Movie Review ~ The Batman

The Facts:

Synopsis: In his second year of fighting crime, Batman uncovers corruption in Gotham City that connects to his own family while facing a serial killer known as The Riddler.
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan
Director: Matt Reeves
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 175 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Across the Marvel Universe/Multiverse and throughout the DC Extended Universe, there is an enormity of strong beings, big and small, that have been integral parts of many childhood fandom origin stories. It could be through comics, video games, TV shows, or any of the numerous movies made over time. There seemed to be a set image for heroes and heroines with slight variance for a while. Over time, the vision of these crime fighters has evolved as our world has changed. Other institutions may be frustratingly stuck in a cycle of sameness, but for all the countless comic book installments we get seemingly every month in theaters, at least there are options for those looking to see themselves represented up on the big screen.

I realize I’m writing this preamble at the start of a review of another film about a white superhero. Yet it’s important to note that what The Batman represents is a significant step forward for the DC Extended Universe due to the folks involved taking a considerate step back to look at the world as a whole. In doing so, they’ve allowed the unpleasant fester of the underbelly to surface in a way that comes across as more balanced an approach than what we saw in 2019’s Joker. In that film, it felt like it sought to identify and, by coincidence, laud support to a faction that didn’t need to be given strength. Some of those same ideas bubble up in The Batman, but they’ve worked within the fantasy framework model that essentially separates Gotham City’s reality from our everyday life.

For director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and his co-writer Peter Craig (Bad Boys for Life), Gotham City is much darker than any previous incarnation we’ve seen. Barely skating by in his re-election bid, the current mayor presides over a city littered with crime and assault. Only a masked vigilante called The Batman has made an impact, emerging from the shadows to strike down those that would interfere with the good people of Gotham. The crude signal bearing his symbol created by James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, No Time to Die) that illuminates the night sky is both a call to action and a warning to crooks that vengeance is coming for them.

Of course, the tortured man behind the mask is Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), a wealthy orphan still haunted by the murders of his mother and father years earlier. Donning his cowl and body armor outfitted with an array of ingenious, practical gadgets and weapons, Bruce funnels his rage at his inability to save his parents into his speed at disarming criminals by any means necessary. In his second year as Batman, he already bears the body bruises and scars that reflect he’s just a man underneath it all and doesn’t possess the same type of superpowers other famous city sentinels do. Assisted by Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis, Black Panther), Bruce’s life is lived primarily out of the public’s view, despite his family obligations as head of his father’s company and philanthropy.

Someone else has been keeping an eye on the city and developed a plan to make people pay for their part of a high-stakes scandal years in the making and longer in the cover-up. Planting a series of deadly clues left for Batman, The Riddler (Paul Dano, 12 Years a Slave) begins laying traps for Gotham’s upstanding citizens, all tied to an event that started long ago and continues to infect the daily workings of city business to this day. Instead of simply exposing the truths and trusting justice or a court of public opinion to do their job, The Riddler takes it upon himself to escalate these shocking reveals by staging astonishing displays of his reach and capabilities as Batman, and the authorities stand by, helpless.

Somewhat amazingly, while this detailed detective story is happening, Reeves and Craig manage to work in another fully-formed B plot involving local gangster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, Gloria Bell) and the patrons of a popular nightclub he likes to visit. Managed by Oswald Cobblepot, nicknamed The Penguin (Colin Farrell, Voyagers), who might be conducting illicit business, it isn’t long before Batman ties The Riddler’s plot together with the Falcone/Penguin operation. Of course, Batman isn’t the only one looking into Falcone’s business. Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road) is also slinking around in a catsuit and knit cap cut out just perfectly to look like a nouveau Gotham feline. The more clues received as to who the next victim is, the more intriguing the mystery gets, and soon Batman realizes that the next target might be someone extremely close to him. Someone staring back at him in the mirror when he takes off his mask.

That’s all I should mention about the film’s developments that run just shy of three hours…the same running length as The Godfather. I know; I saw both movies in the theater over several days. It should be noted that both movies may be three hours but neither feel like it. Reeves and Craig have carefully put their plot together but shaving off the best parts of a gumshoe mystery and blending in elements of Seven and braiding in a bit of Blade Runner for good measure. There’s an actual puzzle to be solved; clues are deliberately withheld so as not to allow you to get too far ahead of the action. I appreciated being led gently along this way, not dragged forth by force. It will enable you to relax and enjoy meeting these characters, letting them form fully in front of you.

It’s an unenviable task to take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I genuinely thought Pattison was excellent in the role. That sullen, distracted gaze that made all those fans swoon in the Twilight series is put to even better use here, and he’s a sounder actor now as well, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch. Saying he’s better suited up and hooded as Batman might sound like a dig, but it’s the truth; there’s a strength and a confidence that’s hard to pull off when you’re under all these layers. However, Pattinson doesn’t let that weigh him down. It certainly doesn’t hold him back from finding the chemistry with Kravitz’s Kyle character; though Kravitz is so skillfully playing the role as a femme fatale open book, it would be hard not to generate some spark with her to see what would happen if a flame took. 

If Dano is maybe just playing another variation of his psychotic doughy creep role (I won’t say what other movie that is, no spoiler!), give him credit for conveying a lot of that scary energy through a frightening mask. Like the movie itself, my main criticism is that Dano’s third act isn’t nearly as strong as his first two, but up until then, it’s a chilling bit of work. As ever, Turturro and Wright are dependable in their more seasoned roles as opposite sides of the law coin. Reeves has made several other exciting casting decisions for his more minor roles, using actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (The Guilty) as Gotham’s District Attorney, Alex Ferns (Wrath of Man) as the current police Commissioner, Con O’Neill (The Way of the Wind) as the troublesome Chief of Police, and Jayme Lawson (The Woman King) playing the challenger for the mayoral seat. 

In all honesty, though, everyone takes a backseat to Farrell whenever he is onscreen. In some ways, I was glad I knew it was Farrell underneath all that make-up, but on the other hand, it would have been fun to be surprised. I’m only mentioning it because it’s not been kept under wraps, so it isn’t considered a spoiler. You’ll be amazed at the work Mike Marino did to make the trim Irish Farrell look like an overweight, balding Jersey boy with bad skin. It’s an unbelievable transformation, and there’s not a frame where I even spotted a hint of Farrell’s natural features. On top of all that, Farrell is excellent in the role, managing to be both funny and the type of Penguin you could see yourself finding ways to cheer on. No one will beat Danny DeVito’s Penguin (or Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, for the matter) in Batman Returns, but this is a solid take on the villain.

With a fantastic production design from James Chinlund (The Lion King) and costumes from Oscar-nominated Jacqueline Durran (Cyrano), it’s the A-team behind the camera as well. I’d hope March isn’t too early to put cinematographer Greig Fraser’s (Dune) name into the hat for awards consideration at next year’s Oscars for the breathtaking shots he delivers. The topper is Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek) dazzling score that gives you everything from the most haunting hint of Morricone to the slinky curve of John Barry at peak James Bond. The soundtrack for The Batman indeed might be Giacchino’s masterwork. I’ll be looking forward to hearing orchestras around the world play these tracks.

Ultimately, this is a high-water mark not just for a Batman movie but for the genre itself. It’s a superhero noir that bursts out of the gate with a brooding style and a moody tone it justifies with a complex plot that’s part pulpy mob flick and part hard-boiled detective yarn. Less origin story for Bruce Wayne and more of an engrossing look at how Gotham’s best and darkest first crossed paths, The Batman is a massive achievement for all involved in front of and behind the camera


Movie Review ~ Studio 666

The Facts:

Synopsis: Legendary rock band Foo Fighters move into an Encino mansion steeped in grisly rock and roll history to record their much-anticipated 10th album.
Stars: Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Pat Smear, Chris Shiflett, Rami Jaffee, Whitney Cummings, Will Forte, Jenna Ortega, Leslie Grossman, Jeff Garlin
Director: B. J. McDonnell
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  I think it’s essential to go into a review of Studio 666 with complete transparency. I know next to nothing about Foo Fighters, save for Dave Grohl’s history with Nirvana and his charity work. If I were forced to name a song of theirs or do a backflip off a high board into a pool, I’d be choking on chlorine pretty quickly. I like a good horror picture, and making it as meta as possible will always get my antennae up and interested. Finding out Grohl and his Foo Fighters comrades made Studio 666 mainly in secret and reading more about the production, one couldn’t help but get a little excited about this type of specific genre filmmaking becoming popular again.

Based on their reaction to a movie, you can often comfortably divide a film into two camps, but in the case of Studio 666, I think a third one has to be considered. There will be people who like the film for the foul-mouthed, gory horror DIY indie feature it is, while others will be turned off by the filmmaker’s fallback on profanity to fill in gaps of dialogue in a script that’s not exactly breaking new ground where haunted houses and demonic possession are concerned. The third and final group will be the Foo Fighters fans who won’t care if the film is bad or good, they’re showing up to support their band and hear some music, and to those people, I say with confidence that you are going to get your money’s worth on every level. It’s the people seeking more who are in for a rough stay.

Years ago, an up-and-coming band moved into a sprawling mansion in the California hills to record their album but never got to finish it after one team member snapped and everyone wound up dead. After a brief prologue finding Jenna Ortega crawling on the ground with a wound and scenario eerily similar to what the actress experienced in January’s Scream requel, the Foo Fighters are introduced being tongue-lashed by their agent (Jeff Garlin, Safety Not Guaranteed), wondering where their 10th album is. Creatively blocked, lead-singer Grohl needs more time to produce something extraordinary with his band. That’s when the agent hatches the idea to find a location nearby to hunker down and get something together quickly.

With the help of Leslie Grossman’s (Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous) chipper agent, the band is shown to the mansion we saw in the prologue, minus the corpses that formerly decorated the place. Grohl instantly finds a connection with the space. However, he comes to find out the link is less heaven-sent and more devilish in its charms, and the other Foo Fighters ensemble eventually agrees to move in for a brief stay to get the album laid down even faster. Despite a nosy, horny neighbor (Whitney Cummings, The Wedding Ringer), the band gets to work, and viewers begin to hear some of the excellent music Foo Fighters created for the film, nearly all of which is quite memorable in construction.

Each band member comes to have some encounter with a sinister force within the house, either manifesting itself through some presence or via the possession of Grohl’s body. As they lay down their tracks individually, Grohl makes a few cuts within the band…and not just in the music. While bodies start to pile up, the gang’s remaining members learn the history of the house and what it might take to stop the entity from taking over Grohl. As an evil spirit is on the loose, brutally murdering all that stand in its way, director BJ McDonnell (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) and writers Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) and Rebecca Hughes attempt to inject humor when they can, but pretty quickly it’s clear this is a battle that amateur actors shouldn’t fight. Experienced comedians like Garlin, Grossman, and Cummings do their best to try to make this material work, but they wind up looking like ghoulish cartoons struggling to make situations funny and playing opposite musicians moonlighting as actors.

For his part, Grohl is every bit as affable and engaging as an actor as he is when playing music or as a consistently exciting interview. He’s essentially playing himself, so none of the band members are doing much in the way of acting, but Grohl is the one among them that could (and maybe should) continue if he chooses. The acting side of the equation is not what interests the rest of the gang; being a rock star is, and that is something they do exceptionally well. It’s just too bad that much of Studio 666 is dependent on performances being as strong as they can be – and they aren’t that great. 

McDonnell knows how to stage good and efficient suspenseful sequences, and there are a few clever scenes of a bloody massacre that will send fans of sickening kills straight through the roof. Unfortunately, there has to be more than just a well-liked cast and a few nice jolts to keep a picture humming along, especially one as long as Studio 666. Sadly, it never makes good on its early promise of consistency in coherence as more than a series of strung-together scenes or sustained engagement. If you like horror films, even a little bit, you’ll want to check it out but keep your expectations a simmer.

Movie Review ~ No Exit (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: During a blizzard and stranded at an isolated highway rest stop in the mountains, a college student discovers a kidnapped child hidden in a car belonging to one of the people inside.
Stars: Havana Rose Liu, Dale Dickey, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl, Mila Harris, Dennis Haysbert
Director: Damien Power
Rated: R
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  A few short weeks ago, Oscar-nominated director Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) took us on his second Agatha Christie excursion with the decently received remake of Death on the Nile. I’d read the book and seen previous adaptations, so the developments didn’t shock me much, but it did make me crave for another film that offered up a game of “guess the psycho” where I could participate. It turns out I didn’t have to wait long for my turn because 20th Century Studios and Hulu are releasing No Exit, an adaptation of Taylor Adams’s popular 2018 novel. I’d gotten about halfway through the trailer for this snowbound film but had to turn it off, so I didn’t have anything spoiled too much, but what I did see promised a tight thriller.

Thankfully, this is a case of getting what you expected because No Exit is one of those films you remember from back in the day. The kind you’d see with friends on a Friday night at your local theater, enjoy, but almost totally forget all the details of by the time Monday rolled around. That’s not a knock against director Damien Power’s well-directed suspense yarn, and it’s high praise from me because these are the kinds of films I’m downright starving for right about now. Studios and streaming services seem opposed to making this popcorn entertainment, but it’s how the best kind of loyal audiences was fed and nurtured twenty years ago. They kept the box office going during the doldrum months between peak movie season, which is when many of these genre films were often dumped into theaters and quickly turned into hits the production companies desperately needed. The rise of at-home entertainment and focus on franchise meant these mid-budget thrillers got sent packing, but lately I’m seeing a nice resurgence of these, along with audience support.  

I’m going to walk back slightly what I just said in that earlier paragraph about No Exit coming off like a film you’d expect because I didn’t want to imply it’s predictable in the least. Sure, there are moments in the story of Darby, a troubled young woman at an isolated, locked-down recovery center that feel like you know what will happen next. More often than not, however, there’s a hairpin turn in the adaptation from Ant-Man and the Wasp screenwriters Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari you didn’t see coming because you were already distracted by another dangerous twist on your other side. When Darby (Havana Rose Liu, The Sky Is Everywhere) receives a phone call that her mother has suffered a trauma and might not survive, she breaks out of the facility, steals a car, and hits the road hoping to make it to the hospital before it’s too late. She wasn’t counting on a winter storm to consume her route, though.

Re-directed by a highway patrol officer to a rest stop in the woods off the highway, Darby is the fifth person arriving to wait out the storm until the roads are cleared. Traveling married couple Sandi (Dale Dickey, Palm Springs) and Ed (Dennis Haysbert, Far From Heaven) have some parental instinct to make sure she’s ok but mostly keep to themselves while the strange Lars (David Rysdahl, Nine Days) busies himself with a deck of playing cards. Ash (Danny Ramirez, Valley Girl) is asleep on the bench, and there is no Wi-Fi connection inside the building that is undergoing renovations. When Darby steps out in the bitter cold to try and snag a signal, she finds a kidnapping victim in one of the vehicles…but doesn’t know who owns which car. 

The Christie vibe existing in No Exit kicks in right about here as Darby now has four suspects to size up, three of which could be allies and one of whom is a kidnapper biding their time so they can be on their way. Don’t be discouraged if it’s revealed earlier than you might expect who owns the van because it’s the tip of an iceberg that goes deeper than you’ll know. It’s compact fun watching the events unfold, almost as if in real-time and nearly all through the eyes of the ever-present and always captivating Liu. Rarely off-screen for long, Liu has a lot of the movie to carry on her own without much dialogue. Still, she powers through it with a ferocity that’s intriguing to develop over 90 minutes. I also always enjoy seeing Dickey show up anywhere because her choice of roles tends toward the unexpected, and Haysbert continues to be a dependable force onscreen. As the two young men holed up in the visitor’s center, Ramirez and Rysdahl might be the perfect red herrings, or maybe they’re demented killers, but neither actor shows their cards, even during a breathless get-to-know-you card game.

One thing that did take me off guard, and at times out of No Exit completely, was the high amount of shocking violence. It’s far more viscerally gory and cruel than I was expecting, and Power doesn’t hold back with a handful of scenes that get hard to watch because of their brutality. I pegged this one to be a bit more of the sleepover-friendly variety, but it’s been pitched for adult-oriented members of the genre fandom. Think of it as a lark that the new breed of Scream community activists might enjoy. Thankfully, while it isn’t an outright excuse, the violence does have a point and nicely ties into the final act’s arc. Not every movie in this type of niche can say the same.

Movie Review ~ Cyrano (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Too self-conscious to woo Roxanne himself, wordsmith Cyrano de Bergerac helps young Christian nab her heart through love letters.
Stars: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Joe Wright
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  An early movie I remember seeing with my parents in the theater was 1987’s Roxanne.  As a then 7-year-old, I was mostly fixated on Steve Martin’s comically large nose and the jokes made at its expense.  The overall fluffiness of that rom-com (which Martin himself adapted from Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac) went right over my young head, as it should have.  However, revisiting the film over the ensuing years and seeing other adaptations of the famous play made me appreciate more the complexity of the original Rostand work and the strength of Martin’s screenplay. 

In a new 2018 musical adaptation that played at the Goodspeed Opera House, writer Erica Schmidt brought another fresh take on the piece to viewers, this time starring her husband, award-winning actor Peter Dinklage.  At the peak of his Game of Thrones power, it was a risky move for Dinklage to take the singing role, but it was well-received and soon moved to an off-Broadway run the following year.  Also starring alongside him in that first production was Haley Bennett (Hillbilly Elegy) as Roxanne, the beauty Cyrano (Dinklage, Three Christs) loves from afar. 

Too prideful and ashamed of his own perceived physical limitations, Cyrano watches as Roxanne avoids the clutches of the scheming De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, Captain Marvel) and finds love at first sight with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves), a guard in Cyrano’s command.  A man possessing great skill with words but lacking the same confidence in his ability to receive the enormity of love he has to offer, Cyrano instead opts to befriend Christian and help him woo Roxanne.  If anything, it’s better to help Roxanne achieve her dreams than to have her paired with De Guiche and his smarmy sort. 

Roxanne isn’t entirely helpless, though. When she works out a plan that keeps Christian and Cyrano close to her while sending other men off to the Thirty-Year War that rages on, it allows the men more time to accelerate their letters to the woman both are smitten with, but only one can pursue outright.  When Christian decides it’s time to leave Cyrano behind and take the relationship to the next level on his own, it exposes vulnerabilities in all three leading characters.  Christian, in his realization that women are more complex than he imagined, Cyrano understanding the depth to which his poetic professions of love have convinced Roxanne of Christian’s admiration, and Roxanne of her desire for more than simple words on a page to satisfy the passion she feels inside.

“When you can’t speak, you sing” is how many would describe the best kind of musical, and that’s how many of the songs featured in Cyrano work the best.  Written by members of The National and possessing many of that band’s signature storytelling phrasing and driving beat, I’m not going to lead you astray and say that every number worked for me because it didn’t.  It took a while for me to gel totally with the sound, and while melodically it matched the tone of director Joe Wright’s film and many of the performances, it didn’t always flow as naturally through the story itself.  It’s around the time Roxanne feels betrayed by Christian and Bennett gets to finally unleash her powerful voice that you begin to take notice of what’s really happening sonically in the piece.

Bennett singing “I Need More” is a turning point for the film and me as a viewer/listener, signaling a change in the tide for the characters going into more emotional places and the songs feeling like they are coming from the heart rather than from the head.  Directly following this song is a beauty of a musical exchange between Roxanne and Cyrano, who she thinks is Christian.  Dinklage doesn’t have the most striking voice, but its resonance equals a presence that works wonders in the role.  A later song between three soldiers will get your tear ducts prepped for a final number between Bennett and Dinklage that beautifully ends the film in line with Rostand’s original text.

In the traditional telling, it’s Cyrano’s nose which is the trait he is self-conscious about, but in Schmidt’s version, it has been taken out, with Dinklage’s height being the feature he feels holds him back.  I wouldn’t call that a revolutionary, out-of-the-box concept. Still, it’s a fantastic showcase for the actor who has had great success in television but has always skirted on the sidelines of leading men in feature films.  There’s an ease to his work here, and it matches well with Bennett’s airy and impressive take on a character that can often be treated as cursory to the more famous actor playing the title role.  If Harrison Jr. doesn’t land as well as the other leads, it’s because they have slightly better musical material to work with, and he’s been so good in other films that Christian feels like a step sideways in his career trajectory instead of up.  As for Mendelsohn, as good as he is, there’s a distinct feeling that he’s letting the gorgeous Oscar-nominated costumes from Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran (Little Women) do the work for him.

In many ways, Cyrano is the perfect film for Wright (Darkest Hour) to land because the director is so theatrical in his endeavors, and in any medium it appears the piece has always felt stage bound.  It’s less of an actual “stage come to life” work of art as he achieved with 2012’s Anna Karenina, but the production design of Cyrano is often stunning and as beautiful as the people, music, and materials waltzing through it.  Though it takes a while to find its voice, it has a clarion sound that gets right to the heart once uncovered.

Movie Review ~ Butter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lonely obese boy everyone calls “Butter” is about to make history. He is going to eat himself to death-live on the Internet – and everyone is invited to watch.
Stars: Alex Kersting, Mira Sorvino, Mykelti Williamson, Brian Van Holt, Ravi Patel, Annabeth Gish, McKayley Miller, Jack Griffo, Adain Bradley, Natalie Valerin, Jake Austin Walker, Matthew Gold, Monte Markham, Jessie Rabideau
Director: Paul A. Kaufman
Rated: NR
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  The earliest uses of butter have been traced back to Roman and Greek history, with the dairy product made from churned cream thought to mainly serve as a rare delicacy for the less refined communities of people and, later, medicinal needs of the day. Over time, butter has been thought to be good for you, bad for you, essential, take-it-or-leave-it, and currently lives in that gray zone of “in moderation” that leaves it to the consumer to decide how much buttered popcorn is the right amount. Butter, the food is no longer bad for your health. On the other hand, Butter, the movie, isn’t likely to cure what ails you.

Based on Erin Jade Lange’s 2015 young adult novel of the same name and adapted by director Paul A. Kaufman, this is another in a long list of modern high school dramedies tacking a delicate social issue but doing so with gloves made of steel wool. The characters we are supposed to dislike are appropriately disdainful, but so are many of the people we’re apparently meant to like, including the leading man. Instead of finding the simple message of positivity leading to a lesson of impact as a take-away, Butter would rather focus on rougher edges of personalities. As written, they’re entirely irritating.

Overweight Arizona teen Marhsall (Alex Kersting) earned the nickname Butter after being forced to eat a stick of it by a group of high-school bullies who later claimed they saw him eat it of his own free will. Able to believe the obese teenager would snack on eight tablespoons of the salted spreadable, his classmates cruelly adopted the moniker, which has stuck with him ever since. Though his caring mother (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino, Union Square) has tried to help him through various weight-loss programs, she’s also part of the problem with her supersized meals that are more comfort than carb-conscious. 

Preferring to keep to himself playing his saxophone alone or with his teacher (Mykelti Williamson, Clean, in his second movie released in 2022 where the writing of a role underserves him) and chatting online under false pretenses with Anna (McKayley Miller, Ma), the pretty girl from school with her own problems with popularity, his outlook changes when, fed up with the teasing and endless visits to his physician, he decides to take control over how people see him. Starting a website called Butter’s Last Meal, he asks for ideas on menu selections for a final feast he will gorge on until he eats himself to death. To his surprise, once the high schoolers discover his site and realize what he’s doing, he finds himself let into the inner sanctum of popularity…and growing closer to Anna than ever. Is all of this new respect something he’s earned by putting himself out there, losing weight in the process? Or are the kids being friendly with him as a way to goad him on in his final task?

Knowing the temperature of the country’s climate with high schoolers feeling distant from their classmates and existing estrangement only amplified, it feels tonally off base to embrace this movie being marketed as one to be enjoyed by families. For one, I can’t imagine the targeted teen demographic sitting down and wanting to sit through it with their parents more than I could see adults finding enough interest in the story or actors to seek it out above other available titles. That leaves Butter in a slippery spot with no actual viewer pool that I can see. The message is also completely muddled because we’re essentially dealing with a bullied teen announcing his plans to kill himself and no one (no one) mentions this to school officials or his family. 

Had Kaufman’s script explored some of the pain that goes along with these decisions, the growing distrust teens have for those in roles of authority, and let us view the impact on Butter’s plan, it would have humanized everyone so much more. Instead, it all plays as a surface exercise in popularity and how it is a status symbol easily given and just as quickly taken away. The characters, then, can only be seen in a questionable light, and that’s hard to reconcile the more the film progresses. The truth is that Kersting isn’t the most magnetic performer either, and that plays a factor in how Butter’s journey goes over with his community. The only acting that seemed to be on the right track is from Annabeth Gish (Mystic Pizza), but she shows up so late in the run that it’s too late to undo some of the damage.

I hope there’s an expiration date on films like Butter, movies that might have the noblest of intentions but aren’t structurally built to support those lofty goals. You can see where the original material might have been making an effort to say something about that intoxicating popularity nod and how important it is for some to get it, even at the expense of their well-being. Sadly, it doesn’t translate in the feature film adaptation. Maybe with a cast that could work magic with the material, it would have transformed into more than the sum of its parts, but as it stands now, Butter is spoiled.

Movie Review ~ The Burning Sea

The Facts:

Synopsis:  An oil platform dramatically goes down on the Norwegian coast, and researchers try to find out what happened when they realize this is just the start of something even more serious.
Stars: Kristine Kujath Thorp, Rolf Kristian Larsen, Anders Baasmo, Bjørn Floberg, Anneke von der Lippe
Director: John Andreas Andersen
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  For a while, Hollywood seemed to be getting the hang of the disaster film. Going back to the grandparents of the genre, The Poseidon Adventure in 1972 and 1974’s The Towering Inferno, there’s been a push-pull in the effort to balance dramatic situations with the large-scale action set pieces that get audiences to buy a ticket. The movie can’t be all special effects, so those interstitial scenes have to count for something. Otherwise, you’re just watching characters you don’t have any feelings for getting rocked by an earthquake, consumed by lava from an exploding volcano, or swept out to sea by a tsunami ripping through a seaside town. Reaching its apex in the early ’80s and then remerging when CGI was all the rage, these films are cycling back into favor, but Hollywood hasn’t quite landed on the right formula to make them as exciting as they were before. I mean, Moonfall was not a great movie, but it had its moments.

At least our friends overseas are happily still finding ways to destroy things at the same pace as ever before. The difference between them and us is that the dramatics come more naturally to our foreign friends, and it’s why their films are often a real thrill because, by the time the Big Event takes place, you can easily track the characters you want to see survive. That’s what drives the new Norwegian disaster on the ocean film The Burning Sea into a higher gear than others of its ilk, allowing screenwriters Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Lars Gudmestad to use the real-world situations as a framework and only marginally coloring outside the lines into the outlandish to create intense suspense.

A brief history of the oil business in the North Sea nestled close to Norway opens the film, showing the benign beginnings of what eventually becomes an environmental concern and danger to the men and women working on the rigs stationed miles offshore. William Lie (Bjørn Floberg, Kingsman: The Secret Service) started his career as one of those workers and has seen it all, making him a good representative of the blue-collar worker. As an executive at the oil company, he’s more aware of the bottom line than ever before; so when the unthinkable happens, and a huge platform rig collapses and sinks, trapping crew members on board, he’s forced into making decisions on saving lives or saving money.

Attempting to work his options, he calls in Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen), local experts specializing in robotic submersibles that can go to extreme depths and report back any signs of life. Familiar with the risks taken not only because of the job but her relationship with a single father (Henrik Bjelland) working on a rig further down the line, Sofia can help the company get the answers, but not without raising more questions on future drilling in the area. All signals point to imminent dangers for the rest of the crews still out at sea, and when Sofia and Arthur’s theory proves correct, Sofia’s new love is placed on a deadly path with no outside means of help. Now they’ll need to work together to save the man before the government is forced into making a desperate decision that’s bigger than just their lives.

Building off the surprise success of 2015’s The Wave and its 2018 sequel The Quake, writers Rosenløw-Eeg and Gudmestad don’t let the pace of The Burning Sea (titled Nordsjøen in its home country) slack for a moment, even in land-based scenes. The decisions going on behind closed doors have equal amounts of tension, and with the eerie similarities to other natural disasters involving oil spills over the last four decades, it’s not hard to picture this fictional scenario in the realm of future possibility. The special effects that create the visual of this spectacle go a long way in the convincing as well. It’s not often you see the ocean cave in and swallow ships and other seemingly immovable objects from the surface into its abyss.

The performances often take a back seat to the action and effects in these films, but director John Andreas Andersen gets a stoic realism from his cast that never strays into mawkish dramatics. It could have quickly gone the other way, too. With the eyes of a fawn, the son of Sofia’s new boyfriend gets the closest to tipping the film into oversentimentality when everything seems to be at its bleakest, right around the time the government decides to set the oil slick on fire to prevent it from spreading inland. The rest of the cast valiantly rallies against having their “noble hero” moment, though the inevitable sacrifice for the life of another is eventually made.

It’s entirely possible audiences will find The Burning Sea and not know until it starts that it’s a foreign film, and I hope they keep with it. That’s how I found The Wave and while that one had its famously awful English dub to contend with, make sure to watch this one in its original language to get the full effect and for the beauty of the speech. More than your average disaster of the week extravaganza, The Burning Sea has a fiery intensity to its production and truth in its corner to offer viewers a rare voyage of genuine excitement.

Movie Review ~ Dog

The Facts:

Synopsis: An army ranger and his dog embark on a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway to attend a friend’s funeral.
Stars: Channing Tatum, Jane Adams, Kevin Nash, Q’orianka Kilcher, Ethan Suplee, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Nicole LaLiberté, Luke Forbes, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Director: Reid Carolin and Channing Tatum
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  The last time we saw Channing Tatum onscreen was in the much-hyped Kingsman: The Golden Circle back in 2017.  Meant to be a sort of testing ground for a potential American spin-off of the surprise hit original film, Tatum’s role turned out to be much smaller than anticipated. While it capped off a banner year for the actor, it was the last time we’d see him in a significant role for five very long years.  Voice appearances in 2019’s The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part count for something, but it’s not like seeing the dancer turned superstar on the big screen.  Poised to make a comeback in 2022, starting with Dog followed up quickly with The Lost City in March, Tatum has also kept busy wearing his producer’s cap.

That’s how he came to being involved as an executive producer with the 2017 HBO documentary War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend detailing the bond created between army veterans and the canines they work with during and after their service.  From that experience, Tatum and his frequent collaborator Reid Carolin (Magic Mike, Magic Mike XXL) have made Dog, based on a story from Carolin and Brett Rodriguez, another of War Dog’s producers.  Instead of finding a true story to base a more stalwart biopic on, fictionalizing a story that uses the lives of the real men and dogs featured in the documentary as inspiration was a wise route to go.  That way, co-directors Tatum and Carolin can have more freedom to horse around with lighter moments of their own creation, interspersed with the emotional beats the film apparently is required to hit like mile markers.

Returned veteran Sergeant Riley Rodriguez (Eric Urbiztondo) has been killed in an automobile accident in the Pacific Northwest and is to be buried by his family in Nogales, AZ.  Besides his family, Sgt. Rodriguez is survived by his military dog Lulu, a beautiful Belgian Malinois that has also struggled with reintegration as many military service animals do.  Lulu’s presence is requested at the burial, but due to her emotional issues, she cannot fly, and no one will get near her for fear of attack.  Desperate to be cleared for full-time service despite a severe head trauma that has kept him on the army’s restricted list, U.S. Army Ranger Jackson Briggs reluctantly accepts the assignment, on the condition his captain put in a good word for him.

Having served with Rodriguez, Briggs is familiar with Lulu, and she remembers him as well.  The reunion isn’t pleasant, and the trip doesn’t begin on the best foot/paw.  With two strong-willed personalities at odds with one another and both working through pain that needs to be talked out, being unable to communicate puts them at a disadvantage.  At least initially.  As the days go by and the often-soused Briggs learns through caring for Lulu how to care for Lulu, he starts to see in himself the possibility for a future that could be different he imagined.  In turn, Lulu’s disposition changes once she starts to feel a sense of stability.

Carolin’s script is nothing extraordinary, and there’s a whiff that Dog, filmed during the pandemic and bare-bones enough in its production that it shows it, exists more as a tribute to the military veterans and their families than anything else.  Something that will be shown on repeat in military bases around the world.  And why shouldn’t it?  Why shouldn’t there be something directly programmed for a captive audience craving emotional beats they can instantly relate to?  That must be why there’s a brief and totally unnecessary threesome scene for Tatum and two random women (Blacklight’s Emmy Raver-Lampman and Nicole LaLiberté), which goes just far enough to elicit wolf whistles but not too far that it couldn’t be explained away if there are children present.

There’s little that happens that isn’t easily predictable but darn it all, if that shot of the dog at the funeral nestled at the foot of the memorial to her fallen didn’t push that “misty-eye” button in me.  It’s almost a relief Dog plays out as simply and without complications, as it does.  If it were to get into the weeds too much or try for something more profound, it might not have achieved such a comfortable gait and left the viewer feeling as pleasant as it does.  Though no one seems to be working all that hard, you could still call this a labor of love because all involved clearly have great respect for the veterans and their companions and wanted to tell a story honoring that bond.

Movie Review ~ The Cursed

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the late 1800s, a man arrives in a remote country village to investigate an attack by a wild animal but discovers a much deeper and sinister force that has the manor and its townspeople in its grip.
Stars: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Áine Rose Daly
Director: Sean Ellis
Rated: NR
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  Never underestimate the power of a movie title.  While one might argue a great movie will always manage to shine through the worst marketing and release plan a studio can throw at it (hey, the tagline “Collide with Destiny” and cut and paste poster almost sank early materials for 1997’s Titanic!), a memorable title will always be favorable to something entirely insignificant.  Would 1992’s Basic Instinct have stirred up that same sharp edge if it went into theaters as Love Hurts?  Could Spaceman from Pluto break box office records as well as Back to the Future?  There’s no way $3,000 was staying as the title for the Julia Roberts and Richard Gere fairy tale romance Pretty Woman, but the fact that it went into production with it is a minor miracle.

The flip side to that coin is when the change is worse, like The Cursed, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival as Eight for Silver.  Now, Eight for Silver is a great title and one that stuck in my mind, bolstered by positive notices and the promise of its werewolf tale having some modicum of pedigree.  I made a mental note to keep my ear to the ground for it when it popped up, but before I knew it, it had vanished into the ether of the post-festival haze.  It was only after I received information on a new film, The Cursed, and investigated it further that I discovered the title change.  Going from something unique to what can only be described as lackluster (even where werewolf movies are concerned) speaks to some of the issues with the film itself.

Written and directed by Sean Ellis (Anthropoid), The Cursed begins promisingly enough, dropping us onto the battlefields of World War I before jumping back even further to the 18th-century French estate where one of the soldiers grew up.  His family owns the massive manse but may not have a true claim to the Roma-occupied land surrounding it, a slight annoyance to Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie, Victor Frankenstein).  Banding together with the other estate owners in the area, Laurent has the Romas (often referred to in outdated terminology as gypsies) not just tossed off the land but violently murdered, so they can’t ever return for revenge…at least not in their current form.  Before being buried alive in a blood-soaked field and after seeing her husband executed horribly, a woman curses the land and takes with her a silver souvenir we’ve come to understand holds special significance.

Not long after this brutality, the children of the landowners are playing in the field and uncover a set of silver teeth that seem to possess all who encounter them.  When one of the boys puts the teeth to good use, a boy is bitten, setting off a chain reaction of events, including a physical transformation and violent attacks that tie back to the original curse.  A visiting pathologist (Boyd Holbrook, The Host) with exposure to these kinds of animalistic strikes is called on to track the beast and cure the land of the plague that has descended upon it.  As the body count rises, creating other creatures along the way, the pathologist and the mother (Kelly Reilly, Flight) of the bitten boy work in tandem to lure the monster out of its hiding place and into an arena where it can be trapped and dealt with swiftly.

The first hour of The Cursed is riveting stuff, with Ellis nicely setting up the tragic series of events that befall the people unfortunate enough to be living in the crosshairs of the hollow-souled Laurent and his cronies.  The attack on their camp is shot from a high vantage point in one long take, and it only makes you feel more helpless to what is happening in front of you instead of further removed from the violence being committed.  The torture scenes are tough to stomach, making the comeuppance all the more satisfying later on.  It does get rocky for a while, though.

The children of the film are where The Cursed starts to feel its namesake.  Devoid of much personality, the child actors are somewhat of a black hole of blank stares, yet they are tasked with some important business of narrative tension and plot furthering they aren’t fully equipped to handle.  The main pivot point rests in one of the supporting performances and the young dude is not up to the task.  It’s much better when “the adults are talking,” so it’s nice that Holbrook and Reilly have such an easy rapport, even if Reilly appears to be choosing each word out of a hat with how intentional each word is released.

The creature effects are decent, but the CGI isn’t stellar; I’ll always opt for the person in the rubber (or furry) suit where these types of films are concerned, and toward the end, too much of this felt like a video game knockoff.  The Cursed tends to work the best when there’s no creature at all, and Ellis, who also serves as cinematographer, lets the camera stand in for the stalking beast.  It’s hard to do another take on a werewolf film, and while a few new wrinkles are thrown in along the way, it’s often as generic and staid as the title is.

Movie Review ~ A Banquet

The Facts:

Synopsis: A widowed mother is radically tested when her teenage daughter experiences a profound enlightenment and insists that her body is no longer her own but in service to a higher power.
Stars: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Kaine Zajaz, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Ruth Paxton
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  You have to be careful with high-wire movies like A Banquet because one false move has the power to set you off balance and send you flying off into the darkness. I spent much of this British-made film wondering if Justin Bull’s screenplay was going to stumble and make that error, going too far with its look into a family undergoing severe dysfunction after suffering a trauma. Working with director Ruth Paxton, Bull knows when to pull that tightrope taut, and Paxton guides her cast with skill along that line connecting one crucial plot point to another. A Banquet isn’t the movie you think it is, initially coming off as if it might be headed into traditional horror territory before revealing true intentions far more shattering.

Recently widowed after years caring for her terminally ill husband, chef Holly (Sienna Guillory, forever Colin Firth’s cheating girlfriend in Love, Actually) is still struggling to get life back on track with her two daughters. Older teen Betsey (Jessica Alexander, Glasshouse) seems to have bypassed her rebellious years, forced her to grow up fast in the shadow of a sick parent. At the same time, younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes, Bridgerton) takes up the mantle as often overlooked in favor of a more accomplished child. Betsey wanders off to the edge of a nearby forest at a house party with friends and returns…different. Soon, she is avoiding food and claiming to have been gifted with the vision of what’s to come. Eating food doesn’t interest her, and it shouldn’t concern anyone else.

What’s happened to Betsey in the forest is initially the focus of Bull’s script, and of course, we want to know what has affected her to alter her mood so entirely. She is repulsed by the simple satiation made available to her, and she can’t stomach several small peas without choking them up. As Betsey begins to regress into a weaker state and Holly focuses her attention on another infirm member of the family, Isabelle explores a more expressive side she hasn’t been allowed to try out before and finds the experience a little frightening but invigorating as well. Prophetic claims by Betsey indicate something (sinister? beautiful? horrific?) is drawing near, and Holly must get a handle on both her daughters if she is to save even one.

Released through IFC, A Banquet is a tense example of efficient filmmaking. There’s little onscreen that doesn’t need to be there, and all of it is in service to Bull’s screenplay. This script has a good understanding of interpersonal family relationships and a solid grasp of eating disorders without ever claiming expertise. Performances throughout are strong, with Guillory’s veneer cracking at just the right times and Alexander applying the correct amount of pressure to chip away at the vulnerable spots to make it do so. Especially delightful is Linsday Duncan (Blackbird) as Holly’s mother and the girl’s grandmother, popping in for a few visits and laying down some opinions that only a woman of her stature and experience could.

Your enjoyment of A Banquet is dependent on your expectation. IFC continues to show good taste around its genre films that buck the usual tropes of the niche. Strong cinematography from David Liddell and a score from CJ Mirra give the film a mood to match its mysterious performances and central structure. Don’t compare this to the blood and guts horror films the label has released before but take it on its own successful merits, and you’ll be treated to a veritable feast of successes on numerous levels. 

Movie Review ~ King Knight


The Facts:

Synopsis: Thorn and Willow appear to have it all as the revered high priest and priestess of a coven of new-age witches. But a secret from Thorn’s past throws their lives into turmoil and sends them on a trippy, hilarious journey.
Stars: Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Andy Milonakis, Kate Comer, Johnny Pemberton, Josh Fadem, Nelson Franklin, Emily Chang, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Swati Kapila, Shane Brady, AnnaLynne McCord, Alice Glass, Barbara Crampton, Ray Wise
Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Rated: NR
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review:  While the megaton blockbusters and budget-specific genre films have felt the pangs of the pandemic crunch these past two years, there has been one corner of the film industry that has continued to thrive: the indie feature. Already skilled in guerrilla filmmaking tasked with tiny budgets and small crews used to operating in isolation, independent producers kept right on working throughout much of the lockdown, or at least got right back to it quickly as restrictions lifted. Desperate for movies when the well dried up for major motion pictures, streaming services and mid-size studios now actively sought out modestly made but otherwise stellar flicks that likely would have been overlooked in favor of more commercially minded entertainment.

King Knight is an example of a film that might not have gotten the kind of warm festival reception it did at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival were it not for the shortage of options available mixing elements of comedy and the darker horror, which the Canadian festival is so excellent at cultivating. While he’s focused less on horror in favor of homing in on the black comedy of his screenplay, director Richard Bates Jr. creates a mostly entertaining expansion of a cocktail napkin elevator pitch. Trouble sets in, however, with a script that preaches relaxed freedom of self then counteracts it with problematic thinking around one’s ability to choose identity at random.

As former president of his high school class, Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler, Endings, Beginnings) is expected at his upcoming reunion to give a ceremonial speech and perform a dance in front of his classmates. (What kind of Stepford high school is this?)  Worse, in returning to his hometown, he’d presumably have to see his estranged mother (B-movie horror legend Barbara Crampton, You’re Next). He’s been ignoring multiple requests from the planning committee, though, because he can’t bring himself to admit the embarrassing truth of his straight-arrow past to his twisted present.

You see, after high school, Thorn met Willow (Angela Sarafyan, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), and together they became the head of a coven of witches, a motley gang of misfits with various eccentricities which make them ideally suited for one another. As the High Priest of his coven, Thorn has a commanding influence over his followers, treating them all with kindness. When his secret is discovered, the coven has to decide if being true to their leader is more critical than overlooking his pure past, and Willow grapples with feelings of not knowing the man she married. For his part, Thorn goes on a wild journey back to his roots, and all experience great enlightenment.

For an 81-minute movie, there are many ideas crammed into short compact bursts of ingenuity within King Knight and then longer stretches where it feels like overworked sketch comedy. A tragically awful conversation about Juliette Binoche (I can’t bring myself to say what about) feels like an eternity. At the same time, Thorn’s dialogue with a pinecone and a rock manages to evoke the laughs the Binoche banter can’t. Then there’s the disappointing development of characters that are “gay,” defending their identity with graphic descriptions of why they are, only to admit they are “straight” later because they’ve ‘decided’ to be. Oof. This is 2022, right? Woke, Schmoke. I want intelligent writing that feels as if it’s met people who have a true sense of identity and know that it isn’t like a light switch. 

Focus instead on the performances of Gubler and Sarafyan, interesting enough actors to make us want to know more, with Sarafyan especially making us semi-hope there’s a Queen Knight sequel that could happen if Bates can refine his writing. I also liked Andy Milonakis as a mostly asexual coven member who feels destined to play either movie producer Alan Carr or Roseanne Barr…or maybe Roseanne playing Alan Carr. Either way, Milonakis is someone you keep watching even when they aren’t the center of attention. King Knight starts to lose significant steam right when it should be peaking, and it never gets the kind of energy back it had at the start, but there are enough good ideas here to crown it as worth your time.