Movie Review ~ To the Stars


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Under small town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly but reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma.

Stars: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Adelaide Clemens, Lucas Jade Zumann, Malin Åkerman, Tony Hale

Director: Martha Stephens

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I open my review of the new coming-of-age drama with a familiar slap on the wrist to myself.  Yes, once again I did the film I was about to see a disservice by reading the little blurb about it first and getting to the “coming-of-age” part and doing one of those exasperated “Blerghs”.  Like a badly drawn character from the Sunday comics, my next thought bubble was, “now you’ll tell me that it’s set in the South in the 1960s”.  Sure enough….a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s is where the action of To the Stars takes place.  The one thing that intrugied me, though, is when I read the movie was shot in black and white…which I found interesting because so few movies go that route.  So let me say I was a little fraught when I started the movie and it was in full dust bowl color…a pause and a scan of the internet told me that while the movie was shot in B&W and premiered at festivals in that format, the wider release would be in color.  Huh. Ok.

All this to say that for whatever reason I came to this indie film in, how should I say it?, not the best spirit.  I recognized that, though, and promised myself to work hard at letting all that go because the movie deserved my honest feedback.  Turns out, I didn’t have to work hard at all because this is one fine film, a surprisingly moving bit of entertainment boasting genuine heartfelt performances.  Well-paced and taking the kind of turns I wasn’t expecting at the beginning, it may follow some familiar rough roads but it’s when it veers off in its own path that it really soars.

When mousy Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom) first meets fireball Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato, Banana Split), she doesn’t know quite what to make of the new girl in town.  A gang of bullies that have found a reliable target has just stopped Iris on her way to school and Maggie isn’t aware that Iris rarely puts up a fight.  Though Maggie tries to fit in by standing out in their small town school crowd, she only connects with Iris when the two share of moment of vulnerability late at night at a pond between their houses.  A friendship blossoms where Maggie encourages Iris to come out from the shadow of her well-intentioned but wrong-headed mother (Jordana Spiro) and Iris helps Maggie tear down some of the defensive walls she’s built up, eventually revealing why her family suddenly moved to their small town.

Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s script has a languid way of developing at first, slowly letting the friendship between the two girls come center stage.  The first half perhaps spends a tad too much time involved with school politics, namely the way Iris is shunned by the cool girls who are mean to Iris just…because. (It’s a big pain point of the script that none of the antagonists are ever given any background/reason to their actions.)  In a set-up that reminded me of Muriel’s Wedding, the cool girls glom on to the ‘prettier’ Maggie, who would rather spend her time with Iris who she senses (correctly) is far better for her than they are.  Scenes with Maggie and her parents (a staid Tony Hale, Toy Story 4, and Malin Åkerman, Rock of Ages) are fairly interesting because it’s clear something is going on in the family dynamic but just what that is only comes to light later on.

What the script does provide, even in small doses, are some excellent moments of authenticity not just for the two leading ladies who are both resolutely excellent throughout but for the supporting players.  From Shea Whigham (The Quarry) as Iris’s soft-spoken and supportive father to Spiro as her boozy mother that flirts with anything that moves.  I was also quite taken with Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby) as Hazel, the town hairdresser who plays a special role of comfort as the film continues.  To say more about how all of these complex characters factor into the surprising turn of events would rob the movie of some of its emotional kick but director Martha Stephens guides it all with a delicate touch.

Watching the movie, the whole black and white business was always on the forefront of my mind.  At first, the wide shots of the open Oklahoma prairie land seemed like the perfect way to utilize the film stock drained of color but quite a lot of the movie is set at night.  I actually think the decision to flip to color was the right one because seeing that a few major events happen in the darkness, it especially helps as the film moves toward its bittersweet conclusion.  A wise choice for a wise movie.  Don’t miss this one – it’s one of those I think you could easily recommend to others.

 

Movie Review ~ Endings, Beginnings


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Los Angeles woman unlocks the secrets to her life after meeting two handsome best friends at a party.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, Sebastian Stan, Wendie Malick, Matthew Gray Gubler, Lindsay Sloane, Ben Esler, Shamier Anderson, Kyra Sedgwick

Director: Drake Doremus

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  When I was growing up, if I disappointed them the most crushing thing my parents could say to me was “We love you, we just don’t like you right now.”  Even though it still reaffirmed that they cared for me (and my parents were awesome and endlessly supportive through my many flights of fancy) and highlighted that my actions had an impact on how people perceived me, losing that bit of luster even for a moment was heartbreaking.  While movie characters aren’t quite on the same level as letting down your family, I found that phrase popping up often while watching Endings, Beginnings.  I truly like most of the actors in the film, I just didn’t like any of their characters.

It’s the story of Daphne (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars), a California artist moving back into the pool house of her sister and brother-in-law after breaking up with her latest boyfriend.  You get the sense she made the decision to end things but is already having second thoughts because she can’t quite get him (or a hazy encounter with another unidentified man) out of her mind for much of the film.  Deciding to go cold turkey on men and alcohol for six months, she looks for work but finds it hard to stay away from her vices for long.

That’s when she meets two men in quick succession.  Jack (Jamie Dornan, Fifty Shades Freed) is a slick success story that charms the side of Daphne that craves stability while the handsomely rumpled Frank (Sebastain Stan, I, Tonya) meets her needs for satisfying love without deeper emotion.  Both, on their own, might not be all that she is looking for but together they provide a yin and yang that leaves her feeling whole.  Writer/director Drake Doremus (Like, Crazy, Equals) gives this modern love triangle a few sharp edges but the crux of the decisions Daphne has to make tend toward the soap operatic the more involved she gets with both men.

For a time, Endings, Beginnings creates a dreamy mood that invites you into Daphne’s world and that’s due in large part to Woodley’s charisma which continues to shine through.  Though she’s never been as good as she was in her star-making turn in 2011’s The Descendants (WHY didn’t she get an Oscar nomination, I ask you?), she has a good showing here even making the semi-improvised dialogue not sound like remnants from an acting class exercise.  The longer the movie goes on, though, the less you relate to the character because she stops being somebody real and morphs into a creation that could only happen in the movies.

As the men in her life, Dornan and Stan provide at least some interesting stakes for her to gamble on, even if they seem to exist only to get her to hop off the wagon of no men and no drinking.  That they actively push her to drink and don’t always respect her boundaries is a little off-putting, to be honest, and feels just a tad antiquated in a film as modern as this purports to be.  In small supporting turns (too small for my taste), Wendie Malick (Scrooged) has a few nice scenes as Daphne’s mom and the always reliable Kyra Sedgwick (Man on a Ledge) shows up as a friend in Daphne’s weekly art clutch.  I’m so used to seeing Malick playing vamp-y women that it was a nice change of pace to find her so restrained and while Sedgwick’s character seems designed only to spout sage advice and then disappear, at least she breaks up the monotony of scenes with Daphne and her men.

One more thing before I go.  I don’t know why I noticed this but the amount of smoking in this movie was absolutely obscene.  I’ve never mentioned this in any review before because it hasn’t been something that’s caught my eye but I swear I could smell smoke emanating from the screen at times because there are so many cigarettes consumed ad nauseam by Daphne, Jack, and Frank.  It’s used so much, I half expected it to be a plot device later in the movie…spoiler alert…it’s not.  I guess I just find it surprising that a filmmaker in 2020 would choose to feature this vice so prominently when it isn’t essential to any character or plot element.

For Woodley’s performance, I would give this a cautious recommendation with the caveat that the film gets markedly weaker as it goes along before completely disintegrating.  Here’s hoping Woodley gets another chance soon to play a mature character like this and can sink her teeth into a script that meets her step for step – she’s obviously willing to go the distance in her performance.  Now let’s get her something solid to work with.

Movie Review ~ Daniel Isn’t Real


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A troubled college freshman, Luke, suffers a violent family trauma and resurrects his childhood imaginary friend Daniel to help him cope.

Stars: Patrick Schwarzenegger, Miles Robbins, Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were times when I envied people who talked about their imaginary friend when they were growing up.  Having that special person they could converse with and share secrets sounded kind of fun…a little wacky, but fun.  I wanted to know what these “friends” looked like, were they human, did they age along with you, did they go everywhere with you?  What about when you wanted a moment to yourself?  As an only child, I wondered why I didn’t automatically get one of these because I didn’t have the built-in playmate that a sibling often brings but, sadly, I was left to my own creative ways to pass the time.  Probably for the best…I got into enough trouble on my own.  Mom and Dad, sorry again for all of my shenanigans.

In movies, imaginary friends have been featured in romps like 1996’s trite Bogus and, most famously, in 1991’s Drop Dead Fred which was filmed in my hometown (Minneapolis, MN) and showcased one of the last onscreen appearances of everyone’s dreamgirl of the ‘80s, Phoebe Cates.  Drop Dead Fred was a mischievous imp that got our leading lady into all sorts of trouble but ultimately had her best interest at heart.  He may have royally wrecked her life at the outset but it was all for the best.  In the new psychological thriller Daniel Isn’t Real, a make-believe mate wreaks similar havoc that turns far more sinister the more his true motives are revealed.

Based on a 2009 novel by Brian DeLeeuw, the film has an audacious opening that introduces us to young Luke, showing how he comes to meet up with Daniel at the scene of a violent crime.  (It’s a bit of a shock, especially considering some of the recent headline-making incidents, but it’s a highly effective way to kickstart the movie).  Becoming fast friends in spite of their unique circumstance of meeting, Daniel provides an outlet for Luke to escape the troubles at home where his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson, Fried Green Tomatoes) battles a growing mental illness.  After nearly killing his mother under Daniel’s seemingly benign influence, Luke is finally convinced to lock his friend away in a stately dollhouse where he remains trapped for the next decade.

Now a college freshman struggling with his own issues, Luke (Miles Robbins, Halloween, son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) returns to his family home for a visit to find his mother in a downward spiral of schizophrenia.  Under pressure with school, his family, and life in general he turns back to the one time in his life when he felt special, with Daniel.  Unlocking the dollhouse releases Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), who has aged into a brooding trickster more than willing to help his old friend sort out some of his current problems.  With Daniel’s assistance, Luke aces a quiz he was unprepared for, gets the confidence to talk to a girl he’s been eyeing (Hannah Marks) and even meets another girl (Sasha Lane, Hellboy) that might provide the kind of challenging love and support Daniel could never offer.  This, obviously, won’t do.  The longer Daniel is in Luke’s life the less it feels like he’s his friend and more like he’s haunting him.  As Luke eventually realizes what Daniel really is and what’s he’s up to, it becomes a fight for survival because how can you run from someone that’s a part of you?

There’s some good stuff going on in this adaptation from DeLeeuw (Paradise Hills) and director Adam Egypt Mortimer, especially in the opening half when Daniel is more of an enigma.  These early scenes when Luke is struggling with the realities of life and discussing his problems with his psychiatrist (Chukwudi Iwuji) have a nice snap to them.  Even the introduction of the adult Daniel has its interesting moments, with Schwarzenegger’s acting being just on the right side of hokey to pull off the vapid poser this creation is presenting himself to be.  I also liked any excuse to see Masterson onscreen, she was such a popular presence in the ‘80s that it’s nice to see her transition into the mom phase of her career with this complex type of motherly character.

What doesn’t seem to work for me is a dreary final forty minutes, mostly because it rests on the shoulder of Robbins and Schwarzenegger and, sorry to say it, these progeny of Hollywood royalty aren’t exactly captivating thespians.  Robbins is so non-threatening that he’d be a great person to bring home as a prom date but doesn’t convince when he’s asked to preen and sneer when he’s possessed by Daniel’s persona at one point near the finale.  Same goes for Schwarzenegger who, aside from those out of the gate scenes that work, becomes one-note (a low one) fairly fast.   Together, they’re a fairly dullsome twosome and as their escapades turn more violent, the less interesting the movie becomes because DeLeeuw and Mortimer have telegraphed from the start just how far Daniel is willing to take things.

Still, there’s something to Daniel Isn’t Real that kept it on my mind long after it was over.  This feeling of not being able to get away from a destructive inner demon that nags at you is relatable and I appreciated when DeLeeuw and Mortimer explored those internal struggles.  I mean, it’s sometimes a bit literal but there are moments when the suggestion is more effective than the presentation and that’s what sets this one apart.  There are some elements of The Cell that enter the picture near the end, visuals included, and while the budget can’t quite support those aspirations I appreciated the attempt at keeping our eyes fixed onto something unique.  I wonder what this would have been like with stronger leads, though.  If we don’t care about the character going through this turmoil, what’s the point?

Movie Review ~ Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving.

Stars: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Austin Pendleton, Fran Lebowitz, Michael Bernardi, Jerry Bock, Danny Burstein, Joey Grey, Josh Mostel, Harvey Fierstein, Topol, Harold Prince

Director: Max Lewkowicz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: A funny thing happens to me anytime I hear someone bring up the musical Fiddler on the Roof. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I stop in my tracks, get completely serious, and say “I. Love. That. Show.” It’s not being dramatic, it’s not overstating the truth…it’s just fact. For a while I used to say it was my guilty pleasure show…until I realized that I’d never seen a bad production of it and there were quite a few others than shared in my sentiment. In the world of theater, it seems that you either love Fiddler, you were in Fiddler, or both.

For the last 55 years, the Tony winning show inspired by the tales of Sholem Aleichem with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein hasn’t gone a single day without being performed somewhere in the world. Ponder that for a moment. Every day, for over a half century, somewhere on earth, an audience experienced the musical set in a Russian shtetl in 1905 about a milkman named Tevye and his family. A little over a month ago, I caught the new Broadway tour of the 2015 revival of the show and fell in love with it all over again. Yes, the first act is longer than most Adam Sandler movies (100 minutes) and by this point there’s hardly a person in the world that hasn’t “deedle deedle dum’ed” their way through a shower rendition of ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ but the show continues to work like gangbusters.

Inspired to learn a bit more about the show, I tracked down a copy of Barbara Isenberg’s excellent 2015 book ‘Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical’ right around the same time I got wind of this documentary. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is part creation story and part time capsule, showing not just the genesis and lasting impact of the musical but also the cultural climate it sprung out of. While many of the stories from the book are repeated in the movie, both have their own golden nuggets that make them a must for any Fiddler fan.

Clearly, the admirers are plentiful and endure along with the show, including a plethora of familiar stars of stage and screen that are interviewed by director Max Lewkowicz. Using archive interviews with the creators (Stein and Bock have passed away) and having family members fill in some narrative gaps, the film is often a straight-forward ‘this is how we made it’ charting of how the piece developed. Those interested in Broadway history will find many recognizable names mentioned as the show went from a poorly reviewed tryout in Washington D.C. to becoming a global phenomenon that continues to sell out theaters whenever it plays in whatever language it’s been adapted to.  Yet before we get to how the writers came up with the songs and how director/choreographer Jerome Robbins devised the inventive dances, Lewkowicz takes audiences on a journey through the early ’60s and the mood the country was in when the Fiddler crew was setting up shop.  It’s valuable to see where the authors were coming from and what might have influenced them, not just in that point in history but in their own personal remembrances.

While the book ultimately has some more dishy asides about the shenanigans that went on offstage and original Tevye Zero Mostel’s tendency toward the unpredictable onstage, the documentary has its own share of memorable moments. I found the audio clips from the first school production to be incredibly moving. As the show was still playing its original run on Broadway, a inner city NYC school was granted the rights by the creators as a way to demonstrate that, though the show was about Jews, its message was universal. The production was met with protests by the religious on both sides, each wonder the appropriateness of someone outside of the Jewish heritage going through a show that has several faith-based observances serving as key moments.  Hearing the young cast sing the music is remarkable. Try to stave off the chills.

Starting out strong by going into a fairly detailed deep dive into the politics and temperature in place when the musical was first created, Lewkowicz stretches things a bit too far by looping in everyone’s favorite Pulitzer Prize winner, Lin-Manual Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) for some on-camera time. Now, I’m fan of what Miranda did for Broadway with Hamilton and hold that piece of theater up as the highest of high bars, but did we really need his appearance talking about his wedding reception video that went viral (a well-orchestrated viral, I might add) where he got family and friends to sing ‘To Life’? Honestly? No. It feels like a strange diversion, an unfocused detour after such a keen honing in on more related topics.  I know it’s included to show how the music continues to inspire but it comes off as a chance for Miranda to pat himself on the back for devising the surprise for his bride.  So it smacks ever so slightly of inclusion for name value alone.

At a brief 92 minutes, there’s a bounty of information here for the casual fan and for those that have listened to the cast recording thousands of time. It’s nice to hear from Topol, the Oscar-nominated star of the movie who played Tevye onstage before and after his silver screen performance. Seeing him play the role onstage several years ago, I’m not ashamed to admit I burst ino tears the moment he said his first line. I would have liked to see a bit more comparisons between the Fiddler productions throughout the years, from the revised version that played Broadway in 2004 (I saw Harvey Fierstein as Tevye…another unexpected delight), the most recent revival from 2015, or from the current production playing off-Broadway performed entirely in Yiddish.  Even so, there are clips from a number of international productions, illustrating again the ease in which the show crosses through languages and interpretations.

Thanks to the judicious editing by Lewkowicz and the addition of some nice animations to tie passages together, it’s a well-paced watch. Engaging and entertaining but, like it’s subject, over in the blink of an eye, Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles may follow the same structure as many making-of documentaries but it gives the audience something extra. By looking at the bigger picture surrounding the show and how it has had an impact, it makes an oft-done musical seem as relevant today as ever before.