Movie Review ~ The High Note

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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

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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.

Movie Review ~ The Trip to Greece


The Facts
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Synopsis: Actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan travel from Troy to Ithaca following in the footsteps of the Odysseus.

Stars: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Tessa Walker, Michael Towns, Marta Barrio, Kareem Alkabbani

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  It’s funny how our tastes change over time, isn’t it?  Much like how we continue to develop our palate for new foods as we grow, our interest in certain topics and curiosity in outside stimuli remain in flux well into our adulthood.  That’s probably why I’ve found myself throughout this time of shelter in place going back through a number of older movies that I’ve seen before when I was much younger but can only really appreciate now.  Films like Cabaret or Broadcast News look different when viewed as an adult and newer (to me) titles like North by Northwest (don’t judge) and Sullivan’s Travels are discoveries long overdue.

All this preamble is meant to illustrate is that I can easily see my younger self staying far away from the quartet of films in The Trip series because they wouldn’t have spoken to me until I reached this point in my life.  The first film, released in 2010 was an out-of the blue delight and it’s 2014 follow up, The Trip to Italy, took the original premise and found new ways to mine laughs and pathos.  If 2017’s The Trip to Spain wasn’t quite in the same league, it was still miles ahead of other comedic endeavors because the series as a whole is so unique to begin with.  There’s just nothing quite like it and it’s hard to explain why following around two middle-aged men through various picturesque locales as they quip, nip, and nibble is so incredibly entertaining.  So when I got wind that The Trip to Greece was setting sail, I couldn’t wait to escape for another adventure.

Returning once more to play exaggerated versions of their own personas, Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Blinded by the Light) are found at the top of the movie in Turkey already at their first stop for their latest road trip.  Coogan’s publisher wants him to write a piece that follows the journey of Odysseus across Greece, bringing Brydon along for company and commentary.  Together, the men dine at fine restaurants in front of jaw-dropping vistas and stay at luxe accommodations as they see the sights the countryside has to offer.  Through some amazing cinematography, it’s the best kind of postcard for Greek tourism the country could ask for…and extra painful right now when all I want to do is travel.

Director Michael Winterbottom (The Look of Love) has a long history with Coogan and Brydon by this point and more so than other entries this feels like it has longer takes with more freedom for the men to improv and riff off of each other.  This leads to a series of riotously funny sequences with the competitive guys trying to best the other, be it with impressions of Mick Jagger, determining who can swim better, or who hits the best falsetto notes on an old Demis Roussos song.  The comic takedowns are endless and rapid fire, but they are all in good fun and you can easily see how much the two like one another.

While other entries have all had some sort of dramatic interlude that brings the fun fantasy trip back to reality, The Trip to Greece takes a more somber turn than I expected and it’s a jarring transition.  This being the supposed final entry in the series (for now at least) I had hoped to see it go out with a different message but I suppose there’s a take away from where we last see both men as the film draws to a close.  I won’t spoil the ending for you but when you reflect back on all the places we’ve traveled with Steve and Rob and all the wonderful meals we’ve shared with them, you realize that it truly is about the journey and not so much about the destination.

Movie Review ~ Premature


The Facts
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Synopsis: Seventeen year old Ayanna meets handsome and mysterious Isaiah in her path towards self-discovery. Her entire world is turned upside down as she travails on the rigorous terrain of young love on the summer before she leaves for college.

Stars: Zora Howard, Joshua Boone, Michelle Wilson, Alexis Marie Wint, Imani Lewis, Tashiana Washington, Myha’la Herrold

Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green

Rated: NR

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Seeing movies at film festivals is, honestly, often a crapshoot.  Though the movies have been curated by a supposedly sensible staff there are times when you find yourself watching a selection and wondering how on earth the committee thought a crowd would respond to this title.  Thankfully, the group behind the Twin Cities Film Festival have an exceedingly good feel not just for what will appeal to their festivalgoers but also what filmmakers/actors/projects could be the next buzzy project.  It’s these films that are often selected to either open the festival or be the closing night title, so I always tend to pay close attention to what gets those coveted slots.

At the 11-day event this past year, Premature snagged that closing night position so I made sure to get it on my schedule and I was glad I did because it lived up to the hype.  Catching a movie so early in its festival run can be difficult because it can fade from memory when it finds a wide-release date but that wasn’t the case here. Now, seven months later it’s finally debuting on the streaming service Hulu after winning a number of awards, including Film Independent’s  Someone to Watch Award for director Rashaad Ernesto Green back in February.

When Ayanna (Zora Howard) meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone) during one hot summer in her Harlem, NY neighborhood, she isn’t looking for any kind of a relationship.  She’s on her way to college in the fall and is tentative about getting involved with the older man, charming though he may be.  Her poetry and journaling is her method of expression and she pours her feelings into lines that hold great power.  When she inevitably finds herself moving forward with Isaiah, her life changes in ways she never expected and emotions of both pleasure and pain factor into her thoughts on building a future with him.

Co-written by Green and star Howard, this is a sensitive drama involving young love that doesn’t follow the typical trajectory we’re all used to seeing.  Bucking most conventions of the romance genre, it gives voice to the black community in current, vibrant ways and you can feel its energy pulsating off screen from beginning to end.  It’s a frank film, in language and sexuality, yes, but also in honesty of emotion and all feel entirely earned and justified.  Simple resolutions don’t exist in Ayanna and Isaiah’s world and I appreciated seeing the world from that vantage point.

The script is one thing but the performances are what elevate Premature to that next level.  Green has assembled a hell of a fine cast, from bit players to supporting actors playing Ayanna’s pseudo Greek chorus girlfriends.  Though made on a tiny budget you get the feeling all of these people have known each other for years and Green just made a few phone calls to get them all together to shoot.  Boone and Howard have a fiery chemistry that is so very rare to see and Boone makes what could be a problematic character less so with his gentle approach.  The movie belongs to Howard, though, and not just because she’s written an especially strong female lead for herself.  Ayanna’s imperfections is what makes her so understandable and whether she’s struggling with communicating with her mother (a strong Michelle Wilson) or reacting to a perceived slight from Isaiah, we understand her frustration more than we are aware.  It’s a bold, brave, memorable turn.

Premature was always going to be a tough sell even without the quarantine and pandemic to quiet it’s already small release in theaters.  Now that it’s going straight to streaming on Hulu there’s a chance more people will discover it early but it’s a true gem that you should get on the bandwagon early for.  It falls into the same step with If Beale Street Could Talk with presenting straightforward black relationships without resorting to cloying clichés.  That should be celebrated and encouraged.

Movie Review ~ Inheritance (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A patriarch of a wealthy and powerful family suddenly passes away, leaving his wife and daughter with a shocking secret inheritance that threatens to unravel and destroy their lives.

Stars: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Nielsen, Chace Crawford, Patrick Warburton

Director: Vaughn Stein

Rated: NR

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Over the past few months while I’ve been cooped up there’s been time to do more than watch movies, a shocking thought to be sure.  Though I resisted at first, I’ve only recently given over to becoming a member of the puzzling community and now I have another project to occupy my time.  The jigsaw puzzle I’m working on now is tricky because the picture you see on the box doesn’t match the final one displayed in the finished work, meaning that you can only use the original image as a reference point.  What’s even trickier is that some pieces seem to fit right at first but wind up not being the exact match you originally thought they were.

Watching the new thriller Inheritance is a lot like putting together this puzzle because what you see isn’t exactly what you get and it’s made up of pieces that don’t fit.  Audiences in the mood for a twisty suspense film are willing to piece together intricate plot points but you have to provide them with the proper skill level for their efforts.  While I feel the finished project is overall an entertaining one that rises above some more standard tropes, it can’t get away from some big red flags that prevent it from rising to the next level.

Wealthy Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton, Ted) has passed away suddenly, leaving his wife Catherine (Connie Nielsen, Sea Fever) and children William (Chace Crawford, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding) and Lauren (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror) in shock.  The head of a successful and influential family, he was also a hard and harsh man toward his children and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of love lost at his demise.  At the reading of his will, his estate is divided between Catherine and William with Lauren receiving a smaller portion of his fortune.  This comes as no surprise as politician William is mounting another reelection bid and Lauren has always been somewhat of a disappointment to her father…even though she’s the District Attorney of Manhattan. (!)

Lauren gets something more for her inheritance, though.  A secret.  Delivered by the Monroe’s lawyer (Michael Beach, Aquaman) she becomes keeper of the keys to a secluded bunker behind her family estate that holds a dark mystery from her father’s past.  Now, it’s hard to speak of what this is without revealing too much of the wild turns Inheritance begins to take but suffice it to say it involves a man (Simon Pegg, The World’s End) who could sully her family name. Their relationship eventually forces Lauren to make the choice between family and virtue and leads to the awakening of some deep-seeded resentment toward her father we see played out in flashback.

Directing only his second feature film, Vaughn Stein takes Matthew Kennedy’s at times far out there script and finds a nice visual balance by draining the film of a lively color palate.  Upstate NY (actually Alabama) looks bleak, leaving our heroine literally out in the cold for much of the film.  Stein has a good eye to keep the film interesting to look at, even if he allows it to go on longer than it should because with a running time of 111 minutes it’s could easily lose 14 of them and be a tighter, tauter affair.  Reviews of Inheritance have given away the twist and I could have expanded on what’s in the bunker but I’m deciding to be deliberately obtuse because I saw the film without any knowledge of the deeper plot and that’s how I think you should too.  There’s a lot about the movie that’s, frankly, silly so the more you can take the seriousness when it’s available I say run toward it.  While it builds to some truly ludicrous switcheroos and supposedly smart people acting like complete dopes, I found a lot of Inheritance to be an an engaging ride.

Remember how I mentioned that puzzle piece that seems like it fits but really doesn’t?  That would be Collins as the leading lady who gives it her all but is just miscast in the role.  Taking over the role from Kate Mara (who would have been aces), Collins doesn’t look old enough to be the Manhattan DA, let alone have a child that barely needs to be in a car seat.  It feels like these character points were written when Mara was still cast and weren’t changed when Collins came on board.  Had the script been tweaked to make her child younger and alter her career position (not because she couldn’t hold the position but because I didn’t believe she was old enough to have it yet) I would have been able to buy her character fully.  Though Collins acts up a storm, she just feels out of place throughout.  Aside from some truly heinous acting from a bit player Collins meets with to get answers about her father, the acting is strong from the rest, particularly Nielsen who feels underutilized…until she isn’t.

Inheritance is a perfectly OK thriller, one of those films that you’d see pop up on your Netflix queue that you’d give some time to and walk away none the worse for wear.  It has some good points (I was surprised at a few rather spooky set-ups) and some stumbles but having approached it with no real investment there was nothing for me to be let down by.  It’s well-made and nicely assembled with performances that are nothing less than fully committed – I just wish the script was tailored more to the actors playing the roles and not the other way around.

Movie Review ~ The Painter and The Thief


The Facts
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Synopsis: Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova develops an unlikely friendship with the man who stole two of her paintings

Stars: Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland

Director: Benjamin Ree

Rated: NR

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: With the advances of media and technology, we can now capture so much of our lives.  From the very public to the intimately private, there’s opportunities to catch the tiniest moments and it’s led to rich advancements in documentaries over the last two decades.  So instead of a documentary filmmaker having to be with the subject 24/7 they can glean footage from iPhones or video cameras set to film conversations that go for the most realism as possible.  What began as frontline footage that was often dangerous to obtain by guerilla filmmakers shining a spotlight on injustice or showcasing an underseen population is now, maybe not easier, but different to compile.

I’m a sucker for documentaries and look forward to the announcement of the Best Documentary category about as much as I do the top prizes at the Oscars every year.  Of course I love the ones that feature the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry but I also hold a special place for the docs about human relationships that evolve over time that aren’t set in one specific time period.  Seeing the subjects age and grow (not like in movies where they are aided by make-up/technology) is documentary in its most pure form and we’re starting to see more of these labors of love as the years go by.  Even better is that while so many Hollywood movies have plots that are recycled from the same three or four formulas, you never can predict where a documentary will take you.

That’s why I was so intrigued when I first heard about The Painter and the Thief.  Here was a documentary centered on an artist from the Czech Republic recently relocated to Oslo that has two of her prized paintings stolen out of a gallery.  The men are caught and the artist forms a bond with one of the men that winds up changing both of their lives in unexpected ways.  Sounds like something right up my alley and the perfect issues for a documentary.  Right?  So why did the movie and its subjects leave me so…cold?

What I’ve been trying more and more during this time is to read as little about the films I’m watching beforehand as possible so when approaching The Painter and the Thief I knew just the basics.  Watching the film directed by Benjamin Ree I was struck by how much it felt like a narrative project and I kept having to remind myself it was a documentary and not a work of fiction.  There’s something in the way that Ree has presented the work and how the painter (Barbora Kysilkova) and the thief (Karl-Bertil Nordland) carry themselves while on camera that it comes across like everyone has a distinct awareness of what’s going on.  That tends to rob some of the drama and revelation out of what transpires, though it must be said that I don’t think it was Ree’s intention to provide this kind of emotional journey at the outset.

What I can’t seem to get over is a nagging sense of being somehow manipulated throughout into a particular path and it becomes more over the longer the film runs.  This isn’t completely out of bounds for a filmmaker to add in their personal slant, however The Painter and the Thief manages to go beyond that so the audience tends to doubt some certainties along the way.  Aside from feeling like you can’t believe the developments that take place, there are some oddities you can’t quite shake.  If we know that Karl-Bertil is the thief, why on the security footage that is captured and presented as evidence in the court is his face blurred out?

The film finds its success in its thread of redemption and it’s not just for the thief.  The artist, seemingly quick to forgive the men who robbed her, goes through her own journey of forgiveness within herself that feels like a far more strenuous battle.  And the uphill climb Karl-Bertil takes is quite incredible, you see him come back to life through the copious amount of footage Ree has whittle down to the finished film.  The final shot is a bit of a magic trick, tying up a lot of loose ends with satisfaction while opening a whole new can of worms.

You can easily imagine this being turned into a feature film and I wouldn’t doubt we’ll see this story brought to the screen within the next several years.  While I question the full range of authenticity on display for the duration of The Painter and the Thief there’s little in question that the human connection found within its framework is captured with grace.

Movie Review ~ Villain (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Released from prison, a man returns to his violent ways when a menacing drug lord threatens his indebted brother.

Stars: Craig Fairbrass, George Russo, Izuka Hoyle, Mark Monero, Tomi May, Eloise Lovell Anderson, Taz Skylar, Nicholas Aaron, Michael John Treanor, Marcus Onilude, Robert Glenister

Director: Philip Barantini

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Over here in America we think we’ve got the gangster movie nailed down and maybe we’ve had a good run but there’s something about the way our friends over in the UK do it that elevates it to another level.  Though Guy Ritchie is credited as revitalizing the crime thriller for a new generation with his slate of movies in the early 2000s which combined rough action and slick dialogue, it overly complicated what is ostensibly a simple genre.  All that flash may give the feature an interesting look but it’s the performances and plot that propel these hard-nosed titles forward into success.  While Ritchie made a play to regain some of that magic with The Gentlemen earlier this year, it still leaned a little too much on the side of style over substance…but it was on the right track.

Now we have Villain, a smaller title with no A-listers to amp up the star quality and it winds up running circles around The Gentlemen for the plain fact that it goes back to the original formula instead of designing from the next gen hybrid.  It’s a hard-nosed, bloody knuckle ride that feels like it was working from script that’s been around since the 70s.  That’s not a bad thing, either, because it keeps the world of our characters small and the attention focused, creating a cracking action package that also takes interesting dramatic turns.

Having served his time in prison, Eddie Franks (Craig Fairbrass, Cliffhanger) is headed home to take back the family pub from his ne’er-do-well brother Sean (George Russo, also a co-screenwriter) who has been keeping it afloat during his absence.  Though the watering hole continues to generate steady business from the locals, Sean has a side operation with a few ruddy drug runners that have set him up in a shady extortion plot.  With Sean’s life on the line and Eddie not wanting to go back to prison so soon for kicking the tar out of these men, the brothers offer to peaceably make good on the debt and let everyone be on their way but when the thugs push back it sets a chain of gruesome events into motion.  With his family on the line, Eddie has to come out of his good guy retirement to protect his brother, his business, and his estranged daughter (Izuka Hoyle, Mary Queen of Scots) that wants nothing to do with him.

Actor turned director Philip Barantini oversees his first feature film and it captures the feel of those 70s British gangster films while still retaining a modern sensibility.  It’s obvious Barantini has done his homework and while the movie doesn’t feel old-fashioned or overly reverential, you can see that it is definitely tipping its hat toward the films it was inspired by.  The same feeling is found in Russo and Greg Hall’s efficient script.  The characters are fairly well defined and we know as much as we need to about them so that their motivations make sense.  The introduction of Eddie’s daughter could have been a typical saccharine development but the way Fairbrass and Hoyle play it we know that a resolution won’t be wrapped up in a bow in the course of 97 minutes.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of Fairbrass before this but looking over his IMDb credits he’s amassed a lot of similar roles over the years.  He fits into that elder Jason Statham role and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear this was originally offered to Statham, which is meant as no disrespect to Fairbrass because I think he wound up being the better choice anyway.  He’s an intimidating presence but soft-spoken, you know he’s paying you respect by not slapping the hell out of you if you look at him sideways.  While the supporting cast is solid across the board, this movie belongs to Fairbrass and he’s a commanding (and affable) lead.

Though it starts to run out of steam and interesting places to go near the end, I wasn’t quite sure for the majority of the movie where Villain was headed.  For once, I could have imagined countless different solutions that would have been a satisfying finale and the one that was chosen likely makes the most sense dramatically.  As much as the movie is about settling up old scores and paying for actions, it shows that no one is above consequences, even purportedly minor ones.

Movie Review ~ Military Wives


The Facts
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Synopsis: With their partners away serving in Afghanistan, a group of women on the home front form a choir and quickly find themselves at the center of a media sensation and global movement.

Stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan, Jason Flemyng, Greg Wise, Emma Lowndes, Gaby French

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: One of the last movies I was scheduled to see before this pandemic hit was Military Wives and I have to say, I was disappointed to be missing it.  Yes, I know that the #StayHome and #StaySafe orders were for the best and I am in full support of social distancing in order to kick COVID-19 to the curb (what will people think reading this in a few years?) but I was seriously in the mood for something that looked as joyously heartwarming as Military Wives looked to be.  Though you could literally see the plot points developing while the trailer was unspooling it was no matter, sometimes it is OK to know the route before leaving the station.

The chance to get to see this early did present itself, though, so I found myself watching a screener of this during a particularly glum week and I have to say, it really did the trick in brightening a mood.  Even though it deals with some emotional subjects and is, at times, a heart-tugging tearjerker, this is the kind of film made to turn on during a dark period.  It’s bright, it’s light, and it while it is disappointingly not as deep or as sensitively profound as I thought it would be there’s so much good will being poured into it that it’s hard not to give over to its charms at one point or another.

At the Flitcroft Military Base, families are preparing to say goodbye to their loves ones that are shipping out on active duty for a tour in Afghanistan.  In order to stay busy, the spouses/partners of the soldiers serving try to stay busy with events organized by the partner of the second in command.  Previously, this was tightly-wound Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) but with her husband (Greg Wise, Last Christmas) now the highest level officer at the base, that role now falls to Lisa (Sharon Horgan, Game Night) who is more loose with her definition of organized activity.  When Lisa’s experience with choral work is brought up, the ladies decide to start a choir leading to a power struggle between Lisa and Kate.  With little initial energy behind the choral club from the members and the leaders, it takes a shocking wake-up call to remind the group of their strength and how important their role as caregivers are.

I’ll say off the bat that those expecting a raucous comedy about a dysfunctional choir that starts off bad and turns into an overnight sensation after a series of hysterical antics should likely go back and dust off their copy of Sister Act (actually, do that anyway) because that’s not exactly the movie we have here.  Screenwriters Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard have taken a true-life story and fictionalized it, letting the Flitcroft Military Choir be the amalgam for a number of choirs that came together during the Afghanistan deployment back in 2008 and their focus is not entirely on laughs but on humor…if that makes sense.  Most of the comedy is derived from the ladies reluctance to participate in the chorus, only to be swayed when they begin to gel as one as they find their voices as a group.  Scenes that you think are headed for a comic punchline either veer in a different direction or don’t go anywhere at all, at times it feels like Flynn and Tunnard are afraid to stray too far into comedic shenanigans, even though the movie might have derived some needed energy from these flights of fancy.

This being a film about loved ones engaged in war you may be able to guess at least one of the poignant moments – and you know it’s coming but just not when or to whom.  Thankfully, the screenwriters spare us the suspense and don’t make that the event that the final act hinges on but rather what pushes it forward.  The real heavy emotional lifting is done by Scott Thomas playing the wife grieving the loss of her son killed in battle left behind by a husband also unable to cope with his sorrow.  Had the movie shifted the focus to be more on Scott Thomas and used her involvement with choir as a way toward her finding healing, I have a feeling it would have been more successful.  As it is, there’s just not enough story or character development to go around the numerous (appealing) supporting cast that doesn’t get much in the way of fleshed out story arcs.  Even the talented Horgan can’t drum up much interest and though she’s meant to be a co-lead she’s often overshadowed by Scott Thomas solely because her character isn’t as well-defined.

Director Peter Cattaneo found unexpected triumph (and an Oscar nomination) over twenty years for the quirky delight that was The Full Monty and as much as the marketing materials want you to believe this is another slam dunk like that was, it isn’t.  That’s not to say Military Wives is without its own share of rich moments of humanity…it’s just that there aren’t quite as many opportunities as there could have been.  It follows a standard formula that gets the job done but is workmanlike in its delivery.  Though it culminates with a moving performance at the Royal Albert Hall and features a typically fantastic performance from School Thomas, Military Wives winds up just under pitch.

Movie Review ~ Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time – Vol. 2 Horror and Sci-Fi


The Facts
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Synopsis: The greatest cult horror and science fiction films of all-time are studied in vivid detail in the second volume of Time Warp. Includes groundbreaking classics like Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and sci-fi gems such as Blade Runner, and A Clockwork Orange.

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Sean Young, Joe Morton, Malcolm McDowell, Bruce Campbell, Roger Corman, John Sayles, Mary Woronov, Ed Neal, Rob Zombie, Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

Director: Danny Wolf

Rated: NR

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s fitting that horror and sci-fi are the subject of the second volume of the documentary Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time, seeing that the genre was so prone to sequel-itis over the years. Yet many of the titles featured in this shorter follow-up to Volume 1 are stand-alone entities, which surely have contributed to their unique followings over time. From the obscure but not quite forgotten Liquid Sky to the oft-mentioned importance of the original Night of the Living Dead, these were usually shoe-stringed budgeted kitchen-sink endeavors that caught on over time.

Joined again by the strange panel of moderators consisting of Joe Dante (Matinee), John Waters (Pink Flamingos), Illeana Douglas (Cape Fear), and Kevin Pollak (Indian Summer), director Danny Wolf moves away from the general ‘Midnight Madness’ theme from the preceding chapter. For his follow-up, he centers on a more specific genre that produced a bevy of cult titles throughout the last several decades. Not all the choices are obvious ones and though a number of quips and factoids presented over the 83 minutes are what you could glean from a trivia track off of a special edition DVD, it’s the delivery of said bits that make this such an enormous treat for film fans. Even if horror/sci-fi isn’t your bag, there are enough familiar faces that float by, either as stars reflecting on their earlier work or fans commenting on the importance of the title on the medium, that I think you’ll get a kick out of this.

I mean, you can hardly go wrong when you have interviews with Jeff Goldblum cheekily riffing on his experience making The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and straining to remember the illegible plot. Or an actress from The Human Centipede reflecting on the casting process and attempting to find nobility in the acting that went on while filming a movie where the mouth of her character was sewn to the business end of a companion. I thought Mary Woronov recounting her time on Death Race 2000 was a hoot, proving again she’s one of the best interview subjects for these kind of documentaries. Special mention goes to Sean Young who pulls no punches when discussing her time on the set of Blade Runner – say what you will about Young’s antics over the years but she definitely speaks up for herself.

Along with critical hot takes throughout, this is another well put together look into movies that started off the beaten path and have generally found their way into a lasting conversation. They may not have had A-list talent (well, not at the time) but they’ve garnered a name for themselves through longevity and staying power that other titles in their genre haven’t found. This covers a nice swath of tastes too, from the pomp of A Clockwork Orange to the worms and all grotesqueries found in The Evil Dead and Re-Animator.  It’s just long enough to cover more than the basics but doesn’t slog on to encapsulate additional titles that don’t quite fit the bill.  While the oeuvre might not be your completely cup of tea, there’s a little something for everyone from laughs to trivia.

Movie Review ~ Body Cam


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a routine traffic stop results in the unexplained, grisly death of her colleague, a cop realizes footage of the incident will play for her eyes only. As the attacks mount, she races to understand the supernatural force behind them

Stars: Mary J. Blige, Nat Wolff, David Zayas, David Warshofsky, Demetrius Grosse, Anika Noni Rose

Director: Malik Vitthal

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Before this whole pandemic, when you heard a moving was “skipping a theatrical release” that was often industry code for a turkey being served up to audiences as a TV dinner instead of as a restaurant meal.  The film likely had a rough gestation and the studio wasn’t confident it would be able to see a marginal return on its investment during the opening weekend, even if some sliver of good word of mouth could propel it forward.  All the big studios would have one or two of these movies a year and no big name star or project was totally immune from it.

If there’s one good thing to come out of this recent pandemic, it’s that this swift shift to streaming isn’t looked on as a death knell as easily as it was before.  This could be the studio simply wanting to keep pushing content out in a slim market to eager consumers tiring of the binge watch instead of just the usual content dump.  With a severe lack of new movies coming out week to week we’re already seeing movies that otherwise would have been overlooked do quite well thanks mostly to their availability, to say nothing of their overall quality.

That’s one way to look at the recent quieter than usual release of the supernatural cop thriller Body Cam, a movie I just heard about a few weeks ago when Paramount released a not entirely gripping trailer.  Starring music icon and two-time Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige, it was originally meant for a summer release but was made available mid-May with VOD to follow in June.  Now, a movie that would surely have been dismissed quickly had it played in your local multiplex has an opportunity to be evaluated within a different set of qualifiers.  Despite being tiresomely formulaic at it’s core, it isn’t half bad.

Back on the active duty after an altercation with a civilian earned her an eight-week suspension, Officer Renee Lomito-Smith (Blige, Rock of Ages) is paired with rookie Danny (Nat Wolff, Semper Fi) for her first night back.  The two are first on the scene where a fellow cop was murdered by a supernatural force we got a brief glimpse of in the film’s opening sequence.  Renee sees it too in the dashcam footage that mysteriously is erased when her superiors try to view it later.  After more murders take place that involve members of the force, Renee launches her own private investigation and brings Danny along with her, eventually leading to a missing healthcare worker (Anika Noni Rose, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who has suffered a terrible loss.  As Renee gets closer to discovering how the worker is tied to her fellow cops, her own troubled past which she’s tried to shut away comes back to haunt her…in increasingly terrifying ways.

You get the feeling watching Body Cam that it’s a mash-up of two scripts that were missing key elements.  The original writer, Richmond Riedel, is known more as an editor and while the producers brought in Nicholas McCarthy (The Prodigy) to rewrite the material, it never quite succeeds as either a cop thriller or supernatural horror film.  Though McCarthy has a firm foothold in the horror genre based on his resume, you’d think he would have been able to tip the scales toward creating a better terror mythology to liven up an otherwise realistic movie.  I kept expecting a twist regarding Renee that never came, and I think viewers savvy to this type of movie will know what I mean…though maybe with The Woman in the Window coming out shortly that angle was a bit passé.

Thankfully, director Malik Vitthal delivers in several key spooky sequences, knowing just when to reveal frights and not going for cheap scares.  As is the case with so many of these movies, people go where they shouldn’t go and for the love of God why do they insist on heading into a basement without turning all the lights on just because they hear a floorboard creak?  The violence is surprisingly gory, with one especially graphic make-up effect being particularly chilling – the image stuck with me long after the movie ended.  Brief attempts at social commentary regarding relations between the police and minorities feel shoehorned in and the movie would be far more interesting (especially considering where it winds up) if more attention was paid to this very pertinent topic.

A titan in the music industry who has long earned her title as the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Blige still isn’t as strong an actress as she is as singer.  That tentativeness works at times with this character who is riding the edge of emotional trauma; it was a strange dichotomy of a performance. I completely bought her as this cop on a mission but for the most part her line readings come off as strangely stilted.  This isn’t meant as a dig but Blige is best when she wasn’t saying anything at all.  Her reactions to what was going on and when she is in pursuit were the most intriguing part.  The oddball relationship with her and Wolff was interesting to see develop and I wish we got to see more of Rose throughout the film.  Actually, in a perfect world Rose and Blige would have swapped roles because Rose is silent for the majority.  It goes back to the script being half-baked and not fully developing Blige’s emotionally bruised cop/mother as much as they could – there’s little resolution to either side of her persona by the conclusion.

At 96 minutes, the pacing in Body Cam could be tightened up a bit, especially in the final act with a totally unnecessary epilogue but the take away is that this comes across as an easy-going weekend watch.  Joining other recent above average on demand thrillers like 1BR, The Wretched, and We Summon the Darkness, it has the requisite thrills to make you consider turning the lights on and enough of a plot that you won’t completely put it all together before our leading lady does.  It may turn out to be rather routine but up until a certain point, it has its moments.