“Tully” film review

A no holds barred, unapologetic story of the realities of motherhood. Focus Features’ Tully starring Charlize Theron is a brilliant film that shies not away from what being a mom is truly about during postpartum depression, a subject seldom touched on in film or TV. Directed and written by Juno’s Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody respectively, this film represents the best work of Reitman and Cody since the groundbreaking Juno which was followed up by the outstanding Young Adult, and showcases just how incredibly diverse an actor Theron is. See her in a role unlike her typical roles as she so incredibly authentically brings to life a middle-class working mother who is faced with many obstacles as she rears her three kids, one of which is a newborn. As a male, I cannot begin to fathom just how difficult it is to be a mother (or by extension, a single father); but after watching this film, I have a whole new respect for the many hats that a mom has to wear in order to manage a household. Some might even say that this film is so incredibly effective at laying out the hardships of being a mom, that it may work better than more conventional birth control. However, the film is not only about the trials of motherhood, but it also spends time on the joys. Tully is what I characterize as a dark comedy that has some truly terrifying moments.

Already the working mother of two kids, one of which displays signs of a developmental disorder, Marlo (Charlize Theron) is not pregnant with baby number three, in what her brother identifies as an “unplanned pregnancy.” Marlo’s wealthy brother desires to help his sister by gifting her a night nanny in order to help Marlo through the rough transition of a newborn in an already chaotic house. Marlo’s husband is hardworking, makes lunches, and assists his oldest daughter with her homework, but fails to understand that Marlo needs to be taken care of as well. In order to not go completely insane during postpartum depression, Marlo reluctantly decides that she could use the night nanny that her brother offered to pay for. Hesitant to the extravagance of having a nanny at first, Marlo forms an unexpected bond with the unconventional, challenging hipster Mary Poppins named Tully.

No pretense about this story of motherhood. Cody’s brilliant penchant for self-deprecation, dry humor, and stark naked emotion is witnessed once again in Tully. I cannot think of a present screenwriter that could have created such a compelling story. Unlike her timeless modern classic Juno, Cody shies away from the comedy you may be accustomed to seeing from her, and focus on the darker side of being a mother. And it works superbly. I laughed, cringed, and cheered during the film, and so did many of the others in the audience. There is an authenticity in this story that is seldom seen in other melodramas. Possessing a raw, gritty narrative, Tully will have you empathizing quickly with the struggles Marlo continues to face throughout the film. There is so much that is praiseworthy in this story; but unfortunately the sharp, precision that supports the first two acts becomes a little dull during the realization (or resolution) on the third act–the same chutzpah that was in the DNA of the majority of the movie is not as apparent at the end. What Tully lacks is a well-defined external goal. The weak end game is uncharacteristic of Cody, as both Juno and Young Adult had solid realizations. As I tell my screenwriting students, dealing with life is not a goal (it’s incidental). Still, everything else about this film is effectively compelling.

Theron displays a genuine, uncompromising commitment to character in this motion picture. Aside from the fact she literally put on 50lbs for the role (that’s right, no fat suit), she provides audiences with a fearless portrayal that is both vulnerable and fiery. Coupled with waves of mania, anger, and complete exhaustion, Theron delivers a razor-sharp performance that will leave you breathless and bleeding from the unbridled intensity and emotional rawness. In this slice of life story, there was certainly the room to demonize Marlo’s husband, the sister-in-law, the former roommate, and school principal, but Cody includes these individuals that many moms actually have in their lives but chooses to focus on the physiological and emotional struggle of Marlo as she recovers from her unplanned pregnancy. Of course, there is a brilliantly funny scene of Marlo confronting the pretentious private school principal. It’s the kind of encounter that many of us want to have with those who refuse to shoot straight and annoyingly avoid confrontation because they are so afraid to be candid, and it just comes off as a facade. Theron’s ability to completely sell a mother on the verge of a breakdown who’s constantly facing situations in which she asks herself how-the-hell-am-I-going-to-get-through-this is unparalleled. I cannot think of another movie that has a character quite like Marlo in Tully.

The film’s title character is a Mary Poppins of sorts that comes to the aid of Marlo when she is at her wits’ end. You may be wondering why the film is named after the night nanny instead of Marlo. For the same reason Mary Poppins is the name of the story that is really about Mr. Banks. Marlo may be the central character, but Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is so incredibly instrumental in supporting Marlo through this time. Furthermore, she opens her mind to new possibilities and the joys of being a mom, even when Marlo isn’t feeling it. Tully embodies that free spirit that many of us have or had in our 20s that somehow gets lost as we get older. Tully enables Marlo to channel her younger self in an effort to be emotionally healthier for her kids. Taking care of yourself first so you can be there for your kids, is one of Tully’s many messages to Marlo. There is a whimsy about Tully that is contagious, and will put smiles on the audience’s faces amidst the majority of the film’s darker moments.

You’ll encounter all the different kinds of people that an emotionally struggling mom has to deal with on a regular basis. From an out-of-touch snobby sister-in-law to a husband who just doesn’t get you, from a pretentious and absurdly conflict aversive school principal to a former roommate, the film provides commentary on how each of these kinds of relationships affect a mom who’s trying her best to keep sane and not murder everyone. The film even touches on how having a kid with a developmental disability is physiologically and psychologically draining, even though you love your kid unconditionally. It’s important to note that Marlo’s husband is shown to be an active participant in his family by way of, not only his financial support, but being there for his kids in the evening and helping to make lunches. However, he does withdraw to playing video games after the kids have gone to bed; but that’s because he is like many fathers that are unaware that their spouses need to be comforted, cared for, and shown appreciation during this rough transitional time. Hopefully, after watching this movie, fathers will have a better idea of what their spouse may be going through. One of the strongest themes one can write into a film is a commentary on what it means to be human–the human condition–but seldom has a film been so specific to comment on what it means to be a mother. In this respect, Tully is provocatively groundbreaking.

Such a perfect film for the upcoming Mothers Day weekend. Even if you are not a mom or (let’s not forget) single father, there is something to learn from this film because you may have a mom or single father in your circle of friends or family. Never before has a film stripped away all the magic of motherhood at the time when your kids are little. No frivolous, ostentatious gender reveal parties, gym moms-to-be, or ridiculously lavish baby showers for this mom. Why? Because those are events and experiences typically found on Pinterest, in the movies, or reserved for upperclass society that is hasn’t a clue what it’s like to be a struggling mother balancing her full-time career and being a full-time mom. Tully tells it like it is for so many, and why it is such an outstanding motion picture.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“A Monster Calls” movie review

monstercallsA breathtakingly beautiful and dynamic film that typifies the art of visual storytelling in the gothic style. Focus Features’ A Monster Calls directed by J.A. Bayona is nothing short of a Terms of Endearment, in theme anyway, for a new generation. You are certain to laugh and cry your way through the film. Based upon the novel by the same name, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay and conceptualized Siobhan Dowd, Bayona’s adaptation of the novel plays out to be a deep, rich story that will touch the hearts and minds of each and everyone in the audience. For anyone going through the stages of grief, this film will especially ring true and perhaps bring about comfort. Although the protagonist Connor, played by Lewis MacDougal, is twelve years old, this dark melodrama with a plot revolving around terminal illness is not typically something that will appeal to kids of Connor’s age. Despite the fantasy elements and the young protagonist, A Monster Calls is more suited for older teens and adults; however, by the same token, the movie isn’t entirely going to initially appeal to adults since the protagonist is quite young. I screened the movie last night in an auditorium filled with patrons of all ages and there was not one dry eye in the audience. Looking at the film from the outside and analyzing the plot and cast, it would appear that it may not attract droves of people because of the gothic fantasy nature, typically aimed at kids and young teens, with content and theming best suited for older audiences; however, the film truly transcends age barriers and stereotypes to touch those who are young or young at heart.

While most twelve year old boys are busy with school and learning to develop socially or even romantically, or just simply playing video games and having Stephen King type adventures, Connor (MacDougal) is dealing with far more than a kid should every have to deal with. Connor’s mother (Felicity Jones) is very ill and Connor is forced to grow in many ways kids should not quite quickly to take care of her. Not entirely going through this terminal illness alone, Connor has a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who looks in on him and his mother–a grandmother with whom he shares little in common. With Connor’s father settling down in Los Angeles, Connor feels very much alone while dealing with his mother’s illness. Expressing his emotions and thoughts through water color and sketch artwork, Connor uses his penchant for beautiful art as a form of therapy. Just when all seems lost, an unexpected ally in the form of a rather gothic tree-like monster (Liam Neeson) appears in his window one night. Apprehensive at first, Connor befriends the monster who guides him on a journey of courage, truth, and faith that combine in a powerful fusion of imagination and reality.

This is certainly a year for fantastic monsters and fantasy, isn’t it? However, A Monster Calls is definitely not your typical fantasy. It deals with deep emotions, dark themes, and material usually better suited for adults. Why then choose such a young protagonist? Perhaps the author Patrick Ness wanted to reach those kids who are going through tough times and who are dealing with situation that most kids won’t face until they are much older. Some kids are just forced to grow up more quickly than others. It’s important that cinema and literature not forget them because words on pages or moving pictures may be the only source of comfort, escape, or allegory. Director J.A. Bayona appears to have successfully translated the novel to screen–from what I know. Interesting that the movie opens with the narrator describing Connor as being too old to be a kid but to young to be an adult. By extension, that is precisely where this movie fits in. It’s too “old” to be a kid’s movie but too “young” to be an adult movie. And that’s okay. Growing up is hard, and when faced with a family member or close friend with a terminal illness, life is exponentially more difficult emotionally and even psychically. Unconventional as it may seem, this film is powerful and transcends the age spectrum to provide a strong emotional journey that audiences can appreciate and from which people may receive comfort. If for no other reason, having a kid starring in a melodrama brings audiences of all ages together–many who may be going through something similar as the child, parent, spouse, or lover of someone who is terminally ill. It’s okay to grieve and let go.

From the opening credits alone, I was confident that this was going to be a visually stunning movie. The water color animation and brushstrokes are reminiscent of the story of the three brothers in Harry Potter. Absolutely beautiful. Much in the same way Kubo and the Two Strings was an innovative animated film, A Monster Calls also contains unconventional and innovative methods of telling its story. Similar to how the animated story of the three brothers in Harry Potter was integrated into the diegesis of a live action movie, so it is with this film. The more I thought about the technical and emotional elements of A Monster Calls, it is clear that it’s truly a dynamic means of cinematic art. Dynamic in that there are three different types of storytelling methods used diegetically each highlighting a different form of art: (1) motion pictures (2) visual art (3) oral storytelling. It’s been said that the novel is an extension of oral storytelling, the play an extension of the novel, and motion pictures an extension of the play. At the root of all those methods of communicating through art is the very concept of storytelling. And A Monster Calls has the art of storytelling in spades. There are so many levels to the diegesis in this film; much like an onion or matryoshka doll, this film has a message of how to deal with grief at its core but there are many different routes to get to that central theme. Each layer teaches Connor and the audience something different and valuable. The cinematic storytelling elements of direction, cinematography, editing, and score are all equally beautiful.

Structurally, A Monster Calls is an intimate story reinforced and surrounded by artistic German expressionism calling attention to its own artifice. From the exterior shots to interior rooms, the various sets appear to be meticulously constructed on a stage and the wardrobe much like perfect costumes. The art tells the story effectively with little exposition required. Fernando Velazquez’ score is so incredibly moving that you may find yourself listening to the score as it too truly assist in the overarching means of telling this story. The design of the monster is brilliant and ominous all at the same time. Almost animatronic in nature, the tree plays out like there is a puppeteer on the inside articulating the movements. The monster feels just as much like an actor as the actors playing the human characters. Liam Neeson was a perfect choice to cast as the tree’s voice. His deep bass is comforting, warm, and wise-sounding. But just who is the tree (in the story)? Although we are never told whose spirit inhabits the tree that has seen thousands of years go by, there are a couple of hints as to who it might be if you pay close enough attention to subtleties in the film. At the end of the day, whether it’s the spirit of someone or the personified life of the tree itself, it is of little consequence to the movie. Still, its definitely fun and interesting to talk about as my friend and I did after the film.

If you enjoy movies such as The Iron GiantThe Giving Tree, or Terms of Endearment, then you will immensely enjoy this film. Presently in advanced screenings and limited releases, you may need to wait a few weeks before it is at a theatre near you. Although slated for a January wide-release, it may make its way through many markets before then. Originally set for an October release, it makes since to have held it until Oscar season since this is one of those films that could grab the attention of the academy. Definitely bring your tissues.

“Beaches” Throwback Thursday Movie Review

BeachesThe ebb and flow of a lifelong oil and water unchecked friendship. Touchstone Pictures’ Beaches is the timeless modern classic that is the bittersweet story of the friendship between the most unlikely of friends. Much like Universal Pictures’ Fried Green TomatoesBeaches tells two stories: the present day one concurrent with dozens of flashbacks that show the evolution of the friendship between Broadway actress turned pop-star C.C. Bloom (Bette Midler) and wealthy old money Californian Hillary Whitney (Barbara Hershey). Unlike the former, the latter does not play the flashback card as artistically and cinematically as well. Despite the fact that I, along with hundreds of thousands of fans, adore this film immensely, as a film critic, I cannot ignore the blatant misuse and misplacement of the flashback. However, this movie is special in that it can make even those of us who have seen it dozens of times cry every time. I think this is because that the friendship, that is displayed through the narrative, is one that many of us wish we had. Interestingly, this quintessential late 1980s movie is closely aligned with the plots of 1940s friendship sagas complete with feuds, tearful reunions, and fatal illnesses.

Beaches takes us on a journey from the Boardwalk of Atlantic City to the rocky shoreline and beaches of the San Francisco area. Follow unlikely friends Hillary Whitney (Hershey) and C.C. Bloom (Midler) through the mountains and valleys in their lifelong cross-country relationship. Hillary is a girl of impeccable breeding from a wealthy San Francisco family and C.C., an aspiring Broadway child star from the Bronx. After a chance meeting under the Boardwalk, Hillary and C.C. quickly form a lasting friendship built over the course of hundreds of letters back and forth over the years. With both women being strong-willed and stubborn, it is of no surprise that their friendship is one of jealously, competition, and resentment–however–they are always there for each other. As adults, they spend time traveling from coast to coast and despite the valleys, they always return to the mountain peak.

Due to the very lifelong-friendship movie cliches in the narrative, the audience is usually way ahead of the characters on the screen. Despite this utterly predictable plot, the audience is sucked in at the same time because of the personalities of the characters and the magic that both Midler and Hershey bring to their respective roles. The movie is pretty well straight forward and seldom deviates from what is typically expected of melodramas. It is up to Midler and Hershey to hold the attention of the audience, much like actors on a stage, because the writing and directing is very par for the course. I would venture to say that if the two lead actresses were replaced by any two other performers, that the movie would most likely not have the high place amongst modern American dramas that it does in the library of American cinema.

The Divine Miss. M’s musical talent is definitely showcased quite well in the movie, and is one reason the movie has stood the test of time that it has. For the last nearly three decades, scores of best friends have cried together while painting each other’s toe nails and drank lots of wine while watching this go-to film. Although bordering on unrealistic expectations of a lifelong friendship, the movie successfully shows us how even the best of friends can argue, fight, and still return to each other in times of need. There is something to be said about a friendship that can stand the trials and tribulations that this one does. Although Beaches lacks the spontaneity of real life, and is nearly completely constructed out of other movies, it has and will continue to be one of those films that epitomizes the idea of devoted friends and dedication to a relationship. And, who doesn’t love “The Wind Beneath My Wings”???