Nostalgic ‘Tender Bar’ a Subtly Poignant Coming-of-age Story 

Based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, The Tender Bar is a nostalgic, coming-of-age story that’s simple in premise and complex in character. Directed by George Clooney and adapted by screenwriter William Monahan, the film centers on a young man’s (Tye Sheridan) life in Long Island; a lower-middle-class life full of eccentric characters like a struggling mom (Lily Rabe), a grumpy grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) and, most importantly, a very cool uncle (Ben Affleck). 

Against all odds, J.R.’s smarts and skills land him at Yale University where he makes friends, falls in love and gets the idea to become a writer. But it’s the “remember where you came from” feeling that fills in the gaps where most people expect plot. And herein lies the beauty of stories like The Tender Bar – its characters are plot enough. 

Sheridan’s charisma and likability magnetically carry you along J.R.’s journey from his college acceptance letter to his first day as a young writer at The New York Times. He leads a charming supporting cast, most notably Affleck in an atypical role of paternal bartender Uncle Charlie. While it can be difficult to adapt an entire life’s memoir into a two-hour film, Monahan highlights the necessary points in J.R.’s journey for the story to make sense to the viewer: his girlfriend, his father, his mother’s cancer diagnosis. It all comes together to create a subtly poignant story of growing up, moving out and returning home again – through memory.

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Long Brothers Bring Silly Back in ‘Lady of the Manor’

“Laughter is such a great part of life,” Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) explains to a ghostly Lady Wadsworth (Judy Greer). And laughter is what writing/directing team Justin and Christian Long know best. From a stoned tour guide to a spoiled man-child (Ryan Phillippe), the Long brothers show off their keen observation of ridiculous human behavior in the purely silly, entertaining Lady of the Manor.

Starring Lynsky as an “aimless ne’er do-well,” the Pygmalion-like story centers on the unlikely friendship between a tour guide of a historic estate and the manor’s prim-and-proper ghost with unfinished business. And if you take the premise too seriously, then you’re really not in on the joke. Lady of the Manor is filled with farts, funny faces and complete mockery of humanity’s douchiest (i.e. Phillippe ordering a “vod sodes,” short for vodka soda). The outtakes of “tangerine juice” and “mint chocolate chip shake, no chips” are worth watching in their entirety.

This original buddy comedy is reminiscent of films that would line the shelves of family-owned video stores; the kind that would jam up the VCR because the rewind button was hit one-too-many times. Here, Hannah’s knack for accidentally flatulating in front of people is a particular highlight. Lady of the Manor might not be the comedy for everyone, but it’s a fun Friday night film if you’re willing to suspend your seriousness for a mere 90 minutes.

If Lady Wadsworth can do it, so can you.

Justin Long and Melanie Lynskey in ‘Lady of the Manor.’ Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate
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‘Jungle Cruise’ is refreshingly silly summer fun

I did not want to see Jungle Cruise. There, I said it. And I typically never include first person in my reviews, but it’s warranted here. I groaned at the prospect of seeing a big screen adaptation of a Disney attraction, one I was certain was going to be green screen scene after green screen scene. But in all honesty, I loved it. And I laughed a lot. As the credits faded in and out and the text read “Screenplay by Michael Green” it all made sense to me – of course it was. Everwood is, was and always will be my favorite television show of all time and Green being one of it’s key writers, I must have sensed his storytelling touch and regretted my preconceived notions of the film being less than a good time. Also worth crediting co-writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, encapsulates the spirit of the Disneyland ride that set sail in 1955, Walt Disney in tow. It’s full of color, puns, the roaring hippopotamus and the eight wonder of the world – the backside of water. Add Paul Giamatti and Jesse Plemons to the mix and it’s an “I can’t stop myself from laughing” kind of laugh. There’s something for everyone here – action, adventure, thrills and humor that Johnson and Blunt can deliver easily and naturally. With children, especially, deserving of a solid live action tentpole with silly summer fun, Jungle Cruise fits the bill.

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Wahlberg gives subtle, career-best performance as complicated ‘Joe Bell’

Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg gives a subtle, career-best performance as a complicated man on a mission in Joe Bell. Based on a true story, the film (from Brokeback Mountain writers Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry) follows a working class Oregonian father on his long, strenuous walk across the country in support of his gay son. His journey of speaking out against bullying becomes one of self-reflection and, as a result, Joe Bell becomes a character study of a very flawed, very human father. 

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men; upcoming King Richard) introduces us to teenage Jadin, an energetic cheerleader at his rural high school where he is the only openly gay student in 2013. If this had been a fictional film and in no way based on true events, I would have critiqued it for being unrealistic. It would be nearly impossible to believe there was only one openly gay student and equally as far fetched to believe he would be relentlessly bullied for being gay. Yet, despite the progress that the LGBTQ community has made (even in the 15 years since the release of Ossana and McMurtry’s Brokeback Mountain, this happened. The brilliance of Wahlberg helming a project like this as lead actor and producer lies in his ability to draw in audiences who might need to see a story like this. Joe Bell wanted to change the mind of at least one person, and perhaps Walhberg can, too. 

Reid Miller in JOE BELL | Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert | Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Reid Miller portrays an emotionally conflicted Jadin Bell with heartbreakingly raw honesty. He doesn’t fit in at school and despite his mother’s best efforts (Connie Britton in an unsurprisingly poignant performance as Lola Bell), he doesn’t quite fit at home either. His father doesn’t reject him for coming out as gay, but he never fully accepts him either, making for a more dimensional relationship rarely depicted on screen. 

While we never quite feel the impact of Bell’s anti-bullying visits to high schools across the country, it’s his run-in encounter with a local sheriff (Gary Sinise) that grounds the film as a whole. Along with Britton, Sinise was Wahlberg’s choice for the Joe Bell supporting cast and both play as close to “real” as you can get. It’s worth watching for the cast. With nuanced, vulnerable performances, they make you care. And when you care, you listen. And when you listen, you learn. That’s the point of Joe Bell, movie and man. 

Joe Bell opens in theaters July 23.

Mark Wahlberg and Gary Sinise in JOE BELL | Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert | Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

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‘The Boss Baby: Family Business’ A Silly, Sweet Reprieve for Kids

A sequel to DreamWorks Animation’s 2017 Oscar-nominated blockbuster, The Boss Baby: Family Business is a welcome, comedic reprieve for children and their parents alike. From returning director Tom McGrath, the story of brothers Tim (James Marsden) and Ted (Alec Baldwin) Templeton continues, amplified by a new cast of zany, brainy characters fit for the big screen. 

Set decades after the original film, Family Business finds the fully-grown brothers living completely opposite lives – Ted is a hedge fund CEO, Tim a suburban stay-at-home dad to two daughters, seven-year-old Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) and newborn Tina (Amy Sedaris). Worrying that Tabitha is growing up too quickly at her prestigious school for advanced children, Tim yearns for his daughter to have a youthful, fun-filled imagination. Instead, she wants to be just like her Uncle Tim. 

(From left) Ted Templeton (Alec Baldwin), Tina Templeton (Amy Sedaris, back to camera) and Tim Templeton (James Marsden) in DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby: Family Business, directed by Tom McGrath.

Enter: baby Tina, a top secret agent for Baby Corp. on a mission to uncover secrets about her sister’s school and its devious founder (Jeff Goldblum). On a mission to stop an evil genius, Tim and Ted set out on a journey together that ultimately reveals the true meaning of family. 

Based on the books by Marla Frazee, this sequel screenplay from Michael McCullers and McGrath is as enjoyable as its predecessor. With enthusiastic voice work from Baldwin, Goldblum, Marsden (additionally, Eva Longoria, Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), there is enough on screen to satisfy the youngest and oldest of viewers. Perhaps the most giggle-inducing, unsurprisingly, is Amy Sedaris in the role of baby agent Tina (lines like, “Men, am I right?” might go unappreciated by a young generation, but are sure to entertain a tired parent). “Each one of them is a wonderful ad-libber, and they brought so much to their roles,” producer Jeff Hermann says. “They shine every time they are on the screen.” While the plot and screenplay are joyous and silly, the obvious ad-libbing is a highlight.

After a long, difficult year for children, “silly” is something they deserve. Whether they see it on the big screen this Fourth of July weekend or stream it on Peacock, The Boss Baby: Family Business fits the bill.

Tina Templeton (Amy Sedaris) in DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby: Family Business, directed by Tom McGrath.
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In ‘Here Today,’ Crystal Makes Real Life More Interesting

In an era of moviemaking when films are pigeonholed by genre, scale and scope, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s beauty in the middle. Short scenes can get big laughs, small stories can have big heart. In Here Today, director Billy Crystal and co-writer Alan Zweibel bring back a bygone era of storytelling, when comedy and tragedy are best at their subtlest.

Set in New York, comedy legend Charlie Burnz (Crystal) goes to work at his late-night cable sketch show, acting as the honorary “mentor” to young and mostly smarmy writers. When he encourages them to aim higher than profanity or gross-out schtick, they think his institutional memory is more or less useless and as outdated as his typewriter. Herein lies the heart of the story – the wisdom that comes with age, the precious gift that is memory. In Charlie’s world, he’s losing both. 

Based on Zweibel’s short story “The Prize,” Here Today sets up Charlie’s journey with dementia a few stages in – he knows what’s going on, he knows he’s slipping and he’s writing a book dedicated to his late wife and emotionally estranged children because of it. That’s when he meets his saving grace in free-spirited singer, Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish). Despite the age gap, their unexpected and unlikely friendship becomes the driving force of the film; both funny and not, complicated and not. Haddish uses her tried-and-true brand of humor, but delves deeper into making the character of Emma a realistic one. She’s a good, young soul who happens to connect with a good, older one; an atypical dynamic rarely shown on screen. While the group of millennial comedy writers didn’t fully understand Charlie, it’s nice to see someone who does – better yet, a female almost half his age. 

In addition to an endearing Haddish, familiar actors round out the cast, with Anna Deveare Smith as Charlie’s doctor and Laura Benanti and Penn Badgley as his grown children. But it’s Crystal, himself, who is more engaging with an emotional monologue than any flashback could accurately evoke. It’s the comedy and tragedy he wears on his face, subtly delivering a funny one-liner and, in the next second, breaking your heart. From a directing standpoint, too, Crystal makes it work. New York is the third most-important character, here, with breathtaking wide shots of a cityscape that fills the frameline. It’s a love letter to New York or at least feels like one.

Perhaps it’s familiarity or intuition, but the ways in which the writers seem to draw from the well of personal experience breathes genuine life into fictional characters. Whether it was Zweibel’s experience writing for Saturday Night Live or Crystal’s similar history of meeting his wife at the beach or getting the dreaded knock at the door after fighting with a loved one, moments in Here Today feel supremely human. Maybe it’s years of my family reading Crystal’s memoirs or crying at 700 Sundays or crying laughing at the Chicago Theatre. Or perhaps it’s just good writing. 

As we slowly return to the movies, my hope is that there are more films like the one Crystal and Zweibel put together. I hope they’re full of dimensional characters that make us laugh, cry and think more deeply about caring for someone and caring about them. I hope they make us appreciate the beauty of the people and places around us – while they’re here, today.

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Chloe Zhao’s Inspired ‘Nomadland’ Resonates After Year of Uncertainty

Consistently nuanced actress Frances McDormand stars in Chloe Zhao’s poignant Nomadland, a film that will undoubtedly resonate with both Academy voters and a wide-ranging audience looking for hope after a year of earth-shattering uncertainty. The grey-toned journey of life on the road feels more like a documentary than a scripted “Neo-Western drama,” as it’s described.

Set in 2011, McDormand stars as Fern, an out-of-work widow who loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shuts down. Packing her entire life into a van, she sets out on the road and picks up seasonal shifts at an Amazon fulfillment center and other odd jobs to get by. It’s out of the ordinary, making it an extraordinary subject for Zhao to explore and for McDormand to perfect.

Every person we meet along the way is a non-actor (save for David Straitharn) who live their lives free of convention in search of a greater purpose, or at least greater self-contentment. There’s Linda May and Swankie and Bob Wells, all “characters” in the truest sense of the word. Their perspectives on living life from place to place is another take on minimalism, a philosophy that has resonated with American viewers as of late. But each viewer can take from it what they will – the film is meditative that way. It’s a blank slate for Fern and, in a way, a blank slate for the audience. 

“No one ever says goodbye. We just say, I’ll see you down the road.” While this film was made before the Coronavirus pandemic, its release and awards buzz come at the perfect time when more than half a million people in the United States of America have lost their lives to Covid-19 at this point. Every human being has been forced into a resilient-like state, metaphorically packing what they deem necessary into their van-like bubbles. But Zhao’s Nomadland is a silver lining. It’s a reminder that, while our journeys may look different, we’re never alone. It’s a reminder that we can change at any age, meet new people along the way and know that whoever we’re missing, we’ll see down the road.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in the movie “Nomadland.”
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Tucci, Firth give career-best in painful dementia drama ‘Supernova’

“You’re not supposed to mourn someone while they’re still alive.” Summarizing the theme of Harry Macqueen’s poignant, heartbreaking drama Supernova in one line of dialogue, Stanley Tucci gives a career-best performance as dementia-ridden Tusker. With an equally dynamic Colin Firth as his longtime partner Sam, the two travel across England as a makeshift farewell to family and friends.

The devastating subject matter and weight of the film unfortunately fit the tone of the time we’re living in, when death is at the forefront of people’s minds. Here, a slow death is inevitable for writer Tusker who has good days and bad days, sometimes lapsing in his ability to button a shirt or read a letter aloud. Macqueen’s subtle approach to Tusker’s decline makes Sam’s frustration all the more compelling. 

It’s a love story, albeit a peek into the final chapter of one. The homosexually aspect is never dwelled on, looked down upon or used as a plot device – rather the opposite. It’s an endearing partnership from the opening scene as Sam and Tusker drive their old RV through the English countryside, stop at roadside diners and take their dog for a walk. The “normalcy” of it all adds to the undercurrent of bleakness, with both men knowing what the future holds and trying to navigate what’s best for both of them. 

While there are moments of levity (provided mainly by Tusker as he pokes fun of the situation), it’s consistently and overwhelmingly sad. When you have veteran performers like Tucci and Firth, though, sadness can lend itself to a cathartic viewing experience. Such is the case with Supernova.

In select theaters January 29. Digital on Demand February 16th.

Photos courtesy of Bleecker Street
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Sincere, Silly ‘Godmothered’ a Refreshingly Original Comedy for Disney+

Godmothered is a gift. Not only is it entertaining for children, who deserve all the good things coming their way this holiday season, but for anyone thinking their Happily Ever After has passed them by. That may sound like classic Disney (and it is) but Jillian Bell as a Fairy-Godmother-in-Training is exactly the kind of silly, sweet film that, much like a fairy godmother herself, appears when we need it most. 

Writers Kari Granlund and Melissa Stack open their story in the Motherland, where all practicing fairy godmothers (including a riotously funny June Squibb) are out of work and on the brink of closing. Enter Eleanor, a young and energetic trainee who finds a letter from a 10-year-old girl longing for her storybook ending. Determined to make little Mackenzie’s dreams come true, Eleanor boldly ventures through a portal to the mortal world – Boston, to be exact – only to find that the little girl is now a 40-year-old single mom (Isla Fisher) tirelessly working at a news station. 

In the same vein as Elf or Enchanted, whimsical Eleanor barges into the dull, downtrodden life of Mackenzie, her daughters (Jillian Shea Spaeder, Willa Skye) and her helpful sister (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). Using the magical spells she remembers from training, she turns dogs into pigs, raccoons into handymen and even brings viral video material into Mackenzie’s workplace. The fish-out-of-water story is suited for Bell, who makes little moments like pronouncing Massachusetts “Massa-ca-hoo-setts” and mistaking pilates for pirates funnier than they ever would be on the page. Older audiences will appreciate an entire sequence of Eleanor playing pool, sipping a lemon drop and marveling at the magical elixir that is light beer. The actress’ natural comedic ability carries the film from beginning to end, a perfect foil for endearing straight man Fisher and brilliant, veteran co-star Jane Curtin (the film’s beehived-hair “villain”). 

Together with director Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bridget Jones’ Baby) Godmothered serves as a reminder that living happily might be just as good as a typical “happily ever after” girls have been taught to aspire to. Not everyone’s true love looks the same – to send that message to the young eyes on Disney+ is why the company remains the best at what they do. Their tried-and-true formula is elevated here with a Christmastime setting, a memorable soundtrack and modern themes of love, grief and courage to keep going. While reminiscent of a bygone 1990s era, the film is refreshingly original – like I said, a gift. 

Godmothered is available December 4 on Disney+. 

Jillian Bell as Eleanor in GODMOTHERED, exclusively on Disney+.
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Hillbilly Elegy is a Family Story, Not a Political Statement

There’s a moment in Hillbilly Elegy where Glenn Close, disguised as elderly, disgruntled Mamaw, tells her grandson that she loves The Terminator, “There are good terminators, bad terminators and neutrals.” The film’s theme proves the opposite: people are typically a mix of all three. Based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling autobiography that follows his tumultuous upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, this Netflix adaptation from writer Vanessa Taylor and director Ron Howard shows the effort and willingness it takes to break a cycle of unhealthy familial behavior. 

Contrary to the criticism Vance’s story has received in a time when the country is so morally divided, one side fighting for lives to be saved, the other side fighting for lower taxes and the demise of democracy, those feelings can be put aside to focus on the central story being told. Hillbilly Elegy is more of a character study than a political statement. Gabriel Basso (Super 8, The Kings of Summer) plays 26-year-old J.D., a Yale law student working three jobs and preparing for a make-or-break interview for an internship. When he receives a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) with the news that their mom Bev (Amy Adams) overdosed, he has to drive home, help his family and make it back in time for the meeting. 

The ticking clock creates a framework for J.D.’s story as the film flashes back to his late-90s youth where we get a clearer view into Bev’s erratic mothering style. Unsurprisingly, Adams convincingly embodies a troubled, drug-addicted woman whose demons overshadow any glimpses of perspective and level-headedness. One minute she’s painting Easter eggs with J.D. and the next, she’s slapping him in the face with full-on rage. The immediate flip of the mood switch is unsettling, purposefully so, for viewers, J.D. and Mamaw, whose own parenting regrets bubble to the surface. While the film could have delved deeper into Mamaw’s backstory, it’s merely implied that shockingly terrible parenting is a generational trait. She tries to atone for her past by molding her grandson’s future, taking J.D. into her own custody and reinforcing the importance of education and discipline. 

Amy Adams (“Bev”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

His success makes his return home all the more conflicting and relatable for people who have escaped the grip of traumatic childhoods. How do you balance inherent love for your family and respect for yourself? Perhaps the answer to that question and the hero of the story (to this viewer, at least) is Lindsay Vance, a type of woman rarely depicted in mainstream movies – a loving mother who works at a shoe store to make ends meet while raising children and taking care of her needy mess of a mother. She might not have attended an Ivy League school, but those accomplishments are just as admirable – and Bennett’s performance should not go unnoticed.

Screenwriter Taylor, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water and Emmy-winning Game of Thrones, evokes a project from her early writing career in her script: Everwood, one of the most underrated family dramas of all time. In Hillbilly Elegy, there are shades of that show’s romantic maturity in J.D. and his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). While most of their scenes are phone conversations, their dynamic offers viewers moments to breathe, to pause and to hope for a better future. That’s the message here, despite a cloud of controversy and biting cynicism from critics. This story is about the people who were there for you and the people you’ll be there for, even if it’s yourself.

Glenn Close (“Mamaw”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020
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