Movie Review ~ The Truffle Hunters

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the secret forests of Northern Italy, a dwindling group of joyful old men and their faithful dogs search for the world’s most expensive ingredient, the white Alba truffle. Their stories form a real-life fairy tale that celebrates human passion in a fragile land that seems forgotten in time.

Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Let me state for the record that the variety of truffles that float my proverbial boat are of the chocolate variety that come displayed in a fancy box.  I should also mention I have a serious aversion to mushrooms and/or edible fungi of every shape and size.  Any way you slice it (literally) I’ve never warmed to the taste or texture of the much sought-after truffle which also can set you back a pretty penny if you want the good stuff.  Even using truffle oil on fries, dusting popcorn with truffle powder, or sneaking it into macaroni and cheese hasn’t changed my stance – I’m just not dancing for joy (or even doing the, ahem, Truffle Shuffle) when I see the option available on a menu.

That’s why I could be forgiven for approaching the new documentary The Truffle Hunters sort of sideways and wincing a bit.  An 84-minute documentary about a bunch of old Italians wandering the forests with their dogs foraging for the rare fungus?  Is that what I wanted to find myself hip deep in and know I had only myself to blame because I knew quite well what I was taking on?  Well, it turns out that fungus may be the focus, but it isn’t the whole story.  Directors Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw take a hands-off approach to their narrative, presenting The Truffle Hunters as a series of loosely tied vignettes that weave together the lives of several men that have been taking to the woods for years in their tiny Italian town and making a meager living from their finds.

Of course, we wouldn’t be here discussing the film if it didn’t have some sort of hook to it and it’s because Dweck and Kershaw have curated such a disparate band of eccentrics that makes The Truffle Hunters well worth seeking out.  There’s the tiny man that barely speaks a word who appears almost compelled to continue to search his favorite hot spots in the dead of night when his eyesight is the worst and he’s apt to injure himself.  We understand his unspoken pull to keep moving while at the same time can side with his imposing wife that almost forcibly tries to make him stay indoors with her.  Seeing the slow moving man by day become one that rather nimbly sneaks out of a window at night like a teenager meeting his girlfriend is quite a sight to behold.

More foragers include a man with many dogs that treats them like his children, taking great care and pride in their well-being by personally taking a bath with them and, in one tense scene, using a hair dryer while both are half submerged in the tub.  He also tries to be as proactive as possible in protecting his dogs from dangerous rivals.  Shockingly, while the professional business side of things is chillier in the way it undercuts the men doing the grunt work (black market/under the table suppliers buy truffles for a pittance from rural towns and then turn around and sell them for 300% more than they paid), there are fellow scavengers that stoop so low as to leave poison traps for dogs that assist their owners in finding the truffles.

A legendary truffle hunter is getting up there in age and has people often coming to ask him to pass along his secrets, but he refuses, preferring to converse with his devoted canine friend.  At this point in his life, he worries more about where his beloved animal will go and if the family will use the dog skilled in the truffle trade for good.  It’s this worry about the inherent greed that has grown in people which caused a physical and emotional burnout in another respected forager that spends most of the film sounding off on the state of the line of work today and lamenting loudly and forcefully why he won’t ever dig up another truffle.

I kept thinking the directors were going to wrap their film up with some foregone conclusions but the easy flow from moment to moment continues throughout and it creates a pleasant ambiance.  Fully subtitled, it doesn’t always string together with perfect cohesion and there are times early on when you can’t tell a few of the men apart and even more occasions when you have the feeling you’d want to stick around a particular thread just a hair longer.  It likely misses an opportunity to explore more of the showy side of the industry, often framing the high price selling of the fungus as an exercise solely of excess for the wealthy or refined.  A little more context or big picture view of that side of the equation would have created more of a balance.

No matter, this is sweet little documentary that’s at times only peripherally about food that for once didn’t make me hungry.  The scenery is routinely gorgeous, as is the camerawork in general in the town and around the forest.  There’s even several sequence where the dogs were outfitted with cameras so we see the entire hunt from their perspective.  As expected, the camera is shaky but not as hard to watch as you may think – it’s another way The Truffle Hunters sets itself apart from the other items on your cinematic menu.

Movie Review ~ Thunder Force

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world where supervillains are commonplace, two estranged childhood best friends reunite after one devises a treatment that gives them powers to protect their city.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, Pom Klementieff, Taylor Mosby, Melissa Leo, Marcella Lowery, Kevin Dunn, Melissa Ponzio, James H. Keating, Braxton Bjerken, Tyrel Jackson Williams, Sarah Baker

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When the promos for the new Netflix comedy Thunder Force directed by Ben Falcone and co-starring his wife Melissa McCarthy started running, I had to go back and check some dates.  Wasn’t it just in late November that Superintelligence, their last collaboration arrived on the airwaves of streaming competitor HBOMax, having skipped a theatrical release due to the pandemic surge?  Turns out audiences have been without a new Falcone/McCarthy comedy for a little less than five months, so the biggest question I had going into Thunder Force didn’t have much to do with how well the duo could pull off a comedic twist on the superhero flick but if there was an appetite for another round quite so soon.  After all, though Superintelligence felt lighter than their other features (Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party), it was still plagued with their brand of specifically tuned laughs and tendency toward lengthy bits that leaned into their own amusement rather than one for a broader audience.

What’s good to report about Thunder Force is that like many superheroes, this film has a secret weapon and it happens to be the Oscar-winning actress who beat McCarthy for the top prize at the Academy Awards the year both were nominated for Supporting Actress.  Lifelong friend of the Falcone/McCarthy family Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) helps give the movie some balance when it sorely needs it, grounding it less in the normalcy of reality but more in plausibility filtered through the lens of wild flights of fancy.  That’s due to the way Spencer conveys such inherent trust; you easily buy what she’s selling and it plays as a perfect ying to McCarthy’s bull in a china shop yang. 

Beginning in 1983 and leaping through the kind of complex origin story Marvel or DC would have taken 12 movies and four television series to tell in full, Thunder Force brings us up to speed quickly on how cosmic rays struck Earth and genetically transformed a select few into superhuman villains.  Turns out these were people were always bad but the interstellar blast brought out their most evil side and gave them powers to keep on being wicked.  Known as Miscreants, they terrorized the city while the world watched and world leaders subsequently tried to find a way to combat their seemingly unstoppable super powers.

It was a Miscreant attack that leaves studious Emily (who grows up to be Spencer) an orphan and attending an inner-city school where she quickly becomes the target for bullies.  She finds a protector and best-friend in Lydia (played by McCarthy’s own daughter as a youngster before handing the reins to mom) until a silly fight separates them for the next two decades. (Side Note: I always find it amusing in these films that childhood best friends, while still actively in high school, just stopped talking to each other entirely and never made up ever. Doesn’t that say something about the friendship to begin with?)  Years later, Lydia is a blue-collar worker in Chicago while Emily has finally found the answer to defeating the Miscreants after years of study, which is why she has to miss her 25-year high school reunion.  Intending to finally make-up with her estranged friend at the reunion, Lydia decides to force the make-up to happen no matter what and finds Emily in her lab…only to press the wrong button and receive an injection meant for her ex bestie with a formula for super strength.  However…that’s only half of the solution and under the watchful eye of an all-business former CIA operative (Melissa Leo, Prisoners) and Emily’s daughter (Taylor Mosby, Breakthrough), Emily also undergoes a transformation of her own (find out what it is for yourself!), eventually joining Lydia in training to become the city’s only hope in overcoming a horde of rogue criminals.

In the press notes for Thunder Force, I read that writer/director Falcone came up with the basic plot of the film on a walk to work and that the script was one of the fastest things he’d ever written.  At times, this shows, because while there are plenty of inspired moments throughout the film (a dinner at Emily’s grandmother’s house is quite fun as is a musical fantasy sequence that pops up out of nowhere) a number of ideas and characters are introduced for effect only to be tossed aside and never heard from again.  The film is filled with loose ends and unanswered questions and not all of them can be saved for a sequel.  That leaves a viewer feeling like they get something with flavor in the moment but nothing that truly lasts.  While Superintelligence seemed like it had more focus than previous Falcone/McCarthy outings, Thunder Force veers off course early on and it’s most often when McCarthy is left to her own devices, something I’m realizing isn’t always the wisest choice.

There’s no denying the best scenes in the film are when it’s just McCarthy and Spencer and not even when there’s comedy involved.  We already know what Spencer can deliver but it says something that we have to continue to be reminded that McCarthy has depth as well.  The two actresses are so good at what they do that as entertaining as they are together in Thunder Force, at the same time they are absolutely resting on their laurels and not exhibiting much stretch either.  If Falcone, McCarthy, or Spencer had really wanted to shake things up, they would have had the women switch roles and see what could happen when Spencer was permitted to really (no, really) let her hair down and if McCarthy would step aside and be the straight person for once.

Falcone also has a strange penchant for featuring himself or friends in supporting roles that steal precious time from the characters we want to see more of.  Countless henchmen pop up for one liners that are just this side of not funny, not to mention a number of everyday workers are gifted one or two lines which always left me wondering who they were related to on the crew.  The villains of the piece are a little on the “eh” side and feature Bobby Cannavalle (Lovelace) as a crooked mayoral candidate out to suppress more than just votes, Jason Bateman (Bad Words) as The Crab, sporting crab claws for arms after a wince-inducing radioactive accident, and Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy) as the psychotic Laser who loves to dryly announce her plans for her prey before carrying them out. 

While it starts strong and begins to lose major steam as we cross the halfway mark, Thunder Force takes a weird downturn of energy the longer it goes on, ending oddly with a disappointing coda.  It’s still worth watching to see McCarthy and Spencer work up some sparks and sing a few tunes en route to kickin’ bad guy butt; if only we had more of these moments and less of the schtick that has proven time and time again to not dependably hit the target for Falcone and McCarthy.  They’ve got a series and a Christmas movie in the works for Netflix so let’s hope they keep on taking two steps forward and resist the urge to go one step back.