Movie Review ~ Dating Amber


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A closeted gay teen and his lesbian counterpart pretend to be a couple to avoid suspicion.

Stars: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Barry Ward, Sharon Horgan, Simone Kirby, Lauryn Canny, Emma Willis

Director: David Freyne

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Whether we like it or not, those that lay out their opinions on film for all the world to read are bound to be caught in a fickle situation or two.  I’m as guilty as the next person of loving the easy-breezy romantic comedies that don’t ask too much of the viewer just as much as I crave those brainless action blockbusters that are made for chomping popcorn.  These movies are easy to identify (and, thus, write-off if you so choose) but it’s similar-themed fare that often can bear the burden of more harsh scrutiny.  Films such as these may seem rather conventional but look carefully and you can spot an aspiration that wasn’t met that needs to be called out.

Sadly, one of the newest examples of this is the import Irish comedy Dating Amber.  Here’s one that checked all the boxes on my list for a charming weekend watch but wound up being a disappointing rehash of ideas already brought to the screen.  I’m always onboard for a comedy that goes against the norm and defies expectations, so when I plunk down in front of one that is earnest as all get out and, it must be said, made with the most noble of intentions, I still have to give it its fair shake.  Despite an appealing cast and subject matter that usually gets short shrift in the romantic realm, writer/director David Freyne opts for the obvious when a surprise or two will do and ends up with the five words no LGBTQ film wants to be classified as: Just Another Ordinary Gay Movie.

The oldest child of a military man (Barry Ward, Extra Ordinary) and a stay-at-home mom (Sharon Horgan, Game Night), Eddie (Fionn O’Shea, The Aftermath) is doing everything he can to repress his gay feelings that are becoming too big to ignore.  His friends egg him on to an embarrassing encounter with the loosest girl in their Irish countryside school, an experience that backfires on him and only puts a larger spotlight on his lack of interest in the opposite sex.  Watching all of this unfold is Amber (Lola Petticrew), a popular target for the boys in her class to make crass jokes about and to be harassed by the girls for her supposed lesbian leanings.  Living in a trailer park with her mom after her dad committed suicide, she’s saving up money to head to London by renting one of the empty trailers on her property by the hour to any of her horny classmates that have the cash.

Tired of being bullied and trusting her gut, Amber approaches Eddie and makes him a proposition.  Since they’re both gay (though he claims he’s not), why don’t they pretend to date.  That will squash the daily taunting at school and help them get through the final months before they can truly begin to live their best lives.  Under the guise of doing it to help her, Eddie agrees and the two start their faux relationship which burgeons into just the kind of platonic friendship both had been needing.  Though their romantic lives still need some help, they find some semblance of normalcy in the partnership of another person that understands how the other feels.  However, the more Amber uses this safe space to learn to be happy with accepting her sexuality, the less Eddie follows suit, leading to an emotional rift that threatens their ideal arrangement.

Countless high school films over the years have dealt with these secret relationship/friendship machinations and we all know where they’re heading.  That Dating Amber follows such a standard trajectory while only occasionally setting a pinky toe into new territory is a bummer because there’s some rich emotional soil that could be uncovered here.  Instead, Freyne gives us another school filled with teens that are obnoxious homophobic horndogs and at least one parent that feels like they’ve been waiting their whole life to have a gay child and has had their “I accept you” speech well-rehearsed.  It’s inevitable the teens will have some sort of heated confrontation in a school hallway and the parent will get a late-night teary moment to offer their support…we’re just checking our watches for when it will occur.  It should be said that not enough films go into the relationship between gay men and women with as much mirth.  Wisely, Freyne makes these showcase moments meaning they are memorable but infrequent.

Perhaps Freyne just has too much going on that took away from the people we were here to see.  The story is about the evolution of both Eddie and Amber getting to a new level of love for themselves, but some side story always seems to be getting in the way.  Horgan and Ward are strong actors but the fact their marriage was in shambles had little to do with their son and seemed like a plot thread dropped from Horgan’s Military Wives from earlier this year.  Exploring Amber’s home life tied in a bit more, but lack of development of this area kept it from resonating, which is a shame because Petticrew and Simone Kirby (The Shadow of Violence) as her mother had some good interplay.  I’ve really enjoyed O’Shea in Hulu’s Normal People (where he played a real a-hole) as well as Handsome Devil (a much better LGBTQ pic showing a less typical coming-out story) but here his bundle of nerves got old quickly.   Also, it got aggravating that Eddie’s given so many passes for his poor behavior and violent outbursts without paying much of a realistic price that I began to care less about his ultimate journey.

Originally titled Beards, Dating Amber should have been better than it is considering the scope of possibilities open to the filmmakers.  The entire film I had the nagging feeling like I’d seen this all before.  It wasn’t that it’s an exact carbon copy of other, better, films, it’s that almost all of its choices are so textbook that you could choose any high school romantic comedy (gay or straight) off the shelf and find the same characters.  I’m glad movies like this are getting made and hope they continue to arrive with regularity…I just hope they aren’t so, you know, regular.

Movie Review ~ Military Wives


The Facts
:

Synopsis: With their partners away serving in Afghanistan, a group of women on the home front form a choir and quickly find themselves at the center of a media sensation and global movement.

Stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan, Jason Flemyng, Greg Wise, Emma Lowndes, Gaby French

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: One of the last movies I was scheduled to see before this pandemic hit was Military Wives and I have to say, I was disappointed to be missing it.  Yes, I know that the #StayHome and #StaySafe orders were for the best and I am in full support of social distancing in order to kick COVID-19 to the curb (what will people think reading this in a few years?) but I was seriously in the mood for something that looked as joyously heartwarming as Military Wives looked to be.  Though you could literally see the plot points developing while the trailer was unspooling it was no matter, sometimes it is OK to know the route before leaving the station.

The chance to get to see this early did present itself, though, so I found myself watching a screener of this during a particularly glum week and I have to say, it really did the trick in brightening a mood.  Even though it deals with some emotional subjects and is, at times, a heart-tugging tearjerker, this is the kind of film made to turn on during a dark period.  It’s bright, it’s light, and it while it is disappointingly not as deep or as sensitively profound as I thought it would be there’s so much good will being poured into it that it’s hard not to give over to its charms at one point or another.

At the Flitcroft Military Base, families are preparing to say goodbye to their loves ones that are shipping out on active duty for a tour in Afghanistan.  In order to stay busy, the spouses/partners of the soldiers serving try to stay busy with events organized by the partner of the second in command.  Previously, this was tightly-wound Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) but with her husband (Greg Wise, Last Christmas) now the highest level officer at the base, that role now falls to Lisa (Sharon Horgan, Game Night) who is more loose with her definition of organized activity.  When Lisa’s experience with choral work is brought up, the ladies decide to start a choir leading to a power struggle between Lisa and Kate.  With little initial energy behind the choral club from the members and the leaders, it takes a shocking wake-up call to remind the group of their strength and how important their role as caregivers are.

I’ll say off the bat that those expecting a raucous comedy about a dysfunctional choir that starts off bad and turns into an overnight sensation after a series of hysterical antics should likely go back and dust off their copy of Sister Act (actually, do that anyway) because that’s not exactly the movie we have here.  Screenwriters Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard have taken a true-life story and fictionalized it, letting the Flitcroft Military Choir be the amalgam for a number of choirs that came together during the Afghanistan deployment back in 2008 and their focus is not entirely on laughs but on humor…if that makes sense.  Most of the comedy is derived from the ladies reluctance to participate in the chorus, only to be swayed when they begin to gel as one as they find their voices as a group.  Scenes that you think are headed for a comic punchline either veer in a different direction or don’t go anywhere at all, at times it feels like Flynn and Tunnard are afraid to stray too far into comedic shenanigans, even though the movie might have derived some needed energy from these flights of fancy.

This being a film about loved ones engaged in war you may be able to guess at least one of the poignant moments – and you know it’s coming but just not when or to whom.  Thankfully, the screenwriters spare us the suspense and don’t make that the event that the final act hinges on but rather what pushes it forward.  The real heavy emotional lifting is done by Scott Thomas playing the wife grieving the loss of her son killed in battle left behind by a husband also unable to cope with his sorrow.  Had the movie shifted the focus to be more on Scott Thomas and used her involvement with choir as a way toward her finding healing, I have a feeling it would have been more successful.  As it is, there’s just not enough story or character development to go around the numerous (appealing) supporting cast that doesn’t get much in the way of fleshed out story arcs.  Even the talented Horgan can’t drum up much interest and though she’s meant to be a co-lead she’s often overshadowed by Scott Thomas solely because her character isn’t as well-defined.

Director Peter Cattaneo found unexpected triumph (and an Oscar nomination) over twenty years for the quirky delight that was The Full Monty and as much as the marketing materials want you to believe this is another slam dunk like that was, it isn’t.  That’s not to say Military Wives is without its own share of rich moments of humanity…it’s just that there aren’t quite as many opportunities as there could have been.  It follows a standard formula that gets the job done but is workmanlike in its delivery.  Though it culminates with a moving performance at the Royal Albert Hall and features a typically fantastic performance from School Thomas, Military Wives winds up just under pitch.

Movie Review ~ Game Night

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Game Night is one of those movies I refer to as a Goldilocks outing. It’s not really great but not really bad, it’s decently funny but isn’t chock full of laughs, it’s more creative than it should be but still oddly formulaic. In the end, it winds up being just right – very much what the doctor ordered for those looking forward to a harmlessly pleasant night out at cinemas.

Meeting and falling in love during a rousing round of bar trivia, Max (Jason Bateman, This is Where I Leave You) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, Passion) have settled into their suburban lifestyle, their ultracompetitive nature placated by a weekly game night with friends. Things are getting a bit staid, though, and when Max’s ultra-cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to town and offers to host game night in his new house, the group jumps at the chance to shake things up a bit.   Arriving for a night they think is coordinated by Brooks, they soon find themselves mixed up in the game Brooks orchestrated and real life danger, racing around town in pursuit of kidnappers while avoiding landing in the crosshairs of a deadly criminal.

Doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, right? Well, in the hands of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who also directed the divisive update of Vacation) and screenwriter Mark Perez there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing at what is part of the game and what actually is happening. Think 1997’s cool thriller The Game but not quite as clever. I have to say the movie kept my interest more than I thought it would considering it’s from “the guys that brought you Horrible Bosses.” That earlier film and its gross sequel upped the raunch factor that Game Night was wise to avoid replicating. There’s fairly little overly nasty humor here and what is present feels smartly placed as opposed to relying on cheap shocks for laughs. Sadly, one of the funniest gags involving an airplane engine was totally spoiled in the trailer.

Daley and Goldstein have assembled a crack cast that brings energy to the mix. Bateman is his usually Bateman-y self but with droll McAdams as his partner in crime there’s a nice balance between his snark and her sincerity. Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury find some funny moments as Max and Annie’s friends that bring their own baggage along for the crazy ride while Jesse Plemons (The Master) is a riot as a former friend and weird police office neighbor the group has shunned. Plemons is so note perfectly odd that he quite nearly steals the show from his cast mates.

As with most movies with a mystery at its core, the film gets less interesting the more it reveals but then it pivots nicely by pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you’ve got things solved. It’s a silly film but more entertaining than you’d expect just from watching the trailers. Bound to please fans of the actors and creatives involved, the real winners of Game Night are movie-goers that check it out with their expectations set slightly lower.