic…and he didn’t do any of his own singing.  Then came Rocketman in May of this year and the same narrative preceded it into theaters, scrutinizing leading man Taron Egerton taking on the role of rock icon Elton John.  Though not the huge box office hit that Bohemian Rhapsody was, Rocketman was better in all aspects…and Egerton did all his own singing.  Now we have Judy and it falls somewhere in the middle.  As far as biographies go, it offers a standard narrative without much flash but it’s got something the other two films doesn’t.  Renée Zellweger.

We’ve really had a huge exposure to Judy Garland in the 50 years since she died at the too-young age of 47.  There have been TV specials, TV movies, stage plays, stage musicals, drag performers, impressionists, etc., all celebrating that famous face with the instantly recognizable voice. Garland’s star burned bright in her years as a juvenile box office darling for MGM appearing in The Wizard of Oz and alongside Mickey Rooney in a number of “let’s put on a show” musicals.  While she made the transition to adult roles just fine, her time in the studio system came at a price.  Years of diet pills and amphetamines given to her by handlers laid the groundwork for substance abuse issues that would follow her for the rest of her life.  When Garland finally succumbed to her addiction, she had gone through five husbands and left behind three children.

Aside from a few flashbacks to her childhood memories at MGM involving interactions with Louis B. Mayer, a fake date with Rooney for the newsreels, and even a birthday party held months in advance that’s fit into her shooting schedule, the majority of Judy is set in 1968 when Garland came to London.  Desperate for cash and needing to be financially stable enough to continue to have custody of her two youngest children, she accepts an offer for a long-term engagement at the popular Talk of the Town nightclub.  She’s set up in a lavish hotel room and put under the watchful eye of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who is more than aware of Garland’s antics.  With her reputation for being late and showing up less than sober preceding her, Judy tries to stay on the straight and narrow but a lifetime of dependency is hard to quit cold turkey.  The shows suffer, she suffers.  When new flame Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, Unbroken) appears in her life there’s a glimmer of newfound happiness but the darkness eventually creeps back in.

The movie is based on the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter which I saw in its American premiere at The Guthrie Theater in 2012.  I remember it being a devastating trip through Garland’s tortured final months and was expecting the film to be in the same melancholy vein.  Surprisingly, the screenplay from Tom Edge isn’t into wallowing and feels most focused when it showcases Garland triumphing over her setbacks, many of her own making.  Yes, it’s difficult to watch multiple scenes of Garland stumbling through her sets and suffering the indignity of having food thrown at her (those cheeky Brits!) but at least the screenplay leaves out a few of the harsher incidents that were documented, including an irate patron getting up onstage and shaking Garland by her shoulders.  If anything, Edge throws in maybe one too many Good Garland moments, such as a fictionalized one where the singer accompanies a gay couple back to their flat after they waited for her at the stage door. It’s nice to see her out of her element, but it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about her…though Edge does tie this outing to a bit of business in the end in a rather clunky manner.

Had it not been for its leading performance, Judy would likely have been included in the pile of middling biopics that seem to pop up every few years.  However, with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland the entire film is elevated to another level.  Over the years, Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) has somehow gotten a bad rap from people and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  She’s reliably good in nearly everything she’s done and has multiple Oscar noms and one win to prove it.  All that she’s done before pales in comparison to the performance she gives here and it will surely knock your socks off.  She may not sing quite like Garland, (her vocal register is higher), but who really does?  She may not always look exactly like her, though the majority of the time it’s downright uncanny how much she resembles the singer. More than anything, Zellweger has found what I think is the soul of Garland and brought that forth – it goes far beyond a mere impersonation or recreation of signature moves.  The first time she sings, really sings, in character on stage is watershed moment for the movie and Zellweger as an actress.  At this point, it’s safe to say she’s a lock for an Oscar nomination and I can’t see anyone putting up much of a fight to beat her.

Yet one wishes the movie were as solid and satisfying as Zellweger’s performance.  As directed by Rupert Goold, there’s not much pizzazz to be found when Zellweger isn’t on screen so it’s a good thing she’s rarely out of sight.  Like the audiences in London all those years ago, you’re coming to see Judy Garland and Goold and company make sure she’s front and center as much as possible.  London in the late ’60s is recreated well, but it’s an awfully gloomy view of the town with the sun rarely shining.  The supporting players are serviceable, with Buckley as her increasingly unamused babysitter faring the best.  Earlier this year, Buckley also gave a thrilling musical performance in Wild Rose and might find herself competing against Zellweger for one or two awards.

Culminating with a truly breathtaking final 10 minutes that expose the heart of Garland’s deep vulnerability, it’s easy to excuse some of Judy’s more melodramatic moments along the way.  I found Zellweger to be downright mesmerizing as the troubled singer and am looking forward to watching her victory lap over the next few months.  Judy Garland sadly never won an Oscar the two times she was nominated (that she didn’t emerge victorious for 1954’s A Star is Born is an absolute crime!) but hopefully Zellweger winning one for playing Garland will make up just a teeny bit for that.

Movie Review ~ Hercules (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Having endured his legendary twelve labors, Hercules, the Greek demigod, has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace and his daughter seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, John Hurt, Rebecca Ferguson, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie

Director: Brett Ratner

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Bound to be best remembered as the second failed Hercules film of 2014 directed by a once hot director, it’s hard to know where to begin a review for something so devoid of meaning.  I can’t speak for Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules released in January because I managed to avoid that 3D affair but Brett Ratner’s Hercules, based on the version of the half god/half human brought to life by Radical Comics, is pretty bad stuff.

About halfway through the 98 minute film (which feels twice as long) my companion leaned in and whispered “What’s the point of all this?” and he wasn’t so far off the mark.  There’s unfortunately a lot of dialogue in the film and the script from Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos is so mawkishly hackneyed that it all winds up sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher wha-wha-wha-ing into your ear.

There’s some semblance of a plot involving mercenary Hercules benefitting from his supposed legendary lineage as he clomps through a ravaged Greece where everyone either speaks with a British or, in the case of its can’t-be-bothered star, an American accent.

Skipping over the more intriguing tales of Hercules moving through an Indiana Jones-like treasure trove of scary beasties and nasty tasks, the screenwriters settle for the musty old plot device of double crosses by power hungry bad guys.  This swords and sandals snoozefest is an endurance test for the ages, compounded by a lead performance that even the inhabitants of Hades would turn their noses at.

How Dwayne “The Rock’ Johnson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Pain and Gain) has managed to becomes a movie star is beyond me.  Though he does possess a certain amount of charm when he isn’t taking himself too seriously, as Hercules he’s dead on arrival and no amount of immortal heritage can save him. Wearing one of several wigs from the Johnny Depp collection and a beard that reads more like a piece of felt, Johnson looks like a huge bicep with eyes.  Actually, remember those cartoons where an uncooked turkey would get up from the platter and walk around?  That’s how he looks.

Though Ian McShane (Snow White and the Huntsman) is the one bright spot in the film as a wise old sage always quick with a one-liner, the rest of the cast is a shamefully mixed bag.  I don’t believe John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) looks a day under 200 but that’s nothing compared to the abject horror of seeing Joseph Fiennes sporting a hair system that reminded me of Buttercup from The Princess Bride.  Rebecca Ferguson shows some spunk as a busty damsel in distress and the Nicole Kidman lookalike Ingrid Bolsø Berdal outdoes her male counterparts in a throwaway role as an Amazonian archer.

The lousy CGI work is only outdone by the lamest post 3D conversion of the summer.  You can only ooo and ahh at a spear being thrust in your face so much before it all gets terribly tiring.  Ratner used to be on Hollywood’s A-list until several cinematic stumbles and one off color homophobic remark that sent him packing as producer of the 2012 Oscar’s heralded the decline of his status.  He won’t be seeing much love either after this stinker, surely one of the worst efforts of 2014.