The Leisure Seeker


On the road, American-style.

(2018) Dramedy (Sony ClassicsHelen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriela Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Helen Abell, Joshua Mikel, Robert Walker Branchaud, Denita Isler, Chelle Ramos, Danielle Deadwyler. Directed by Paolo Virzi

 

Growing old is hell. I’m finding that out first hand, and I’m not even 60 yet. The older we get, the more we have to lose, including our independence. There’s something about that which is almost unthinkable, but it often happens to our parents long before it happens to us.

John (Sutherland) and Ella Spencer (Mirren) are an aged couple in the twilight of their years. John is a retired literature professor; Ella is a wife and mother but also a very smart and tough cookie. One day, she and John set out in their old Winnebago for one last adventure.

The trouble is though that John is suffering from dementia and his lucid moments are getting further and farther between. Ella is also having some serious health problems and the strain of being John’s caregiver is wearing on her to the point where she isn’t sure she can continue. Their children Will (McKay) and Jane (Moloney) are frantic with worry – their parents left without telling them their plans, which are to drive down from New England to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house – Hemingway is a hero to John, and one of the things he can remember more clearly more often – one last time.

There is definitely an elegiac feel to the movie, even though there is a sense of humor to it. John’s antics aren’t necessarily played for laughs; he soils himself and some of his memory lapses are downright dangerous. Still, Ella faces a good deal of her husband’s illness with a cheerful sense of humor, even if she is at the end of her rope. The love between the two of them is heartwarming.

Part of the reason it is so is because Sutherland and Mirren are both excellent actors and the chemistry between them is genuine. Virzi gives them a real sense of being on a road trip, which helps the actors express being comfortable together. The Winnebago isn’t in the best of shape but with a bit of tender loving care, it will get them where they’re going, which is pretty much true for life.

The problem here is mainly that the plot is pretty predictable and there aren’t a lot of surprises, although feisty Ella faces down a pair of would-be robbers with a shotgun but that is one of the few moments where I thought that the movie was playing down to the elderly – oh, look, isn’t she cute, she’s got a gun. For the most part, these are real people with real issues that face millions of our elderly day in and day out. That’s one of the main takeaways I had from the movie and I thought both Sutherland and Mirren gave their characters dignity, from the first frame to the last.

Although there are some fairly funny moments and some fairly sweet ones, this isn’t something you should look to for some light entertainment. The issues being portrayed here are very real and they may remind you of someone in your own life going through similar challenges – parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers. It may hit a little too close to home. I’m very fortunate that my mom (my father passed away more than thirty years ago) still has full possession of her faculties, even though her memory isn’t what it once was and she walks a lot slower than she used to, but she is the first to squawk when she feels pandered to. I don’t think this movie would give her reason to squawk.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Mirren and Sutherland. Kind of a nice travelogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first English language movie for Virzi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
First Man

A Simple Favor


Cocktails and besties, the perfect combination.

(2018) Suspense (Lionsgate) Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Eric Johnson, Jean Smart, Sarah Baker, Gia Sandhu, Kelly McCormack, Glenda Braganza, Linda Cardellini, Andrew Rannells, Rupert Friend, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Glenda Braganza, Danielle Bourgon, Andrew Moodie, Bashir Salahuddin, Aparna Nancheria, Gia Sandhu, Katherine Cullen. Directed by Paul Feig

Da Queen will tell you that I love a good whodunit. Da Queen will also tell you I despise a lazy one. A Simple Favor falls somewhere in between; I don’t love it but I don’t hate it either.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a suburban supermom who has a mommy vlog full of life hacks for moms and so on. Her son (Satine) is a school chum of the son (Ho) of Emily (Lively), a high-powered public relations VP for a high-powered New York fashion firm led by the aptly named Dennis Nylon (Friend) who never met a wardrobe he couldn’t insult, especially if it didn’t involve his own clothing line.

Stephanie and Emily bond over martinis and quickly become besties, sharing their deep dirty secrets – Emily’s marriage to struggling writer Sean (Golding) is crumbling. Emily’s job is demanding more and more of her time and Stephanie is only too happy to pick up both boys from school, but then one night, Emily doesn’t come to pick up her boy – nor does she show up the next day. Stephanie fears the worst.

But Stephanie is a bit of an amateur sleuth and when the police don’t seem to have any leads on the whereabouts of Emily, Stephanie takes over looking for the lost item as any proper mom would. And what she finds…isn’t what she expects.

Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, isn’t afraid to inject some humor – okay, a lot of humor – into the neo-noir thriller. Sometimes, the movie seems almost schizophrenic at times. The tone varies from light to dark and sometimes in between. The chemistry between Lively and Kendrick absolutely works; they both look like polar opposites but it isn’t hard to see what draws the two characters together. The humor works well, but surprisingly it’s the thriller portion that’s less successful; the denouement isn’t hard to figure out in advance and the movie definitely loses narrative steam during the last third. Still, the things that work in A Simple Favor work very well; the things that don’t can be overlooked.

REASONS TO SEE: Kendrick and Lively have excellent chemistry.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less mindless entertainment, appearances to the contrary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content and some graphic nudity, drug use, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the character of Emily is a heavy drinker, Blake Lively (who plays her) has been a teetotaler all her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Vudu. YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Girl
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Searching

Crazy Rich Asians


Love, Singaporean style.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Warner BrothersConstance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie, Victoria Loke, Janice Koh, Amy J. Cheng. Directed by Jon M. Chu

Fairy tales are powerful things. Doesn’t every little girl want to marry the prince and go riding off into the sunset together, preferably in the direction of a beautiful castle? Trust me, men have their fairy tales as well but we won’t get into those here.

Rachel Chu (Wu) is an economics professor at NYU and she’s been dating handsome Nick Young (Golding), a fellow academic, for more than a year. She’s headed to Singapore with him to attend his cousin (and best friend’s) wedding. When they get first class tickets on the airplane, she asks him how wealthy his family is. “We’re comfortable,” he says modestly. Yeah, they’re comfortable in the same way that Bill Gates is comfortable.

Nick’s mom (Yeoh), the imperious matriarch of the family, is none too pleased to see Rachel who even though her son is crazy about her is still nonetheless not even close to the kind of match that she had in mind for her son. Rachel will have to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of Nick’s family, aided by her college bestie Peik Lin (Awkwafina), if she is going to keep the man she loves.

America loves its rich folks and that helps the movie out a great deal. The fact that this is a largely Asian-American cast and crew is a big deal, and the movie gives us some insight into Chinese (primarily) culture and customs, and those are some of the more endearing moments of the film.

I can’t say enough about Constance Wu, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat. She has tons of charisma and likability; she has a big future ahead of her and not only as a romantic leading lady. She has the kind of presence that Awkwafina (who would break out this year in The Farewell) has, but with a touch more self-assuredness. Golding also has a ton of leading man appeal.

Although there are a few rom-com tropes here, they don’t necessarily get in the way of the enjoyment of this movie. After an over-profusion of the genre over the last 20 years, romantic comedies have fallen somewhat out of favor. With a fresh take on them as this one has and particularly after the kind of success it enjoyed (the highest box office for any romantic comedy in more than a decade), you can bet we’ll be seeing more of them in the near future. If they’re this good, I wouldn’t mind at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Constance Wu is a find. Culturally informative. Escapes most rom-com clichés.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sends some mixed messages about the institution of marriage.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Netflix offered to produce the movie at a substantially larger budget, but producer Kevin Kwan felt that it was important to prove to the studios that Asian-American movies were commercially viable. Netflix ended up producing Always Be My Maybe instead.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft,  Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pretty Woman
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A.X.L.

The Meg


Jason Statham smells something fishy.

(2018) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Winston Chao, Sophia Cai, Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy, Robert Taylor, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jessica McNamee, Masi Oka, Raymond Vinten, Mai Hongmei, Wei Yi, Vithaya Ransringarm, Rob Kipa-Williams, Tawanda Manyimo, Mark Trotter, Jeremy Tan, Sui Fong Ivy Tsui. Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 

Sharks have been a popular movie villain ever since Steven Spielberg brought forth Jaws as quite possibly the perfect summer movie back in 1975. Given Hollywood’s propensity to the maxim “bigger is better,” it was only a matter of time before we got a gigantic prehistoric shark wreaking havoc.

Jonas Taylor (Statham) is a deep-sea rescue specialist who has an encounter with something huge during an unsuccessful rescue of a sub. Essentially laughed out of the business, he retires to Thailand to get drunk and stay drunk – two things it is quite possible to do in Thailand. However, when an experimental submersible in which his ex-wife (McNamee) is a crew member is trapped below the Marianas Trench (don’t ask), he is enticed back, headed to the sleek 2001-esque research station below the ocean bankrolled by tech gazillionaire Morris (Wilson) and headed by Chinese scientists Dr. Zhang (Chao), his comely daughter Suyin (Bingbing) and precocious granddaughter Meiying (Cai), as well as Jonas’ buddy Mac (Curtis). Needless to say the giant creature Jonas saw is real (Nyah! Nyah! Toldja so!) and turns out to be a gigantic prehistoric shark that has been extinct for 200 million years; except it wasn’t, it had just gone from being a shallow water predator to a deep sea diver because…reasons.

Warner Brothers marketed this as a fun, light summer movie which I suppose a film about people getting swallowed whole by a giant shark would have to be. It really doesn’t live up to the trailer though, although Statham really makes an effort to take the movie on his broad shoulders. Sadly, the movie suffers from hoary plot clichés and underwhelming CGI and comes off as a kind of Plan 9 from the South China Sea. It does skirt the so bad it’s good territory.

Despite all its shortcomings, there is something about the movie that is endearing, although it could have used a little more self-awareness – why, oh why didn’t someone say “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”? – and a little less cool gadgetry. For my money, the movie came within one uneaten chunky Asian kid from getting a more respectable score.

REASONS TO SEE: Statham gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sketchy CGI and a predictable plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is aquatic violence, some bloody images, peril and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in and out of development since 1996 when Disney (!) first bought the rights to the novel. It has bounced around a variety of studios (New Line, Warner Brothers) and directors (Guillermo del Toro, Jan de Bont) in that time.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews: Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jaws III
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Spy Who Dumped Me

Frankenstein (1931)


One of the most iconic images in horror movie history.

(1931) Horror (UniversalColin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris, Francis Ford, Michael Mark, Mae Bruce, Jack Curtis, Paul Panzer, William Dyer, Cecil Reynolds, Cecilia Parker, Ellinor Vanderveer, Soledad Jiménez, Mary Gordon, Carmencita Johnson, Pauline Moore, Arletta Duncan. Directed by James Whale

Perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time is James Whale’s 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the latter of whom is listed in the credit as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” – ah, misogyny). It is in many ways the perfect storm of Gothic imagery, gruesome subtexts, pathos, terror and a truly mind-blowing performance by Boris Karloff as the monster.

Most everyone knows the story, or at least bits of it; medical student Henry Frankenstein (Clive) who was renamed from Victor in the book and most subsequent films, is obsessed with the big questions of life; why does one child turn out to be the pillar of the community, the other a criminal? Where does life begin? Can a man bring life to the lifeless?

To discover the latter, he and his faithful servant Fritz (Frye) – renamed Igor in most subsequent productions – dig up bodies for their parts to create a perfect being. Utilizing a violent thunderstorm, lightning strikes buffet his creation until, as Frankenstein notably exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

However, Frankenstein eventually has cause to regret his experiment as he loses control of the monster which goes on a murderous rampage, not always out of malice (in a particularly famous scene he inadvertently drowns a little girl while throwing flowers into a lake).

Many of the tropes that have characterized horror films in the 88 years since this movie was made originated or was refined here; the angry mob with torches and pitchforks, the sweet maiden menaced by an ugly monster, the imposing castle, the thunderstorm, the grunting of the inarticulate monster and so much more.

Karloff’s sad eyes and stiff gait made the monster so memorable that it was called thenceforth Frankenstein, even though the monster is never given a name in the film. Karloff, to that point a journeyman actor who generally played the heavy in B movies, would go on to a lucrative and acclaimed career as one of the greatest horror specialists of all time. Frankenstein is so iconic that many identify the genre with this movie; often the scowling visage as the monster is used to represent the genre.

While the scares are tame by modern standards, I think the film holds up extraordinarily well even today. This is how horror films were done before excessive gore was used as a crutch by many filmmakers in the genre; Whale knew just about how much to leave to the imagination and our imaginations are often more gruesome than reality. I think that these days, it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit but if you haven’t seen it – or haven’t seen it in a while – you owe it to yourself to watch it once again or for the first time.

REASONS TO SEE: A classic in every sense of the word. Karloff’s performance is a career maker. Still pretty scary even now. Still the best adaptation of the iconic Mary Shelley tale. The standard by which other horror movies are judged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Quite tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scary images and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster isn’t seen until 30 minutes into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bride of Frankenstein
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Saudi Women’s Driving School

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society


Wheels keep on turning.

(2018) Drama (NetflixLily James, Michael Huisman, Jessica Brown Findlay, Glen Powell, Matthew Goode, Tom Courtnay, Katherine Parkinson, Clive Merrison, Bernice Stegers, Penelope Wilton, Kit Connor, Bronagh Gallagher, Florence Keen, Andy Gathergood, Nicolo Pasetti, Marek Oravec, Jack Morris, Stephanie Schonfeld, Pippa Rathbone, Rachel Olivant, Emily Patrick. Directed by Mike Newell

 

In 1946, England was still picking itself up and dusting itself off after the war. In London, the ruin of the Blitz was still very much in evidence and while there was an attitude of starting fresh, the pain and horror of the war wasn’t far from the surface.

Author Juliet Ashton (James) is making a tidy amount off of plucky war-set stories that are popular but bring her no intellectual satisfaction. A fan letter from a book club in picturesque Guernsey, a Channel Island that had been occupied by the Nazis during the war (a fact that this ignorant American wasn’t aware of) leads her to visit the club to perform a reading. She is captivated by the beauty of the island but even more so by the people, particularly those in the club. Although she is engaged to a flashy American diplomat (Powell), she finds herself drawn to farmer Dawsey Adams (Huisman). She is also drawn to the mystery of Elizabeth McKenna (Findlay), once the heart and soul of the club but whose absence nobody seems to want to talk about.

Mike Newell is one of the UK’s most capable directors with movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral as well as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the better installments in the franchise, to his credit. He does a marvelous job of evoking the post-war Era and gathering together an even more marvelous cast. James is never more attractive than she is here, and nearly all of the ensemble cast has some wonderful moments, particularly veterans Courtnay and Wilton, particularly Wilton who is much undervalued as an actress. There are sequences here where the raw emotions brought on by survivor’s guilt are communicated without theatrical hysterics. It’s a nuanced and brilliant performance that very nearly steals the show.

The romantic elements of the movie are a bit too sweet, leaving one with an unpleasant taste in the mouth – I truly wish that the plot had revolved more on the tale of Elizabeth McKenna than on the romance between Dawsey Adams and Juliet Ashton which came off like a British period soap opera only less interesting. I can’t not recommend a Mike Newell film however and the strong performances in this one make it a perfect candidate to Netflix and Chill.

REASONS TO SEE: The era is recreated beautifully.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contains more than a little bit of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are somewhat adult; there are also some sexual references and occasional mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James, Findlay, Good and Wilton also have appeared in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey; one of the filming locations for the show also doubled as exteriors for Guernsey (the Charterhouse in cases anyone is keeping score).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Went Up a Hill & Came Down a Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Jim Allison: Breakthrough

Out of Blue


Questions in a world of blue.

(2018) Mystery (IFC) Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Mamie Gummer, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Gary Grubbs, Alysha Ochse, Yolonda Ross, Thomas Francis Murphy, Tenea Intriago, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Lawrence Turner, Carol Sutton, Brenda Currin, Deneen Tyler, Devyn A. Tyler, Elizabeth Elkins, Garrett Kruithof, Elizabeth Pan. Directed by Carol Morley

 

As this film begins, we see the quote “We are not in the universe. Rather, the universe is in us.” When you consider that the make-up of our bodies is essentially created from the same elements that stars emit, that’s not far from the literal truth.

Detective Mike Hoolihan (Clarkson), a recovering alcoholic lesbian whose one of the better practitioners of detection, is called to an observatory to a homicide. Pretty astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Gummer), the daughter of a prominent New Orleans family, has been shot dead. She can’t help but notice that the modus operandi of the killer is eerily similar to a slate of unsolved murders from decades earlier known as the .38 Caliber Killings. She also can’t help but notice a vintage shoe, a discarded sock and an open jar of a face cream popular decades earlier.

She has no shortage of suspects. Jennifer’s colleague Professor Ian Strammi (Jones) is a bundle of nerves and shows signs of having been in a struggle. Jennifer’s boyfriend (and also a colleague) Duncan J. Reynolds (Majors) is also behaving a bit oddly. Then there’s her grieving father, Colonel Tom Rockwell (Caan), a Vietnam War hero, local politician and electronics company proprietor who seems a bit tightly wound. Only Jennifer’s mother Miriam (Weaver) seems remotely grief-stricken and even she is showing signs of dementia.

Hoolihan is dogged in her pursuit of the truth but the case haunts her in unexpected ways. Jennifer, a vocal proponent of the “we are stardust” school of thought, is an expert on black holes and posits that we all exist because a star died somewhere billions of years ago. Jennifer’s own sense of wonder and relentless pursuit of her own scientific truth touches Hoolihan, perhaps reminds her of herself as she navigates the twists and turns of the case.

Based on a Martin Amis novel, the film has more than a little noir element to it. There is very much a literary feel to the movie; some of the dialogue is probably a better read than it sounds spoken aloud. That’s a shame because the cast which has some pretty impressive names in it is essentially left to trying to say some of these lines with a straight face and not always succeeding, as when Weaver’s character chides Hoolihan “Have you thought about dressing like a woman, dear?” There are plenty of references to the scientific quandary Schrodinger’s cat which makes the film esoteric to the point of either pretentiousness or brilliance – I’ll leave it to you to decide which.

The soundtrack is also reasonably impressive although it leans a bit too much on Brenda Lee’s version of I’ll Be Seeing You.” Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score is also a definite plus. What isn’t a plus is the overuse of incidental imagery used as linking devices between scenes. It makes the movie feel a bit too busy, a bit too pretentious (there’s that word again).

All in all, the movie comes off as a particularly uninspiring episode of C.S.I. Despite the best efforts of Clarkson and cast, the movie feels somewhat tired and somewhat lost. While I don’t mind the concept of the film and I like Amis as an author very much, the movie doesn’t do Amis’ source novel (Night Train) much justice which is pretty much par for the course for adaptions of his work.

REASONS TO SEE: Clarkson and Weaver deliver fine performances. The soundtrack is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is stretched out too much. There are far too many unnecessary incidental shots; the filmmakers don’t overburden themselves with self-restraint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tigerland