REVIEW: “The Glorias” (2020)

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“The Glorias” has all the ingredients for a really good biopic: a provocative personality as its subject, a stellar female-driven cast, and plenty of historical ground to cover. So it’s disappointing to find Amazon’s new Gloria Steinem biography to be such a slow, hard to connect with grind. Despite its admirable efforts the movie gets too creative for its own good, bouncing us back-and-forth along Steinem’s timeline, never allowing us to get firmly planted in her character or her story.

The movie is directed by Julie Taymor from a screenplay she co-wrote with Sarah Ruhl. It’s really hard to identify their goal mainly because their movie is so scattered and unfocused. Even worse, so much time is spent checking off boxes from her political activist résumé that we never get to know her personally. Most of the personal bits are just patched in and then left with practically no emotional detail whatsoever. This is especially true for the film’s second half which is kinda like reading Steinem’s Wikipedia page.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The first half of the movie is all over the map, trying to cover Steinem’s childhood, her teenage years with her mother in Toledo, even her sabbatical in India. There are few times where it bolts ahead to her later political work but only briefly. While these points in Steinem’s life are touched on, they aren’t covered in a way that gives them weight. The closest we get are the early scenes where we see the connection between a young Gloria (played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong and later by Lulu Wilson) and her kind but cash-strapped father (Timothy Hutton).

Alicia Vikander plays Gloria through her twenties and thirties. Her part of the story attempts to cover the most ground, from the wobbly scenes in India to the more pointed moments highlighting the sexism she faced as a young journalist. She begins dipping her toes in feminism, meeting and befriending several interesting people along the way who help shape her future activism. While her accent is a little shaky, Vikander does her best trying to bring something personal to scenes which never allow her stay in one place very long. It’s a tough assignment.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Then out of the blue the entire movie settles in on Julianne Moore’s older Gloria. These scenes tease us with a handful of quieter moments where Gloria wrestles with her status and the expectations of others. But it too falls into the trap of checking boxes and moving from one career moment to another. Even the supporting characters are undersold. Take Bette Midler who quite literally shows up out of nowhere with practically no introduction whatsoever. She plays Bella Abzug and you better know who she is before watching the film. It all ends in a messy final act that throws so much stuff at the screen but to little effect.

“The Glorias” turns out be a frustrating misfire. It’s a shame considering the sizable talent of the cast and a meaty life it has to explore. There are some bold choices by the filmmakers such as a reoccurring bus ride where the Glorias from different eras talk among themselves. They make for the occasionally good segue from one time period to the next. But the film ends up being so interested in showing Steinem’s days as a feminist icon that it often forgets the human element. And it stays away from any of her complexities and controversies leaving us with a fairly one-dimensional portrayal. “The Glorias” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT- 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Greyhound” (2020)

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By now it’s pretty obvious that Tom Hanks can do just about anything on screen. Think about it. In his 40-year film career he has been a baseball coach, an astronaut, an Irish gangster, a pilot, a newspaper editor-in-chief, a wooden toy cowboy. Heck he’s even played Walt Disney and Mr. Rogers. His latest movie “Greyhound” puts him on familiar ground – playing a ship’s captain (he did that in “Captain Phillips”) during World War II (“Saving Private Ryan” of course).

“Greyhound” was originally picked up by Sony Pictures for an early June theater release. But like many films, it was delayed following the COVID-19 outbreak. In a bold move Apple acquired worldwide distribution rights from Sony for a whopping $70 million. Now the movie is set to premiere July 10th on their relatively new Apple TV+ streaming service and it instantly adds some real heft to their platform. That’s a lot of money, but it turned out to be a really good grab.

“Greyhound” is the sophomore effort from director Aaron Schneider and his first film since his quirky 2010 Southern drama “Get Low”. This is (obviously) a much different movie. It’s based on C. S. Forester’s 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd” with Hanks starring and also writing the screenplay (his first script since 2011’s “Larry Crowne”). It’s set in February 1942, shortly after the United States entered World War II and takes place in the heart of the Battle of the Atlantic.

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Photo Courtesy Apple Originals

Hanks plays Captain Ernest Krause, a career Navy officer who is finally given his first command aboard the Fletcher-class destroyer Greyhound. After a quick two months of training with his new crew, Krause is sent to the North Atlantic where he is tasked with escorting 37 merchant ships carrying soldiers and vital supplies to the allies in England. But to get there he must lead them across The Black Pit, a treacherous area out of air support range and swarming with German U-boats. For over 50 hours the convoy would be completely on their own.

Schneider’s tightly packaged war thriller wastes no time ratcheting up the tension. Within five minutes we’re in a white-knuckled game of cat-and-mouse as six German submarines (menacingly called a wolfpack) begin circling the convoy like sharks around their prey. It makes for some thrilling naval combat where instinct and strategy is as much the focus as torpedoes and cannon fire. The film does a great job of making every decision feel like a high-stakes decision. And from the blasts of ocean spray to the boom of the 5″ 38 caliber deck guns, when the action comes the intensity and sense of peril is palpable.

In addition to shooting exhilarating combat, cinematographer Shelly Johnson’s tight-quartered camerawork moves fluidly throughout the cramped ship and around the deck, capturing the close-knit synergy of the crew and putting us right in the middle of it. His crafty framing mixed with Mark Czyzewski and Sidney Wolinsky’s crisp editing keeps things moving at a high-energy pace while adding gravity to each Captain’s order and every exchange between sailors. And thankfully we never get lost in the slew of rapid-fire Navy jargon. Hanks (the writer) pens dialogue that’s organic, believable, and most importantly comprehensible for those of us without our sea legs.

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Photo Courtesy of Apple Originals

“Greyhound” is obviously Tom Hanks’ movie, but no other character even rises to the point of being memorable. There are no bad performances and everyone plays their roles well. But you’ll be hard-pressed to remember anyone other than Krause. Yet it works because Hanks (as you would expect) is terrific and a natural fit for his character. His expressions speak volumes and you never doubt an action he takes or an emotion he relays.

As for his script, Hanks borrows the outline for Krause from Forester’s book, but passes on many of the details. For example Hanks hints at but doesn’t explore Krause’s bouts with insecurity and self-doubt. Instead his film version shows a confident captain with a steady hand yet with quieter concerns. Little is made of it being his first command either narratively or dramatically. Hanks also gives Krause a love interest played by Elizabeth Shue, but frankly it amounts to nothing more than a cameo and their relationship is only skimmed over in a brief opening scene.

That’s because “Greyhound” is all about fully immersing its audience in the critical tactics and perilous execution of World War II naval combat. For a taut 90 minutes the film sticks to that focus, carrying its viewers across the enemy-infested North Atlantic and putting us into the heads of the men navigating it. It could have done more with its characters or built more of a backstory. But it’s the willingness to stick to its guns (no pun intended) that makes the movie such a thrilling war-time experience. “Greyhound” premieres July 10th on Apple TV+”

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Gremlins” (1984)

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For the past few months I’ve dedicated Wednesdays to doing Retro Reviews. The way it works is I put up three options on my Twitter feed (you can follow me @KeithandMovies). Followers vote, I rewatch the movie, and then post the review the following Wednesday. Whatever film finishes second comes back the next week against two new choices. So basically you pick what I watch and review.

Going into last week’s poll I had a pretty good feeling how it was going to turn out. Sure enough “Gremlins” won in a landslide. I can’t say I’m disappointed. “Gremlins” is a movie I first saw during its original summer 1984 theater run and it’s a movie I watched countless times once it came out on VHS. But it has been years since I last sat down and watched it. So I looked forward to seeing it again with a pair of fresh eyes.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Gremlins” was directed by Joe Dante in what would easily be the biggest film of his career. He worked from a script written by Chris Columbus. While doing a little business in Chinatown, a struggling inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) stops in an old antique shop to get his son a Christmas gift before heading home. Tucked away in the back is a cute little mogwai – adorable but with three very important rules. Don’t get them wet. Keep them out of the light (especially sunlight). And most importantly, no matter how much they beg, never feed them after midnight.

Rand returns home to the quaint town of Kingston Falls. He surprises his son Billy (Zach Galligan) with his new pet which they name Gizmo. Billy is an all-around good guy who works as a bank teller but aspires to be a comic book artist. He also has his eye on his co-worker Kate played by Phoebe Cates (I mean who wouldn’t). They, along with the comical array of townsfolk we meet, have pretty normal lives. That is until those critical mogwai rules are broken. Soon Kingston Falls is overran by devilish gremlins who throw this once cozy little community into absolute, unfettered chaos.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Dante has a blast embracing every facet of this sci-fi, horror, comedy, creature-feature. He, Columbus, and executive producer Steven Spielberg start with a heavy emphasis on the cute and cuddly Gizmo. The first 30 minutes alone probably sold countless stuffed animals. But they let it rip in the wild, rambunctious, and often riotous second half which is probably best epitomized in one hysterically anarchic bar scene. It’s a preposterous mix of comedy and violent mischief that cracked me up the same way it did years ago.

Interestingly this was Galligan’s first movie role and easily the biggest role of his career. Cates would appear in a few more films before retiring from acting in 1994. Both do well in this wacky movie rich with running gags, laugh-out-loud humor, creature mayhem, and a healthy splash of 80’s nostalgia. While some of the lines feel a bit dated, overall the movie has aged well and it has the some fun, over-the-top energy that made it such a big hit in 1984.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”

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Immediately after World War II the scars of German occupation ran deep across many European lands. One such place was the island of Guernsey, sitting in the English Channel just off the coast of Normandy. During the occupation many residents were taken and shipped to Nazi labor camps never to return while their families tried to survive under oppressive German rule. Guernsey was liberated in 1945 but the scars remained.

That troubling bit of history serves as a backdrop for the Netflix Original film “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”. Based on the 2008 novel of the same name, the story follows a London-based writer who becomes infatuated with a small book club from Guernsey. She’s drawn to the island in hopes of learning more about the five club members and their tangled history during the German occupation.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Set in 1946, a delightful Lily James stars as Juliet. With a couple of novels under her belt, Juliet’s writing career has taken off which pleases her encouraging publisher Sidney (Matthew Goode). She has signed on to write stories for the London Times and she has a wealthy American boyfriend (Glen Powell) who is quite keen on marrying her. Things couldn’t be better.

One day she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) from Guernsey. He had come across a book that once belonged to her and had shared it with his book club (you guessed it – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society). His hopes are Juliet could steer him towards another book by the same author. She sends him a copy as a gift and writes back inquiring about the Society. And so their correspondence begins.

As Juliet learns more about the Society through Dawsey’s letters she is inspired to write about them. She travels to Guernsey to meet the small group she has become so enamored with. As she digs deeper into their backstory she uncovers some old but still painful wounds traced back to the German occupation. Some of the Society are willing to help her, most notably Dawsey (enter the romantic angle). Others want no part of the memories her questions bring back.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Director Mike Newell uses his camera to great effect, capturing beautiful vistas but also the swirling emotions of his characters. A really good cast fleshes out the unique personalities Juliet encounters within the Society, specifically Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton, and Katherine Parkinson. Each are given plenty of time to reveal more about their characters as Juliet’s investigation unfolds.

“Guernsey” could be called too simple and it hits a point where it becomes obvious how things will play out. Yet it’s still a warm and well-crafted story with a charming, old-fashioned flavor to it. Lily James sparkles in the lead role and a strong supporting cast breathes personality and emotion. I found it to be a nice, unexpected surprise and another good pickup for Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Greener Grass” (2019)

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The opening scene of Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s “Greener Grass” gives you a good indication of what you’re in for. Suburban frenemies Jill (DeBoer) and Lisa (Luebbe) sit in the bleachers watching their kids play soccer. Jill holds her newborn daughter as Lisa gushes over how cute she is. “You can have her! She’s great.” Jill cheeps as if offering her a stick of gum. After all, it’s the polite thing to do, right? Just as jolting, Lisa actually accepts but with a slight hesitation. “I’ve been her mom since birth,” Jill assures her. “She just has to get used to you.”

That’s a good taste test for the kind of surrealist nuttiness “Greener Grass” throws at you. It’s an utterly batty satire of suburban life and soccer mom culture. At the same time it takes some sharp pokes at competitive parenting and some hilarious jabs at postmodernist absurdity. But most surprising is its bite which doesn’t really come into focus until the final 15 minutes or so.

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DeBoer and Luebbe are not only co-stars, but co-writers and co-directors. In their unhinged suburbia everything (and I do mean everything) is about appearances. For these characters living itself is a performance art and the entire neighborhood is vying for the better performance. It’s a place where everyone drives golf carts instead of cars, have braces on already perfect teeth, and where underwear can pass as a neck scarf. Even wackier, a kid can turn into a Golden Retriever and a mother can give birth to a soccer ball no questions asked.

Amid the steady haze of disingenuous smiles, passive-aggressive politeness and pastel fashion is an almost relentless barrage of gags and scenes that resemble comedy sketches. It also has its share of confounding plot twists, but you just go with them mainly because of the crazy foundation that has already be laid. From the very start the movie makes clear that ‘anything goes’ so we’re pretty much prepped for whatever DeBoer and Luebbe throws at us.

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Topping it off are some game comic performances from a cast firmly committed to the goofy premise. DeBoer and Luebbe have a hysterical chemistry, playing off each other with deadpan precision. Beck Bennett and Neil Casey are hoots playing their husbands – submissive, spacey and firmly rooted in the movie’s absurdism.

“Greener Grass” runs the risk of being too over-the-top for some. And if you aren’t into its unique and persistent sense of humor, this is a movie that will probably test your patience. There’s not much in terms of plot, but it moves at a snappy pace and features much of what I look for in good satire. I laughed a lot following these shallow, dim-witted rivals amid a sea of suburban superficiality. And after hearing of a movie-loving friend’s experience, now I want to show it to other people just to see how weirded out they get.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Gretel & Hansel” (2020)

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January is notoriously a dumping ground for movies that studios generally have no confidence in. Out of those we are all but guaranteed a handful of low budget horror films that are as forgettable as they are superfluous. Dropped into this year’s veritable dead zone is the surprisingly inspired “Gretel & Hansel”. It’s a high concept fantasy horror dive that exceeded my expectations at nearly every turn.

“Gretel & Hansel” comes from director Osgood Perkins, son the late Anthony Perkins. It’s from a script Perkins co-wrote with Rob Hayes and is based on the classic German folktale from the Brothers Grimm. Here the bigger focus is on creating atmosphere and building tension visually more so than narratively. It’s something the movie leans heavily on and for the most part nails.

You’ll quickly notice that Gretel is the film’s centerpiece hence the name switcheroo in the title. In the fairy tale the two kids are around the same age. Here Gretel (played by Sophia Lillis) is both narrator and older sister taking care of her precocious younger brother (Sam Leakey) after the two are cast into the dark woods by their destitute and unstable mother. They travel across the hellish, famine-stricken land, helped by a mysterious hunter (Charles Babalola), haunted by eerie apparitions appearing in the distance, and growing hungrier with every passing day.

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Photo: Orion Pictures

The story settles in when starving Gretel and Hansel come across a remote A-frame house deep in the forest. A peep through a window reveals a table full of fruits, meats, breads, and sweets. Hansel sneaks inside but is snagged by the owner, a creepy old crone named Holda. She’s played by a terrifically menacing Alice Krige who exudes dread from her eerie glances to her fingertips black with rot. Thanks to the source material we know she’s actually a witch and her motivations going forward are unquestionably sinister.

She invites Gretel inside to join her brother at the table where the two stuff their empty stomachs. The witch convinces the children to stay and soon is teaching Gretel small spells and female empowerment while steadily pushing second helpings in front of Hansel. As the witch inspires Gretel’s desire for agency and independence she soon begins to manipulate it. The question becomes will Gretel see through the witch’s radicalization and become her own woman? If not the consequences could be horrific.

When all is said and done the story itself (though interesting) is pretty light. Perkins and Hayes stretch their tale about as far as they can just to fill the small 88 minute runtime. At first it was something that set the movie back for me, but since then I’ve seen it as less of an issue because I’m convinced there are more thematic layers than I gave it credit for. It’s a case where I’m anxious to give the movie a second look hopefully with a more attentive eye.

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Photo: Orion Pictures

But I have to get back to the visuals and the way they develop and maintain mood and atmosphere. There are countless haunting images, meticulously framed and resembling something plucked out of a Robert Eggers picture. In fact there is a genuine arthouse quality to the presentation and I could imagine seeing an A24 stamp in front of the title. Much of the credit goes to cinematographer Galo Olivares who was a  collaborator on Alfonso Cuarón’s exquisite Oscar winner “Roma”. His use of lighting, shadows, camera angles, and simple still shots to brilliantly capture Perkins’ vision and verve.

Better yet, the movie truly believes in its visuals which convey the bulk of the horror. It’s refreshing to see a reliance on something other than cheap, overused jump scares. And there is rarely a shot where something doesn’t catch your eye. It’s all done with a minuscule $5 million budget. Further proof that you don’t need tons of money and big digital effects to make a movie look incredible.

So you could say “Gretel & Hansel” is a macabre coming-of-age story about individuality and burgeoning womanhood. You could embrace it as a grim slice of medieval period horror. There are several things you could call it including an ‘unexpected surprise’. Unfortunately I can see it struggling to find an audience. It’s leisurely paced and requires audiences to do a little more work than in traditional horror pictures. But I found it to be visually arresting, light on story but big on ideas, and a welcomed break from what January usually has to offer.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars