The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)


Not having a blessed day.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi, Kimberly Hester Huffstetier, Randy Havens, Mark Wystrach, Joe Ando-Hirsch, Gabriel Olds, Coley Campany, Chandler Head, Michelle Brown Houston, Jay Huguley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hailey Nicole Ralston. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

From time to time, a movie comes along in which a strong performance elevates it to another level. Those are good moments for a film critic. However, even more rarely, a movie comes along in which a strong performance is delivered but fails to elevate the movie beyond mediocrity. As a critic, that’s the kind of disappointment we can live without.

Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain) grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. As a young child (Head) she was forbidden from going to church because she was a child from her mom’s (Jones) first marriage, which had ended in divorce. But her devoutness is never in question, especially after she takes her first communion wine.

Years later, while at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets the charismatic young Jim Bakker (Garfield) who has big dreams. Eventually she brings him home and introduces himas her new husband to her incredulous mom. He has a dream of being a travelling preacher, saving enough to establish a church of his own. But his own spending excesses get the better of him – he had bought a convertible well out of his price range, and when he fell behind on payments, awoke one morning in a hotel room to find that his car had been repossessed.

But he is rescued when it turns out that one of the people who had seen him preach (and Tammy Faye perform with puppets) thought he’d be a natural on Pat Robertson’s (Olds) Christian Broadcast Network. Jim and Tammy Faye were naturals for TV and so they were. Jim came up with a Christian-themed Tonight show called the 700 Club and eventually it became popular enough for Jim to found a network of his own, PTL (for Praise the Lord). Tammy Faye was thrilled because she could assist in her own way, singing gospel songs and using the puppets to preach.

Their rise was meteoric. Jim made some savvy business decisions, getting a satellite to broadcast his PTL Network programming whichc extended the reach of his ministry, but he also did some inexplicably dumb things – trying to build a Christian theme park, fo example, or worse yet taking pledge money for his ministry and using it for his own private funding. The relationship between Jim and Tammy Faye eventually soured; and their marriage disintegrated about the same time as Jim’s empire did, leaving them to wonder how it could have all gone so bad so fast.

Chastain is getting some early Oscar buzz for her performance as Tammy Faye and it is well-deserved. She truly inhabits the role and while the outrageous make-up and prosthetics (giving her the prominent cheeks that Tammy Faye possessed) is a bit of a distraction, well, that IS what the woman looked like, so it can’t exactly be ignored. Chastain reminds us that under all the late night talk show jokes (some of which were entirely cruel) there was a real human being under the false eyelashes and the layered-on-with-a-brick-trowel make-up, one who actually was kind and compassionate, something uncommon among televangelists who at the time were beginning to make political forays by attacking gays, progressives and feminists with an almost hysterical distrust which persists among evangelicals to this day.

Garfield also does a strong job as Jim Bakker, although let’s face it he’s completely overshadowed by his co-star. Bakker is a little bit more aloof in a lot of ways, but then again, the movie isn’t titled The Eyes of Jim Bakker. We get a sense of his growing frustration, the stress levels as his house of cards began to tumble around him, partially masterminded by a conniving Jerry Falwell (D’Onofrio) who does not come off kindly here.

In fact, I think the most disappointing thing is that I felt kind of flat watching the movie; here we have an incredible performance by an actress which should be inspiring and enjoyable, but the movie left me almost empty inside. Perhaps because living in the South as I do, I see where this televangelist thing led, and it wasn’t to a place that I’m personally comfortable with. Many of the people who loved Tammy Faye, or more to the point, her husband, are the people who support Donald Trump, and refuse to get vaccinated now. Sort of hard not to take that one personally.

It’s a good idea for a movie and it could have done with a little more insight into the principles. Even with the strong performances, what we wind up with are largely very much what you’d expect them to have been. I think the larger picture of where televangelism has led this country specifically is a point that needed to be made. So while this is entertaining, it isn’t as deep as it makes itself out to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, particularly from Chastain and Garfield.
REASONS TO AVOID: Left me feeling a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and scenes of drug abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chastain performs her own vocals on Tammy Faye’s songs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fall From Grace
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Confetti (2021)

Little Monsters (2019)


Think of her as a poor man’s Michonne.

(2019) Horror Comedy (NEON/HuluLupita Nyong’o, Josh Gad, Alexander England, Nadia Townsend, Kat Stewart, Stephen Peacocke, Diesel La Torraca, Henry Nixon, Marshall Napier, Saskia Burmeister, Rachel Romahn, Talayna Moana Nikora, Felix Williamson, Lucia Pang, Ava Caryofyllis, Jason Chong, Adele Vuko, M.J. Kokolis, Carlos Sanson, Kristy Brooks. Directed by Abe Forsythe

 

Comedies in the horror genre have to strike a most delicate balance. On the one hand, the scares have to deliver but on the other hand so do the jokes – all without dragging the movie down to the level of a spoof. It’s hellishly hard to pull off.

This Australian zombie apocalypse effort does give it the old college try. Slacker Dave (England), a washed-up metal musician has broken up with his girlfriend Sara (Townsend) – we spend most of the credit sequence watching a montage of the uncomfortable arguments between the two – and has taken up on his sister Tess’s (Stewart) couch.

He’s a self-centered twit who has taken no ownership of his own part in his relationship’s demise. He bonds with her son Felix (La Torraca) over violent videogames and inappropriate behavior, but the kid is five years old and seems much more mature than Felix who has already frayed the nerves of his sister to the point that she’s ready to kick him out of her flat. Maybe that would have done him some good.

Instead, he develops a crush on Miss Caroline (Nyong’o), the perky kindergarten teacher of Felix. He ends up volunteering to chaperone on a field trip to a petting zoo/farm where kid TV superstar Teddy McGiggle (Gad) happens to be shooting his TV show on location. Also coincidentally. but pf a much less desirable sort, an experiment on a nearby U.S. military base has gone terribly out of control and a horde of zombies are descending on the unsuspecting attraction, putting the kids and celebrities alike at risk.

The gore sequences are done pretty decently, although there’s nothing particularly cutting edge here and nothing you haven’t already seen on The Walking Dead. Where the movie really falls down is as a comedy; much of the humor is extremely broad, perhaps in an effort to appeal to a younger audience but the gore is at times intense so that would seem to indicate that the filmmakers were looking for a mature audience. Or maybe, that they figure that the younger sense is desensitized to the violence through their embrace of videogames. They might have a point.

There is also a point that is a tribute to teachers and much of that goes to Nyong’o whose Miss Caroline reminds us of the teachers who shielded their charges from flying bullets at Newtown and other equally infamous school shooting situations. It’s also easy to understand why anyone would develop a crush on her; Nyong’o absolutely shines here and dang it if you won’t develop a bit of an attraction to her as well. As for the other lead characters, Dave is far too self-centered a creature to root for much and despite his turn to the light midway through the film, his change of heart doesn’t seem quite believable. Gad is generally a compelling performer but the alcoholic and cowardly McGiggle is simply too repulsive and one-note to be memorable – so much so that I had to go back to this paragraph and add him in just before publishing this review.

The pacing is a bit leaden and the film’s inability to decide what it wants to be costs it. In a season when we’ll be flooded with horror films, there are others that are undoubtedly more worthy of your attention than this one (hopefully the Zombieland sequel will be one of them). Other than Nyong’o, there really isn’t much to recommend this film but she’s almost enough. Almost.

REASONS TO SEE: Nyong’o is absolutely lustrous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor falls flat in places. Ridiculously slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, bloody zombie violence, brief drug use and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taylor Swift’s hit song “Shake It Off” is a pivotal song in the screenplay but initially the producers couldn’t secure the rights. It took a personal appeal from Nyong’o directly to Swift I order to get the rights to the song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warm Bodies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Serendipity

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey


Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Elmo and Friend

(2011) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell, Joan Ganz Cooney, Fran Brill, Caroll Spinney, Martin P. Robinson, Bill Baretta, Jim Henson, Bob Keeshan, Kermit Love. Directed by Constance Marks and Phillip Shane

 

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some dream of being an artist, or an astronaut or a hero. Other dreams are smaller than that – some in fact downright pint-sized. Some dreams come covered in fur and foam.

Ever since he was a kid in Baltimore, Kevin Clash dreamed of being a puppeteer. One look at Sesame Street and he was hooked. So much so that he made his own puppet – out of the lining of his father’s overcoat. Rather than getting a spanking, he got encouragement which I believe qualifies his parents for instant admission to heaven right there.

While most kids in his working class neighborhood were playing sports, Kevin was putting on puppet shows. His early shows caught the eye of a children’s show host in the Baltimore area and before long Kevin was performing on television.

After graduating high school, he went to New York City to work on the old Captain Kangaroo show as an onscreen actor and puppeteer but his heart still belonged to Jim Henson and the Muppets which were just starting to take off. Kevin had learned everything he knew from watching Sesame Street but he needed to know more.

For that he needed a mentor and he couldn’t have asked for a better one than Kermit Love. Love was one of Henson’s go-to guys in terms of building and designing Muppets and although the name recalls one of Henson’s other creations, Kermit the Frog was actually created by Henson years before he met Love.

Love encouraged the young African-American puppeteer and gave him good career advice throughout Clash’s career. With Love’s encouragement, Clash got to work as a puppeteer on a Sesame Street Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float which led him to getting a gig on Sesame Street itself.

It was there when a frustrated senior puppeteer threw a furry red Muppet at Clash and said “See what you can do with him” that Elmo was born. With the piping high voice and the insatiable need for hugs, Clash immediately saw that Elmo represented love. Children all over the world responded to Elmo, realizing that he needed them as much as they needed him.

This would take a toll on Clash’s marriage and home life. Although his relationship with his daughter seems to be pretty good, he expresses regret that he missed a lot of her childhood. Unfortunately, not a lot of that is explored to any extent in the documentary. In fact, we don’t even learn when or why his marriage ended (although given the time demands on Clash and his insistence that he do everything Elmo-related himself the reasons seem somewhat clear).

In fact it could be said that the documentary doesn’t really deal with anything negative at all. We get a sense that Kevin had a difficult time in establishing his career, but it’s mostly glossed over. We are told he got teased as a child but we don’t get to hear what he thought about it.

Clash is an intensely private and shy person who doesn’t really like talking about himself which is awfully ironic because he plays a character who certainly isn’t shy about expressing his feelings and actually teaches kids how to express theirs. We never hear about how or even whether his ethnic background was an issue in his career – one thinks not, but his is the only African-American face we see among the puppeteers in the movie with the exception being an aspiring puppeteer – a young girl from Atlanta whom is looking for mentoring from Kevin the same way Kevin looked to Kermit Love.

The stories are heartwarming at times – enough so I probably rated the film a little bit higher than I would have normally. We see Kevin’s reaction to a dying child wanting to meet Elmo, or Kevin’s reaction to the death of Jim Henson – but there is little flesh added to the story. We hear the how, the who, the when, the what but rarely the why. It took the filmmakers six years to film this and it’s disheartening that I know little more about Kevin Clash than I could have read in his online bio.

On the surface, Kevin is a great subject for a documentary but this isn’t a great documentary. I would have liked to get inside Kevin’s head and heart a little bit more, find out more of the process that brought Elmo from felt and foam into flesh. In that sense, this film could have learned from Henson himself; the characters should be more than just what you see on the surface. They are made real by what animates them. I would have liked to have discovered more about what animates Kevin Clash.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely heartwarming. A few tugs at the heartstrings.

REASONS TO STAY: The documentary structure asked some questions I wanted answers to late in the film and bounced back and forth in the linear timeline a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a drug reference and a couple of mild swear words but okay for most Sesame Street-aged kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: Should probably be seen at home, although if it is playing in a local art house it wouldn’t hurt to give it a bit of support.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill begins!