Movie Review ~ Bruised

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A disgraced MMA fighter finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.

Stars: Halle Berry, Adan Canto, Adriane Lenox, Sheila Atim, Danny Boyd Jr., Shamier Anderson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denny Dillon, Valentina Shevchenko, Lela Loren, Nikolai Nikolaeff

Director: Halle Berry

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There are few actors working in Hollywood today that I find myself actively rooting for more than Halle Berry.  An actress that had long paid her dues in television and a run of forgettable features in the early ‘90s before becoming the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for Monster’s Ball, Berry has a knack for finding herself in terrible projects but coming out smelling like a rose.  I recently watched her in the 1996 stinker The Rich Man’s Wife and, aside from believably pulling off a character named Josie, she managed to elevate what should have been a TV movie of the week to something worthy of a cinematic release. A continuing role in the X-Men franchise has kept her afloat when the big swings don’t pan out, but Berry has never gotten back to that same level of promise she showed around that Oscar era.  I mean, the now 55 year old survived the disaster that was 2004’s Catwoman so she must have nine lives of her own.

One glance at Bruised may give the impression that Berry has found the exact kind of project that could be the significant comeback story she has been looking for.  As the director and star of this gritty story following a retired MMA fighter working her way back into the ring for personal redemption at the same time the son she gave up when he was a baby is left on her doorstep, the film’s logline reads like it was tailor-made for an actress with just the kind of gumption Berry has leagues of.  Even considering that Berry wasn’t the first choice for either role (originally, Nick Cassavetes was signed on to direct Blake Lively), her history as a dedicated MMA fan made her an ideal selection because she understood the sport, athletes, and sacrifice required. It doesn’t quite work out as planned…but, we’ll get to that.

Jackie Justice (Berry, The Call) used to be someone special in the brutal sport of MMA cage fighting until she lost her nerve and walked away from it all.  Years later she’s barely scraping by, working odd jobs she often loses due to her temper.  Living with her boyfriend (Adan Canto, X-Men: Days of Future Past) who wants her to get back into the ring, Jackie simply wants to forget that part of her life, but the past has a way of delivering a right hook when she least expects it.  That sly jab comes when the six-year-old son she abandoned as an infant is dropped off by her pill riddled mother (Adriane Lenox, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) in the middle of the night.  Refusing to speak after seeing his informant father gunned down, Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.) was told his mother was dead so this woman before him, worked over by life, is difficult to accept.

With the added responsibility of a child to take care of, Jackie begins to clean up her act.  That means ridding her life of several of her addictions, both chemically and personally.  It takes a while for Michelle Rosenfarb’s script to get around to taking care of business and it’s one of Bruised’s drawbacks that the film moves slowly through several situations that should be more incidental than they wind up being.  Basically, it keeps us from meeting Jackie’s new trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim) for that much longer and that is just…not acceptable.  As it turns out, this is the most interesting character in the entire film and after we are introduced the viewer spends the rest of the film waiting for them to show up again.  It helps that Atim is such an electric presence onscreen that they could be playing a Bingo card and I’d want to watch them buy groceries.

That a secondary character moves into being the central character the viewer relates to speaks to another problem with Bruised.  Ostensibly the leading character is Jackie but for much of the film she’s so flimsy that it’s hard to find a way into her side of things.  Berry doesn’t help matters with a performance that’s overly earnest in the fight scenes and way too dialed back in the quieter moments.  If it’s worth anything, the scenes with Jackie and Manny or Buddhakan are the best of the best because it allows all three performers to shine the brightest.  There’s no question Berry is a gifted actress and once she has less to contend with in terms of moving pieces around her, she’s right on target. 

Built around a handful of fight sequences and trainings for the fight sequences, I was a little disappointed at how poorly filmed and edited the early scenes were and it didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the final match, what the entirety of the movie was building to, would be much better.  Surprisingly, while I often find these “grand finales” a little overwrought, Berry pulls out all the stops physically and as a director.  You can tell she wanted to get this section, out of all of them, correct and that quest for perfection shows. 

Like the central character, Bruised is often rough around the edges and needs some time to settle down and relax.  Once you get past the some of the scratchier elements that Berry can’t quite smooth out, there’s a fairly decent film to be found with several nicely tuned performances.  It’s not going to be Berry’s new calling card or a golden ticket back to the Oscars, but I think it will continue to open her up to new opportunities like this.  If anything, I was appreciative to be let into Berry’s MMA fandom through this dramatized story that finds occasional emotional resonance through its strongest supporting performances.

Movie Review ~ Dune (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people

Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 155 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  Am I a perfect audience member for the newest attempt to adapt Dune, Frank Herbert’s celebrated 1965 novel?  Long thought to be too complex to be translated onto the screen, it was famously attempted by the artist and director Alejandro Jodorowsky who began his work in 1974 before abandoning the project two years into pre-production.  Years later David Lynch more infamously tried his hand at the piece, releasing his completed film in 1984 to disastrous reviews and failing to make back it’s budget at the box office.  While it has gone on to achieve a cult-like status, no one would say it’s any kind of definitive version of the film.  More notable where the two miniseries that aired on the Sci Fi channel, essentially giving that fledgling cable company street cred from the industry and fans at the same time.

Me?  I’ve never seen any adaptation or read the book(s) and while I normally try to do my homework before a remake, reboot, or other comes out, for the version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve arriving in theaters now I decided to chuck it all and do absolutely nothing.  So that’s why I might be the best all-around viewer because I’m coming at it with no pre-conceived notions about the source material or previous adaptations to compare it to or feel like it has to live-up to anything.  The only thing it had to contend with were the monstrous expectations the studio had put by delaying it nearly a year from its original release date, insisting it was an experience best reserved for theaters on the biggest screen possible.

Like the recent release of No Time to Die, I’m willing to admit that while some of the releases that came out during the pandemic lockdown shuttered theaters worked just fine when viewed at home, Dune is a film that deserves to be witnessed on a screen so big it should feel overwhelming…like the movie itself.  This is a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-blue-moon sort of event movie that can’t be replicated completely when seen at home.  Though it was made available on HBOMax the same day it opened in theaters, you can’t compare the two viewings because the movie is the movie and it’s great, but the awe-inspiring visuals are knockouts when projected in their sheer enormity.

Unrestrained praise for the theatrical exhibition aside, Dune is more than anything an example of filmmaking (and a filmmaker) firing on all cylinders where each piece of the cinematic puzzle working together to make something incredible.  Yet to (in my mind) make a film that isn’t worth watching multiple times, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has a clear vision of what this movie is and should be (and, as you’ll know right of the bat…will be in the future) so there is rarely a moment along the way where Dune isn’t absolutely on course in its narrative storyline.  From what I understand, that’s where the previous adaptations have run into trouble.  Herbert’s novels have deeper meanings and storylines with interwoven characters, times, and subplots and to juggle those all is an immense challenge.  The director, along with co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Passengers) and Eric Roth (2018’s A Star is Born) have focused the action and events to be cohesive and trackable – you could likely watch this on mute and still get the idea of what’s happening.

So…what IS happening in Dune, you may ask?  Let me attempt a small breakdown of it all.

Way way WAY in the future, Spice is a valuable resource to anyone that can harvest it and harness it’s power.  With the universe under the command of an unseen Emperor and overseen by various “houses” within the Galactic Empire, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, The Addams Family 2) has been ordered by the Emperor to the planet Arrakis which is the only current source of Spice.  Accompanied by his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman), mother to his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet, Lady Bird) they travel to the planet to find the previous House (led by Stellan Skarsgård, Cinderella, and overseen by My Spy’s Dave Bautista) left the harvesting equipment in disrepair.  Recognizing they were set-up to fail and eventually betrayed by those they trusted, the House of Atreides will need to find favor with the people of Arrakis (and avoid the terrifying sandworms trolling around the Spice fields) if they are to survive a plot that was cruelly set into motion from the top levels of the Empire.

Sounds a lot like another space epic that just ended a few years back, doesn’t it?  It’s not quite the same, but there are ripples of those Shakespearean twists that Star Wars employed so well throughout the film.  Dune very much succeeds on its own merits, however and that’s not just thanks to Villeneuve’s specific direction and eye for visual acuity.  The performances are top notch, and this has to be Chalamet’s best showing since his Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me by Your Name…I’d even say there are times when its better.  Acting can get lost in these spectacles but Chalamet doesn’t let that important aspect slip.  Neither do Ferguson, Isaac, or terrific supporting players Josh Brolin (Oldboy) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) playing allies to Atriedes that fend off attacks from all sides.  Billed high but seen little is Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie), though she’ll be kept busy enough…later.

Ah…the later aspect of Dune.  It’s now well known this film is but the first chapter of a longer series but how many more and how long will we need to wait until the next one arrives?  Even knowing this is the initial entry point into this world shouldn’t dissuade you from getting out to this one because it’s as standalone a film as can be, with its own thrills and humungous set-pieces that make for breathless action sequences.  At times I wished for subtitles because the sound design is often as complex as the story…but that’s what a home rewatch is for.  And I’ll be getting to that as soon as I’m through with this review. Spice up your life and climb this mountain as soon as possible.

Movie Review ~ Lady Bird

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There was a time in the not so distant past when Greta Gerwig and I weren’t on speaking terms.  I know when the rift started: Frances Ha.  While Gerwig’s collaboration with writer/director Noah Baumbach became an indie twee delight, it didn’t bowl me over in the slightest.  Finding Gerwig’s titular character vapid, vain, and selfish, I just couldn’t get into the film and struggled to even finish it.  Gerwig’s popped up here and there in the following years, to better results, in Mistress America, Jackie, and 20th Century Women but it’s Lady Bird where our fences can be considered mended.

A thinly veiled but admittedly autobiographical look at Gerwig’s years as a teen in Sacramento in the late ‘90s, Lady Bird is going to be compared to Juno and with just cause.  Both are female led films that find a truth to their portrayal of adolescence and an authenticity in how teens and adults struggle to find common ground while just trying to make it through the day.  The difference between the two is that looking back at Juno it seems like it arrived from another wacky dimension while Lady Bird is already a period piece so there’s less chance of it becoming rapidly dated.

About to enter her senior year of high school, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) demands that her family and friends call her Lady Bird and wants to attend college as far away from her Northern California town as possible.  She dreams of a life surrounded by arts and artists, while her mother (Laurie Metcalf, Uncle Buck) wants her daughter to come down from the clouds and understand that community college may be the best she can do.  With a father (Tracy Letts, The Post) that just lost his job and a brother living at home with his goth girlfriend, there isn’t much space for Lady Bird to breathe.

A small chance at happiness shows up in the drama department’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.  Cast in the ensemble, she falls for the leading man (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) who is both her first love and first heartbreak.  Feeling like she has to climb higher socially than she can sticking by her best friend (Beanie Feldstein, who was wonderful in Broadway’s Hello Dolly!) she ingratiates herself with the popular girl (Odeya Rush, Goosebumps) and takes up with an alt-emo boy (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name).  As the school year draws to a close and the great unknown future awaits, Lady Bird will learn tough lessons about finding one’s place and making a unique path toward happiness.

As she did in Brooklyn, Ronan is able to find a mainline to your heart without making it seem like a huge effort.  That’s surprising because her Brooklyn character was warm and selfless, and Lady Bird is anything but that.  Constantly sucking the air from any room she’s in and preventing others from finding their own orbit, Lady Bird is a force of nature and while it can be easy to get frustrated with her it’s just as easy to feel her pain as dreams she makes for herself vanish just as fast as they take shape.  If you’ve ever heard Gerwig talk it’s instantly clear that her voice comes through loud and clear not only in Ronan’s performance (Ronan channels Gerwig in eerie ways) but in the thoughts and ideas expressed by other characters.

Ronan isn’t the only star of the show here, though.  She gets the movie stolen away from here more than a few times by Metcalf as her steely mother.  Though the movie opens with mother and daughter waking up staring into each other’s eyes, both women soon wind up in an argument that bursts whatever peaceful bubble they had formed.  Scene after we scene we see Metcalf deliberately divert attention away from her daughter if she feels she’s getting too big for her britches or cast a spotlight on her when she makes the wrong move.  It sounds bad, but she’s doing what every parent tries to do but doesn’t always succeed in…help their child see that life is tough with the least amount of outside pain as possible.  It’s easy to see part of oneself in these moments when a child will push their parent’s buttons or the parent cuts their teen down just to prove their point.  I know I winced a few times when I recognized actions I’ve had in my own life.

If you’re already a fan of Gerwig’s, you’re going to get a lot of satisfaction out of her directorial debut which will likely earn her a place on the shortlist for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Expect Ronan and Metcalf to earn nominations as well for their deeply felt and carefully layered performances. If you’re just coming around to Gerwig like I am you’ll find it easier than ever to use Lady Bird to fly back into the fold.