Greetings again from the darkness. When is it too soon to look back? We all experienced the pandemic, and yet, things aren’t quite normal again … at least not the ‘old’ normal. Talented writer-director Peter Hedges (the underrated PIECES OF APRIL, 2003) shows us the various ways in which the pandemic affected folks, and how zoom and other virtual connections became the lifeline to the outside world for many.
You will surely recognize many of the faces being filmed by smart phones and zoom recordings. These include: Mary-Louise Parker, Sandra Oh, the great Elaine May, Rosemarie Dewitt, Ron Livingston, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr, Noma Dumezweni, Judith Light, and many others. Twenty-four characters in all (according to the synopsis), and we see most of them in two different scenarios. We see young people worried about old people, and vice versa. We see parents worried about kids, and kids worried about parents. Significant others check in on their “better half”, while a ‘ground zero’ nurse searches for a different kind of companionship and escape. We see the struggles of teachers and parents, and witness the loss of loved ones. There is even an online yoga class, a virtual AA meeting, and the challenges of Tele-doc.
You will recognize most of these situations and exchanges, whether you went through them yourself, or heard about them from friends or family members. What’s obvious is the heightened stress level of every person during this unique time period. The effects of isolation and loneliness are expertly portrayed here, and we should all be quite appreciative of zoom meetings, Facetime, and all other virtual connection applications. Only you can decide if it’s too soon or not, but either way, we can tip our caps to Peter Hedges and the actors.
Greetings again from the darkness. Cancer comedies are few and far between, and that’s understandable since the often deadly disease brings with it so much suffering and sadness. Writer-Director Wayne Roberts pulls no punches. The opening scene finds a doctor breaking the dreaded diagnosis to a patient … lung cancer. The patient, a college professor named Richard, is told he has 6 months to live.
The cold opening has us questioning if this is truly a comedy – even though the opening scene professor-patient is played by Johnny Depp. The news hits him hard of course, and we can see his mind spinning as he works out his approach and acceptance. What follows are some quite awkward and uncomfortable scenes with both his class and his family – a wife Veronica (Rosemary DeWitt) and teenage daughter Olivia (Odessa Young). Both of the women in his life usurp is announcement with those of their own: Veronica is having an affair with the Chancellor of the college where Richard works, and Olivia discloses that she is a lesbian. The two dinner time announcements and Richard’s still held secret are integral to every scene that follows.
Six title chapters clue us in on each subsequent phase in Richard’s life, and the key is that he tosses conventions aside and tries to find meaning in life … all while facing his own mortality. On one hand, Richard does what a professor does – he teaches. His small group of students are privy to such insight into life as “it ends in death for everyone”. On the other hand, he experiments with drugs, alcohol, and sexual experiences, including a couple of episodes with students – something that should never happen.
Ron Livingston is perfectly cast as the somewhat slimy Chancellor who is sleeping with Richard’s wife, but it’s Zoey Deutch and Danny Huston whose characters generate a bit more substance in Richard’s life. Ms. Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson and a star in the making) plays Claire, a student who seems to quickly “get” what her professor is going through. And Mr. Huston gives one of his best performances in years as Richard’s long-time friend Peter who doesn’t want to accept the inevitable.
With all of the fantastical characters he has played (often masked in make-up and costumes), we sometimes forget what terrific dramatic acting ability Johnny Depp possesses when he’s engaged. For those who only know him as Captain Jack Sparrow (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies), or as Grindewald (the “Fantastic Beasts” films), or as the Mad Hatter, Tonto, or Willy Wonka, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with his turn here (or in BLACK MASS, FINDING NEVERLAND, or BLOW). Filmmaker Wayne Roberts offered up an excellent debut in 2017 with KATIE SAYS GOODBYE, and he follows that with this unusual look at mortality – including a “celebrate life” soliloquy.
Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody first collaborated on the filming of her debut script JUNO in 2007. Four years later they made YOUNG ADULT with Charlize Theron, and now all three reunite for this latest tip of the cap to motherhood and self-care. Simpatico is the word that comes to mind here with the perfect lineup of writer, director and actress. The biggest question is how to label it. Some will call it a comedy, while others will proclaim it a serious drama. As with much of life, there is a bit of laughter, a touch of drama, and a dash of most every emotion.
Ms. Theron stars as Marlo, mother of three. There is 8/9 year old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland), 6 year old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who lands on the autistic spectrum, and now an unplanned newborn that threatens to rock a family already barely getting through each day. Sarah is a lovely sister and daughter, but the typical adolescent insecurities are magnified by her getting lost in the shuffle due to her two more needy siblings. Jonah gets booted from mainstream kindergarten by a principal who labels him “quirky” … an awkward description people use when they are trying to be polite (even though it’s exactly the opposite).
Ron Livingston plays Marlo’s husband Drew, a traveling businessman who, though a nice guy and loving father, is clueless to the stresses of running the homestead. Also in the mix is Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo’s brother who is equal parts wealthy and smug. When Craig offers the gift of a night-nanny to Marlo, she is tempted, but her pride gets in the way as she compares herself to the ‘cupcake’ super moms who always seem to have their act together. Ultimately, the relentless pressure and sleep deprivation, bring the young night-nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) into the home. She and Marlo hit it off immediately leading Marlo (and us) to question if Tully is too good to be true.
As Tully entrenches herself, it becomes clear that her value is to Marlo more than the baby. The two ladies become friends, and Marlo confesses her fears and insecurities as Tully acts as a life coach encouraging her through some tough moments. Despite the surreal feel to these interactions, Diablo Cody’s dialogue crackles with cynicism and realism. The quips we’ve come to expect from her writing are delivered by her best developed character to date. There is a depth to Marlo, and her exchanges with Tully take us places a teenage JUNO couldn’t possibly.
Charlize Theron proves again that she is truly an elite actress when she commits to a role. Her 50 lb weight game adds the necessary realism, but it’s her emotional teetering that is most impressive. She is like a supermodel who also plays rugby – a rare blend of beauty, talent and skill. Mackenzie Davis is a revelation. She holds her own in every scene and it’s quite interesting to see her free-spirited modern day Mary Poppins with tats.
If a previous movie has dealt with the challenge and stress of motherhood with this level of depth and realism, it doesn’t come to mind. The movie kind of creeps up on you with a message regarding the importance of dealing with lost youth, while also never losing sight of yourself as an individual … all with incisive humor and pulling no punches on being an overwhelmed mom. Just don’t call it quirky.
Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not quite a unicorn, but it seems fair to call it a White Harbour Porpoise. Yes, it’s that rare to see a Comedy movie written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring women in a story about women. And it’s that rarity which makes it all the more disappointing when the finished product doesn’t match the expectation.
The cast is loaded with funny people, many of whom are best known for their work on TV. However, that’s not what makes this feel like an aimless TV sitcom straining too hard to make us laugh, often through cheap shock value. The movie leaves us with the feeling that writer Karey Dornetto (“Portlandia”) and director Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader, “Gilmore Girls”) have spent too many hours studying the work of Judd Apatow, rather than letting their own voices speak. We are teased with glimpses, but mostly just left wanting.
On the bright side, Judy Greer finally gets a lead role after seemingly hundreds of support roles where she has often been the best thing about a movie. Yet somehow the filmmakers manage to dull Ms. Greer’s natural glow as she plays Shannon, a registered sex offender with little desire to break her sex addiction, or even become the least bit likeable. The very talented Natasha Lyonne plays Martha, Shannon’s younger lesbian sister who is her personality polar opposite, yet never can quite escape the “bad luck” following her around.
Martha decides to make Shannon’s recovery her mission in life, and secures her a job so they can work together as maids at a local motel. What follows is an accidental murder, a frantic attempt to dispose of the body, a mentally challenged housekeeping supervisor, multiple instances of sexual confusion, a sex shop hold-up, blackmailing pet cemetery owners, a profane rapping boy at his bar mitzvah, an inappropriate relationship with a therapist that breaks up a marriage, and a running gag with a chubby hotel guest in a Hawaiian shirt carrying a little dog. All of that zaniness leads to a disproportionately few number of laughs, although we do get a terrific Cousin It impersonation and an extremely rare (maybe a first ever?) Hammer-throw joke.
What’s lacking here, despite the best efforts of Ms. Greer and Ms. Lyonne, is any semblance of humanity or realism … necessities for comedy. We just never make any connection with the main characters. The supporting cast provides numerous diversions and feature the familiar faces of Ron Livingston (the therapist mentioned above), an underutilized Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, the duo of Fred Armisen and Alison Tolman playing opportunistic small business owners, Jessica St Clair as one of the more emotional front desk clerks you’ll ever see, Jon Daly as one of the more unfortunate characters, and Malcolm Barrett as Shannon’s latest love interest/poet.
Of course, in keeping with the film’s title there is a never-ending stream of insults directed at the city of Fresno. If that much attention had been paid to the sister relationship and the forming of characters, perhaps the comedy would have been more effective. Instead, if you are all set on watching sisters working together in the clean-up business, the better recommendation would be Sunshine Cleaning.
Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.
Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddiesand Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.
A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.
Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.
The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.
The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.
Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years of investigation and research have spawned an endless number of theories about what happened, how it happened, and why it happened, that tragic day in 1963. President John F Kennedy and his lovely wife Jacqueline had captured the hearts of many Americans, and on a trip to Ft Worth and then Dallas, the streets were lined with eager citizens who just wanted to catch a glimpse … hoping some of that Camelot magic would rub off. Instead, a city and a country, went spinning off into feelings of anger and devastation. Rather than show us what we already know, this is a peek at a few individuals impacted in ways you might not have previously thought about.
Vincent Bugliosi made a name for himself as the prosecutor in the Charles Manson Family murder case, and then penning the corresponding book “Helter Skelter” (subsequently made into a movie). Parkland (the name of the Dallas hospital where Kennedy was taken after the shooting) is based on Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy”.
The main stories we follow are that of Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert (James Badge Dale), their mother Margueritte (Jacki Weaver), Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), local FBI Agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), and the emergency room doctors and nurses who treated JFK and Oswald (Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, Marcia Gay Harden). You might think that’s too many stories for a single movie, and you are probably correct. However, it’s fascinating to see the frenetic pace and immediate fallout of just how these people were impacted. Sure, we would like more details and backstory, but that’s not the approach this film takes. It just provides a taste of the gut-wrenching decisions Mr. Zapruder has to make while grieving for his beloved President; and the shock of Oswald’s brother as reality hits; the jaw-dropping delusions of Oswald’s mother; the absolute frustration of the CIA and FBI agents knowing their historic failures will be their legacy; and the disparate emotions that enter the operating room with Kennedy and Oswald.
The film doesn’t take any stance on the grassy knoll, CIA involvement, LBJ involvement, or number of shooters. This is not a crime solving story or research into conspiracy theories. No, this is a look at real people in extraordinary situations that no amount of preparation can pacify. There are so many little details revealed … one of the most powerful occurring at the Lee Harvey Oswald funeral, and another as the JFK casket is loaded onto Air Force One just prior to LBJ taking the oath. So many little things you have probably never before considered.
If you were alive at the time of the assassination, you understand the impact. If you have read any of the stacks of books written about that day, you understand what happened and the messy investigation that followed. Bugliosi and director Peter Landesman effectively mix news reels from the day with dramatizations of the fallout, and the actors do a tremendous job of showing just how personally this affected those at the time. A different perspective brings with it interesting discussion … and a big thanks if your mother is nothing like Oswald’s!
**NOTE: Since I am a Dallas resident, I was relieved to see the film didn’t dwell on the hatred directed at the city following the shooting
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in the stress and emotion experienced by so many after JFK was assassinated.
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for another conspiracy theory in the mold of Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Greetings again from the darkness. The overdose and saturation of reality TV the past decade has resulted in at least a couple of Ghost Hunter type shows. Surely you have stumbled on at least one of these. Director James Wan kicks off this latest haunted house adventure with the all-too-familiar “Based on a True Story” and then proceeds to fill the next couple of hours with scene after scene of horror film staples … things we have jumped at many times over the years. However, this one is bumped up a notch thanks to atmosphere, direction and acting ability, and the fact that yes, the ghost hunters are/were REAL.
The Perron family has moved to the country for a “fresh start” and here is what we learn:
1. If the family dog won’t enter the new house, then neither should you or your kids. It’s time to move out. How many dogs aren’t dog-wagging thrilled to follow the kids right in through the front door?
2. If all the clocks (electric and wind-up) stop at exactly the same time, it’s time to move out.
3. If you stumble on a boarded up cellar/basement, just leave it boarded up … and it’s time to move out.
4. If multiple birds fly full speed into your house, breaking their necks, it’s time to move out.
5. If your daughter discovers an antique toy that she carries around while talking to her new imaginary friend … it’s time to move out. If she brings her “old” imaginary friend with her to the new house … see The Shining.
6. If, over two consecutive evenings, your sleepwalking daughter bangs her head into the armoire left by the previous owners, it’s time to move out.
7. Having 5 daughters seems to make parenting exceptionally difficult, but this in itself is no reason to move out of the house.
8. Playing blindfolded ‘Hide and Clap’ is not an appropriate game when you live in a 3 level home. This is no reason to move out, just find a game that doesn’t require a blindfold … or an Ouija board.
9. If you ever have to call demonologists to your home, don’t get defensive about not being a religious family. Just move out of the house.
Director Wan gives us tastes of the haunted house/possession Big 3: The Exorcist, Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. It’s not at the level of these, but it’s certainly better than most horror films of the past two decades … at least we don’t get any stupid teenagers wandering through the woods. In fact, this one plays right off our natural tendency to feel safe and secure while surrounded by our family within the confines of our own home. The biggest scares come from the moments we are most relaxed.
It’s Rated R for being frightening. There are no spinning heads or pea soup, and the gore factor is exceptionally low considering Mr. Wan directed Saw, the film that kicked off torture-fest movie genre. The acting here is really good for a horror film. Patrick Wilson also starred in Wan’s Insidious, and here he plays Ed Warren. With his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), the Warrens are well known ghostbusters, ghost hunters, demonologists, or whatever label you care to apply. We learn about their most famous case regarding Annaelle the creepy as heck doll, and we also see how they save a trophy from each of their cases … and store it in their home (a seemingly dumb move). Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are also strong in their roles as the Perron parents. Another thing I liked was that the kids seem like real kids … especially the recognizable Joey King and MacKenzie Foy.
Horror and Comedy are both at the mercy of personal taste. What makes you laugh and what makes you jump is probably different from others, so these two genres are difficult to recommend. Still, it takes talent to direct a horror movie and not really introduce any new “gotcha’s”, while still keeping the viewers grabbing the armrests. So enjoy the jumps, cover your eyes, and keep in mind … if your dog won’t enter your new house, it’s time to move out!
**NOTE: an interesting side note … Ryan Gosling co-wrote the song that plays over the closing credits
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your favorite horror films are the haunted house types
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have 5 daughters and think moving to the country is a good idea