Movie Review ~ To the Stars


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Synopsis: Under small town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly but reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma.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


The Facts
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Synopsis: After murdering a traveling preacher, a fugitive drifter assumes his identity and becomes the new cleric of a small-town church. While he wins over the congregation, the police chief starts to link the mysterious stranger to a crime investigation.

Stars: Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Bobby Soto, Bruno Bichir, Alvaro Martinez

Director: Scott Teems

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  There are times when big screen adaptations of novels feel too workmanlike, simply going through the motions like chapters are driving the characters forward rather than real motivations.  Internal narratives are filled in with action so audiences don’t get restless and you feel as if you’ve lived the book rather than experienced the movie.  Every so often, though, you come upon a film that’s made the leap from page to screen and the transition works to its advantage because it lets the book dictate the rhythm and pace of what develops.

No one is going to watch the indie drama The Quarry and get an adrenaline rush from the viewing because writer/director Scott Teems hasn’t set out to create a fast-paced crime noir set in a Texas border town.  This is a carefully considered character study and before you roll your eyes a second time let me reel you back in and say that as dime a dozen as those may be, this is one to take a chance on.  Though the action that takes place over the 103 minute run time may not be the most original or, let’s be honest, exciting, it’s at least compelling in a way that many similar films aren’t.

Picking up The Man (Shea Whigham, Vice) after finding him on the side of the road, a preacher (Bruno Bichir, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) running away from his past toward an unremarkable future makes the mistake of thinking he can save one last troubled soul.  In short (non-spoiler-y) order, The Man kills him, dumps his body, and assumes his identity in the small dead-end town near the Mexican border, first as a way to hide from the law he’s clearly running from but eventually because he finds some salvation in the response he gets from the town’s residents.  Much like 2019 Best Foreign Language Nominee Corpus Christi, the townspeople have a positive reaction to this supposed man of God because he speaks to them in a way no on has spoken before…as one of them, which, we know he is. Taking room and board with Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, A Most Violent Year) who sees the police chief (Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water) regularly puts a spotlight dangerously close to him…a situation made more tense when a body is discovered in the local quarry.

It’s interesting to note that Damon Galgut’s 1995 novel has been made into a movie once before in 1998 that maintained the book’s original setting: South Africa.  Teems has skillfully moved the action to Texas which provides an opportunity to further explore the themes of the book involving the police trying to pin the murder on local minorities (blacks in the novel, Mexicans in the 2020 movie) which only makes The Man’s growing anguish over his crime grow.  You don’t have to look very hard to see a little Les Misérables action happening, with a man living under a false name pursued by the law weighing his options when another man is arrested and tried for a crime he himself committed.

You may not know his name but you’ve definitely seen Whigham before (and you’ll see him again next week in a small role if you check out the excellent To the Stars) and he’s afforded a swell leading role here.  He hasn’t made the leap in Hollywood to A-list, but I always have the feeling he’s one great role away from getting recognized for his strong showings wherever he turns up.  His quiet, nearly silent, role speaks to a deep well of hurt within the convict and though you know you shouldn’t be on his side, you silently root for him to win.  Never truly capitalizing on her Oscar-nominated role in 2004”s Maria Full of Grace, Sandino Moreno is excellent in her supporting turn as the lone female presence in a male dominated town/movie.  Shannon’s lawman could very easily have gone cliché but he kept surprising me, whether that was the script or the actor, I’m still not quite sure.  Another actor to look out for is Bobby Soto (A Better Life) as Celia’s cousin.  Soto begins the film heading in one direction but takes a surprising twist halfway through.  Going toe-to-toe with nearly everyone in the movie, Soto often manages to come out the winner in his scenes…a not small feat considering his co-stars.

You’ll hear the term “slow-burn” thrown around a lot when people talk about the movie but don’t take that to mean it won’t hold your interest.  I was initially put off by what I thought would be another tale of “how long can a man who isn’t who he says he is fool everyone into thinking he isn’t a bad guy” and was pleased to find how much the movie pulled me in and took me along for the ride.  For fans of these types of crime dramas and assured performances, you’ve got a good option in The Quarry.

Movie Review ~ Joker

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A clown-for-hire by day, strives to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds that the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence teetering on the precipice of reality and madness, one bad decision brings about a chain reaction of escalating, ultimately deadly, events.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olsen

Director: Todd Phillips

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve almost been dreading the day I had to see Joker ever since I saw the first preview for it.  Though the internet lost their minds when they got a look at Joaquin Phoenix in costume and there were plenty exclamations of “Take My Money!” (What does that phrase mean, exactly? Anyway…), I didn’t understand what this movie was meant to do.  For audiences.  For the studio.  For the character.  The Joker has been played indelibly before by the likes of Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger…did Phoenix really want to walk a mile in those clown shoes and be compared to those titans?  Also, the movie just looked skeevy and drab, clearly aiming to distance itself far from any vision yet of Gotham City.

So it came to pass that the day the screening arrived nothing seemed to go right.  Waking up on the wrong side of the bed doesn’t even begin to describe it.  The day was gloomy, the night was rain-soaked.  The topper was a crazy security line to get into the preview that had the effect of setting a somber mood.  Being slowly wanded by a security guard made me feel like there was something to be wary about, the early buzz of the movie’s excessive violence bouncing around in my head.  Were critics worrying the movie might stir unrest not all that unfounded?  I was on edge from the beginning.

Perhaps all that build-up and early fretting helped me stave off some of the higher expectations others may have going into the movie this weekend.  While it’s certainly as violent as I’d heard and more deeply upsetting than I was imagining, I watched Joker with a transfixed gaze without being able to turn away.  I didn’t always like what I was seeing but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the screen.  It’s a film that starts with a bleak outlook and just goes downhill from there with little reprieve, hope, or kindness offered along the way.  Even so, there’s a certain beauty in all that ugliness.

A standalone story that doesn’t involve the caped crusader (no mention of the B-word at all), Joker basically gives the Clown Prince of Crime the Wicked treatment and makes the character we’ve come to know as the villain the protagonist of the story.  Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Part III) co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Finest Hours) and borrows liberally from Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Setting the action in 1981 NYC gives Phillips the opportunity to let production designer Mark Friedberg (Noah) and costume designer Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) pull out all the stops and the Big Apple is indeed recreated in all its seedy, smoky glory.  It’s almost worth the price of admission alone to see the way the filmmakers have crafted not only the look of the time but also the mood.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix, The Master) makes a meager living as clown hired out for odd jobs while dreaming of making it as a stand-up comic on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, Cape Fear) show.  Living with his mother (Frances Conroy, Falling in Love) in a one-room apartment, he suffers from brain trauma causing him to laugh uncontrollably when faced with stress.  Entertaining a new friendship with a neighbor (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2), Arthur becomes more infatuated with the thought of fame.  His weekly therapy sessions hint at a man with diagnosed mental health issues not getting the kind of significant treatment he needs and, eventually, not even having the benefit of meeting with his psychiatrist. Soon, he’s a man on the edge finally pushed to his breaking point.

While dressed as a clown, he’s assaulted on a subway and strikes back.  Though his identity goes unnoticed, his actions do not, inspiring the lesser thans in a city roiling in unrest to find a common bond and uniting in their shared anger.  Though he claims to not stand for anything, deep down Arthur shares in their feelings, wondering why the world is so messed up and people have become so rotten to one another.  Finding a newfound strength with his painted on persona and with his inner circle closing in around him, Arthur sets his sights on a broader audience and when his path crosses with his favorite television star, he seizes an opportunity to take the Joker global.

There’s a few ways you can look at what Phillips and Silver are going for with Joker.  You can view the movie from a perspective that a terrible society without feeling or order breeds people like Arthur Fleck.  He’s pushed aside and forgotten, left to fend for himself without any real chance to succeed.  How can we expect people to be better, do better, if they aren’t given some kind of opportunity or a means of support?  There’s another way to look at the film and I think it’s more dangerous.  Maybe it’s a thinly veiled battle cry against a humanity that has become self-absorbed and aims to restore some order by introducing a violent messiah messiah-figure to idolize.  I doubt the filmmakers knowingly were aiming for this but our culture isn’t that great at reading into the deeper meanings in metaphor so if some kind of statement on the dangers of societal violence was being made I think it was lost in the telling.  The fears some people have voiced that the movie may be pro mob-mentality aren’t that off the mark.

At the epicenter of it all is Joaquin Phoenix’s polarizing performance as Fleck/Joker which hits the bullseye at times but is wildly weird at others.  Backed by a surprisingly alert performance from De Niro and an eclectic mix of character actors, Phoenix is never off screen, which gets exhausting. Phoenix is known for immersing himself in roles to sometimes concerning levels and I spent most of the movie wondering how long it took for him to bounce back after filming had completed.  That’s a problem.  I was always aware it was a performance while watching his gaunt and greasy figure move from scene to scene.

Losing weight for the role gave him the wan visage intended but you can see him angling his body or sucking his stomach in to show each rib and bone – so it’s clearly all for show.  Strangely, it’s when Phoenix is in make-up as Joker (actually, anytime he’s in clown make-up throughout the movie) that he’s nothing short of electric.  Especially as the film ramps up to its troublesome final act, Phoenix positively comes alive and sheds the more pithy acting choices he’s made up until that point.  Now, there’s more than danger present in Arthur’s eyes, there’s glee in the dread he’s inflicting on Gotham City and happiness he’s being noticed for the first time in his unhappy life.

We’ve had so many interpretations of Batman over the years that maybe it wasn’t all that bad of an idea to have a different take on one of the players in his rogue gallery of villains.  I’m not sure Joker is exactly the movie we needed right now at this point when our nation is so overwhelmed with negativity and a general aimlessness, but it’s a well-made and in your face film that will surely open up conversations.  You can argue the intentions of the filmmakers but you can’t argue that the movie isn’t intriguing in its own weird way.

The Silver Bullet ~ Kong: Skull Island

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Synopsis: A diverse team of explorers is brought together to venture deep into an uncharted island in the Pacific—as beautiful as it is treacherous—unaware that they’re crossing into the domain of the mythic Kong.

Release Date: March 10, 2017

Thoughts: Since 1933, we’ve been kinda ape over King Kong. Though his franchise isn’t a huge one, each time he’s appeared on screen it’s been a cultural touchstone of the moviemaking era.  The original film became instantly iconic while the overstuffed 1976 remake boasted impressive effects and a newcomer by the name of Jessica Lange.  Peter Jackson’s thrill heavy 2005 reboot didn’t kick things off like it should have but it kept the larger than life monkey in relevant terms.  With the success of 2014’s Godzilla and expertly timed with Universal Studios in Orlando’s new King Kong ride, Kong: Skull Island feels like it’s arriving at the right time.  Starring Brie Larson (The Gambler), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), Tom Hiddleston (Thor: The Dark World), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), and John C. Reilly (Guardians of the Galaxy), the new’70s set Kong is clearly going for that old school home territory feeling without the bright lights of the big city to muck it all up.  This first full trailer is a tad jokey for my tastes but the kid in me is counting down the days until Kong is again unleashed.