Movie Review ~ Songbird (2020)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 2024 a pandemic ravages the world and its cities. Centering on a handful of people as they navigate the obstacles currently hindering society: disease, martial law, quarantine, and vigilantes.

Stars: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser, Craig Robinson, Peter Stormare

Director: Adam Mason

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve boo-hoo-ed enough on here about how much I miss the experience of going to the theaters and cherishing that feeling of sitting in a darkened movie house with a packed crowd waiting for something exciting to happen.  What I don’t think I’ve spoken of is the flip side to that, the exasperation of dragging yourself out of the house after a long day of work (yes, some of us have to keep that day job), battling traffic and often out of the way theaters, and then getting a turkey of a film for your efforts.  That’s likely why so many critics get such a bee in their bonnet over not that bad films…it’s just because they were annoyed they left their house for a middle of the road piffle that was neither here nor there.

That’s why it’s been nice to not have to leave the house while watching a stinker, you literally can roll over and go to sleep if you want when it’s over; or, in the case of the dreary Sometimes Always Never, wake up first, brush your teeth, and then go to bed.  So should you happen to get the urge to commit some electronic funds to the el dweeb-o new Michael Bay produced pandemic thriller Songbird upon its release, you won’t be kicking yourself for wasting precious gas money for the round trip out to the theater.

The first movie to shoot in L.A. since the onslaught of COVID-19 shut down most Hollywood films, Songbird is an odd duck of a film that never can quite decide what it wants to be.  Shot in 19 days over the summer of 2020 and coming under early scrutiny for kinda-maybe-probably not adhering to all the health protocols put in place while filming, writer/director Adam Mason aims for a sort of ensemble feel but winds up with no one story or character that’s interesting enough to invest in.  Even worse, timely as it may be, there’s something just a tad ugly about releasing a film via Paid Video on Demand about the continued deaths attributed to COVID-23 right as many are in lockdown and facing a dark winter ahead.

In 2024, over 100 million people have died from the spread of COVID-23 which continues to mutate and is airborne.  Half of all people who contract it will die but there are a rare few that have proven to be immune to the virus, bearers of a coveted yellow bracelet that goes for big bucks on the black market. These people can roam free outdoors, though there’s not much out there to be living for.  Instead, the majority of the population exist behind glass walls and UV cleansing spaces where they receive items from the outside and take their temperature daily through an app and pray it doesn’t detect a virus.  Should they fail their test, armed guards come to take them and everyone in their house to quarantine zone (Q-Zone) from which no one returns.

Mason introduces a wealth of characters in quick order, keeping his eye on the 85-minute run time that is swiftly ticking away.  There’s bike messenger Nico (KJ Apa) who works for Lester (Craig Robinson, Dolittle) making deliveries to wealthy families like the Griffins (Demi Moore, About Last Night and Bradley Whitford, Saving Mr. Banks).  The Griffins make their money selling those yellow immune bracelets to high-paying friends and are in business with the shady head of the Sanitation Department (Peter Stormare, Clown) who doubles as the one that comes to cart people away to the Q-Zones.  Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) plays a wheelchair bound vet and associate of Lester’s who takes time in between flying his drone to follow aspiring singer May (Alexandra Daddario, We Summon the Darkness) on social media.  May, meanwhile, has a connection to one of the above-mentioned individuals that’s a bit of a spoiler so I’ll keep that one secret to myself.

That’s enough plot for most two hour films but Mason isn’t quite done – we’re not even into the main plotline yet.  Nico loves Sara (Sofia Carson) who he’s never met but talks to from behind her apartment door where she lives with her grandmother.  With their plans on starting a new life together if/when a cure is found, the Romeo + Juliet parallels are hard to miss, but it’s too bad that Apa and Carson don’t have a chemistry that could keep some sort of fire burning between the two.  When Sara’s safety is threatened, Nico has to find a way to get her out of the city before she winds up in a Q-Zone of no return…and to do that he’ll have to use his connections and resources in a short amount of time.  Ditching his bike for a motorcycle (what is this, Premium Rush?), Nico races around a danger zone of a city to avoid being caught by double-crossing government agents and making it back to Sara before she’s gone forever.

It almost feels at times that Songbird was made long before Hollywood was shut down and the filmmakers went back in post-production to overlay the words COVID in place of whatever random disease name was previously there.  Despite being sold as a pandemic thriller, there’s very little in the way of actual thrills on display and once you realize this is all going to be about finding a way for Nico and Sara to be together the interest just empties from the film in a flash.  At first, I was pulled in a bit at Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes set-up and though I shudder at the thought of our current lock-down extending, gulp, another four years the film presented at least a visually impressive view of a Los Angeles ravaged by a mass exodus.  The longer it plays, the more I grew bored with it because the characters are so bland and there are just so dang many of them.

Leads Apa and Carson are charming enough holding solo scenes to themselves but not totally ready to carry their own film yet, even forgettable fare like this.  You can see Apa possibly developing into a decent boyfriend character for a popular star down the road but not this type of nervy action hero…it’s not for him.  Carson was the better of the two on the whole, though Mason doesn’t know quite what to do with her; once she’s put in peril she becomes that sad standard female that needs saving.  I quite liked Moore as a ballsy take-charge mama bear protecting her immune-compromised daughter but when she ditches subtlety toward the end the character gets away from her.  Hauser and Daddario have worthlessly thankless parts and they know it, the less said about their awkward conversations about war, the better.  At this point, I’m not ever sure how to classify what Stormare is doing…it’s so kooky and weird that I guess in some way it works almost by accident, but this is a well he’s returned to so many times that he’s just repeating old hat characters now and collecting a paycheck.

Blessedly skipping a run in theaters and heading straight to streaming, I’m not sure how many people unable to visit their favorite local small business or go to a restaurant are going to want to watch a film about an endless plague with no hope in sight.  No time would really be right for this but is the second week of December really the best choice they could come up with?  Watch, it will snow real soon and you’ll be tempted to watch Songbird (by the way, the title makes no sense whatsoever.  What. So. Ever.) when it’s bleak and horrible out.  And you’ll feel worse after.  Don’t take the bait.  This tune is foul.

Movie Review ~ The Bloodhound

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A visit to a wealthy and reclusive friend lands a young man in a world of fear and despair.

Stars: Liam Aiken, Joe Adler, Annalise Basso, McNally Sagal, Kimleigh Smith

Director: Patrick Picard

Rated:

Running Length: 72 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems that since we’re in this quarantine/lock-down/social distance phase for the long-haul, the arrival of more curated streaming content has been coming down the pike and that’s good news for those looking for titles that don’t get cycled from one of the Big Three streamers to the next.  There’s a nice selection of British TV/Mysteries from BritBox and Acorn, not to mention the wonderful collection (and quality of display) from the Criterion Channel, and every October I find myself subscribing to Shudder and then keeping my account active for a few months after to catch up on original and hard-to-find horror programming I’ve missed this past year.  You don’t just have to have Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime to keep yourself full of content as the winter months approach.

Entering the arena on a larger scale in 2020 is Arrow, the British boutique specialist label that distributes a treasure trove of intriguing titles in world cinema, cult, art, horror and classic films on Blu-ray and DVD. A number of their releases are region coded which means that what will play in a Blu-ray player in Europe won’t play in the United States and vice versa…which makes importing these titles a no-go unless you have a region-free player, often an expensive investment.  With the arrival of Arrow’s fully curated site, many of these titles are available through their new platform, providing a connection to previously unattainable films, many of which come with the extras produced exclusively by Arrow for these releases.

In addition, Arrow is also getting into the film business themselves and with the first venture they’ve brought forth a quirky, irksome, and eventually tiresome loose adaptation of The House of Usher tantalizingly called The Bloodhound.  If I’m being honest, I watched the entire 72-minute feature and only after did I make the connection the film was taking on Poe with a more morose (is that possible with Poe?) twist.  Everything about the movie is either underplayed by seven notches or delivered without any emotional weight, robbing the viewer the chance to find any frazzled nerve to get a jolt from.  It doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Francis (Liam Aiken) has accepted an invitation from his old friend Jean Paul Luret (Joe Adler) to his family home far from prying eyes.  The Luret Family has a checkered past and all that remain are Jean Paul and his sister Vivian (Annalise Basso), living a strange co-dependent life of the über-rich.  When Francis arrives, he finds Vivian locked away in her room not wanting to see anyone and Jean Paul bearing the markings of a recent confrontation with his sister.  Claiming she has grown increasingly volatile in the past weeks, Jean Paul forbides Francis from trying to see Vivian while he’s staying there.  As the men reconnect through a handful of unique displays of true friendship, despite Jean Paul’s tendency for the dramatic and penchant for bouts of extreme selfishness, the middle-class Francis finds he enjoys benefitting from his wealthy friend that has smiled upon him.

It’s at night when things get dicey.  First, Vivian enters his room and warns him of pending danger.  Then a sleep walking Jean Paul relates a dream he’s had of a man with no face that has found his way into the house, a man lying in wait to destroy them once the inhabitants have achieved a kind of peace.  Crawling on his stomach out of a nearby lake, we’ve already seen him but was this before or after the events that are occurring now?  This man is known as The Bloodhound and we’ll see him throughout the rest of the film, though we’re never quite sure how he’s factoring into the relationship between Jean Paul and Francis until it’s all over…or will we?

Though it has the makings of a taut two-hander, first-time director Patrick Picard favors style over substance and muddled musings over musicality of sharp dialogue.  Either by direction or ability, a number of Aiken’s lines come off drained of feeling, like he’s telling you he’s just ate a piece of bread.  There’s no discernable emotion from one line to the next, rendering them all a gray ball of bland.  The opposite is true for Adler who never met a pensive thought he couldn’t turn into a watery eyed revelation that shakes him to the core.  It’s all just a little much on the part of both actors and, if anything, it’s their awkwardness that prevents you from falling under whatever spell Picard was trying to cast.  The only scene that carried some semblance of weight is a charged one between the two men watching a home movie that suggest there’s a level to their relationship that’s unresolved.

Visually, the movie is sharp as a tack, so it’s too bad the performances don’t have that same focus, not to mention the free-wheeling script.  The Bloodhound dream that Jean Paul relates sends the requisite chill and I leaned forward thinking the film was beginning to get interesting, but Picard sacrifices that intensity of mood for more unbalanced back and forth between Aiken and Adler.  Though it ends with the kind of wicked wallop I craved the other 68 minutes to have, it doesn’t keep The Bloodhound from failing the sniff test.  Still…give Arrow’s new streaming platform a go because their current content is excellent and I’m guessing it will only get more robust.

ARROW is available in the US and Canada on the following Apps/devices: Android (all Android devices), Fire TV (all Amazon Fire TV Sticks, boxes, etc), Roku (all Roku sticks, boxes, devices, etc) and on all web browsers at https://www.arrow-player.com. Arrow Video is offering fans a 30 day free trial of ARROW, and subscriptions are available for $4.99 monthly or $49.99 annually. A UK rollout is planned for 2021.

Movie Review ~ Let Them All Talk

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Gemma Chan, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Daniel Algrant, John Douglas Thompson

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: If there’s one thing to be said about veteran filmmakers, it’s that they can get a movie put together quickly.  I kind of marvel at the endless gestation periods franchise pictures need to make their way to their release date (it’s not all about how long the special effects takes, trust me) or how particular directors struggle with the fine-tuning part of their oversight that keeps a project from getting in front of the viewer.  Then you have your Spielbergs, Eastwoods, and Soderberghs who can churn out movies, and often good ones, with such ease it feels like they just woke up and decided to make a movie that day.  There’s more to the planning of it of course but when you have as much experience as they do this process starts to come naturally.  At the tail end of 2020, a number of people were taken a bit off guard when Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk was announced as complete and ready for release…how did this Meryl Streep led serio-comic film on the high seas get this close to us with no one taking notice?

Many a film fan got weepy when Oscar-winning director Soderbergh put out a very public statement that he was retiring.  The vanguard director that led the ‘80s independent film wave in Hollywood had accumulated an impressive list of box office successes and critical hits during his time in the business, earning respect from colleagues and admiration from celebrities who knew him to be an actors director.  Showing a knack for casting down to even the most minor role, for a while Soderbergh couldn’t lose…until he began to take a “one for them, one for me” approach and his ratio of winners to losers started to shrink.  Too many bombs and experimental failures followed before a last gasp strange run of oddball efforts between 2008 and 2013 (including Magic Mike and Side Effects) that led to his retreat into television and his supposed retirement.

He didn’t stay put for long.  Making a somewhat stealth return with 2017’s pleasing Logan Lucky (written by his wife, who felt the strange need to use a pseudonym), Soderbergh has been trying something a bit new with each project.  His high concept TV effort Mosaic for HBO started as an interactive app that aided audiences in solving a murder mystery, 2018’s Unsane was filmed completely with an iPhone, and 2019’s The Laundromat did the unthinkable – it found an accent and make-up that Meryl Streep couldn’t convincingly pull off.  For a man several years into retirement, he’s certainly keeping busy with his previous job.

Streep and Soderbergh are teaming up again with Let Them All Talk for HBO Max and it brings a screenplay by humorist and noted short story author Deborah Eisenberg to life and for better or worse, it’s a big improvement over the last time the star and director worked together.  For one, it’s not based on real life events, something that tended to stymie The Laundromat and bound the filmmakers to certain limitations.  It also spreads the wealth nicely among co-stars, with Streep often graciously exiting stage left in favor of her other highly respected co-stars to have their moment in the spotlight.  Soderbergh is no dummy, though, and he trots his star out for the less strong members of the cast or when the mostly improvised dialogue starts to stall out.

Everyone is waiting for the next novel from Pulitzer-winner Alice Hughes (Streep, Hope Springs) who has been struggling with completing her latest manuscript, rumored to be a sequel to her most famous book.  Recently moved to new agent Karen (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) that she’s not totally comfortable with, Alice prefers to work at her own pace and doesn’t like to be rushed in her process.  Karen’s under pressure from their publisher, though, and isn’t as much of a friendly shoulder pushover like her predecessor.  With Alice set to receive an esteemed award in London that’s rarely given out, Karen seizes the opportunity to get Alice focused on the work and raise her profile a bit in the process.  There’s one problem, though, NY based Alice doesn’t like to fly.  But this is New York, darling…so through Karen’s connections it’s off to London on the Queen Mary II with Alice and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased) acting as her assistant of sorts.

Also invited along are two of Alice’s oldest friends she hasn’t seen in quite some time.  Though Alice doesn’t know it, Roberta (Candice Bergen, Book Club) is more frenemy than anything, holding a long grudge against her friend through an unproven theory that she took secret information told in confidence and used it as the basis for her bestselling novel.  She’s spent the ensuing decades blaming her for the shambles her life has become as a result. The peace-keeper of the bunch is free-spirited Susan (Dianne Wiest, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) who has come on the trip for all the right reasons in wanting to reconnect with her old friends and help the other two mend a fence long broken.  When Karen hops on board and starts to work in secret with Tyler to get more information on his aunt, it creates another side relationship the movie has to juggle throughout it’s two hour run time.

Acting once again as his cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews) and editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard), there’s not a lot Soderbergh isn’t involved with here and you can feel it.  Much of the movie was improvised and that’s why for every dymanic scene there are two are three insignificant ones of mundane goings on that Soderbergh feels drawn to.  From the obvious improvisation in many scenes (most evident with Chan and Hedges who tend to commit the kiss of boring death in making their improvised dialogue far too specific, serious, and detailed) to the hand-held filming, it has all the calling cards the director is known for.  What it also has is a sort of deep sadness to it as well and while that provides good space for seasoned actors like the three leads to play in, it winds up making you feel bad for everyone.  Sad that friends can’t be honest, sad that family can’t be more vulnerable, sad that too much goes unsaid until too late.

As is often the case with Soderbergh, he runs the film on its rims several miles longer than necessary.  It was pretty disappointing to come out of the movie dovetailing from a quite touching ending to a pointlessly overlong coda that was of no benefit.  By that point, we’d already filled our cup with the impressive showings of Bergen, Wiest, and Streep.  Anytime Streep is onscreen you can’t help but be drawn to her magnetic aura but Soderbergh has found a way to harness that by sandwiching her between two other actresses of her generation that also possess the same sort of power to command a screen.  They have presence and in different ways.  Bergen is playing right into the type we want her to be and that’s good, though I wish the script had provided her one more establishing scene with Streep earlier in the film, it would make a later bedroom scene work that much better.  How wonderful to see Wiest knock it out of the park here playing a kind of extension of her worldly but not perfect character from Parenthood.  Her wry revelations to Bergen over their daily parlor games by the ocean are a riot and a lovely speech summing up the journey up is the film’s true high point.

If Soderbergh is going to continue to skate that line of retirement, I hope he stays with this kind of dour material because he seems to have found a nice, if imperfect fit with his own interests.  This is bound to draw comparisons to the films of Woody Allen and I can’t imagine this didn’t cross the minds of everyone involved at one time or another.  It’s got the same arch rhythm, conversations about nothing that are about everything, and that wistful longing for the joy of travel but not the pain of separation. Let Them All Talk is not going to rank high on the Best-Of list for any of the cast or crew when all is said and done but it’s one of the more interesting experiments mad scientist Soderbergh has concocted.  And who wouldn’t want to sail across the Ocean with at least one of these three stellar stars?