Movie Review ~ Four Good Days

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A mother helps her daughter work through four crucial days of recovery from substance abuse. 

Stars: Mila Kunis, Glenn Close, Stephen Root, Joshua Leonard, Rebecca Field, Chad Lindberg, Michael Hyatt, Sam Hennings 

Director: Rodrigo García 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 100 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review:  Bless her long-suffering Oscar-less heart but Glenn Close is a trooper, ain’t she?  An eight-time Academy Award nominee, Close has had the good fortune to land meaty roles in more than a few unforgettable classics and deservedly earned her polite accolades for her efforts.  What she hasn’t brought home yet is that one piece of golden hardware many think she’s toiled long enough for.  While she could have won it early on for her supporting work in The Big Chill or in a more daring choice like Fatal Attraction, she very nearly grazed the glory in 2017 with The Wife.  That film definitely wasn’t her best work but the general consensus was that she was good enough to make the honor not feel totally like a sympathy nod.  Then along comes Hillbilly Elegy and a less subtle role Close seemed to gnaw on hoping it would attract the right kind of attention.  Sadly, again it was not meant to be.

While Close continues to hold out hope of a Sunset Boulevard musical film adaptation (for real, get going on that Hollywood! Close will devour that role and give you the Oscar performance you’ve been wanting all along!), until that happens, we’ll have to settle for seeing her in smaller titles like Four Good Days, rolling into theaters this weekend.  An indie drama centered on drug addiction that could have gone so maudlin and wrong it winds up being a better showcase for Close than Hillbilly Elegy ever hoped to be.  Heck, she even gets to wear another slightly questionable wig and manages to pull it off.

Close stars in this adaptation of an article from the Washington Post penned by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eli Saslow.  Though it changes the names and location of that original piece, by and large it sticks fairly close to the true story of a heroin-addicted daughter (Mila Kunis, Bad Moms) who returns home to her mother (Close, Guardians of the Galaxy) seeking shelter where she can detox.  Having been on this ride before with her daughter (thirteen times, we later learn), Deb initially refuses to let Molly back into her life or into her home but after some convincing that Molly is serious about her choice, she drops her off at rehab and hopes this will be the stay that takes.

Coming out of detox, Molly is told about a treatment that would be able to combat the sensation of getting high, a shot given once a month but only if the person has no drugs currently in their system.  To be safe, the doctor wants her to wait another four days to let her last fix work its way out.  Needing a place to stay so she doesn’t relapse in that short time, Deb agrees to let her stay with her and and her new husband (Stephen Root, Bombshell) and mother and daughter spend the next several days reconnecting over past traumas and mending bridges both had a say in tearing down.

Those expecting Four Good Days to be one of those Lifetime Television Movies will be in for a nice surprise because Saslow and co-writer/director Rodrigo García’s script isn’t as one dimensional as it might appear to be.  Yes, it practically goes through a checklist of required items in these sort of films (parent doesn’t trust, parent learns to trust, parent gets burned, child feels bad, everyone cries, lessons are learned) and there’s enough motivational quotes to make a slew of school cafeteria posters, but there’s a deeper being worked through that’s far thornier.  In addition to showing us the outcome of years of addiction, García (Albert Nobbs) is also addressing issues of enablement and accountability and that’s what winds up setting Four Good Days apart from the crowd and giving its two leading actresses many opportunities to shine.

What has always been so depressing about Close not winning an Oscar all this time is that she easily was first runner up for a number of these races.  Her training and commitment to the work makes her an ideal actress to convey empathy we can relate to.  I wouldn’t call her character dowdy but Close clearly understands where this part-time esthetician chooses to direct her energy and so we feel every weight she carries around from her life so far.  I’ve always had a fondness for Kunis (another actress that nearly made it to the Oscars with her role in 2010’s Black Swan) and am glad to see her turn up so successful in a part that is saddled with a lot of extra business which might overtake someone unable to handle it all.  The hair, the gait, not to mention the teeth (oh, the teeth!), could have all been pieces Kunis used to do the work for her but she goes beyond those outward tools and finds Molly from within.  Watch for the moment when her two young children are visiting and she’s playing a video game with her son that gets heated.  There’s a moment shared between the two of them that could go either way and you hold your breath because you know what’s she’s feeling and how she wants to react…Kunis shows it all in the smallest flutter of her eyes and doesn’t have to say a word. 

Together, Close and Kunis are dynamite and, as I imagine it would be for their characters, it’s hard for anyone else to get between them.  Root’s role is reduced to pretty much a cameo and you’ll start to wonder if Close is still married because he vanishes for so long.  There’s a nice, but brief, scene between Deb and her other daughter (Carla Gallo, We Bought A Zoo) and the contrast between their relationship and the one she has with Molly is clearly defined by Saslow and García but not in a cloying way.  There’s a number of good supporting performances, actually, even down to Michael Hyatt (The Little Things) as a member of Deb’s support group for mothers of addicts.

Released by a small studio with little advance fanfare, Four Good Days is the type of film I wish Close would be championed for and encouraged to make more of.  Same goes for Kunis.  Close has more experience in this arena but the realism without heaps of sentimentality is a refreshing change of pace for family dramas centered on drug abuse.  Ending with a Diane Warren song (another Oscar nominee for a song from The Life Ahead that went home empty-handed this year) sung by Reba McIntire that’s pretty much in line with most Warren ballads of late, the entire movie exceeds expectations with both actresses making it absolutely worth a watch.

Movie Review ~ Uncle Frank

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Accompanied by his teenage niece, a gay literature professor reluctantly returns home to attend his father’s funeral.

Stars: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Jane McNeil, Michael Perez

Director: Alan Ball

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: You know how they say that some movies you can tell were based on stage plays?  There are some movies you can also tell were based on books so I kept having to remind myself throughout Amazon Prime’s Uncle Frank that this was an original screenplay by writer/director Alan Ball and did not originate from a novel.  Ball, you may recall, was the creative force behind such family-centered dramas as the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the iconic Six Feet Under for HBO where he also adapted Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels into True Blood.  There are a number of instances throughout Uncle Frank that feel as if the hand of a novelist, rather than a filmmaker, is guiding the characters and that creates a strange awkwardness that may have worked on the page but doesn’t work as well when played out by actors.

Let’s step back for a second, though.  Ball came to write the 1970s-set Uncle Frank after learning his own father might have been gay long after he had passed away.  His father’s possible more-than-friendship with a deceased boy in the past mirrors a traumatic event in the life of Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany, Solo: A Star Wars Story) a 40ish man living in New York City with his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi).  Semi-estranged from his family, namely his father (Stephen Root, Bombshell) back in a small town in South Carolina, he’s kept his sexuality and boyfriend a secret from most of his relatives for fear of incurring their ultra-conservative judgement.  When he’s called home due to a family tragedy and Wally tags along, he has to decide whether to own up to who he is and free himself of this heavy burden or go on living a lie for the sake of the comfort of others.

The set-up has all the workings of your typical coming-to-terms drama that we’ve seen done before but the way Ball opts to switch things up is to have all of these events seen through the eyes of Frank’s young niece Beth Sophia Lillis (IT, IT: Chapter Two).  Fairly clueless to all of the nuances going on in the life of her sophisticated and respected uncle, she’s unfortunately not that interesting of a character to hang a narrator’s cap on.  When we first meet her, she’s a teenager more comfortable talking to her big-city uncle than her country cousins.  He encourages her to dream big and several years later she’s a NYU student that reconnects with Frank just as she embarks a few college “firsts”: boyfriend, drinking, etc.  Then the family needs them both to return home and they begin a road trip back and its during these hundreds of miles Beth begins to understand more of where Frank is coming from and the true depth to his relationship with Wally.

To his credit, Ball has cast Uncle Frank with an assortment of value-add Hollywood players that keep the film buoyed by their welcome presence.  In addition to Bettany, Lillis, and Macdissi, there’s Judy Greer (Halloween), a goofy hoot as Beth’s mom that has a tendency to mispronounce big words that she thinks sound fancier than they are, and Steve Zahn (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as her average Joe dad perfectly content to be the son that doesn’t cause any trouble but happy to be noticed all the same.  The legendary Lois Smith (Lady Bird) is afforded a few nice zingers as Frank’s truth-speaking aunt and the never-not-great Margo Martindale (Mother’s Day) dependably delivers in the film’s get-out-your-hanky scene.

That’s where the trouble in Uncle Frank lies, though, that scene.  It’s a scene that feels satisfying in some way as a viewer but doesn’t feel correct in a realistic context of the location and time Ball has set his story.  This Kumbaya moment comes off as overly romanticized and false and while I appreciated it greatly and, yes, wiped away tears, when I really thought about it I knew it didn’t really make a lot of sense.  It’s things like that and how Ball insists on having Beth be the de facto filter and interpreter for the audience that keep Uncle Frank at a set distance from the viewer and never lets you get much closer.  Though it appears to be an inviting watch, ultimately it feels less personal and more of a clinical endeavor.  That’s far removed from Ball’s intention to explore his own father’s latent homosexuality that seemingly went unspoken throughout his life.

Eventually reaching its destination after a rocky journey, Uncle Frank had the cast and creatives to be a scenic tour into a slice of life family drama but winds up running out of gas.  That ghastly metaphor aside (and I do apologize profusely), there’s no harm meant in Uncle Frank and the performances by Bettany and especially Macdissi make this one worth a look.  Bettany is one of those actors that hangs by the fringe, always doing interesting work but rarely afforded opportunities like this to take center stage.  While Macdissi being Ball’s longtime partner and oft being cast in his projects may raise some eyebrows, his warm performance should cast any doubts of preferential casting aside.  The feeling lingers in my mind, however, that having Beth as the intrusive narrator proved a distraction and the film concluding with an overly tidy understanding robbed it of the deeper complexity and stronger message it could have achieved.

Movie Review ~ Life of the Party

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her husband abruptly asks for a divorce, a middle-aged mother returns to college in order to complete her degree.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Adria Arjona, Debby Ryan, Luke Benward, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve got good news and bad news for you if you’re considering making a trip to the movies to see Life of the Party this Mother’s Day weekend. The bad news is that most of the jokes have been spoiled for you in the previews, the good news is that the two best jokes haven’t. A semi-refreshing twist on the old fish-out-of-water/parent-going-back-to-school storyline, this isn’t a movie out to reinvent the comedic wheel but it does manage to capably overcome initial tone problems. What results is a sweet, if completely predictable, comedy that has its heart and brain in the right place.

The third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), Life of the Party represents the best of their work together so far. Their first outing was 2014’s Tammy, a movie so godawful I don’t permit its name to be uttered in my presence. They bounced back in 2016 with The Boss, which found more humor, less aggravation, and an overall better script. Writing together allows the couple to play off McCarthy’s strengths but continues to show Falcone’s weakness as a director – I’d love to see what another director would do with one of their screenplays.

Frumpy housewife Deanna (McCarthy, Spy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh, Into the Storm) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) off for her last year of college when Dan announces he wants a divorce. He’s fallen in love with a realtor (Julie Bowen) and is selling their house, leaving Deanna without a home or an income. In a surge of confidence, Deanna decides to reenroll at the same college she dropped out of in her senior year 20 years earlier…the college her daughter now attends.

Going back to school to finish her archeology degree, Deanna finds that while the times have changed the people getting the college experience haven’t. There’s still the mean girl (Debby Ryan) who tears down anything she doesn’t deem cool, the parties are drunken ragers, the sorority sisters have the same doubt about their futures, and Deanna’s fear of public speaking hasn’t dissipated over the last two decades. That proves especially hard during the film’s funniest sequence by far, when Deanna has to give an oral presentation that quickly devolves into a sweaty, knee-buckling, nightmare.

Still, a few things in her homecoming to co-ed life catch her off-guard. Unexpected bonding with her daughter tops the list as well as a realization she can reclaim some of the years she feels were spent in a troubled marriage by returning to finish what she started. Then there’s the romance with Jack (Luke Benward), a younger frat boy which takes some surprisingly genuine turns as the movie progresses. Eventually, even with one nice twist involving Jack, the movie works toward its predictable conclusion yet even though you know where it’s all heading it’s not hard in the least to sit back and be entertained.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have moments that call for a markdown on the final grade. As is usually the case with these McCarthy/Falcone features, there’s an overabundance of periphery characters that serve no purpose to any of the characters or the story. Usually friends (or family!) of the director and star, these annoying additions pad the running time and bring down some of the solid funny framework that has been created. Even the usually dependable Maya Rudolph (The Way Way Back) is given far too long a leash as Deanna’s friend – I almost wonder what things would have looked like had Rudolph and the tightly wound and miscast Bowen had swapped roles. There’s also at least one too many sorority sisters for my money. And Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver, Stoker, and Stephen Root, Trumbo) could have been removed all together and no one would have been the wiser.

You also have to ding the couple for not editing their films better or providing information to fill in large gaps that go unexplained. It’s never clear until far too late how Deanna is paying for college or what hoops she had to jump through to get back to her studies in less than several weeks. Timelines are also fuzzy, with events either happening too close together or too spaced out and, as with most college movies, everyone seems to only go to one class or not attend at all.

Yet the film is getting high marks from me because even with all these nitpicks, there’s a certain whiff of clean air and good intentions that keep this one afloat. McCarthy again carries an entire film on her shoulders and while that might get exhausting after a while she’s got the boundless energy to pull out all the stops when called upon to do so. While she’s never one to shy away from physical stunts, this is another pleasant example of McCarthy’s continued maturing as a performer with her comedy coming from situational happenstance instead of corporeal humor. Whether she’s dancing in ‘80s-inspired couture, trashing a wedding reception, or performing alongside a pop star’s amusing cameo, there’s always a human being underneath it all.

The Silver Bullet ~ Life of the Party

Synopsis: When her husband suddenly dumps her, longtime dedicated housewife Deanna turns regret into re-set by going back to college – landing in the same class and school as her daughter.

Release Date: May 11, 2018

Thoughts: The smartest thing the makers of Life of the Party did was refrain from including the phrase “From the folks that brought you Tammy!” in their marketing materials.  Yes, Melissa McCarthy (Spy) has reteamed with her husband Ben Falcone (Office Christmas Party) on another comedy but this one looks considerably less revolting…so there’s a glimmer of funny hope to be had.  Reteaming for the third time (2016’s The Boss was another step in the right direction) Falcone directs a script he and McCarthy co-wrote and while it may seem a bit like the sorta-classic Rodney Dangerfield 1986 comedy Back to School, McCarthy has put her own shine on things.  No McCarthy vehicle is complete without a scene of her getting knocked down and the trailer gets that one out of the way immediately so…spoiler alert!  McCarthy’s been absent since the female-led Ghostbusters fizzled in 2016 but if Life of the Party is as lively as it looks it could get her back in Hollywood’s good graces.

Movie Review ~ The Company You Keep

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Nick Nolte

Director: Robert Redford

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The first of two movies that Robert Redford starred in in 2013 was this curious little project that Redford also sat comfortably in the director seat for.  Though the film came and went with very little fanfare, I’d expect some collateral buzz to be drummed up for it when Redford is (hopefully) nominated for an Oscar for his career-high work in All is Lost.

Redford has seen more action as a director lately and he seems to be enjoying this part of his career which appears to be having a slow moving but surefooted renaissance.  It’s known that Redford is picky about the material he’ll take on as an actor and perhaps more so with his directing work which makes The Company You Keep all the more puzzling because it’s one of those half-there efforts that no one seems particularly invested in.

Scanning the cast list I get the notion that Redford peppered his film with actors he’s long wanted to work with and vice versa.  Why else would some big name stars drop in for what amounts to glorified cameos in an independent picture?  I kept thinking that actors like Richard Jenkins (White House Down, Jack Reacher) were just stopping by for lunch in Sundance when Redford asked if they could film a quick scene before dessert was served.

When Redford’s activist past is exposed by an opportunistic journalist (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), he goes on the run and works his way through people from his younger days he’s long forgotten and who would just as soon forget about him.  Even with their brief screen time Oscar winners Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) and Julie Christie are effective as two fellow radicals that re-enter Redford’s present in two very different ways.  And keep your eyes out for Brit Marling (The East), Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer), Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, I Love Trouble), and Terrence Howard (Prisoners) in the aforementioned brief supporting turns.

An overlong film, The Company You Keep winds up feeling like the guest that won’t take the hint to go thanks to several false endings.  While it’s diligently made like most Redford films are, there’s an evident emptiness at the core that doesn’t give the film any lasting weight past the final credits — that’s a shame when you consider the might of the stars Redford has assembled.

I should add it also doesn’t help that Redford has cast LaBeouf who continues to be one of the more overrated yet increasingly disliked actors in Hollywood.  Known for badmouthing his costars and film projects, LaBeouf had an overdue denouement at the end of 2013 when it came out that one of his short films was plagiarized from preexisting work.  It’s hard to take him seriously as a flawed film persona because LaBeouf’s personal persona is so much worse.

That casting aside, there’s admittedly a level of sophisticated maturity that should prove interesting to the more astute viewer.  I absolutely suggest you see Redford’s solemn work in All is Lost before taking this one on (he’ll also appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) but if you’re a Redford devotee or a fan of the political dramas/thrillers of the late 70’s you may find something worth your time here.

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