Beginners upends rom-com expectations
The last thing I wanted to do was watch another rom-com but there was Vicky Wight's Happiness for Beginners, sitting in front of me. Helen (Ellie Kemper) is our just-divorced battered heroine and to, in her own words, "rise like a phoenix from the ashes," she decides to take a guided group hike on the Appalachian Trail. Of course, each of her co-hikers have their own reasons for setting out on the 80-mile trek. Hugh (Nico Santos) is a frustrated actor with daddy issues, Windy (Shayvawn Webster) is an eager young woman looking for love, Mason (Esteban Benito) is a commodities trader with a big ego, Kaylee (Gus Birney) is trying to get over her fear of wood and Sue (Julia Shiplett) is seeking a sense of focus. Then there's Jake (Luke Grimes), the best friend of Helen's brother who's been in love with her for years, and just happens to sign up for the same trip.
What separates Beginners from other genre entries are the characters, each of whom is much more than meets the eye. Just when you think you have them pegged, each reveals an intimate secret that humanizes them, making them not only sympathetic but relatable. Before making an unexpected exit, Hugh’s façade falls away so that he may deliver some sobering advice to Helen, while Mason reveals a bit of vulnerability beneath his macho façade at the most inopportune time. Windy proves to be far more resourceful than imagined and when Kaylee reveals her profession, the purpose of her flighty persona makes sense. The same holds true for Helen and Jake, as it's revealed they are each contending with some emotional baggage they're resistant to discuss.
None of these moments are played for pathos or are, upon reflection, inconsistent with their behavior. That approach is the secret to this movie's success – these characters and their issues aren't treated as standard character traits, but as genuine problems that inform their behavior. As a result, the film is much smarter than anticipated.
That's not to say it lacks funny or lighthearted moments. Each member of the cast gets a chance to show their comedic chops, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Ben Cook's fine turn as Beckett, the trail guide who's wound a bit too tight. Wight finds the perfect balance between the dark and light elements at play here, including Helen and Jake's future, which is going to be far more than just sunshine and roses. I wish them the best and that's the secret of this movie – I liked and could relate to each and every one of Beginners' lost souls. Take it from me, I never have that response when being subjected to similar fare on the Hallmark Channel. Streaming on Netflix.
Turtles an unexpected delight
I never understood the appeal of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They burst on the scene when I was preoccupied with college, and though I've always been a comic book fan, the premise surrounding them seemed silly even by those standards. However, thanks to Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears' Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, I think I understand the appeal. Focusing as much on characters and relationships as it does action, the movie walks a fine line between catering to the expectations of life-long fans and those just jumping on the "Turtle" train. I think it succeeds in pleasing both as I was engaged from start to finish, while laughter was heard throughout the theater from those who could obviously rattle off detailed histories of the half-shelled heroes.
The titular characters, Donatello (voice by Micah Abbey), Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Raphael (Brady Noon) are eager to leave their sewer home, tired of eavesdropping on the human world, wanting desperately to interact with them. However, their mentor Splinter (Jackie Chan) has warned them they'll be treated as outsiders and scorned if they venture forth, a warning they're more than prepared to ignore. A misadventure leads them to cross paths with erstwhile reporter April O'Neil (Ayo Edebiri), who tells them she's eager to get to the bottom of a recent spate of thefts, perpetrated by the criminal mastermind known as Superfly (Ice Cube). Seeing this as an opportunity to prove themselves and win the favor of all humans, they set out to get to the bottom of the thefts.
The action is imaginatively rendered, and the story moves at a brisk pace, but it's the style of the animation that stands out. There's a stylized but ragged look to the film that captures the grit of the urban setting, the jagged, exaggerated lines a reflection of the type of doodles you'd see in a teenager's notebook. There's a vibrant quality to the art that's invigorating as is the voice work from the four young principals. The enthusiasm the quartet brings the characters is delightful, their enthusiasm for the project obvious and infectious. And while the movie's message of inclusion is rendered in a heavy-handed manner, its sincerity can't be faulted, and it will resonate with the younger viewers. Great fun from beginning to end, Mayhem proves to be one of the summer's most pleasant surprises. In theaters.
Talk gripping from beginning to end
From its gut punch of an opening to its poetically ironic ending, directors Danny and Michael Philippou masterfully wring viewers dry with their horror film Talk to Me. A bracing examination of addiction and social isolation, this is far more than a collection of jump scares, as the filmmakers use their clever premise to deliver biting social commentary.
What with her mother recently dying, Mia (Sophie Wilde) has kept her father at arm's length and gravitated towards the security and stability of her friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen). Though being raised by a single mom (Miranda Otto), there's a foundation to her small family unit, which also includes Riley (Joe Bird), that the grieving teen needs. A local party game, in which participants grab a petrified hand and then claim to see dead spirits, has gone viral on social media. Curiosity gets the best of Mia, Jade and Riley and before you know it, they find themselves at a gathering where the owner of the hand is bullying others to grasp the ghastly talisman. Mia is the first and is immediately convinced of the object's power, seeing a horribly bloated drowning victim, desperate to make a connection with the world of the living.
To say more would ruin the surprises the Philippou's have in store. An effective metaphor for substance abuse, those who use the hand are eager to come back again and again for more hits from the calcified appendage. It comes as no surprise that Mia speaks to her mother on her second go-around, which only fuels her addiction, her habit growing until she becomes obsessed with all the object offers her in the moment, oblivious to the toll it is taking on her mental well-being.
Not enough credit is given to the actors in genre exercises but the work here across the board is exceptional, the young cast wholly convincing in conveying the fear and desperation of their characters. Wilde handles the metamorphosis Mia goes through with a ferocity that is something to watch, her fully committed approach as intent as the character's mania, while Bird is a standout as well, the young man beautifully capturing the agony of feeling left out and then paying the price for his impulsive acts for inclusion.
Isolation drives Mia and Riley's behavior. Note how often characters are on their phones in the company of others, immersed in their social media milieu, eschewing any sort of one-on-one contact. The pain derived from this 21st century brand of ostracization is at the core of the film, Mia's desperation to make a sincere emotional connection driving her to extremes. That Talk's teen protagonists don't come to understand what they're missing until it's too late is perhaps its most accurate feature. In theaters.