Movie Review ~ The Vigil

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The Facts
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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

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The Facts
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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

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The Facts
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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.