TULLY (2018) – Odd Telling of Motherhood Tale A Showcase for Charlize Theron

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Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron in TULLY (2018).

TULLY (2018) is an odd movie.

Sometimes I like the odd ones. Other times I don’t.  This one teetered right on the fulcrum for the most part, leaning ever so slightly towards the side of it-didn’t-really-work-for-me.

TULLY is a tale of motherhood, but that’s not what makes this one peculiar. The stress and toils of what it’s like to raise a newborn with two very active older children already in the house, and with an inattentive husband, that part the film gets right.  It’s the extension of that part, which leads to the arrival of the titular character, where the film struggles.

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to have a baby, and as one of the characters points out, she looks like she’s going to pop. She and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) already have two children, an eight year-old girl Sarah (Lia Frankland) and a five year-old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). Jonah has emotional issues, and while Marlo has taken him to see doctors, they haven’t received a proper diagnosis of his condition. Jonah is prone to fits of panic, crying, and he fixates on routine, which all certainly sounds like a branch of autism, but the disorder is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Jonah is referred to as “quirky.”

Marlo is already under tremendous stress, mostly because all the parent duties fall on her. Drew works long hours, and when he comes home, they have dinner, and then he retreats to the bedroom where he plays video games. She has no idea how she is going to handle the additional burden of caring for a newborn.

Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) suggests she hire a night nanny, someone who comes in at night and takes care of the baby so the mother can enjoy a full night’s sleep, or at least a better night’s sleep. The night nanny still wakes the mother up to breast feed, but that’s it. The mother is free to go right back to sleep afterwards. Craig even goes so far as to offer to pay for the night nanny as a birthday gift for Marlo, but she hesitates, not feeling comfortable inviting a stranger into her home to care for her baby while she’s sleeping.

But after a few rough weeks, Marlo changes her mind. Soon after, showing up at the front door one night like a magical Mary Poppins, is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), their new night nanny.  Tully explains that she’s also there to take care of Marlo as well as the baby. In fact, she says she can help out with everything around the house.

If this sounds like the set-up for a bad horror movie, you’re right. It does, but TULLY is not a horror movie. It’s a comedy-drama, with the emphasis on drama. At one point, Marlo and Drew even joke that the situation does sound like a horror movie, but they laugh it off.

Tully is a quirky character herself, always positive, almost seeming like an angel to Marlo. She is certainly there to help, and the way she helps and her relationship with Marlo is pretty much the story TULLY has to tell.

First off, the most amazing thing about TULLY is that Charlize Theron gained 50 pounds for this role! Talk about dedication! Marlo’s body is supposed to be in rough shape after the pregnancy, as she struggles to lose the additional weight, and Theron with the extra pounds she put on looks the part.

The extra weight also represents the heavy emotional burden Marlo faces each day, as you can just see her struggling to stay afloat in her life. It’s a very good performance by Theron, certainly more satisfying than her traditional turn as the killer agent in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). That being said, I enjoyed her performance in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) better than her work here.

So, if you’re a fan of Charlize Theron, you definitely want to see this movie. It’s a chance to see her really act.

But the story I had some issues with.  TULLY is by the same team that made JUNO (2007), with Jason Reitman directing and Diablo Cody writing the screenplay. Tully is definitely an odd character, one who at times seems too good to be true, a la Mary Poppins, and since this isn’t a fantasy tale, obviously something has to give, and what that something is to be honest I saw coming very early on.

For starters, the film offers some clues. For example, Marlo has a recurring dream about a mermaid swimming in the water, and since mermaids are not real, the imagery is there for the audience to see clearly a character— the mermaid— who is not real.

Also, if you’ve seen a certain famous movie by M. Night Shyamalan, you won’t be fooled here. It’s obvious early on by the way certain scenes are set up that something isn’t quite right.

The other issue I had with the screenplay by Diablo Cody is the way it handles the young Jonah character.  The boy is certainly on the spectrum for autism or asperger syndrome, and yet no one in the movie acknowledges this. Even the administration and teachers at the school seem to be oblivious, only referring to Jonah as “quirky.” In this day and age, that didn’t seem realistic to me, nor was it credible that Marlo and Drew would have taken their son to multiple doctors without receiving a proper diagnosis.

It also didn’t help that Tully was supposed to be this savior character, but yet I found her persona grating and annoying.

Mackenzie Davis is fine as Tully, although admittedly I never warmed to the character. We recently saw Davis in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and I liked her better in that science fiction movie.

This isn’t the first time Ron Livingston has played an ineffective dad.  He got to perform the same honors in the scary horror flick THE CONJURING (2013) a few years back.  Here, as Drew, the video game playing father, Livingston is very good.  What he does best is make Drew more clueless than careless.  He does love his family and his wife, but it simply takes him an entire movie to realize he needs to get off his butt more to help out.

Which also brings me to another issue I had with this one, the ending.  It ends on a happy note, which one would expect from a movie marketed as a comedy/drama, but I’m not sure I bought all of it.  For instance, Drew supposedly sees the light at the end of the movie and realizes, “You know, I should be helping out more, shouldn’t I?” Duh! Through Livingston’s performance, I understood that Drew was a decent guy, but the script never sold me on the moment when he awakes from his self-absorbed stupor.

And as I said, the big twist in this one, I didn’t think was much of a twist because I saw it coming very early in the proceedings.

The movie wasn’t hyped all that much, and it showed, as I saw it with a small audience. There were only about ten of us in the theater.

TULLY is an odd one. It works best when it shows the incredible stress Marlo feels raising three children, including a developmentally challenged five year-old boy, and a newborn baby. It stumbles when it enters its metaphorical realm, with the entrance of the titular character Tully, the night nanny with all the answers.

There is certainly more to Tully than meets the eye, but sharp observers can figure out what that something is before it’s revealed. And once it is revealed, it begs the question, what’s the point? Is it all just one big wake-up call for Marlo and Drew? That seems to be the case.

I wish they had experienced this enlightenment earlier in the movie. The two of them working together trying to handle their challenging family situation sounds like a story I might like to see.

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A QUIET PLACE (2018) – Smart Horror Movie Riveting and Scary

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Talk about quiet horror!

Shh! No yelling! This is A QUIET PLACE.

A QUIET PLACE is a new horror movie by director John Krasinski, known mostly for his recurring role as Jim Halpert on the comedic TV show THE OFFICE (2005-2013) starring Steve Carell. Krasinski both directs and stars here, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt.

A QUIET PLACE is a simple thriller that nonetheless works well.  Its tagline, “If they hear you, they hunt you,” sums up the film perfectly.

It’s yet another horror movie about an apocalypse, as this time it’s strange violent creatures that roam the countryside preying on human beings. They’re unstoppable and they’re hungry.  They’re also blind. To make up for their lack of sight, they possess incredible hearing, and thus that’s how they hunt. It’s exactly as the film’s tagline says, if they hear you they hunt you.  So, to survive, you have to be awfully quiet.

It’s kind of a silly premise, when you think about it, that these creatures would have made it this far without being stopped, but that being said, there’s nothing silly about the rest of A QUIET PLACE. It’s a solid thriller throughout.

A QUIET PLACE basically follows one family trying to survive among these creatures. They live in silence in their farmhouse.  There’s the father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who happens to be deaf, and younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe). They live in mortal fear of the creatures, having lost their youngest son to one of them in the film’s pre-credit sequence.

They’re also quite resourceful, devising a system to communicate with lights and creating an undergound sound proof room. But with three of these creatures living in the vicinity of their farm, they need to be.  And, oh yeah.  Evelyn is pregnant and is about to give birth. So much for a quiet place!

A QUIET PLACE possessed the same tone as another recent apocalyptic horror movie, IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a movie I liked a lot. The big difference between the two is the threat was never defined in IT COMES AT NIGHT while here in A QUIET PLACE the threat is made known at the outset.

The creatures here reminded me of things found in the CLOVERFIELD universe. In fact, for a time, Paramount considered making this movie a part of the CLOVERFIELD franchise, which would have made perfect sense. The chilling scenes in the cornfields were also reminiscent of similar scenes in M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (2002).  That being said, A QUIET PLACE isn’t derivative of these films. It stands on its own.

A QUIET PLACE starts off— well, quiet, and after a jarring pre-credit scene moves slowly for a bit before really picking up steam during its second act.  There are some really suspenseful scenes in this one. The centerpiece and the most intense scene by far is the entire birthing sequence when Emily Blunt’s Evelyn is trying to give birth while there’s a creature pursuing her.  Scary stuff!  And I loved every minute of it!

As I said, early on, things are really quiet, as the characters need to be silent, and with a minimum of dialogue, very little happening on the soundtrack, it made for a very different kind of viewing for a while. All the folks in the audience munching on popcorn seemed to stop and the theater got really silent.  Some of the younger audience members, teenagers, couldn’t contain themselves and felt the urge to shout out comments every once in a while, but once things heated up in the second half, they fell frighteningly silent.

I really enjoyed A QUIET PLACE.  The acting was superb.  John Krasinski is solid as Lee Abbott, the caring dad who will stop at nothing to protect his family.

I thought Emily Blunt gave the best performance in the film as mom Evelyn Abbott. Like the rest of the family, she’s haunted by the death of their youngest son.

Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life, is excellent as Regan, the daughter who has issues with her father, since she believes he blames her for her little brother’s death. And Noah Jupe, who we saw in last year’s WONDER (2017) as Auggie’s friend Jack Will, makes for a very frightened Marcus Abbott.

A QUIET PLACE has a smart screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski. Its story is frightening throughout, and its characters likable and believable. It’s not perfect. I thought it was slow-going at first, and its resolution, the steps taken by the Abbotts to combat the creatures, made me scratch my head in disbelief that no one else had thought of this before.

John Krasinski does a terrific job directing as well. The early scenes, though slow-paced, take full advantage of sound, or lack thereof.  With a nearly silent soundtrack during its first half, all sounds are magnified and used to full effect.  And once the film takes off during its second half, the suspense is pretty much nonstop and a heck of a lot of fun.

A QUIET PLACE is a high quality horror movie, the kind of film like last year’s GET OUT (2017) that helps raise the bar for the horror genre.

It’s my favorite horror movie of the year so far.

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SPLIT (2017) – Entertaining Thriller Not Frightening Enough

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SPLIT (2017), the new thriller by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, about a man with multiple personalities who abducts and imprisons three teenage girls, is an attempt to expand on the PSYCHO format.  Rather than a psychopath ruled by two personalities, let’s give audiences one who’s ruled by 24 of them.  Does it all work?  Up to a point.

Yup, I’m— split— on SPLIT. (heh heh.)

This one gets down to business right away.  The film opens with the three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) about to be driven home from a party by Claire’s dad, but they don’t get that far.  That’s because a man (James McAvoy) overpowers the dad and enters the car where he proceeds to knock out the girls with some sort of gas.

When the girls awake, they find themselves in what appears to be an underground bunker. They are being held prisoner by a man who refers to himself as Dennis.  Later, they hear a woman’s voice outside the door, and the girls call to her for help.  When the woman enters, the girls are shocked to see that it is Dennis dressed in woman’s clothing, although he’s no longer Dennis but Patricia.

The girls quickly realize that they are dealing with someone with multiple personalities.

We learn more about Dennis—whose real name is Kevin— and his other personalities as he visits his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).  Meanwhile, the girls try to find a way to escape, and they see as their best chance to take advantage of Hedwig, the 9 year-old personality inside Kevin’s body.  But they need to escape quickly, because Hedwig constantly speaks of “the Beast” who he says is on his way and will do terrible things to the girls.

M. Night Shyamalan, the man who brought us THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), UNBREAKABLE (2000), and SIGNS (2002), but then went on a prolonged slump which lasted more than a decade, bounced back last year with the very good thriller THE VISIT (2015).  SPLIT, while not bad, is a step back from THE VISIT.

While I liked the story in SPLIT, I didn’t find it all that suspenseful.  And rather than growing more tense as it went along it became tedious.

Part of the problem is the film’s trailer gave away way too much about this movie’s plot.  There were a lot of things that happened in this movie— Patricia’s first appearance, for instance— that I would have felt different about had I not known about them already.  This is also a case where the trailer is actually better than the movie.

But the lack of suspense isn’t just the fault of the trailer.  Shyamalan deserves some of the blame.  While the premise is certainly interesting, and McAvoy’s performance as all those multiple personalities is exceptional, not a lot happens in this movie.  I didn’t feel the suspense at all, and neither did the audience.  I saw it in a pretty packed theater, and I don’t think there was one gasp or scream to be heard.

The other thing about SPLIT that impeded the suspense is Dennis and friends keep talking about “the Beast” who is coming to harm the girls, and really, there isn’t a whole lot of build-up to this beast.  This should have been terribly frightening, but it’s not.  Worse, not only isn’t there build-up, but once the Beast does show up he’s about as scary as some of McAvoy’s X-MEN mutant friends.

That being said, the acting here is very good.  Hands down my favorite part of SPLIT is James McAvoy’s performance.  He is amazing here, although once again unfortunately we see nearly every personality he plays given away in the film’s trailer, which hurts more than helps.

I also enjoyed Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, although she gave a stronger performance in last year’s  THE WITCH (2016).  Of course, her role in THE WITCH was a more challenging one, but she’s still very good here in SPLIT.

And while I did like Taylor-Joy as Casey, I wanted to know more about the character.  I think the film would have been stronger had more time been spent on Casey.  We learn about her past in the flashbacks to when she was a little girl, but I wanted to know more about her in the here and now.  She’s a very interesting character, and she and Kevin both share a troubled childhood, a bond which could have been played up more.

Haley Lu Richardson is very good as Claire as well, although she gave an even better performance in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016).  I actually thought that Claire made the most sense of the three girls.  When they talked about what they needed to do to survive, it was Claire who talked about fighting back and hitting Kevin hard to escape, while Casey said that didn’t make sense and that they needed to hang back and think their way out of this.  I thought Claire had the right idea, although in this story it’s Casey who has more success.

Betty Buckley is also very good as Dr. Karen Fletcher.

Shyamalan’s screenplay was okay.  I liked the premise, but ts execution not so much. It had plenty of opportunities to become a suspenseful movie, but it didn’t.  The film also seemed to lack a sense of urgency.  It just sort of meanders along telling its story.

Actually, the most frightening part of the story are the flashbacks showing Casey’s past, and the most disturbing scene is the revelation at the end of the movie about Casey’s present life.  I found that far more disturbing than any of the traditional horror stuff involving  Kevin and his multiple personalities.

My favorite part of the screenplay is summed up in a line which the Beast utters to Casey near the end, when he sees the scars on her body and says something to the effect that it’s the broken who are blessed, which brings tears to her eyes.  It’s a theme that runs through the movie, often voiced by Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher that what we see as weaknesses or disabilities in people like Kevin, may actually be strengths and things that make them superior.

I liked this part of the screenplay.  I liked McAvoy’s performance.  But I never felt frightened by the main premise of this movie:  the three girls being held prisoner by a madman.  Those scenes I just didn’t find that intense, and so in spite of the things I liked about this one, it didn’t possess enough of an edge for me to really love it.

There is a surprise cameo at the end by a major star, but seriously, this “twist” did little for me.

Long story short, I liked SPLIT, but I thought I would like it more.  Not once during this movie did I feel like I was on the edge of my seat, and this is in spite of a fairly interesting story and an amazing performance by James McAvoy.

SPLIT is a decent movie, but it’s simply not edgy enough to succeed as a hard-hitting thriller.

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