I, Tonya


Some mother and daughter relationships aren’t exactly storybook perfect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Neon) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Suehyla El-Attar, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Joshua Mikel, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Kelly O’Neal. Directed by Craig Gillespie

 

Fame is a double edged sword. It can give you the keys to the kingdom; everything in life you ever could want. It can also turn back savagely on you and make you a national laughingstock.

Those around in the mid-1990s will remember Tonya Harding (Robbie) as a gifted figure skater who had a legitimate shot at Olympic gold. The first (and to date only) woman to complete a triple axel in competition, it all came crashing down on her just prior to the 1994 Olympics in Norway.

This acid-tongued biopic shows Tonya being pushed into the rink by her overbearing mother LaVona (Janney). Single, bitter and ruthless, LaVona pushes Tonya through physical and emotional abuse, explaining it off as “she skates better angry.” A legitimate athlete, Tonya had a hard time winning judges over with her handmade costumes and her rough-around-the-edges charm.

Tonya moves from one abusive relationship to another; she meets Jeff Gillooly (Stan) at the rink. He falls head over heels for the waif who is something of a combination of Miss America and pro wrestling valet to the working class Gillooly. The two end up marrying but the relationship is tempestuous. He has a vicious temper and that temper gets physical.

She’s desperately lonely and wants to be accepted for what she is – one of the world’s best in her sport. However, her crude language and temperament get the better of her and she continues to place lower than she thinks she deserves. Then, she has that one perfect day – nailing the triple axel and winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, making her the odds-on favorite to medal at the Olympics. A combination of bad luck and bad decisions keep getting in her way however, and after separating, then reconciling and at last separating again with Gillooly, she switches coaches and looks to try and make a comeback. Her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan (Carver) and a death threat that thoroughly plays with Tonya’s head and threatens to derail her chances once again leads Gillooly to conspire with his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Hauser)  to do the same to Kerrigan – except the incompetent Eckhardt decides on his own to take it a step further…

The movie is based on a series of face to face interviews with Harding and Gillooly which are often contradictory. The interviews are recreated with Robbie and Stan standing in. The actors also show the events that are being described, often stopping and turning to the camera and addressing the audience to say “I never did this,” or “She actually did this,” or make some other comment. The breaking of the fourth wall is effective and provides some of the best and most comedic moments of the film.

Several critics have groused that the film seems to be using domestic abuse (and there is a lot of it, starkly and graphically portrayed) as a punch line, but that’s quite the knee-jerk reaction in my humble opinion. Perhaps there are some folks who might find that stuff funny but there weren’t any in the screening I attended. The domestic abuse was in stark contrast to the lighter moments of sheer dumbassery displayed by Eckhardt and Gillooly, reflected by some of the more bizarre “you couldn’t make this stuff up” aspects of the actual events.

Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers make it clear their sympathies are with Harding, who was definitely dealt a difficult hand by life. She came from poverty and had to struggle for everything; to her mom’s credit (and you really can’t give her much) she found a way to outfit her with skates and skating lessons which couldn’t have been cheap. However, LaVona does some pretty awful things; she refuses to allow little Tonya a bathroom break until the poor child pees herself on the ice, which only elicits a disgusted expression from Mommy Dearest who will certainly elicit similar expressions from audience members. Class distinctions are a major theme in the film; Harding often acts like trailer trash (to use an awful expression which is to the poor the equivalent of a slur) because that’s all she knows. Still, she wills herself into success and that’s something she is almost never given credit for, mainly because she became tabloid fodder and the butt of late night comedian’s jokes.

Robbie is scary good in the movie, making Tonya hard-assed but also vulnerable. We see the pain in her face when she gives a smile for the cameras but that smile is as tight as saran wrap on her face and threatens to break at any moment. Robbie captures the attitude and vocal patterns of someone from those circumstances and makes Tonya a living, breathing person instead of a media invention.

Janney, who was so good in The West Wing returns to that kind of greatness with a much different role. There is nothing to like about LaVona and Janney gives us a character who is unapologetic and a little bit whacko. We sense that she’s been kicked in the teeth enough but there’s little context; all we see is that life has made her a ten karat bitch and someone who put Tonya on a collision course with infamy.

This is an Oscar contender on a lot of different levels and one of the best movies of the year. It’s just now hitting a limited release and should be going wide shortly. This is one you’ll want to see; even if the Tonya Harding scandal doesn’t interest you, if good filmmaking and incredible acting are more your thing, this movie covers both of those bases with room to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Robbie and Janney both give award-worthy performances. Some excellent camera work, particularly in the skating scenes. The soundtrack is near-perfect. Harding is turned from a joke into a sympathetic character.
REASONS TO STAY: The biting social commentary seems at odds with some of the humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a scene of shocking violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Janney actually trained as a figure skater through most of her youth until an accident caused a leg injury that effectively ended her career.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Florence Foster Jenkins
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Jigsaw

New Releases for the Week of January 12, 2018


THE POST

(20th Century Fox) Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie.  Directed by Steven Spielberg

After the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, they were in the center of a firestorm of controversy. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post also acquired some of the classified documents that detailed American acts that violated the Constitution as well as the Geneva Convention. With the Nixon Administration threatening to shut down the freedom of the press over the Papers, new Post publisher Katherine Graham – already a rarity in the newspaper business for being a woman as a publisher of a major newspaper – and her crusty editor Ben Bradlee face a decision to do what’s safe for the newspaper or what’s right for the country.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for language and brief war violence)

Agnyaathavaasi

(Haarika and Hassine Creations) Pawan Kalyan, Keerthi Suresh, Anu Emmanuel, Aadhi. An exiled heir to a massive fortune in India returns home in disguise as an ordinary employee of his father’s company in order to discover the identity of his father’s murderer and to make things right with the company, only to become a target himself.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace

Rating: NR  

Call Me By Your Name

(Sony Classics) Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar.  In 1983 the son of an American researcher working in Northern Italy is enjoying a leisurely summer enjoying the cultural delights of the region. However when his father’s research assistant arrives, the teen discovers that his own emerging sexuality may be more difficult to deal with than his academic pursuits.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and some language)

The Commuter

(Lionsgate) Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill. A businessman is taking the commuter train home from work when he is given an offer he can’t refuse; to find the person on the train who “doesn’t belong there” or else face increasingly dire consequences. However, this businessman has a particular set of skills…

See the trailer and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some intense action/violence, and language)

Condorito: The Movie

(Pantelion/Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Omar Chaparro, Jessica Cediel, Cristián de la Fuente, Jey Mammon. A soccer-playing condor (and the star of a Chilean comic strip) must save the world – and especially his family – from evil invading aliens.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website (Spanish)

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG (for rude and suggestive humor, and some mild action)

I, Tonya

(Neon) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson. Figure skater Tonya Harding comes from an impoverished background which places her at a competitive disadvantage – the snooty judges of the sport count her background and trailer park look against her. Still, there’s no denying her ability as the first woman to attempt and complete a triple axel. She could be on the way to Olympic gold; but her husband and his best friend take her down the road to scandal and late night talk show jokes instead. Look for the Cinema365 review tomorrow.

See the trailer, interviews and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Barnstorm Theater, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes (expanding next week)

Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity)

Paddington 2

(Warner Brothers) Michael Gambon (voice), Ben Whishaw (voice), Sally Hawkins, Imelda Staunton (voice). Now comfortably ensconced with the Brown family and a beloved member of the community, Paddington is looking to buy the perfect gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday – a pop-up book. He takes on a variety of odd jobs so that he can afford to buy the tome. However when it turns up stolen, Paddington looks to be the prime suspect. The Browns and their friends must find the real thief in order to clear the bear’s name and save Aunt Lucy’s birthday.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)

Proud Mary

(Screen Gems) Taraji P. Henson, Neal McDonough, Danny Glover, Xander Berkeley. Mary is a paid assassin for a Boston crime family. In the course of a hit, things go South and she ends up crossing paths with a young boy. That fateful meeting turns her life completely around which is a dangerous thing to have happen when you’re in her line of work.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Acts of Violence
Ang Panday
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Jai Simha

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Acts of Violence
Dim the Fluorescents
Hostiles
Inside
Jai Simha
Sketch
Thaanaa Serndha Koottam

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Gang
Inside
Jai Simha
Rangula Ratnam
Sketch
Thaanaa Serndha Koottam

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Ang Panday

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Call Me By Your Name
The Commuter
Hostiles
I, Tonya
Paddington 2
The Post
Proud Mary

The Girl on the Train (2016)


Emily Blunt realizes she's on the express train to Hell.

Emily Blunt realizes she’s on the express train to Hell.

(2016) Thriller (DreamWorks/Universal) Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Rebecca Ferguson, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, Lana Young, Gregory Motley, Mac Tavares, John Norris, Peter Mayer-Klepchick, Darren Goldstein, Nathan Shapiro, Cleta E. Ellington, Tamiel Paynes, Fernando Medina, Rachel Christopher. Directed by Tate Taylor

 

Perception is a tricky thing. Memory is unreliable; we may think we see something but did we really? Was it something that our minds embellished, either because of altered perception or our own prejudices? Was it something important? Ask ten people about something they saw fleetingly from a moving vehicle and you’ll get ten different answers as to what they saw.

Rachel Watson (Blunt) takes the Long Island Railroad train from the Island into the City twice a day. She’s been through a lot lately; a divorce following the revelation that her husband Tom (Theroux) had been cheating on her with their real estate agent Anna (Ferguson) – and had worse still married Anna and had a beautiful baby daughter with her, after efforts for Rachel to get pregnant had turned out fruitless. She already had a problem with alcohol when they were married; now that problem has become full-blown alcoholism.

From the train she sees a house not far from the one she used to live in and where Tom still lives with her new wife. In the house live a beautiful blonde and her husband, the perfect couple to Rachel’s mind, who have everything she ever wanted but cannot have. It comforts her somehow that this perfect union exists. Then one morning she sees the wife in the arms of another man and this sends her into a tailspin. She gets blackout drunk and ends up in a field not far from her old house and the one that the not-quite-perfect couple live in.

Then comes the news that the woman is missing; her name is Megan Hipwell (Bennett) and husband Scott (Evans) is frantic. As Rachel was spotted in the area, she is questioned by Detective Riley (Janney) about the situation. Rachel tells the Detective what she knows but Rachel isn’t exactly the most reliable witness.

Consumed by the case, Rachel sets out to find out who the mysterious man was and to find out what happened to Megan. Slowly, as she stumbles drunkenly from one clue to another, she begins to get closer to the truth about what happened to Megan – and discovers to her shock that the answer is closer to her than she could ever know.

This is based on the runaway bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins and is quite frankly a hot mess. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) has a history of deftly weaving multiple tales of different women together into cohesive films but that doesn’t happen here. The focus is largely on Rachel but Megan and Anna are both heavily in the mix and we do get their points of view as well.

Blunt has gotten some strong praise for her performance as Rachel, even critics calling for Oscar attention but I don’t see it. Frankly, this is one of her weaker performances that I can remember. She is unconvincing when asked to do scenes of drunkenness; quite frankly I’ve spent a lot of time among the inebriated and this is more of a caricature than anything else. Blunt tends to be more successful here when we get glimpses of her underlying torment. Rachel is definitely not a happy woman and when Blunt gets to let glimpses of that out, the performance works.

She isn’t helped much by the other cast members. Their performances are mainly unmemorable, but that isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors. They are given preposterous dialogue to say and characters who have little or no development to work with. It’s like the filmmakers decided to do something Hitchcock-esque (which this is) but instead of writing actual characters they used stereotypes from other films to fill in the blanks. While Rachel’s alcoholism is a nifty idea, it’s used more as a gimmick than as a real interesting plot point.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m told it’s very well-written by people whose judgment I trust on such matters. I can’t believe though that the story is identical; it’s too pat, too been there-done that. The twists are telegraphed and let’s face it, if you can’t tell who the criminal is in the first twenty minutes you’ve been asleep.

Bailey as Megan shows some promise (she’s also in the much better Magnificent Seven remake) doing her best Margot Robbie impression and ironically enough Robbie was originally considered for the role. Ramirez incomprehensibly has a Spanish accent for a character who’s supposed to be Arabic and Janney is unbelievable as a tough Detective Sergeant. I mean, think about it; these are all competent actors who are known for their consistently strong performances. Why are they all doing subpar work here all at the same time? One can only blame the filmmakers. The only actor who really makes an impression is Lisa Kudrow in a brief but important role who gets to utter the immortal line “Rachel! I haven’t seen you in a million years!” which may or may not be a conscious reference to Friends.

I’ve read some decent reviews for this thing and can’t for the life of me which movie those critics saw. Most of the reviews have been, like this one, on the negative side. The houses don’t look lived in, the lives don’t feel real. It’s like watching a movie in which Barbie and Ken dolls are used as surrogates. Blunt shows flashes of her normal brilliance but that is tempered with her portrayal of drunkenness as more of a lampoon than anything remotely approaching realism and that is symbolic of the movie’s issues as a whole; at the end of the day, this feels empty and without a connection to anything like real life. Why spend money on a movie that feels divorced from reality when you can watch a presidential debate for free?

REASONS TO GO: The alcoholism makes for an interesting plot point.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot twists and the whodunit are incredibly predictable. The acting is surprisingly blah.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexual content, profanity and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Taylor has made that hasn’t had Octavia Spencer in it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vertigo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Handmaiden

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


There's nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

There’s nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

(2016) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Louis Davidson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones. Directed by Tim Burton

 

I think that as children we can be divided into two categories; those who want to fit in, and those who don’t care. Many who want to fit in often feel like they don’t. We feel alien, peculiar and not at all like someone who is popular or admired. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in. What we fail to realize as children is that sometimes being on the outside looking in is far cooler than being in a cage.

Jake Portman (Butterfield) is one of those kids who doesn’t feel like he fits in. The only place he feels halfway normal is at his grandpa Abe’s (Stamp) Florida home, where the old man regales him with tales of fighting monsters during Worlds War II, and staying at an orphanage run by a Miss Peregrine, who presided over children with strange powers known as Peculiars.

After getting a call for help from Abe, Jake and his co-worker Shelley (Jones) arrive at Abe’s place to find signs of a struggle. They later find him dying in the yard, both his eyes plucked from his head. This understandably messes Jake up and he starts seeing a shrink, Dr. Golan (Janney). She urges him to follow Abe’s story, particularly after he discovers a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe which takes him and his father Franklin (O’Dowd) – who is more interested in researching his book on bird-watching which he’s been working on for years without progress than in bonding with his son – to an island off the coast of Wales.

There he finds the ruins of the orphanage, bombed into rubble by the Luftwaffe in 1943. He also finds some of the Peculiars who take him into a cave which brings him back to 1943 – on the very day the house would be destroyed. There he meets Emma Bloom (Purnell), a lighter-than-air girl who has control over air (she can create windstorms and bubbles of air underwater) and would float away if not tethered or wearing her lead boots whose heart was broken by a young Abe back in the day, the necromancer Enoch O’Connor (MacMillan) who can bring life to lifeless things, Olive (McCrostie) who is a pyrotechnic and Miss Peregrine (Green) herself. As it turns out, Miss Peregrine is kind of a guardian spirit called a Ymbryne who are able to morph into birds (in Miss Peregrine’s case, a falcon).

He learns the story of the Peculiars and those who are chasing them – the terrible Wights, who are led by the white-haired Mr. Barron (Jackson) who have been experimenting on Ymbrynes to make themselves immortal. Some of the Wights who are quite human-looking have turned into Hollows, hideous tentacled monsters who eat the eyeballs of Peculiars to revert back to human form.

It turns out that Mr. Barron is much closer by than they think and Jake has become an integral part of the fight. It turns out that Jake is able to see Hollows and sense their presence – a gift that Abe also had. With Jake and Emma falling in love again despite Emma’s best efforts, time is running out and Jake must find a way to protect the children from the evil Wights and from the ravages of time itself.

Burton is one of the most uniquely visionary directors in history. This is the kind of material that is right in his wheelhouse, or at least you would think so. This film is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult books by Ransom Riggs, which are in turn based on vintage photographs Riggs had collected that were somewhat spooky or hinted at uncanny powers (if you buy the young adult books, you’ll see the actual photos but some of them can be seen on the Internet if you’re willing to spend time Googling them). Riggs showed these pictures to Burton before filming and it’s plain to see that Burton used them as inspirations for his character design of the children.

That said, this doesn’t feel like a typical Tim Burton film in many ways. I thought it far more mainstream than what we’re used to from the director and far more vanilla in tone. Now while I admire Burton’s work a great deal, even as an admirer I’m willing to admit that his work has been less consistent in the past decade or so, with great work (Big Fish) interspersed with not-so-great work (Dark Shadows). This falls somewhere in the middle, with leanings more towards the latter.

Butterfield is a decent enough actor, but not one who fills a screen up with charisma. Much of the movie depends on Jake becoming a leader, but I’m not sure I’d follow him very far. He just seems kind of…bland. Green, who has maybe the most incandescent smile in Hollywood, doesn’t seem to be having much fun here; she comes off as a kind of second-rate Mary Poppins only less cheerful. I almost expected her to say “Spit spot!” Thankfully, she doesn’t.

Burton reportedly tried to go with practical effects as much as was possible, but you really can’t use them for an army of skeletons battling giant tentacled creatures which takes place during the climax. The effects are reasonably good and the setting reasonably moody but nothing here really impresses other than that Burton seems to do a good job of capturing the tone of the antique photos which colors the whole film.

One of the big missteps oddly enough is Jackson. One of my favorite actors in Hollywood, he doesn’t seem all that motivated here. When I see Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, I want to see Samuel L. Jackson whether that expectation is fair or not. Instead, we get a kind of mannered performance, like what would happen if Tim Curry was impersonating him. He just never convinces me that he’s all that malevolent or dangerous.

This could easily have been a major event film and franchise establishment but instead we get a movie that kind of just gets by. It doesn’t really feel like a Tim Burton movie. Fox currently has a reputation of being a studio that meddles in the product more than most of the others, so one wonders if there is studio interference at play here. Regardless of whether that’s the case or not this is a movie I can only moderately recommend. Chances are it will be a momentary distraction that will escape your memory faster than Emma Bloom escapes gravity.

REASONS TO GO: The film has an odd kind of antiquarian feel. The climax is thrilling.
REASONS TO STAY: The whimsy normally associated with Burton is missing. Jackson is wasted in a bland villainous role.
FAMILY VALUES: There are children in peril and some violence of a fantastic nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Miss Peregrine’s home actually exists; it is called Torenhof and is located outside of Antwerp in Belgium.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Storks

Tallulah


A short walk on a long pier.

A short walk on a long pier.

(2016) Drama (Netflix) Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, Felix Solis, Uzo Aduba, Fredric Lehne, Liliana/Evangeline Ellis, John Benjamin Hickey, Zachary Quinto, Maddie Corman, Tommar Wilson, J. Oscar Simmons, Charlotte Ubben, Olivia Levine, Jason Tottenham, Todd Alan Crain, Chanel Jenkins, Stacey Thunder, Jasson Finney. Directed by Sian Heder

 

Motherhood is one of the most primal of all human urges. There is no doubt that it changes a woman, not just in a physical sense (which it does) but also in her perspective, in how she sees the world. Some say that every woman becomes a great mother, but that simply isn’t so. Some women were flat-out not made to be mothers.

Lu (Page) has been living on her own, homeless and content to be. She doesn’t want to be tied down to anything or anyone – although she seems pretty smitten with her boyfriend Nico (Jonigkeit). However, he isn’t terribly smitten with the lifestyle of stealing and conning to survive and eventually takes a powder. Knowing that he is headed to New York City to find his estranged mom, she follows him there. Since she’s in a van and he’s on foot, she gets there first.

Margo (Janney) is Nico’s mom and she’s bitter ever since her husband Stephen (Hickey) deserted her – for another man, in this case Andreas (Quinto). Because Margo is living in faculty housing and it’s Stephen who is actually the faculty, she has to pretend like he’s still there, a fiction that has kept her in a place to live even though she hates the artwork on the walls and feels trapped in a place that she doesn’t particularly like.

When Lu turns up at her door, she’s at first dismissive but at she realizes that Lu is the only connection she has to her son so when Margo sees the doorman Manuel (Solis) she instructs him to send the waif back up the next time she drops by. And she drop by she does, only this time in the company of a baby (Ellis).

You see, while Lu was at a posh hotel taking leftover food from room service trays, she was spotted by Carolyn (Blanchard), a Real Housewives type. Mistaking Lu for hotel staff, she has her babysit her baby while she goes out and parties with a man who she is most definitely not married to. When she comes back to the hotel room and passes out dead drunk, Lu realizes Carolyn is not a fit mother. Rather than contact the authorities, she impulsively takes the baby herself for her own.

On the Margo front, Lu passes off the baby as Margo’s granddaughter and suddenly the two women are bonding, not just over the shared genetic material but also over motherhood itself. Margo realizes she wasn’t mother of the year – neither was Lu’s mom, who essentially abandoned her – but she has a chance to redeem herself for the mistakes she made with her son. The police however are closing in and Lu doesn’t sense the tightening net around her.

Heder, one of the writers of Netflix’ hit Orange is the New Black series, has a keen eye for women’s issues and what could be a more important one than motherhood? Well, at least that’s the way society makes it out to be. A woman is more than her ovaries and this is a movie that makes a case that being a great mom is not all there is to life.

In fact, the three main female characters are none of them great moms. The closest one to it is Lu, who stole her baby which is certainly one of the most unforgivable crimes in our culture. That she took it from a woman patently unfit to be a mother, who didn’t want to be a mother, who endangered her child’s welfare and seemingly her life was not necessarily the issue, or at least I didn’t think so.

Margo had devoted her life to Nico, particularly after she and Stephen broken up but her bitterness and betrayal colored that relationship as well. It wasn’t until after she met Lu that she was able to let go and be free of her self-imposed burdens, which is a theme in the movie symbolized by both of the two main female characters imagining they are floating away from earth, no longer tethered by gravity. With Lu it’s a dream at the beginning of the film; with Margo a daydream at the end.

I’ve never been an over-the-top Ellen Page fan, although I recognize that she is an extremely talented actress and I can relate to her on that point. However, the characters she chooses to play are often a bit too strident for my liking and often a bit too offbeat from time to time. Lu lives by her own rules; in some ways, she is as self-centered a character as Page has ever portrayed. There are those who will characterize this as kind of the logical continuation of Juno, the title character that launched her career, a pregnant teen. I don’t really see it that way though; Lu is nothing like Juno.

One of the objections I had to the script was that Lu has been set up to be something of an individualist. She wants relationships to be on her terms, in fact life itself is lived on her own terms. Her action of impulsively stealing the baby just seems to be so out of left field in that sense; someone who is as irresponsible as Lu is suddenly decides to take on the biggest responsibility of them all? It didn’t make sense when I saw it and I imagine that it could be written off as the impetuousness of youth – but that’s some bad writing.

While I enjoyed the performance of Allison Janney immensely, at the end of the day this seems to be a missed opportunity more than anything. We rarely get to see mothers portrayed as anything but saints and sacrificers and that is largely true of most moms, but we don’t always get to see the other side of it – the loss of identity, the absolute panic of not knowing what to do when your baby won’t stop crying, the exhaustion and the mistakes. Any mom will tell you that she made her share of foul-ups and sometimes things that she’s done that she wishes she hadn’t. I don’t think Heder was really certain as to whether she was writing a treatise on motherhood or finding freedom as a woman, and in a sense she tried to do both and ended up doing neither. I didn’t see anything here that really gave me any insight into the characters that I couldn’t have figured out by watching the Lifetime network for an hour or two.

REASONS TO GO: Janney is as solid as she always is.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points don’t seem too organic.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds; there are also plenty of adult themes, some drinking and drug use, sexual situations and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Allison Janney and Ellen Page are in the same movie for the third time, after Juno and Touchy Feely.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Castle in the Sky
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Der Bunker

New Releases for the Week of July 10, 2015


MinionsMINIONS

(Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Steve Carell, Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

Before Gru, the world’s greatest criminal mastermind, there were Minions and those Minions have been a merchandising bonanza for Universal. It was only inevitable that the cute little yellow pill-shaped creatures would get a movie of their own and here it is. Here we discover the story of the Minions, a race of creatures existing only to serve the greatest criminals of all time. However, in 1960s New York City, they discover that this could end up being a much more dangerous undertaking than ever before – and could mean the end of Minionkind forever.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website .
Release Formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for action and rude humor)

Amy

(A24) Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mitch Winehouse. Singer Amy Winehouse had the world by the tail. A Grammy winner with million-selling albums, she was bringing back jazz singing almost singlehandedly. She had an unusual honesty, confronting her own issues in song. And she had plenty of issues, including an unhealthy lifestyle and troubled relationships with people who didn’t have her best interests at heart, leading to a tragic end for what might have been a bright future.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and drug material)

The Gallows

(New Line) Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford. Students at a small high school decide to honor a tragedy 20 years earlier in which the lead actor was killed during the performance of a play by re-enacting the play. Of course, they do it at night without any adult supervision which is dangerous enough but worse still, their “tribute” stirs up restless spirits they’d have been better off not disturbing.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for some disturbing violent content and terror)

Self/Less

(Gramercy) Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode. When a billionaire discovers he has inoperable cancer, his prospects look grim. However, a radical new procedure allows him to transfer his consciousness into the body of a younger man who is brain-dead but otherwise healthy. Grasping at straws, he doesn’t ask too many questions until after the procedure is completed. Then he discovers that the origin of the body is not what he was told and that those who made this miracle happen will stop at nothing to keep their sinister plans from going public.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for sequences of violence, some sexuality and language)

Testament of Youth

(Sony Classics) Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson. A woman, who sees her brother go marching off to World War I, decides to volunteer herself as a nurse thus beginning a journey into the horrors of war. Based on the memoirs of actual nurse Vera Brittain, this powerful indictment of war has been quietly flying under the critical radar thus far this year.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war images)

Spy


Fish out of water.

Fish out of water.

(2015) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jessica Chaffin, Miranda Hart, Morena Baccarin, Will Yun Lee, Carlos Ponce, Richard Brake, Raad Rawi, Michael McDonald, Peter Serafinowicz, Nargis Fakhri, 50 Cent, Ben Falcone, Katie Dippold, Jamie Denbo. Directed by Paul Feig

We are, as a moviegoing public, fascinated by spies. Of course, there’s the glamour – playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, wearing designer suits and dresses, using sophisticated gadgets that look like ordinary items, only deadly. Who wouldn’t want that kind of life?

Certainly Susan Cooper (McCarthy) does, to the point that she works for the Central Intelligence Agency. She is this close to getting an assignment in the field, but she winds up being a kind of handler/assistant to debonair field agent Bradley Fine (Law). She’s also quite smitten with the devilishly handsome spy, but he won’t give her a second look. In fact, nobody gives her much respect, not even the deputy chief (Janney) who supervises the team.

Unfortunately, while trying to discover the location of a nuclear bomb that is up for sale to the highest terrorist bidder, things go horribly, terribly awry. It turns out that the bomb seller, Reyna Boyanov (Byrne), has somehow identified every one of the CIA field agents. With a nuclear bomb in play and crippled by the fact that every agent she sends up against the bitchy Boyanov is sure to be spotted, the harried deputy chief is forced to send in someone that Reyna doesn’t know – Susan Cooper is finally getting her chance to be a field agent.

She is aided in her quest by gawky fellow basement dweller Nancy (Hart) and over-the-top touchy-feely Italian agent Aldo (Serafinowicz). She’ll also be hindered by egotistical, braggadocios agent Rick Ford (Statham) who, like about everyone else in the CIA, thinks that Susan doesn’t have a chance out in the field and will only mess things up. Susan, however, has a few surprises in store and is determined to complete her first mission. Will it be however, the last thing she does?

I’ve always blown hot and cold about McCarthy; she shows flashes of comic brilliance but Hollywood seems interested in casting her only as a boorish slob or an overbearing bully. One gets the sense that Hollywood can’t see past her weight, which coincidentally is Susan Cooper’s problem. One person who does see more in McCarthy is Feig, who has been at the helm for her three best performances yet – Bridesmaids, The Heat and now this.

McCarthy has always been adept at physical comedy, although it has often been to her detriment (having to do with her size) but here she outdoes herself. That’s not what makes McCarthy’s performance so memorable though; it’s that she portrays Susan as intelligent, capable and dare I say it, pretty. She turns all of our prejudices about overweight women on their ear, and for that alone one should applaud this movie, and Feig and McCarthy specifically.

What holds this movie back is that the story is really kind of generic spy stuff. We’ve seen the plot in movies and on television many times before. However, it is executed very well  here, with some cool high-tech sets in the CIA and lovely exotic (to American eyes anyway) locations. I would also have liked to see the villains be less bitchy and more evil. A spy movie is only as good as its villain and while Byrne is delicious as Reyna, one doesn’t get the kind of threat from her as one might from Auric Goldfinger, Ernst Blofeld or even Siegfried of KAOS.

Still, McCarthy gets to be James Bond and how cool is that for her? You can tell that she’s having the time of her life in this role, and it translates onto the screen and audiences are picking up on that, judging from the box office and audience test scores. It is said that Fox intended this all along to be a new franchise for them and quite likely it will be and I for one can’t wait for a sequel if McCarthy wants to do one.

REASONS TO GO: Statham plays against type and McCarthy is at her best. Some nifty sets and locations.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really explore new territory. Villains not villainous enough.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language, some violence, a little bit of sexual content and a brief scene of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feig is a huge fan of Jason Statham and wrote the part of Rick Ford specifically for him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Departed

New Releases for the Week of February 20, 2015


The DUFFTHE DUFF

(CBS) Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Skyler Samuels, Romany Malco, Nick Eversman, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney. Directed by Ari Sandel

A young high school senior who is pretty content about her position in the school’s social hierarchy is shocked to discover that she’s better known around campus as the DUFF – Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Working to rehabilitate her image with a slick but charming football player, she takes on the school’s official designator of labels (doesn’t every school have one?) to find that the only label that’s important is the one you give yourself. Or something along those lines.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Teen Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying)

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

(Paramount/MGM) Rob Corddry, Adam Scott, Chevy Chase, Craig Robinson. Having used the Hot Tub Time Machine to make their lives better, the three buddies find that using the time machine for their own purposes has a cost of its own.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for crude sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, drug use and some violence)

McFarland USA

(Disney) Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Vincent Martella. In a Central California high school mostly made up of the children of Hispanic farm workers, school and work in the fields are all any of them have to look forward to. However, some of them are fast – that attracts the attention of new PE coach Jim White who proposes to establish a cross country team. The group’s devotion to family, incredible work ethic and belief in one another will take a little known farming community high school and transform it into a place of champions.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Sports Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic material, some violence and language)

Big Night


Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

(1996) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Campbell Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Allison Janney, Susan Floyd, Marc Anthony, Liev Schreiber, Pasquale Cajano, Gene Canfield, Andre Belgrader, Caroline Aaron, Larry Block, Peter McRobbie, Peter Appel, Karen Shallo, Robert W. Castle, Tamar Kotoske, Alaveta Guess, Dina Spybey. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

Films For Foodies

A good movie can make you care about the story or the characters. A very good movie can make you care about both. A great movie will make you feel you lived in the story with those characters and want to then revisit that movie again and again. Big Night is just such a movie.

In the late 50s, a pair of brothers recently come to America from their native Italy have opened an Italian restaurant on the Jersey shore. Called Paradise, the brothers intended for the restaurant to stand out from the mamma mia spaghetti and meatball joints that were what passed for Italian in that era, like the huge successful restaurant down the street from theirs that was run by Pascal (Holm).

The brothers divided their labors thusly; Primo (Shalhoub), the eldest, ran the kitchen and he was a culinary genius before we knew such things existed. He made an astounding risotto but all anyone ever wanted was – you guessed it – spaghetti and meatballs. When one somewhat ignorant customer (Aaron) asks for a side of spaghetti and meatballs with her risotto, Primo nearly hits the roof. “How about I give her a side of mashed potatoes with that,” he explodes, nearly refusing to give the customer a starch to go with her starch.

Secondo (Tucci), the younger, runs front of house and the business side of things and only he knows what desperate straits the restaurant is in. Behind in their mortgage payments, the bank is about to foreclose. He argues with his brother on his rigid high standards but deep down, he supports them because that is the kind of restaurant he dreams of running.

Their love lives aren’t in much better shape. Primo has a thing for the local florist (Janney) but is far too shy to tell her how he feels. Secondo has a girlfriend, the ever-patient Phyllis (Driver) who waits for him to propose but is losing that patience rapidly. He also has a mistress, the straight-shooting and sexy Gabriella (Rossellini) who is also Pascal’s mistress. She gets around.

Secondo approaches Pascal about a loan which the penurious Pascal is loathe to do, but he will do the brothers a solid – it so happens that famed Italian crooner Louis Prima and his band are going to be in town the following week. He happens to know Louis and will invite him and his band to a dinner at Paradise. The accompanying press and notices may be what’s needed to save the Paradise.

Secondo and Primo set to preparing the restaurant for the biggest night of their lives. With Phyllis helping out as well as their put-upon kitchen boy Cristiano (Anthony), it promises to be a night to remember but will Primo’s stubbornness and Secondo’s love life torpedo everything the brothers have worked for and drive an irreparable wedge between them? Either way, you know that the meal that they serve on this big night will be one that will be absolutely unforgettable.

Tucci, who co-directed and co-wrote the movie in addition to co-starring in it, was just beginning to get his career going when this was made. He has since become one of Hollywood’s busiest actors with a variety of roles in which he mostly plays oily slimeballs. In fact, writing this movie was an effort to write a part for himself that wasn’t the sort he usually got cast in. In fact, there are plenty of well-known names and faces in this movie who were just starting their careers out. Schreiber has a blink and you’ll miss it role as the doorman at Pascal’s joint, while Driver was a year away from her breakout roles in Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank.

You become entwined in the story of the struggling restaurant and the sibling squabbling that goes on will feel familiar to anyone who has a brother or a sister. So will the struggles of the brothers appeal to anyone who has ever owned or worked in a small business. In fact, all of the characters have something about them that will speak to you; they may not necessarily be someone you know but there will be something familiar nonetheless…in many ways Primo and Secondo are the brothers I never had.

This is one of those movies that will get under your skin and stay there; you’ll want to see it more than once. Sadly, the home video edition has no extra features other than the original trailer. I’d love to see interviews with the cast now nearly 20 years after the fact about this great little movie that stands the test of time. Even so, the movie is well worth getting. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get an inescapable craving for Italian food by the time it ends.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written with terrific performances throughout. Captures ambience and era perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit ambiguous on the ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot over a period of just 35 days. Tucci and Shalhoub would work together many times following this film, including in the film The Imposters as well as on Shalhoub’s hit TV show Monk.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.0M on a $4.1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!

Tammy


Susan Sarandon tries to give Melissa McCarthy some career advice.

Susan Sarandon tries to give Melissa McCarthy some career advice.

(2014) Comedy (New Line) Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon, Dan Aykroyd, Sandra Oh, Ben Falcone, Sarah Baker, Rich Williams, Steve Little, Dakota Lee, Mark L. Young, Mia Rose Frampton, Steve Mallory, Keith Welborn, Oscar Gale, Justin Smith, Barbara Weetman. Directed by Ben Falcone

Sometimes we manage to become people we never intended ourselves to be. Through circumstances that are sometimes entirely out of our control – but not always – we find ourselves being the very people we swore we’d never be. Generally that revelation is accompanied by bitterness and self-loathing.

Tammy (McCarthy) has it in her to be happy but it doesn’t look like she is. She does seem self-possessed on the exterior – belting out renditions of the Outfield’s “Your Love” in her car. Not a cappella and not on the car stereo but from an ancient boombox which may or may not be older than the Toyota Corolla she’s driving. After an unsettling encounter with a deer, her car which was already only a hair or two away from breathing its last gives up the ghost.

Not only that but the deer encounter makes her late for work, which her prissy boss Keith (Falcone) uses as an excuse to fire her. Tammy’s reaction to the news is how you might expect – she’s not the sort to take that kind of thing lying down. Having to walk home essentially she returns home early to find out that her lackadaisical husband Greg (Faxon) is having an affair with a comely neighbor (Collette).

Convinced that she needs to get out of town or go crazy, Tammy heads over to her mom’s (Janney) house. However, her mom won’t lend Tammy her car, nor front her some cash so she can go walkabout. However, her grandmother Pearl (Sarandon) has a Caddy and seven grand that says road trip to Niagara Falls  which Pearl has always wanted to visit.

 

On the surface, this seems like a very bad idea. Tammy is mulish and a wreck – it’s not hard to figure out why her husband would cheat as she has taken zero care of herself and can’t be easy to live with. Worse yet, it turns out grandma is an alcoholic and a bit of a nymphomaniac, getting it on with a Louisville rancher (Cole) while Tammy is forced to sleep outside the hotel room. Only Bobby (Duplass), the sweet son of the rancher who treats Tammy decently – the first man to do so in ages – makes it anything more than excruciating.

The two women’s shenanigans cause them to blow through their cash faster than expected forcing Tammy to take some desperate measures that lead the two of them to go on the lam over at the beautiful home of Tammy’s cousin Lenore (Bates). Lenore, a lesbian who owns a chain of pet food stores and whose partner (Oh) is as sweet as pie, is a no-nonsense sort who sees what’s really going on. When Pearl and Tammy’s problems lead to a painful moment at a Fourth of July party at Lenore’s place, it becomes obvious that Tammy needs to make some changes if she’s ever going to be truly happy. The question is, is it obvious to Tammy?

McCarthy has become a star comedic actress with not only her TV success on Mike & Molly but also a string of hit movies to her credit. She co-wrote this with her husband Falcone who also directed the movie; you’d think it would be an absolute slam dunk.

Sadly, it’s not and it isn’t due to McCarthy the actress who actually does a pretty fine job in a role that is pretty similar to the ones she’s played in the past three movies; foul-mouthed, gross, obnoxious and highly sexual. The trouble is that the role isn’t given depth so much as it’s given mannerisms and the blame lies with McCarthy the writer.

McCarthy the actress isn’t alone in this issue either. None of the characters here are particularly well drawn out,  mostly given a trait and essentially left to flounder with a script conspicuously short on jokes. I get the sense the writers weren’t sure if they wanted a comedy or a heartwarming buddy movie and ended up with neither.

Reading that back, it sounds a little bit harsh and if I’m gonna be honest, there are some laughs here (some of which may be found in the trailer) and if I had to recommend the movie, I could do so grudgingly; McCarthy is an engaging enough actress that she can provide life to any movie no matter how terrible. This isn’t the funniest summer comedy ever but at least it’s better than last year’s truly awful Grown-Ups 2 – now there’s a franchise which could use McCarthy’s talents. In any case, fans of the actress probably will end up liking the movie anyway; she basically has this kind of role down pat enough that she could do it in her sleep. Those who want better from her however will have to wait for the next one.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Sarandon battle gamely through subpar material. Bates does her usual impressive job in support.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks real humor. Could have used some depth in the characters who mainly end up as caricatures.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarandon is only 24 years older than McCarthy, who plays her granddaughter. In addition, Janney – who plays Tammy’s mother and Pearl’s daughter – is 13 years younger than Sarandon and 11 years older than McCarthy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thelma and Louise

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Begin Again