Movie Review ~ Irresistible

The Facts

Synopsis: A Democratic political consultant helps a retired Marine colonel run for mayor in a small Wisconsin town.

Stars: Steve Carell, Chris Cooper, Rose Byrne, Topher Grace, Mackenzie Davis, Natasha Lyonne, Eve Gordon, Brent Sexton, Will Sasso, Debra Messing, Alan Aisenberg

Director: Jon Stewart

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: About a month ago, I shut down all my social media for about two weeks because I just couldn’t  take it anymore…things had gotten so ugly in all aspects.  Everyone hated everything and there was nothing nice that could be said about anything happening in the world.  What was the point in reading page after page and tweet after tweet of negativity?  Eventually, I had to give in and get back into the swing of things if I wanted to promote my reviews and, let’s face it, see what the celebrities were up to on Instagram.

This brief respite was nice but I know it’s only going to get worse as we head toward the election in November.  Political comedy has changed from what it was during the time Saturday Night Live was spoofing Gerald Ford, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. and the humor has morphed from eliciting belly laughs to grimaces because it is a little too on the money.  The reality of our current administration is so spoofable that it should be funny…until you realize that it’s no laughing matter with lives and livelihood on the line.  It’s hard to joke about a heightened politicized climate that is increasingly volatile and hostile.

That’s what makes a movie like Irresistible such a strange beast to approach.  On the one hand, writer/director Jon Stewart (Rosewater) has delivered a pleasantly serviceable comedy aiming to address topical issues concerning the way government can be manipulated and in that way the film is a success.  However, if you look at it through the lens of where the country sits at the present within its release platform, the message being received feels out of touch and off key.  In his sophomore outing as a director, Stewart’s film almost instantly casts a shadow on itself, categorizing it squarely as a decent effort with sadly little impact.

Political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) still feels the sting of the 2016 election where he saw his Democratic candidate win the popular vote but ultimately not emerge victorious in the general election.   After one of his staffers shows him a video gone viral of a retired colonel (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) defending the rights of immigrant workers in a small town in Wisconsin, he decides to travel to the Midwestern town and convince the conservative veteran to run for Mayor…as a Democrat.  Initially hesitant, Jack agrees to enter the race and with Gary’s help begins a campaign to oust the current Republican mayor (Brent Sexton) who is taken off-guard but this late-breaking opponent.

Gary’s plan is bigger than a Wisconsin mayoral race, though, and that’s when political rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, Like a Boss) enters the picture.  Arriving in town to serve as the strategist for the mayor, she comes with Republican money to pour into the campaign in order to hold their ground.  She knows as well as Gary that if he can flip this heartland community from conservative to Democrat, perhaps he can use that to his advantage in the 2020 cycle.  Soon, Faith and Gary are circling each other like the sharks they are and readying their dirty tricks as the townspeople and Jack’s daughter (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049) watch from the increasingly forgotten sidelines.

As a straight up comedy, Irresistible has its moments of clarity and hilarity and Stewart mines the gold in the comedic hills of Gary’s big city ways clashing with the homegrown support of the townspeople.  It’s when the movie walks the line of balancing itself out as a political satire that things begin to get a bit hazy.  There’s a good deal of fun to be had at the expense of both Democrats and Republicans and Stewart has his talking points clearly laid out to drill home again and again.  We understand he thinks the current system is designed to fail the small and benefit the large but it’s packaged in such a transparent framework that the message doesn’t come off feeling as clever as he thinks it is.  That’s especially true for a rather cuckoo twist he unwraps at one point and it’s then you see the entire movie was designed around this gotcha moment.

If Stewart can’t quite nail the narrative of the piece, at least he’s cast the film with commendable effort.  Carell is nicely pitched in the lead and I’d be interested in hearing a commentary track for the film where the two men discuss the process of Stewart pitching the project to his old corespondent at The Daily Show and how they worked together making it.  I like that Carell didn’t play to the usual lunacy of the fish out of water tale but laid off the gas pedal for a more reserved reaction to everything that came his way.  Speaking of laid back, Cooper exerts the exact amount of energy required for the role and then sort of coasts…that’s not a negative per se, it works for what he’s trying to accomplish in any given scene.  I consistently like what Davis does on screen and while Stewart doesn’t really develop her character until the end, Davis is smart enough to use what she’s given in early scenes to make what transpires near the end come off better than it should.  She’s not in the movie as much as the poster and trailers make you think she is, but when Byre is present she’s the best thing happening and easily steals her scenes.

If Irresistible had been released five years ago would we feel differently about it?  I think so.  There’s just too much bad going on in politics right now to be able to stop and find the satire clever or the pointed importance in the small potatoes mash Stewart puts on the plate.  Viewed solely as a comedy about a man in limbo needing to learn a lesson about himself, I think it’s enjoyable on the whole but the moment it has to be classified in the political arena the frivolity of the affair becomes less appealing.

Movie Review ~ My Spy

The Facts

Synopsis: A hardened CIA operative finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family.

Stars: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Ken Jeong, Devere Rogers, Greg Bryk

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The last movie I had on my schedule to see in theaters before the pandemic shut everything down was My Spy and to be honest it was a film I was considering skipping all together.  Sometimes you just have to say no to movies you don’t think you’ll like, right?  I know that makes me sound less like the well-rounded critic I profess to be but if you are going in with some preconceived notion that predetermines you to not like the film, you aren’t going to give the movie a fair shot…and that’s almost worse, right?  I offer this up at the beginning of my review for My Spy because when the film was eventually snapped up by Amazon to be released via the streaming service and an opportunity to review it at home came up – I was desperate for a comedy to watch and accepted the mission with little reservation.

Again, dear reader, I say to you that The MN Movie Man is not infallible and I’m not sure if my craving for a laugh overcame my critical eye or what but I found My Spy to be the kind of easy to digest fun that is a rare treat to enjoy.  It’s a harmless endeavor that showcases the continued appeal of Dave Bautista and makes a stronger case for the wrestler turned actor to keep headlining projects that show him flexing not only his muscles but his comedic chops.  Further, bypassing a theatrical release and going straight to streaming was the best thing that could have happened to My Spy because it gives the film a fighting chance to be seen/enjoyed by more than just the target family audience…which it’s not even a great fit for.

Freshman CIA agent JJ (Bautista, Skyfall) biffs a major weapons trade as the film opens, a big blunder that doesn’t sit well with his boss (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians, in his umpteenth iteration of the perpetually annoyed authority figure role) who quickly busts him down to a low impact stakeout in Chicago.  Paired with nerdy tech Bobbi (Kristen Schaal, Toy Story 4) that has a fangirl crush on JJ’s agent status, the two are keeping an eye on the sister-in-law and niece of a French baddie trying to build a nuclear bomb.  What should be an easy and uneventful assignment gets complicated when wiser-than-her-years fourth-grader Sophie (Chloe Coleman) figures out what JJ and Bobbi are up to.  Blackmailing the CIA agent into being her friend, protector, and trainer in all things spy, Sophie puts the tough as nails JJ through the ringer and, not wanting to further get in trouble with the home office, he complies.  Visiting school for career day, ice skating in the park, and making a good impression on her mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley) are all part of the bargain in balancing his double life, even as the danger of Sophie’s uncle draws closer.

Though it has its moments of originality here and here, I couldn’t help but think that the script from Erich Hoeber (The Meg) & Jon Hoeber (Battleship) reminded me an awful lot of Kindergarten Cop.  Thankfully, it reminded of the good parts of that movie and director Peter Segal (Second Act) keeps things moving along with workmanlike efficiency.  It’s largely a predictable affair but then again you likely didn’t go into My Spy thinking you’ll be surprised by the plot – it’s best to just fire it up and let it roll.  It has some geniune moments of fun and they don’t all come at the expense of low brow jokes and gags — even the usually grating Schaal has a few potent zingers that land right on target.

The main thing that’s wrong with the film at the end of it all is that I’m not sure who the target audience is.  Carrying a PG-13 rating and justly earning it thanks to violence and other content behooving some parental caution, this wouldn’t be a movie for families to enjoy in line with their PG movie night.  It also wouldn’t be something I think would appeal to the Bautista base that know him from the Guardians of the Galaxy films.  That leaves it in a strange limbo place where the audience will have to find it on their own which is why I think the streaming platform was the best place for it to debut.  If you do choose My Spy (as a guilty pleasure watch or otherwise), do so with confidence because it’s far better than it looks and more entertaining than you’d think.

Movie Review ~ Relic


The Facts

Synopsis: A woman links her mother’s increasingly volatile behavior to an evil presence at their family’s decaying country home.

Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote

Director: Natalie Erika James

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  If you look back over the history of the horror genre you see it developing with the time.  Early entries from the black and white era largely suggested danger without showing it, much like audiences were unsure what was really happening overseas in WWII.  As the counterculture was brought from the shadows to the mainstream in the late 60s and 70s, so too did the genre give way to boundary pushing fright cinema that stylishly developed a look all its own.  The 80s slasher craze and endless sequels/copycats went well with the mall obsessed teen moviegoers that loved to dress like their favorite celebrity.  When the hammer of reality came down in the 90s and 2000s, horror pivoted again with self-aware work that was as snarky as its target audience.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen another seismic shift in nightmare cinema, and it’s been a return to a desire for intelligent scares and less on quick terror.  Movie going isn’t cheap so audiences want to spend their money attending entertainment that is going to give them the best return on their investment…and they don’t want to be treated to another cookie cutter slasher film heavy on blood, guts, boobs, and butts.  Films like The Conjuring and Hereditary have left a lasting impression because they’ve scared the beejebus out of audiences but have more up their sleeves than just mere frights.

You can add the new Australian film Relic to that list of successful genre offerings too and even place it fairly high on the list.  With its small cast and confined setting, it works wonders with the limitations it places on itself and never lets the viewer get too far ahead of the characters experiencing some perplexing behavior of a loved one.  Working from her own script, Natalie Erika James directs the mostly three-person film with a sure hand and only rarely lets the standard tropes of horror films get in the way of the story she’s trying to tell.

Concerned for the well-being of her mother Edna who hasn’t been seen by her neighbors in several days, Kay (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon) drive up from Melbourne to Edna’s home in the woods.  Arriving to find Edna gone but evidence that she’s likely suffering from dementia, the two begin to search through the house for clues as to her whereabouts while joining with the locals to find their matriarch.  When Edna (Robyn Nevin) does eventually return in the middle of the night, something is off and while we get the impression she was never the warmest of maternal figures she has an especially sharp bite to her when provoked in the slightest.

Sticking around to ensure Edna is settled back in while also planning to move her into a facility that can care for her future needs, Kay begins to notice strange indicators around the house that something worse may have infiltrated the premises.  Edna’s increasingly detached behavior and wild mood swings wreak havoc on the relationship between her daughter and granddaughter, prompting both to dig further not just into Edna’s condition but into the house and surrounding woods which seems to hold more secrets the family will need to face together.  With Edna’s condition worsening rapidly and the unexplained incidents becoming more violent, the three women all face a challenging evening in a house that might have its own agenda.

It’s not hard to pick up the metaphor Relic is laying down but even if you do catch on what’s happening you’ll likely be thrown for a loop in the film’s final act which trades the quieter, slow burn moments of the previous 70 minutes for a genuinely worrisome finale.  It’s not just that James delivers some serious scary sequences and arresting visual imagery as the three women face some frightening happenings, but that all of it feels…personal.  Couple that with an unexpectedly moving (for a horror film) ending and you have a memorable and highly recommendable feature.

I can see why Relic wouldn’t quite land for everyone and it’s worth noting that much of the success of the film relies on our emotional connection to the characters and story.  If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t latch on like that, the movie may not hold the same lasting impact I felt.  It’s a tricky ending and it could have easily gone wrong, but I think it’s extraordinary.  For me, I thought about the movie and it’s bracing ending for days afterward and was impressed all over again at the delicacy with which James chose to end her film and the chutzpah it must have taken to do it herway.

Movie Review ~ Palm Springs

The Facts

Synopsis: When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated as they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other.

Stars: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, Dale Dickey, Tyler Hoechlin, J.K. Simmons, Camila Mendes

Director: Max Barbakow

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Most movies are written, produced, and edited months and months before their intended release date so it would be impossible for any film to truly predict where the world would be when the project is revealed for public consumption.  Occasionally there are times when a movie is released at an opportune time that just happens to coincide with a major event and it seems like the creators had a kind of crystal ball in predicting the future.  An example off the top of my head is when The China Syndrome was released in March of 1979, a mere twelve days before the nuclear incident at Twelve Mile Island which bore a striking resemblance to the events depicted in the movie.

So you have to imagine that aside from general feelings of concern for their family, friends, and loved ones the creators of the Sundance hit Palm Springs were just a little happy to see their movie expressed tracked from its original theatrical release by distributors Hulu and Neon and sent right to Hulu’s streaming platform in time for the fourth of July weekend.  After all, by this time countless potential viewers had been cooped up indoors since early March and had been living what felt like the same day over and over again.  What better way to reward them than by offering up relatable laughs in a smart, funny comedy about a guy and girl stuck in a similar situation?

Waking up on the morning of a friend’s wedding he doesn’t want to attend with a girlfriend he doesn’t like, Nyles (Andy Samberg, Hotel Transylvania 2) is already over it.  He goes through the motions of the day and barely makes an effort to stay present at the wedding or the reception after.  His interactions with the guests seems strident at times, gregarious at others…like that fun guy at the party who can turn on a dime if he has one drink over his limit.  He does wind up having too many and saves maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti, The Wolf of Wall Street) from making a speech she clearly doesn’t want to give.  Finding a kindred soul also having a terrible time, Sarah is intrigued by Nyles and follows him for the rest of the evening…eventually leading her to a cave in the desert with a special power.  She enters and then wakes up the next morning…which is the same morning as the one before.

Turns out the cave holds a portal in the time space continuum and Sarah has joined Nyles in a never-ending time loop where they have to relive the same day over and over again.  It doesn’t matter how far they drive or where they are when the day has ended, they’ll always wake up in exactly the same place they woke up the day they went into the cave.  Nyles has lost track of how many days he’s been the loop but Sarah is determined to find a way out, mostly because she’s harboring a secret of why this particular day is one she’s not eager to relieve for eternity.

Obviously, the easy comparison to make here is Groundhog Day and there are flashes of that classic Bill Murray film in some of the concepts found in Andy Siara’s screenplay.  There’s also a little Happy Death Day 2U with a brief diversion into death not being a way out of the loop.  Yet Palm Springs is very much its own individual film and that’s due in no small part to Siara balancing the humor with a few reality checks along the way.  That’s especially surprising giving the people involved behind the scenes who aren’t usually known for living with two feet on the ground.

As an actor, I’ve found Samberg to be mostly obnoxious in a number of his roles but was pleasantly surprised to witness his grounded and wry take on a man resigned to relive a crappy day forever.  We meet him long after he’s accepted his fate so he’s laid-back and carefree…and Samberg wisely avoids making the character such a one-note bonehead that we can’t imagine spending 24 hours with him, let alone infinity.  He’s more than well matched with Milioti, finding that rare thing called chemistry.  She’s got the harder role to navigate because everything is new to her and she’s the one reacting to the situation for the first time.  How she responds dictates how the audience will respond to her and thankfully the role feels fleshed out and is performed with a sharpness not always found in high-concept comedies like this.

In addition to capturing commendable performances from the stars, director Max Barbakow fills the supporting roster with a nice array of character actors that slip in from time to time.  As another looper with a grudge against Samberg, J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man: Far from Home) is used in a utilitarian fashion but the simplicity of the role makes a scene late in the movie land with more impact.  Dale Dickey (The Guilt Trip), Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!), June Squibb (Nebraska), and Peter Gallagher (A Bad Moms Christmas) also show up for little moments here and there, not reserving all the good stuff for Samberg and Milioti.  When a script has extra jokes for small supporting performers and is willing to share, you know it’s the sign of something above average.

The only downside to Palm Springs is I’m not sure it’s a film I’d put on my list to watch again.  It’s entertaining as all get-out and Siara’s script is so strong and on the mark it could easily get some awards recognition at the end of the year.  All the same…I just don’t know if it will hold up on repeat viewings.  That first time through was such a fun discovery, I feel like revisiting these characters wouldn’t capture the same magic.

Movie Review ~ Archive


The Facts

Synopsis: Two and a half years into a three-year research contract, George Almore is on the verge of a breakthrough working on a model of a true human-equivalent android. His prototype is almost complete. But this most sensitive phase of his work is also the riskiest.

Stars: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Williams, Toby Jones

Director: Gavin Rothery

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Remember how we’re always told not to judge a book by its cover?  The saying that just because something looks a certain way at first glance it may hold something completely different if you dig deeper?  How we’re supposed to look inside for what makes it special?  All that applies to movies as well.  Used to be that it was just the poster/video box that you could loan that tried and trusty saying to, then it applied to previews when an early trailer would give the impression a movie looked particularly bad, and now it’s graduated to those thumbnails we see when scrolling through streaming content.  These quick glimpses have to catch the eye of a potential viewer and entice them not just to explore more, but to commit the time to see what’s inside.

Your first impression of Archive (as was mine) could be that it looks an awful lot like 2014’s Ex Machina, the Oscar-winning sci-fi flick that gave Alicia Vikander an extra boost of star-power.  It wouldn’t be totally off-base to say the two films share some small similarities.  Both deal with chilly inventors creating lifelike robots that just happen to look like beautiful models.  That’s where the similarities end, though, because Archive has less of the slick thriller elements that made up the bulk of Ex Machina’s final act and more of its heady dive into the wonders and dangers of advancements in artificial intelligence.

Taking place in a future not so far removed from our current time, scientist George Almore (Theo James, Divergent) is working at a decommissioned science lab in the mountains of Japan to develop the next generation of robotics.  After three years living in near solitary confinement with no one but his earlier less refined models to keep him company, he’s come to a critical phase of his research that must be handled delicately. His boss (Rhona Mitra, Hollow Man) wants faster results but George is holding back giving her the full details for personal reasons that will become clearer as writer/director Gavin Rothery’s sparse but impactful plot develops.

By the time J3 (Stacy Martin, All the Money in the World) comes online, George is already at odds with the J2 model that begins to exhibit signs of jealously toward the upgraded machine replacing her as well as the man that created them both.  The more attention George pays to J3, the more willful J2 becomes which leads the film in unexpected directions finding strangely effective emotions along the way.  Throughout, we piece together the life George led before he arrived at the testing site, the pain he has been carrying for years, and how he intends to use boundary pushing technology to make his family whole again.

It should come as no surprise that Rothery was in the art department as a conceptual designer for 2009’s Moon, a moody mostly one-man show that had similar themes of solitude as a substitute for grief.  He’s made his film in familiar territory and for a first time director I think that’s a wise decision.  Sticking with what he’s comfortable with allows him to ease up on overthinking the plot and overdesigning the laboratory.  Not that the visuals and special effects aren’t handsomely rendered and the story doesn’t have some heft to it – it’s that they don’t feel so overbaked with the earnestness of a novice filmmaker.

I haven’t had the chance to take much note of James up until this point but he turns in a level performance as a man looking to science to help him through an emotional journey.  He’s equally good working with straight-up humans (Toby Jones, The Snowman, shows up in a typically wormy cameo) as he is sharing the screen with different robotic co-stars.  Tasked with the hardest job is likely Martin who has to sell quite a lot of looks to the audience throughout, starting with a full body robotic suit that viewed close up exposes the budget limitations the film was working with.  Yet Martin achieves high marks for keeping us engaged and convinced that she’s a well-oiled machine.

A rare film that maintains it’s energy and suspense until the very end, Archive is one of those films you’d stumble over by accident and then recommend to your friends as a nice surprise.  It’s not going to make a huge mark like Ex Machina did because aside from its achievements in finding root emotions in unlikely places, it doesn’t have anything that stands out and above the rest.  What it does have going for it is a consistency of tone and more emotional weight explored than many of its genre sisters and brothers.

Movie Review ~ Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!

The Facts

Synopsis: From big bands to Broadway, radio to recordings and television to the big screen, Kaye Ballard did it all in a career that spanned eight decades.

Stars: Kaye Ballard, Joy Behar, Carol Burnett, Ann-Margret, Woody Allen, Michael Feinstein, Rex Reed, Jerry Stiller, Carol Channing, Harold Prince

Director: Dan Wingate

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  As more and more documentaries are finding their own independent distribution, it has opened the door to a whole new world of people and topics that audiences might not have gotten a full report on before.  Used to be you had to wait for a boutique studio to throw a decent amount of money to obtain, market, and release a movie to a tiny art-house theater for a week in advance of the hard to find DVD copy at your local library.  Now, you can just fire up your search engine and locate in-depth examinations on any number of subjects…hooray!

Though I’m a Broadway fan, I must admit that I wasn’t as well-versed in the long career of Kaye Ballard as I should have been.  So, being offered the chance to screen Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!, the love letter documentary to Ballard’s contributions to the world of stage, screen, and music, was a no-brainer.  I never would have guessed that I’d come away thinking “Is there anyone Kaye Ballard didn’t know in the business?” but here I am, 90 minutes later wondering why Ballard never became the breakout star that her talent had her keenly positioned to be.

Through an extensive and impressive array of rarely seen clips and interviews with dozens and dozens of familiar faces including Ballard herself, director Dan Wingate charts the singer-actress as she arrives in NYC from Cincinnati, OH and starts to make a name in the business.  Touring in the vaudeville circuit led to Broadway parts which led to TV and supporting movie roles and through it all her talent for comedy and big belting singing knocked everyone’s socks off.  As Wingate presents it and as others tell it, Ballard seemed to be loved by all and, better yet, respected by everyone she came in contact with.

What this is missing, sadly, is a look at the woman behind all of that.  We’re more than an hour into the film before Ballard talks about her parents and life growing up…and it seems to be a sensitive subject for her.  There’s also not a lot about her personal life away from the spotlight and what filled her cup when she didn’t perform.  It’s clear to the viewer that Wingate was acting as a bit of a proxy for Ballard herself, making this more of a one-woman show with established talking points than a true deep dive into the full picture of Ballard’s life.  If that’s the case, that’s totally within her right…but it would have been nice to learn more about her than her celebrity.

That being said, the anecdotes offered up by Ballard and the host of celebrity interviews are priceless and informative.  While hearing stories from Carol Channing, Jerry Stiller, or Harold Price are worthwhile seeing that all have since passed away, nothing beats Ballard recounting her own memories as she travels down the yellow brick road of her memories.  She’s wistful but never sad, truthful but never gossipy, funny but never mean…I would have loved to see her in person because numerous people mention how rip-roaring hilarious she was live.  Sadly, Ballard passed away in early 2019 so that ship has sailed…but Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! is a great consolation prize.

Movie Review ~ Volition

The Facts

Synopsis: A man afflicted with clairvoyance tries to change his fate when a series of events leads to a vision of his own imminent murder.

Stars: Adrian Glynn McMorran, Magda Apanowicz, John Cassini, Frank Cassini, Aleks Paunovic, Bill Marchant

Director: Tony Dean Smith

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: If I were clairvoyant, I’d already know how this review would end and would probably have known that I’d be a little late in meeting my deadline…but, such is life.  In all seriousness, whenever I was asked the question as a child if I could have any superpower in the world what would it be, it would be to see the future.  I didn’t know the word for it yet but the power of clairvoyance was always ranked higher than flying, being invisible, or never gaining a pound after eating an entire Tombstone pizza. Though we all have a little of that power within us, the best examples of clairvoyance have always been in movies and each approach to it has been a little different.

The latest take is in the Canadian thriller Volition and it’s a mostly nifty affair that overcomes its limited budget to create a real sense of atmosphere and tension.  Written by Tony Dean Smith and Ryan W. Smith (known as The Smith Brothers…Canada’s answer to The Coen Brothers?) and directed by Tony, it’s a script where every word counts and each frame holds a clue that only makes sense as the film progresses. As is the case with anything that deals with the supernatural or mystical, there’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required and that maybe goes double (or triple) for Volition.   You see, in the midst of wading through an already eyebrow raising phenomenon, it takes a calculated risk that the audience can handle another.

It’s never entirely clear what James (Adrian Glynn McMorran, Warcraft) does for a living but judging by the landlord demanding money for back rent at the beginning and the two thugs (Frank Cassini and Aleks Paunovic, This Means War) that bring him to small-time gangster Ray (John Cassini, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later), it can’t be too on the up and up.  The one sure thing that James explains in his voice-over narration is that he has a special gift of knowing when things will happen.  He can’t control when or how, but he’s hyper-aware of everything at all times.  Today is a different day, though, because he’s seen himself get shot and die…but who kills him?  And can he stop it?

The day brings a host of eventual occurrences for James, the first being meeting Angela (Magda Apanowicz, The Green Inferno), saving her from an attack and unintentionally getting her involved with a shady diamond deal Ray has planned.  A double-cross sets into motion a trip down memory lane for James, bringing him and Angela back to his foster parent (Bill Marchant, Godzilla) who might hold clues to more than just the vision of death James has seen.  With time running out and danger from an unknown entity approaching, James needs to use his gift to put the puzzle pieces together and solve his own personal mystery.

You know I love being as spoiler-free as possible so I think we’ll leave it at that…but I’ll add as a tease that everything I’ve talked about so far happens within the first half of the movie.  What happens in those last 40 minutes are for you to discover and I think it’s a worthwhile journey to take as you unravel the nice tangled pretzel of a plot The Smith Brothers have wrapped up in Volition.  It helps innumerably that the cast, especially McMorran and Apanowicz are so strong…though I’m less keen on Marchant who treats every slowly delivered line reading like it’s a Bergman film.

It’s definitely a movie that has moments near the end that refer back to the beginning, making me want to go back and check the math/logic to see if it works out…and I’d be surprised if it didn’t.  There’s a brazen confidence running throughout that gives the film real forward motion, leading to it feeling well-thought out and well-constructed, making the entertainment value high.  Like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, paying close attention to the details from the outset may help you make sense of it all faster…just make sure to keep up!

Movie Review ~ Ghosts of War

The Facts

Synopsis: Five battle-hardened American soldiers assigned to hold a French Chateau near the end of World War II. However, they encounter a supernatural enemy far more terrifying than anything seen on the battlefield

Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Kyle Gallner, Theo Rossi, Alan Ritchson, Skylar Astin, Matthew Reese

Director: Eric Bress

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Looking at the movie releases over the years you begin to see the cycles of genre pics.  There was a time when war films were all the rage, then it was westerns, then horror films, then mysteries/noirs, then war films, then slasher films, then drama/art house films, then war films, then gross-out comedies, then war films, then horror films…are you spotting the pattern?  If there’s two genres that never seem to miss their cycle it’s war and horror and since war is so often equated with real-life horror it’s not totally an unexpected correlation.

It makes sense, then to see a movie like Ghosts of War emerge onto the spooky mist of streaming entertainment.  While I know it’s not the first movie to combine elements of horror into the mix of wartime, it’s the most recent attempt to add an extra dose of scares to what was already a horrific period of history.  The resulting film has its admirable moments but hinges on a disappointing late-breaking game changer, turning what had been an atmospheric ghost tale that thrived in its simplicity into something decidedly more complex and far less interesting.

In the midst of World War II, American soldiers Chirs (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus),  Tappert (Kyle Gallner, The Finest Hours),  Kirk (Theo Rossi, Cloverfield), Butchie (Alan Ritchson, The Wedding Ringer),  and Eugene (Skylar Astin, Pitch Perfect) are stationed far into the French countryside and soon cut off from their command.  Keeping watching over an expansive mansion previously used by Nazi commanders until they are relieved from duty, they aren’t in their dwelling one night before strange things begin to take place.  Visions of the dead, Morse code warnings, near miss accidents, and black magic calling cards begin to form a picture of what happened in the chateau before they arrived.

As the days move ahead the history of the house and its former owners comes into greater focus, with a found diary filling in the terrifying gaps of the story the bumps in the night are unable to tell.  Just when you think you’ve figured out where writer/director Eric Bress is taking you, he pulls the dusty rug out from under to reveal a twist that will either elevate the movie in your mind or sink it without reprieve.  Unfortunately for me (and the movie), it was a step I couldn’t take with the filmmakers and the final ten minutes faltered when they should have frightened.

Not to say it was smooth sailing until that point either.  Before the men get to the chateau, the film takes a bit to get going and we have to slog through our introductions that Bress makes feel heavy handed.  Even more than that, Bress seems intent to make the opening act particularly gruesome and unpleasant with off-putting violence.  Then there’s the case of a character that goes missing for a long stretch with no explanation.  I actually went back and watched a full twenty minutes of the movie again to make sure I didn’t miss a rationale and found none.  It’s these little things that make big impacts on the storytelling as a whole.

In the twist, Bress (who hasn’t directed a movie since 2004’s The Butterfly Effect) has something of interest but I just didn’t care for how it played into the storyline (not to mention the acting truly didn’t support this section) and that’s too bad because Ghosts of War isn’t a total wash.  There’s abut 45 minutes where the movie achieves a pleasant pace, blending decent scares (mostly of the jump variety) during the mystery solving by the soldiers.  Recommended as one of the more sturdy films of its kind, even if it starts of shaky and totally collapses at the end.

Movie Review ~ Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time – Vol. 3 Comedy and Camp

The Facts

Synopsis: The final volume of Time Warp digs deep into what makes us laugh over and over again as we reveal the greatest cult comedies and campy classics of all-time.

Stars: John Cleese, David Cross, Joe Dante, Illeana Douglas, Peter Farrelly, John Waters

Director: Danny Wolf

Rated: NR

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: All good things must come to an end and such is the case with the arrival of the third volume of the Time Warp documentary series.  The opportunity to review this epic look into the greatest cult films of all time came right at the beginning of the pandemic that kept us all on lockdown.  The timing was perfect.  I devoured the series in short order, craving the kind of cinematic comfort food it generously served up on a shiny silver-screen platter.

To recap, Vol. 1 Midnight Madness was all about the movies that you normally would think of when you hear the phrase cult film.  So The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Big Lebowski, and This is Spinal Tap were a few of the flicks discussed along with 70s exploitation cinema, 80s underground punk films, and early titles from as far back as the 40s that are still important today.  With a panel of moderators consisting of Joe Dante (Matinee), John Waters (Pink Flamingos), Illeana Douglas (Cape Fear), and Kevin Pollak (Indian Summer) that didn’t add nearly as much as interviews with film critics and the actual people involved with the making of the films, this first volume was standard but solid.

The shorter second volume narrowed things down a bit and looked just at the cult films within the Horror and Sci-Fi genre. While it covered some obvious titles like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Evil Dead, it exposed me to other films I wasn’t as familiar with such as The Brother From Another Planet and Liquid Sky.  I’m a fan of these types of movies so I found this volume of particular interest, even if the information and opinions offered weren’t anything revelatory.

So here we are at the gates of Vol. 3 Comedy and Camp and not only is this the longest chapter of the trilogy it’s the most fun.  Director Danny Wolf ends things with a bang and creatively gets to have his cake and eat it too by including Camp titles here.  Basically, any film that has achieved even marginal cult status over the years that hasn’t fit into any previous volume can be stuck in this category and no one would really blink an eye.  That’s why there are segments devoted to The Room and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, both popular for different reasons but neither fitting into any genre offered thus far other than camp.

Back are the moderators who once again offer little to the mix – I still can’t quite understand what Wolf intended to use them for.  There’s nothing they are offering up or introducing that couldn’t be done by any of the talking head interviews that pop up when switching between films.  If anything, I would have just taken Illeana Douglas as the narrator to tie things together.  The movies pretty much speak for themselves, with Showgirls and Fast Times at Ridgemont High needing no introduction.  For once, I think the trivia tidbits offered by the interviewees actually told me something I hadn’t already known going in.  That’s why you’ll definitely need to tune in to hear director Martha Coolidge explain why Deborah Foreman isn’t on the poster for Valley Girl.

What a fun documentary series and a welcome reprieve from the doldrums of the early pandemic days in colder weather.  Writing this from a sunnier day in still uncertain times, I’m grateful for efforts like this which may not give a ton of new information for the hardcore movie buff but still provides easy to swallow entertainment with no hidden bias or agenda.  Worth a binge or a watch in small bites.

Movie Review ~ Homewrecker

The Facts

Synopsis: Seeking a new friend, Linda coerces the reserved, deferential Michelle into visiting her home for a spontaneous interior design consultation. Once inside, it quickly becomes clear that Linda has something far more sinister on her mind than throw pillows.

Stars: Precious Chong, Alex Essoe

Director: Zach Gayne

Rated: NR

Running Length: 76 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  With titles like Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life, Fatal Honeymoon, Flirting with Forty, and The Bride He Bought Online, Lifetime TV movies were never what you would call subtle.  Produced in mass quantities and even generating their own TV network, the Lifetime Television Movie eventually became a genre unto itself.  Entertaining for their cheesy soapiness and tabloid-esque tales of infidelity, murder, and secrets of suburbia exposed, even after all these years none of them bothered to tip their hat to acknowledge that they were in on the joke.  Instead, we’re treated to movies like Homewrecker which takes the formula of a LTM, turns it on its side, and gives it a few swift kicks in the ribs.

When we first see Linda (Precious Chong, daughter of Tommy Chong) she’s going full tilt through numerous exercise classes and seeming to enjoy it just a little too much.  A woman of indeterminate age, she’s the person always a half step behind or the participant less flexible than the rest but giving 10% extra than anyone else in the room.  You know the one.  We all know the one.  Then there’s Michelle (Alex Essoe, Doctor Sleep) who Linda spots in a spin class and strikes up a conversation with after.  Guarded and clearly thrown off step by the bubbly blonde, Michelle is talked into stopping by Linda’s house in the hopes she can offer some interior design advice.

Ignoring all signs that Linda’s pushy personality feels a bit intrusive, Michelle finds herself inside Linda’s modest home and that’s when director Zach Gayne has his work cut out for him.  Working from a script written by Chong and Essoe (suggesting some of it was scripted and some was…improvised?), the movie takes turns both darkly comic and just plain dark.  Surprisingly, the set-up works nicely and the way the film keeps the action centered within the walls of the house makes sense and not just in a cliché movie way.  Turns out there’s more to Linda than meets the eye and though experienced watchers of the above-mentioned LTMs will easily guess the main motivation for getting to know Michelle, the finale is satisfying, if tinged with a little sadness.

Micro-budgeted though it may be, this is a quick watch clocking in at a little over an hour.  Still, that could be a long time if you didn’t enjoy the people onscreen so it’s a good thing that Essoe and Chong are appealing stars.  Essoe was excellent in the underrated horror film Starry Eyes a few years back so it’s been nice to see her pop up in bigger films while maintain her indie roots.  This was the first time I’ve seen Chong and truthfully she’s one that has the toughest job keeping the movie going.  You have to like Linda just a little bit to stick around when things get rocky and it’s a tribute to her that she keeps you interested for the duration.

If enough eyes got on this one, I could see it becoming a bit of a cult title thanks to its peculiar characters and a strange knack for 80s kitsch (wait until you see the board game Linda forces Michelle to play) that sets it apart from your standard crazy lady psycho flick.  There’s more to Homewrecker (and to Linda) than meets the eye and it’s worth the small amount of time it will occupy in your evening.