Movie Review ~ The Reckoning

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of the Great Plague and amidst the subsequent witch-hunts against women, a young widow grapples with the tragic death of her husband in a society completely consumed by fear and death and faces her own inner demons as the devil himself starts to work his way into her mind.

Stars: Charlotte Kirk, Sean Pertwee, Steven Waddington, Joe Anderson, Suzanne Magowan, Ian Whyte, Callum Goulden, Sarah Lambie, Leon Ockenden

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  In the early 2000’s there was the real possibility that UK director Neil Marshall could have made a significant play for the big leagues.  Achieving good notices for his first feature film in 2002, the cult werewolf creature feature Dog Soldiers, he followed that up in 2005 with the bona fide classic in the horror genre, The Descent.  I vividly remember seeing that majestically haunting movie after hearing the advance buzz and the reports on how truly scary it was and wondering during the screening who was screeching so loudly at the numerous terrifying moments…only to realize it was me.  Marshall clearly was gaining momentum.  Of course, Hollywood came calling and if the next films weren’t all that creative, they weren’t bad but didn’t make a dent at the box office.  Retreating to television for the next decade, Marshall wouldn’t make another film until the failed attempt to reboot the Hellboy franchise and, well, all know how that turned out.

Imagine my surprise to see Marshall’s name attached to an indie horror film like The Reckoning and you better believe I was all over that screening opportunity.  Something about the film’s subject matter (witch hunts around the Great Plauge near the end of the 17th century) seemed to fit perfectly with Marshall’s oeuvre and I wondered if this wouldn’t be a fine return to form for the director that clearly had a sense for visuals, just not one for picking the right scripts to make those visuals come to life.  Then I started to get more information and my hopes started to sink.  The film was co-written, executive produced, and starring Charlotte Kirk.  Charlotte Kirk is Marshall’s fiancé.  Oh.  It started to make sense why he’d be involved in a smaller picture like this but I still held out some hope it wouldn’t be a mere vanity project for the lovebirds to hang out together and get paid for it.  After The Reckoning is released to the public on February 5th, I’ll be amazed if they ever tie the knot.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie so ineptly terrible as The Reckoning and I’ve seen a lot of ‘em.  My tolerance for these genre offerings are high so when I tell you I seriously considered stopping this on several occasions and pretending the link never arrived in my inbox, take it to heart at how poor this experience can be for you if you get a notion to explore the horrors that Kirk, Marshall, and company have worked up for you.  (By the way, I would never do that…pretend a link never arrived so I wouldn’t have to review it — I’m in it for the long haul no matter what!)  Whatever promise of jangled nerves was held in the very real story of women falsely accused of witchery and subjected to brutal tortures and death is replaced by your own fear of never escaping the dungeon of repulsive imagery, sets so cheap a brisk wind would knock them over, and acting so horrendous it makes a chicken in a cage playing Tic-Tac-Toe look like Chekov.

You have to hand it to Marshall, it takes bravery to follow-up an extended title sequence that alternates between the production credits and a slow motion shot of an unknown family being forcibly removed from their home with another drawn out scene showing how new mother Grace Haverstock (Kirk, Non-Stop) has come to bury her husband Joseph (Joe Anderson, The Grey) after he winds up at the end of a noose.  I can’t verify this and I didn’t write it down, but I’m fairly certain Marshall acts as his own editor so these were his decisions and it gets the movie off to a glacial pace, hobbling it narratively from the get go.  Without a man to provide for her, Grace asks the owner of their land for an extension on their rent but he’ll only consider a different kind of payment that she isn’t willing to fu…I mean, fork over.

In those days, there was nothing worse than a man with a hurt pride and finger to point out the latest woman that rejected his advances as a witch.  Before long, Grace is in prison surrounded by pestilence and growing visions of a horned devil that prefers her without clothes and greased up, if possible.  No one will step up to save Grace, especially when she comes before the Witchfinder General Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee, Event Horizon) and his assistant Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) a former accused witch burned at the stake by Moorcroft that survived and now works to help him do the same to other women.  (Y’know, a real girls girl.  Gee, thanks Ursula!)  Though he doesn’t know it, Grace has history with Moorcroft and as his methods of extracting a confession out of her grow more devious, she plots a revenge that has been long in the making.

In the honor of full transparency and giving the little credit I can offer, there’s a rather interesting story going on in The Reckoning that I thought could have been explored/exploited to a far greater effect had the filmmakers access to better, well, everything.  It’s the production across the board that makes the film sink like a stone and stink like a sore.  I’m sure Kirk and co-screenwriters Marshall and Edward Evers-Swindell must have done SOME kind of research in putting this storyline together, it’s just a waste of a story with such silly execution.  If you don’t outright laugh the first time you see the small “town” in the middle of a green field I applaud you.  It looks like someone cut out a castle from a children’s book, scanned it, and photoshopped it onto a postcard.  Really terrible.

If you ever wondered how long eye make-up stayed on in the 17th century, especially after being lashed multiple times, take a look around the halfway mark of the film and see Kirk’s nigh-perfect eyeliner and mascara.  She’s just been whipped within an inch of her life but her face looks gorgeous, darling.  In fact, though her body is put through the wringer (one scene in particular is so far over the line of good taste I’m not surprised it took over a year for the film to find a distributor) her lipstick and foundation game are always on point.  The rest of the cast are best left unmentioned in the hopes they will all either go on with their lives in a different chosen profession or find better projects next time.  The only one I will call out is Magowan who is a bright spot as the only character that appears increasingly conflicted (at least adequately) as the brutality against Grace goes on.  She’s obviously been through something similar and lived to tell about it.  Her burned flesh is covered by black robes and her face is hidden by a fabric veil but just through her eyes we can see the worry grow.  It’s a lively performance in an otherwise deathly film.

Absolutely the lowest of the low where film is concerned, the only consolation is that Marshall may eventually make a comeback on a smaller scale and leave the feature length films alone.  His television work has been impressive in the name recognition but sporadic in terms of occurrence.  It’s because of these types of blunders that sully his once-good name.  I won’t even go into all the mess surrounding Kirk (Google her and do investigate yourself) but starring in this one awful movie isn’t going to do any more damage at this point in time.  The final question of The Reckoning is more or less if you’re willing to sit through nearly two bodaciously bad hours of this nonsense.

Movie Review ~ Bliss

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mind-bending love story following a recently unemployed divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who is convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is just a computer simulation.

Stars: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson, Madeline Zima, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Joshua Leonard, Ronny Chieng

Director: Mike Cahill

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There really is nothing more depressing than watching two good actors in a mediocre movie.  Not a bad movie, mind you, just a mediocre one.  There’s something to be said about the thrill of a classically trained actor sludging their way through a total turkey of a flick (remember the big screen version of The Avengers?  No, not that one…the one from 1998?) or a bad performance by an actor in a good movie (let’s just go the easy route and say Cameron Diaz in 2002’s Gangs of New York) but I get so uncomfortable watching usually dependable stars turn up in a film that goes nowhere.  I’d rather they fail spectacularly or succeed exuberantly…anything that coasts through the middle isn’t worth the effort – there’s just too much content to warrant mediocrity.

The latest example of this is Bliss, an exquisitely commonplace driller (drama/thriller) that shows the shine of promise early on but gets increasingly duller as time goes by.  Written and directed by popular indie filmmaker Mike Cahill and starring two actors that we don’t see nearly as often as we should, I went into Bliss with no expectations or knowledge of the premise.  This gave me the advantage of being totally at the mercy of Cahill’s storytelling capabilities and his acumen in the creation of a warped quasi-reality always being called into question.  It also let me fully take in the performances of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek without the trailer spoiling key moments of surprise along the way, which it rather rudely does.  The result is a watchable but frustrating bit of hokum that doesn’t sit well with both actors and gets laughably funny at times…for all the wrong reasons.

Holed up in his drab office at Technical Difficulties, Greg Whittle (Wilson, Inherent Vice) is ignoring phone calls from his boss demanding an important meeting, promising his daughter he’ll be there for her graduation ceremony, and spending the morning drawing pictures of a luxury villa he’s never been to and a strikingly beautiful woman he’s never seen.  He’s also run out of his prescription for an undisclosed medication just at the time he seems to need it most.  As he dashes off to a meeting with his boss he wades through a crowd of co-workers all on the phone droning “We’re sorry you’re having Technical Difficulties”, one of the few clever moments Cahill has going for him. The meeting with his boorish boss doesn’t go well…at all.  Hoping to avoid the fallout, he retreats to a bar across the street and meets Isabel Clemens (Hayek, Sausage Party) and it seems like she’s been waiting for him.

Recognizing a kindred soul when she sees one, Isabel brings Greg into her circle of confidence and tells him they are actually part of a computer simulation and nothing around them is real.  The buttoned-up Greg takes one look at the dreadlocked, un-showered, dusty Isabel and can’t make that equation add up in his head…so she’ll have to prove it to him.  That’s just what she does (or does she?) over the course of several days involving various crystals, long talks in shanty towns underneath highway overpasses, and several detours through a strange new world that might be the real reality or just another simulation they need to escape from.  Meanwhile, Greg’s daughter (Nesta Cooper) is looking for her father who has gone missing and clearly needs help.  Can Isabel help Greg back to his true reality or is she just another figurative piece of a puzzle Greg has been trying to assemble for years?

While I don’t write my thoughts down as I’m watching a movie to reference later (I’ve never found notes to be helpful, only confusing me as I try to figure out what I scribbled blindly in the dark) I’m wondering if I should start writing down a number at various intervals to see what I rank the movie at key points.  If I’d have done that with Bliss, I’m sure I would have given the film high marks for its first half hour because Cahill creates a nice sense of disorientation that keeps the viewer just off-balance enough to be intrigued but not confused which leads to frustration.  It’s not hard to dig under the metaphors of what Cahill is laying out nor is it difficult to “get” what is really going on so it becomes a bit mysterious why the film doesn’t understand that we already are aware of where its headed long before it reveals itself to us.  If it had, it could have excised several long (and silly) passages that wind up meaning nothing if you go back and think it over.

That’s the oddest thing about Bliss.  Tracking it back again in my mind so much of the movie becomes almost a pointless exercise that you start to resent the time you spent on it.  Had Cahill moved his film forward with the same kind of mystery and raw energy that was found in the first third of Bliss, he might have had something unique and buzzworthy.  Instead, it’s an overly emotional in theory but emotionless in receipt attempt at a mind meld that gets weaker the longer you turn it over in your fingers.  Add to that the somewhat ridiculous scientific jargon the actors have to say without laughing and you are in for a rough ride.  You haven’t truly begun 2021 until you’ve heard Hayek say “Brain Box” with the same serious conviction as one would say “Heart Transplant”.

Speaking of Hayek, while it’s nice to see her back onscreen (and in a few scenes looking like the glam fabulous trend-setter she is) she seems completely miscast in this role, though it’s an admirable attempt at stretching past the roles she’s played in the past.  She was such a scream in Like a Boss that I wish she’d play more out-there roles like that.  Isabel it out there too, but not in the way we want her to be.  I feel largely the same way about Wilson.  He begins the film as a slightly out of it dweeb that never seems to do anything right…and sort of stays that way for the rest of the movie.  There’s just no challenge or change present in the character so where’s the appeal?  I was far more invested in Cooper’s character and the journey she goes through to follow and find her missing dad, only to see that once again he’s fallen into a pit he can’t escape from.

What little happiness there is to be found in Bliss is that it’s short but even then Cahill’s film feels much longer than that.  A very odd detour halfway through the movie has been spoiled by the trailer and while I’m not going to give that away here in case you haven’t seen it, I will say that though it was a nice reprieve it felt like padding to a tale that was only meant to be a short episode of The Twilight Zone or another anthology project.  Find your bliss somewhere else.

Movie Review ~ The Right One

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A novelist struggling with writer’s block, finds inspiration when she meets a down-on-his-luck odd ball who constantly changes personas and alter egos in order to cope with his past and avoid reality.

Stars: Cleopatra Coleman, Nick Thune, Iliza Shlesinger, Trezzo Mahoro, Leanne Lapp, Lauren McGibbon, Tarun Keram, Charlotte Kavanagh, Sunny Chen, Amy Goodmurphy

Director: Ken Mok

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Let’s take a brief journey back in time to the mid-2000s when not everyone had Tivo or a DVR and it wasn’t unheard of for people to actually watch live TV.  This was back when the term “appointment television” actually meant something and overnight ratings for popular programs were eagerly anticipated to see what had broken big the previous evening.  I was a faithful follower of several shows, but it was the guilty pleasures that started to do a number on my viewing habits, keeping me up until the wee hours of the morning so I wouldn’t have any big spoilers ruined for me the next day at work.  One of these shows was, and I admit this with no fear in my heart, America’s Next Top Model and it’s a reality show I followed through nearly all of it’s, gulp, 24 smize-ing seasons.

It was during these many, many, many seasons and episodes that I became very familiar with the name Ken Mok, the co-creator and executive producer that was involved throughout its highly profitable life.  Also responsible for the cult-favorite Making the Band as well as several other reality competition shows that never caught on the way his two big hits did, Mok is now making the transition to feature films with the rom-com The Right One. Serving as the writer as well as the director, the 60-year-old may not be an obvious choice to direct a movie that purportedly has its best foot forward with the current dating scene.  Yet, surprisingly, there is something about the film that winds up working in a peculiar way, showing that Mok can bring some decent charm to a tired formula, elevating it along with an appealing set of leads to an easily digestible level.  It’s not great food but it’s a good snack served with a wink and a smile.

After scoring an early success with her first novel, Sara (Cleopatra Coleman, In the Shadow of the Moon) is struggling with a bad case of writer’s block trying to recapture a similar spark for her sophomore outing.  Perhaps there’s a bit of guilt from the ease at which she earned that first taste of fame with material she looks down on.  After all, she always envisioned she would write more serious prose but then wound up more of a slightly more mature YA scribe pandering to less than discerning tastes.  Her friend/agent Kelly (Iliza Shlesinger, The Opening Act) doesn’t care how she resolves her internal debate, she just wants a finished product and a reluctant Sara to participate in the lucrative tie-ins that are coming from her achievements.  Mostly, Kelly just thinks Sara needs a boyfriend to find inspiration.

A visit to a trendy art show brings about the appearance of Godfrey (Nick Thune, Venom) a man that switches up his personality more often than he changes his socks.  During the art show alone, Sara catches him as at least two different people and committing fully to the charade.  Later spotting him busking in the streets as a singing cowboy, she presses him to know more and her persistence leads to a new friend and an adventure in love that is more surprisingly complex than you’d originally believe.  Godfrey is a man of many different personas (not split personalities) and he’s adopted this as a coping mechanism to hide from a past he wants to forget.  Sara (and the viewer) are left to piece together clues from the man as well as his street-wise brother Shad (M.J. Kokolis) but will finding out the truth bring the two closer together as potential partners or cause Godfrey to retreat further into a world of mystery?

The plot for The Right One suggests it houses comedy that’s far wackier than it actually is and that turns out to be a good thing.  I wound up appreciating that Mok dials back Godfrey’s different looks and characters (some of which are loud in the visual alone) and instead makes the movie more an exploration as to what is driving Godfrey toward feeling like these are his only way of expressing a deep grief.  The drama of this comedy is what makes it memorable far more than the un-inspired antics of Godfrey’s more arch personas and especially Shlesinger’s hefty histrionics that feel like they are from another movie entirely.  Her Devil Wears Kenneth Cole agent is too mean-spirited to also play a friendly ear for Sara and it’s no wonder she becomes less of a presence as the film stretches on.

That leaves it mostly up to Coleman and Thune to make Mok’s front-loaded script work and they do a pretty swell job with it.  Coleman possesses an effervescence so fresh you almost hear the fizz if you turn the volume up loud enough.  She’s a perfect bit of casting as a rom-com lead, an appealing underdog going through a dry patch personally and professionally that you can’t help but root for.  There’s obvious chemistry between Thune’s character, too, and if it tends more toward the “friend zone” the more Sara finds out about his past, it still makes everything leading up to the finale have some slight bits of tension as to what will wind up happening.  To his great credit, Thune has clearly delineated his different personas not by the obvious ways on the outside but through some clever (and subtle) adjustments in speech and emotion as well.

There are several drawbacks to the film, though.  You have Shlesinger, practically sweating in each scene because she’s trying so hard to make something extra for her character when all she has to do was say the lines, just with a sharp tongue.  She was so excellent a few weeks back in Pieces of a Woman that it was a bit of a letdown to see her do this old schtick again, to less than successful results.  I also found Mok’s wrap-up to be extremely abrupt and without the kind of rounding off that felt necessary based on where the characters were at the point in the film.  I dunno, something just felt off about the way the film was edited at that point.

With romantic comedies mostly becoming a dime a dozen, it’s important to shine a spotlight on those that maybe add up to $.15 or $.20.  I’d give this one a look because of the two lead performances, Thune and especially Coleman have some real zeal on display, and they overcome the material when its gets a little syrupy.  Even if The Right One makes some wrong turns here and there, it gets to its final destination with much of its original intent and integrity intact.

Movie Review ~ Malcolm & Marie

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A filmmaker and his girlfriend return home from his movie premiere where smoldering tensions and painful revelations push them toward a romantic reckoning.

Stars: Zendaya, John David Washington

Director: Sam Levinson

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  As an only child, there were plenty of times growing up when I had “opportunities” to learn from my “mistakes” and much of these lessons were in how my words were received to others.  My parents, like many of yours, were fond of the phrase ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’ and that’s a motto I’ve tried to stick with through the years, to varying degrees of success.  It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  Meaning, sometimes even though you think you’re saying the right thing, you aren’t sincere, and it shows.  Still…words matter and even removing a passive aggressive delivery can’t hide the fact that you just said something you ought to be taken to task for.  Flipped around, ‘It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.”

That’s what I thought while watching the new Netflix film Malcolm & Marie, which has become a bit of a hot button topic of conversation in the movie world thanks to its dissection of film and film criticism during an eventful two hours.  Made over the summer when COVID-19 was in full swing, the project gained some attention because of its two in-demand stars and the way they came together to not only fund the project but see that it was carried out under strict health guidelines.  The small crew huddled together in quarantine for two weeks before shooting and many had multiple jobs on the set.  It was clearly a labor of love by committed artists that cared deeply not only for telling the story but for finding an outlet of creativity during this strange time.

I’d like to report, then, that Malcolm & Marie was worth the time and effort but unfortunately, it’s ever so slightly the talky drab dud I feared it would be.  It’s strange, though, because I didn’t regret a minute of the film.  Watching stars John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Zendaya (The Greatest Showman) bicker, make-up, fight, and emotionally evade one another throughout a stunning house in Carmel, California in glorious black and white was a rich experience.  There are a few scenes that are truly beautiful to behold and as a whole the film is never, absolutely never, boring to look at.  It’s just when we start to delve deeply into writer/director Sam Levinson’s annoyingly pugilistic screenplay that you’ll want to reach for the mute button.

Arriving home after the premiere of his new film, Malcolm (Washington) is energized but what he feels will finally get him noticed by mainstream audiences.  His past films have only been seen as genre fare (read: black) and he longs to be considered with some of the greats and not just his fellow respected black filmmakers.  For now, though, he’s on cloud 9 and with drink in hand and James Brown playing throughout the house he’s dancing while Marie (Zendaya) is clearly feeling something a little different after their night out.  A harmless mistake before the premiere, likely brought on by the energy of the evening has been eating away at her and she can’t let it go.

Cooking macaroni and cheese (there’s no promotional tie-in here but if you’re watching this late at night you’ll definitely wind up wanting a bowl of your own) she lays out her grievances and it only slides downhill from there.  The two battle over their thoughts of Marie’s perception of the mistake (a sleight of attribution on Malcolm’s part) and, eventually, on Marie’s overall contribution to their marriage and Malcolm’s professional endeavors.  Did Malcolm steal pieces of Marie’s life to make his latest success and if so, why didn’t he cast his actress girlfriend in the role that could have helped her career advance as way of repaying the support she’s offered him?  As most fights go, there are low blows and then jabs that hit even darker places that couples don’t easily bounce back from.

The centerpiece of Malcolm & Marie, however, doesn’t even involve Marie and it almost seems like Levinson has been building to this point throughout.  It’s a profanity-laced diatribe from Malcolm on the state of film and the critics that review it that goes on and on and on, an endless barrage of holier-than-thou observances and notations of a century worth of filmmakers.  Though slanted through the viewfinder of a black man, you can clearly hear Levinson’s voice on the other side and how it’s transparently leveled at all naysayers that may take an opposing view to the film.  Feeling like a way Levinson can say what he wants to say but not really “say” it, the whole speech comes off as a cheap shot and poor sportsmanship…though Washington gives it one heckuva good read.  Too bad it instantaneously sucks what little momentum Washington and Zendaya had worked up for the rest of the movie.

Independently or together, Washington and Zendaya are impossible to look away from and both actors make you wish they had collaborated on a film that took their strengths and used them for something more interesting or less mouthpiece-y.  I think Malcolm & Marie might have even worked if it would have removed Malcolm’s unfiltered rant and excised one or two of the “artful silences” that have been kept in but as it stands this couple becomes hard to listen to by the end and all you want to do is watch them turn out the light and sleep.  Then at least they’ll, for once in the night, not have any hurtful things to say or demons to battle.