Movie Review ~ Pig

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness must return to his past in Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is kidnapped.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I only heard about Pig but a few short weeks back when indie studio NEON started advertising the trailer for it on social media.  A Nicolas Cage movie about a man that loses his pig and is going to find the men that took her? Gulp.  The trailer looked bleak.  The prospects looked dim.  The film just didn’t look like it had a lot to it and while NEON is always known for producing, if nothing else, work that is challenging for the viewer, I didn’t know if I wanted to see Cage running around appearing disheveled looking for his swine only to find out she became last Wednesday’s BLT.  I mean, this was NEON after all, and they’ve released some pretty out-there stuff.   

While I’d heard some positive items about the movie, I’ve largely kept my head down until it came to me and by then, I was sort of nervous to watch it.  My feeling of discomfort had only grown, and I just struggled with not wanting to have a bad experience with anything animal related, pig or Nic Cage otherwise.  I’m someone that was a Cage supporter for longer than most.  I was there with him in the early years, even through the Peggy Sue Got Married kind of weird days and into his blockbuster Simpson/Bruckheimer box office boffo smash summers.  I stuck around for the dramatic reaches, into the Oscar win, the descent into Crazy Eyes Cage (did it start with De Palmas Snake Eyes in 1998?) and even for the decline of selection in roles, but I started to draw the line at the numerous titles that bypassed theaters and went straight to video.  While Mandy and Color Out of Space were fine examples of a director’s superlative vision holding Cage at bay, would a first-time feature director’s quiet and simple movie keep Cage’s zeal monster at bay?

A case where the stars aligned and good fortune shone down on many, Pig is one of those movies that come along rarely in the career of a number of actors and Cage happens to be the beneficiary of this gift.  Co-writer and director Michael Sarnoski’s film may have a brief, blunt, title but its lasting impact is felt long after the credits have completed.  Its success drives deep into using one’s own introspection as the thorniest weapon against your opponent instead of physical violence and the result is both a stunning film and the best performance Cage has given since his Oscar-winning turn in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas.  Many in the industry and critics group alike thought Cage would never again make it to reputable awards consideration again, this is the movie and performance to prove them wrong.

Living a solitary live in the woods of Oregon with only a small foraging pig to keep him company, Rob (Cage, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) spends the days roaming the forest digging up precious truffles that fetch a pretty penny in nouveau bistros specializing in the latest in haute cuisine.  From what we gather, the only interaction he has is a once-a-week visit with Amir (Alex Wolff, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), a restaurant rep trying to make a name for himself in the business and step out of his imperious father’s (Adam Arkin, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) looming shadow.  Not that Amir is the kindest of souls. He drives a bougie car and has some choice words for the friendly pig that just wants to greet a new face.  A lone cassette with his name labeled on it that begins to play a song we barely hear tells us that Rob had a life before all this…but what, we don’t know.

This tranquil routine is disrupted when Rob’s precious companion is violently stolen, leaving him bloodied and even more bedraggled looking than before.  Barely taking time to gather his thoughts, he hoofs it to the nearest form of civilization and calls the one person he knows may have answers…Amir.  Together, the men enter into a search not just for the whereabouts of the pig, who stole it, and why, but eventually into the recesses of a complicated past Rob has spent a significant amount of time trying to bury.  Once an esteemed chef with a name that still carries weight in current circles, a tragedy caused him to retreat and withdraw, eventually finding a less interactive way to remain connected to his former profession through his truffle hunting.  A photographic memory proves useful when encountering old employees, rivals, and meals cooked, and the ability to read people is an effective method of getting the information he needs without having to exert much force.  

Cage being Cage, I honestly though Pig was going to be a lot more hard-boiled than it turned out to be.  Instead, Sarnoski and his co-screenwriter Vanessa Block have turned their story over-easy, allowing its gentle beats to gradually land as we learn more about Rob through small interactions with people he crosses paths with after years of separation.  I often found myself holding my breath, crossing my fingers the film could maintain its mood and thankfully it always stayed on track.  The crown jewel centerpiece of Pig is a restaurant scene in which Cage unravels the life of a man he seeks answers from in one haunting speech.  Make sure you are free from distraction during this sequence because it’s one that I swear Sarnoski has left a slight pause for at the end for audiences to recover with applause, a few deep breaths, or both.

It pleases me to no end that Cage is so finely tuned to the role, never going too big or even too small when Rob turns totally inward during moments of grief.  It shows you that when Cage really wants to do it right, he can, and when he’s only doing it for the money that lack of commitment is also visible.  For Pig, he’s firing on all cylinders and is backed by Wolff’s slick up and comer that finds himself in the middle of his own personal journey while tagging along on Rob’s.  Arkin’s brief turn is quite a departure for him but works all the same, it’s only two scenes but the weight placed on the first one adds to the nuances that must be offered in the second.

Frankly, I don’t care much for films that break things down into chapters and if there’s one element of Pig that I could lose it would be the screenplay quite literally making it a three-chapter melodrama.  That’s just one small quibble in what is a feast of delights being offered to us.  For Sarnoski, it’s a wonderful way to start a feature film career, a calling card that speaks to talent as a writer and a director.  With Cage, it demonstrates again why he’s an actor to be taken seriously, even when he has trouble taking himself seriously.  Right now, he’s in the zone and I hope he stays there.

Movie Review ~ Great White (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A blissful tourist trip turns into a nightmare when five seaplane passengers are stranded miles from shore. In a desperate bid for survival, the group try to make it to land before they either run out of supplies or are taken by a menacing terror lurking just beneath the surface.

Stars: Katrina Bowden, Aaron Jakubenko, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Tim Kano, Te Kohe Tuhaka

Director: Martin Wilson

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It’s honestly a miracle, when you think about it.  Considering how far technical achievements in film have come since the release of JAWS over 45 years ago, you would think that by now someone would have figured out how to create a decent shark to terrorize nubile women and beefed-up men that dare enter the ocean.  Sadly, instead of putting the elbow grease in and attempting to get back to the type of haunting magic that was created from the depths in Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster masterpiece, studios and filmmakers seem determined to go cheap and low-tech and the results are resoundingly heinous.  If you’re dealing with another cheesy direct to streaming piece that is meant to be silly (House SharkGhost Shark? Ouija Shark?) then some allowance must be made for quality, but when you’re settling in with a release clearly aspiring to be taken as serious as the 1975 granddaddy of them all, you expect far more.

Every so often, we’re graced with a well-calibrated entry that understands the game and arrives ready to play.  The Shallows, The Reef, and Bait 3D were all superior examples of directors getting it right.  I also found The Meg to be a fun, if PG-13 sanitized, take on a scary novel that should have been adapted two decades earlier when studios would have let it be released with all the violence intact.  While Deep Blue Sea from 1999 is maybe the shiny diamond of shark movies in recent memory in my book, it’s straight to video sequel in 2018 sits near the bottom of the overall list.  Shockingly, Deep Blue Sea 3 from 2020 bounced back nicely and earned a reprieve for the franchise.  With a sequel to The Meg about to shoot and the constant threat of a JAWS remake hanging over out heads (I put this into the universe: please do NOT do this, just do a 2018 Halloween-style sequel that picks up 50 years later), audiences that don’t mind sticking to swimming pools are left with the occasional scraps of underwater thrillers.

Scraps is a good way to classify Great White because it’s compiled of a lot of different pieces, never fully finding its own identity.  With slack pacing, poor CGI, and a main attraction that remains frustratingly below the surface for much of the trim run time, it definitely doesn’t have the goods to be considered among the better entries in the genre, though it is considerably better made than most.  Mostly known as a producer, screenwriter Michael Broughen’s lack of experience shows with a threadbare plot that finds a tour guide/pilot, his medic/girlfriend, a cook, and the couple that hired them all for the day to take them to a secluded island fending off a marauding shark when their sea plane sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Director Martin Wilson makes his feature film debut with Great White, and he certainly captures the beauty of the Brisbane coast beautifully, albeit it with characters touting how infested the waters are with man-eating sharks.  Yay, tourism!  Things actually start off sort of well for Great White, with a young couple finding themselves a bit too far from their boat when confronted with a deadly foe, but then Broughton’s issue-filled script kicks in and we have to wade through a lot of personal business before we can get back to shark business.  Most of this involves pilot Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden, Piranha 3DD) who are working through a bump in taking the next step of their relationship.  When they are joined by Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Joji (Tim Kano) for a brief moment you get the feeling Broughton is going to spice things up by creating a few characters with a darker depth but, small spoiler, it’s shallow wading for all.

Looking at the cast, anyone that’s ever watched one of these movies could likely go through and number off the order in which they’ll become fish food and if the film has anything going for it, it’s that there comes a time when you aren’t quite sure the usual suspects will make it to the end.  Wilson manages to get quite a lot of mileage out of the viewer watching Bowden’s legs kicking furiously in the dark blackness and it would wrong of me to lie and say my heart wasn’t beating a little faster when one character enters the water in a totally misguided moment.  You’ll be screaming at the screen the entire time at their lunacy…I was.

While all of this is happening, audiences are going to be waiting for a look at what’s hungrily chomping at the cast members and every time the shark appears it looks like stock footage that’s been blown up to look like a far more fearsome creature.  The rapid shift to clear nature documentary shots only confirms a severe lack of actual CGI created…or at least until the end which is where the significant amount is used.  Still, by then it’s too late to have the same kind of impact that would have been nice to have had all along.  At least Spielberg (and subsequent sequel directors) gave us an animatronic scare every now and then that at least looked believable. 

Acting their way around an enemy that isn’t there is difficult, and the cast does a fine job in selling what they are supposedly seeing.  Bowden was always a bit of a blank spot during her tenure on NBC’s 30 Rock and hasn’t made an impression in the years since, but she’s a believable heroine here and easily outpaces the bland Jakubenko and his character who suffers from PTSD after surviving a shark attack years before (do you think he’ll have to face his fears at some point?).  Tsukakoshi is around for the screams and Kano is there to give you someone above the water to loathe when the shark isn’t around.  While his character makes a few spectacularly stupid decisions, Te Kohe Tuhaka’s cook is the most agreeable in the bunch.

One of these days we’ll get a director and studio that wants to spend the money and time creating a creature that looks like the real thing and moves like the real thing.  Maybe it’s created on a computer, maybe it’s something tangible the actors can react to in the moment.  Whatever it is, it has got to be better than the downward slide that is going on now.  If we can create free apps for our phones that can make it appear our friends are singing “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee” with Julie Andrews, we simply must be able to get a shark to swim through the water and eat an unfortunate swimmer…right?  Until that time, watch Great White and think about what could have been.

Movie Review ~ Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary about Anthony Bourdain and his career as a chef, writer and host, revered and renowned for his authentic approach to food, culture and travel.

Stars: Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Bourdain, David Chang, Helen M. Cho, David Choe, Christopher Collins, Morgan Fallon, Joshua Homme, Alison Mosshart, Doug Quint, Eric Ripert, Lydia Tenaglia, Tom Vitale

Director: Morgan Neville

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

AFIDocs Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’d originally caught this documentary at the AFI Docs Film Festival which ran from June 22-27 where this was scheduled pretty perfectly on Bourdain Day.  In my original review, I said that Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain was “an intriguing look at a very complicated man, a documentary that balances a warts and all approach with a deeply felt sense of loss at the empty seat at the table left by his suicide in 2018.”  I’d still stick by that statement even now, after some recent information has come out that called some of the methods director Morgan Neville used to piece together the narrative structure of the film into question.  We’ll get into that in a minute but it’s worth noting how many critics are doing such an about-face based on this nugget of news.  It’s like we’ve never been emotionally manipulated before…weird.

I’ve had my ups and downs with Bourdain over the years, starting out hot with his early entry into popular entertainment courtesy of his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential that was later turned into a very short-lived television show starring newcomer Bradley Cooper.  Bouncing right into the groundbreaking Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, a hybrid of travel/cooking show that he largely pioneered, Bourdain became known for his extreme tastes and willingness to try just about anything. That’s about when I started to drift away to less spicier meals that didn’t always seek to press the hardest of buttons with such vigor. 

Bourdain just rubbed me the wrong way, and from what I gather in director Neville’s sharp interviews in his highly glossy doc (in true Bourdain style, I might add), many of his closest friends felt that way at one time or another as well.  A few of them seemed to not like him very much at different points in their relationship…like the man that sobs recalling when Bourdain, in a depressive funk, cuts him down by saying he would never be a good father. Ouch. I’d cry too. I’d still be crying.  The world-traveling, zest for life, consume anything bad boy chef is what was presented to the viewer.  That’s the Tony many saw on camera but not the one that struggled with crippling self-doubt, depression, or a need to be loved/perfect.  Neville interviews numerous people in his life: bosses, co-workers, colleagues, ex-wives, friends, and they all paint a picture of a man that lived hard and loved at the same speed. 

At nearly two hours, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a lot of Bourdain to take and the trajectory of his life is approached by Neville in fairly standard measures, so it plays easily, even when it grows slightly staid.  The final fifteen minutes, when discussing Bourdain’s death and the aftermath are when Neville’s expertise as a filmmaker really shows and also when the emotional ripple through his circle of friends takes its notable toll.  Fans of Bourdain will, I think, find this hard to watch and rightfully so…it’s likely Neville’s point to show the impact of such an act. 

Is this perhaps why the headlines in the days up until the wide release have been all about how Neville essentially used a deep fake of Bourdain’s voice to narrate parts of the film he wanted to nudge in a particular direction?  Feeding over 10 hours of Bourdain’s voice into a computer and then using that compiled voice to speak requested “lines” seems like a big issue if we’re talking true documentary realism…right? While it may add dramatic effect to the movie for the general public, it has most certainly cost Neville any awards respect it could have earned. And this is an Oscar-winning director already.

Bourdain was a popular personality and I’m confident Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will still prove to be a project that is much sought-after and not just by foodies that know their salad fork from their dinner fork. This has crossover potential for even those with casual knowledge of Bourdain – but now I think not by those who are put off by some slick tricks by the filmmakers.

Movie Review ~ Fear Street Part Three: 1666

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1666, a colonial town is gripped by a hysterical witch-hunt that has deadly consequences for centuries to come, and it’s up to teenagers in 1994 to try and finally put an end to their town’s curse, before it’s too late..

Stars: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, Jeremy Ford, Gillian Jacobs, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Sadie Sink, Ted Sutherland, Jordana Spiro, Michael Chandler

Director: Leigh Janiak

Rated: R

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  OK – here we are in the final week of Netflix’s bam-bam-bam release schedule for a trilogy of scary releases based on the books of R.L. Stine.  Inspired by that author’s phenomenal roster of slim novels for young adults that everyone had tucked in their Jansport backpacks during the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the movies were pitched as an event saga for July and after the first two weeks I can say that I was truly looking forward to the final chapter.  Unlike Part One and Part Two, Netflix made press wait a bit longer to take in Part Three, likely to keep some of the more revealing spoilers at bay, but you know I wouldn’t dare dampen your fun.  With that in mind, if you haven’t yet seen either previous film you should steer clear of my review below because we’ll be covering the events of both movies.

Are you sure you want to go forward?

You’ve watched Part One: 1994?

You’ve come back safely from Camp Nightwing? (Part Two: 1978?)

OK…we’re a go for Part Three: 1666.

Some weeks back I expressed a gnawing trepidation in my review of the first in the Fear Street trilogy, set in 1994, feeling that by the end I wasn’t sure how the subsequent two films would continue to hold viewer interest.  That original film covered a lot of exposition that gave viewers a pile of backstory and overall history of the towns of Shadyside and Sunnyvale and the supposed witches curse that has haunted the land for over three hundred years.  With Sunnyvale and its citizens prospering with horrible things happening to those in Shadyside, by 1994 it’s just accepted that the less popular province is simply the epitome of the wrong side of the tracks.  After another killing spree puts the town on edge and high school flames Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) become involved with the witch’s curse, they watch as their friends fall victim to a bevy of resurrected killers from the past.

Thankfully, Part One was just an entertaining bit of groundwork that set the stage for the larger framework constructed during Part Two.  Fashioned as more of a summer camp slasher movie than an outright continuation of the story that began in Part One, the 1978-set film was quite fun as we saw a possessed axe-wielding killer with a face covered by a burlap sack hack his way through the camp on a rampage.  With only two once-bickering sisters to stop him, their sacrifice leads back into the 1994 present where Deena makes a connection to a time even further back than a previous decade.  As we saw at the end of Part Two, by making contact with the earthly remains of Sarah Fier, Deena now has a psychic bond and is able to “see” the part of the Shadyside/Sunnyvale creation story they haven’t been teaching in school.

This origin story forms the basis for most of Part Three and once again director Leigh Janiak and her co-screenwriter Phil Graziadei have brought in a third, Kate Trefry, to help flesh out some of the finer story points.  I’m so interested to see what the writing process for this was like because while there have been new writers on each film, there’s a collective voice and through line that has given them all a consistency and coherence.  While we’ve seen these stories of a person transported back in time a million times before, this isn’t that.  Deena isn’t “Deena” in the past, she actually “is” Sarah living her life.  For all we know, everyone else is “seeing” the real Sarah Fier (Elizabeth Scopel) and we are only seeing the actress playing Deena because that’s a character/actress familiar to us.  That’s also why actors from previous films (I’m not saying who) pop up, sometimes as veiled nods to who they play in earlier entries.  Perhaps this suggests their family line predestines them to certain behavior…

Janiak and her writers clearly have thought this one out because while the solution becomes readily apparent upon the appearance of another modern-day character, it’s well-explained and carried forward when the timeline inevitably jumps again.  When that happens, it’s another brilliant piece of ingenuity (and a clever way for Janiak to actually break the movie into a tetralogy right under our noses) and keeps the final act energy hurtling forward at breakneck speed.  It does get a little Home Alone-y but I almost wouldn’t have wanted it any other way – it’s all in keeping with the spirit of all three films.

What fun this series has been and who knows, perhaps another project like this could get made and readied for next summer. While this wasn’t based on a particular R.L. Stine Fear Street book by name, there are definitely a long list of titles that could be chosen from if they needed inspiration for the future.  They’d have to have this trilogy to contend with though, one that starts off strong and only gets better as it goes along.