Movie Review ~ The Last Mercenary

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious former secret service agent must urgently return to France when his estranged son is falsely accused of arms and drug trafficking by the government, following a blunder by an overzealous bureaucrat and a mafia operation.

Stars: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Samir Decazza, Assa Sylla, Djimo, Alban Ivanov, Miou-Miou, Eric Judor, Nassim Lyes, Patrick Timsit, Valérie Kaprisky

Director: David Charhon

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  For all the resurrection stories of old stars (and ‘90s action stars), none have been more interesting to me than the slowly winding road that is leading Jean-Claude Van Damme back into the hearts of viewers across the globe.  This is a now 60-year-old that, planned or not, has been playing the long game and taking his time to regain some of that boffo celebrity clout he had back in the early ‘90s when he was a can’t miss performer.  I mean, the run this guy had in the first part of the 1990’s alone is spectacular.  Bloodsport, Cyborg, Kickboxer, Lionheart, Death Warrant, Double Impact, Universal Soldier, Nowhere to Run, Hard Target, Timecop, Sudden Death…all made within a seven-year period and nearly all very watchable even to this day.  Sure, there are some groaners in the mix and Van Damme’s acting didn’t develop as fast as his biceps did, but the films were precisely engineered to his brand of strength…much more so than his contemporaries.

Then, an admitted rough patch occurred, and I won’t even go into the numerous flops, lousy sequels, vanity projects, and plain trash he got involved with that finally ended his run and victory laps around Hollywood.  The Muscles from Brussels retreated (going back on his promise from 1985’s No Retreat, No Surrender!) and though he worked here and there, it was only in gossip magazines about his private life that most fans got a look at what Van Damme was up to.  However, in 2008, a self-aware film he made titled JCVD seemed to indicate that whatever joke he had become, he was more than a little into it and he soon began to lean into that alter-ego persona quite heavily.  Culminating in the clever but cancelled too early Amazon Prime show Jean-Claude Van Johnson in 2017, it was clear that Van Damme’s comedic skills had sharpened to a fine point and after a few random action flicks he’s joined forces with Netflix for a new French action film making its debut in the US. 

If any of those films from the 1990’s I mentioned above is on your shortlist for go-to flicks when you need a nostalgic boost of action, The Last Mercenary is going to be right up your alley.  Here is a film that has been built from the ground up around Van Damme (The Expendables 2) and what he’s good at today.  Namely, kicking some butt, doing his trademark splits (I think), being goofy, and demonstrating an elevated commitment to a dramatic side that I hadn’t seen up until now.  Packaged with energy by director David Charon and featuring a supporting cast of likable players ready-made to run with a franchise should Van Damme feel like it, it’s an absolute treat for Van Damme-ers that have stuck with him all these years as well as newcomers that are keyed up for a breathlessly paced thriller.

A surprisingly chaotic script with numerous subplots from Charhon and co-screenwriter Ismaël Sy Savané makes watching this with subtitles a bit of a challenge, but compared to the terribly dubbed English version, it’s the lesser of two evils.  What you need to know is that Van Damme plays a French secret service agent known as The Mist who is called back to Paris when his son Archie (Samir Decazza) is targeted by government agents and a rogue faction within his own office when the protection/immunity granted for his son is accidentally lifted and his identity is exposed.  It might not have been that big of a deal for Archie, if a crazed arms dealer who fancies himself a modern-day Tony Montana from 1983’s Scarface hadn’t been committing crimes all over town using his name and immunity to get out of prosecution.  With that safety removed, a bunch of people want to get the fake Archie but are going after the real Archie by mistake.  The only one that can protect him is his father…who he has never met.

Father reuniting with estranged son is an easy base set-up and the screenwriters find creative building blocks to stack on top of their base which drive the movie furiously forward.  Van Damme helps to keep a lot of that momentum moving, bursting through the action sequences with the energy of someone ¼ his age (and I’m pretty sure a 20 year old was doing some of those stunts) and resisting the urge to drop too many one liners along the way.  The script has him donning a bunch of low-impact disguises that are less about fooling the crowd and more about entertaining the audience in showing how far Van Damme will go for a bigger laugh…and it works. If you don’t leap for the remote and rewind his short dance in a nightclub just to see him bust a move then you are a stronger viewer than I am.  If Decazza isn’t the most dynamic co-star as his son at first, he’s surrounded by a stellar ensemble including Assa Sylla as Dalila, a streetwise girl from the neighborhood who is likely the toughest of them all and some strong comedy from Djimo as Momo, Dailia’s brother. Alban Ivanov steals numerous scenes as a clueless government pawn who eventually has to wise up and take charge. 

Maybe it was the excitement to see Van Damme in such a well-made film (production design, effects, and even song selection are top notch) but I totally loved The Last Mercenary and found myself forgiving the occasional slide into conventionality.  It’s mild enough for parents who grew up on the violence of Bloodsport to show their young teens without worrying too much about bad content but also action-packed enough to keep genre fans enthralled for the duration.  I can imagine if this is a success (and I believe audiences will flip for it) a sequel will be guaranteed. Fingers crossed Van Damme can rise to the top of the Netflix charts because I want to see more of these characters in future installments.

Movie Review ~ Ride the Eagle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Leif’s estranged mother dies, she leaves him a ‘conditional inheritance’. He has to complete her elaborate to-do list before he gets her cabin in Yosemite. Leif steps into a wild world as the mother he never really knew tries to make amends from beyond the grave.

Stars: Jake Johnson, Susan Sarandon, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons, Luis Fernandez-Gil, Cleo King, Eric Edelstein, Billy Bungeroth

Director: Trent O’Donnell

Rated: NR

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Is it OK for me to start out by saying that the whole concept of Ride the Eagle didn’t thrill me at first? I mean, the entirety of the “Mom’s dead, but she left a video for you to watch and a list of things for you to do.” feels not just like something we’ve seen before but also a complete set-up to eventually wring the tears out of you in a most manipulative way.  Then celebrated television director Trent O’Donnell goes and casts Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon (Blackbird) as the mom seen only on a VHS tape…and even the casual viewer knows Sarandon has carved out a small niche playing dead or nearly deceased mothers ready to impart one final message to their loved ones left behind.  All this to say that I went into Ride the Eagle buckled in and ready to have my emotions toyed with.

How refreshing to find that the emotions that star and co-screenwriter (with O’Donnell) Jake Johnson played around with weren’t solely surrounding the sadness of loss but of something much more intriguing.  The road far more traveled was bypassed for a journey through a path less shaped by convention and that’s where the enjoyment (pure and mighty enjoyment) in this entertaining bit of whimsy comes on the strongest and lingers the longest.  That it was filmed in the middle of the pandemic with barely any of the eight-member cast in the same room is an accomplishment, especially when you consider the believable dynamics that are formed between the actors in 80-some minutes of screen time.

When he receives news his estranged mother Honey (Sarandon) has passed away after a brief illness, bohemian bongo player Leif (Johnson, Jurassic World) isn’t sure how to process the news at first.  Though she left him when he was 12 and he’s now past 40, their issues remained unresolved at the time of her death.  Living in a tiny house with his dog behind the mansion of his manager, the sometime musician (he’s the oldest member of a band called, hysterically, Restaurant), he doesn’t have much to worry about in terms of actual responsibility. Then, after a visit from family friend Missy (Cleo King, Transformers: Age of Extinction), he learns that his mother left him her impressive cabin in the gorgeous woods of Yosemite.  There’s a catch, though, and it comes in the form of a condition attached to the cabin. 

In order to become the owner of the cabin, Leif will have to complete a set of tasks designed by his mother as a final way of saying good-bye to the son she never got to know.  In doing so, he learns about the mother he passed on the opportunity to forgive in later years when she attempted to reach out.  So begins an eye-opening weekend for Leif and Nora (the dog) when they arrive at the cabin to find Honey has more than a few surprises up her sleeve for her son.  Just wait until you see what she’s hiding in all her cabinets, or what waits on the other side of the lake she has him kayak toward, or how he winds up talking to an ex (D’Arcy Carden, Bombshell, absolute perfection) and finds that maybe the one that got away thankfully didn’t go that far. 

If the film occasionally goes a bit too far in its sourness (the improvisatory talents of all involved tends to have the actors resort to dropping a f#$k or some variation because it sounds conversational…it doesn’t) it gets in a few good zingers here and there that actually feel earned.  For example, only a talent like J.K. Simmons (The Tomorrow War) could deliver a line written by Johnson/O’Donnell that is so incredibly filthy in the middle of a beautiful bit of eulogizing.  Even an attempted bit of phone naughtiness between Carden and Johnson goes off the rails with riotous glee.  These are the rare bits of perfectly crafted dialogue in film we hardly get nowadays and Ride the Eagle has quite a few of them.

Unpredictable is hard to come by in film but Ride the Eagle manages to stay ahead of viewers for nearly the entirety of its short run time.  You’re so invested in the characters and, in particular, Johnson’s incredibly charismatic star turn in the type of role that would normally be poison in gaining affection from an audience much less sympathy, that you won’t be thinking about the end.  If anything, you’ll be dreading it will soon be over. 

Movie Review ~ The Exchange

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A socially awkward but highly enterprising teenager decides to acquire a “mail order best friend”; a sophisticated exchange student from France. Instead, he ends up importing his personal nightmare, a cologne-soaked, chain-smoking, sex-obsessed youth who quickly becomes the hero of his new community.

Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Avan Jogia, Justin Hartley, Jennifer Irwin, Paul Braunstein, Jayli Wolf, David Huband

Director: Dan Mazer

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By coincidence, I was reading a book about John Hughes at the same I was sent a screener for the new high school comedy The Exchange. Perhaps having Hughes at the back of my mind helped, but you don’t have to squint your eyes too hard to see the parallels between the angst-y teenagers from the Hughes-ian ‘80s Chicago suburbs with the ones that filter through screenwriter Tim Long’s Quebec of a similar era.  Often, that comparison doesn’t come out in favor of the new kid on the block, but in the case of The Exchange there is an equality of sorts that keeps its sweet sentiment at the forefront and makes it a worthwhile way to spend your evening.

All Tim (Ed Oxenbould, The Visit) wants to find in his tiny Canadian provincial town is someone that appreciates art films as much as he does.  Sadly, this is a time when all kids his age wanted was their MTV and the town was more focused on celebrating what they are known for, the white squirrel.  With his mother (Jennifer Irwin, The Mortuary Collection) focused on putting together the annual parade to celebrate the mascot and his shop-owner father (Paul Braunstein, Jigsaw) concerned with the economic downturn closing a number of family-run businesses, Tim is largely on his own and fending for himself in a sea of sameness.

Then, his French teacher tells the class about the foreign exchange program and Tim has an idea.  Why not host a French student and import some culture not just into his life, but his stagnant family dynamic as well?  Not only would it benefit him, but it could help in other ways.  In short order, the papers are filled out and the big day comes and that’s when Tim is in for a culture shock he couldn’t have anticipated. Instead of a well-behaved, cultured Frenchman, Tim is matched with Stéphane (Avan Jogia, Shaft), a ribald and free-thinking ball of energy that isn’t anything what Tim expected, but turns out to be precisely what he needs. 

It shouldn’t be too hard to predict the direction The Exchange is headed from the start, but credit is given to Long and director Dan Mazer for taking a sunny scenic route to get to their final destination.  By spending some time in getting to know more about Tim and Stéphane, we get to see why each has something to offer the other and how their shared experience winds up being beneficial.  That’s also helped by the strong casting of Oxenbould and especially Jogia in the trickier than it looks Frenchman-out-of-water in a town that initially accepts him only to turn their back when he’s suspected of a crime he might not have committed.  That Stéphane is from a mixed background introduces some race politics in that Hughes wouldn’t have attempted in his day but Long handles it with a light touch, not letting things get too out of hand before drawing the comedy back into the events.

Aside from the two leads, the ever-dependable Irwin is on hand for the typical mom advice but also on a tiny journey of her own as well.  That there was time to fit that in during this 93-minute movie mostly focused on the typical bit of raunchy bit of teen romp business was nice to see as well.  An arrogant gym coach played by Justin Hartley (A Bad Moms Christmas) might have been good for some cheap laughs but it’s the one character played so arch it felt like a sketch creation rather than the real people the other actors were going for.  Hartley’s reach is admirable, but it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the company.  I also thought Jayli Wolf’s eccentric sorta-love interest for Tim was oddball fun as well – it’s definitely a character Hughes would have dotted on his periphery of a high school dance scene and used for a laugh or three.

A rather unexpected surprise (I nearly passed on screening this and am glad I didn’t), The Exchange is a nice retro throwback to the teen classics we love to revisit from the ‘80s…and it doesn’t need to resort to raunch or extremes to find its funny.  By keeping things genuine, it remains endearing. I think it’s c’est bon.

Movie Review ~ Jungle Cruise

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A riverboat captain transports a British scientist and her brother on a mission down the Amazon to find the Tree of Life, believed to possess healing powers that could be of great benefit to modern medicine. Thrust on this epic quest together, the unlikely trio encounters innumerable dangers and supernatural forces, all lurking in the deceptive beauty of the lush rainforest.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Andy Nyman

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10) (11 AM)

Review: While most will instantly conjure thoughts of that ragamuffin Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when the topic of Disney turning their famously engineered rides into movies comes up, you actually have to go all the way back to 1997 for the very first one.  Based on the leave-your-stomach-in-your-tonsils Tower of Terror, the same-named TV-movie starred Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst and it’s perfectly fine that you forgot it.  Then came 2002’s The Country Bears, having their jamboree for not quite as many viewers in theaters that had seen them in the parks over the years, and the disappointing Eddie Murphy-led adaptation of The Haunted Mansion shrinking in the shadow of Black Pearl which had come out just four months earlier. 

Numerous Pirates sequels (all subpar) would slow the ride tide of movies coming out of the studio but all it took was one irresistible movie star to kick off another potential franchise starter.  After an extended delay due to the pandemic, audiences will finally get to hop on board this new attraction with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt for a breathless ride that hits the water at full speed and never looks back. 

It won’t take long to separate the sea captains from the landlubbers in Disney’s newest ride turned movie, Jungle Cruise.  If you don’t get that little tingle of excitement for what’s to come within the film’s opening introduction of both of our effortlessly charming leads, then this may not be the right journey for you to take.  That’s all fine and dandy, but you’ll be missing out on quite the adventure in the studio’s monster attraction for the summer, which was delayed an entire year in order to give audiences the best bang for their buck. It’s a sonic boom for every penny you’re spending in the theater or watching it at home. 

Enchanted since her youth by tales from her father of an ancient Amazonian tree with flowers that have the power to heal, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt, A Quiet Place) has spent much of her life trying to track down a missing arrowhead while she studied to become a plant scientist and prove herself among her male colleagues.  This arrowhead artifact is the final piece of a puzzle she needs to go along with a map of the Amazon jungle she has been studying that she believes will point her toward the location of the tree.  However, someone else is looking for that arrowhead as well. German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) has paid a handsome sum to the stodgy society of London antiquities that found it. The movie’s snappy prologue shows just how far both Lily and the Prince will go to get what they want…. but never underestimate the determination of a resourceful botanist who is aces at picking a lock and has a map of the antiquities shop drawn on her forearm.  With her prim brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall, The Nutcracker and the Five Realms) in tow and the arrowhead in her possession, Lily is ready to head to the Amazon…and all she needs is a boat captain when she gets there.

Anyone that’s been on the Jungle Cruise ride at any Disney theme park will recognize a number of the pun-ny jokes Johnson’s Frank Wolff is rambling off to his bored shipload of tourists when we first meet him.  Many taken right from the script of the long-running ride (side note…if you ever get a chance to ride it at night, do it!  It’s a totally different experience!), it’s the most assured nod screenwriters Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and Glenn Ficarra (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) & John Requa give directly to the attraction that inspired the film and it’s completely welcome.  Eagle-eyed viewers and true fans of Disney lore will spot many Easter eggs along the way, all in good fan service without pulling focus away from the actual story.

Yes, there actually is a story that unfolds, even if it at times feels like the three screenwriters take a little longer than necessary to get there and include one too many villains along the way.  Once Lily and MacGregor arrive at their jungle destination there are some shenanigans that stall for time until they team up with Frank, giving time for the extra obnoxious Paul Giamatti (Gunpowder Milkshake) to storm in for a not-brief-enough cameo (could Disney not afford to cast a real Italian person for this Italian character?) and add in more roadblocks for Frank to get Lily on her way.  Then it’s back to the river for meetups with an indigenous tribe led by Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón, The Forever Purge) supernatural Spanish conquistadors (including Edgar Ramírez, Point Break) resurrected with evil intentions, and an unexpected twist that comes halfway in that was a pleasant surprise. 

What I liked best about Jungle Cruise was its commitment to follow-through.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) allows the film to be 127 minutes of adventure and excitement and isn’t out to rush anything past us.  Sometimes on the ride itself it can be hard to look at both sides at the same time so you end up missing out and that also can happen in film if a director loses the focus of where the action is directed.  Instead of idling in one place and allowing our eyes to catch up, Collet-Serra just keeps things in constant motion and lets us be swept up in the action.  It’s often overwhelming and, thanks to some overdone CGI, can come off looking nearly like a totally animated film, but more often than not it is completely captivating.

Much of this is owed to Johnson (Skyscraper) and especially Blunt’s indefatigable charisma and, if not red-hot chemistry, then kindred spirit-ness.  A push toward romance feels terribly forced and especially considering how forward thinking the movie is by allowing MacGregor to not only have a full man-on-man convo with Frank where he says he’s gay without using the “g-word” and then going further into talking about acceptance and such, it’s odd to thrust romantic entanglement on our leading couple that haven’t completely sparked like that.  Any flames ignited are from their gentle baiting of one another, mostly friendly competitiveness at who is the stronger alpha of the boat. 

Scheduling the way it is and knowing that summer weather can often turn on a dime, I’ve been continuing to opt to watch a number of these movies at home. In hindsight, Jungle Cruise is one I would have loved to see on the big screen – and I could see myself buying a ticket to catch it again in theaters.  Learning afterward it’s being presented in 3D in some cinemas makes sense after noting how many extended shots of various objects coming directly toward the camera. I’d note that if you don’t like snakes, you should opt out of the multi-dimensional experience – lots of snapping jaws to contend with.  The movie will be big and satisfying no matter what size screen you see it on but with July drawing to a close and August signaling the end of a strange season at the movies, this should be the one you fork over some cash to see with the family on the largest screen you can manage.  It’s worth it.

Movie Review ~ Val

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The Facts:

Synopsis: For over 40 years Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial and/or misunderstood actors has been documenting his own life and craft through thousands of hours of film and video. This raw, wildly original and unflinching documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled, sometimes hilarious look at what it means to be an artist and a complex man.

Stars: Val Kilmer, Jack Kilmer

Director: Ting Poo, Leo Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  In addition to keeping you updated with the latest and greatest (and not so greatest) films that received a streaming release during the year-long lockdown, I also found time to do a lot of reading.  Most of the time it was those easy beach read thrillers or whatever was being adapted into an upcoming film, but I never can resist a good celebrity memoir.  One of the most entertaining selections I came across during this entire period was “I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir” by Val Kilmer, giving a greater insight into an actor that up until that point I had always believed to be exactly what the Hollywood insiders said he was.  Difficult to work with, arrogant, demanding, and pretentious were all words that came to mind when I heard Kilmer’s name and his recent spate of acting roles (in already dreadful films like The Snowman and Paydirt) didn’t do much to make me think I should give him a second thought.

That book changed my opinion of the actor, doing more for explaining the man underneath it all than the usual superstar autobiography.  On the heels of that book comes Val, a documentary being released for a limited run in theaters now before debuting on Amazon Prime in early August.  With an even more focused magnifying glass, audiences can witness firsthand the path the Los Angeles-born actor took to his stardom and see through an incredible amount of personal home movies and on-set videos he recorded the unvarnished side of moviemaking.  At the same time, Kilmer’s struggle with health issues related to a throat cancer diagnosis in 2015 make for a striking comparison with the ruggedly handsome man featured early on in his career.

Val actually opens with some onset horsing around with actors on the set of Top Gun and you almost can’t believe that film is nearly 35 years old at this point.  So many of the men on that set were at the start of their careers and even Kilmer was just coming off his first real feature film (1984’s Top Secret!), having already made his Broadway debut (alongside Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon who Kilmer captures mooning the camera) upon his graduation from Julliard.  It’s surreal watching brief clips of the red carpet premiere and opening night party for Top Gun, with the likes of Tom Cruise and others dancing the night away in their chic ’80s evening wear. After Top Gun, Kilmer’s star continued to rise, although he kept running up against roadblocks of his own making when challenging directors and producers that wanted Kilmer to be less of an actor and more of a silent commodity.  As the years went by, the leading roles in major projects dwindled as less directors (and a few costars) wanted to be involved in Kilmer’s often extreme approach to his method.

Kilmer’s full commitment was ingrained on him from an early age, growing up on a ranch formerly owned by Roy Rogers.  One of three sons born to parents that would later divorce, the family suffered an early tragedy that would haunt them, and especially Kilmer, for years to come and it would be this influence that would often propel Kilmer to go to edge.  You can say a lot of things about Kilmer’s choice in projects and roles but you can’t ever say he doesn’t commit 140% when he does sign up.  Throughout Val we see several projects that obviously were key films to him for one reason or another (Tombstone, The Doors, The Island of Dr. Moreau) where he went the extra mile to get it right or defend his choices.

With the throat cancer treated but leaving his voice severely impaired, Kilmer now speaks with the aid of a medical device and while his adult son Jack narrates the majority of the film using his dad’s words, Kilmer himself speaks often as well. It’s these ‘unscripted’ moments that Jack isn’t ready when the documentary is quite reflective.  Kilmer is open about his past mistakes and the way he approached the people he loved and the friends he came to know, and it’s not born out of a man that has come to the front step of death’s door and has regrets.  It’s from a person that reached a point in his life where he’s let go of a lot of the stones that have burdened him unnecessarily and watching that release in someone clearly exhausted is cathartic even for the viewer.  Knowing much of the footage shot wasn’t meant to be seen by the public at large makes it feel more genuine and less showy.

I think fans of Kilmer will be greatly moved by this documentary on his life and current journey toward peace – it reinforces that Kilmer has always had good intentions in his work but simply played the Hollywood game a bit too aggressively. Then he was dealt a raw hand by the system and by fate. Those that had perhaps written him off (full admission: like I had before I read his book) would do well to view Val for its raw and all-access unmasking of a complicated man that is more relatable than we might think. 

Movie Review ~ Old

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family on a tropical holiday discovers that the secluded beach where they are staying is somehow causing them to age rapidly, reducing their entire lives into a single day.

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Kathleen Chalfant, Alexa Swinton, Nolan River, Kylie Begley, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Alex Wolff, Emun Elliott, Thomasin McKenzie

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Looking back over the director credits for M. Night Shyamalan, I’m wondering if we weren’t the ones that ultimately set him on his shaky trajectory in the late 2000’s after the cool reception that greeted 2004’s The Village.  Yes, I know viewers still bristle at the mere mention of Shyamalan’s sixth feature film and first to break his major winning streak of uniformly positive reception from critics and audiences alike.  The “big twist” everyone had come to expect felt like something overly orchestrated by a director wanting to be appreciated for rug pulling than for what came before and after and ticket-buyers weren’t having it. 

This led to a downward spiral for the Oscar-nominee who broke so big with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and his two follow-ups after The Village, The Lady in the Water in 2006 and The Happening in 2008, were dull flop-a-roos.  Several more disasters would be released and a so-so TV series on FOX would come before Shyamalan would bounce back quite nicely with 2015’s The Visit with Split coming out just a year later in 2016.  Nicely tying into 2000’s Unbreakable, he used Split’s success to complete a trilogy with Glass in 2019 and parlayed that film’s moderate success into a new deal with Universal for two additional films he would direct. (This is above and beyond Servant, the creepy under the radar half-hour series that’s been renewed for a third season on AppleTV+). 

The first film to meet that new deal is Old and, surprisingly, it’s not based on one of Shyamalan’s original ideas.  Instead, it’s inspired by Sandcastle, a graphic novel by Swiss artists Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters.  Given to him as a gift by his daughters, Shyamalan responded to the illustrated tome’s themes Levy and Peeters dabble into when they weren’t revealing how a secluded beach in paradise becomes a nightmare for a group of vacationing tourists.  Reviewing what types of family-based stories Shyamalan has been compelled to tell in the past, it’s not hard to see why he felt a kinship with the creators of Sandcastle or why he thought he’d like to bring those ideas to life on screen.  For a while, Old even feels like something new.  Then…some tired tricks resurface.

Arriving with their two children at a luxe resort in an unnamed tropical utopia (the movie was filmed in the Dominican Republic), Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) and Guy (Gael García Bernal, Coco) are hoping for one last relaxing vacation before reality sets in.  Already planning to separate before the trip was set into motion, life-changing medical news has arrived for one of them which suggests this might be the final time the four of them can spend together as a family.  At least they are truly being waited on hand and foot, thanks to Prisca stumbling on the hotel on the internet and getting a great deal for the week.  The kindly hotel manager suggests a day trip to a private beach that is sure to impress and the foursome, wanting to kick back, swim, and sun, only need to be pointed in the right direction.

Dropped off at the beach by their driver (Shyamalan, popping up in his usual cameo) along with a doctor (Rufus Sewell, Judy), his trophy wife (Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon), their 6-year-old daughter, and his mother, they make the short walk to the beach through a towering rock wall, and it is indeed the private haven the manager promised it would be.  There is already someone there though, a famous artist (Aaron Pierre) Prisca’s daughter instantly recognizes and who soon becomes the first clue that something isn’t quite right at the beach.  Before we know more, a third couple (Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung) shows up and our beach party seems to be complete.  Then…the first dead body is found.

In the interest of your own enjoyment of Old, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination and say that up until that point, Shyamalan had done a solid job of carefully gathering a bunch of strings together he could ably pull taught.  Though featuring a lot of stock characters (the doctor is a controlling bore, the trophy wife is a looks obsessed snob), he’s cast the film with enough interesting actors that you are curious to see where their beach journey to The Twilight Zone will lead them.  Even the first few developments where they figure out something supernatural (or otherwise) is taking control over them and preventing them from leaving, Shyamalan maintains a great deal of tension while we fret right alongside the characters in true peril.

It’s only when we start to get long gaps in between events do you see how flimsy the structure of the piece actually is, how repetitive the attempts to leave are, and how helpless the characters act when they could be taking fuller charge of the situation.  The worst thing about it is that up until this point, many of these people were portrayed as independently minded, intelligent beings but somehow once they get a little sand in their swimsuit, they don’t put up much of a defense when challenged.  That’s why nearly the entire midsection of the film is simply a series of false starts and fake outs, never gaining any momentum until the end when secrets are revealed, giving the story more of its purpose and creating a renewed interest in what’s been happening.

To his credit, I think Shyamalan is going for exactly the movie Old is.  He wanted these pauses when families could talk about growing older and reflecting on watching parents age as their children experience life that has begun to move at a rapid pace all around us.  It’s an odd construct for a horror film of this nature and doesn’t always feel in harmony with everything else going on but…I do see where he’s coming from.  Perhaps part of the problem I had with it all is that I never believed Krieps and Bernal had breathed the same air for more than two hours before we first see them, much less been married for over a decade.  There’s just no chemistry there so attempts to create dramatic sequences for the two of them don’t have anywhere to go.  The most successful couple in the film is probably Amuka-Bird (The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Leung (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) who manage to create some kind of connection in the little amount of downtime they are afforded.  I also have to say that while Lee has to play some silly scenes in the first half of the film, Shyamalan certainly gives her a few memorable bits in the latter sections.

I wouldn’t recommend you keep your distance from Old because as jumbled up as the middle section gets, the bookends do manage to redeem it on pure curiosity alone.  You can’t help but be drawn into the world Shyamalan has created and that’s a gift he’s always maintained.  He’s the type of writer/director that easily ensnares you into the theater with an intriguing story, only to leave you slightly disappointed the tale isn’t quite as he originally described it.  He thinks it’s better than what he promised.  You wish it were better than what you got.  That’s nothing new. 

Movie Review ~ Blood Red Sky

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman with a mysterious illness is forced into action when a group of terrorists attempt to hijack a transatlantic overnight flight. In order to protect her son she will have to reveal a dark secret, and unleash the vampire within that she fought to hide.

Stars: Peri Baumeister, Carl Anton Koch, Kais Setti, Alexander Scheer, Roland Møller, Dominic Purcell, Graham McTavish

Director: Peter Thorwarth

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I feel like in July, Netflix is giving me everything I’ve ever wanted short of a shark attack musical starring Sharon Stone.  Really, first that glorious Fear Street trilogy which started strong, built momentum, then brought it all together in a wonderful finale, and now Blood Red Sky.  Combining two of my favorite subgenres, the vampire horror film and the airplane disaster action film, this German/UK co-production is touching down at the perfect time when there is a tiny lull in blockbuster theatrical releases.  While it has no name stars and Netflix isn’t marketing it as well as they should, they are sitting on what could be a sleeper hit for their streaming service because this is one rocker shocker of a film that delivers endlessly from takeoff to landing.

As the film opens, a large airliner is unsteadily touching down at an airport where an array of tactical teams awaits its arrival.  After landing, one passenger exits from the baggage compartment while another sits in the cockpit in a sniper’s crosshairs.  Where is the crew?  What happened to the other passengers?  There are definitely answers and both of the individuals have what we’re looking for…but first we have to find out how we got here.  To do that, screenwriters Stefan Holtz and Peter Thorwarth (who also directed) take us back several hours to before the plane took off from Germany.

Young Elias (Carl Anthon Koch) checks in for a transatlantic flight from Germany to New York for both himself and his mother Nadja (Peri Baumeister).  She’s too ill to accompany him to the airport until just before the flight takes off later that evening because she’s suffering from a rare condition that has left her bald and requires an injection at regular intervals.  The two board the flight with the other passengers, taking off with little incident and settle in for the overnight flight which crosses time zones and will land in New York under a cloak of evening darkness.  What no one knows is that hidden amongst the passengers is a large team of terrorists who plan to hijack the plane and crash it into London, hoping to create another international incident that sends the stock market into a panic.

Midway through their flight, the terrorists (several of which come from unlikely places) stage their attack and during the struggle Nadja is shot and left for dead out of view of the other passengers.  Yet Nadja isn’t dead now.  She’s been dead before…and for a while.  Further flashbacks show us the snowy night when Elias was just a baby and Nadja encountered a terrifying creature along with her husband after their car broke down.  The creature that scratched her.  The creature she now is.  The creature that has been unleashed now that she’s missed her regular dose of medicine.

There’s quite a lot of fun to be had in Blood Red Sky and it all depends on how much you are willing to kick your shoes off and enjoy yourself.  If you’re going to overanalyze the movie on the merits of reality, you should probably go watch Air Force One or Executive Decision, both excellent films.  If you are a Snakes on a Plane kind of person or don’t mind some CGI mayhem injected into the mix, by all means come on over and check this out.  The more animalistic Nadja gets, the crazier Blood Red Sky becomes and just when you think Thorwarth has taken things to their limit, he pushes the boundary again.  Surprisingly, it all goes down smoothly and though the stakes are continually raised (often exponentially) it doesn’t even approach exhausting…. it’s rather thrilling.

A lot of this is owed to Baumeister’s almost mesmerizing work as this ever-evolving creature.  Helped along with make-up, it’s the physicality that Baumeister possesses underneath it all that sells it in the end.  Like the White Spikes created for The Tomorrow War on Amazon Prime, the vampiric creature SFX in Blood Red Sky are incredibly impressive and, without spoiling anything, plentiful.  The production design was another high point, with the airline set being both believably spacious and cramped when called for. 

Along with Baumeister, Koch is handed a lot of emotional material to work, and he acquits himself nicely.  The character is inherently a bit of a handful, always getting into some kind of mess, but Koch at least doesn’t get too obnoxious in the process.  As a fellow passenger and ally, Kais Setti gets the right message across by looking past the creature features of his aisle mate and Roland Møller (Land of Mine) is bit of a big dumb fun as a terrorist who is more annoyed with his fellow team members than the gnashing monster tracking them all down.  The prize of the film is without question Alexander Scheer’s demented hijacker, first taking pride in gruesomely killing hostages before finding benefit in Nadja’s powers…. you can tell Scheer is a go-for-broke performer and it’s exactly what the role calls for.

Blood Red Sky could (and should) be one of those titles that hover at the top of the Top 10 list on Netflix for a long while, long enough for people to be curious enough to give it a go or for word of mouth to spread.  It’s far above average and leveled-up entertainment that would have been good enough to play in theaters but instead is available right now at home.  I’ll still be waiting for Netflix fulfill my last request of that Sharon Stone outer space shark musical but for now…Blood Red Sky will more than fit the bill for my genre wish list.

Movie Review ~ Joe Bell

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An Oregonian father pays tribute to his gay teenage son, embarking on a self-reflective walk across America to speak his heart to heartland citizens about the real and terrifying costs of bullying.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Morgan Lily, Gary Sinise, Tara Buck, Ash Santos, Igby Rigney, Cindy Perez

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Part of this review is going to include a minor spoiler of the movie, because it will be next to impossible to discuss it in any depth without including this bit of information.  It’s nothing that hasn’t been shown in the trailer but on the off chance you have yet to see the preview or don’t know the basic premise of Joe Bell, feel free to stop reading now and come back once you’ve watched it. 

You ready to move on?

We’re forging ahead with this review, so be ready.

OK…let’s go.

Living in a small town in the northeast corner of Oregon, Jadin Bell was singled out for being different.  The only openly gay student at his high school, he was a member of the cheerleading team and while his parents did their best to support him in the way that they knew how to, lack of true understanding of what it meant to be an ally left Jadin without the resources he needed to deal with the bullying he endured at school.  With few friends and an administration that didn’t stand up for him, he saw little hope for the future.  At fifteen, he hanged himself from the school’s playground equipment,

A devastating loss for his family, Jadin’s death sends his father Joe (Mark Wahlberg, All the Money in the World) into a depression.  Always prone to moody outbursts, he directs his anger at Jadin’s younger brother (Maxwell Jenkins) while his wife Lola (Connie Britton, This is Where I Leave You) looks on, unable to help her husband out of this darkness.  Then, an idea occurs to him.  Joe didn’t stop the bullying when Jadin came to him and asked for help, but he could tell others about his son and what could happen if harassment went unresolved.  He’d further hammer home that point by walking from Oregon to New York, where Jadin hoped to go to college after graduation.  As Joe makes his way across the country, he meets a number of individuals from all walks of life that have been in his shoes in one way or another and the impact they have on his life continues his own evolution of thinking. Accompanying him at times in Joe Bell the film would be Jadin himself.

The conceit of a dead character popping up to speak to a live one and acting as a kind of guide from the other side isn’t anything we haven’t seen done countless times before.  In fact, since I saw Joe Bell earlier this week, I’ve already watched another movie coming out in early August that employs the same narrative gimmick…sometimes to better effect.  What the speaking spirit often accomplishes for the screenwriter is the opportunity to have a two-way conversation on a solo journey of self-discovery.  The walk that Joe Bell is taking is purportedly to raise awareness on high school bullying and the devastating effects it can have, but it is more about his own atonement than anything else.  Having Joe’s deceased son Jadin present for long stretches of his walk, acting as a challenging sounding board adds to that immediacy for an emotional response from an audience but doesn’t always further the overall journey from a storytelling perspective.

Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, both of whom won an Oscar for adapting Brokeback Mountain in 2005, I believe Joe Bell wants to tap into that same poignancy which made that earlier work such a memorable milestone in modern cinema.  Unfortunately, though the true story on which the film is based is incredibly moving (and has more surprises than you may initially think), the way it has been assembled as a film doesn’t open itself up in the same kind of way that Brokeback Mountain did.  Though both films have a timeline that jump back and forth, Joe Bell’s important items have happened long before the movie begins and we spend a good sixty-minutes piecing together what led up to the events in La Grande, Oregon in 2013. 

It’s not meant to be a pleasant watch and I’m not suggesting it should be.  I’m not even saying the events should be laid out in chronological order.  The true element to the story means that certain events need to stay as-is and I appreciate that Ossana, McMurtry, Wahlberg, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green resist the urge to give Joe a huge speech where he suddenly becomes a great orator.  This is a man that isn’t good with words or grand statements.  He’s blunt, rough around the edges, and often says one thing when meaning the other.  So many of us have parents or know parents that are like that, and Joe Bell is no different.  What happens is that there begins to exist a disconnect between the emotion of the piece and the emotion of the true story it’s based on.  Things start to pile on as the film nears its conclusion and you can start to feel Jadin’s voice drowned out amongst all the mawkishness of the redemptive arc Joe is undergoing.  Is this Jadin’s story we’re meant to hear and understand or Joe’s?

In the title role, Wahlberg gives it his all as the dad trying to do good but missing the mark because when he didn’t know what else to do he just resorted to how he was raised.  I think Wahlberg did service to the real person and kept it as true as could be and that’s to be respected.  Reid Miller as Jadin has a bit of a wider field to play with and this is the performance that should be studied carefully.  His flashback scenes are deeply emotional and hard to watch, considering you know how it all turns out.  The “on the road” scenes where he’s tagging along as his dad goes on his cross-country walk are a little less focused. I’m not sure I needed to hear the two actors do quite so much of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ but then, I digress.  There’s never a time when Britton is not completely dependable and a value-add to a film, but I was genuinely surprised when Gary Sinise (Ransom) showed up as a small-town sheriff with a tender-heart. It’s a small part in a much larger story, but in a short amount of screen time Sinise makes a big impression.

Originally thought to be an Oscar play for Wahlberg before the pandemic hit in 2020, the mediocre reception Joe Bell received when it played the festival circuit (when it was called Good Joe Bell) last year put that dream to rest and that’s really for the best.  This is a film that shouldn’t be made for awards consideration.  Joe Bell would be a fine model to point to as someone that attempted to make good of something bad and the movie largely follows suit. 

Movie Review ~ The Last Letter From Your Lover

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young journalist in London becomes obsessed with a series of letters she discovers that recounts an intense star-crossed love affair from the 1960s.

Stars: Felicity Jones, Callum Turner, Joe Alwyn, Nabhaan Rizwan, Shailene Woodley

Director: Augustine Frizzell

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I vaguely remembered watching the trailer for The Last Letter from Your Lover when it was first released a month or so ago and as is the case with most previews I see now, I turned it off before it was halfway over.  I needed to see no more.  Period setting?  Love story?  Bit of mystery?  London setting?  A handful of actors I find intriguing? The boxes were unanimously checked, and this went straight into the ‘oh yes, please and thank you and when can I feast my eyes’ bucket.  I’m too lazy to go back and check now (and please don’t tell me) but did the preview also show how charming and adorable this late summer romantic drama was?  I honestly thought this was going to be far stuffier than it turned out but The Last Letter from Your Lover is a real find so late into July and a palette cleanser for those soured on scores of brainless comedies, action films, and an endless array of binged TV shows.

In reality, I should have seen it coming.  It’s based on a novel written by Jojo Moyes who managed to turn her book about the doomed love story between a small town pixie dreamer and rich paralytic into the rather memorable film Me Before You in 2016.  This isn’t in quite the same category and has its sights set on loftier goals, but both films rely heavily on sudsy romance and beautiful leads to win over audiences ready to swoon at the mere suggestion of unrequited love.  Moyes might even be called to the mat for going overboard by featuring not one, not two, but maybe even three hard-won romances in The Last Letter from Your Lover and darn it all if I didn’t get a little misty by the time it was all through. 

In present day London, Ellie (Felicity Jones, The Midnight Sky) a journalist for a popular publication is assigned to write a story on a recently deceased long-time employee who has left all her writings to the paper.  After battling with the paper’s fussy archivist (Nabhaan Rizwan, 1917) for access, she explores the cache of material and finds a rain-soaked letter within, a letter containing a love note from decades earlier.  We know the note is between Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley, The Mauritanian) the American wife of an upper crust but cold Englishman (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) and Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner, Green Room) a reporter that meets up with the couple while on vacation to write a story about the husband.  Unimpressed by the reporter at first, where there’s friction, there is soon fire and before long the two are swept up in a passionate affair.

Back in the modern time, Ellie continues to look into the history of the letter and finds more of them within the historical documents.  This spurs her into writing a new story about the affair, uncovering a love story that had laid dormant for quite some time, even as Ellie’s own romance with the archivist is taking on a life of its own.  The closer Ellie gets to finding out what happened to Jennifer and Anthony, the further she begins to retreat from her own happiness. Amidst her detective work, is she living too much in the past and making a mistake she’ll regret?

Taking a few steps back, I must admit there is a feeling that the cast skews slightly too young for the more mature nature of the story.  Even sitting in their late 20s/early 30s, Turner, Alwyn, and Woodley seem just slightly too young to be playing such established individuals and while Woodley looks totally ravishing in her luxurious wardrobe (by Anna Robbins, Downtown Abbey, with jaw-dropping ensembles that are never repeated twice) it can often feel like someone playing dress-up.  This is not a knock on Woodley’s talent in the least.  I just wonder what the whole thing would have felt like if Woodley (29) had swapped places with Jones (38) and was paired with Rizwan (24).  With all that said, the cast easily creates a chemistry with one another and it’s a chief reason why the film flows so smoothly through both time periods.

Director Augustine Frizzell (also an actress that has appeared in films such as The Old Man & the Gun and the remake of Pete’s Dragon) works a special kind of magic in the final act and while I won’t spoil it, it manages to bring a resolutely beautiful wrap-up to what could have been a maudlin and overly syrupy gathering of loose ends.  The performances by two actors (one of whom sadly passed away earlier this year) are especially strong and add to the effectiveness of these final moments, just another key ingredient along with the production design that give The Last Letter From your Lover that special something.  Make it a first choice for your next date night.

Movie Review ~ Broken Diamonds

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the wake of his father’s death, a twenty-something writer sees his dream of moving to Paris put in jeopardy when he’s forced to temporarily take in his wildly unpredictable, mentally ill sister.

Stars: Ben Platt, Lola Kirke, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alphonso McAuley

Director: Peter Sattler

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I have a fear of Ben Platt.  It’s undiagnosed, but I think it’s medically sound.  I’m fairly sure it began around the time he sang Leonard Bernstein’s ” Somewhere ” live at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in 2018 (the vibrato haunts my dreams) and it’s only grown since then.  I’ve tried exposure therapy by binging both seasons of The Politician on Netflix and I saw my pulse decrease significantly between season 1 and season 2 so I know I’m making progress.  I suffered a minor setback with the recent debut of the Dear Evan Hansen trailer and am already mentally preparing for the September 24th release date, but I put my head between my knees after I saw his hair and with some deep breathing I was able to work through the anxiety.

I truly thought Broken Diamonds was going to be another training exercise for myself, a trial to see how far I could be pushed to my breaking point where Platt was concerned.  After all, aside from his appearances in Pitch Perfect and its sequel, Platt hasn’t had much time to appear in many films.  Roles in 2015’s Ricki and the Flash and 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk were forgettable but led to a more pivotal one in the 2019 drama Run This Town that didn’t even break a sweat in the US.  In all honesty, not a whole lot is riding on Broken Diamonds. Apart from it looking an awful lot like 2014’s The Skeleton Twins, it appears to have been filmed in the middle of 2018 and is being distributed by a small indie company that usually reissues old TV movies on Amazon. So even if it were a disaster for Platt, it would be easy to shove this one under the rug pretty fast.

The thing is, Platt’s performance in Broken Diamonds is maybe the best thing I’ve seen him do.  It’s his least mannered, least controlled, and least curated to death role to date.  That this is the film of his that likely not a lot of people will see is a shame because the actor is doing something special within the framework of 90ish minutes and more attention should be paid.  Working alongside the equally impressive Lola Kirke (Gone Girl), the two form a dynamic duo for a family drama focusing on two siblings aiming to find balance in their lives which are dramatically out of synch.  She’s a diagnosed schizophrenic kicked out of her mental health facility just as her brother has packed up his apartment and is moving to Paris, following his dream to become a writer.  All this happens the same weekend their father unexpectedly passes away.

Offering little complications along the way, Steve Waverly’s script is all about getting these two in the same room and talking it out as much as possible.  Sure, Platt’s character, Scott does his fair share of griping about his sister Cindy to her therapist (Catherine Lough Haggquist, Fifty Shades Freed, powerful in just a few short scenes), to their stepmother Cookie (Yvette Nicole Brown, Lady & the Tramp), and their estranged mother (Lynda Boyd, The Age of Adaline) who stays away mostly because she suffers from her own degenerative mental condition.  Without many friends of his own and with Cindy burning all of her former bridges, the siblings have no one left but each other, so the movie is comprised largely of face-to-face conversations about rough childhoods growing up in the shadow of mental illness. 

Before you go too bug-eyed and think this is all gloom and doom depressing, let me assure you that director Peter Sattler manages to keep the film from leaning toward being singularly focused on the darker side of things.  There’s plenty of small bits of humor that break up the mood from being too severe, comedy that doesn’t feel out of place or disingenuous to the more serious subjects being taken up.  Yet the film does have to get to a dramatic peak and in the end, it winds up not shying away from the black edges that mental illness can take people to.  This is where Kirke has a chance to shine as well.  We’ve already seen her do good work over multiple seasons in Amazon’s dearly departed Mozart in the Jungle but there’s some deep digging going on in Broken Diamonds that’s to be admired.

The fear of Ben Platt still remains, I think it will always be there.  I find, however, that Broken Diamonds was a good tool for me to use when I have those Grammy nightmares or think of his Instagram videos where he’s wearing overalls for the sixth or seventh day in a row.  It’s in these moments of chilling cold sweats that I’ll remember he can turn it out when he wants to and pull back for the right film and message.