Movie Review ~ The World to Come

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Somewhere along the mid-19th century American East Coast frontier, two neighboring couples battle hardship and isolation, witnessed by a splendid yet testing landscape, challenging them both physically and psychologically.

Stars: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott

Director: Mona Fastvold

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  There’s something strange about the way that movies have treated the love affairs between women over the last few years (and probably longer) because it seems that they just can’t catch a break.  In films like Carol, The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite, etc. the passion and connection established is born in the midst of severe strife and is more often than not left unfulfilled.  This observance is nothing new to be sure and in fact it’s what many critics and even casual film fans have noted for a number of years as one of the chief rules of love between same sex couples onscreen.  There must be pain.  Loss is a given.  Happiness is rare.  It’s the guiding principle for screenwriting, it seems.

Here we are in February of a new year and already there’s another example to prove the case.  However, there’s a lot more problematic in The World to Come than the way it shows the relationship between two dreary farmer’s wives in the mid-19th century.  Unique in that it features beautiful cinematography that is at the same time strikingly dull to behold, the entire film feels like a quilt that’s been left outside overnight during a rainstorm that you now are asked to snuggle up with.  It’s chilly, musty, wet, and heavy, offering little in the way of comfort or care.  You certainly can’t see any intricates that went into the making of it because it has been overtaken by the elements.

Adapted by Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen from Shepard’s original short story, The World to Come creaks to life with Katherine Waterston croaking through stilted narration detailing farm life with her husband (Casey Affleck, Our Friend) in upstate New York.   Though meant to convey an old-tyme-y vibe, the dialogue often winds up sounding like an outdated script from a historical walking tour; a line about Affleck’s quiet farmer needing to fetch “calico” and “shoe leather” officially did me in.  This era of living was tough, to be sure, but Waterston’s (Inherent Vice) Abigail pitches her monotone line readings far too dreary from the jump, she’s so wrist-slittingly somber that you can’t blame Affleck as Dyer for withdrawing in favor of keeping his head down to work with the farm animals that at least acknowledge his presence.

A ray of fiery happiness arrives when Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) and Finney (Christopher Abbott, Possessor) rent the farm nearby.  Sensing a kinship with the outspoken woman, Abigail becomes fascinated with Tallie and the chance for connection at a deeper level.  That Tallie responds in kind makes each day a little brighter for Abigail and she finds a new reason for maintaining the farm and herself…even while Tallie struggles to keep her own husband happy.  Finney is different than Dyer in that the more Tallie retreats from him the more forceful he becomes, and the question gets to be how far can she pull away before he either lets her go one way or another?  As the women grow closer, the danger of being found out increases but they are emboldened by their newfound freedom of emotional joy.  It won’t last…and you know that’s not a spoiler.

Norwegian actor turned director Mona Fastvold seems to understand the key to the film is the bond between Abigail and Tallie but she forgets there needs to be some sort of knowledge of the men in their lives as well to make their clandestine relationship have essential meaning in turn.  Waterston is arguably the main character and there’s just a lot of her moping around the farm avoiding her husband and checking her invisible watch wondering where Tallie is.  That’s not the sweeping romance the ads for this movie are promising, let me assure you.  So it’s almost up to Kirby and Abbott to keep the fire of the film burning hot and they can’t stoke it all on their own.  They almost get there, almost, in a tense dinner scene near the end that tells us far more about their relationship in those few minutes than we’ve learned about Abigail and Dyer in the previous sixty.   Abbott’s character is quite the unrelenting pig of a husband and he’s gotten aces at playing these type of abhorrent men…maybe too good.  For me, it came down to Kirby as the one bright spot the film has to offer and it’s the single treasure The World to Come is entirely stingy with.  Whenever she’s onscreen, there’s some pulse to it, even if it’s faint.  However, when she’s absent the movie is cold as ice.

Filmed in Romania subbing for NY, cinematographer André Chemetoff gets some picturesque shots in but most of what we see comes off as less pastoral and fertile and more grubby and worked over.  Totally incongruous with the tone and images is musician Daniel Blumberg’s obtrusive score, giving off the feeling that the composer didn’t see the film he was contributing to.  It’s just another part of the overall puzzling nature of The World to Come, composed of a bunch of pieces that might work well in their own right but fail to form a complete picture.  More than anything, I’m just over these tortured love affairs for same sex couples…this feels like a construct that should be put out to pasture.  Let love win for once, I beg of you.

Movie Review ~ Pieces of a Woman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A heartbreaking home birth leaves a woman grappling with the profound emotional fallout, isolated from her partner and family by a chasm of grief.

Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails

Director: Kornél Mundruczó

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Most of the time, I enjoy going in blind to movies and not knowing quite what I’m getting myself into.  It helps keep the experience fresh and expectations at a minimum, allowing the movie to stand on its own two feet and make the best impression based on my gut reaction to it.  There are times, however, when being tipped off to something that may be hard to watch is welcome and the older I get the more I appreciate these small hints to buckle up and prepare.  While not delving into full spoiler territory, I often will let you, dear reader, in on these moments as well because I know that many of you find value in these ‘heads up’ warnings so you can decide on your own if the movie is right for you as a whole or if it’s just one section you need to grapple with.  There is power in decision making…and it’s only a movie, after all.

Chances are, if you’re keeping any kind of track on the film world these days (and at this point who isn’t starved for any kind of soapy awards talk) you’ve heard Pieces of a Woman mentioned and its harrowing opening.  Prior the title even being shown, there’s a solid thirty minutes of prologue featuring a traumatic home birth that is shot in excruciatingly real detail, casting the viewer as a voyeur on an event that will change the lives of a young couple and their midwife forever.  It’s agonizing to watch but brilliantly performed by star Vanessa Kirby (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) along with Shia LeBeouf as her husband and the wonderful Molly Parker playing a substitute midwife called on to fill in at the last minute.  Though its meant to look like one shot, I’m not entirely convinced it was done in one take…but it’s impressive nonetheless the way it all unfolds in a short span of time.

Adapting their multi-media stage production first produced in Poland, director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber translate the work to the screen with a fierce intensity in these opening moments, creating a scene we can’t look away from even though we know what’s coming.  Though we get the briefest glimpse of what their life is before that fateful evening (she has some vague office job, he’s a blue collar construction worker in the middle of a bridge build, both feel the judgmental weight of her wealthy mother who holds money over them as means of control), it’s that one night that comes to define them for the rest of the movie.  I suppose that that’s why the film is never as successful after those first thirty minutes, despite Kirby’s supersonic performance throughout and Ellen Burstyn’s (Lucy in the Sky) dynamic turn as her brittle mother facing her own shortcomings through her daughter’s personal loss.

I wish I could tell you more about Pieces of a Woman but there’s just not that much to it after it comes out guns a blazing.  It’s a lengthy film, though, and Mundruczó and Wéber disappointingly fill the majority of it with the standard themes of a marriage falling apart before our eyes.  A union unraveling after the loss of a child isn’t all that uncommon in film so there has to be some kind of hook to it that sets it apart but there’s not enough meat to go around for everyone, especially with an actor like LeBeouf circling the herd and hungry.  While he manages to inch back into good graces with illuminating turns in films like The Peanut Butter Falcon, LeBeouf’s acting is becoming more troublesome to watch.  Though he’s cast as a bit of a louse who apparently got his crap together with help from his wife, it’s unsettling in light of recent events in the actor’s personal life to see him get aggressive with Kirby’s character, not that she intimidates easily.

In all honesty, the film works best when it’s solely following Kirby and cuts out LeBeouf completely.  Her journey throughout the film is the most intriguing and special, anyway.  Everyone expects Kirby’s character Martha to grieve in a particular way and when she doesn’t, treats her like she’s doing it wrong…which only infuriates her more.  It all comes to a head in a grand scene between mother and daughter that is bound to net both Kirby and Burstyn well-deserved Oscar nominations when the time comes around.  Until this point in her career, Kirby has played second (or third) fiddle in her projects but she’s in first position here and commands the screen at all times.  She’s closely followed by Burstyn who, after all these years in the business, still finds a way to create a character that may have limited screen time but has a backstory that could fill volumes.

Aside from those leads, Mundruczó has shown a curiously strong instinct for casting.  Comedian Iliza Shlesinger (The Opening Act) is primarily known for her raunchy specials but plays it straight and looks remarkably like Kirby…I 100% believed they were sisters and Burstyn’s adult children.  Uncut Gems co-director/writer Bennie Safdie takes a turn in front of the camera as Kirby’s brother-in-law and the director does quite nicely with his role.  There’s not a lot for the usually dependable Sarah Snook (The Dressmaker) to do but as a family member/lawyer, she still gets a prime opportunity to get entangled in the family drama in more ways than one.  In her short time on camera, Parker (Words on Bathroom Walls) has to make a big enough impression so that we remember key pieces of info for later on in the movie when she becomes a focus of a public witch hunt.  While it leads to the film’s least realistic yet strangely satisfying sequence, it does get the three most interesting actors (Kirby, Parker, and Burstyn) very nearly in the same shot.

With 2020 turning out the way that it has, it’s nice to continue to celebrate strong female roles like the ones delivered by Kirby and Burstyn but I can understand if Pieces of a Woman is too much for some to take on.  Between the pain of watching the opening sequence unfold, especially for those that have suffered the loss of a child, and any unease that could be triggered by watching LeBeouf considering some unpleasant allegations leveled against him recently by his ex-girlfriend, this has a lot of reasons why it would be a challenge to queue up to.  I’d encourage you to consider it though, because Kirby’s performance is pretty amazing and the more I sit with Burstyn’s the more I’m convinced it’s one of her greatest onscreen roles.  If only the film were more about them…and shorter.  Much shorter.

Movie Review ~ Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lawman Luke Hobbs and outcast Deckard Shaw form an unlikely alliance when a cyber-genetically enhanced villain threatens the future of humanity.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Eddie Marsan, Helen Mirren, Eiza González

Director: David Leitch

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: To their credit, Hollywood studios have been actively trying to elevate the summer movie to being more than just a two-hour mélange of special effects and explosions in a cookie cutter plot about world domination. For example, the sophistication of where Avengers: Endgame wound up is a far cry from the early days of the first Iron Man. Audiences have shown (in most cases) to have ever evolving and distinctively discerning tastes and the same old action movie just won’t do any more. Sometimes, though, there’s nothing wrong with a little cinematic comfort food and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese of summer blockbuster entertainment.

With each installment growing in popularity and box office returns, it was a natural next step for the producers of The Fast and The Furious franchise to think about the future of the series and how to keep their product going. While the main series could keep speeding forward thanks to a seemingly never-ending roster of characters that rotate in and out, were there any fan favorites that could anchor their own film? When Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) joined the group in 2011’s Fast Five, Special Agent Luke Hobbs quickly stood out thanks to Johnson’s natural charisma and the way the writers worked his character from law-man adversary to comrade over the next three films. Jason Statham (The Meg) made the biggest change, with his Deckard Shaw starting as the revenge-seeking villain in 2015’s Furious 7, eventually switching sides and joining the crew…though he never did take a liking to Hobbs.

Even before The Fate of the Furious came out in 2017, this spin-off was already in the works and, depending on who you ask, it came at the right time. Some of the stars not involved were, um, furious that the next installment was going to be delayed while producers were focused on this stand-alone film and there is reportedly bad blood between Johnson and Vin Diesel regarding professional behavior on set. Best to let their biceps cool down on opposite sides of the world. That freed Johnson and Statham to team up with original The Fast and the Furious writer Chris Morgan and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch for a new adventure and it’s clear this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

In London, an MI6 agent (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) ingests a deadly virus rather than let it fall into the hands of a genetically enhanced legionnaire (Idris Elba, Zootopia) sent by a mystery figure to retrieve it. Now on the run with a ticking time bomb flowing through her veins, her best hope is to rely on Hobbs and Shaw to help her find the scientist that created the virus and is the only one who knows the way to get it out of her safely. Adding to the complexity is a history Shaw has with the super-soldier unyielding in his pursuit and the fact the MI6 agent is his estranged sister. Together, the trio evade continue to evade capture in increasingly impressive action extravaganzas while Hobbs & Shaw learn to work as a team and put aside their beef.

Truth be told, the first half an hour or so of Hobbs & Shaw is a bit of a rocky ride. The set-up of these films is usually the weakest part and that’s the case here, not to mention the film having to juggle re-introducing two main characters sufficiently before they can bring them together. There’s frankly too much time spent getting the guys in the same frame and that feels like wasted energy for a movie that thrives on pure adrenaline. A useless cameo by Ryan Reynolds (Life) as an annoying co-worker of Hobbs grows tiresome almost the moment it begins, though I could have easily spent more time with Shaw visiting his cheeky mum (Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky) in prison. It’s when the two meet up for the first time when the movie kicks into gear.

With Statham and Johnson doing what they do best, it’s no huge news bulletin to note they are both extremely watchable and have terrific chemistry. They have a nice yin and yang sparring about them that never goes too far and never falls in favor of either man. Though the film throws in some nice surprises along the way (including one great cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil) it remains focused on its two leads while leaving space for others like Elba and Kirby to shine. Speaking of Elba, his next-gen soldier might be a bit far-fetched and not fully explored but he doesn’t oversell the advanced tech power he possesses. As with most of his performances, Elba looks like he’s having a great time and that energy is infectious. As the lone female leading presence, (though there are several females in power positions besting their male counterparts, a nice touch) Kirby holds her own impressively both in the dramatic scenes and in the physical stunts and fights she’s involved with. Kirby’s star is definitely on the rise and her performance here only cements that ascent.

With an edge of your seat finale set in beautiful Samoa, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is an out and out audience pleaser that elicited the first mid-movie applause I’ve heard in quite some time. Even clocking in at 135 minutes (including multiple post-credit sequences… completists will need to sit through a lengthy credit crawl for a final scene) the movie justifies its length by giving you every bang for your hard-earned buck. Sure, it’s a silly ride at times but it’s an exciting one all the same.

Movie Review ~ Me Before You

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A girl in a small town forms an unlikely bond with a recently-paralyzed man she’s taking care of.

Stars: Sam Claflin, Emilia Clarke, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman, Matthew Lewis, Vanessa Kirby, Stephen Peacocke, Brendan Coyle, Janet McTeer

Director: Thea Sharrock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I’m not averse to shedding a tear or two at a movie if the mood strikes me.  I’ve been known to get all misty for outright tearjerkers (Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment) and well up for joy/happiness (Lava, The Way Way BackJurassic World…yes…it happened), a little water around the eyes never hurt anyone.  Still, you have to earn my tears and when a movie like Me Before You aims for the tear ducts and winds up conking me upside the head instead, I tend to be less than forgiving.

JoJo Moyes’ two hanky novel has been adapted by the author herself into a two-hour snoozer that features two ostensibly engaging stars that can’t manage to make a connection with themselves or its target audience. Sure, on the way out of the theater I saw people dabbing their teary eyes (using Kleenex that came in a box branded with the movie poster…the one truly clever detail of the experience) but they just as easily could have been wiping away an eye bogey from the nap they just woke from.

Saucer-eyed Emilia Clarke (Terminator Genisys) is Lou, a cheerful working class pixie in town on the outskirts of London. Stuck at home helping to support her family by working odd jobs, she’s just lost employment at a local café when she’s sent by a temp agency to care for a quadriplegic at the stately Traynor house. Well, it’s not so much a house as it is a castle at the center of town.  Something about her spunky attitude convinces Camilla (Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs) to hire her on the spot and soon enough Lou is face to face with Camilla’s son, Will (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2).

Injured in a rainy accident on a London street, Will is confined to a wheelchair without the use of most of his limbs and wouldn’t you know it, he’s not entirely happy about his new situation.  So we have this cheerful but poor girl meeting a handsome but broken prince in a castle and you’d think that the fairy tale sparks would fly and a whimsical romance would develop that cures all the woes before reaching a happy ending, right?  Not so my friends.

Now I can’t deny there’s something oddly watchable about Clarke but what it boils down to is that her performance is comprised mostly of puzzled blinks, nervous gulps, and strained smiles. Lou is a Free Spirit, something the filmmakers never fail to remind us of with each new set of off the wall shoes, zany tights, and granny chic outfits she turns up in. It’s not hard to see why Will finds her ray of sunshine aura a bit much to take at first, I certainly understood his antipathy toward her.  When they inevitably fall in love, it feels false and merely a story development rather than any real feeling that’s been believably developed.

For his part, Claflin is far more successful as the former devil may care party guy that water skied like a madman now in a wheelchair prison from which there is no escape. Claflin takes the role seriously, perhaps a bit too seriously, but ultimately his commitment gives the film its only true authenticity as we watch Will struggle with sickness and setbacks. As he sees his former flame marry his best friend, the pain he hides feels relatable and understandable which makes it all the more unfortunate that he can’t find a way to develop chemistry with his leading lady.

First time director Thea Sharrock comes from the theater world and it shows with much of the film feeling stagey and confined to simply constructed scenes with rarely more than two characters interacting at once. The views of the countryside are gorgeous and I guess it’s a technically well-made picture, but one that’s unfortunately missing an emotional center and a willingness to see things through. Characters are introduced only to disappear for long stretches of time and a late in the run game changer is only danced around instead of confronted head-on.  Here was a chance to say something about life and the power of choice but Sharrock and Moyes are more interested in flying the lovers off to exotic locales as Lou tries to show Will that his current state doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy life to its fullest.

And then we get back to where we started…tears.  By the time it gets to the moments where the tears should fall I felt like the movie made a desperate plea to wring water from a stone after so many ramshackle constructs along the way. I found the final fifteen minutes and especially the epilogue quite irritating, placing a Mr. Smiley sticker over moments that deserved to be more composed and thoughtful.

Moyes has already published a sequel and depending on how well this movie fares in the wake of so many recent and future summer blockbusters, if there is another opportunity to drop in on these characters I hope it can be a more honest visit.