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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Superheroes Drop Into Sitcom Suburbia in Immensely Clever ‘WandaVision’

It’s only fitting that Marvel Studios’ first foray into television is a tribute to the medium itself.

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprise their roles as Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) and Vision, first seen in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and throughout subsequent films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For reasons unknown, these heroes are dropped into the world of old-school multi-camera sitcoms in the sharp new TV series, streaming its first two chapters Jan. 15 on Disney+.  

Studio President Kevin Feige told Variety that Wanda and Vision “are great characters in the comics that we don’t scratch the surface of in the movies.” So when he read the 2016 comic miniseries “The Vision,” by writer Tom King and artists Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Mike Del Mundo, he knew he had to bring to life the image of the Android coming home to a wife and a white picket fence.

Paul Bettany as Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios’ WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

And the first three episodes brilliantly capture the oddball imagination of the idea, taking viewers through the evolution of the sitcom with its cheesy humor, live audience laughter and signature screwball mishaps. Marvel Easter eggs are plentiful, but it’s an especially fun viewing experience for fans of classic television – in addition to being an incredibly smart strategy to make the transition from the movie theater to the living room.

With theaters closed and some straight-to-streaming options making us long for the big screen, “WandaVision” is perfectly suited to the small one – by design. It was brilliant to ease the record-breaking, action-packed film franchise off the big screen into a tightly-written, clever watch-at-home format, leaning away from cinematic, crash-bang superhero expectations to something slower and smaller.

“It felt great to do something that could only be done for television,” Feige said. “I spent an inordinate amount of time as a child watching TV and syndicated repeats of lots of sitcoms.”

The detailed images of sitcoms past are enough to garner their own re-watch, with subtle and silly nods to sitcoms of old. Detailed set designs and nuanced humor will make avid, keen-eyed sitcom watchers happy. But the writers also have you wondering what’s lurking underneath  – and with Marvel, you know it’s usually something big. Even as you shake your head at its cleverness, you understand it is simply a unique medium to tell a deeper, darker story – and it’s fun to feel in on the joke.

Paul Bettany as Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios’ WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

From showrunner Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman, this show wasn’t meant to be viewed on a 20-foot-tall screen with hundreds of people, but on your couch. And you need not worry if nostalgia isn’t your thing – “WandaVision” seems to be as much about searingly mocking the genre as it does about perfecting it. Clearly these characters are in this world for a reason, and it will be undoubtedly compelling to know why, as nine 30-minute installments unfold over the next few months.

With empty theaters and darkened screens, it’s comforting that “WandaVision” was meant to be watched at home, on television – a word that’s ever changing in the Internet age. The medium it pays tribute to was originally built to entertain millions of families – to make them laugh, if not always wonder what was going to happen next. This series offers both.

And the show itself is smart, aptly-titled and written by a mostly female staff. Because it is written by women, it hilariously mocks the uneven gender roles of classic sitcoms when wives – always wives, never just women – were often the butt of the joke. Kathryn Hahn is ridiculously funny as quirky neighbor Agnes, who cracks jokes about her useless husband Ralph (but who some fans believe is not what she seems).

Olsen is effortless, and Bettany is genuinely funny, nailing the kind of quirky faux-happiness of those suburban shows – but the pure joy of them too, in the days when millions of families would laugh at the same Rob Petry line or the famous scrapes of Samantha Stevens. This is the way we used to watch television together, and the pandemic has made that even clearer with the widespread success of “Ozark,” “The Mandalorian,” and “The Queen’s Gambit.” This is appointment television, and “WandaVision” is no exception, even as we have no water coolers around which to gather.

The uncanny sitcom details in “WandaVision” are exceptional, down to Rob and Laura Petry’s separate beds. Paul Bettany as Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios’ WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

The “Avengers” offered us a shared cinematic experience, when everyone was on the same side for a night at the movies. Maybe in 2021, this is as close as we’ll get to that. A throwback to a time when there were just a few channels, and no fast forward. A time we miss, especially now, as Thanos-shaped villains stomp through our universe, along with a rampantly-spreading silent killer that robs people of breath and has devastated millions worldwide. Mobs and riots are forming, except in this world, the good guys wear masks and superheroes work in hospitals.

It sometimes feels like the world blipped – like we’re in the third act of an “Avengers” film, and no one knows what’s coming. It’s felt like that for almost a year now. We need heroes, but we need humor, too. And we need to be entertained in this new way – while poking tremendous fun at the old.

Maybe I’m being far too sentimental – the underlying mysterious plot of “WandaVision” will no doubt be what most people remember about it. But for now I’m just thankful to laugh – to remember a time when we would bond over characters, and know that no matter how bad things get, there will always be heroes.

Paul Bettany as Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios’ WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.
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‘Sylvie’s Love’ Takes New Approach To Soulmate Story

Set in Harlem in the 1950s, Eugene Ashe’s story of young summer love plants a sprout in its first act that grows into a wise old tree by the end of its 110 minutes. Starring Tessa Thompson as the titular character, the charming love story follows two people who have dreams beyond romantic love – which makes their own love story that much more beautiful.

The story follows Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a saxophonist who gets a day job working at a record store simply because he has a crush on the girl behind the counter, Sylvie (Thompson). She whiles away the summer afternoons at the shop, watching every television program she can find, laughing at “I Love Lucy” and dancing around the empty store to Billy Haley and the Comets. 

Nicola Goode/Amazon Studios

Their easy way with each other is a joy to watch, and the serene first act of the film finds their mutual love of music and art transforming effortlessly into love for each other. But they’re soon reminded of reality: Sylvie is already engaged to a man serving in Korea, and soon Robert and his jazz quartet are offered a high-powered gig in Paris.

Though its early love story is endearing, the narrative is only stronger when it picks up five years later and finds Sylvie as a wife and mother, trying to achieve her dream of working in television when a chance encounter with Robert reminds her who she always wanted to be. It is this element of “Sylvie’s Love” that is exceptional – the idea that its two main characters are grounded in something other than each other, but still want to be together. 

The love between Sylvie and Robert feels real – the kind of deep and real love that is not mere infatuation – what writer Kevin Williamson said “goes beyond friendship, beyond lovers.” This is a film about deep and abiding love, which sometimes means sacrifice and separation. It’s especially enjoyable to see Thompson playing a woman of that time period with hopes beyond her husband and house. 

Nicola Goode/Amazon Studios

“Tessa brought her passion for women’s rights, shown in her character’s transformation from someone who is in an arranged marriage to someone who takes control of her life and makes decisions on her own,” Ashe said of the Gotham Award-winning actor and producer.

The characters are different from typical portrayals of the time period, which in other works can get bogged down in either saddle shoes and jukeboxes or social revolution. Something in between, “Sylvie’s Love” quietly and tastefully gets to the heart of our humanity with charming background characters played by Eva Longoria, Wendi McLendon Covey and Aja Naomi King. Relationships outside the central love story feel real and so much like life: Sylvie’s love for her parents and cousin, Robert’s love for his bandmates and their passions that lie outside a traditional life all make for complex, beautifully-realized people that feel far from fictional.

The story, time period and music only add to the comfort and familiarity these characters find in each other. And it’s a warm place to be – warm as Harlem in the summer of 1957.

Amazon Studios will release “Sylvie’s Love” on Prime Video Dec. 23.

Nicola Goode/Amazon Studios
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Holiday Movie Preview: The Best New Films To Watch From Home

We’re updating our what-to-watch list throughout the month of December. The following titles are now streaming. Check back soon for reviews of more titles like Disney-Pixar’s Soul, the long-anticipated sequel to Wonder Woman and Regina King’s buzzy period piece One Night In Miami.

Modern Persuasion

Alicia Witt stars in this delightfully funny spin on Jane Austen’s 1817 novel “Persuasion.” Set in a young-and-trendy lens of New York, the modern romantic comedy finds workaholic publicist Wren Cosgrove coming home to her cat every night. It isn’t until her firm is hired by an ex-love that old feelings resurface and their past is slowly revealed. What sets Modern Persuasion apart from other been-there, done-that stories is the laugh-out-loud humor consistently evident in the script and executed by an endearing cast. Adrienne C. Moore as the new receptionist Denise is a talent to watch (When she gets a raise and whispers “about time” and then is asked how long she’s worked there, she embodies a Mindy Kaling-like delivery by saying, “This is my second day.”) The entire cast, including lead actress Witt and supporting actors Bebe Neuwirth and Shane McRae, have a familiarity that’s fun to watch and light-hearted when we need it most. Modern Persuasion is directed by Alex Appel and Jonathan Lisecki and written by Lisecki and Barbara Radecki.  It is now available to stream on most digital platforms.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Chadwick Boseman’s final performance is a central reason to watch this new Netflix period drama. The late actor died this summer after a longtime battle with colon cancer, but will be remembered for this role as well as iconic turns in Black Panther, 42 and Get On Up. In this latest work, Viola Davis stars as the trailblazing titular blues singer at a recording studio in the late 1920s. Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, the already-nominated movie is available now on Netflix. (Photo: David Lee/NETFLIX)

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NYWIFT Muse Awards Feature Diverse Slate of Honorees

The 41st Annual New York Women In Film & Television Muse Awards were held virtually Dec. 17, featuring a diverse slate of honorees, including trailblazing directors, groundbreaking news reporters and notable actors. The women were selected as “muses” because of the inspiration they have provided in their various fields.

“Our honorees for the 41st Annual NYWIFT Muse Awards showcase numerous and astounding talents in various roles across many mediums of the entertainment industry,” NYWIFT Executive Director Cynthia Lopez said. “We are delighted to celebrate and recognize their revolutionary and influential accomplishments, and pay tribute to those who use their platform to advocate for a more inclusive, safe and equitable world.” 

Typically held in-person in Manhattan, the event was started more than 40 years ago “to celebrate women back when women were not being recognized in the way they deserved,” Lopez said.

This year’s honorees included Emmy winner Rachel Brosnahan, Tony winner Ali Stroker and Grammy winner Rashida Jones. All three actors were recognized not only for their diverse portfolios, but their work to open doors for women creators, homeless youth and people with disabilities. These women supported NYWIFT’s theme for the 2020 ceremony, “Art & Advocacy,” recognizing the role of the creative community in advancing positive social change. 

Other muses included President Of Orion Pictures Alana Mayo and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual violence story and co-authored the best-selling book “She Said.”

Honoree Awkwafina discussed her upbringing in Queens and the importance of New York City to her art and life. “New York is a part of my history…it’s in every fiber of my being,” she said. “I grew up in a city where there were constantly things happening. There was art all around you being thrust upon you. There was always something. So to have, years later, been given the honor of shooting my show in the city where I’m from was beyond believable.”

A trailblazer for women in film and creators of color, Gina Prince-Bythewood won the Nancy Malone Award recognizing women directors who provide opportunities for others. The “Love & Basketball” and “The Old Guard” director spoke to the importance of on-screen representation. “My entire career has been just being in a sustained fight to center Black women in our stories in an authentic and truthful way,” Prince-Bythewood said. “And this is the first time that it hasn’t been a fight.”

“I hope, in a way, ‘women in film’ doesn’t have to exist, eventually. That we just get to be ‘people in film.’ But it’s going to be a long time before that happens,” Jones said. “But I hope that we find power with each other and for each other and we really do have a sense of community and greater good.”

Each speaker mentioned the importance of art in a trying year, when we need to be inspired more than ever. “The creative process right now, like so many other things, is one day at a time. One hour at a time, some days,” Brosnahan said. “It’s also been an important reminder to do what you can, how you can, with what you can. And to try to remember that that’s enough.”

“The women we honor today are making a difference with their creativity and wit, and they provide hope for our future,” Lopez said at the end of the ceremony. “Thank you for leading the way during this period of darkness and uncertainty.”

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Quirky ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ Dares to Get Real About Love, Loneliness

Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan star as Irish neighbors in “Wild Mountain Thyme,” from prolific writer-director John Patrick Shanley. Most known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Moonstruck,” the iconic New York playwright adapted the new film from his 2014 stage play “Outside Mullingar.” Despite some baffling plot points that can be chalked up to symbolic significance, this oddball dramedy is worth watching for its scenic backdrop, compelling lead actors and daringly unique dialogue that actually says something about life, love and loneliness.

Rosemary Muldoon (Blunt) has long harbored feelings for the boy – now man – who lives on the neighboring farm, introverted Anthony Reilly (Dornan). When it appears that Anthony’s father, played with signature strangeness by a brogue-bearing Christopher Walken, does not plan to leave the land to Anthony in his will unless he marries, Anthony has to make a choice – act on his long friendship and feelings for Rosemary, or let them both continue to suffer lonely, monotonous lives on neighboring farms. 

“Rosemary and Anthony…Romeo’s not able to climb the balcony and Juliet won’t come down. They’re in the second half of their 30s, and what’s going to happen?” Shanley said. “I couldn’t let these characters go. So when the opportunity came to go at it again as a film, and then to be able to actually go to Ireland and shoot in that unbelievably beautiful country, among the wonderful and eccentric people who live there — that was thrilling to me.”

Filmed last fall in County Mayo, “Wild Mountain Thyme” is incredibly picturesque and will make viewers long for the “green fields” that make Anthony stick around despite dreams of leaving. 

With the beautiful countryside captured by cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt and a stunning score courtesy of Amelia Warner in her third turn as composer, Shanley’s film adaptation is an eccentric story about the difference between fate and choices, destiny and action. But it’s ultimately a love story about two people who must act in order to realize a better future – a story of acceptance and loving “all” of someone. It’s incredibly rare to see two people onscreen who are hesitant to act on their feelings for each other, especially after a life-long kinship, with shared experiences of loss and feeling misunderstood. It’s a non-traditional narrative to say the least, but what real love story is traditional?

Jon Hamm co-stars as a money-mongering American nephew who could inherit the family’s land if Anthony doesn’t act fast. As always, he is an actor who effortlessly embodies exactly what he is supposed to: in this case, the American obsession with numbers, possessions and things. His Irish counterparts have refreshingly different priorities that exude a calm confidence – if not always satisfaction with their lives. Anthony puts it best: they do “what they must,” and America could sure use some of that perspective these days – but it’s actually the very thing that keeps his character from Rosemary, his inability to go for what he wants.

Emily Blunt stars as Rosemary in John Patrik Shanley’s WILD MOUNTAIN THYME, a Bleecker Street release.
Credit: Kerry Brown / Bleecker Street

What Anthony sees as dreary and dark, Rosemary sees as sunny and possible – at least at first. With hints of Irish wisdom and beautiful musical moments including the moving song that inspired the film title, “Wild Mountain Thyme” allows us to travel to a peaceful far-away farm with funny, unique inhabitants. But it’s the dialogue, so clearly meant for the sounds of a stage, that allow Shanley to examine how two people who live so close and have known each other for so long can view their lives so differently.  

The densely-packed rhythm of the words could only be penned by an award-winning playwright, even when the plot doesn’t translate fluently to the screen. The exchange of wit and words between Blunt and Dornan and the frustration of their long-anticipated union is palpable and interesting. 

“Reading it was a completely singular experience, like one beautiful poem on love and loneliness,” Blunt said of the story. “I instantaneously wanted to do it.”

“It has a mystical, magical quality to it that is truly its own thing in the best possible way,” Dornan said. “He has a knack for bringing out the oddities in people that make them their brilliant selves. The script has a quirky sense of reality and snappy, unbelievable dialogue. The sense of loss, the heart, the humor — so much humor — all feel totally authentically Irish.”

At the very least, the film is timely because it is about two lonely people contemplating their futures. A release at likely the loneliest collective time in modern history is only fitting, and the idea of finding someone who was there all along is comforting – and at times, wildly entertaining. 

Jamie Dornan (L) stars as Anthony and Emily Blunt (R) stars as Rosemary in John Patrick
Shanley’s WILD MOUNTAIN THYME, a Bleecker Street release
Credit: Kerry Brown / 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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‘The Test & The Art Of Thinking’ Examines History of Standardized Testing

ap·ti·tude/ˈaptəˌt(y)o͞od/: a natural ability to do something; suitability or fitness.

From filmmaker Michael Arlen Davis, “The Test & The Art of Thinking” questions the age-old practice of gauging student success and college admission through standardized testing.

Long considered antiquated by educators, students and administrators, the SAT is pulled apart in this documentary that will either comfort or frustrate students and parents, depending on how they view their test-taking ability. The documentary tackles why and how a single test is supposed to determine a student’s knowledge, intelligence, worth and future.

Of course, no test could do all that. But Davis makes the case that the SAT certainly doesn’t. “The Test & The Art of Thinking” leans heavily on the well-supported argument that it’s more a test of pattern, strategy and aptitude than one of knowledge and intelligence. Davis attempts to reprogram our preconceived notions about what makes a student “smart.”

“The SAT is not a test of what you know, it’s a test of how you think,” a student says one point in the film. Using testimonials and footage of real tutoring sessions, Davis breaks down how the SAT is a test of aptitude rather than knowledge, dating back to its 1920s origins. (Though it was initially designed to open education to everyone, it has actually narrowed access through the years, with some high-caliber institutions blindly accepting only students with high scores.)

Tutors weigh different strategies and approaches to help students boost a number that they – and their parents – believe determines their future, whether or not it has anything to do with the curriculum they’re learning in school. The effects of the timed test, the trickiness of the questions and the skew of the results are all discussed in detail from every corner of the education community. 

Thankfully the film is not a mere take-down: it provides examples of actions that have been taken to dismantle the old ways. Some colleges have even opted to make submitting test scores “optional” for applicants. It has become increasingly common as the COVID-19 pandemic forces students to stay home and learn on their laptops, away from the classroom and in-person testing.

If this pandemic and election have proven anything, it’s that this country needs vast education reform for its citizens to better understand the society in which they live, from science to government to ethics. Davis’ film examines the higher ed system as a whole, ultimately showing that “intellect” is subjective – and often difficult to measure. This informative documentary, just like a student’s life, is about far more than a test. 

Many attitudes about school and study are examined in “The Test & The Art of Thinking,” ranging from outrage to acceptance. But there’s one thing no student, tutor, teacher or administrator is about the SAT, and the importance of learning: apathetic. 

The film will have a TVOD release on iTunes, Amazon and GATHR Nov. 17. A Watch @ Home Cinema release from Abramorama is set for Nov. 20. Photos courtesy of Canobie Films.

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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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‘Dreamland’ released at right time, elevated by Margot Robbie and Finn Cole

Since Margot Robbie and Finn Cole were cast as leads in Dreamland, there’s been a global pandemic, two Oscar nominations and a trip back to post-war Birmingham. But at long last, this coming-of-age Dust Bowl drama from writer Nicolaas Zwart and director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte is brought to the big and small screen – at a time when people need new, escapism content the most.  And escapism is exactly where this Depression-era story starts. 

On the brink of adulthood, 17-year-old Eugene Evans dreams of a life outside the one he’s in – a tension-filled existence with his mother, half-sister and unkind stepfather. If only he had enough money and wherewithal to find his real father, the man that abandoned him long ago for the gulf shores of Mexico. Surprisingly, he finds the answers he’s looking for when he discovers a bloody, beautiful woman hiding in the family barn. With a $10,000 bounty on her, Allison Wells (Robbie) pleads her case to Eugene, tearfully explaining that she’s not a killer. Lucky for her, he listens.

Margot Robbie stars in DREAMLAND

The story unfolds in traditional, noir-like fashion with romance and violence and slow revelations. It’s comforting, almost, to watch a film that you can picture in black and white from the distinct era that was the golden age of cinema. Both actors fit that time, too, physically and in spirit. Though you could never tell from their convincing accents, neither actor is American, yet they easily slip into their all-American roles. Margot Robbie is an actress of her generation, her empathy evident in every role she takes, and while her chemistry with an equally-engaging Finn Cole doesn’t feel quite romantic (and maybe that was intentional) they’re a joy to watch on screen.

However predictable or unpredictable one might view the plot, it’s second to how Dreamland looks and feels. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent creates a work of art, from the way the sunlight touches the characters at just the right moment to the wide shots that capture the vastness of the plains. While I imagine every filmmaker is challenged by this pandemic, knowing the release of their film wouldn’t be “normal,” I think it works in their favor here. Watching this movie will feel a true change of scenery from people’s living rooms, not only in geography but in time. They’ll be reminded that each generation had an overall struggle, whether it’s the Dust Bowl or the Depression or war, nature or sickness and every person that has ever existed has their own dreamland.

In select theaters on November 13 and available on Premium Video-On-Demand and Digital November 17.

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