MR. MALCOLM’S LIST (2022)

June 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. At this point, I believe it’s fair to say we have a Jane Austen sub-genre for film, TV, and books. After all, it’s been more than 200 years, and her novels have remained in print, have also been adapted too many times to count, and inspired countless writers and filmmakers to follow in her footsteps. The success of the “Bridgerton” series is a testament to the Jane Austen realm, despite being adapted from the novels of Julia Quinn. For this first feature film from director Emma Holly Jones, Suzanne Allain has adapted the screenplay from her own novel, and interestingly, this is a feature length version of Ms. Jones’ 2019 short film, with most of the cast and crew returning.

The film opens in 1802 England as youngsters Julia and Selina solidify their BFF bond. Flashing forward to a majestic castle in 1818, we find it’s mating season for high society, and Julia (Zawe Ashton) has her sights set on the catch-of-the-year, Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu). Their first date to the opera tells Malcolm everything he needs to know to rule out Julia as a prospective match. Her ignorance on current affairs and overall personality prevent any type of love connection. Though her feelings are hurt at the rejection, Julia likely would have moved on if not for a public humiliation related to the date, but not caused by Malcolm. When Julia discloses her embarrassment to her cousin, Lord Cassidy (an excellent Oliver Jackson-Cohen), he confides that Malcolm has crafted a list of requirements for his future bride. Instantly, Julia begins scheming to turn the tables of ‘humiliation’ on Malcolm, hoping to regain her reputation … one tarnished by four previous seasons without a match.

Julia’s scheme requires two co-conspirators. Lord Cassidy has already been bullied into the ring, and next up is her childhood friend, Selina (Freida Pinto). Selina is of a lower class than Julia, and against her better judgement (and sweet demeanor) agrees to the plan: playing the role of the perfect match for Malcolm before humiliating him by exposing his ‘list’. Of course, anyone who has ever watched a movie or read a book knows where this is headed … and that’s exactly where it goes. Selina and Malcolm do prove to be a good match, and she is overwhelmed by guilt.

Like Mr. Malcolm, I have a list … only my list is for the issues I have with the film:

  1. Julia is neither smart nor nice, and would be a poor match for most men
  2. Her plot for revenge proves her mean streak, as Malcolm never publicly humiliated her
  3. Malcolm has good looks and lots of money, but otherwise doesn’t seem like much fun
  4. Selina is smart, but we never see why she falls for Malcolm – other than his looks and money
  5. Selina seems too nice to ever go along with Julia’s devious plan against a guy who did nothing wrong
  6. The twist with Captain Henry Ossory is totally unbelievable and fabricated strictly for a happy ending
  7. The cast diversity plays like a gimmick and totally ignores genetics. There are more legitimate ways to achieve diversity

My list is longer than Mr. Malcolm’s, but you get the point on why the film didn’t work for me. Julia is unlucky in love because she is not likable, and Mr. Malcolm is a bit dull, and is only a “catch” because of looks and money. We never care about either of these characters. And shouldn’t everyone have a ‘list’ of characteristics they desire in a mate? It’s probably for all these reasons that I found the movie uncomfortable to watch and entirely too long. That said, the cast is superb and the performances are admirable in spite the issues I have with the script and story. Many viewers will likely ignore what bugged me here, and I contend the best of the recent entries in this genre continues to be EMMA. (2020)

Opens in theaters on July 1, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


HILLBILLY ELEGY (2020)

November 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “We don’t use that word.” That is law school student JD’s reaction when someone refers to those like his family as hillbillies. He’s understandably defensive, despite his daily navigations between two distinct worlds. Oscar winning director Ron Howard (A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 2001) presents the true story of JD Vance, a young man who earns his way out of his Appalachian background to gain admittance to Yale Law School, only to get dragged back into the life he worked so hard to escape. Vanessa Taylor (Oscar nominated for THE SHAPE OF WATER, 2017) adapted the screenplay from Vance’s own memoir.

The first thing noticed about this film is that it stars Amy Adams (6) and Glenn Close (7), who between them, have 13 Oscar nominations for acting. That’s a pretty distinguished pedigree for a cast. Ms. Adams has been seen recently in the TV mini-series “Sharp Objects” and as Lynn Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE (2018). Ms. Close was most recently nominated for her performance in THE WIFE (2018). Other notables in the cast include Haley Bennett (excellent in SWALLOW earlier this year), Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), and Gabriel Basso (THE KINGS OF SUMMER, 2013).

As the film begins in 1997, we find a young JD (Owen Asztalos) in a tough spot, and we quickly get a feel for the chaos commonplace around his family in Jackson, Kentucky … and also the bond that comes with being a family in the hills. The obligatory family photo ends the segment. We then skip ahead 14 years as the family has 3 houses on the same street in Middletown, after some of them find a way out of Jackson. In this blue collar town hit hard by a financial downturn, they admit to missing only “hope”. The story is told from the perspective of an older JD (Basso), who struggles with the emotional turmoil that his mother Bev (Adams) constantly creates. Remarkably, it’s Mamaw (Close) who provides the strength and stability in the family, and yet, she always seems one small step from exploding at the universe. There is an odd grounded nature and tough-mindedness to Mamaw that Ms. Close radiates on screen. It’s an interesting performance, that some may call over-the-top … a phrase also likely to be used for Ms. Adams as she displays the desperation of an addict, and the broken spirit of one whose shot at life disappeared early on.

For such a stereotypical “simple” family, the complexities of the story and characters are sometimes difficult to appreciate. JD’s sister Lindsay (Bennett) does her best to raise her own family while also managing her mother and grandmother, so that JD can pursue law school. She understands he has possibilities, whereas she has few. And JD’s law school girlfriend Usha (Pinto) truly has no concept of his childhood and family. Class differences are on full display not just with Usha, but also at the dinner where JD (a former Marine) is maneuvering to secure a summer internship that keeps him teetering in the balance of moving forward or falling back.

It’s at this point where JD receives a call from Lindsay informing that mother Bev has overdosed on heroin. It’s yet another example of his own mother inadvertently subverting his efforts to make a new life for himself. Addiction, relapse, financial struggles, family abuse, and untold secrets are the pieces that make up JD’s family pie. When his “old” life collides with his “new” life, will it drag him back down? He periodically faces decisions that are legal and/or morality based, and given his circumstances, it’s never as straightforward as it should be.

Without the power of Glenn Close and Amy Adams, director Howard likely would have had the film slide into the maudlin mode so common with Hallmark or Lifetime Channel movies, and while it’s not the Oscar bait Howard aims for, Netflix has yet another watchable film in their stable. Mr. Howard’s decision to bounce back and forth between 1997 and 2011 does provide the history we need to understand JD’s dilemma, but the see-saw approach is at times distracting. Home movies provided by JD Vance are shown over the closing credits, and it’s here where we realize just how closely Ms. Close physically resembles the real Mamaw. We walk away easily seeing how the circle of this life becomes perpetual, and just how challenging it can be to break free.

Premieres on Netflix November 24, 2020

watch the trailer


MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings from the darkness. If your idea of “The Jungle Book” is Phil Harris’ Baloo singing a bouncy and memorable rendition of “The Bare Necessities” in 1967, or Christopher Walken voicing a giant orangutan in 2016, then be forewarned about this latest version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories … it’s dark and, at times, terrifying. It’s rated PG-13 to keep young kids away, so please keep your young kids away! One additional warning: this version is spectacular to look at and listen to.

Of course the story is quite familiar to most, but two things really stand out here: the amazing voice acting of the world class cast, and the look of the lush jungle with its vivid colors and textures. Director Andy Serkis is renowned for his stunning motion-capture work in such franchises as PLANET OF THE APES, LORD OF THE RINGS, and Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) … along with many others … and for this project, he combines his motion-capture Baloo with top notch CGI, and the live performance of young Rohan Chand (THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) as Mowgli, the man cub.

The voice acting is worth raving about. We first hear Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the ancient python, and within the first two minutes of the opening, we are captivated. Other standouts include an unnerving and intimidating Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, the always-threatening Tiger, Christian Bale (periodically lapsing into Batman voice) as the growling black panther Bagheera, Naomie Harris as Nisha the mother wolf, and a terrific Peter Mullan as lead wolf Akela. The deep cast also includes the voices of Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan and Tom Hollander, while Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) appears as the hired tiger hunter, and Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) appears as Mowgli’s caretaker in the man village.

Many scenes are particularly captivating – some are exciting, while others quite scary. The “no rules” monkeys are comedic relief … right up until they kick off one of the darkest segments of the film. And there is an ongoing theme of the fine line between being ‘special’, ‘different’, or a ‘freak’, and the lessons learned here would be valuable for kids … if this were a kids’ movie … which it’s NOT! Although it’s difficult to discern the intended audience for this film, it’s quite a visual spectacle and entertaining from beginning to end.

watch the trailer:


RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

August 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. As a young kid I saw the original Planet of the Apes at a drive-in with my parents. At the time, I mostly just thought the talking apes were cool and enjoyed the surprise ending, despite having no ability to really process the statement that Pierre Boulle (novel) and Rod Serling (screenplay) were making. Since then, I have had a soft spot for the series, including the Tim Burton version 10 years ago.

As you can tell by the title, this latest version is truly a prequel. It is meant to explain the beginnings of how the Apes gained intelligence and created a powerful society that would one day rule humans. It begins in a genetic engineering lab run by James Franco and his team. They are using chimps to test an experimental drug that will hopefully be used to treat and cure Alzheimer’s. In no small coincidence, Mr. Franco’s father is played by John Lithgow, a once renowned musician and teacher, who is now suffering the effects of this horrible disease.

 When things go wrong at the lab, Franco breaks most every known law and tests the drug on dear old dad. Of course, it works miracles. The accident in the lab, leads Franco to adopt a baby chimp born to one of the chimps used to test the drug. This chimp quickly becomes the smartest one in the house, neighborhood and city. Named Caesar, his learning curve is off the charts. And yes, after a couple of years, his strength and temper are as well.

After yet another accident, Caesar is put away in a chimp camp run by greedy Brian Cox and sadistic Tom Felton (Draco of Harry Potter fame). Caesar uses his intelligence and the unsuspecting and unobservant nature of the humans to organize a coup. This part is really something to behold.

 By far the best acting in the film is delivered by Andy Serkis. Don’t recognize the name? You might know him better as King Kong or Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Mr. Serkis is a motion-capture actor-extraordinare. It is sometimes difficult to tell where these effects stop and the CGI begins, but overall the look of the chimps is pretty good and the action sequences are downright amazing.

What hurts the film is the weakness of the human stories. Franco as a genius scientist? Doesn’t work for me. Freida Pinto as a primate specialist? The script gives her nothing to work with. Lithgow and Cox are excellent actors, but mere pawns in this story.

 Director Rupert Wyatt tips a cap to the original film a few times: tribute names such as Bright Eyes and Dodge Landon, an orange orangutan named Maurice (in honor of Maurice Evans), a quick glimpse of a Statue of Liberty puzzle, horse-back riding, Charlton Heston on TV (as Moses), and a couple of classic lines including “stinking paws”.

In what was supposed to be a transition story, this one really belongs to the apes … and it’s teed up beautifully for a sequel.  The apes are planning it in a wooded area located at the sign post just ahead … across the Golden Gate.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Apes series that dates back 43 years OR you want to see how James Franco can screw up even worse than he did hosting the Oscars

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t buy off on the whole brilliant apes idea OR after a hard day at the office, the last thing you want is more talking apes!

watch the trailer:


YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER

October 10, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sound and fury signify nothing. The narrator begins the film by reminding us of Shakespeare’s words. I can’t decide whether or not this was a confession by Woody Allen that he realized the movie fits that phrase. I have followed Mr. Allen’s film career since the early 70’s and have learned that sometimes disappointment follows. Of course, there are also times when pure screen magic occurs, making the journey worthwhile. Unfortunately, there is no magic here, just sound and faux-fury.

Here is a convoluted recap of the story: Elderly woman Helena (Gemma Jones) is dumped by her doesn’t want to admit he’s aging husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). He tries to be a swinging bachelor and ends up marrying a gold-digging call girl named Charlamaine (Lucy Punch). Helena looks for guidance from Cristal (Pauline Collins),a fortune teller referred by Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts). Sally is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a morally bankrupt one-hit wonder in the novel-writing business. She works at a very successful art gallery run by Greg (Antonio Banderas). Sally and Roy yell at each other a lot and Sally has eyes for Greg, who instead has eyes for Iris (Anna Friel), a painter Sally discovered. Roy has peeping eyes for Dia (Freida Pinto), whom he can see from his bedroom window.

So, you get the idea. It is actually a set-up that fits perfectly with a Woody Allen film. A madcat story where no one is happy with their life and they each seek proof of their worth. Interesting that they seem to have some security with their current partner, but it’s just not enough. The cast is stellar, and London makes the perfect setting. However, nothing really clicks. Manly Josh Brolin just doesn’t wear neurosis well. I didn’t enjoy watching Naomi Watts yell at people. Anthony Hopkins’ character is such a pathetic re-tread that it really annoyed me. Mr. Allen obviously finds Freida Pinto appealing because her character gets perfect lighting and comes across as a victim, despite dumping her fiancé.

Despite all the turns in these sub-plots, only one of the stories really has any finality to it. Now I don’t mind endings that leave much to the imagination, but I do get irritated when it appears the filmmaker just lost interest. Even when that filmmaker is Woody Allen. 

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe Woody Allen only makes timeless classics OR listening to Leon Redbone sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” is worth $10 to you.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are susceptible to the directives of fortune tellers OR you just can’t take one more film about a struggling writer, a lustful senior citizen or a career woman whose biological clock is ticking.