Movie Review ~ To the Stars


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Under small town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly but reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma.

Stars: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Adelaide Clemens, Lucas Jade Zumann, Malin Åkerman, Tony Hale

Director: Martha Stephens

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I open my review of the new coming-of-age drama with a familiar slap on the wrist to myself.  Yes, once again I did the film I was about to see a disservice by reading the little blurb about it first and getting to the “coming-of-age” part and doing one of those exasperated “Blerghs”.  Like a badly drawn character from the Sunday comics, my next thought bubble was, “now you’ll tell me that it’s set in the South in the 1960s”.  Sure enough….a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s is where the action of To the Stars takes place.  The one thing that intrugied me, though, is when I read the movie was shot in black and white…which I found interesting because so few movies go that route.  So let me say I was a little fraught when I started the movie and it was in full dust bowl color…a pause and a scan of the internet told me that while the movie was shot in B&W and premiered at festivals in that format, the wider release would be in color.  Huh. Ok.

All this to say that for whatever reason I came to this indie film in, how should I say it?, not the best spirit.  I recognized that, though, and promised myself to work hard at letting all that go because the movie deserved my honest feedback.  Turns out, I didn’t have to work hard at all because this is one fine film, a surprisingly moving bit of entertainment boasting genuine heartfelt performances.  Well-paced and taking the kind of turns I wasn’t expecting at the beginning, it may follow some familiar rough roads but it’s when it veers off in its own path that it really soars.

When mousy Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom) first meets fireball Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato, Banana Split), she doesn’t know quite what to make of the new girl in town.  A gang of bullies that have found a reliable target has just stopped Iris on her way to school and Maggie isn’t aware that Iris rarely puts up a fight.  Though Maggie tries to fit in by standing out in their small town school crowd, she only connects with Iris when the two share of moment of vulnerability late at night at a pond between their houses.  A friendship blossoms where Maggie encourages Iris to come out from the shadow of her well-intentioned but wrong-headed mother (Jordana Spiro) and Iris helps Maggie tear down some of the defensive walls she’s built up, eventually revealing why her family suddenly moved to their small town.

Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s script has a languid way of developing at first, slowly letting the friendship between the two girls come center stage.  The first half perhaps spends a tad too much time involved with school politics, namely the way Iris is shunned by the cool girls who are mean to Iris just…because. (It’s a big pain point of the script that none of the antagonists are ever given any background/reason to their actions.)  In a set-up that reminded me of Muriel’s Wedding, the cool girls glom on to the ‘prettier’ Maggie, who would rather spend her time with Iris who she senses (correctly) is far better for her than they are.  Scenes with Maggie and her parents (a staid Tony Hale, Toy Story 4, and Malin Åkerman, Rock of Ages) are fairly interesting because it’s clear something is going on in the family dynamic but just what that is only comes to light later on.

What the script does provide, even in small doses, are some excellent moments of authenticity not just for the two leading ladies who are both resolutely excellent throughout but for the supporting players.  From Shea Whigham (The Quarry) as Iris’s soft-spoken and supportive father to Spiro as her boozy mother that flirts with anything that moves.  I was also quite taken with Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby) as Hazel, the town hairdresser who plays a special role of comfort as the film continues.  To say more about how all of these complex characters factor into the surprising turn of events would rob the movie of some of its emotional kick but director Martha Stephens guides it all with a delicate touch.

Watching the movie, the whole black and white business was always on the forefront of my mind.  At first, the wide shots of the open Oklahoma prairie land seemed like the perfect way to utilize the film stock drained of color but quite a lot of the movie is set at night.  I actually think the decision to flip to color was the right one because seeing that a few major events happen in the darkness, it especially helps as the film moves toward its bittersweet conclusion.  A wise choice for a wise movie.  Don’t miss this one – it’s one of those I think you could easily recommend to others.

 

Movie Review ~ True History of the Kelly Gang


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.

Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Over the past years writing reviews for this blog, it’s been well-documented that I don’t always keep up with my history lessons but I have a feeling I could be forgiven for not being as up to date as I could be on the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.  Though he’s a divisive figure in his native land, a folk hero to some and a murderous villain to others, he’s not as well-known here, only making his mark in various forms of media over the last century.  Though 2003’s Ned Kelly starred the late Heath Ledger as the titular character and featured Orlando Bloom as his right-hand man Joseph Byrne, it didn’t connect with audiences and wouldn’t rank high on either actor’s roster of credits.

While many historical records are available to put together a fairly accurate account of Kelly’s life starting in the rugged outback until his death at the end of a hangman’s noose before he turned 30, director Jed Kurzel (Macbeth) takes a different, more controversial approach to his telling.  Working with screenwriter Shaun Grant, he’s adapted Peter Carey’s celebrated 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang which is largely (and proudly) a work of make-believe that mostly follows Kelly’s life but takes certain liberties along the way.  The novel created a ruckus from Kelly naysayers who were dismayed another work glorifying his crimes became so popular and enticed others open to the history books being cleverly reworked.

The resulting film Kurzel has made from this work is having the same effect and that almost instantly makes it something to seek out so you can decide for yourself.  Here is a bold movie that shouldn’t be taken as the final word on anything Kelly related, especially because it says from the beginning that none of what audiences are about to see is true.  Instead, it invites the viewer to ponder how the story could unfold if the man himself were sitting in front of you telling it.  What would he leave out?  What would he embellish?

Life for the Kelly clan was rough in the barren outback of the 1860’s.  After his father is sent to a dredge of a prison, his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, The Babadook) establishes herself as a bootlegger willing to do anything to keep her family with food on the table.  Eventually, she goes so far as selling off her eldest son Ned (played as a youngster by Orlando Schwerdt) to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, Boy Erased) in the hopes he could learn his thieving ways.  Horrified both by his mother’s betrayal and Power’s wicked bloodlust, Ned returns briefly before entering jail himself.  As an adult, the brash Ned (George MacKay, How I Live Now) runs with a smaller crowd that includes Joe (Sean Keenan), doing what they can to stay away from the long arm of the law.

When Ned is introduced to Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), a friendship that might have helped him turn his life around winds up sending him in the other direction when both men show they are unable to fully divest themselves from their convictions and their past.  This sets the stage for the film’s final act, sending Ned on the run with his “Kelly Gang” that leaves a trail of violence and bloody bodies in their wake.  When Ellen is jailed and Ned decides to stage a grand scale escape for his mother, it gives way to a final confrontation between the Kellys and the policemen that becomes the stuff of legend.

Plenty of movies about history have been given a modern edge with a little rock and roll twist but Kurzel finds a viscerally pleasing way of juxtaposing the luxe with the rough.  At times, the costuming and music give the feel of a movie taking place a century or more later, yet the movie never feels like it’s pawing at a theme it can’t follow through on.  As he’s shown in previous films, Kurzel has an eye for scale and he gives viewers some excellent scans of the burnt out landscape the Kellys call home as well as the more tony living of the upper crust.  Though the technique starts to overwhelm the film near the end, with the final confrontation become a bit of a headache inducing mess – the lead-up to it is pretty invigorating and chilling.  Kurzel also isn’t shy about showing copious amounts of violence, there’s enough blood and guts tossed about in the movie for several horror films yet it somehow still felt like it was authentic to the story being told.  Were the director to pump the brakes in these moments, it would feel like he was cheating so in that sense I appreciated he didn’t spare us these stomach churning sequences.

Where the movie truly excels are the performances.  Nearly landing an Oscar nomination for his work in 1917, MacKay follows it up with a commanding performance as Kelly that hits all the right notes.  He gives the character a humanity, yet doesn’t make him sympathetic at the same time.  That’s a hard line to draw because where folk heroes are concerned there is a tendency to try to overly humanize them just to make them likable…MacKay nicely walks the thin tightrope by just making him human.  The showstopper is Davis as his scheming mother, though.  In a truly remarkable performance, Davis (who is married to Kurzel) makes Ellen so resolutely devoted to her family that she’s willing to destroy everything else that gets in their way…even if it means sacrificing her other children.  This is the stuff Oscar nominations were made for.  Crowe and Hoult are strong, too, as are Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) as a love interest for Ned the author has created for effect, and Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), as the first lawman Ned has to face head on.

Not going to lie, this is a tough blister of a movie but it’s worth your time if you are into these visually arresting skewed history lessons.  The performances are first rate and the production design seemed to always be keeping me on my toes.  It’s unpredictable in a way that historical dramas just aren’t crafted to be – and how fun is that?

Movie Review ~ Sea Fever


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The crew of a West of Ireland trawler, marooned at sea, struggle for their lives against a growing parasite in their water supply.

Stars: Connie Nielsen, Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili

Director: Neasa Hardiman

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: All together now – What kind of movie does The MN Movie Man like more than anything as a guilty pleasure?:   Underwater Creature Features.

You know that once I was offered the chance to watch and review the new Irish horror film Sea Fever I jumped at it because if there’s one thing I know, it’s a good horror film and if there’s one thing I like, it’s something creepy underwater that picks people off one by one.  Add to that an eerie timeliness of arriving just as the world was put on its own lockdown quarantine and you have a movie that could be an effective winner if it comes off as planned.  Thankfully, despite obvious budget limitations and some pacing issues, Sea Fever is infectious fun.

Marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) isn’t exactly thrilled about spending time on a fishing boat but she’s unable to graduate without doing some real world studies.  While the Captain (Dougray Scott, My Week with Marilyn) and his wife (Connie Nielsen, Inheritance) are welcoming to the young student, the rest of the crew are dyed in the wool sea farers who believe in the superstitions about the ocean and all her mysteries.  So something like Siobhán’s red hair means bad luck before they’re even out of port…and it turns out to be a harbinger of things to come.  Straying from their intended course in order to guarantee a good net of fish and a hefty payday, the boat winds up converging with something massive that attaches itself to their hull.  What’s locked onto their vessel eventually seeps inside…first the boat and then the crew, releasing a deadly parasite.  Drawing from similar creature features like Leviathan and The Thing, it becomes a race against time to get back to shore alive while eliminating the hungry organism before it consumes them all.

Though it gets off to a good start, about 45 minutes into Sea Fever things get a little soggy because it feels like writer/director Neasa Hardiman has hit a wall in where to steer her ship next.  She’s navigated to a solid place. did a fairly good job in establishing the crew (though, I have to say there were two that I kept confusing because they looked so similar), and introduced a corker of a scary situation.  Then, everything kind of stalls for a good twenty minutes as Siobhán studies the organism and devises a way to defeat it, while trying to keep the crew (and herself) alive throughout.  Thankfully, things pick up again for the last fifteen minutes and Hardiman is able to bring it home with a satisfying (if somber) finale…but trimming it by 10-12 minutes wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Hardiman also gets nice performances out of her cast, with Corfield being a subdued and unexpected lead.  She may be a bit of an enigma at times, but it worked for how she was acting and reacting to the situation and the ship’s crew – both of whom she seemed to be battling at one point or another.  Scott and Nielsen not only offer worthy contributions as dependable leads but they find time to make a small backstory Hardiman has crafted seem germane to the film instead of distracting from the central horror of the plot.  Of the crew, I most enjoyed Olwen Fouéré (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) as a mother hen-ish type.  With her wild white hair she could at times be a nurturing presence or a wild sea witch if provoked…it’s the type of performance that makes sense within the confines of this movie and kept you wondering where the real danger was lurking.

All in all, I’m glad a movie like Sea Fever is out there because we need more movies like this, especially written/directed by women!  The effects aren’t going to blow your mind but they work better than expected for a smaller movie like this.  Earlier this year, Underwater was another slick deep sea creature feature that excelled by keeping the focus tight on a small number of characters.  That same logic applies here and it works quite well, resulting in a high degree of entertainment.

Movie Review ~ Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time – Vol. 1 Midnight Madness


The Facts
:

Synopsis: From The Rocky Horror Picture Show to The Big Lebowski and everything in between, this fascinating deep-dive documentary begins its celebration of the greatest cult movies of all-time discussing the birth of the midnight movie.

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Pam Grier, Rob Reiner, Barry Bostwick, Michael McKean, John Turturro, Gary Busey, Jeff Goldblum, Fran Drescher, Penelope Spheeris, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

Director: Danny Wolf

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I don’t know about you but all this #StayHome #StayHealthy quarantine life has gotten me pretty nostalgic on the film front.  While I’m still enjoying being able to screen the newer releases that are coming through digitally, my work desk faces a wall of movies and I can’t help but let my eyes drift throughout the day to favorite classic films of mine.  There’s my Criterion BluRay of Blood Simple nestled in close proximity to a well-watched DVD copy of Captain Ron.  Joe Versus the Volcano is being shuffled around to make room for the newly acquired 4K of Knives Out.  And did I really mess up my alphabetizing and put my old DVD of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow before Shout Factor’s Collector’s Edition of Serial Mom?  For shame.

Now, these aren’t all classic films (to some) but they may be that one flick for others that ranks high on the re-watchability scale…but how does a film earn the legendary “cult” status?  That’s the question posed at the beginning of the first volume in Time Warp: The Great Cult Films of All-Time, a new documentary that aims to cover the oft-mentioned movies that started small and got big over time, and maybe perhaps uncover a few gems film fans have forgotten over the years.  While subsequent volumes will cover the horror (Volume 2, out in May) and comedy (Volume 3, out in June) genres, this first entry corrals the true pick of the litter, the Midnight Madness titles that stand out as exemplars of the moniker.

Beginning with the granddaddy of all midnite movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, audiences will be treated to interviews with cast, crew, and fans talking about the origin, initial reaction, and staying power of the film over the last four decades.  While it’s all fairly standard stuff and nothing anyone with even marginal information about the show likely wouldn’t know, there’s a marked energy among all (and all interviewees throughout the doc, come to think of it) that doesn’t make it seem like the warmed over info it is.  Maybe that’s due to the fact that while the movies aren’t treated as high art, again and again their vital importance in the zeitgeist is stressed so if you do happen to count a movie like Eraserhead as better than Citizen Kane, no one involved with this production is going to judge you for it.

Some of the other titles covered are The Big Lebowski, a good example of a movie that isn’t for everyone yet has amassed enough of an audience over time to push it into cult status; Pink Flamingos, the John Waters tale of comic debauchery that definitely isn’t for everyone…dogs included; and Coffy and Foxy Brown, two Blaxploitation films that put star Pam Grier on the map.  Each come with their own groupings of supporters that detail why the films had such significance then and how their influence was important over the ensuing years.  Another dozen films are discussed in some detail with countless others mentioned in passing – it would be hard for any viewer to not hear at least one of their personal favorites tossed around at some point.

It doesn’t surprise me to learn that director Danny Wolf and the distributor are planning on breaking apart all three volumes further to create an extended TV mini-series because why else would we need a quartet of color commentators awkwardly set-up in a studio to chat about their personal favorite films between segments?  Don’t get me wrong, I’d have welcomed Illeana Douglas (Cape Fear) and John Waters (Cry Baby) to serve as the de facto hosts but I just didn’t understand where director Joe Dante (Matinee) or actor/comedian Kevin Pollak (Indian Summer) fit in at the end of the day or what they really brought to the proceedings. (I’ve watched two of the three volumes at the time of this writing).  That said, some of the people they do interview are quite entertaining, none more so than director Penelope Spheeris who appears to talk about her landmark documentary The Decline of Western Civilization.  Dressed all in black with sunglasses on, she is an active and engaging participant but is the kind of straight shooter that guffaw-inducing sound-bites were made of.

I’ll hold off on more of my thoughts for the next two volumes but as a first entry, Midnight Madness is a swell introduction into Wolf’s look into a fun side of movie history.  Providing some cinematic comfort food while we’re all hunkered down, Time Warp: The Great Cult Films of All-Time, is well-worth a look and an easy, entertaining watch.

Movie Review ~ The Quarry


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After murdering a traveling preacher, a fugitive drifter assumes his identity and becomes the new cleric of a small-town church. While he wins over the congregation, the police chief starts to link the mysterious stranger to a crime investigation.

Stars: Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Bobby Soto, Bruno Bichir, Alvaro Martinez

Director: Scott Teems

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  There are times when big screen adaptations of novels feel too workmanlike, simply going through the motions like chapters are driving the characters forward rather than real motivations.  Internal narratives are filled in with action so audiences don’t get restless and you feel as if you’ve lived the book rather than experienced the movie.  Every so often, though, you come upon a film that’s made the leap from page to screen and the transition works to its advantage because it lets the book dictate the rhythm and pace of what develops.

No one is going to watch the indie drama The Quarry and get an adrenaline rush from the viewing because writer/director Scott Teems hasn’t set out to create a fast-paced crime noir set in a Texas border town.  This is a carefully considered character study and before you roll your eyes a second time let me reel you back in and say that as dime a dozen as those may be, this is one to take a chance on.  Though the action that takes place over the 103 minute run time may not be the most original or, let’s be honest, exciting, it’s at least compelling in a way that many similar films aren’t.

Picking up The Man (Shea Whigham, Vice) after finding him on the side of the road, a preacher (Bruno Bichir, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) running away from his past toward an unremarkable future makes the mistake of thinking he can save one last troubled soul.  In short (non-spoiler-y) order, The Man kills him, dumps his body, and assumes his identity in the small dead-end town near the Mexican border, first as a way to hide from the law he’s clearly running from but eventually because he finds some salvation in the response he gets from the town’s residents.  Much like 2019 Best Foreign Language Nominee Corpus Christi, the townspeople have a positive reaction to this supposed man of God because he speaks to them in a way no on has spoken before…as one of them, which, we know he is. Taking room and board with Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, A Most Violent Year) who sees the police chief (Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water) regularly puts a spotlight dangerously close to him…a situation made more tense when a body is discovered in the local quarry.

It’s interesting to note that Damon Galgut’s 1995 novel has been made into a movie once before in 1998 that maintained the book’s original setting: South Africa.  Teems has skillfully moved the action to Texas which provides an opportunity to further explore the themes of the book involving the police trying to pin the murder on local minorities (blacks in the novel, Mexicans in the 2020 movie) which only makes The Man’s growing anguish over his crime grow.  You don’t have to look very hard to see a little Les Misérables action happening, with a man living under a false name pursued by the law weighing his options when another man is arrested and tried for a crime he himself committed.

You may not know his name but you’ve definitely seen Whigham before (and you’ll see him again next week in a small role if you check out the excellent To the Stars) and he’s afforded a swell leading role here.  He hasn’t made the leap in Hollywood to A-list, but I always have the feeling he’s one great role away from getting recognized for his strong showings wherever he turns up.  His quiet, nearly silent, role speaks to a deep well of hurt within the convict and though you know you shouldn’t be on his side, you silently root for him to win.  Never truly capitalizing on her Oscar-nominated role in 2004”s Maria Full of Grace, Sandino Moreno is excellent in her supporting turn as the lone female presence in a male dominated town/movie.  Shannon’s lawman could very easily have gone cliché but he kept surprising me, whether that was the script or the actor, I’m still not quite sure.  Another actor to look out for is Bobby Soto (A Better Life) as Celia’s cousin.  Soto begins the film heading in one direction but takes a surprising twist halfway through.  Going toe-to-toe with nearly everyone in the movie, Soto often manages to come out the winner in his scenes…a not small feat considering his co-stars.

You’ll hear the term “slow-burn” thrown around a lot when people talk about the movie but don’t take that to mean it won’t hold your interest.  I was initially put off by what I thought would be another tale of “how long can a man who isn’t who he says he is fool everyone into thinking he isn’t a bad guy” and was pleased to find how much the movie pulled me in and took me along for the ride.  For fans of these types of crime dramas and assured performances, you’ve got a good option in The Quarry.

The Silver Bullet ~ Valley Girl (2020)

Synopsis: Set to a new wave ’80s soundtrack, a pair of young lovers from different backgrounds defy their parents and friends to stay together. A musical adaptation of the 1983 film.

Release Date:  May 8, 2020

Thoughts:  In Hollywood, the phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ doesn’t really apply…it’s more like ‘If it’s ain’t broke, remake it’ and that could explain why we’re finally getting a look at this trailer for the long in development new edition of 1983’s Valley Girl.  Now, at first, I was, like, totally horrified at the thought of a true time capsule of cinema getting re-done because, like, why? Gag me with a spoon.  Then I heard it wasn’t just a simple remake but would add some gnarly tuneage from the era to become a full blown musical so I was, like, open to the idea.  I’m pretty sure I’ll be all ‘Whatever’ about the end product but after, like, six weeks of stay at home quarantine I have to admit the fun frolicking in Day-Glo neon on display looks like totally tubular fun right about now.  Starring Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U) with a little cameo from Alicia Silverstone (The Lodge), I’ll probably swing by this party….but only if the apps are tasty. 

Movie Review ~ Selah and the Spades


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Five factions run the underground life of Haldwell School, a prestigious east coast boarding school. At the head of the most powerful faction – The Spades – sits Selah Summers, walking the fine line between being feared and loved.

Stars: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams

Director: Tayarisha Poe

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I suppose it’s a natural feeling to be excited about what we know.  When I was in high school, I devoured anything about that high school experience.  Books, TV, movies, music, plays…anything.  It wasn’t escapist entertainment; I enjoyed my high school quite a lot so I wasn’t looking for something better but I was interested in what it was like seen through the eyes/ears/prose of another.  Those same feelings have continued through to adulthood and I know this isn’t some unique revelation because I’m fairly sure that’s how we’re supposed to relate as we age.  Heck, I recently watched Four Weddings and a Funeral for the first time since 1994 and I appreciate it so much more in 2020 because now as opposed to then I’ve actually BEEN to a wedding and a funeral.

To that end, I find it harder and harder to take movies in a high school setting because I feel so far removed from that world and too often the filmmakers paint the students as nothing more than authority bucking party monsters.  Instead of young rebels without a compelling cause, I crave either more authentic depictions or perhaps those that have a tad more bite to them.  Plenty of streaming services offer intriguing options and indie film isn’t short on offerings that skew to the abstract (hello Knives + Skin) but it’s been a while since someone found the right balance.

Though it doesn’t always land on its feet, Amazon Prime’s Selah and the Spades comes awful close to a bulls-eye and that’s thanks to a kinetic energy pulsating throughout.  Starting with a dynamite leading performance and filtering down through the cinematography, writing, and music, this is a movie that speaks to the here and now and isn’t attempting to remain timeless.  In remaining focused, it allows the characters to have a particularly strong voice and amps up their narrative to create something well worth spending some time on.

There’s a neat little introduction to the five cliques that rule the hallways of the Haldwell School at the opening of Selah and the Spades.  It’s here the film shows off the bat it has a sense of humor with a sharp edge to it and you better be prepared to keep up with its pace.  Each groups serves a particular population of the student body but to hear the voice-over narration tell it, you’d think these were crime families watching out for their own.  Sitting squarely at the top of the heap are the Spades, governed with respected imperiousness by senior Selah (Lovie Simone, an absolute revelation who has a part in the upcoming remake of The Craft) with assistance from her trusted right-hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight).

Self-possessed and always focused on the end goal, Selah works to keep her group strong even when rumors of a turncoat are raised just as she is about to pass on her torch to the next generation of underclassmen.  Under consideration for taking over is new student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) who is quickly befriended by Selah not so much because of her potential but for how much Selah can mold her into the leader she wants her to be.  As you can expect, forces outside and inside the Spades act to create situations that challenge Selah over the dwindling months before graduation.

It’s nice to find an original script like Selah and the Spades because I could easily have seen this one being adapted from a popular YA novel but writer/director Tayarisha Poe has clearly given a lot of thought to how each character moves throughout the film.  While I would have liked there to be more to all of our central characters than what is onscreen, with the limited time we have Poe wisely sticks to the important beats.  Only Selah is afforded more depth, explaining some of her control issues during a tense visit home with her severe mother (Gina Torres) who recites a familiar story with a cold acidity.

I don’t know how much Haldwell School reflects the current state of affairs in high school but no matter, I left Selah and the Spades once again glad that I am not a teenager.  The pressures they are under are great and the choices they make have bigger consequences than when I was their age.  Even if there are times when Selah drifts into dark Heathers territory, it’s the more realistic it gets that are the most scary sequences.

Movie Review ~ Endings, Beginnings


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Los Angeles woman unlocks the secrets to her life after meeting two handsome best friends at a party.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, Sebastian Stan, Wendie Malick, Matthew Gray Gubler, Lindsay Sloane, Ben Esler, Shamier Anderson, Kyra Sedgwick

Director: Drake Doremus

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  When I was growing up, if I disappointed them the most crushing thing my parents could say to me was “We love you, we just don’t like you right now.”  Even though it still reaffirmed that they cared for me (and my parents were awesome and endlessly supportive through my many flights of fancy) and highlighted that my actions had an impact on how people perceived me, losing that bit of luster even for a moment was heartbreaking.  While movie characters aren’t quite on the same level as letting down your family, I found that phrase popping up often while watching Endings, Beginnings.  I truly like most of the actors in the film, I just didn’t like any of their characters.

It’s the story of Daphne (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars), a California artist moving back into the pool house of her sister and brother-in-law after breaking up with her latest boyfriend.  You get the sense she made the decision to end things but is already having second thoughts because she can’t quite get him (or a hazy encounter with another unidentified man) out of her mind for much of the film.  Deciding to go cold turkey on men and alcohol for six months, she looks for work but finds it hard to stay away from her vices for long.

That’s when she meets two men in quick succession.  Jack (Jamie Dornan, Fifty Shades Freed) is a slick success story that charms the side of Daphne that craves stability while the handsomely rumpled Frank (Sebastain Stan, I, Tonya) meets her needs for satisfying love without deeper emotion.  Both, on their own, might not be all that she is looking for but together they provide a yin and yang that leaves her feeling whole.  Writer/director Drake Doremus (Like, Crazy, Equals) gives this modern love triangle a few sharp edges but the crux of the decisions Daphne has to make tend toward the soap operatic the more involved she gets with both men.

For a time, Endings, Beginnings creates a dreamy mood that invites you into Daphne’s world and that’s due in large part to Woodley’s charisma which continues to shine through.  Though she’s never been as good as she was in her star-making turn in 2011’s The Descendants (WHY didn’t she get an Oscar nomination, I ask you?), she has a good showing here even making the semi-improvised dialogue not sound like remnants from an acting class exercise.  The longer the movie goes on, though, the less you relate to the character because she stops being somebody real and morphs into a creation that could only happen in the movies.

As the men in her life, Dornan and Stan provide at least some interesting stakes for her to gamble on, even if they seem to exist only to get her to hop off the wagon of no men and no drinking.  That they actively push her to drink and don’t always respect her boundaries is a little off-putting, to be honest, and feels just a tad antiquated in a film as modern as this purports to be.  In small supporting turns (too small for my taste), Wendie Malick (Scrooged) has a few nice scenes as Daphne’s mom and the always reliable Kyra Sedgwick (Man on a Ledge) shows up as a friend in Daphne’s weekly art clutch.  I’m so used to seeing Malick playing vamp-y women that it was a nice change of pace to find her so restrained and while Sedgwick’s character seems designed only to spout sage advice and then disappear, at least she breaks up the monotony of scenes with Daphne and her men.

One more thing before I go.  I don’t know why I noticed this but the amount of smoking in this movie was absolutely obscene.  I’ve never mentioned this in any review before because it hasn’t been something that’s caught my eye but I swear I could smell smoke emanating from the screen at times because there are so many cigarettes consumed ad nauseam by Daphne, Jack, and Frank.  It’s used so much, I half expected it to be a plot device later in the movie…spoiler alert…it’s not.  I guess I just find it surprising that a filmmaker in 2020 would choose to feature this vice so prominently when it isn’t essential to any character or plot element.

For Woodley’s performance, I would give this a cautious recommendation with the caveat that the film gets markedly weaker as it goes along before completely disintegrating.  Here’s hoping Woodley gets another chance soon to play a mature character like this and can sink her teeth into a script that meets her step for step – she’s obviously willing to go the distance in her performance.  Now let’s get her something solid to work with.

Movie Review ~ Banana Split


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a messy break-up with her high school boyfriend, April strikes up an unexpected friendship with his new girlfriend, Clara.

Stars: Hannah Marks, Liana Liberato, Dylan Sprouse, Luke Spencer Roberts, Meagan Kimberly Smith, Haley Ramm, Jessica Hecht, Addison Riecke, Jacob Batalon

Director: Benjamin Kasulke

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While 2019’s Booksmart may not have found the audience Amazon Studios was hoping for, it’s critical acclaim certainly helped films like Banana Split land a release on a platform wider than the indie festival circuit.  Originally showing up in mid-2018 to decent reviews across the standard run of film fests, the movie, written by star Hannah Marks (Daniel Isn’t Real) and Joey Power, took some time to get further motion and one can only blame the deluge of familiar feeling coming of age comedies around that time for its delay.  Thankfully, now that we all have a little more time on our hands thanks to these new stay at home orders there’s a chance people will be able to discover this guilt-free treat.

Marks stars as April, a recent high school graduate that’s just broken up with her high school boyfriend (Dylan Sprouse, Big Daddy).  Maybe he was The One, maybe he wasn’t.  Yet he was something special and we all know what that’s like not knowing for sure if it was right to part ways with someone.  An opening montage shows us the complexities of their first meeting all the way through their break-up, like a version of the tear-stained beginning of Up maxed out on teenage hormones.  As both go on with their lives during the summer before entering college, April finds a new friend in Clara (Liana Liberato, To the Stars) and they find a fast camaraderie with an instant bond.  There’s just one problem…Clara is Nick’s new girlfriend and he doesn’t know the two of them are friends.

There’s a whole lot of ways Banana Split could take these characters and I was happy to see Marks and Power not take the expected route most of the time.  I grow so weary of all these depictions of high schoolers as nothing but hard partying pill-popping drinkers that rebel against the norm just because.  The characters in the world Marks and Power have created are definitely more adult than their age implies but it’s done in a believable way that comes with real emotional consequences for their actions.  Marks hits the, uh, mark well with her supporting characters too…from geeky third wheels to annoying siblings to parents that want to do right but don’t want to smother.  Each have their own representations in previous films but there’s a special angle given to each supporting subtype here that makes it feel fresh.  The film is also funny, poignant, and quite observant of male-female friendships but putting the emphasis nicely on the delicate dealings between two females that share common interests and one eternal flame.

Movie Review ~ Vivarium


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hoping to find the perfect place to live, a couple travel to a suburban neighborhood in which all the houses look identical. But when they try to leave the labyrinth-like development, each road mysteriously takes them back to where they started.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Jonathan Aris, Eanna Hardwicke, Senan Jennings

Director: Lorcan Finnegan

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There’s a great show on Netflix that I’m sure you’ve heard of: Black Mirror.  It’s a nice little analysis of the dark side of advances in technology and while the creators have found interesting ways to drop slight ways that episodes are tied together, they are by and large stand alone tales that are often disturbing and eerily prescient.  Watching the overlong and overstated Vivarium, I kept thinking back to the efficient way that Black Mirror (or even old shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits) were able to condense their thoughts and ideas into a concise statement rather than ramble on with little to say above and beyond their logline.  I get a sense that writer/director Lorcan Finnegan and his co-writer Garret Shanley had a good nugget for an episode of a TV show here but unwisely were advised to expand on it and make it feature-length.  The result is a film that begins intriguing but quickly turns tedious.

Young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots, Green Room) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg, The End of the Tour) are looking to buy their first house together and have heard about a new development nearby that might be good to get an early jump on.  A robotic but benign salesperson (Jonathan Aris, All the Money in the World) lists the benefits of the manufactured community but feels it’s better just to show them around the neighborhood instead so they follow him, not paying any real attention to where they are headed.  When the salesperson disappears halfway through the tour and they can’t seem to find their way back to the main road, they are forced to spend the night in the model home…the first of many, it turns out.  Unable to leave the neighborhood and eventually trapped within their own hell house, the couple tries to escape by any and all means necessary.

At 97 minutes, Finnegan and Shanley only have so much room (and characters) to throw at audiences and sadly the usually reliable Poots can’t shoulder the entire movie on her own.  Eisenberg is his typical low-key milquetoast, prone to fits of anger when provoked but mostly an uninteresting presence.  So it falls to Poots to keep us tuned in and there’s just not enough going on in the neighborhood to make us want to stick around.  If it were only 45-50 minutes, I could see this being a tighter and more engaging watch that wouldn’t allow us time to check out watches.  Add in the appearance of a character prone to a deafening primal screech when they don’t get their way and you have the recipe for a movie that gets its eviction notice long before the credits roll.