Movie Review ~ The Vigil


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man providing overnight watch to a deceased member of his former Orthodox Jewish community finds himself opposite a malevolent entity.

Stars: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed, Nati Rabinowitz, Moshe Lobel

Director: Keith Thomas

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you’ve been following along these past few weeks, you know that I like to include a wide range of films for this website from the mainstream to the tiniest of indie films.  This not only helps make me more well rounded and exposed to a number of different genres and filmmakers, but I think it gives you a variety of titles to choose from when you don’t know exactly what you want to watch.  What I’ve now picked up on my own is that the Toronto International Film Fest (TIFF) truly is the “it” place to launch (or continue to launch) exciting buzz for a hefty number of titles.  In particular, the 2019 festival is starting to have a trickle-down effect on a bounty of films I’ll be reviewing shortly. While I wasn’t too crazy about Saint Maud a short time ago, other familiar titles that have gone on to greater notoriety since their premiers were Parasite, Sound of Metal, Corpus Christi, Les Misérables, Waves, Pain and Glory, Marriage Story, Judy, and Knives Out to name but just a few.

The horror genre tends to be a little slim at TIFF, only because there’s a kind of prestige level that comes with the territory.  Emerging from the 2019 fest were The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Sea Fever, and The Vigil, the latest release from IFC Midnight.  In keeping on brand with the indie distributor’s reputation for exploring a more complex side of the scary movie, The Vigil might be lacking in propulsive movement at times but makes up for it with a well-established creeping sense of fear.  Though we may begin the movie in a more relaxed state, it isn’t long before we’re as skittish as the main character thanks to an impressive sound design and cinematography that uses the light, not the darkness, against us.

Still recovering from a terrible tragedy that was the impetus for separating from his insular Orthodox upbringing, Yakov (Dave Davis) attends a support group with other Hasidic men and women that have left their faith.  All struggle with adjusting to new customs and finding their own way forward but Yakov is in pretty dire straits where money is concerned.  So the offer from his Rabbi cousin (Menashe Lustig) is appealing to him, but only because he needs the money, and his cousin is desperate enough to pay extra for his services.  Apparently, in his days as an active member of the Hasidic community, he excelled in serving as a shomer, watching over a dead body until it gets taken off for burial and guarding it from evil. Usually, a family member or friend of the family takes on this responsibility but in some cases this long-time customary observance of superstition can be a paid obligation.

A recently deceased man, Mr. Litvak, needs a shomer because his wife Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) is unwell and can’t do it herself.  Yakov would only need to stay for a few hours so she can rest in order to collect his money.  Arriving at the home, aside from Mrs. Litvak’s slightly odd state, which is to be expected in her time of grief, everything else seems to be in order so Yakov settles in for what should be an easy way to earn some cash to pay his rent.  Yet something seems to be out of order, there’s a sense of unease within the confines of the Litvak home.  Floorboards creak, walls moan, and shadows take shape.  The longer Yakov stays in the house the more he (and soon, we) come to see that evil has been present for some time, tethering itself to the family.  Now that’s it has been faced with eviction…it’s looking for a new home.

First time writer/director Keith Thomas keeps The Vigil running taut for most of the way through it’s economical running time.  Sure, it’s padded with an extra character or two that pop in and slow things down, but the movie is alarmingly frightening when Davis is by himself just letting the eerie atmosphere of the house sink in.  It’s enough to give you the shivers watching him, who has performed this task many times, get progressively more terrified as the night continues.  He shares a nice scene or two with the late, great Cohen as the Litvak widow who appears distraught and out of it at first but might be more on her game than we are led to believe.

If Thomas gets himself into a corner by the souped-up finale where there is no easy way out, it’s a forgivable misstep but not one that lacks in ambition.  If anything, it’s a case of showing more than implying and then not really answering the questions you posed in the first place.  That’s fine if you were always keeping your cards close to the vest but The Vigil is fairly straightforward most of the time. Even so, I watched this late at night and definitely had to keep the light on a little longer before comfortably being able to succumb to the pitch-black bedroom…so Thomas obviously achieved his goal.  Approach this one with confidence.

Movie Review ~ Cherry


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An Army medic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder becomes a serial bank robber after an addiction to drugs puts him in debt.

Stars: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini, Pooch Hall, Thomas Lennon, Kelli Berglund, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Nicole Forester, Jamie Brewer, Fionn O’Shea

Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Rated: R

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  In some ways, I get it.  After spending the better part of the last decade doing nothing but living in the land of Marvel and working wonders within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, brothers/directors Anthony and Joe Russo were likely ready for something totally different.  They’d proven themselves originally with 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and their careful juggling of a number of celebrated stars in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War earned them the right to handle the reins for the final two films in the The Infinity Saga (2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame) and the results were nothing less than spectacular.

Of course they would want their next film to be something far afield of the superhero movies they’d been known for, so seeing Cherry come up on the release calendar was something to look forward to.  They even chose to bring Tom Holland, their Spider-Man/Peter Parker, along in the lead role, allowing the young actor a further opportunity to take on more mature work beyond the spidey suit.  Already proving himself at a young age with his staggering turn in 2013’s The Impossible (which he very nearly got an Oscar nomination for) as well as solid work in How I Live Now and last year’s The Devil All The Time, this true dramatic lead could be a prime showcase for Holland’s burgeoning career.

Unfortunately for everyone, Cherry is pretty rotten and while it’s not quite a bomb it’s fairly stinky and that includes Holland. Totally miscast as an aimless student turned solider that returns from the war and quickly becomes an addict and crook in no particular order, the whole kit and kaboodle is slicker than all get out but equates to absolutely nothing of substance.  It’s like the Russo’s took all of the good ideas and insights they learned from the last several years and applied none of those tricks to Cherry, starting with hiring an editor that would slice the movie down from its punishment of a run time.  Dedicated audiences will sit for two and a half hours if there are mini memorable moments along the way culminating in a payoff or two in the finale, but they won’t be happy to hit a final freeze frame and ask “That’s it?”

But wait, unlike Cherry, I’m moving too fast.

Based on the 2018 semi-autobiographical novel by Nico Walker who penned the tome while he was serving time in prison for robbery, Cherry centers on a man (Holland) who you’ll only realize is never named until you see the credits and note that screenwriters Jessica Goldberg and Russo sister Angela Russo-Otstot have gone ahead and given him the name…oh, heck, I won’t spoil that foolishness for you.  Anyway, where we start is not where the story really begins, only where we’ll join back up again in a few hours.  Until we return, we’ll see the man during his college years as he half-heartedly goes through school in a recreational drug haze and romances beautiful young co-ed Emily (Ciara Bravo) before she dumps him on her way to school in Canada.  Frustrated, he joins the army just as she decides she can’t live without him.  Oops.

His time in the army causes lasting PTSD and when he returns, he’s a changed man that for a while is able to self-cope with the horrors he saw overseas.  When he’s introduced to hard drugs, he becomes all-consumed with his habit, eventually dragging Emily into the addiction with him.  Now, with two dragons to chase, the couple become desperate for money and the man starts robbing banks for cash that goes right out the door to feed their habit.  It’s a vicious cycle that’s only interrupted by the occasional overdose and a melodramatic side story involving junkie friends that want to get in on the action.  Once Jack Reynor (Midsommar) enters the picture with an enthusiastic but misplaced energy as a popped collar post-yuppie early millennial that’s the mouthpiece for a dangerous drug dealer named Black, the film has officially tipped the scales to gaudy trash and we’re waiting for the ugliest stuff to happen.

Divided into six distinct chapters (I tell you this so you can count down), Cherry is such a mess from start to finish and one of those movies that become exhausting to watch by the time it crawls to the finish line.  The best part about it is picking up on the clever ways the production designers have altered signage in the background to better represent “truth in advertising”.  These are the rare moments of ingenuity that are sorely lacking in every other aspect of Cherry and that just shouldn’t have been missed in the first place.  I’m not sure if anyone really needed this story to be told or what made Walker’s novel such a hot commodity the Russo’s felt drawn to the material.  There’s nothing here (man goes to war, comes back with PTSD, becomes an addict, turns to crime, bad things are a result) that hasn’t been done before so if they don’t have anything more than flashy camera tricks and funny signs then what, really, is the point of it all?

It can’t be for the performances which are woefully out of joint, starting with Holland who is so wrong for the role even his hair wanted out of the picture by the end.  For whatever reason, Holland sports a wig so ludicrously fake that I almost thought it was going to be revealed to be a disguise of some sort – he shaved his head in the military and came back with it that same length.  Why have him with the long hair again (the awful wig) only to have him go short again several scenes later?  Also – though I could believe Holland as a college kid at the start of the movie, the more the years went by the less I was able to get on board with his aging…especially since the make-up department seemed to think putting a moustache on him was enough to add fifteen years to his face.  It doesn’t.

The age thing is a problem for everyone, really.  In addition to Holland feeling too young, Bravo especially comes off as hardly out of grade school and that makes intimate scenes between the two feel creepy to watch.  It’s not that Bravo doesn’t have it in her to pull off the part or that it’s anything about the work she’s doing, but I have trouble believing she’s the right person for this role right now.  You know how in high school when a barely 16-year-old freshman was cast as 70-year-old grandfather and drew lots of lines on his forehead to show how old and distinguished he was?  It’s the same effect.  Aside from Reynor who seems age-appropriate and Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant) as a reckless stoner friend of the couple, the extended cast aren’t anything to get fired up either way about.

A huge headache masquerading as a movie, Cherry is a gigantic error in judgement for everyone involved.  It does nothing to instill confidence that the Russo Brothers can handle anything outside the tropes of established franchise parameters and suggests that Holland might be more of a “stay in your own lane” actor than we originally thought.  It absolutely puts the nail in any other drug-dependency biopics that may be in the pipeline, which is a pity because not all of these could possibly be as one-note and gross as Cherry.

Movie Review ~ The United States vs. Billie Holiday


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics launches an undercover sting operation against jazz singer Billie Holiday.

Stars: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Melvin Gregg, Natasha Lyonne, Tyler James Williams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Rob Morgan, Miss Lawrence, Evan Ross, Tone Bell

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: When jazz singer Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 on July 17, 1959 she left behind a personal and professional history that seems like it was written for the movies.  A tumultuous upbringing that saw her bounced around between relatives and winding up in the workhouse at 14 with her mother led to her origins as Harlem nightclub singer.  From there, her career took off thanks to her beauty, unique voice, and the way she could interpret a song and hold the attention of audiences that would pack the house.  By the time she began singing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” at the Café Society in 1939, she was a bona fide star, which made her struggles with alcohol, drugs, and affairs of the heart fodder for gossip columnists and government officials alike.

The life of Holiday has already immortalized on screen in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues for which Diana Ross nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination and onstage with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill that began life in 1986 before debuting on Broadway in 2014, winning star Audra McDonald the final Tony Award she needed to be the first person ever to win the top theatrical award in all four acting categories (Play and Musical).  Countless books have been written, documentaries have been made, recordings have been remastered (Amazingly, she won all four of her Grammy’s posthumously), and in 2017 the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame inducted Holiday into its ranks.

So what’s left to tell of the brief but bold life of Lady Day?  Why are we here in 2021 reviewing The United States vs. Billie Holiday which Hulu is releasing on February 26?  According to the production notes, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks has adapted Johann Hari’s 2015 novel Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs but from the homework I’ve done it appears that Holiday is but a small part of that larger novel.  So it sees that what Parks and director Lee Daniels (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) have done is taken that passage and used that as the jumping off point to cover a certain swath in Holiday’s later life when she was in the thick of her addictions, putting a bullseye on her back for the FBI to silence her.

Had the virtuoso Parks been left to her own devices, I’m fairly certain a case could be made that The United States vs. Billie Holiday would have been a worthwhile endeavor for those involved and, eventually, the viewer.  Sadly, something has been severely lost in translation.  Under the tragically overworked direction from Daniels, not only is the movie uniquely bad as film in general (casting, editing, cinematography, you name it), from the standpoint of the basic language of filmmaking there’s a disquieting level of, let’s just say it, incompetence on display.  Anyone aiming to tell the story of the doomed singer is obviously coming from a place of respect, so why did this movie wind up so laborious, gratuitous, skeevy, humorless, and boring?

I can tell you one place you most definitely cannot place the blame and that’s with the film’s mesmerizing star, musician Andra Day.  While Ross drew strong reviews for her interpretation of Holiday, even her most ardent fans knew it was just that…an interpretation.  Day goes a step further and convincingly channels the late singer in body, mind, spirit, and voice and the results are stunning.  A successful transition from the concert stage to the big screen that’s every bit as on par with the work Lady Gaga did in 2018’s A Star is Born, Day is so exemplary in detailing Holiday’s high and low points that even in the best circumstances everyone else sharing the screen with her would have had to work that much harder to be noticed.  The performance is huge in size but never steps over into the deadly temptation of arch showiness — Day is truthful in each second, each breath as Holiday.  If only she had the same support around her.

That’s where we start to run into rough waters in the aimless sea Daniels has set Day adrift in.  Despite the appearance of strong character actors that have made excellent contributions to films in the past, like Da’Vine Joy Randolph for instance, it doesn’t feel as if anyone knows exactly what the tone of the film is supposed to be.  Is it the tell-all biopic a fey gossip monger played by Leslie Jordan in the first of several hideous wigs and hastily applied bald caps the cast hopes you’ll gracefully forgive?  Or is it the insider’s view of the FBI’s continued targeting of Holiday by a bigoted federal agent played by Unbroken‘s Garrett Hedlund, tall and sporting a Brylcreem ‘do, looking hysterically nothing like his short, squat and very bald real life counterpart who we see in the end credits.  Perhaps it might travel into a doomed love story between Holiday and the series of men that never have her best interest in mind and showed their love for her via violence and rough bedroom relations?

Whatever the thought-process was, what we never get is substantial insight into Holiday that’s any deeper than your standard fact sheet.  In its place, Daniels opts to show Holiday at her worst and Day at her most exposed, hardly missing the opportunity to feature the star without her clothes on or in a compromised state.  When the screenplay does diverge from the wallow, it offers a brief glimpse into her brothel-reared childhood, but the acting is so unconvincing and forced that it hardly seems worth the time spent.  Leading up to this scene is one of the movie’s three most impactful moments and it comes from an unscheduled pit stop Holiday makes while on tour and the horrifying scene she finds in a field.  This leads her into a nightmare sequence and, eventually, this poorly played childhood memory but up until then there’s a flash of creative energy where it comes across as if she’s entered a haunted house in her own mind.

The centerpiece of the film is Day’s performance of “Strange Fruit” and it will make the hairs on the back of your neck on end.  Up until that point Daniels, cinematographer Andrew Dunn (The Bodyguard), and editor Jay Rabinowitz (Irresistible) have covered Day’s full length performances with a lot of useless camera tricks and other distractions that are kind of appalling but here they just let their star sing, often directly to us out in the darkness of the crowd and the results are chilling.  Holiday’s final days were anything but peaceful and Day plays these increasingly grotesque scenes with a masterful touch, refusing to be bullied by the law that continued to hound her until the end nor let the men in her life (including an oddly detached Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight and The Predator) dominate her like they did when she had the strength to fight them off but didn’t.

The life of Billie Holiday deserves a better telling than this and a performance like the one Day is giving is owed a better movie to house it.  A film of this size needs more care from a director that will take it seriously but not weigh it down with unnecessary excesses of their own design.  Several graphic sex scenes feel overly gratuitous and don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know; all they serve is to take us out of the moment and feel as if Day and her costars were exploited somehow by Daniels.  I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that the film is, well, ugly to look at.  The production design might look good in person, but you’d hardly know it since the movie is so poorly lit and, at times, out of focus.  Several stock reels used as inserts look like they were rescued from underwater in a basement storage room and the bizarre and incongruous ending credits truly must be seen to be believed.  It’s just a poorly constructed film from a filmmaker that should know much, much better.

It pains me to no end to say it, but I still think you need to see The United States vs. Billie Holiday because Day’s performance alone is so good it outweighs the simple truth everything else about the movie is so extremely bad.  Try not to think about what could have been when you see how skillfully Day moves through each scene and handles difficult material, both in the script and what is just being asked of her physically.  If you can’t commit to the bloated 130-minute run time, at least track down a clip of Day singing “Strange Fruit” because that’s really the pinnacle of the movie.

Movie Review ~ Saint Maud

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pious nurse who becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.

Stars: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Marcus Hutton

Director: Rose Glass

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it was looking like Saint Maud was going to be the one that got away.  Making its debut all the way back at 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival where it was acquired by red hot indie studio A24,  then on quite a roll with next-gen horror fare like Midsommar, Hereditary, In Fabric, and Green Room.  Early trailers were enticing, hinting at something different than your usual religious experience horror outing, and filtered through a uniquely female lens, something the sub-genre was sorely missing.  Originally supposed to debut in April 2020 but then, well, you what happened; Saint Maud became a long-standing casualty of the great 2020 shuffle and only recently received its release on a smaller scale than was intended.  As it turns out, perhaps it was a good thing the movie eluded me for so long.  While it gets off to a swell start with haunting imagery, committed performances, and a claustrophobic set-up suggesting a mountain of dread ahead, it plays its hand too early and effectively leaves a solid 40 minutes that can’t live up to what came before.  For all the talk about it eschewing the trappings of other religion-based horror films, it actually manages to fall into lockstep with every one of them until the climax that, while one doozy of a final kick in the rosary beads, is more inevitable than it is thrilling.

In a dullish town on the English seaside, Maud (Morfydd Clark, The Personal History of David Copperfield) is the newest hospice nurse assigned to care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Run This Town), a caustic former dancer turned choreographer moving into the final stages of terminal cancer.  We’ve seen the bloody remnants of the last job Maud (then known as Katie) held and since then she’s found God which has led her to Amanda’s doorstep.  At first, Maud seems to be just what Amanda has needed in a nurse.  She listens to her patient and humors her whims to a point but stays firm in the care she administers and the boundaries she sets.  Pallid Amanda drops her acidity towards her caregiver and indulges her as well, listening to Maud’s recounting of a recent conversion to the church and giving her the kind of attention only someone experienced in nurturing young souls could pull off without making it seem as phony as it most definitely is.  If only Maud knew of Amanda’s lack of sincerity.

The bigger problem is that Amanda is still Amanda deep down and her late-night trysts with Carol (Lily Frazer, The Gentlemen) start to light the fire and brimstone under Maud, especially when she finds out the online hook-up has been accepting money when their visit is over.  Of course, Amanda isn’t about to be ordered around on a personal level by her younger, ultra-religious nurse, which puts their working relationship to the test.  It all comes to a head as Maud begins to unravel under the weight of what she believes is her duty to “save” Amanda before she dies while at the same time battling her own snarling demons that are causing her to act on some very basic instincts of her own.  Consumed (or possessed?) by the need to purify the soul, Maud sinks far beneath the dizzying swirl of her fractured reality.

The opening act of writer/director Rose Glass’s horror film is spooky and, at times, quite scary in a real-world, unsettling way.  Maud is so innocuous with her intentions that the little ways she tries to subvert Amanda’s way of living is troubling at first, disturbing around the halfway mark, and totally unknown by the end.  It’s as if Glass knew how she wanted to start things and how it would end but wasn’t quite sure how to fill in some major gaps of action in the middle third.  That results in a long period of time where Saint Maud goes off the rails in the clunkiest of ways, focusing on Maud’s journey into the black abyss and it’s frankly not nearly as interesting as anything else in the movie.  We’ve seen characters like Maud go through these trials before and they’ve been far more effective in intent and execution, not that Clark doesn’t commit to the character with a bravura performance that keeps the film with a hearty pulse.

Where Glass has found the steeliest strength in Saint Maud is the casting of her two main character and I’d argue that Clark and Ehle’s scenes alone would have been enough for the movie to be a larger success had the above-mentioned passages been truncated or excised all together.  The dynamic between the two women is skilled, the electricity palpable.  I could just easily have believed Glass’s screenplay began life as a script for the stage and might imagine it would make for excellent material for actresses to use in scene study down the road in a few years.  Though Clark can hold her own (when it’s just her), Saint Maud’s fervor drops considerably when Ehle isn’t somewhere nearby and we’re lucky Glass has given her several boffo moments throughout.  The remaining supporting cast tend to blend together, dwarfed by the large shadows cast by the strong stars.

Like many movies that get their fuel from the mystery of religion, Saint Maud derives a number of its shivers from the unknown.  Though it does resort to jump scares on occasion, much of the actual terror the posters and pull quotes proclaim come more from witnessing the disturbing decay of the supposedly pious and downward spirals we are unable to stop from happening in the third act.  Without spoiling anything, I’ll say the final few minutes did give me the heebie-jeebies, leaving this viewer with one or two lingering images that I’d like to quickly forget.  However, it’s all to send a shock wave through your system and the attempt at being so bold at these very last moments have a bit of a smell of last-ditch desperation to them.  Some penance is needed for this not being the holy terror it could have been, though Clark and Ehle’s performance makes it worth it for a time.

Movie Review ~ Wrong Turn (2021)

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Despite warnings to stick to the Appalachian Trail, hikers stray off course and cross into land inhabited by a hidden community of mountain dwellers who use deadly means to protect their way of life.

Stars: Charlotte Vega, Matthew Modine, Emma Dumont, Bill Sage, Daisy Head, Adain Bradley, Tim DeZarn, Dylan McTee

Director: Mike P. Nelson

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Like them or not, you have to give a certain amount of credit to anyone attempting to reboot a popular film franchise for their sheer chutzpah.  Going beyond the mere land of the sequel where you are tasked with continuing on the thread of characters and staying as true as you can to what has been established in previous installments, to reboot means to really start from scratch and that can be scarier than any madman in a mask chasing after a nubile teen with a knife.  Now, you have the fate of the future essentially in your hands so you better know what you’re doing or else the fans will come to get you and let me tell you a truth universally known by many doomed directors hoping to kickstart their own bloodline using a beloved series: a loyal fan is a hard gnat to swat.

What’s always energizing to find is a situation like we have with this reboot of the 2003 minor hit Wrong Turn.  While the original was a decently conceived and executed bloody cut ‘em up that did well enough to spawn five sequels (including one attempt at a reboot already) that went direct to video, it wasn’t exactly a classic destined for historical preservation.  The intriguing bit of trivia here, and what should catch the attention of devotees to the Wrong Turn lineage, is that the story and screenplay come from Alan B. McElroy who wrote the initial film.  How often does an individual responsible for the creation of a series that hasn’t been heard from in a while come back and willingly start again, jettisoning nearly everything that’s been built over the past two decades and offer a fresh idea?

Now, I can’t say for sure if McElroy (who also wrote Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, one of my favorite sequels in that franchise) had always planned this new Wrong Turn or if he hadn’t already worked out this plotline for another potential movie all together that just happened to be similar to his first hit.  Whatever the case, I’m glad the folks that owned the rights to the title came knocking because McElroy has found a clever way to begin again without doing any harm to the memory of the six films already containing a whole world created from his spare plot elements.  If anything, it allows both those films and this new take to co-exist independently from one another and I think fans of the original are going to find a lot has gone right for this new Wrong Turn.

Scott Shaw (Matthew Modine, Pacific Heights) has come to Wrenwood, Virginia for answers.  Over six weeks ago, his daughter Jen (Charlotte Vega) and five of her friends came through the sleepy town on their way to the Appalachian Trail for an innocuous hike as part of a longer road trip.  They haven’t been heard from since.  The town police offer no help nor do they seem to be interested in upsetting the ‘look the other way vibe’ Scott keeps picking up from the locals.  Only an otherwise tight-lipped owner of the tiny inn has an inkling of what might have happened to his daughter and her companions…and the prospects aren’t good.  As the film flashes back six weeks, we’ll see how right she is.

Largely an easy-going sextet of travelers not out to stir up trouble, Charlotte, her boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley), loud-mouth Adam (Dylan McTee), medical student Milla (Emma Dumont, Inherent Vice) and boyfriends Gary (Vardaan Arora) and Luis (Adrian Favela) just want to get out into nature and explore the beauty of the land.  Looking for any final tips from the locals, their host at their lodging (who becomes an ally to Scott six weeks later) just advises them to “Stay on the trail.”  Of course, once they get too far to turn back Darius tells them about an abandoned Civil War fort that’s not too far off the well-marked trail and like clockwork it isn’t long before they’ve ventured into a part of the forest that’s already well occupied.

Instead of the greasy backwoods hicks the doomed youngins met up with in the first film, Charlotte and the gang wander into something far more sophisticated and long-standing and that’s something that deftly sets this Wrong Turn apart from the others.  Protecting their space and the privacy of their way of life is key and this “foundation” have the macabre traps to show they mean business.  As the numbers of the hikers dwindle, director Mike P. Nelson and McElroy capably change the gears of the film several times into different levels of suspense, nearly all to good effect.  There’s enough carnage to satisfy the gore hounds with some ingeniously nasty deaths and well-done make-up effects as well as a balanced amount of suspense leading up to these shocks.  For the most part, the movie lets you get to know everyone before it finds a way to send them to their maker.  While it clocks in at a lengthy 111 minutes (even the credits are worth sitting through for a bit), it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome or has the kind of filler that stretches out an already thin idea.  More often than not, McElroy and Nelson find ways to keep us engaged.

The performances are also in line with the strength of this new direction.  With Modine the only true mainstream vet in the mix, it’s left to the rising stars and a few seasoned character actors to carry the weight of plot and they do it admirably.  Making for a confident lead that proves to be no damsel in distress, Vega has some interesting developments in the final act and an intriguing coda that I wanted to know more about.  Long time journeyman actor Bill Sage (The Pale Door) heads up the band of terrorizers that dole out justice as they see fit, with death not always the answer even if the accused will wind up wishing that was their sentence.  Then there’s Modine who never makes it seem like he’s slumming it in a C-grade horror film.  Having worked with some of the top directors in Hollywood, he treats the role with consideration and that goes a long way in our taking everything as seriously as he is.

Far less problematic in the way it categorizes the people of Appalachia than all of its predecessors, I have a feeling this Wrong Turn will go over nicely with its intended audience.  Will it win over any new fans?  Possibly, and that’s thanks to a leveled measure of restraint in the usual over-the-top spewing of viscera and a stronger focus on the build-up of suspense.  A new route has definitely been charted for the Wrong Turn franchise and I’d be on board for another trip should McElroy want to map it out for us.

Movie Review ~ Rage (2021)

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a violent home invasion leaves him in a coma and his wife deeply traumatized, a mild-mannered husband awakens to find out that one of the attackers is still on the loose. As they try to move on with their lives, one day his nearly-despondent wife spots the attacker, opening up a twisted tale of brutal revenge where all isn’t as it seems.

Stars: Matt Theo, Hayley Beveridge, Richard Norton, Tottie Goldsmith, Natasha Maymon, Melissa Barlas, Tony Kotsopoulos, Jasper Bagg, Nic Stevens, Stephen Degenaro, Marcus Merkoski

Director: John Balazs

Rated: NR

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Often when offered a movie to screen I’ll do a small amount of research before agreeing to take it up for coverage and the new Australian-made thriller Rage seemed to be a title that spoke for itself based on the plot description.  So I didn’t dig deep enough to notice that its run time was well over two hours and by the time I learned that, when preparing my pre-notes before settling in to watch the sprawling film, it was too late to turn back.  I actually thought I had read it wrong at first and perhaps instead of 143 minutes it actually was 1 hour and 43 minutes.  In actuality, upon further reflection now that I’ve completed the watch, I think 103 minutes of material is likely the most Rage could conceivably argue it possessed.

Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve decided that I can take the brunt of any bad movie as long as it knows when to pack it in and wrap things up.  There’s nothing worse than having to sit through a film that’s so blind to it’s own excess that it continues to obliterate itself, ringing its own death knell long before the credits have mercifully run.   Rage is one such film and it’s extra disappointing to say that because there are parts of the movie that I enjoyed for a brief moment in time.  It was only after the pace has been dragged to a halt yet again and the energy sucked from the screen that I felt my temperature rise as my interest waned.

Opening on a shot that appears to give away the ending of the film (I will neither confirm nor deny this), Rage starts off decent enough, asking us to lean forward into the lives of Noah (Matt Theo) and Madeline (Hayley Beveridge) Tate, a young attractive couple from Melbourne that have seemed to hit a lull in their marriage.  She’s pulling away from physical intimacy without giving him any indication as to what’s wrong, leaving him perplexed and eventually falling into the arms of Sophia (Natasha Maymon) a young co-worker he shares a connection with.  He’s with Sophia later that evening when two masked men we’ve seen watching the Tate home earlier in the morning break in and commit a heinous set of crimes against Madeline and her sister.  Feeling guilty and wanting to try again with his wife, Noah returns early, interrupting the assailants and suffering injuries that put him in a coma for the next month.

Though the film jumps ahead at this point to our seeing Noah awake and desperately searching for his wife, director John Balazs rather quickly cuts back to the night of the attack and lets us follow what Madeline goes through during the month her husband is incapacitated and one of her attackers is still on the loose.  Beginning the healing process alone, she meets with a psychiatrist (Tottie Goldsmith) who happens to be the wife of the lead detective working her case (Richard Norton).  When Noah does wake up, a fissure has occurred between he and his wife that can’t be undone immediately.  It’s only when Madeline believes she has seen her assailant that Noah feels he has a chance to make up for lost time, but are both of them strong enough to do what they feel should be done to make things right between them and help Madeline in her healing process?

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Michael J. Kospiah’s screenplay was filmed as-is or how much of it was altered as it made it way to the screen.  The scope of the film seems to be quite epic in nature, with a great number of characters linking in throughout but not having much to say or do.  At certain times, it feels like Balzas wants to steer his film into the revenge category and early scenes of gruesome violence apparently were fake outs seeing that Rage gets progressively soapier.  Yes, strangely enough, it begins to morph into a relationship drama showing us the inner workings of the marriage between Noah and Madeline and it didn’t feel like the events leading up to this sea change supported the shift.  Nor does it feel like the target audience of Rage would want numerous scenes of Noah tearfully pleading (more like nasally whining) for his wife to speak to him.  Additionally, it’s not as if the scenes are acted that well either.  Though Theo and Beveridge do their best to rise above this, the lack of chemistry is instantly recognizable and so the majority of the film is spent agreeing that maybe this is a marriage that shouldn’t last.

The person to blame here is Balzas because not only was he the director of Rage but, as I found out at the end, he was also the editor.  Ah!  There!  It makes sense!  That’s the problem.  At 143 minutes, Rage feels like the first cut that was offered to the studio.  In other words, it’s the one the studio offers notes on and is eventually trimmed to a more palatable length supported by the scenes that work and the scenes that don’t.  There are a number of passages included that are completely unnecessary, from small shots of wordless car rides, to full sequences of the same argument between the married couple being repeated over again.  The most egregious of all is Norton’s first appearance as the police detective.  Walking in sloooooooooow mooooooootion down the street leading up to the Tate’s home and then, when he blessedly arrives, speaking out loud what he thinks were the events of the night (which are accurate) for the other officers.  Why is this scene in there?  The audience just saw the crime being committed so we don’t need to see this lengthy recap, nor do we need to be assured the other police representatives will be told about it either.  We sort of just assume that will happen.  There are too many of these nonsense scenes to point out but it’s almost worth watching the film to see how precious Balzas was with the footage he shot.  There’s no way on Earth this movie should be hour and forty minutes, let alone fifty minutes longer than that.

I’m allotting four stars (out of 10) to the movie because while they struggle with the amount of material (seriously, it’s a mountain to go through), the actors carry off their roles with an individual strong style that’s easy to acquit.  Looking like an Aussie John Krasinski, Theo overdoes it with the dramatics in the scenes with his costars but is much better when he has nothing to say at all and can just brood in silence.  While she’s playing a role that has some seriously difficult notes to play, I wish Beveridge wasn’t such an easy victim when it gets down to brass tacks and continues to be victimized for the duration – there are hints that Madeline might have some ulterior motives for her actions (again, not saying if that’s true or not) but Beveridge has a hard time selling us on, well, anything…good or bad.  Looking like he’s had a few too many surgeries to keep his eye area looking young, Norton has the proper demeanor for the figure of authority but his relationship with a former partner turned private eye feels less well conceived than the director and writer think.

I could get behind an American remake of this, but only if a new writer could shore up the script a bit more while also adding a hair more intrigue around the mystery at the core of the story.  I think there is potential in Rage but also that no one involved went far enough into the subject or character to truly sweep us away into the story.  That leaves us with an average report of surface level performances and pedestrian direction that is further unsupported by the director’s own shoddy editing.  Now there’s something to rage over.

Movie Review ~ Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lifelong friends Barb and Star embark on the adventure of a lifetime when they decide to leave their small Midwestern town for the first time – ever.

Stars: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Jamie Dornan, Damon Wayans Jr., Vanessa Bayer, Fortune Feimster, Phyllis Smith, Ian Gomez, Michael Hitchcock, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Reyn Doi

Director: Josh Greenbaum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: There are some movies that just come along at the right time in your life, appearing when you need them the most and the week that I was set to see Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar was a rough one.  It just wasn’t great, let’s leave it at that and so I selfishly looked to a film, of all things, to cheer me up.  Putting all my eggs in one basket, I bet the farm on this pastel-colored comedy that had all the makings of a winner but also could have easily gone into stink bomb mode pretty quickly too.  Let me tell you, perhaps I’d watch the movie now with a slightly more critical eye but after all the junk we’ve been through these past few months and all my own hang-ups from the week, the film was like a peach-scented salve to my soul for two hours.  It’s also rip-roaringly, smile so wide your cheek burns, hysterically funny.

In 2011, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo were dark horse Oscar nominees for their original screenplay of Bridesmaids, the blockbuster comedy hit that set off a wave of female-led funny flicks.  It was almost as if Hollywood and movie-goers discovered that women could make you laugh and not just by acting like men or always resorting to foul, gross-out humor (which Bridesmaids totally did, let’s be honest).  It was a well-earned nomination and while Mumolo turned up in a small but memorable role as a airline passenger with a fear of flying and was seated next to Wiig, it isn’t hard to imagine the two writing the movie with themselves in mind as the stars instead of the inimitable Maya Rudolph playing opposite Wiig..

Since that time, Wiig has gone on to become one of the rare alums of Saturday Night Live to find an interesting career after her tenure on the show has ended and while she continues to make challenging choices in film, the roles haven’t always panned out in her favor.  Perhaps her most intriguing character was just recently as the more interesting of the two villains in Wonder Woman 1984 but that movie was so unjustly ignored that her contributions were also left by the wayside.  For Mumolo, she’s continued a bit under the radar, acting in films like Bad Moms and writing the script for Joy, the Jennifer Lawrence/David O. Russell misfire that still managed to nab Lawrence an Oscar nom.

Thankfully, during their busy schedule the two managed to find time to collaborate on the script for Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and both share the screen as the co-leads.  What is immediately clear is that the two women have a deep understanding of not just their talents but in what the other is capable of and every inch of the movie plays to these strengths.  Recognizing that nothing gets done in a vacuum, they’ve also created some wonderfully weird supporting characters that are taken on by some obvious choices and by others that may not make sense at first.  Have no fear, because director Josh Greenbaum (The Short Game) has only the best intentions and steers even those not known for comedy into funny waters and gets them swimming fast.

You may think you’ve hit “play” on the wrong movie once this begins, as the opening features one of the first surprises the film has to offer. (It’s worth it to note that while the trailers for the film were riotous, hardly any of that material is in the actual film).  I’m not even going to mention what (or who) that surprise is here and by holding that back it keeps certain other plot developments off limits.  That means much of the rest of this review will be working around what I can’t talk about and going heavy on what I can.  I figure if the trailers have gone to great lengths to keep aspects of the movie a secret, it’s worth it for your benefit to let you discover what the movie is on your own…but just know that eventually you’re going to meet our fabulous ladies, recently unemployed and daring to try something new.

Arriving in Vista Del Mar to great fanfare and a musical welcome from the ritzy resort hotel’s manager (Michael Hitchcock, Waiting for Guffman), Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) waste little time getting to know the layout of the space and meet a handsome stranger (Jamie Dornan, Fifty Shades Freed) in town for business.  As a romance develops between the stranger and one of the women, the other is left to go from mild to wild as she chucks her inhibitions and becomes a coal-walking, parasailing risk-taker.  What will the women do, though, when they realize they’ve come all this way to experience the trip of a lifetime together and have spent much of their vacation apart?

I was worried in early previews that the film would be too broad and feature comedy that amused the actors making the movie more than the audience watching the film, but the laughs are so sharp and so perfectly pitched that you have to really respect how nicely the movie is put together.  There are some seriously big laughs to be had and whether this was edited with a theater-going public in mind or not, you are always able to hear the next joke — it’s a rare marvel to find that every punchline is clear without any throwaway jokes.  Wiig and Mumolo don’t like wasted gags so they maximize the chuckles in each chintzy chortle.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect film.  There’s at least one character I would have excised completely because not only is his role markedly unfunny and he has the stalest jokes out of everyone in the picture, his ultimate value-add to the plot is pretty slim.  And while I enjoyed the “talking club” of ladies led with strongly pursed lips and a leveled stare by Vanessa Bayer (Office Christmas Party) in Barb and Star’s hometown, their contribution again felt unresolved and more filler than forwarding of the plot.  That whole broad business I was talking about a few lines up?  The film teeters slightly that way for its finale where it finds a wrap up that earns the warranted laugh (and a bonus surprise) while at the same time feeling like a bit of a cheat.

Small imperfections aside, there’s so much good and goodness on display that you won’t mind or have much time to ponder these items. The film moves so fast and the performances by the two leads are right on target, not to mention the full-on revelation that Dornan is quite talented when he lets his guard down and takes his serious shirt and slacks off (quite literally to the screaming delight of those in the film and, I’m sure, watching it).  In a film of many worthwhile surprises, his hidden talent displayed on a beach is perhaps the most impressive of all.

It’s a cliché to say you didn’t want a movie to end but it’s true, I was sad to see my journey with these ladies come to a conclusion and I can only hope that there’d be another adventure at some point down the road.  I know the two politely declined to write a follow-up to Bridesmaids and I can understand there not being another story there…but Barb and Star are just getting started.  So while Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar may look a bit iffy from the outside looking in, trust me when I say that you’ll be glad you traveled with them…and it might even do wonders for your spirit as well.  Mine sure felt lifted after.

Movie Review ~ The World to Come

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Somewhere along the mid-19th century American East Coast frontier, two neighboring couples battle hardship and isolation, witnessed by a splendid yet testing landscape, challenging them both physically and psychologically.

Stars: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott

Director: Mona Fastvold

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  There’s something strange about the way that movies have treated the love affairs between women over the last few years (and probably longer) because it seems that they just can’t catch a break.  In films like Carol, The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite, etc. the passion and connection established is born in the midst of severe strife and is more often than not left unfulfilled.  This observance is nothing new to be sure and in fact it’s what many critics and even casual film fans have noted for a number of years as one of the chief rules of love between same sex couples onscreen.  There must be pain.  Loss is a given.  Happiness is rare.  It’s the guiding principle for screenwriting, it seems.

Here we are in February of a new year and already there’s another example to prove the case.  However, there’s a lot more problematic in The World to Come than the way it shows the relationship between two dreary farmer’s wives in the mid-19th century.  Unique in that it features beautiful cinematography that is at the same time strikingly dull to behold, the entire film feels like a quilt that’s been left outside overnight during a rainstorm that you now are asked to snuggle up with.  It’s chilly, musty, wet, and heavy, offering little in the way of comfort or care.  You certainly can’t see any intricates that went into the making of it because it has been overtaken by the elements.

Adapted by Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen from Shepard’s original short story, The World to Come creaks to life with Katherine Waterston croaking through stilted narration detailing farm life with her husband (Casey Affleck, Our Friend) in upstate New York.   Though meant to convey an old-tyme-y vibe, the dialogue often winds up sounding like an outdated script from a historical walking tour; a line about Affleck’s quiet farmer needing to fetch “calico” and “shoe leather” officially did me in.  This era of living was tough, to be sure, but Waterston’s (Inherent Vice) Abigail pitches her monotone line readings far too dreary from the jump, she’s so wrist-slittingly somber that you can’t blame Affleck as Dyer for withdrawing in favor of keeping his head down to work with the farm animals that at least acknowledge his presence.

A ray of fiery happiness arrives when Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) and Finney (Christopher Abbott, Possessor) rent the farm nearby.  Sensing a kinship with the outspoken woman, Abigail becomes fascinated with Tallie and the chance for connection at a deeper level.  That Tallie responds in kind makes each day a little brighter for Abigail and she finds a new reason for maintaining the farm and herself…even while Tallie struggles to keep her own husband happy.  Finney is different than Dyer in that the more Tallie retreats from him the more forceful he becomes, and the question gets to be how far can she pull away before he either lets her go one way or another?  As the women grow closer, the danger of being found out increases but they are emboldened by their newfound freedom of emotional joy.  It won’t last…and you know that’s not a spoiler.

Norwegian actor turned director Mona Fastvold seems to understand the key to the film is the bond between Abigail and Tallie but she forgets there needs to be some sort of knowledge of the men in their lives as well to make their clandestine relationship have essential meaning in turn.  Waterston is arguably the main character and there’s just a lot of her moping around the farm avoiding her husband and checking her invisible watch wondering where Tallie is.  That’s not the sweeping romance the ads for this movie are promising, let me assure you.  So it’s almost up to Kirby and Abbott to keep the fire of the film burning hot and they can’t stoke it all on their own.  They almost get there, almost, in a tense dinner scene near the end that tells us far more about their relationship in those few minutes than we’ve learned about Abigail and Dyer in the previous sixty.   Abbott’s character is quite the unrelenting pig of a husband and he’s gotten aces at playing these type of abhorrent men…maybe too good.  For me, it came down to Kirby as the one bright spot the film has to offer and it’s the single treasure The World to Come is entirely stingy with.  Whenever she’s onscreen, there’s some pulse to it, even if it’s faint.  However, when she’s absent the movie is cold as ice.

Filmed in Romania subbing for NY, cinematographer André Chemetoff gets some picturesque shots in but most of what we see comes off as less pastoral and fertile and more grubby and worked over.  Totally incongruous with the tone and images is musician Daniel Blumberg’s obtrusive score, giving off the feeling that the composer didn’t see the film he was contributing to.  It’s just another part of the overall puzzling nature of The World to Come, composed of a bunch of pieces that might work well in their own right but fail to form a complete picture.  More than anything, I’m just over these tortured love affairs for same sex couples…this feels like a construct that should be put out to pasture.  Let love win for once, I beg of you.

Movie Review ~ Happy Times

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A seemingly friendly dinner party erupts into a night of violence and terror at a lush Hollywood estate.

Stars: Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, Iris Bahr, Alon Pdut, Stéfi Celma, Ido Mor, Guy Adler, Shani Atias, Daniel Lavid, Mike Burstyn

Director: Michael Mayer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Raise your hand (go ahead, I can see you!) if you’ve been to a bad dinner party before.  You have?  Me too!  It’s not fun.  Or sometimes it is.  It’s all in how you look at it.  There are some situations where the perfect confluence of events can happen that make what should be a great evening into a real struggle and you can either feed into it by making it worse or find a way to turn it all around.  I was throwing a dinner party for my friends once and an hour before they came over, I dropped a marble tabletop on my feet, breaking both of my big toes…BOTH of them.  The food was in the oven and the wine was ready to go.  Did I cancel?  No…you press on. And you also have your friends who are medical professionals tend to your toes before they can eat!

If only the guests at Yossi and Sigal’s Shabbat dinner could have had that positive outlook at well, maybe the events that transpire in Happy Times wouldn’t have been quite so bloody.  I tend to gravitate toward movies that begin one way and then find a switch to flip and pivot toward another goal entirely.  That’s what happens here, and I think a stronger, more entertaining film is the result.  A rather surprising dark comedy that eventually erupts into an all-out bloodbath before your very eyes, Happy Times is writer/director Michael Mayer’s twisted take on the unraveling of a posh Brentwood gathering.

Israeli power couple Sigal (Liraz Chamami) and Yossi (Ido Mor) have invited their friends over, including Sigal’s cousin Michael (Michael Aloni) and his girlfriend Aliyah (Stéfi Celma), both aspiring actors.  Outspoken Michael is determined to not let any of his cousin’s friends needle him but Sigal is hoping Aliyah can keep him under control or at least out of the way of Maor (Daniel Lavid) who likes to pick at him.   Also in the mix, among others, are stoic Avener (Alon Pdut) and his wife Hila (Iris Bahr), another close friend of Sigal’s.  Together they await the arrival of the Rabbi (Mike Burstyn) later in the evening.

A rocky start to the night over cocktails leads to an even worse main course and pretty soon uncovers the lynchpin that seals the deal on where the night is headed: an explicit text sent to everyone in the address book of one of the party guests.  Once discovered, it’s too late to prevent the repercussions…which are brutal and gory.  With dialogue in English, Hebrew and Spanish, audiences are kept distinctly on their toes because no one is entirely safe as you’ll quickly come to see. Though it gets to be wildly uneven as it goes along with characters suddenly changing loyalties for no reason and at times overdoes it in the vile arena, I found myself largely engaged for the brisk 90-minute run-time.  It’s messy and may require some clean-up in your headspace after, but for the time commitment required it’s rather fun.

Giving the movie an extra bit of zip is an pleasant group of lively performances from the cast, starting with Chamami as the hostess that quickly loses her grasp on the events of the evening.  What begins as a good-natured attempt at gathering with friends and family (albeit once laced with passive aggressive barbs) devolves rather impressively into grotesqueries and it’s amusing to watch Chamami first try to keep it all together before herself giving over to the ruckus being raised.  Aloni is also fun as a guy that’s most likely a big a-hole but might just be the only one you can possibly root for if you line him up against the other males in the room.  There’s a great scene for Bahr as she fends off two police officers that stop by asking questions and Burstyn is terrifically arch as the starving rabbi who isn’t about to leave without being fully fed by his hosts.

My first impression of Happy Times at its conclusion was mostly ambivalent.  It was late and I felt like it was another home-made feature shot over a weekend or two at a nice Hollywood home starring an above average cast of actors.  Yet I’ll admit portions of the film and the performances have stuck with me over the weeks and I’ve come around to liking it more, which wound up raising my score a little bit.  It’s still a rough film in places but based on the staying power and how much I liked this cast it would be one I’d keep in my back pocket as a suggestion to anyone that likes their horror with a little laugh.  Keep an eye out for this one and do give it consideration.

Movie Review ~ Nomadland

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman in her sixties embarks on a journey through the Western United States after losing everything in the Great Recession, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes

Director: Chloé Zhao

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Remember back in the day when the daydream was to leave your job and most everything behind and just travel the country, if not the entire globe?  If money was no object, you could just take the time to explore the nooks and crannies of this great land and hopefully meet others along the way who were also up for adventure.  Sleeping under the stars, waking up in one state and going to sleep in another, the possibilities were endless.  That wasn’t your dream?  Well, for a time it was mine and I know I wasn’t the only person that wished for even a glimmer of a summer to see what that life on a road with no destination would be like.  Double that now after we’ve all been cooped up inside for close to a year with little in the way of travel.

Watching Nomadland was a bit of a surreal experience because Fern (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) is, in a way, following the guide I had laid out for myself…just under different circumstances.  Displaced from her home after she literally lost her zip code, the sixty-something widow didn’t have much to begin with but was making ends meet anyway.  Now, she lives out of her unheated camper van and is working a seasonal shift at an Amazon warehouse when she decides to hit the road in search of something…more.  What that is she doesn’t know but it’s out there somewhere and all she has is time to find it, she just has a few pit stops along the way.

That’s the basic premise of Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao’s adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 novel which uncovered the rising number of past middle-aged Americans who have eschewed the trivialities of living in a brick-and-mortar dwelling for something more flexible.  They travel the country in vans, campers, etc. working odd jobs to pay for their passage before moving on to the next location.  Life is constantly in flux and they like it that way because there’s beauty in that consistency of change.  Fern finds a group of kindred spirits after attending the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a two-week event in the Arizona desert that brings together like-minded nomads to share stories, tips, and trades.  Mostly, though, this is a solo journey with its own perils to encounter and deal with along the route.

Just as this nomadic life isn’t for everyone, I can see how the film may present some challenges to viewers as well.  In my household, the final verdict on the film was decidedly divided.  I found it to be a rewarding watch that fed into my introverted self, speaking to the type of solitary journey I’d like to take at some point in my life.  For my partner, Fern’s aloofness throughout the film and her tendency to keep others so far at a distance, even those closest to her, was hard to accept.  I actually think Fern’s restlessness is one of Nomadland’s greatest strengths because, in the end, only she knows when it’s time to pull over.  Without anything to tie her down, she has control over her life whereas the last few years she had little autonomy over what her choices were.  There’s inspiration to be had in watching that journey unfold for Fern and maybe even a tinge a jealousy for viewers that she can pack it all in if she wants and be gone.

Adding to the film’s ultra-realism is the symbiotic collaboration between McDormand and Zhao.  Zhao created this story out of the themes from Bruder’s source novel and McDormand’s character sprung to life from there.  That’s how Fern (or is it really Fran?) actually went to work these jobs and is acting alongside nonprofessional actors that often shine brighter than their two-time Oscar-winning co-star.  Many times these experiments in using “real” people can backfire significantly but Zhao has an eye like Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams in capturing the “true America” without it ever feeling like they are acting.  Most of the time, they are just playing themselves, like Fern’s bubbly co-worker Linda May or Nomadland‘s true lightning bolt standout, Swankie.  I was so taken with this side character that came out of nowhere, I’m not sure how much of it was built off of Zhao’s script but her showcase scene with McDormand is one of the highlights of the film.

If there are stretches where Nomadland runs a bit on fumes, it’s not surprising they’re the passages when Fern isn’t on the road.  A trip to her estranged family and a visit to a friend she’s met along the way (David Strathairn, The Devil Has a Name) that may have found his forever home are nicely played but have an itch to them that Fern (and McDormand) seems eager to scratch and be done with.  There’s a tension present that I’m sure Zhao intended but could have let the air out a bit more, if only to allow McDormand to be slightly more open to her fellow actors in these scenes.  She’s so tightly wound when she feels cornered that it can be uncomfortable to watch her work through her unease.

There’s just no other actress out there like McDormand, nor could I imagine this film being made without her.  The performance is as good as you’ve heard and as complicated as you might think, taking into consideration all the prep she had to do before, during, and after living and working in these conditions while also remembering that this is acting at the same time.  That’s the thing, though, it never quite seems like McDormand is “acting” and while the actress has disappeared into roles before (like her Oscar winning part in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) in Nomadland it feels like we’re watching Fran, not Fern, take this journey.  Some may find that hard to wrap their head around and call it “just playing herself” but I found it to be a fascinating study of both the character and the actress.  It almost seems like Fern is a parallel version of McDormand, with the two sharing a number of the same qualities but diverging in several key aspects.  No matter what, count on McDormand being a leading contender for her third Best Actress Oscar this year.

Releasing in theaters and on Hulu, Nomadland explores a different side of the American experience that we should be able to say is unfamiliar but has sadly become more commonplace the longer our economy devalues the middle and lower class.  Many of the nomads that were explored in the book and inspired the movie started their movement by choice, but a large number did it as a way to survive losing their homes and other possessions.  Through Zhao’s imagined narrative, McDormand’s performance brimming with unforced realism, and a colorful supporting cast of amateur actors, a strong message on the survival of the human spirit is delivered with regal beauty.