Movie Review ~ Enola Holmes


The Facts

Synopsis: When Enola Holmes-Sherlock’s teen sister-discovers her mother missing, she sets off to find her, becoming a super-sleuth in her own right as she outwits her famous brother and unravels a dangerous conspiracy around a mysterious young Lord.

Stars: Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, Louis Partridge, Helena Bonham Carter, Adeel Akhtar, Fiona Shaw, Frances de la Tour, Susie Wokoma

Director: Harry Bradbeer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I think we can all agree that by this point, that sly detective Sherlock Holmes has had his fair share of the spotlight in movies and television shows.  If you run a search for Sherlock Holmes in IMDb you’re going to get a truckload of results…and that’s only those with his name in the title.  Think of the all the movies with Holmes as a leading or secondary character that take the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creation into numerous different directions, some for the good (1979’s much liked Murder by Decree) and many for the bad (take your pick but 2018’s ghastly Holmes & Watson springs to mind).  The brilliant reimagining for the BBC in 2010 made Benedict Cumberbatch a star and the big-budget 2009 film and it’s gargantuan sequel in 2011 solidified Robert Downey Jr.’s A-List status in stone.

So if Sherlock was considered played out, how to further the Holmes lineage in new and interesting ways?  The answer came in the form of six books written by Nancy Springer that followed Enola Holmes, Sherlock’s much younger sister.  Raised solely by her mother after her father’s death, both Sherlock and his brother Mycroft were out of the house by the time Enola was born, leading the now teenage girl to grow up not really knowing her siblings.  Springer’s books were published between 2006 and 2010 and now the first one has been adapted into Enola Holmes, a film originally intended for release by Warner Brothers this past summer that was eventually bought by Netflix on account of the pandemic.  If this origin story and initial adventure is any indication, Netflix has scored a win with a promising new franchise on their hands.

On the morning of her 16th birthday in 1884, Enola Holmes (Millie Bobbie Brown) discovers that her ever-present mother (Helena Bonham-Carter, Cinderella) has vanished from their sprawling and overgrown country home outside London, apparently leaving no clue as to where she’s gone.  As Enola’s only companion, teacher, and guardian, this is a puzzlement as it’s not like her to just disappear without a trace so Enola sends word to her brothers in the city who arrive in short order.  Stodgy Mycroft (Sam Claflin, Me Before You) isn’t surprised their flighty mother took off, begrudgingly accepting the responsibilities for taking in Enola as his ward. The more laid-back Sherlock (Henry Cavill, Justice League) likely has already figured out where she’s gone and how tight her shoelaces were tied when she left but defers to his more tightly-wound brother in the decision-making process.

Enola, however, can’t wait around forever and when Mycroft attempts to ship her off to a boarding school run by a perilous headmistress (Fiona Shaw, Pixels, a brittle riot) she sets off on her own after making a hidden discovery that points her in the right direction.  Along the way, she crosses paths with the Lord Viscount Tewskbury, Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge, Paddington 2) , a young runaway she assists in evading a treacherous henchman (Burn Gorman, Pacific Rim) dispatched for murderous purposes by someone close to the boy.  Not letting herself be distracted by another mystery when she has her own familial problem to solve, Enola continues to track the disappearance of her mother, which may have ties to the growing women’s suffrage movement.

With Jack Thorne’s (Radioactive) script often episodic in nature, the film tends to resemble the chapter book it’s based off of, with tiny little adventures or plot advances happening in small chunks throughout.  It gives the entire film, which is by and large entirely delightful, an ever so slight stutter and never lets it achieve a smooth ride.  Director Harry Bradbeer makes his feature film debut after years of building a respected career in television and he uses that history of handling short form storytelling to bring a liveliness throughout, even if it often lacks true connectivity.  It’s a handsome production, with the period recreated beautifully in the sets and reflected faithfully by the costumes.

With only Netflix’s Stranger Things and last year’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters as the majorly significant items on her resume, I haven’t yet hopped on the Millie Bobbie Brown train yet but I’m willing to buy a ticket after this.  It’s a role perfectly suited for her and she delivers the right amount of spunk and heart, never making Enola too coy or aggravatingly precocious but finding the exact right balance that makes her come alive.  Much of the movie involves her speaking directly to the audience and it wouldn’t have worked as well if Brown didn’t have the right attitude, but whether it be a glance at the camera or lines delivered straight out to us, she really commands your attention.

Acting as a producer of the film as well, Brown has wisely surrounded herself with a nice array of talented supporting players, from Bonham Carter playing pitch perfect as her mother with a hidden life we only just start to skim the surface of to Frances de la Tour (Into the Woods) as the Lord’s grandmother who takes a liking to Enola.  Claflin’s role is rather humorless so he’s stuck with a bit of a downer part, the most villainous non-villain in the film and he’s playing the brother supposedly seven years older than Sherlock…even though he’s three years younger than Cavill.  Cavill is an inspired choice for Sherlock and while the film has made news lately for being named in a lawsuit by the Conan Doyle estate for showing Sherlock as “too emotional”, I didn’t find Cavill to be overtly emo more so than Cumberbatch or Downey, Jr.  It’s wholly Brown’s circus, though, and even Cavill playing the world’s leading detective can’t steal her spotlight for any amount of time.

At 123 minutes, this a long film and while it may entice younger viewers and parents might find the opening 80 minutes to be fairly light, there’s a dark turn as we get to the home stretch that I wasn’t quite expecting.  It is rated PG-13 and earns it in that final half hour when things get violent and scary in ways I’m not sure were entirely necessary, especially for a movie hoping to build into future installments that parents could confidently leave their children in the care of.  That being said, for mystery lovers in general and especially those that like the Sherlock Holmes film adaptations that strayed with cheeky humor from the original Conan Doyle tales, you’ll want to see the first adventure of his sister because Enola Holmes is just getting started.

Movie Review ~ Last Call

The Facts:

Synopsis: Shot in two true single takes, filmed simultaneously in two different parts of a city, this is a real time feature presented in split screen showcasing both ends of a wrong number phone call that has the potential to save a life.

Stars: Daved Wilkins, Sarah Booth, Matt Maenpaa

Director: Gavin Michael Booth

Rated: NR

Running Length: 77 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Released in conjunction with the recently concluded National Suicide Awareness week, Last Call is a clever new tiny Canadian drama showing in virtual theaters and arriving soon in on demand platforms.  You’ll likely hear about the film first because of how it was made (more on that later) but once you get acclimated to what you’re seeing, audiences are apt to find a movie boasting high stakes performances delivered with a strong, if at times a bit muddled, message that’s handled with a surprisingly delicate touch.

My advice to you before seeing Last Call is to make sure you’re ready to sit for the full duration without interruption because that’s going to be the best way to fully immerse yourself in the filmmaking experience as intended.  Clocking in around 74 minutes, it shouldn’t be a challenge…you can focus in and pretend you’re back in a movie theater.  I’d also suggest removing distractions as well because in all honesty there are points in the film where you’ll be tempted to check your phone quickly but, again, that would break the spell of the mood that’s being created.  Know that when you hit ‘play’ the film begins and doesn’t stop, with two continuous takes being shown onscreen.  Two actors were filmed at the same time in the same city in one continuous take and thought you may feel you’d be too wrapped up in paying attention to that fete of filmmaking it becomes secondary to the story rather quickly.

On one side of the screen is Beth (Sarah Booth), a single mother arriving to her shift as the night janitor at an adult education center she attends during the day.  Working there after hours to subsidize her own studies, she’s distracted because her eldest son hasn’t returned home after a night at the movies.  The other side of the screen has Scott (co-writer Daved Wilkins) who is polishing off his drink at a local bar before heading home for the evening.  For the first fifteen minutes of the film we watch these two people settle in for their evening plans.  Beth attempts to locate her son and tries to find coverage in case she needs to leave and track him down and Scott walks the several long blocks back to his home where he resumes drinking.

Then Scott makes a phone call and dials the wrong number.  That’s when he connects with Beth and two things happen.  The first is that our view of the situation literally changes and the second is that we become eavesdroppers on a real-time conversation between individuals that don’t know each other but are soon bonded over their emotionally revealing talk.  When it becomes clear that Scott thinks he’s called a suicide prevention line and if Beth disconnects from this man she has no way of redialing.  Without any personal information to go on, she continues to engage with while simultaneously using her resources to use what little clues he’s giving her to identify him and get him help.

Ok, this one goes out to all you theater nerds out there.  In the 1959 musical Gypsy, there’s a second-act show stopping number where three vaudeville strip-tease artists sing “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”.  It brings down the house and one line from that number rang through my head while watching Last Call:  “You gotta get a gimmick, If you wanna get applause.”  The film has a gimmick, there’s no getting around it, but it’s efficiently used and appropriately engaged.  Instead of teetering with high-stake chicanery, it’s not used as a cheap trick or garishly exploited to show off director Gavin Michael Booth’s bravura filmmaking technique.  It adds to the overall impact and assists particularly in the intense final act which may resort to some slightly overbaked histrionics but don’t affect the feelings toward the film as a whole.  It’s highly worthy of praise because it’s so masterfully done.

If there’s one questionable aspect here, I did start to wonder how much consulting the screenwriters and filmmakers had with suicide prevention counselors.  While there’s nothing disrespectful here or actions taken that raise red flags, some of the approaches employed feel quaintly pat and textbook, like someone just looked up what is the right response in a certain situation and copied it verbatim into the script.  I think there could have been a better way of handling some of these more serious and serious-minded developments of the narrative.

Wilkins is a bit of a tough nut to crack, which is likely the point, but there’s something to be said about being too obtuse for this kind of role that asks you to expose some raw nerves.  He could have taken a note or two from his co-star Sarah Booth (the director is her husband) because she’s often downright riveting to watch.  There were moments when the attention was meant to be on Scott’s character but what Booth was doing was so interesting even in moments of silence that I just kept watching her.  I almost have to think about what this would have been like if the Wilkins view had been excised completely, I think the intensity would have still been there, though the purpose of the two shots would have gone away.

Plenty of films and filmmakers have experimented with these long takes and one shot movies but I don’t remember one that has done something like this before and I think it’s by and large a success.  There are some long gaps where nothing much happens and there could have been some creative ways to fill in that space but it also added to the reality of the world of these characters to not have every minute of their lives spent talking to someone.  Last Call has a first rate concept and an important message, it has its gimmick and deserves the applause.

Movie Review ~ The Wall of Mexico

The Facts

Synopsis: A wealthy Mexican-American family decides to build a wall around their ranch to stop townspeople from stealing their well water, which is rumored to have unusual properties.

Stars: Esai Morales, Mariel Hemingway, Jackson Rathbone, Alex Meneses, Carmela Zumbado, Marisol Sacramento, Xander Berkeley, Moises Arias

Director: Zachary Cotler & Magdalena Zyzak

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve mentioned it here before but I think it’s worth repeating here: at film festivals, it pays to have good time management skills.  That’s really the only way you’re going to maximize your full potential of seeing as much as you can in the often short time frame that is allotted for screenings.  Apart from choosing your films carefully, you need to make sure you’re also selecting the right films at the correct time of day so your energy is matched with what you’re seeing.  It doesn’t always work as well as it should when you factor in availability and sheer unavoidable bouts of fatigue but when everything lines up you’re in for a gold star viewing experience.

At the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest, I was having trouble making my schedule work and finding that I had a gap of time that went unaccounted for.  Then I realized that if I moved a few things around, I could start earlier in the day and add another film to my list, which is how The Wall of Mexico began as a simple gap filler but wound up being one of the more interesting and intriguing films I saw. Remember, this was back in October 2019 when all we had to worry about, pre-COVID, fiery protests, and the upcoming election were the harsh regulations being imposed against immigrations into the US.  So a movie with a title like The Wall of Mexico was bound to pique some interest at the outset and the good news is that writer/co-director Zachary Cotler rewards those who take the leap into the mysterious lives of the Arista family with a mostly unpredictable parable.

In an unnamed town running along the California border to Mexico, the Mexican-American Arista family lives an enviable life of privilege.  As the head of the family, Henry (Esai Morales) has provided well for his two daughters Tania (Marisol Sacramento) and Ximena (Carmela Zumbado, Need for Speed) who spend days lounging by the pool soaking up the sun and nights with a select group who party until they pass out.  Into this tranquil existence comes Tom (Jackson Rathbone, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), hired to work as a groundskeeper under the tutelage of Michael (Xander Berkeley, Candyman), the Aristas long-standing employee.  It isn’t long before Tom falls under the spell of the beautiful Tania and his crush on her doesn’t seem to surprise anyone, even when it strays into possibly dangerous territory.

If that were the crux of the story, Colter and his co-director Magdalena Zyzak might have had a fine if standard, film exploring the class differences between Tom and Tania but there’s something more on the agenda.  On the Arista property is a well, which seems to hold some sort of secret for the family in addition to serving as a frenzied curiosity for the townspeople that want to know what’s being kept hidden from them.  When the water level in the well begins to lower dramatically and it becomes evident someone is stealing the limited supply, Tom is assigned to help Michael build a wall around the Arista estate during the day and watch over the tank as an overnight watchman to catch the culprit.  As you can imagine, formally being walled out of something creates an even bigger uproar from the rabidly curious and increasingly irate townfolk, leading to a showdown with the town officials (led by Mariel Hemmingway in a brief cameo) and an eventual standoff.

With a run time of nearly two hours, Colter and Zyzak can’t quite sustain the energy or keep up the interest they’ve laid out for the entirety of the film but for a while there The Wall of Mexico gets a nice buzz going as you try to figure out, along with Tom, what’s truly going on.  Is the Arista well some sort of fountain of youth, aiding the Arista clan in their success, longevity, and glamorous looks? Or is it simply water and a valuable resource they choose to keep for themselves, which they have every right to do.  The questions are interesting and the answers feel resolved long before the movie wraps up

It’s good, then, that the cast is so worth watching and brings something more to the script than what was on the page, and that goes for everyone on screen from top to bottom.  Usually, the characters that enter a world foreign to them can be the dullest ones in the bunch but Rathbone finds some good moments throughout that feel special, giving the audience someone they can feel some kind of small relation to.  There’s also a bit of a kinship to Morales as the father just doing right for his family and protecting what he’s worked hard to cultivate.  A hard-working character actor for years, Berkeley is solid as always.  Playing the two wild daughters that take great joy in manipulating the men they love and loathe in their lives, Zumbado and Sacramento are of particular note because they seem to hold the greatest air of mystery for the longest amount of time.

While it’s not the politically timed piece it appears to be at first, there are so many underlying currents flowing through The Wall of Mexico and its left to the viewer to draw their own parallels between the events in the news and what transpires on the Arista estate.  Colter has crafted a neat little parable that reflects on our culture and today’s entitled society, it’s often right on the money and I’d imagine it’s a more uncomfortable watch now than it was when I first saw it nearly a year ago.

Movie Review ~ The Way I See It

The Facts

Synopsis: As Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza was an eyewitness to the unique and tremendous responsibilities of being the most powerful person on Earth. After leaving the White House, Souza transforms from a respected photojournalist to a searing commentator on the issues we face as a country and a people.

Stars: Pete Souza

Director: Dawn Porter

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Are we Facebook friends?  If we are, you may have seen some posts of mine regarding our upcoming election and maybe we agree on things and maybe we haven’t.  Perhaps you’ve put one of those angry face emoticons because you think I’m misinformed or are you one of those people who use the laughing icon ironically?  Maybe you just like my posts and forget about it…or wait, you’ve just muted me until after the election, haven’t you?  Remember, I’m not trying to change your mind…I’m just fact checking you.  Something we all should be doing, no matter what candidate you support.  Everyone needs to be responsible for telling the whole truth…and frankly that goes double for the candidate you are endorsing.

Like you, I’m ready for this election to be over with because it’s just dividing this country more and more.  Family and friends are being pushed further apart and while I appreciate hearing other people’s viewpoints, it honestly just does me no good to know that people I have great respect for are voting against the rights of so many.  It changes you, it just does.  Watching the documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy a few weeks ago, I was angry about the abhorrent voter suppression that has gone on in this country and still permeates often unchallenged throughout cities today.  Now having sat through The Way I See It, I find myself in a different state of grief…a grief for a country that has changed so much so quickly.

Photographer Pete Souza was a young photojournalist that wasn’t much of a political person when he was asked to apply for a job as the official White House photographer in 1983 during the Reagan administration.  The one thing he did know before he started that job was that he wasn’t a fan of Reagan and while they may not have ultimately agreed politically Souza speaks in the early part of this new documentary about a respect that developed over time for the actor turned politician.  Arguably the most famous Republican president (until recently) of all time, Reagan drew heat for his handling of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the Iran-Contra affair, not to mention his tax reforms that we are still feeling the chilling effects of today.  What we see by way of hundreds of Souza pictures is a Reagan that was as personable and engaged out of the public eye as he was in front of the world.  To hear Souza tell it, Reagan and his wife Nancy showed up for the country in ways he found great value in.

The bulk of The Way I See It, though, is comprised of the eight years Souza spent as the official White House photographer during the Obama administration.  Starting to photograph him when he was a newly elected senator, Souza was there nearly every day with Obama, his family, and his staff as they traveled around the world representing the United States.  The pictures he took were stunning but it’s the stories the pictures tell that are the immensely moving wonders to behold.  Director Dawn Porter condenses Obama’s eight years in office to around 55 minutes of screen time and highlights the major events where Souza captured him at his most compassionate and naturalistic.  By showing Souza’s involvement with two Presidents one the opposite side of the political spectrum, audiences get an idea of how much he’s seen during his career and come to understand that he can speak from experience when discussing the qualities that make up a strong Commander in Chief and an honorable leader.

I have to admit it’s hard to watch The Way I See It and not get choked up on a number of occasions.  Even going back to the Reagan era, Porter provides so many reminders of the way the office of the President used to hold such honor, not just for the voters that elect the candidate into office, but for the person that takes on that crucial role.  Say what you will about the causes championed by either Reagan or Obama (or any of the others that came in between them or before) when they held office but there’s historical evidence (not to mention pictorial) to show that these men took the job, and the American people seriously.  Porter is surely taking aim at the current President but instead of making the focus squarely on him, she instead has historians and cultural critics describe the history of the office of the President and the qualities of what makes a great leader.  It’s an intelligent way of exposing the current weaknesses of the administration without coming right out and saying it.

What it also does, however, is make the documentary feel off kilter and rambunctious.  I never quite got the feel or overall theme of the piece  One moment it’s focusing on Souza’s transition from a behind the scenes apolitical staff member to a public defender of the legacy of the Obama administration and, to a larger extent, human decorum.  Then it changes angles to be about Souza’s tenure with Obama and about what he gleaned from his time with the 44th President of the United States. Finally, it seems to document Souza’s personal life from his upbringing to his wedding day, which is so special, I won’t spoil it here.  I understand there’s a lot to say but I wish there was a bit more conscious editing to help it flow better from one part to another.

The current official White House photographer does not have the same access granted to Souza or others who have held the same position.  Gone are the days where a photograph could be snapped catching the President, his staff, or his family in a candid instant of levity or finding a special behind the scenes moment where the country could see a human side to a group many find phony.  Now, the role is relegated to a glorified photo op curator, coming in to get a heavily staged shot that Souza points out is often not presented in its true form.  What was intended to capture the truth is apparently now another part of the machine of falsehoods and that’s unfortunate.  Before the photographer was there to preserve a piece of history, now it’s there to proliferate propaganda.

This is an important documentary for all those interested in history and the upcoming election to see, although I can imagine the conservative right struggling to find the same inspirational goodness that I found in the meditation on past Presidents.  As someone who respects government and the tenets on which it was created and as someone who held the office of the President in great regard, I was greatly moved by The Way I See It but also left a little hollowed out at the end too.  It’s just another chilly reminder at how sallow our nation has become in the last four years.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Fire in the Sky (1993)

In 2013 I was feeling pretty blue about the state of movie trailers.  For a time, it was imperative for me to get to a theater in time for the previews or else some of the fun would be missing from the experience of going to the movies because, let’s face it, sometimes the coming attractions were more entertaining than the feature presentation.  That started to change when the previews became less of a creative way to market the film and more of way for studios to put all their cards on the table with little artistry.  Like I said back seven years ago, it seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

Sadly, in the years since I did my first run of the In Praise of Teasers series, not a lot has changed and it may have gotten worse.  It’s gotten to the point where I almost avoid watching a trailer all together because so much of the plot is given away.  This site used to feature a wealth of movie previews but I just can’t bring myself to post too many because they’re so spoiler-y.  Only the rare well-done coming attraction or preview for an “event” film gets through…and even then I can’t think of anything recent that could go toe-to-toe with the brief bites I’m going to share with you over the coming weeks.

That’s why I’ve decided to revive In Praise of Teasers now.  In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot.  Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there; but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Fire in the Sky (1993)

OK.  So here’s one of those examples I was talking about where the teaser trailer is better than the movie.  I vividly (vividly) remember seeing this teaser trailer before a number of movies leading up to its opening in early 1993 and being convinced this was going to be the next big movie.  I mean, it looked like it had a spooky menace to it, it was about aliens, it had the guy from The Cutting Edge in it, plus it was a true story!  I love, and still love, everything about this teaser because it tells you all you need to know to get you interested, invested, and ready to see the film.  Now, Fire in the Sky turned out to be more than a bit of a dud with me (and audiences and critics) because it was more drama than sci-fi at the end of the day and the marketing was misleading to say the least.  I don’t think I’ve seen the film more than twice and it’s been a solid fifteen years since the last time I took it in so perhaps my less “entertain me for the entire running length” brain would appreciate the slower pace of the movie now.  Just look at that cast, it’s nothing to scoff at with the likes of James Garner, Peter Berg, Robert Patrick, and Craig Sheffer joining D.B. Sweeney in this true-life tale of what was reported to be the first alien abduction on record.  (The account is widely believed to be a hoax, the man who claimed to be abducted even went on television to take a lie detector test and failed it!)  It just goes to show you that one good trailer can truly sell tickets…and Paramount was really great at these types of “big promise” trailers that turned out to be less than stellar delivery.  You have to add some points to this one for having a good poster as well — nice try, Paramount.  Nice try.

Movie Review ~ The Secrets We Keep

The Facts

Synopsis: In post-World War II America, a woman, rebuilding her life in the suburbs with her husband, kidnaps her neighbor and seeks vengeance for the heinous war crimes she believes he committed against her.

Stars: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Dean Vincent, Madison Paige Jones, Jeff Pope, David Maldonado, Ed Amatrudo, Ritchie Montgomery

Director: Yuval Adler

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  In 1990, playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote a charged play titled Death and The Maiden which centered on a former political prisoner that has started a new life with her husband in a remote part of the world.  Though it’s been years since her torture and rape at the hands of brutal guards, she remains haunted by her memories. When she believes she has run into one of her former captors by chance, she kidnaps him and enacts revenge…even though she isn’t totally sure he is the man who assaulted her those many years ago.  The play was a hit in London and Broadway before being turned into a 1994 movie from Roman Polanski starring Sigourney Weaver.

I was reminded of Death and the Maiden often while watching the new drama The Secrets We Keep because it shares many plot points with Dorfman’s earlier work.  Though it strays from the 1990 piece is several key areas, it almost feels like a slinky remake, albeit with less of a politicized edge than Dorfman implied and Polanski capitalized on.  Director and co-screenwriter Yuval Adler and his screenwriter collaborator Ryan Covington actually wind up treading on a lot of familiar ground here, producing a film that has a meaningful message at its core but is hampered by a clumsy delivery system.  Instead of truly delving into the dark areas it hints at, it opts to keep the night light on and avoid confronting anything seriously horrific.

Adler sets the film in 1959 anytown USA where housewife Maja (Noomi Rapace, Dead Man Down) lives with her doctor husband Lewis (Chris Messina, Live by Night) and son Patrick (Jackson Dean Vincent).  Their idyllic, post WWII town is thriving with a local refinery in full bore and an influx of returning veterans expanding their families.  The film has barely caught its breath when Maja hears a familiar whistle while lounging in the park with her son and follows the sound to a man that stirs a repressed memory.  A Romanian, Maja’s family was slaughtered by the Nazis and she was raped, along with her sister, by a gang of soldiers before escaping…the survivors guilt she harbors has been crippling and it all returns with that one whistle.

Convinced she has found one of the men that committed that heinous crime against her, she quickly puts together a plan to kidnap him and force him into confessing.  Turns out, Maja is quite resourceful and nabbing the unsuspecting man (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop) and getting him set-up in her basement isn’t all that difficult…but getting him to admit who he is will be.  With Lewis involved and her desperation to get the truth becoming more important than ever, Maja will resort to anything to uncover the truth.  Yet the question lingers, has Maja accused the wrong man?  Hints at psychiatric trauma and recent therapeutic sessions suggest there’s maybe a reason to doubt her recall of the events or call into question her judgement where her family is concerned.

Though the film is filled with numerous moments of supposed tension hinging on the discovery of a man trapped in the basement of this otherwise picturesque couple, I was surprised at how little energy the movie spends to create any kind of spark in anyone or anything.  There’s this general somber tone throughout and a drained-out color scheme that makes everything feel it’s either just coming back to life or about to take its last breath.  Rapace in particular looks so suspicious, you’d think she was hiding an entire football team and their grandmothers in her basement…she always looks rattled.  When she befriends the wife of the man (played by She Dies Tomorrow director Amy Seimetz with the kind of interesting mystery the entire film needed  more of) I kept waiting for the wife to ask her to blink twice if she needed help at home.

While the production design is solid and the costumes are more than just your usual pencil skits and trousers look, everything else just seems to tow the line…and that’s too bad because there’s an important story here waiting to be told.  Messina seems to be the one that’s hopped on the right train and knows where he’s headed and Kinnaman does too, for a bit, until the character has a shift that doesn’t get to be explored fully.  I always want to like Rapace more in films but possibly with the exception of 2012’s Prometheus she’s just never been as good or well represented as she was in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films in Sweden that made her famous.  While she’s well suited for the role, it ultimately proves to be another wrong fit for the actress.

The atrocious crimes committed by German Nazis against Jews and other marginalized Europeans during WWII have been explored and exploited by the entertainment industry for years by now.  It’s gotten to the point that the horrific rapes and murders depicted in the flashbacks seen in The Secrets We Keep are easy to chalk up alongside everyday crimes we’ve been desensitized to by the television and movies we watch.  I say that not to condemn the filmmakers of this film or any other with similar themes but to put into perspective how commonplace the acts portrayed within seem to have become…and make sure we never truly forget the real lives that were affected.  That’s one key area where the film succeeds, in detailing how this trauma can infest your entire life and the lives of others if not dealt with.

Movie Review ~ The Last Laugh (2020)

The Facts

Synopsis: A stand-up comedian on the verge of breakout success must make a terrible choice when he discovers a murderer on the loose in the theater where he’s about to perform his biggest show.

Stars: Steve Vanderzee, Eric Stone, Lowell Deo, Angela DiMarco, Meranda Long

Director: Jeremy Berg

Rated: NR

Running Length: 81 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It’s likely fair to say I’m an easy target when it comes to horror films.  I’m apt to take the bait on a well-cut trailer and enticed by a poster or advertising that is sometimes more creative than the film itself.  Though in the real world I don’t suffer fools gladly I’m apparently more than willing to give a scare flick a pass if it can muster up even the slightest bit of sustained energy.  That’s why when I give a genre film my enthusiastic stamp of approval you know I mean business…and how you can also tell when I emphatically urge you to steer clear of the true garbage when it appears.  As has become evident so far in 2020, horror feels like it’s on an inspired upswing with filmmakers taking some otherwise cliché set-ups and making them, if not precisely elegant in their execution, than at least fairly entertaining.

The latest surprising delivery is The Last Laugh, the barest of bare bones slasher film that marries a love of the slice and dice masked killer movies of the 80s and 90s with, of all things, theater nerdom.  Even with its shoestring budget, uneven performances, and at times frustratingly sluggish pacing, I found it to have a particular charm missing from many of its modern counterparts.  Writer/director Jeremy Berg seems to have approached the idea with an inspired energy and makes the most of the location (an actual working theater in Tacoma, Washington) and resources available.  Add in a few neat gore effects courtesy of a well-done effects team, plenty of blood, and a surprisingly rich air of whodunit mystery and you’ve got a show worth attending.

Self-deprecating comic Myles Parks (Steve Vanderzee) is still working the same comedy clubs he’s been in for years while waiting for his big break.  He’s not exactly leaving them rolling in the aisles when his agent Nelson (Eric Stone) books him for a one-night engagement as the opening act for Reggie Ray (Lowell Deo), an Eddie Murphy-ish star comedian on his comeback tour.  It’s a great opportunity for Myles and he knows it, especially when Nelson confirms a TV talent scout will be in the audience.  The stage is set for success, that is until a killer wearing a theatrically-themed disguise begins hacking their way through the backstage crew leading up to showtime.  Is the killer intent on tracking down Myles, or is there another motive behind the murders that Myles has found himself caught in the middle of?

Berg introduces an interesting quagmire for Myles early on by having him find one of the dead bodies and attempting to convince others there may be a murderer amongst them.  Dismissing his claims as pre-show jitters (!) or merely part of his own antic act, he’s left with a decision: involve the police now and ruin his opportunity with Reggie Ray or say nothing until later after he’s made a killing of his own onstage.  As people continue to die, I think there were opportunities to give Myles more, um, mileage to go with the cover-up but unfortunately, Berg doesn’t stay the course with this moral dilemma. Instead, he seems to be preoccupied with introducing more theatrical lore about the ghost of a dead actress said to haunt the space, which may explain to Myles who is behind the murders…or could just be a red herring.  This aspect is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like its from a different movie about a haunted theater rather than the one we’ve been seeing up until that point.

Like magicians, I find it hard to believe actors playing comedians in film because it’s a talent that can’t be taught or always captured well onscreen.  We’re told Myles is this impressive comedian who has knocked the socks off of many people but any time we see his set it’s made up of groaners or observances that are just plain unfunny.  Vanderzee helps sell it to a point but even he starts to spin out a bit the more his character spirals into delirium as he gets caught up in more and more murder scenes.  As the super serious theater manager that is a true aficionado of the classical stage, Angela DiMarco is sort of fun in a “is she for real?” kind of way…hearing a character wax on about Moliere in the middle of a slasher movie is a treat indeed.  The most appealing character by far is stagehand Bethany played by Meranda Long.  Long is just the laid-back bright spot that gives the film its strange charm.  The rest of the performances are serviceable but are the most obvious amateur-trappings on display in the film.

As far as indie hack ‘em up films go, The Last Laugh is one of the better efforts in recent release.  It may not have the finances to look totally polished, but I was surprised at how effective it was once it settles into the evenings events.  Plus, it actually manages to keep the identity of the killer a mystery throughout, another rare occurrence in my movie watching world when you can often tell within the first fifteen minutes who done the deed.  Appealing to both fans of slasher films and also anyone that’s spent time in a working theater, The Last Laugh finishes first in delivering a worthwhile watch.

Movie Review ~ Blackbird (2020)

The Facts

Synopsis: A terminally ill mother invites her family to their country house for one final gathering, but tensions quickly boil over between her two daughters.

Stars: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Roger Michell

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Back in 1995, I remember reading an article where Susan Sarandon was promoting the movie Safe Passage and casually lamenting the fact that she’d been moved into the “mother” category of the casting sheet.  Let’s not forget that by then she was a four-time Oscar nominee and had yet to star in Dead Man Walking, the 1996 film that would finally nab her that long-overdue trophy for Best Actress…but she wasn’t that off the mark.  Though she’d played mothers onscreen before, Safe Passage represented the first of a number of films over the next two decades where she played a particular kind of movie-mom: the self-sacrificing matriarch that would do pretty much anything for her children.  It’s a role that, even though she may have rallied against it internally, she managed to portray with nuance and keep these women interesting and varied in some way from project to project.

Don’t feel bad if you’re unable to place Safe Passage.  Apart from Sarandon, despite boasting a notable cast it’s a pretty dreadful drama otherwise.  Sold as a possible awards contender, it barely received a release and whatever buzz had preceded it blew away quickly.  The same sort of situation has happened with Sarandon’s latest film Blackbird, a remake of the 2014 Danish film Silent Heart that’s been quite faithfully recreated by its original screenwriter Christian Torpe and directed by Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson).  Here’s another film that curates a wonderful ensemble cast but actually knows how to use them in a meaningful way, wringing melodrama from such bountiful sources such as suicide (both assisted and self-inflicted), adultery, mental health, substance abuse, and that familiar font of pain…mother-daughter relationships.

Paul (Sam Neill, Peter Rabbit) and Lily (Sarandon, Jeff, Who Lives at Home) have invited their daughters and their respective families to their beach house for the weekend, after which the terminally ill Lily intends to end her life.  Lily is nearing the final stages of ALS and while she is still able to walk and present herself as functioning to a degree, it’s becoming evident that her decline is swiftly approaching. Eldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel) arrives first, accompanied by her husband Michael (Rainn Wilson, The Meg) and teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon, Crawl) with younger sibling Anna (Mia Wasikowska, Stoker) and her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus, Hell Fest) eventually joining once Anna has summoned the strength to face her family.  Family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan, Little Joe) has also been invited, keeping up the long-standing tradition of the older single woman being present at many of the milestone moments throughout the years.

Awkwardly ignoring the elephant in the room, everyone but the gallows-humorous Lily sidesteps the reason for the weekend, preferring to treat the together time as a way to catch-up and eventually air some of the grievances that have been hanging over their heads. This mostly affects Jennifer and Anna who have never truly outgrown their sisterly bickering or issues they faced in their adult years when Jennifer was settling down and Anna was struggling with addiction and depression.  Over dinners and an impromptu early Christmas celebration, the group works out more than a few kinks in their dynamics that have been holding them all back from moving forward.  Emboldened by Lily’s seemingly fearless way of staring her impending death squarely in the eyes, the quieter family members find their voice to say what’s been on their mind…and register their pain in saying good-bye to their loved one.

It should go without saying that Blackbird is a tough watch but not necessarily a tough sit.  It’s runs a relatively brisk 97 minutes and while the situations are grim and the final stretch is particularly hard for the tender-hearted, the experience is preserved by the strong performances from the entire cast.  Though I wouldn’t say the roles are a huge stretch for anyone (because they’ve all played variations on these in some way before), all the actors bring an intense sincerity to the work that aligns with the dignity the right to die movement has been fighting for.  Those that oppose this choice will likely struggle with the film and its resolution but that shouldn’t deter one from absorbing a rather wonderful film.

The big thing that makes this movie a must in my book is to witness once again why Sarandon is one of the best actresses of her generation.  Though she’s become a bit of a Hollywood outsider for her outspoken participation in politics that some see as divisive, I had to put my own feelings aside and let her performance speak for itself.  I’ve seen some reviews from Blackbird’s early release at festival screenings rather lazily compare the role as bracingly similar to 1998’s Stepmom and while certain dots can be connected there’s a different light shining behind Sarandon’s eyes in this part.  Watch the entire movie that can be viewed on her face when her character drops a glass in front of her family and has to rely on someone else to pick up her mess.  Her struggle to maintain her composure is masked well…but not well enough for the audience to miss a crack of fear slip through.

If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s one location setting lends a feeling of staginess that makes you feel often like you’re watching a filmed version of a play.  I had forgotten while watching the movie that it was a remake of a foreign film and spent much of the time convinced it was an adaptation of a stage piece.  I know there are certain limitations based on the scenario Torpe has created for this family but Michell is usually a more creative director with a better eye for movement than this.  I wished he’d have let the film feel less cramped and more free to move around, though perhaps that claustrophobia was intended as a way to put audiences in the same emotional pressure-cooker as the family.

Made several years ago and receiving a small release in the festival circuit in 2019 , Blackbird is just now getting a tiny official theatrical release during this pandemic.  Most people will thankfully discover this one in the comfort of their own homes, though, where they can take the time to go through this emotional journey with the family.  Overall, I think Blackbird works particularly well as an at-home watch more than as a theatrical endeavor because at least in my house it seemed to inspire some good conversation after the fact on Lily’s choice.  The movie, and Sarandon’s performance, are still on my mind several days later.

Movie Review ~ Rent-A-Pal

The Facts

Synopsis: Lonely bachelor David discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy, the tape offers him much-needed company and compassion. However, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.

Stars: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge

Director: Jon Stevenson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  In my mind, one of the more positive things to come out of 2020 is an interesting resurgence of 80s and 90s nostalgia that’s been brewing for some time.  The reboots of television shows and films have been streaming in over the last several years and fashion trends have been steadily regressing back to the bold looks popularized two or three decades ago.  It was truly in 2020 when I felt the pinnacle of the reminiscence to those older days happened with music industry titans The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Miley Cyrus all individually releasing albums with a distinct sound that screams of 80s synth and flavor.  It’s wonderful and I for one have loved seeing how artists of today across all mediums have reinvented the cultural touchstones of the past.

I think that’s a reason why Rent-A-Pal has such appeal, at least initially, because it taps directly into the memory sweet spot of the audience that its playing directly to.  This strange hybrid of horror/thriller/black comedy will by its very nature speak to a particular demographic and writer/director Jon Stevenson knows good and well how to snag their attention with the kind of retro calling cards that keep you visually interested even when the story begins to deflate as it careens toward a messy conclusion.  For everyone else that happens upon the film, it’s surely a case of ‘your mileage may vary’ due to an insular feeling giving off an impression if you aren’t familiar with this era you’re missing out on the majority of the point.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before all the dating apps were available, video dating services helped make love connections across the country via recorded VHS interviews. Lonesome David is hoping 1990 is the year he’ll meet his mate, though living in his elderly mother’s basement isn’t helping things.  Caring for his mom (Kathleen Brady) who suffers from dementia that leaves her brittle physically and emotionally, David (Brian Landis Folkins) is soft-spoken and the kind of guy you’d imagine would be fast-forwarded by women on the hunt for someone exciting.  While picking up his latest batch of hopeful matches, David spots a clearance VHS called Rent-A-Pal and, on a whim, decides to try it out.  Hosted by the effervescent Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape seems to ask the right questions at the right time, interacting with David on a level that few have.  Andy wants to know an awful lot about David it turns out; his secrets, his most embarrassing moments, and much more all become topics of increasingly intense conversations.  When David eventually makes a match with the sweet and shy Lisa (Amy Rutledge, strong and surprising in what could have been a disposable role), he finds that he doesn’t need his old pal Andy quite as much and stops playing the VHS.  That’s when things get weird…and deadly.

For the most part, Rent-A-Pal is a fun examination of loneliness (yes, I know how that sounds) and Stevenson doesn’t pass up an opportunity to put David in awkward positions…sometimes literally.  His interactions with the outside world are often wince-inducing and the way he begins to let what appears to be a pre-taped VHS order him around are amusing in a macabre sort of way.  Folkins and Wheaton have a good rapport in these scenes, never letting the audience get too far ahead of things so they figure out what’s happening or putting the large puzzle pieces together.  Wheaton’s role can seem a tad one-note but there’s more to what he’s doing than appears on the surface, the same can be said for Folkins who could have easily made David a Norman Bates-ish silent rage machine but instead lets what’s brewing rise to the kind of boil that explodes when you are least prepared.

The film’s biggest flaw is that Rent-A-Pal is an 80-minute movie living in the shell of a film that runs a half hour longer.  That extra thirty minutes drags the film down in its most crucial moments, slowing things to a crawl right when the screws should be turning to amp up the pressure.  It all leads somewhere, sure, and to its credit the film finds its way to a satisfying finale but the road leading up there is an oddly unsatisfying and ultimately disappointing trip, especially considering that up until then things were humming along nicely.  Clearly made on a small budget, the production design can’t go full out with the retro design so the look of the movie feels like 1990 by way of a garage sale instead of a curated prop department, but extra points go back to everyone just for seeing oodles of VHS tapes on display.

Even putting the budget aside (because plenty of movies can still be worthwhile even if made for $2.95), with a few cuts, Rent-A-Pal would have been an overall tighter movie and the trims would have helped every other element that goes slack leading up to the home stretch.  Wheaton’s character would have had more unnerving menace, Folkins wouldn’t have had to stretch out his descent into frenzy quite so long, and the poor women of the picture (both are quite good, especially Brady in a difficult to cast role) might not have had to wait for their turn to get something to do.  Stevenson is absolutely someone to watch and so is the movie, but see if you can spot when you can FF.

Movie Review ~ I Am Woman

The Facts

Synopsis: This uplifting biopic tells the story of Helen Reddy, the fiercely ambitious Australian singer behind the 1971 megahit anthem that became the rallying cry of the women’s liberation movement.

Stars: Tilda Cobham-Harvey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Chris Parnell, Matty Cardarople, Rita Rani Ahuja, Molly Broadstack

Director: Unjoo Moon

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than jumping on a bandwagon so I’m fairly surprised that after the unexpected success of the extremely mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 and the emotional satisfaction derived from the superior Elton John biopic Rocketman in 2019 there haven’t been an influx of similar musical biographies.  Before those films arrived, previous efforts at presenting the life stories of legends of the music industry had been spotty and only a select few managed to break past a paint-by-the-numbers approach to a life-story.  What about that long in the planning Dolly Parton film about her journey from the Smokey Mountains to finding fame in Nashville and the film industry?  Then there were the multiple projects at one time in the works set to cover the life of Janis Joplin that couldn’t get off the ground.  Surely, audience reaction to a Queen musical would fuel some further interest in those properties…right?

It’s interesting, then, that the first real film to be released that charts the ascent of a star singer doesn’t even come from Hollywood at all.  Arriving from Down Under, I Am Woman centers on Australian soft-rock vocalist Helen Reddy and how the single mother packed up her daughter and left their life in Melbourne with dreams and determination to make it as a recording artist.  At a time when her style of music wasn’t considered fashionable by executives that didn’t truly know what their market audience was looking for, Reddy hit a nerve in the industry with her #1 song that became the ever-present theme for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1960s, Helen (Tilda Cobham-Harvey) thinks she’s secured a recording contract after winning a contest back in Australia, only to learn from an oily recording executive that there’s no place for her kind of singing on their roster.  The music of The Beatles was popular and women didn’t sell records, besides, this record company already had their request solo female artist signed so…they couldn’t take on another one.  Reaching out to another NY transplant from her hometown for advice, rock journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, Paradise Hills), Helen begins singing at low-paying nightclub.

Up until this point, director Unjoo Moon keeps the film coloring inside the lines almost to a fault.  The script from Emma Jensen is jammed with eye-rolling dialogue that intends to tell you the true nature of everyone’s character from their first spoken line.  Helen’s meeting with the music exec is misogynistic to the point of parody as is an exchange between her and the club owner trying to stiff her on her pay.  Everything just feels so stodgy that you want things to loosen up just a tad, I mean, this was the 60s after all.  The relationship between Helen and Lillian proves for interesting interplay between two women that were capable of more than what people expected of them but it’s clear Lillian will be a sideline character quickly after Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, X-Men: Dark Phoenix) enters the picture and sweeps Helen off her feet.

A William Morris agent, at first Wald sends off all the traditional warning bells of an Ike Turner in the making but curiously manages to not follow the path you think he’ll tread.  Though initially challenged by Helen’s tenacity he appears to be someone that doesn’t just love Helen but actually believes in her too…though it takes a while (and a cross-country move) for him to make good on his promise to get her foot in the door with his music connections.  When she finally arrives, buoyed on the success of a hit cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him and then the blockbuster phenomenon of I Am Woman, her fame comes with the usual gains and losses.  The marriage to Wald is put to the test because of his drug and gambling addiction and her personal relationships with her friends and children are strained when she’s forced into choosing between her life as a performer and her offstage persona.

Objectively speaking, I Am Woman is fairly standard stuff and is akin to a rock skipping across the surface of a very wide and deep lake.  There’s a lot more to the story of Helen Reddy and a much deeper emotional well to mine, that’s for certain, but what’s presented onscreen feels respectful and ultimately an agreeable watch.  It helps immensely that Cobham-Harvey is positively electric as Helen, ably navigating the insecurities hiding behind perceived strength and wrestling with her own feelings of liberation while in a unique situation of her own where she feels at odds with the strong woman she sings about nightly.  Sadly, I was disappointed that she doesn’t do her own singing (Reddy’s vocals are either from her own recordings or recreated by Chelsea Cullen) and at times it shows that she’s just mouthing the words but overall she has Reddy’s mannerisms down.  I liked Peters as well, though his performance begins to slide into a series of sniffs and ticks as Wald’s addictions to drugs intensifies.

In addition to having a near ace-in-the-hole with its leading lady, I Am Woman also boasts cinematography from Memoirs of a Geisha Oscar-winner Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns).  Married to the director, BeeBe gives the film a radiant vibe and the faithfully recreated period production design from Michael Turner (The Great Gatsby) is overall exceptional, same goes for Emily Seresin’s (The Invisible Man) appropriately groovy costumes.  Hearing some of Reddy’s songs is quite nice, especially since Moon lets at least three of them play full out (including I Am Woman twice) but there’s little mention of Reddy’s work outside of the music world, including her film or stage work.  As one of Australia’s most respected performers, it’s right that the still living Reddy should get such a luxe film but I only wish the movie on the whole were quite as detailed as the sets and costumes that surround its star.