‘The Secret Garden’ is Back for a New Generation

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The Secret Garden 2020 (CREDIT: Studiocanal)

Starring: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson

Director: Marc Munden

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG for Some Kids and a Dog Running Around Like They Own the Place

Release Date: August 7, 2020 (On Demand)

I contend that The Secret Garden is best experienced at a young age and then remembered as some half-formed dream. I’m pretty sure I saw the 1993 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel that starred Maggie Smith, but I don’t have any specific memories of it. (Furthermore, I don’t really remember seeing Smith in anything before Harry Potter.) When I heard that a new Secret Garden was arriving in 2020, I thought of A Little Princess, the other mid-90s adaptation of a Frances Hodgson Burnett book. With all that scrambling going on in my head, it’s important to identify one key difference, as the 2020 Garden shoots the setting ahead to 1947, as opposed to the early 20th century when the book was published.

That update doesn’t make a huge difference to me, an American who considers the vast English estates of 1947 to be pretty dang similar to the vast English estates of 1911. But it certainly makes a difference to the orphaned Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), who was born in India to English parents who now finds herself adrift much as the British Empire was adrift in the buildup to the Indian Partition. She is sent to live with her uncle Archibald (Colin Firth) in a mansion that seems to have no geographic connection to the rest of the world. When she arrives, she attempts to cajole her wheelchair-bound cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) out of bed, but since he seems to have forgotten how to experience the joys of childhood, she must venture outside on her own to the estate’s seemingly infinite grounds. There she befriends a scruffy dog and the unsupervised Dickon (Amir Wilson) and also becomes entranced by the most sun-dappled vegetation in all of England.

For my money, The Secret Garden is about the restorative power of nature. Mary and Dickon are the only characters with any sense of joy for most of the film, while Archibald and Colin seem to be spiraling headlong into depression by spending all their time inside. When you’re a kid, the value of getting out of the house can seem like magic, especially in a setting as sublime as this movie’s. Mary certainly displays some magical thinking, both positively and negatively, as she believes herself responsible for her ill mother’s death. Whenever she views things that way, it is obvious that there is some rational explanation. Indeed, with adult eyes, the secret garden does not feel all that secret, and any magical occurrences that take place probably only look way from a child’s perspective. But I can see how much May, Colin, and Dickon are enraptured by their wonder of the place, and I hope there are some five-year-old kids out there who see this film and have it stick in a hidden corner of their subconscious that reminds them forever that magic is real.

The Secret Garden is Recommended If You Like: The vast English countryside

Grade: 3 out of 5 Blooms

‘She Dies Tomorrow,’ and You Just Might, Too

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She Dies Tomorrow (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe

Director: Amy Seimetz

Running Time: 84 Minutes

Rating: R for Sexual and Drug-Fueled Weirdness

Release Date: July 31, 2020 (Drive-In Theaters)/August 7, 2020 (On Demand)

It’s hard to get your bearings straight when watching a movie like She Dies Tomorrow. The main characters have a profound lack of charisma, the protagonist seems to keep changing before any sort of story arc has been completed, and the tone and genre are more or less impossible to pin down. There’s an early scene in which initial protagonist Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) plays a recording of Mozart’s Lacrimosa over and over to the point that it feels like the film is skipping and repeating. This is all part and parcel of the premise, in which people are overcome by a contagious feeling in which they are convinced that they will no longer be alive come the next day. Weirdly, this doesn’t result in despair so much as a strikingly unique form of negatively focused enrapturement.

I’ve read other reviews of She Dies Tomorrow that describe it as scary in an existential sort of way, though not really a horror movie. But I’m not sure how else to categorize it. It may not be populated by goblins or ghouls, but a persistent sense of ennui crossed with enveloping paranoia sounds to me like just about the most terrifying thing anyone could possibly conceive of. It didn’t exactly feel that way while watching it, though, at least not the whole way through. The illness at the heart of the film is so low-key that the people who aren’t yet infected with it react to those who are mostly as they would to annoying social behavior. At those moments, it feels like a purposely off-putting comedy of manners. But now that I’ve had some room to process everything, I am struck more fully by the loneliness and miscommunication infused throughout.

Director Amy Seimetz works prolifically on both sides of the camera, and she has a tendency to pop up in blockbuster fare like Alien: Covenant and more straightforward horror pics like You’re Next. The budget for She Dies Tomorrow came from the paycheck she earned for acting in last year’s Pet Sematary remake, and this is definitely the work of someone confidently following her own particular muse with the financial freedom to do so. What we’re talking about here is a creator making an appeal for human connection via cinema, and I’m willing to answer the call.

She Dies Tomorrow is Recommended If You Like: Upstream Color, Jean Paul Sartre

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Requiems

‘The Rental’ Has Rented Some Space in My Brain

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The Rental (CREDIT: IFC Films)

Starring: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss

Director: Dave Franco

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: July 24, 2020 (On Demand and Select Theaters)

While watching The Rental (in which Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White play a couple of couples who rent a big ol’ house for a weekend getaway), I had a thought that I anticipate is going to stick around in my movie-watching approach for quite a while: at what point do I stop thinking of the cast members as the actors and start thinking of them as the characters they’re playing?

In this case, that question most saliently applies to Brie, whose career I’ve followed closely and who I’ve watched give countless interviews. As for the others, I’m not too familiar with Vand, I’ve only seen bits and pieces of White, and Stevens is always so twisted right off the bat that I don’t need to ask. So back to how I would answer that question in Ali Brie’s case, and it happens about forty minutes in, as she really starts to doubt the trustworthiness of  her husband (as played by Stevens), and I start to realize we’re not going to see her patented bubbliness anytime soon. (Not to mention she appears to be happily married in real life, and her husband even directed this movie!)

But then this question is much, much trickier as it applies to Toby Huss, who I tend to generally think of as a lovable, avuncular mentor-type. He plays the guy who coordinates the house rental, and there are implications that he might be racist or otherwise non-avuncular. But that could all be a misunderstanding! So, I’m left wondering, am I willing to give Toby the benefit of a doubt because he’s usually such a cool dude? Or does he actually deserve the benefit of the doubt? The freaky-deaky ending doesn’t give us enough time to sort that all out. How dare you make me doubt Toby Huss’ thoughtfulness, Dave Franco!

I give The Rental a Good Review on the High-End Pacific Coast Version of Yelp.

That’s Auntertainment! Mini-Episode: Aunt Beth Tells Jeff to Listen to Traffic

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Dear Mr. Fantasy,

Will Jeff enjoy listening to Traffic?

Sincerely,

Aunt Beth

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 7/31/20

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Black is King (July 31 on Disney+) – A new visual album from Beyoncé.
An American Pickle (August 6 on HBO Max)

TV
The Go-Go’s (July 31 on Showtime)
Muppets Now Series Premiere (July 31 on Disney+) – It’s time to play the music again!
Star Trek: Lower Decks Series Premiere (August 6 on CBS All Access) – The first animated series in Trek history.

I Have My Doubts That Anyone Thought ‘The Secret: Dare to Dream’ Into Existence

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The Secret: Dare to Dream (CREDIT: Lionsgate)

Starring: Katie Holmes, Josh Lucas, Jerry O’Connell, Celia Weston, Sarah Hoffmeister, Aidan Brennan, Chloe Lee, Katrina Begin

Director: Andy Tennant

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Life in Debt

Release Date: July 31, 2020 (Premium Video on Demand)

If I follow the advice of Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 best-selling self-help book The Secret, then it shouldn’t be too difficult for me to write a great movie review. All I have to do is think about it and it will surely come to be if I want hard enough. But I’m not sure I want to write a great review about The Secret: Dare to Dream, the thoroughly blah adaptation of Byrne’s book. I’d much rather visualize myself watching any other movie and writing a review about that instead. What does The Secret have to say about how to power yourself through a less-than-inviting obligation? Based on Dare to Dream, I have no idea. But I can tell you for sure that this wasn’t the movie I visualized when I heard they were making another fictional narrative out of an advice book.

There’s one scene early in the film in which a pizza delivery arrives after everyone else imagines it. (It turns out that someone they know sent it as a surprise.) But other than that moment, I don’t see how this adaptation demonstrates the principle of its source material. That’s not necessarily a problem. Even if it fails in that regard, it can still be entertaining. But alas, it fails in that regard as well, as it is a rather mundane story about a down-on-their-luck family who experience a little bit of luck after a stranger (who maybe isn’t a stranger) suddenly arrives in their lives.

That family would be the widowed Miranda (Katie Holmes) and her three kids, who find themselves wondering what the deal is with wandering handyman Bray, who is played by Voice of Home Depot Josh Lucas. Bray carries with him some Very Important Documents that almost definitely have something to do with Miranda’s dead husband. He was planning on showing them to her as soon as they met, but he decides instead to hang around for a bit and fix up her house after a hurricane tears through it. He also stays because he just has a … feeling. You know, one of those “the universe is trying to tell me something” feelings. That contrivance lasts long enough for Miranda to realize that she isn’t in love enough with her boss (Jerry O’Connell) to marry him, even though he’s a swell guy who looks after her and the kids. Then when the truth comes out about why Bray is really there, Miranda feels betrayed, which I guess makes sense, but it also comes off as overwrought and perfunctory. Even more perfunctory is the moment when she sees the whole picture and decides to give Bray another chance.

To make a movie actually come into being, it really does require a lot of believing that it can actually happen. Considering that The Secret: Dare to Dream is based on that very principle, it’s a little sad to see that the result is so thoroughly right-down-the-middle.

The Secret: Dare to Dream is Recommended If You Like: Pretending you’re watching another movie so hard that it actually happens

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Banalities

Documentary Review Time: The ACLU Keeps Bringing ‘The Fight’ to the Trump Administration

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Dale Ho in “The Fight” (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: The ACLU

Directors: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Legal Stress

Release Date: July 31, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

Documentary feature film productions typically shoot many more hours of footage than they could possibly include in the final product. With that in mind, organization is an incalculably important virtue during the editing process. I always greatly appreciate it when a (non-abstract) documentary concretely guides where my attention should go. Thus, The Fight is the beneficiary of my filmgoing gratitude, as it cleanly divides its narrative into four sections, each covering one lawsuit brought against the federal government with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union in the wake of the election of one Donald J. Trump. The cases and their primary issues are as follows: Garza v. Hargan, abortion rights; Stone v. Trump, transgender military ban; Department of Commerce v. New York, the census citizenship question; and Ms. L. v. ICE, separated families at the border.

In a country as famously litigious as the United States, it makes sense to expect that there would be plenty of legal challenges whenever a new administration takes office. That is exponentially true in the case of Trump, who promised to make any sense of political decorum a permanent thing of the past. As an organization dedicated to protecting legally guaranteed rights, the ACLU set itself in ready-position in 2017. But really, that was already their default status – this historical moment merely amplified that.

As is often the case in these multi-part documentary narratives, one character emerges as the most compelling among the rest. This time, it’s the constantly agitated but charming Dale Ho, who takes the lead in the census case. He finds himself uncomfortably thrust into the moment as he prepares to argue in front of the Supreme Court for the first time in his life. All of the lawyers we meet in The Fight focus on keeping their arguments soundly intellectual, but that cannot stop them from having intense physiological reactions to what they’re stepping into, and that’s especially true in Dale’s case.

The title of this film implies an eternal battle that has been going on before Trump’s election and that will likely continue after he leaves office. There are a few victories here and there, but it is made perfectly clear that they could very well be minor and short-lived in the grand scheme of things. If The Fight has one underlying message that synthesizes everything else it has to say, it is that we must be continuously prepared for these battles. The title could have been “The Struggle,” which is my go-to word for something that requires persistence. But instead we have something that’s just as eternal, but more pugilistic. That feels like the right call. These cases are wading through forces that affect and disrupt wide swaths of society. It’s rough out there, and it’s important to be reminded of that.

The Fight is Recommended If You Like: Recent Left-Leaning Political Documentaries

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Lawsuits

That’s Auntertainment! Episode 15 Part 2: Best TV Dramas of the 2010s

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Aunt Beth and Jeff wrap up July 2020, aka “Best TV of the Decade Month,” with their top 5 Drama selections of the 2010s. There are dangerous lead characters in both of their #1’s and some folks you’ve gotta call in both of their #4’s.

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 7/24/20

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
The Rental (July 24 on Demand) – Dave Franco directs his wife Alison Brie!

TV
-NBA Countdown: NBA Restart (July 25 on ABC)

Jmunney’s 2020 Emmy Wish List, Part 4: Variety and Reality

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CREDIT: ABC; IFC

The 2020 Emmy nominations will be announced on July 28. As per annual tradition, I have assembled a Wish List for as many categories as I have something to say about. There is no minimum or maximum number per category, nor is there any strict adherence to official Emmy rules. And of course, there is the necessary caveat that I have not seen everything. Even with much of the country shut down for the past few months, that’s impossible.

Now that I have made my way through the avalanche of award-worth Dramas, Comedies, and Limited Series, it’s time to get a little silly with the Variety shows. And this year, I decided to also talk about Reality, as there are enough competition shows that I plainly love to be able to fill out a ballot.

Conan is my top choice among the talkies, as Mr. O’Brien and company adapted quite naturally to the new reality of at-home production and Zoom interviews. The Soul Train/American Bandstand homage that is Sherman’s Showcase is the easy choice in Sketch Series; seriously folks, you gotta check this show out. And while I don’t always include SNL in the field, it earned a spot this year thanks to the resiliency demonstrated in its at-home episodes.

Moving on to Reality, where my Competition Program picks are dominated by game shows, naturally enough. At the top of the heap is the mini-golf showcase Holey Moley, one of the most purely fun and positive shows on the air right now. And Joe Tessitore and Rob Riggle are the perfect silly/serious M.C. pair to present the whole shebang.

KEY:
Bold=My winner

CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot

Variety Talk Series
CONAN
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

More

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