Movie Review ~ Miss Juneteenth


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A former beauty queen and single mom prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant.

Stars: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes

Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: To many, movies are simply escapist entertainment that are nice distractions from our daily lives.  We live in such tumultuous times with harsh realities and difficult uncertainties, why not check out for an hour or two and leave that all behind to lose yourself in some fantasy – would anyone really blame us?  Then there are those, like myself, who feel that film can also be a mirror of sorts to what is going on in our world and give us insight, however small, into another person’s experience we may have no idea about.  It can’t replicate that experience but if we are cognizant enough to recognize it, we can do our homework and learn more on our own time after the credits have ended.

The new film Miss Juneteenth is a good example of representation to a widely observed holiday that I was woefully uneducated to before seeing the film.  Like I’m sure many of you, Juneteenth was something I had heard about but never really understood the depth of its significance as a holiday to the black and African American communities.  Juneteenth, also known as the state holiday Emancipation Day in Texas, commemorates the date June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved African Americans were finally liberated in Texas, well over two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and it became law.  In recent years there has been an increasing call for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday and a number of organizations now include it as a paid holiday for their employees.  (My company just announced they are recognizing it as such in 2021).  Though Miss Juneteenth was written and filmed before the renewed calls for social justice reform over the past month and is far from a politically charged movie, its release is well-timed and features strong representation throughout the production.

When she was a teenager, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, Shame) won the Miss Juneteenth pageant in her Texas hometown, a long-standing, high-profile event that awards full scholarships to traditionally black universities to its winners, many of whom have gone on to be prominent members of the community both locally and nationally.  Now a single mother to Kai (Alexis Chikaze), Turquoise makes ends meet by managing a local watering hole and working as a funeral home make-up artist.  As the film opens, the Miss Juneteenth pageant is coming up and Turquoise pushes her shy teenager into competing for the crown, hoping her daughter can win despite the odds being stacked against them both.  Maybe she wants her daughter to win just so she has the money to afford college…or maybe she sees a possible win as a redemption to fulfill the promise she couldn’t when she held the title.

Far from being a simple pageant movie featuring the typical mother-daughter strife throughout, Miss Juneteenth may follow a familiar trajectory on the surface but does so in refreshing ways.  Director Channing Godfrey Peoples is from Texas and is clearly writing from a place she has great insight to.  There’s an air of authenticity throughout, even in the inauthentic way some of the women behave toward Turquoise and Kai, judging the mother for not taking a traditional post-pageant route and letting that influence what they think of the daughter.  An added layer of complexity comes with the relationship between Turquoise and her own mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes), a churchgoing, God-fearing woman that has her own demons hiding in the shadows.

If there’s one place that Peoples struggles with its convincing the audience that Turquoise would put up with some of the men in her life for as long as she does.  The father of her daughter (Kendrick Sampson) seems to be stuck in a pattern of disappointment and it feels out of her independent character for Turquoise to bend to his charms, especially when it begins to come between the dream of a future for their daughter.  Her boss at the mortuary is also pursuing her and that story line is thinly developed…and maybe it’s just because the dynamic between Beharie and Chikaze is so much more interesting that whenever they aren’t on screen together you’re just waiting for their next scene.  Only Marcus M. Mauldin, as the world-weary and wise owner of the bar she helps run, found a way into the narrative that made an impact.

The film is all about Beharie, though, and it’s a performance you aren’t going to soon forget.  An actress that has shown up in smaller but memorable roles in movies and television over the past decade, she hasn’t truly made that big leap yet but this could and should get her into the conversation for major work in the future.  It’s a difficult character to navigate because it would be easy to make Turquoise sharp with pointy edges so it’s a credit to Beharie and Peoples that they’ve given her depth and marked clarity – this is a woman in full control of her situation and isn’t someone that needs to be saved.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Miss Juneteenth isn’t a film leading to a huge climax of anguished realization with a token “Oscar clip” emotional outburst.  Instead, Peoples has sprinkled little gems of scenes throughout the picture, allowing a number of actors to instill some knowledge upon others, the audience included.

Watching to the very end showed how much of a community effort it was to make the film – I can’t remember ever seeing a movie list the hundreds of extras involved in the credits.  Small touches like this, including a tuneful collection of songs for the soundtrack and location shooting add to the charm of it all.  Like I said when we started, if you aren’t familiar with the Juneteenth holiday the pageant celebrates, do you homework before; while the movie gives some background there is more to be known that is important to discover on your own.

Movie Review ~ You Should Have Left


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Strange events plague a couple and their young daughter when they rent a secluded countryside house that has a dark past.

Stars: Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex

Director: David Koepp

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Ever since movie theaters shut down in early April, there has been much discussion over the big summer blockbusters that have seen their release dates shuffled around or delayed indefinitely.  Buzzed about franchise pictures set to make studios millions (billions, potentially) are now waiting in the wings, dependent on a vaccine for the virus that kept audiences in lockdown to emerge.  Because, let’s be honest, no one really feels completely confident about heading into a enclosed space with a bunch of unknown factors still in play.  I sure don’t, that’s for sure.

So instead of heading to the theaters this summer film fans have been doing their movie-going with their remotes and that’s been a boon to smaller films that might not have received the recognition had they had to compete with movies that had a bigger advertising budget.  That’s why for a few weekends a month ago the smaller horror film The Wretched was the number one movie according to the limited figures available…it also helped that the indie fright flick was fairly decent.  The other difference between a movie like The Wretched and the new thriller You Should Have Left is that The Wretched was likely always going to be a direct to streaming film while You Should Have Left had loftier plans from the start.  The Blumhouse production shifted its release from theaters to On Demand and that plan will most certainly help overall, not just because far more people will see it due to a lack of other similar available content but I think it won’t be judged as harshly as it would have been as a theatrical offering.

Adapted by director David Koepp (Premium Rush) from a 2017 novella by German writer Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left follows Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon, Patriots Day), his actress wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried, Scoob!) and their daughter Ella (Avery Essex) as they take a few weeks away from her busy filming schedule for a family retreat in Wales.  Theo’s visit to Susanna’s set early on gives us an indication not only of his jealous side but also hints that he’s famous in his own right…and not for anything particularly pleasant.  The house the family rents is nicely secluded and a wonder of modern design, with clean lines and confusing hallways that are easy to get turned around in.  Right away, Theo can sense there’s something off but can’t quite figure out what’s amiss…and a strange visit into town with its peculiar townspeople doesn’t settle his paranoid nerves any.

As is often the case lately, the first hour of the movie contains some genuine interest and sincere head-scratching moments as Theo starts to unravel the longer he spends within the house.  Is it related to his troubled past and has the dwelling awakened a sinister spirit out to reclaim something from him?  Or is his long gestating lack of confidence in the sincerity of his much-younger wife bubbling to the surface at a most inopportune time?  Basically…is he imagining the house is designed to confuse or has he managed to find a rental property built on top of the devil’s doorway?

If only Koepp could have kept up with the suspense, You Should Have Left might have been a nifty little film that truly delivered.  As it stands, it winds up falling apart in short order and disappointingly so.  Koepp has explored similar themes of isolation/seclusion like this in his previous films Secret Window from 2004 and 1996’s The Trigger Effect so this should be familiar territory to navigate for him.  Maybe the problem is Koepp’s adaptation, which as far as I can tell added in cumbersome elements that seems to have taken Kehlmann’s original simplicity in storytelling and weighed it down with more emotional baggage.  Adding that in complicates things and makes the movie accountable for explaining too much…about Theo, about Susanna, about the house and its origins.  Though it’s handsomely made, it’s in that final half hour where precious little makes sense and Koepp loses control of what up until then had been a precise thriller.

It’s good, then, that we have Bacon on hand to sell what at times is a little hard to swallow.  Bacon is such a dependable presence in even the smallest of roles, it’s nice to see him back in a leading role and re-teamed with Koepp after their superior effort, Stir of Echoes, in 1999.  Even if the film starts to go off the rails, Bacon stays on track and resists the urge to overdo things.  (It’s interesting to note, if the IMDb trivia page is to be believed, Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star – I can only imagine how he would have handled some of the twists of the final act.)  I’m glad the script makes a pointed issue of the age discrepancy between Bacon and Seyfried, their 27-year age gap is very much a piece of the puzzle…though it is still awkward to imagine them as a couple.

For a weekend option, I can imagine that You Should Have Left would be a decent choice for those that have exhausted their Netflix and Amazon Prime queues and need a jolt of newer release.  It’s better than a number of Blumhouse productions that have found their way to theaters and while it doesn’t stand up in competition to their slick update on The Invisible Man earlier this year, it’s watchable more often than not.

Movie Review ~ 7500


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pilot’s aircraft is hijacked by terrorists.

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Aylin Tezel, Omid Memar, Aurélie Thépaut, Carlo Kitzlinger, Paul Wollin

Director: Patrick Vollrath

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For nearly a decade now, we’ve had an open and honest relationship here on this website.  Though it’s often (ahem, always) one-sided, I believe I’m comfortable sharing with you some personal details from my life without fear of too much judgement.  From the wacky to the relatable, you’re easy to talk which is why I think we can circle back to my favorite hang-up…flying.  I’m a terrible flier and I don’t see that changing too much in the future.  Love to travel, love adventure…hate the transportation getting there even though I find it a truly amazing feat of engineering with more than a touch of magic.

To add an even stranger wrinkle, while I’m known to white-knuckle it as a passenger, as a viewer there’s nothing I leap at with quite as much fervor as a film about flying the friendly skies.  Give me a stewardess coming to the rescue and landing a jet in distress, just try and hold me back from a mid-air heist, and don’t even think about making me miss a Jodie Foster movie where her daughter vanishes on a transatlantic flight.  So it’s easy to see why the new film 7500 appealed to me and why I thought it was going to be another run of the mill easy in/easy out round trips…turns out I should have kept my seat belt on for the entire ride.

The film takes off in Berlin with the crew of a flight to Paris readying the plane for boarding.  The veteran pilot (Carlo Kitzlinger) gets to know his soft-spoken co-pilot Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises) in between their safety checks.  It’s in these opening minutes that director Patrick Vollrath starts his claustrophobic push into the flight deck which is where we’ll largely stay for the next 80-some odd minutes.  While I won’t spoil the gritty details of what happens after the captain turns off the fasten seat belt sign, shortly after take-off there’s an emergency involving an attempted hijacking that leaves the crew and passengers in a precarious position and Tobias at the controls.  With only a small video monitor to communicate with the back of plane, he has to navigate his aircraft to safety while negotiating with forces that didn’t come to bargain.

I’ll be upfront and say the first hour of 7500 is tough on the nerves and pulls few punches.  Vollrath establishes what I can only gather is accuracy in flight operations and maneuvers to establish the pilots with some authority…making what happens in the air and the following of protocols all the more tragic.  Anyone with a fear of flying or in-air disasters should steer clear of this one because it’s got some whopper moments that will give you nightmares.  If you’re game, though, there’s a nifty movie there with some real excitement we haven’t had for a while…even if it comes at the expense of feeling just a tad bit dated.  What I mean to say is that I feel we’ve just gotten past the point of the fear that all Islamics are terrorists and the movie seems like it wants to make a point by steering the thoughts back in the opposite direction on purpose.

There’s some justification for this near the end and while I can semi-see where the rationale was, it doesn’t totally gel for me in the context of this particular film and what transpires throughout.  Again, without spoiling any details I can’t say why the movie sort of sputters when it should be roaring into the landing but the final twenty minutes are unquestionably the low points that pander and when it becomes obvious that the script from Vollrath and Senad Halilbasic perhaps might have worked better as a stand-alone episode for an anthology streaming program.  There’s just not the same level of excitement maintained here that there was in the first 2/3 of the film.  Still, you only realize that after the movie is over…and it’s because you’re catching your breath after the true breathless thrill of the preceding hour.  Absolutely worth the watch…but be prepared for a disappointing nosedive.

Movie Review ~ Sometimes Always Never


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A stylish tailor who has spent years searching tirelessly for his missing son must repair the relationship with his youngest son while solving a mystery of an online Scrabble player so he can finally move on and reunite his family.

Stars: Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Alice Lowe, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny

Director: Carl Hunter

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 Minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As much as the next person, I’ve been spending the last few months staring out my living room window waiting for the chance to escape.  This has lead to a number of daydreaming flights of fancy that are often eventually nicely satisfied by a healthy dose of television and theatrical options that lets me do my travelling virtually while I wait for another new adventure.  What’s really caught my attention are the quirky and idiosyncratic, think the boundless creativity of Wes Anderson or the bold off-the-wall offerings of Tina Fey.  This is programming that helps you step out of your daily grind and takes you someplace else while still engaging you with storytelling.

It’s hard to know where to put Sometimes Always Never because it doesn’t quite fit anywhere specific.  Part family drama and part droll comedy, it never fully commits to anything for too long and that winds up leaving the viewer unable to acquaint themselves with the characters.  Writer Frank Cottrell Boyce has supplied the screenplay for movies in multiple genres and that journeyman pen could be seen as a hindrance in nailing down any kind of tone director Carl Hunter was going for.  It’s either that or Hunter was too preoccupied with the overly cinematic production design to realize the plot was coming up short.

The plot?  It’s a doozy and I’m still not quite sure I totally understood what was going on.  From what I could gather, Bill Nighy (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) plays widower Alan that has been looking for his missing adult son ever since he walked out in the middle of a heated game of Scrabble. (And I thought my Hungry Hungry Hippos meltdown of 1987 was bad.)  His other son Peter (Sam Riley, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) watches over his dad, partly to make sure he is safe and partly because he’s known to be a bit of a hustler – something we see early on when he cons a grieving couple (Jenny Agutter, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, & Tim McInnerny) out of some cash.

The bulk of the film takes place when Alan comes to stay with Peter and his wife Sue (Alice Lowe) as he’s tracking down another lead on his vanished son.  He thinks he has a lead in an online Scrabble player and as much as Peter discourages Alan from getting his hopes up, it’s a small lifeline after a long stretch of doubt.  There’s a half-hearted attempt to introduce a parallel set of lessons to be learned between Peter and his own son but Boyce’s script and the 91-minute run time don’t allow for much expansion of those ideas.  What’s there is Nighy trying to hold the movie up on his spindly shoulders and doing the best he can with little support from Riley but nice performances from Lowe and Agutter.

The frustrating thing about a film like Sometimes Always Never is that you can see it struggle to be its own thing and sacrifice valuable assets along the way.  While it’s plot lacks the meat that would make this a filling meal, it does have its moments of looking like a nice feast.  Hunter has a nice eye for the visual at times, but then he follows it up with sequences shot on cheap looking sets or traveling shots deliberately made to look homemade.  As much as he wants his film to feel like Wes Anderson, its distinct imbalance keeps it from finding a captivating foothold.

Movie Review ~ You Don’t Nomi


The Facts
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Synopsis: Showgirls was met by critics and audiences with near universal derision and this documentary traces the film’s redemptive journey from notorious flop to cult classic, and maybe even masterpiece.

Stars: Elizabeth Berkley, Joe Eszterhas, Gina Gershon, Joshua Grannell, April Kidwell, Kyle MacLachlan, Haley Mlotek, Adam Nayman, David Schmader, Paul Verhoeven

Director: Jeffrey McHale

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Arriving with a storm of controversy and the dreaded NC-17 rating, Showgirls was released in theaters across the country on Friday, September 22 1995. That was 25 years ago now but I remember exactly the new movie I saw in cinemas that opening weekend: Seven.  That’s right, The MN Movie Man was underage so he could see Seven with his dad (who let me see a whole bunch of movies I shouldn’t have) but wasn’t old enough to catch the movie he really had his eye on.  Oh, it killed me not to be able to know what was going on inside Screen 4 at the Edina Theater when I was right next door seeing Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman hunt down a devious serial killer.

Alas, my exposure to Showgirls came later on VHS when I was allowed (again, yay permissive parents) to see it after much negotiating.  To say it met all expectations was an understatement and over the last two decades I’ve been an ardent support of its merits.  Sure, it’s camp and trashy but it’s essential viewing at the same time – and aside from a gruesome scene of sexual violence near the end, a fairly entertaining watch, too.  Thrashed by critics and bombing out at the box office, Showgirls seemed destined to go down as another turkey, a trivia factoid game shows would use as a 400-dollar question.  Yet its home video release caught fire and once its creators began to embrace its ridiculousness, the studio leaned into the growing popularity and the movie earned back its budget (and more) after the fact.

In the new documentary You Don’t Nomi, director Jeffrey McHale cleverly examines Showgirls, using fans, critics, archival interviews with the stars, and the career of its director Paul Verhoeven to show how the film has rose from the ashes.  Evolving from a disaster no one wanted to talk about to a calling card of pride, you can’t change the cold fact the film is problematic from the jump and struggles with its own identity throughout but in hindsight…was it really THAT bad?  Aside from just talking about it’s place in halls of camp cinema (which the soon to be released Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time: Volume 3 Comedy and Camp does quite nicely) this is a slightly more serious take on a film you can hardly ever take seriously.

It would be easy just to chart the creation of Showgirls from the beginning, when top Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas decided to put his own spin on the big MGM musicals that had gone out of fashion.  However, anyone watching this documentary likely is coming to it with some working knowledge of the film and doesn’t need this refresher course in specific detail.  Instead, McHale weaves in this origin story alongside Verhoeven’s ascent from Oscar-nominated filmmaking in the Netherlands to infamous director of provocative properties in tinsel town.  This helps form a picture of Verhoeven’s more European approach to sex and violence in his films and how it influenced numerous aspects of Showgirls.

The production of the film is covered as are the critical reactions and original box office run that left star Elizabeth Berkley as the unfortunate scapegoat.  Where the doc gets really interesting is anytime it’s exploring the after effects of Showgirls and how it has had an impact, positive and negative, on people’s lives.  There’s Berkley, whose movie career was ended before it ever began, given a small but overdue reprieve at a 20th anniversary celebration of the film.  In the same segment, we meet the performer that spearheaded the Showgirls musical, a popular stage show who entered into the production as a way to reclaim power after a personal setback.  These moments (a deep dive cinematographic breakdown of a scene between Berkley and Gina Gershon is revelatory and fun) and more aren’t just straws grasped at to illustrate why the movie is relevant…they’re engaging examples of how the film has come to justly earn its cult status.

For a movie that’s chock full of sex and nudity, Showgirls is widely regarded as one of the least sexy movies ever and it’s hard to argue with that.  Still, in the same breath you also can’t say it’s not well made or incorrectly put together.  In a most respectful way, You Don’t Nomi invites us to take another look at the film and see it for more than just its sordid history, restricted rating, and critical consensus.

Movie Review ~ Shirley


The Facts
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Synopsis: A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Steve Vinovich

Director: Josephine Decker

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems a little too easy to label Shirley Jackson a “horror writer” but that’s largely what many of the press clippings and mentions of the author have done over the years since her death in 1965.  True, a number of her works leaned toward the dark, supernatural, and unnerving, delving into psychological paranoia for good measure.  However, her short stories and novels have remained startlingly timeless because they regularly uncover the ambiguity of societies pleasantries and expose what’s underneath a pallid façade. I loved The Haunting of Hill House and it’s as much about the inner demons of the lead character as it is about any ghosts that may roam around the titular mansion.  Then, of course, there is The Lottery, a much discussed and oft-taught allegory of the deadly cost of following without questioning.

The Lottery is a good place to jump off for Shirley as well, as the movie begins just after Jackson’s short story was published in the late 1940s.  Rose (Odessa Young) is reading the issue of the New Yorker in which it appeared as she travels with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) to Bennington, VT.  It’s here that Fred will serve as the teaching assistant to Professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name)…who happens to be the husband of the reclusive and usually boozily bed-ridden Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man).  Rose and Fred wind up living with the older couple, with Rose tending to Shirley and the household duties as the men are teaching.  When a young girl on campus goes missing, Jackson is inspired to begin work on a longer piece which creates tension as her process is…intense.  The longer she writes, the more out of control the household becomes and the lines between reality and fiction are continually blurred.

It’s important to note that those approaching Shirley hoping to get a better idea of who the author was should look elsewhere for their fact-finding mission.  This movie is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same name, which fictionalizes the relationship between this younger couple and Jackson/Hyman.  From what I’ve inferred, the story has been further bifurcated by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins who changed the time, locale, and critical elements of Jackson’s family life to better streamline the story she and director Josephine Decker are trying to tell.  The result?  A movie that feels a lot like the author herself: initially interesting but eventually exhausting.

There’s always something intriguing about an alternative take on a real life figure and I think it’s curious that not only did Jackson become a character in Scarf Merrell’s book but that the same book itself had an alternative take.  That’s double (or triple?) meta for you.  The problem with digging down that deep is that somewhere you’re going to lose the focus and that’s what sadly happens about halfway through Shirley. No matter how many creative camera angles Decker’s cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen employs or how often the spikey music from Tamar-kali jangles us, it can’t keep our minds from drifting.  Instead of being swept up in the parasitic relationship that develops between Shirley and Rose (the sallow Jackson at the beginning seems to glow the more Rose’s complexion turns gray) the audience struggles to keep up with Decker’s paths that lead nowhere.

Jackson’s bouts with severe anxiety were well documented but they’re presented here as mental instabilities, given all the more strain by Moss’s mannered performance.  Though she’s made a career over the past few years of playing similar complex women proving there’s no tic she can’t tackle, she comes up short here.  The delivery feels like schtick, something planned instead of performed and while Moss working so awfully hard is to be commended, it leaves no room for anyone else to get a nuance in edgewise.  Not that it stops Stuhlbarg from trying, gnashing his teeth on the scenery as exactly the kind of pompous literate we think a collegiate professor worth his salt would be.  Lerman is mere set decoration so it’s up to Young to steal what moments she can from Moss and she takes what scraps are allowed and runs with them quite nicely.

I’ve a feeling there will be two camps where Shirley is concerned.  First are those that buy what Moss is selling and can forgive the film for its hazy gaze at history and eventual descent into drab psychological drama.  Then there are the others, like myself, who don’t mind a little revisionism…as long as its done with purpose or reflection.  The real Shirley Jackson wrote about things that scare us, the movie version doesn’t even know where to begin.

Movie Review ~ Becky (2020)


The Facts
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Synopsis: A teenager’s weekend at a lake house with her father takes a turn for the worse when a group of convicts wreaks havoc on their lives.

Stars: Lulu Wilson, Kevin James, Amanda Brugel, Robert Maillet, Joel McHale

Director: Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When I was in my early 20s, I accompanied my parents on a trip to Las Vegas where we gambled, hit the buffets, and saw some shows.  It being our first time in the city, we did all the things the tourists do and by the time the week was drawing to a close, all my parents wanted to do was to take a night off and relax in the room.  I wanted to see one more Vegas show so I grabbed a last minute ticket to some random extravaganza playing at one of the off-brand hotels.  Sitting in my seat, I couldn’t believe my luck when before the show an announcer came on to tell the audience that going on between acts would be Kevin James!  Wow!  The King of Queens himself!  I waited through the dreary first half only to find out that a) it wasn’t the Kevin James I thought it was and b) this Kevin James was a lousy magician.

You’d understand, then, why I was trepidatious when reading the plot summary of Becky which listed Kevin James as an escaped neo-Nazi prisoner that terrorizes a family.  I mean, surely this time it really wasn’t the same guy, right?  Could the magician have gone into acting or was this really the funnyman known for his comedy turns on television and a string of half-hearted attempts to be a movie star?  Was James making a play for a more hardened character, distancing himself from the silly Adam Sandler umbrella he’s stayed safely under for more than a decade?  Admirably, Becky shows a new side of James but unfortunately for him the performance is part and parcel of such a repugnant film that the effort hardly seems worth noting.

Ever since her beloved mother died, Becky (Lulu Wilson, Annabelle: Creation) has had trouble adjusting to the new normal.  Her father Jeff (Joel McHale, The Happytime Murders) has tried to let his emotional daughter have her space to grieve but he’s decided to take steps to move forward, announcing his engagement to single mother Kayla (Amanda Brugel, Suicide Squad) at the start of what was supposed to be a father-daughter weekend at the family lake house.  Annoyed at the arrival of Kayla and her young son, Becky storms off to her tree fort in the woods…right about the time escaped prisoners Dominick (James, Pixels), Apex (Robert Maillet, Pacific Rim), and a few of their old friends show up on the hunt for an item stashed away.

As the audience, we’ve already seen the extent to which Dominick will go to get his way after his bloody flee from custody and a grisly crime that’s thankfully only hinted at.  He may have met his match, though, because Becky is an easily aggressed powder keg waiting to blow and doesn’t take kindly to the violence she witnesses going on in her home.  Thus begins less of a cat and mouse game but something more akin to two lions circling one another, with each devouring anything less important that gets in their way.  Becky uses her problem solving quick thinking and knowledge of the area to her advantage while Dominick relies on brute force to draw her closer, leading to a blood-soaked showdown.

The movie I’m describing sounds like an appealing and clever home invasion thriller and I bet the script from Nick Morris, Lane Skye and Ruckus Sky had some snap to it when it was originally conceived.  It wouldn’t be hard to sell me on a Home Alone meets survival horror movie but it’s a question of taste that has to be examined.  Under the direction of Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion Becky is about as repulsive an endeavor as you’re likely to see in 2020.  The bad taste on display is so egregious, from violence against animals to violence against children, it’s just absolutely no fun to watch and not even that fun to write about after the fact.  I’ve seen enough of these types of films to know that I don’t need to watch one that involves grown men beating up underage kids and killing pets – is that the kind of entertainment we’ve found ourselves craving and wanting to celebrate as a good time?

Honestly, it doesn’t help matters that Becky herself is awful – rude, dismissive, stubborn, and nihilistic, it goes beyond the typical beleaguered teenager and invites you to not so secretly want to root against her.  There’s the suggestion that maybe Becky has an evil streak in her as well, but no one involved behind the scenes was thoughtful enough to explore that more intriguing side to the character.  You get the feeling Wilson was trying to give her a sinister edge that wasn’t entirely on the page, but it’s largely silenced by Milott and Murnion’s glee for gore.  Instead of finding moments to see deeper within Becky’s psyche, we’re treated to another horrific bit of sleaze, often involving a sharp object and viscera.

Having two comedians (McHale and James) in dramatic leading roles also gives the movie a strange imbalance because there’s a sense of waiting for one of them to break during the deadly serious scenes.  McHale just isn’t cut out for dramatic acting and even his comedic turns are skating on thin ice, at least James does something with his part that feels like some homework was put in.  It’s not a revelatory performance but it’s a fine effort that should be noted and explored in further films down the line.  If the other supporting players offer little in terms of surprise, it’s only because there isn’t much space allotted to them seeing that Becky and Dominick suck up the air from most scenes.  Let’s also not forget that the entire movie hinges on Dominick being after something (I won’t reveal what) that makes precious little sense to anyone but him.  That all these characters should be swept up in the nonsense simply adds to the pointlessness of the whole exercise.

I felt really gross watching Becky and if it was something I’d casually picked out on Netflix, I probably would have turned it off twenty minutes in.  While I like the concept of what the script had laid out, it skewed too young and overly irresponsible for me and that left it feeling vacuous, like an experiment that failed to meet its potential.  It’s bloody and it’s brutal so gorehounds will likely sniff this one out fairly quickly, but will the connoisseurs of revenge thrillers go for a film served up with such foul ingredients?

Movie Review ~ The High Note


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A superstar singer and her overworked personal assistant are presented with a choice that could alter the course of their respective careers.

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  If everything had gone as planned in 2020, we’d be sitting smack dab in the middle of the start of summer movie season right about now.  The April releases of No Time to Die and Mulan would have arrived and Black Widow along with Scoob! would have shown up in May.  For this particular weekend we’d be on the cusp of seeing Wonder Woman 1984’s release and that means the talk likely had shifted to the favorite way to combat all the big blockbusters and family friendly animated hyperactive stimuli: the counter-programming.  That’s where a movie like The High Note would have entered the conversation and looking over the list of potential releases from back then I can’t think of a title that would have a greater shot to do some business than this one.

Before we take a look at The High Note, we should first go back to last summer and the movie Late Night.  Arriving with a heap of good buzz from the Sundance Film Festival where Amazon Studios had bought it for a jaw-dropping $13 million, it was expected to be that counter-programming sleeper hit when it was released in June.  Starring Oscar-winner Emma Thompson giving an award-worthy performance, it was an admittedly formulaic comedy written by co-star Mindy Kaling that was still light years better than a number of comedies released in 2019 but it was an unqualified bomb.  This set Amazon scrambling  (and I’m sure sent some execs packing) and it surely has reshaped the way they bought movies in the future, though to be fair the similar failure of Brittany Runs a Marathon later in the year contributed to Amazon’s buyer’s remorse.

So, now we’re back in 2020 and The High Note has arrived from Focus Features and it’s worth mentioning it’s directed by Nisha Ganatra who also was at the helm for Late Night.  Featuring another diverse set of strong co-leads, you could squint and see a lot of similarities between the two films but what The High Note has that Late Night didn’t is some authenticity that helps carry it through it’s more shallow moments.  While it’s not going to win any awards for daring originality, there’s something winning about the way it worms into your heart…and your ears.

Superstar singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) hasn’t put out a new record in years, coasting on the success of several repackaged greatest hit CDs and a sold-out touring schedule that keeps her always on the move.  That’s just fine by her producer Jack (Ice Cube, Ride Along) who doesn’t want to risk new music from Grace disappointing her loyal fans but perplexes her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) who knows Grace has more inside her.  Maggie wants to produce music, too, and seems to have the talent to back it up.  With her good ear and knowledge of Grace the person as well as the singer, she takes a stab at remixing Grace’s album to satisfying, if not career-advancing results.

It’s when Maggie meets singer David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce, Waves) that she sees the chance to take a step forward and be taken seriously.  David’s gifts are raw but with great potential, something that could benefit from Maggie’s guidance…if the two can trust one another to make it work.  At the same time, Jack wants Grace to consider a Vegas residency, which would be financially lucrative but gives her the feeling she is being put out to pasture.  With Maggie feeling the pull to help David (and herself) advance but also feeling a loyalty to her employer, of which she is also a genuine fan, it creates tension between the two that threatens both their personal and professional relationship.

I could easily see first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson turning these situations into sudsy scrap or going in the other direction and creating developments with little basis in reality.  Thankfully, The High Note feels surprisingly grounded and while perhaps holding an outlook on the music industry that’s a bit on the Pollyanna side, still maintains a level degree of authenticity.  For example, a meeting between Grace and a pile of young music executives turns uncomfortable and tense when she’s attempts to assert herself and as she explains later to Maggie it’s not just her age or sex but her race that she has to consider when trying to keep her career going.  Greeson throws some unexpected curveballs late into the game and, for once, they don’t seem like moments designed for a cheap reaction.

We’ll get to the leads in a minute but Ganatra has surrounded them with an interesting mix of faces, some more successful than others.  I especially liked Zoë Chao (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as Maggie’s wry roommate and could have actually used one or two more scenes with her and for my money you can never have enough Bill Pullman (A League of Their Own) in your film.  When he shows up for his brief appearance as Maggie’s dad, you sort of just happily sigh “Of course he’s her dad…of course he is.”  There’s a nice little cameo from Eddie Izzard as a rock star Maggie hatches a plot with and an underused June Diane Raphael (Girl Most Likely) as another one of Grace’s assistants.  I have to think Raphael’s part was trimmed down in editing because she’s so valuable that to have her in such a nothing role is a waste.

The film lives (thrives, even) on its two leads, with Johnson and Ross playing well together and individually.  Once mocked for her time in the Fifty Shades of Grey films, Johnson has proven her naysayers wrong by consistently showing up in interesting roles in intriguing films.  While Maggie could have been just another wannabe producer with stars in her eyes and a dream in her heart, Johnson goes the extra mile in making her smart, determined, likable, and willing to work for her passion as well.  In a performance that I’m sure would make her legendary Motown singer mother proud, Ross shines as Grace and sings quite well, too.  Though it sounds a liiiiiiitle overly autotuned there’s a bounce to her voice that matches her personality.  The script has a way of ping-ponging Grace’s personality a little too much at times which creates some dizzyiness on the part of the viewer but Ross is so totally engaging that you won’t notice those nitpicks until far later.

With a handful of well-sung songs performed by the actors and a zippy soundtrack to cover the rest, The High Note should have had a shot at a theatrical run because I’m betting it would have found a small but respectable audience.  I also think it would have gone a long way in laying the groundwork for Ross to get some notice as more than just a television actress because she shows here she can handle carrying the duties of a leading lady.  In a perfect world, I’d love to see her name stay in the conversation when the Oscars get talked about…while the movie may not be perfectly pitched her performance is what Best Supporting Actress nominations were made for.

Movie Review ~ The Vast of Night


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator and charismatic radio DJ discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.

Stars: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer

Director: Andrew Patterson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  With all the technology, ease-of-access, and overwhelming intrusions we have in our daily lives, it can be easy to wistfully wish we lived in a more simple time.  Maybe it’s back in the 80s when music was more fun and movies were just…better.  Or how about the 70s when gas was cheap and we could invest in the big ideas of tomorrow?  You could go to the 60s if you wanted to witness a true time of change and advancement…the list goes on.  Yet to do that you’d also have to take all the bad things that existed then as well.  For a boatload of cultural reasons I can’t even get into here, while the 50s were a grand time for film and television I would never want to return to that period of history.

In the late 50s and early 60s, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were popular with television audiences and each week offered up a new story of the strange and unusual.  Oft-imitated over the years but never truly matched, these shows pushed the boundaries for storytelling in a smaller medium and have had great staying power over the years that followed.  Watching them now, they may seem quaint by today’s standards but it doesn’t diminish their overall impact and originality.  Inviting you in for tales of unexplained phenomena, it inspired generations of filmgoers.

You can clearly see that screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger have spent some time thinking about these shows because their new movie The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the home-spun tales of an era long-since passed.  Instead of feeling reverential to an old formula, however, director Andrew Patterson uses the film’s limited budget to his advantage and creates an unusual and entertaining little marvel.  Employing a clever opening device to suggest this might be just another episode of an on-going anthology, The Vast of Night takes its time to settle in but once it grabs you it doesn’t let go.

Charismatic teenager Everett (Jake Horowitz) is helping set-up for his small town’s big Friday night event: the high-school basketball game.  In the first of several long tracking shots Patterson uses effectively, Everett winds his way through the gymnasium fixing sound equipment, benignly tormenting a friend in the band, and making sure he can leave for his nighttime job as the town’s radio host/DJ with all systems go.  He’s soon snagged by the younger Fay (Sierra McCormick) who has a new sound recorder she’d like some help with, a perfect way to maybe get close to a boy she has a secret crush on.  She’s also on her way to work as the switchboard operator so Everett escorts her and the two discuss life in the town and plans for the future.

The talky first half hour or so of the movie may put off viewers coming to the film looking for immediate results but I’d urge you to stick with it.  I found myself shifting a bit in my seat, too, but establishing these characters proves valuable later when Fay overhears a strange noise through her switchboard and contact with the neighboring towns is cut off.  Enlisting Everett’s help and his listeners, the two are eventually led down an increasingly dangerous path that has roots in the town’s history.  As the truth is uncovered and an impossible explanation starts to form, the two teenagers will be faced with saving their town from an unnamed entity.

I could easily see The Vast of Night having been adapted from a radio play (ala War of the Worlds) from back in the day.  With it’s long stretches of dialogue and specific sound design, the movie feels more tuned to your aural senses than your visual senses at times.  There are moments when closing your eyes and just listening give you the feeling you are more in the scene.  While it’s light on what most would deem “scares” this has a handful of admirable “thrills” to it, scenes that will send that shiver ripple up your spine and make you bring the blanket further up over your nose.  Knowing this was the first time effort from the director and screenwriters, it’s an impressive debut.

The two leads are appealing and I felt they could have popped out of the time period, particularly  McCormick with her gangly gait and cat-eye glasses.  Horowitz also nicely avoids the pull to play his character as a smart-aleck know-it-all…even though that’s kind of what he is.  We have to like these two and it’s pretty much right from the beginning we are on their side and along for the ride.   While the majority of the supporting cast is either heard through the switchboard/radio or seen in brief, Gail Cronauer has a memorable scene as a townswoman Everett and Fay visit who may have answers to what is occurring this dark night.

In some parts of the country I know that The Vast of Night is playing at drive-ins and I would love to have seen it on a big screen like that when it was good and dark.  At a trim 89 minutes the film zips along and is best enjoyed all in one bite, resist the urge to take breaks because this one is all about the momentum that is built up. Especially after the first half hour when our heroine and hero get to work, you’ll want to buckle in for their nighttime adventure.