‘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.

Dear ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’: I Feel the Joy!

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EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: The Story of Fire Saga (CREDIT: John Wilson/Netflix)

Starring: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Pierce Brosnan, Dan Stevens, Melissanthi Mahut, Demi Lovato, Graham Norton

Director: David Dobkin

Running Time: 203 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for “Full Nude Sculptures”

Release Date: June 26, 2020 (Netflix)

I have decided to judge the success (or lack thereof) of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga by whether or not it made me want to watch the actual Eurovision competition.

So, did Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga make me want to watch the actual Eurovision competition?

Yes! Very much so!

And that’s significant because previously my interest was in the “Hmm, maybe” vicinity. So that’s got to be an increase of about 50 percent.

I get the sense that a lot of the real-life Eurovision entrants are like Will Ferrell characters, particularly the sincere variety that includes the Icelandic dreamer Lars Erickssong. Or at least I hope that’s the case! Every time I’ve ever heard people talk about Eurovision, they make it sound like the singers are genuine heart-fueled dreamers. So while watching The Story of Fire Saga, I realized, “Oh right, of course, the appeal is obvious.”

Contests like Eurovision can also be counted upon to reveal up-and-coming talented individuals who make you go, “Why am I only now just hearing about you?” That happened for me in Eurovision the movie in the form of Melissanthi Mahut, who plays Greek hopeful Mita. I predict and pray for big things for her in the coming years.

I give Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga 3 Knives out of 4 Elves.

Movie Review: ‘Her Smell’ Puts Elisabeth Moss Through Hell as She Fights Her Way Back to Punk Rock Redemption

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CREDIT: Gunpowder & Sky

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Dan Stevens, Eric Stoltz, Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, Amber Heard, Virginia Madsen, Eka Darville, Lindsay Burdge, Keith Poulson, Alexis Krauss, Craig Butta, Hannah Gross, Daisy Pugh-Weiss

Director: Alex Ross Perry

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for The Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle at Its Most Rock-Bottom

Release Date: April 12, 2019 (New York)/April 19, 2019 (Los Angeles)

Her Smell is not about riot grrrl punk rock so much as it just takes place in the riot grrrl milieu. Although I suppose it would be fair to say that a person like Becky Something, lead singer of Something She, would be most likely to have the breakdown that she has in this particular setting. Hers is a story as old as show business: she grew up with a profound inner sense of emptiness and sought to fill it with the stage, but she also turned to drinking, drugs, and suspect shamanism. Elisabeth Moss is fully, almost painfully committed to a performance of Becky as a shell of a person who cannot cover up the destructive whirlwind she has become. This is The Elisabeth Moss Show, with Becky’s bandmates, ex, daughter, manager, and mom left to simply react in horror.

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry conveys Becky’s unraveling and possible redemption over the course of a couple of long nights and one afternoon, favoring long takes that will not allow us to escape the bowels of hell. The camera tracks around backstage hallways without ever finding the exits, keeping us stuck in a claustrophobic nightmare. The music is surprising, but effective. While Something She plays the expected Sleater-Kinney-style bangers, the score resembles that of a mystical sci-fi flick set in rural England. It contributes to the sense of how otherworldly this whole situation feels. Punk rock, and indeed all rock music, has long had a reputation of being the devil’s music. Her Smell does not believe that at all, and in fact all of Becky’s loved ones are fully supportive of her rocking endeavors. But if demonic possession is something that exists, she appears to be suffering from it, and this film makes absolutely clear which vices are  really the ones causing that destruction.

Her Smell is Recommended If You Like: A rock star biopic infused with a horror vibe

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Spin Magazine Covers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Fails Utterly at Its Supposed Purpose, But is Somewhat Entertaining in Other Ways

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CREDIT: Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Anna Murphy

Director: Bharat Nalluri

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG for Intense Childhood Poverty Memories

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (Limited)

Did you know that Charles Dickens is the man to thank for Christmas in its current form? I am sure that many of you are aware how his novel A Christmas Carol has had an outsize impact on yuletide-celebrating cultures, but apparently his influence goes so much further. It turns out that his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge singlehandedly changed December 25 from a recognized, but inconsequential blip on the calendar into the biggest day of the year. Or so The Man Who Invented Christmas would have us believe…

Here’s the thing, though: beside its title and epilogue, The Man Who Invented Christmas does essentially nothing to support its supposed thesis. When reviewing cinema, I ask, “What is this movie trying to be, and is it successful?” This is a distinct question from “What is the director (or any of the other filmmakers) trying to do?” because sometimes a great film can be made accidentally. (Cult favorite The Room is the perfect such example.) But when a movie states its purpose so directly and then completely fails to even attempt to live up to that purpose, it is hard not to get frustrated.

All that being said, it is not as if The Man Who Invented Christmas is an hour and a half of nothing happening. In fact, much of it is actually a fairly fascinating examination of the creative process. Dickens (a fleet-witted, buzzy Dan Stevens) promises his publishers that he can complete his new Christmas-themed book in a grueling six weeks in time for a holiday release. As he writes, he is visited by what appear to be actual physical manifestations of the characters he is currently conjuring up: the Cratchits, Jacob Marley, and of course, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, quite naturally slotting into all that humbug).

The parts of this film that are essentially a two-hander between Stevens and Plummer (with a few supporting Carol-ers) work quite well, and I think I would have really liked it if that had been the whole movie. But there’s also a fair amount of business to do with Dickens’ tumultuous personal life, much of it regarding his destitute father John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Charles alternately regards as a leech and a kindly old man. There is enough complicated psychology here to render a more straightforward biopic that could be a tough but rewarding watch. But as these moments are mostly there just to provide context, they do not go much deeper than surface level.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is Recommended If You Like: A Christmas Carol completism, Anything with Dan Stevens and/or Christopher Plummer

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Deadlines

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Marshall’ is an Electric Portrait of the Supreme Court Justice as a Young NAACP Defense Lawyer

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Open Road Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, James Cromwell, Dan Stevens, Ahna O’Reilly

Director: Reginald Hudlin

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Dangers of Being And/Or Defending a Black Man in Mid-Century America

Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Moderate)

I almost feel like it is my Professional Critical Duty to take Marshall to task for its most straightforward biopic tendencies. In that vein, while Marcus Miller’s jazzy score that just won’t quit is agreeably toe-tapping, it does indeed make it consistently clear when you are supposed to feel angry, or concerned, or shocked, or stirred to pride. But I can live with one element being on the nose, especially if it is enjoyable in and of itself. Besides, Marshall mostly sidesteps biopic clichés (save for one silly moment of epiphany). It only just superficially feels cliché because justice prevails so rousingly. But it deserves to prevail because its subject is kind of one of the best lawyers in American history.

Reginald Hudlin’s film wisely opts for the surest path to biopic success, i.e., focusing on one chapter in the subject’s life. In 1940, more than two decades before he ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court, and twelve years before he argued before that same court in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a lawyer working for the NAACP, whose mission was to represent wrongfully accused African Americans across the country. One of those wrongfully accused was Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, cast both for and against his type of commonly decent men), a driver for a wealthy Connecticut family on trial for raping the woman he works for (Kate Hudson). Marshall’s co-counsel is insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), but since Sam is the only one certified to practice law in the state, only he and not Thurgood can speak during the trial, thanks to the ruling of a possibly racist or perhaps just frustratingly strict judge (James Cromwell).

Marshall is not out to score liberal brownie points, though it could easily settle for that. What it is more interested in, and what makes it so valuable, is examining why systems and social norms exist, and exploiting them for the best possible solution. A man like Joseph can find himself unfairly fighting for his life not just because he is black, but also because he is not entirely innocent. He has been guilty of unfaithfulness, petty theft, and absentee parenting. None of this makes him a rapist, but it is the conflation of all crimes that has been used and continues to be used as faux justification for the endurance of institutional racism. Marshall the film, and Marshall the man, say that yes, there is racism here, but there’s more to it than that. When it comes down to it, judge, jury, and opposing counsel are all people, and they can be appealed to if you know how to wield the truth properly and effectively, and are willing to take a few shots from those who aren’t ready yet.

Marshall is Recommended If You Like: To Kill a Mockingbird, Conviction, Selma, 42

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Pebbles

This Is a Movie Review Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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What up with Disney ransacking its vault to remake its own animated hits into (mostly[-ish]) live-action versions? This is not an inherently bad idea. These are stories that have been told over and over (often in fairy tale form) and will continue to be told over and over, so why not spruce them up with some 21st Century Pizzazz?

What does new-flavor Beauty and the Beast offer over the 1991 toon? Belle’s an inventor, but that does not factor in too much. There is an “exclusively gay moment” for Le Fou, but it is so inconsequential that you might need a study guide to locate it (I certainly did). So ultimately, this is about some legends of acting and singing giving it a whirl. Nothing earth-shattering, but we’re in good hands.

I give Beauty and the Beast 3 Rose Petals out of 5 Snowy Days in June.