SYLVIE’S LOVE (2020)

December 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those who enjoy an old fashioned Hollywood romance, with set design and costumes taking priority over the intricacies of a story, then writer-director Eugene Ashe has the cure for what ails you. In contrast to the numerous films this year addressing topics of socially-conscious issues, this is an unapologetic, soapy, melodrama with beautiful actors and some cool jazz.

Tessa Thompson (CREED, 2015; AVENGERS: ENDGAME, 2019) stars as Sylvie, a young woman working in her daddy’s (Lance Reddick) Harlem record store while her fiancé is off fighting in the war. Her co-star is Nnamdi Asomugha (a 10 year NFL career, mostly with the Raiders) as Robert, a saxophone player in the Dickie Brewster Quartet. They have their ‘meet-cute’ moment, and despite the fiancé and Sylvie’s career aspirations of being a TV producer, they fall in love. The chemistry between Sylvie and Robert works because Ms. Thompson can light up the screen with her smile.

Director Ashe starts the movie in 1962 as Sylvie and Robert bump into each other by mere chance. It’s then that we flashback 5 years to their first meeting in the record shop. It doesn’t take long to establish that Sylvie is an expert on music and television, and has an independent streak that would be considered unusual for the era. As the two fall in love and appear well-matched, Robert’s group lands a prestigious gig in Paris. Just like that, the relationship is over.

Falling in and out of love over many years isn’t the right description for what happens to Sylvie and Robert. No, they are always in love (whether together or apart) … it’s just that life happens, and timing can be cruel in such matters. Additional supporting performances include Jemima Kirke as the Countess and Robert’s agent, a character based on Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter; Wendi McLendon-Covey as Lucy, a TV actor on a cooking show; Erica Gimpel as Sylvie’s appearances-obsessed mother; Eva Longoria as Carmen, replete with a New Year’s Eve song and dance routine; John Magaro as a music producer; and Alamo Miller as Lacy, Sylvie’s fiancé and husband. Despite her limited screen time, Aja Naomi King is a standout as Sylvie’s friend and party-girl-turned Civil Rights Activist. Her character is one of the few that gives any indication of what’s happening socially in the country at that time.

It’s a film that fully embraces the melodrama – a predictable love story, contrived to the point that Sylvie keeps a secret so personal that we would ordinarily find her despicable; yet in this film, her actions are presented as compassionate. Mr. Ashe’s film is a soap opera that looks fantastic, while glossing over the real challenges faced by blacks in the era. It’s truly a throwback in style, era, and substance. The people are beautiful. The cars are shiny. The music is hypnotic. Production design by Mayne Berke and Costumes by Phoenix Mellow add to the elegance presented by Ms. Thompson and Mr. Asomugha. You surely know if this is your type of movie. See you later alligator.

Available on Amazon Prime December 23, 2020

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MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020)

December 21, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. As an Executive Producer, Denzel Washington has pledged to bring 10 August Wilson plays (collectively known as ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle’ or ‘Century Cycle’) to cinema. The first was the Oscar-nominated FENCES (2016), and George C Wolf directs this, the second. Ruben Santiago-Hudson has adapted Wilson’s 1984 play into a feature film vehicle for some of the finest on screen acting we will see this year.

Viola Davis (Oscar winner, FENCES) stars as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the “Mother of Blues”, and the recently deceased Chadwick Boseman co-stars as Levee, her ambitious trumpet player. Ms. Davis delivers a towering performance, and Mr. Boseman leaves us with his career best. The film opens in 1927 rural Georgia with two African-Americans running through the woods under the cover of darkness. If your mind goes where my mind did, we are both wrong. They are headed to a shack acting as a nightclub, and we get our first look and listen at Ma belting out a tune. It’s a powerful image and one that expertly sets the tone.

Soon we are in Chicago as Ma’s band makes their way to a recording studio. Cutler (Colman Santiago, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, 2018) plays the trombone and is the de facto leader, Toledo (an excellent Glynn Turman, “Fargo”) is the piano player, and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) plays the bass. The three older men all arrive on time at the studio and are waiting on trumpet player Levee (Boseman) and Ma. When Levee does show up, he struts into the rehearsal room and flashes his new shoes. The generational difference is immediately evident, and the fiery banter is superb. Levee is charming and cocky, while the older men are wise from experience and have undoubtedly seen dozens of Levees throughout their years. Cutler’s strong religious beliefs become known and Toledo’s sage advice falls on deaf ears.

Ma literally crashes into the scene, and we quickly understand that this woman will apologize for nothing, and has earned the right to call her own shots – even if that’s only true in this one corner of the universe. She understand the power her record sales give her, and she seizes every possible upper hand – whether it’s which arrangement to sing on a song, allowing her stuttering nephew to record, or even demanding a cold coca-cola before singing. Ma speaks in third person and her attitude is not that of a warm, grateful person, but rather of a woman who understands what she has earned. When she says, “All they want is my voice”, we know exactly what she means.

More collisions occur, this time figuratively. There is a collision of swagger between Ma and Levee. The collision of generations with Levee and the band. Finally, there is the collision of Levee and the white man. Ma wants to sing her songs on the record the way she sings them for her fans, while Levee is pushing for the “new” up-tempo sound. Levee’s ambition for songwriting and putting together his own band clashes with the older musicians who are satisfied to be working, and Levee tries to play the game by playing up to the white men in power, only to be taught the lesson that his bandmates tried to warn him of.

Wilson is known for his speeches, and the key players get their moment. Toledo describes blacks as “the leftovers”, while Ma describes white people listening to the blues … “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” These are powerful moments, yet standing above them are the two soliloquies we hear from Levee. The first is about his background of family and introduction to white men, while the second is truly an other-worldly cinematic moment – he contests the unwavering religious beliefs in what ultimately proves to be the most tragic way. It’s a scene which will be Mr. Boseman’s long-lasting acting legacy.

Supporting work is provided by Jeremy Shamos as Ma’s agent Irvin, Taylour Paige as another line in the sand between Ma and Levee, Dusan Brown as Ma’s nephew, and Jonny Coyne as the studio owner/producer. This is not so much a story, but rather inspiration for us to assemble the various pieces into the backstories of these characters. It’s a way for us to better understand what they did to get here, and how they are handling it now. Step on the shoes at your own peril. When someone overcomes so much in life, they aren’t likely to back down gently. The music is terrific, the message is strong, and the performances are unforgettable.

Now streaming on Netflix

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FIRST COW (2020)

December 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A modern-era woman (Alia Shawkat) is hiking along an Oregon river with her trusty dog. Something catches her eye and she begins tentatively brushing away decades of leaves and soot. Ultimately it turns into an excavation of two human skeletons nestled together. How many years since these two laid down for the last time? Why in this spot?  It’s a terrific way to begin a story, and does justice to what follows … all of which takes place in the early 19th century.

Director Kelly Reichardt has already made her mark with such standouts as CERTAIN WOMEN (2016), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010), and WENDY AND LUCY (2008), and this time she adapts the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond from his 2004 novel, “The Half-Life”. Cookie (John Magaro, also seen in this year’s SYLVIE’S LOVE) is initially seen traveling west with a band of trappers. Skirting the law as they make their way in this new world, the men act as bullying brutes towards Cookie, a quiet and sensitive man. During one stop for camp, Cookie is rummaging the brush for food when he stumbles upon a naked Chinese man who is hungry and running from Russians (aren’t we all?). Cookie provides King-Lu (played by Orion Lee) with food and shelter, a Golden Rule act that comes full circle not long thereafter.

Cookie and King-Lu begin establishing something more than a friendship. It’s a life bond (but probably not in the way you might be thinking). It’s more natural instinct – a ‘two heads are better than one’ partnership. Despite the hardships of early frontier days, the two men share their version of the American Dream, and it’s about this time that our titular bovine makes her entry stage left. The cow belongs to Chief Factor (Toby Jones) who is eager to create a more refined life in this untamed wilderness. Cookie views the cow’s milk as the key to creating tasty biscuits (a rare treat), and King-Lu immediately recognizes the possibility of profit. The nightly heist features Cookie’s one-directional conversation with Evie the cow … presumably making her first screen appearance.

Ms. Reichardt’s film is not nearly as simple or slow moving as it appears. She fills it with a slow-build tension, especially in the second half. The film requires patience and attention to detail from viewers. How can something so quiet and peaceful be filled with such danger and difficulty? That’s the brilliance of the film. Supporting work is provided by Scott Shepherd as a military officer Factor tries to impress, the late Rene Auberjonois (whose presence seems a tip of the cap to Altman’s classic MCCABE AND MRS MILLER), Ewan Bremner (whose accent requires subtitles for comprehension), and Lily Gladstone as Factor’s Native American wife.

This is the first film I recall where a clarfoutis plays a key role, and there are sprinkles of dark comedy throughout … which plays well off the rugged characters and environment. William Tyler’s score and Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematographer mesh well with the fine performances throughout.  Ms. Reichardt opens the film with a William Black quote, “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”. We witness the friendship, and by the end, we wonder if it’s also a web.

Available on Showtime and streaming outlets

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WANDER DARKLY (2020)

December 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. By nature, an ambitious filmmaker takes risks that other filmmakers don’t, sometimes to the detriment of their own success. However, for those of us who maintain a crazy pace of movie watching, we tend to relish those who find a way to try something different – turn a familiar story into one we might not have seen before. So hats off to writer-director Tara Miele (THE LAKE EFFECT, 2010) for jolting the frequently used flashback effect and making it into an interactive experience.

Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are a normal couple going through the kind of rough patch that many couples will relate to. They have chosen to not get married, yet they have a newborn baby and recently purchased a home (despite job situations that don’t seem to add up). The pressures of adulting have resulted in frustrations and distrust to the point that Adrienne questions if the relationship should even continue. Their solution is scheduling “date nights”, and the one we see is a date night gone bad … and then worse.

What follows is Adrienne and Matteo on a surreal trek through the hazy memories of their relationship via moments in time that play like foggy dreams. We see good moments and bad, and the two hash out what they really thinking at the time – all while Adrienne tries to make sense of her new situation. There are some similarities here to Michel Gondry’s excellent ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004), but at its core, this is a heartfelt examination of trauma, love, memories, and grief as they relate and impact a relationship.

Beth Grant provides support work as Adrienne’s mother, but it’s Sienna Miller who delivers what may be a career best performance. She has always been a fine actress, but this may be the widest range of emotions she’s ever had to convey. The dialogue may be a bit sketchy at times, but we recognize every portion of this flawed relationship. Watching a couple re-live actual past situations and debate on what was said or what was meant, is a history lesson that cuts deeply. A clip from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is purposeful in its inclusion, but I won’t disclose anything further in regards to the nature of these characters and what they go through. I’ll only say that filmmaker Miele (a Grand Jury award winner at Sundance) does really nice work in showing how physical trauma and emotional trauma so often go hand-in-hand.

In select theaters and On Demand December 11, 2020

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THE STAND IN (2020)

December 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Few would understand the pressures of celebrity better than Drew Barrymore. She’s 45 years old and has been in front of the camera for 40 years. Most of us recall her as young Gertie in Spielberg’s ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982), and of course, her family tree spans much of Hollywood’s history – for instance, she’s the great-niece of Lionel Barrymore who played Mr. Potter in the Christmas classic, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. This time out, she takes on dual roles, but Drew’s fan base deserves fair warning … it’s not the fluffy, light-hearted comedy you might be expecting.

Director Jamie Babbit (known mostly for her TV work, including “Silicon Valley” and “Gilmore Girls”) and screenwriter Sam Bain (creator of “Peep Show”) explore career success and fulfillment in life, especially as it relates to balancing celebrity status and having a meaningful personal relationship. Ms. Barrymore plays Candy Black, a pratfall comedy actress who has made a career with her catchphrase, “Hit me where it hurts”. Simultaneously, and under pounds of makeup, Drew also plays Candy’s stand-in/double, Paula, who dreams of one day being an actual actor in her own right. Candy is a high-strung addict who barely functions, while Paula is a wallflower whose income is dependent on Candy’s career.

One day on the set, Candy throws a tantrum. It’s a complete meltdown that results in an injury to a fellow actor. Of course it’s caught on video and goes viral. Just like that, Candy’s career screeches to a halt, and so does Paula’s. We then flash forward 5 years, and Candy has isolated herself inside her mansion, taking up woodwork and anonymously bonding online with fellow woodworker Steve (Michael Zegan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). After being charged with tax evasion, Candy is sentenced to a rehab facility and cons her trusty stand-in Paula to go in her place. Once released, Candy’s much nicer stand-in continues the gig on an “apology tour” where soon she is welcomed back into the industry’s good graces (as Candy), and slowly takes over Candy’s life, including a non-virtual meet up with Steve.

Supporting work is provided by TJ Miller, Holland Taylor, Elle Kemper, Andrew Rannells, and Lena Dunham (in what’s basically a quick cameo). Things get a bit convoluted with the old Candy, the new Candy, and Steve, the guy stuck in the middle – who has secrets of his own. Despite the relatively few laughs in what is billed as a comedy, there are some pointed observations and commentary on the industry and for those whose ambition is to be famous. Soul searching and ‘finding one’s true self’ is never easy, and often our dreams may not be in sync with who we are. Drew Barrymore does a nice job in both roles, but it’s likely her fans will be expecting a different style movie. It’s also likely the message here could have been better delivered by choosing either a comedic approach or a dramatic one, as the blend doesn’t quite work on either front.

AVAILABLE IN SELECT THEATERS, ON DEMAND, AND DIGITAL ON DECEMBER 11, 2020

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FAREWELL AMOR (2020)

December 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Awkwardness abounds in the opening scene as Walter, his wife, and their teenage daughter reunite at JFK airport. The Angolan family has been separated for 17 years, and reality hits as the threesome grasp that they don’t even really know each other. The reunion gets more uncomfortable as they try to settle into Walter’s cramped one bedroom apartment. He’s been living and working in New York City as a taxi driver while the paperwork was processed to allow his family to join him.

This is the first feature film from writer-director Ekwa Msangi, and she expands her 2016 short film FAREWELL MEU AMOR. Ntare Gum Mbaho Mwine stars as Walter, the taxi driver and husband/father with a secret. His wife Esther is played by Zainab Jah, and it’s her religious zealousness that complicates things for the reunited family. Their daughter Sylvia is played by newcomer Jayme Lawson, a teenager whose simmering energy and passion for dancing is masked by her quiet demeanor. In fact, it’s dancing that links the three characters and ultimately breaks down barriers.

Ms. Msangi cleverly utilizes individual chapters for the three main characters within the larger story. We quickly get a feel for the difficulties and challenges each is facing during this transition. Walter is struggling with the separation from Linda (Nana Mensah), a nurse he had grown quite fond of. Esther is reacts to her husband’s independence by praying louder and harder and sending money to her church. Sylvia’s story is perhaps the most interesting. As an immigrant, she’s an outcast at school, and only the kindness of classmate DJ (Marcus Scribner) allows her to create her space with a terrific dance off. There is also an interesting interaction between Esther and a neighbor (Joie Lee), one of the few who knows the full story and tries to help.

Cultural upheaval is on display, and there are quite a few touching scenes. Walter and Esther have dinner out at a nice restaurant, and it’s a scene filled with conflicting feelings and emotions … handled extremely well by the actors. There is a gentleness and sincerity to the film, and we find ourselves hoping things will work out well for all three. Perhaps it’s a stretch to think dancing might be the key to a smoother transition, but the way it plays out is quite pleasant to watch. It’s a terrific first feature from Ekwa Msangi.

In Theaters and On Demand December 11

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WILD MOUNTAIN THYME (2020)

December 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I have Irish ancestors, the uproar of the Irish press over the accents in the film is a bit puzzling to me. Any frequent movie watcher can tell you that cinema history is filled with actors giving difficult accents their best shot – and the results have ranged from ‘spot’ on to ‘not even close’, and everything in between. As a Texan, I can vouch for the sometimes cringe-inducing ‘not close’ efforts, but I’ve never judged a film by such trivial matters. Why do I start with this? Only to get it out of the way in order to have a more meaningful discussion of the latest film from writer-director John Patrick Shanley (DOUBT, 2008, and an Oscar winner for the MOONSTRUCK screenplay, 1987). It’s based on his 2014 Broadway play, “Outside Mullingar”.

After the breathtaking shots of the Irish countryside over the opening credits, we learn of two neighboring farms belong to the Muldoons and the Reillys. Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) and Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan) have known each other their entire lives, and it’s been assumed by locals that they would someday marry each other. Their elderly parents are dying off, yet what prevents the relationship from deepening beyond “Good morning to ya’” is Anthony’s bizarrely awkward social skills compounded by his constant bickering with his father (Christopher Walken), and his belief in a family curse. The two men still mourn the passing of Anthony’s mother, and Rosemary has her own sadness to deal with … while growing a bit antsy waiting for Anthony to come around.

Anthony’s father is concerned that the family name is in danger of ending, due to his reticence to marry. Because of this, dad decides to give the family farm to another relative. The fun kicks off when Adam (Jon Hamm) arrives. Adam is the stereotypical “Yank” – arrogant and showy, with only a romantic notion of what being an Irish farmer means. If that’s not bad enough news for Anthony, Adam also sets his sights on Rosemary and convinces her to visit him. He can’t imagine how the excitement of New York City contrasted with daily life in Ireland won’t win her over.

We don’t actually see any real farming in the movie, and Anthony’s sullen act gets a bit tiresome, but the message is conveyed well by Ms. Blunt and Mr. Dornan. Filmmaker Shanley has delivered more of a romantic drama than romantic comedy, but there are humorous moments included, not the least of which being Anthony’s practice proposal to a donkey. Ms. Blunt proves again what a fine actor she is, and her sequence inside her home in the final act is terrific. As for the accents, Mr. Dornan’s holds up the best, while Mr. Walken’s downright comical, but the story and characters are what we remember when this one ends … unless, of course, you are part of the Irish media.

In theaters and On Demand November 11, 2020

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MANK (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Just a writer.” The line made me laugh. How many times have writers not received the recognition they deserved, or were underestimated, only to have their words create a lasting impact? Hollywood often likes to portray writers as socially-awkward, loner types who rarely contribute much during conversations. Not this time. The subject is Oscar winning screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, who was as quick with a dinner table zinger as he was writing the script to CITIZEN KANE (1941) while bedridden.

More than 20 years in the works, this is director David Fincher’s first film since GONE GIRL (2014), and it’s based on a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher. Dad receives sole writing credit here, though David and producer Eric Roth (Oscar winner for FORREST GUMP, 1994) admit to some polishing. It’s a film seemingly designed for us film nerds, but likely entertaining and interesting enough for expanded appeal. CITIZEN KANE is often regarded as the “best” movie of all-time, though the origin of the film is much debated. We do know that struggling RKO Pictures gave 24 year old wunderkind Orson Welles free reign over his first film, and the result was something quite special. Director Fincher’s film offers up three distinct aspects here: a look at Mankiewicz’s writing process for ‘Kane’, some background on Mankiewicz’s career, and a somewhat fictionalized dissection of 1930s Hollywood politics.

Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) stars as Herman J “Mank” Mankiewicz, an international correspondent-turned NYC cultural critic-turned playwright-turned screenwriter. Herman was the older brother of Joseph L Mankiewicz, a four time Oscar winning writer-director (ALL ABOUT EVE, 1950), and grandfather to Ben Mankiewicz, a well-known host of Turner Classic Movies. Herman was also renowned as a boozer and gambler, and in 1940 (where this movie begins), he was a bedridden mess recovering from a car accident. Herman was part of the sphere of the infamous Algonquin Round Table, and in most of this film, he talks like he’s still at one of those gatherings.

Mank is taken to a desolate ranch house in Victorville, California, along with his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), his nurse (Monika Gossman) and his handler John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has given Mank 60 days to finish the script, and his only guidance seems to be “write what you know”, and don’t drink. The result was a controversial, yet brilliant script that Welles and his crew (Oscar winning Cinematographer Gregg Toland, Editor Robert Wise, a 4-time Oscar winner) turned into a classic film that still holds up 80 years later.

We immediately start seeing flashbacks, as noted by old style on-screen typing. Ten years prior, Mank was the Head Writer at Paramount, where his staff included Ben Hecht, George S Kaufman, and Charles Lederer … writers whose work would later include NOTORIOUS (1946), multiple Marx Brothers movies, and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), respectively. Lederer was also the nephew of starlet Marion Davies (played here by Amanda Seyfried), who was the long time mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Are you starting to see how this wicked web all fits together? Of course, Hearst was the model for Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ classic movie, while Ms. Davies was supposedly the inspiration for Kane’s wife, Susan. Other key players in these flashbacks are Producer David O Selznick (Toby Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Oscar winner Ben), MGM founder Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), Mank’s brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and Mank’s wife “Poor” Sarah (Tuppence Middleton).

Director Fincher’s masterful film features a couple of standout sequences. The first involves the initial meeting between Mank and Hearst, while Marion Davies is filming a scene on the grounds of San Simeon (Xanadu in CITIZEN KANE). Rapid fire dialogue, multiple characters, and terrific editing with Mank keeping pace as Hearst overlooks the filming. Much later there is a scene following Mank and Marion as they stroll through the manicured gardens with the nearby exotic animals on display. The scene is fascinating to watch, while also reinforcing the kindred spirits of Mank and Marion – both talented, yet not quite allowed in the “club”. Beyond those two sequences, we also get a quite funny segment where Mank and his Paramount writers are improvising a pitch to Selznick and director Josef von Sternberg, plus a telegram sent by Mank to Lederer that states, “Millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots” (a sentiment some believe still holds true today).

Quite a bit of the film is focused on Hollywood politics of the 1930s, both in the studios and nationally. In particular, the 1934 Governor’s race focuses on the campaign of writer and socialist Upton Sinclair (played by Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and the concerted efforts by Hearst and studio capitalists to prevent Sinclair from being elected. The symmetry and contrasts of modern day Hollywood and politics cannot be overlooked. Also made abundantly clear is the disconnect between studio heads, directors, and writers – quite the mishmash of disrespect.

The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it can be relished from multiple perspectives. Is Mank attempting to salvage a near-dead career or is he settling a grudge against Hearst? Did Welles intend to hold firm to Mank’s contract and prevent him from receiving a screenwriting credit? And then there is the filmmaking side. Superb performances from Oldman and Seyfried highlight the terrific cast. It’s filmed in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter”), but not the razor-sharp images we are accustomed to these days, rather soft and hazy in keeping with the look of the times. The production design from Donald Graham Burt takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate, and the music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is spot on, as usual. Even the opening credits provide nostalgia, as does the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony, which neither Mank nor Welles attended. Netflix delivers another winner, and one likely to receive awards consideration.

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THE PROM (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The success of his TV series “Glee” and “American Horror Story” has delivered Ryan Murphy the creative freedom to explore other projects. This time out he directs the cinema version of a Tony-nominated musical, and blends star power with newcomers in an extravaganza meant to fill the gap left by the darkened stages of Broadway during the pandemic. Created by Jack Viertel, with a book and screenplay from Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, it’s a story of homophobia and narcissism, and the battle to defeat both.

Meryl Streep stars as Dee Dee Allen, and along with James Corden as Barry Glickman, their opening night exuberance for “Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical” fades quickly when the reviews hit. Licking their wounds at Sardi’s, the two are told by the producer that nobody likes narcissists. Joined by chorus girl Angie Dickinson (played by Nicole Kidman) and Julliard-educated actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they decide what’s needed to revamp their careers is a ‘cause celebre’. Thanks to Twitter trends, they locate the plight of Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), whose Indiana High School PTA has just voted to cancel prom rather than allow Emma to bring another girl as a date.

As you would imagine, becoming an activist for the wrong reasons (publicity) can make things messy. These flamboyant city slickers aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Midwestern folks. Plenty of touching moments occur between Barry and Emma, Barry and Dee Dee, Angie and Emma, Dee Dee and school Principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), and mostly, Emma and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose, who will also star in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of WEST SIDE STORY). PTA leader and leading homophobe Mrs. Greene (a fiery Kerry Washington) does a nice job as a bigot and caring parent.

So while a story exists and messages are conveyed, this is, more than anything, a glitzy musical covered in primary colors as only Ryan Murphy can. Each of our main players gets a featured song, with Ms. Streep’s campy “Not About Me” a highlight, along with Ms. Kidman’s Fosse-esque “Zazz”. Mr. Corden probably gets more than his fair share of screen time, while Ms. Pellman and Ms. DeBose shine brightly in their numbers, and both possess lovely voices. Young Ms. Pellman is especially impressive holding her own on screen with Oscar winners Streep and Kidman.

There likely aren’t many gay teen rom-com musicals set in middle-America, especially ones with a Tina Louise reference, but leave it to Ryan Murphy to make it work. There is some quality humor, though it’s likely the song and dance segments are what will draw the audience. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes full advantage of the athletic youngsters and fills the screens with backflips and leaps – complimenting the dance moves of the stars. It’s a shame inclusivity must still be addressed, but at least it can be battled in a fun and colorful way.

Opening in theaters December 4, 2020 and on Netflix December 11, 2020

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ELYSE (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We aren’t sure what to make of Elyse Bridges as we are first getting to know her. She seems a bit unstable and unpredictable, and even her husband Steven and her mother are at a loss with how to get along with her. The Bridges live in a beautiful modern mansion, and their live-in help is excellent at helping take care of their son, something Elyse seems to have minimal interest in.

Of course this is a movie, and things aren’t always what they seem. Writer-director Stella Hopkins and co-writer Audrey Arkins keep us guessing for quite a while before revealing the twist. Ms. Hopkins is the wife of Sir Anthony Hopkins, and it’s her directorial debut. Many filmmakers would appreciate having the advantage of a built-in Oscar winner to give their film a shot of prestige, and he does just that, elevating the film with his all-too-brief turn as a psychologist.

Surprisingly, this movie doesn’t belong to Mr. Hopkins, as his role is relatively minor. Instead, it’s Lisa Pepper in the titular role that has us initially grasping at straws, trying to make sense of her behavior. Ms. Pepper only rarely acts in films, as this is her fourth film spread over 13 years. Elyse’s attorney husband Steven is played by Aaron Tucker, whose movie credits come even less frequently than Ms. Pepper’s. This film is a bit of a reunion for Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins, as well as Ms. Pepper and Mr. Tucker, as they all previously appeared together in the 2007 film SLIPSTREAM (written and directed by Sir Anthony).

The pieces finally come together in the third act, and by that time, it’s quite apparent that director Hopkins was attempting to create a stylish psychological drama that keeps the audience guessing. There are a couple of references to “The Wizard of Oz”, including Dorothy’s quote, “If we walk long enough, we will surely come to some place.” Not much more can be said without spoiling the story and what caused the changes within Elyse. Memories are a field of study with many unanswered questions, and the unfortunate path of Elyse is spurred by a single event … something that could happen to any of us. Anthony Hopkins is credited with writing music for the film, and it would have been nice to have him in a few more scenes.

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