Movie Review ~ Happiest Season

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A young woman with a plan to propose to her girlfriend while at her family’s annual holiday party discovers her partner hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen

Director: Clea DuVall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I wouldn’t say that I’ve been stuck on the same cycle of Christmas movies over the years but what I will admit is that I’ve attached myself to a select few holiday films that spoke to me as I grew older.  That’s because a number of Christmas films never really appealed to me as a person so I found it hard to relate to them, and it became more of a struggle as I got older.  I’m an only child and gay so watching movies with large family gatherings seeing everyone coming home with their husbands and wives started looking less like my life and more like a strange phony Christmas card.  So when it came to movies to watch over Christmas, I kept to the old standards and eschewed most of the newer ones, leaning toward any that focused on “different” families during the holidays.

Thankfully, as the world has evolved so have the entertainment options and that’s why a sizable shift has occurred in the offerings of the season.  Movies that show diverse families, gay couples, interracial relationships, the differently abled, autistic, etc. may not be there in droves but they are there and each year there are more of them.  Already this season we’ve had the fantastic Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey with its largely black cast appear and snuggle into the Netflix queues of many and now Hulu is presenting Happiest Season, a gay Christmas film from queer director/actress Clea DuVall (Argo).  Though originally targeted for a theatrical release, Hulu is debuting it on Thanksgiving and it should give audiences from all walks of life something to be grateful for in 2020.

Girlfriends Abby (Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate) have been living together for six months and Abby is ready to ask Harper to marry her.  Though not a fan of Christmas and without parents, she takes Harper’s last-minute invitation to her family’s home for the holidays as a sign that the time is right to make it official.  She has the ring and though her best friend John (Dan Levy, Admission) thinks marriage is archaic, wants to ask Harper’s dad for his blessing before popping the question in front of her family.  There’s just one tiny problem.  Harper hasn’t told her strait-laced family that she’s a lesbian and with her father about to start a run for mayor of their conservative town, she doesn’t think it wise to rock the boat during the holidays.

Against her better judgement and because Harper tells her this after they’re in the car and nearly there, Abby agrees to lie and pretend to just be Harper’s roommate for the duration of their stay.  Referred to as “the orphan” by Harper’s mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, Book Club), Abby is introduced to the rest of the family including dad Ted (Victor Garber, Sicario), and sisters Jane (Mary Holland, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, also a co-writer) and Sloane (Alison Brie, The Rental), each with their own secret or personal hang-up that will spill out over the next few days as they come together for festive gatherings.  As Abby watches Harper change when confronted with her judgmental family and their high standard expectations, she begins to question how much she actually knows the woman she fell in love with in the first place.  With Harper’s ex-boyfriend hanging around and a big family dinner approaching, can Abby still pop the question and will Harper be honest in front of her family and friends?

Fans of The Family Stone will find Happiest Season to be a not-so-distant relative in terms of style and tone and I half expected Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in that holiday film to show up in the final scene because she easily could have been a fourth sister in this tightly-wound family.  That film has its share of detractors (it took me several watches to truly appreciate it) but I don’t think Happiest Season will have trouble earning fans out of the gate.  DuVall and Holland have crafted a believable, tender, and often very funny film that applies just the right amount of emotion throughout.  It’s just serious enough to get a message on how each person’s coming out story is different and why support for that timeline is important and it’s humorous enough to land elevated comedy that isn’t your usual farce fare.

Still a rather new director, DuVall has an ease in her method that lends a grounded feel to the proceedings, helped immeasurably by a homerun cast.  I think we’ve all come to the agreement that Stewart is just bound to keep surprising audiences and she does it here again with the most relaxed, lived-in role I’ve seen her offer up in quite some time.  The naturalism is on such a different level that at times it feels like DuVall just happened to capture Stewart out and about, in her element.  If Davis comes off a little less successful, perhaps it’s only because she’s wearing several different masks throughout and we’re so on Abby’s side that every time Harper denies their relationship in public it pulls us further away from her.  Together, the two actresses create a believable picture of a couple in love and, even better, one that has settled into a flow with an ease about their interaction that comes across nicely.  That’s what makes the events while they’re at the house sting, because we can see how different Harper is acting in front of people that don’t know her for who she really is.

It’s always a gamble when a co-writer is also a significant supporting character and while Holland has given herself a character with some of the most outright funny bits in the film (and she’s quite funny, make no mistake), she knows when to point the spotlight away as well.  Garber’s role is a bit thankless, as is Brie’s, mostly because at the outset they are outwardly the most staid characters so it’s good news that Steenburgen’s chipper Tipper is such a joy no matter what she’s doing onscreen.  Both Levy and Aubrey Plaza (The To Do List) have smaller roles than are advertised and while Levy is basically doing an extension of the character he played on Schitt’s Creek (and gets the movie’s most genuine moment of clarity), Plaza blessedly is tasked with a more serious vibe that works nicely for the usually comically obtuse actress.  The only awkward moment in the movie is a very ill-advised sequence when Stewart is interrogated by two mall security officers played by Lauren Lapkus (Jurassic World) and Timothy Simons (The Hustle) – it’s totally unfunny and pointless, feeling like a favor DuVall did on behalf of two friends that needed a paycheck.

Some will skip Happiest Season because they don’t agree with what is represented within and that’s unfortunate.  Unfortunate they can’t see that love is love and unfortunate they are missing a well-constructed holiday film with strong performances and confident direction.  I can easily see this one making its way onto a rotation of Christmas films in my house and, paired with The Family Stone, a nice alternative to the overly maudlin cookie-cutter stereotypical products that are delivered yearly.  It’s time to think bigger and more inclusive and Happiest Season happily opens its arms wide to welcome all.

Movie Review ~ Sicario

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I can’t tell you how much fun it is to watch a movie by a filmmaker that knows how to turn the screws on an unsuspecting audience. There are moments in Sicario where Denis Villeneuve seems to be taking an almost perverse delight in extending the suspense until it becomes almost unbearable…making for refreshing and exhilarating viewing.

The Quebec born filmmaker made a splash in 2010 with the Oscar nominated drama Incendies, before turning in two very different releases in 2013.  First up was the haunting (and unjustly Oscar ignored) Prisoners, a showcase not only for Villeneuve’s flair for suspense and cinematographer Roger Deakins brilliant cinematography but for Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal’s towering lead performances.  Made before Prisoners but released after was another collaboration with Gyllenhaal, Enemy, and while it was fairly inaccessible and barely made a blip on the art-house circuit it once again demonstrated that Villeneuve knew exactly what he was doing.

Villeneuve and Deakins are matched again in Sicario (the Spanish word for hitman) and it’s yet another cinematic trophy both men can add to their growing wall of accolades.  A harrowing and terrifying look into the war on drugs, the movie pulls no punches and leaves no dark corner unexplored.

The plot of Sicario is so complex and labyrinthine that the full attention of the audience is pretty much required to keep up with Taylor Sheridan’s serpentine script, a lean and mean story that doesn’t have an ounce of excess fat on it.  You’re advised to note everything that’s said because even the smallest detail could play a factor into what will transpire when an FBI agent gets involved with a covert operation involving drug kingpins and Mexican cartels.

I’m of the mindset that every movie needs more Emily Blunt in it.  Often I’ll be watching a film and just wonder what Blunt would have done with various female (or male) roles that may not be quite up to snuff.  Easily transitioning from comedic second-fiddle (The Five-Year Engagement) to action second-fiddle (Looper) to dramatic lead (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) before the 2014 one-two punch of Edge of Tomorrow and Into the Woods, with Sicario Blunt may just have the best performance (and first Oscar nomination) of her burgeoning career.  As principled FBI agent Kate Macer, Blunt has to show a lot of different colors throughout the film and she does so with believable skill.  When she’s offered a chance to volunteer for an undisclosed purpose on a government task force, she sees it as an opportunity for advancement and as a way to help right the wrongs she sees on a daily basis.

Lead into uncertain darkness by CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin, Oldboy, seemingly getting most of his performance from an ever-present wad of gum), Kate finds herself traveling between Mexico and the U.S. for several nail-biting missions that blur the line between the good guys and the bad guys.  It isn’t long before she’s in over her head, but her pride keeps her treading water even while the sharks start to circle her.

One of those sharks may be Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, Guardians of the Galaxy, in his best role since his Oscar win for Traffic), even though he’s supposedly on her side.  His motives for tagging along seem unclear and the movie never gets so far ahead of the audience that we know the answer before Kate does.  Even Kate’s partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, Kick-Ass 2) has loyalty issues that are tested along the way, putting Kate on an island by herself where only she is responsible for her survival.

Sicario feels very timely, very now and its situations are ripped from the very real headlines of the war on drugs that rages on along the U.S. border.  A nerve-shredding trip to Juárez, MX finds bodies hanging from highway overpasses as both the marking of certain territory and as a warning for all who dare enter…it’s a city of horrors that are grounded in a frightening reality.

Villeneuve starts the movie with a corker of an opener and only accelerates from there.  Aided by staggering cinematography from Deakins (Skyfall, The Secret Garden) and the droning score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything), there’s a sense of dread in nearly every frame.  That can make for a solemn viewing experience but paired with an intriguing story and taut performances, it’s ultimately a thrilling thrill ride of a movie.  From start to finish, top to bottom, it’s excellent.  Sicario is why we go to movies.

The Silver Bullet ~ Sicario

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Synopsis: In the lawless border area stretching between the U.S. and Mexico, an idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elite government task force official to aid in the escalating war against drugs

Release Date:  September 18, 2015

Thoughts: Back in 2013 I placed director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners on my best of the year list and while his 2014 follow-up, Enemy, didn’t rank quite as high in my book it still showed a filmmaker with dexterity, definitely someone to keep an eye on.

Villeneuve’s 2015 offering is Sicario, a taut-looking thriller following an FBI agent (Emily Blunt, Into the Woods) as she travels to the dark underside of drug trafficking along the U.S. border.  Villeneuve has demonstrated a thrilling style for these kind of tense character studies and, while I hadn’t heard of Sicario before catching this trailer, it’s quickly risen to one of my most anticipated movies of the year.  I think Blunt has demonstrated that she can nimbly balance her tough side (Edge of Tomorrow) with lighter turns (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) but this could be her true break-through role alongside Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice) and Josh Brolin (The Goonies).  Keep your eyes peeled for this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Self/Less

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Synopsis: An extremely wealthy man dying from cancer undergoes a radical medical procedure that transfers his consciousness into the body of a healthy young man. But all is not as it seems when he starts to uncover the mystery of the body’s origin and the organization that will kill to protect its cause.

Release Date: July 31, 2015

Thoughts: Here’s something interesting, a futuristic sci-fi yarn that isn’t based off an idea that sprang from the mind of genre favorites Philip K. Dick or Robert A. Heinlein. I must admit I’m a sucker for these kinds of far out fantasy films that pose questions about where our technology and scientific advances are taking us, exploring how each new boundary broken carries its own set of disadvantages. I’m a fan of director Tarsem Singh (his visually arresting but otherwise wretched Mirror, Mirror notwithstanding) but find it curious this is being deposited smack dab in the middle of a highly anticipated summer season. Perhaps it will provide a nice bit of brainy counter-programming to the bombastic sure-fire blockbusters headed our way.