Movie Review ~ Aline

The Facts:

Synopsis: The youngest of a hardworking French-Canadian couple’s 14 children is propelled to global music superstardom in this fictional musical dramedy, freely inspired by the life of Céline Dion.
Stars: Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud, Roc LaFortune, Antoine Vézina, Jean-Noël Brouté
Director: Valérie Lemercier
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 128 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I remember the exact moment I heard there was a movie gathering buzz ahead of its debut at Cannes inspired by the life of everyone’s favorite power chanteuse, Céline Dion. I was listening to a podcast, and the words “Céline,” “Dion,” and “biopic” were said, and I blacked out. When I came to, there were some brief details mentioned that I didn’t entirely take in fully, something about how the star was playing the role, but it was mostly centered on the snark being directed toward the just-released trailer for Aline. I didn’t even wait for the podcast to end. This news was too important to delay. I gathered my wits, set myself up in front of my crystal clear 4K OLED TV, and fired up YouTube to watch Aline’s first look.

I’m one of those who needs a little bit of time to take in something the first time I see it. I find it challenging to blurt out complete declarative statements right away; I need to get a few more views under my belt. With Aline, I knew, I just knew, that it was going to be my kind of film. As strange as the approach to telling Dion’s life is, not to mention how plum cuckoo, its method of execution winds up being, leave your preconceived notions at the door. This film is a case where no preamble descriptor can fully prepare you for an energy wave that hits you when the movie begins. That same jet force carries you for the next 128 minutes until a finale that had me on my feet.   

There was no way Dion or her team would allow a movie based on her life to be made without some strong arm of control, so famous French star Valérie Lemercier decided to go a different route. Using Dion’s life as a muse and taking on the structure of a standard biopic, Lemercier and co-writer Brigitte Buc have wound up with a condensed tale of a natural-born talent’s rise to fame. In Aline, we watch her humble roots as one of 14 children born to a family of gifted musicians to becoming a worldwide celebrity selling out shows for years in Las Vegas. Along the way, the singer (here called Aline Dieu) falls in love with her manager Guy-Claude Kamar (Sylvain Marcel), attends the Oscars, yearns for children, and struggles to free herself from an image imposed on her by an opinionated mother and a demanding fanbase. 

Sounds pretty average, right? Ah, but wait. We haven’t gotten to the exciting twist yet. Here’s the hook that director, co-writer, and star Valérie Lemercier uses that is throwing some potential views off. The adult Lemercier (58 as of this writing) portrays Aline at every stage of life, from childhood to the present. Through a mixture of effects, costumes, and old-fashioned movie magic, many of these moments are convincingly done, even when she’s playing a small child. To answer your question, yes, it does take a bit to get used to its weirdness. You can tell it’s an adult playing a child, but the vision of Lemercier’s de-aged face on a small body somehow works all the same. The more I accepted it, the easier I found myself giving over to other aspects of the film that also colored outside the lines of an expected Dion biopic.

Favorite moments of Dion’s life are created, but only just so. There’s her big Oscar moment singing the theme song from Titanic, but on a much less regal scale. Dion’s hit songs are played throughout, with Victoria Sio providing the singing voice, but not all are presented in chronological order. So, you have a song playing at her wedding that hadn’t been written yet and other anomalies that keep the film hovering at that high concept fantasy level (and likely out of reach for Dion’s lawyers), which helps propel the movie forward. It’s only at the top of the last thirty minutes, when Lemercier and Buc add a completely fictionalized scene in Vegas, that the film loses some of its charms, albeit briefly.

Lemercier surprised many recently when she won the Best Actress award at the 47th Annual César Awards, France’s highest honor in acting. Suddenly, the film that started as a joke on a podcast was getting the respect it honestly deserves. Considering all that Lemercier has put into the film and turning in a deeply committed, sincere, and overall, just damn well-acted performance, she’s already riding high on my best of the year list. It’s a performance that sticks with you long after the film has finished…and what a note to go out on. The finale is so simple but filled with the power most movies only imagine they could muster that late in the game. If you made it to that point and weren’t knocked out by her work, I don’t know how you couldn’t be convinced by what she does in those few minutes.

I’m excited this is finally out for more people to see because Aline is a movie that will thrive as more viewers have the opportunity to discover it. If there is any justice, Lemercier’s name can stay on the forefront of people’s minds for the next nine months and gain her awards consideration on our shores because it’s the type of gutsy work that should be recognized. Don’t miss this one. If you’re on the fence, hop on off and take a look – you’ll be happy you did. As Dion herself sang…”What do you say to taking chances?”

Movie Review ~ You Won’t Be Alone

The Facts:

Synopsis: In an isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, a young girl is kidnapped and then transformed into a witch by an ancient spirit.
Stars:  Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud
Director: Goran Stolevski
Rated: R
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  A number of the light and airy-fairy tales that populate the Disney canon of animated films originate from much darker versions of German writers in the 18th century. While they maintained much of the original work’s outline and general moral intent, these sanitized versions essentially drained the bedtime stories of their cautionary messages for children and adults alike. In recent years, the restoration of, or modern twists on, these classics for audiences have been hailed as bold or brave and, in many cases, have earned those high marks with distinction. What interests me even more than these films is the storytelling going on from scribes creating original pieces with strong parallels with the types of spooky tales handed down from generation to generation.

A strong sense of storytelling is just one of the chief reasons why You Won’t Be Alone, from Macedonian director Goran Stolevski, is such a treat. Set in the 19th century in a remote hamlet on the broad side of an imposing mountain range, there’s a relaxed, naturalistic aesthetic that could easily classify it in the much-studied folk-horror genre. The isolation of the period and place are felt quite effectively from the start by the filmmaker’s dramatically impressive use of the gorgeous elements of the location surroundings. Throughout its run time, Stolevski’s film covers more ground than is typical or expected, asking striking questions about life, death, and our humanity even as we are gripped by not knowing what may happen next.

At first, you might think you’re watching some version of a tale as old as time. An overwrought mother turns her back on her newborn for a moment, and when she looks again, a horrific figure looms over the child. It’s Old Maid Maria (the excellent Anamaria Marinca, Europa Report), a witch cursed to roam the area, shapeshifting into various creatures she kills or comes upon. (How she does this is a process not for the faint of heart…) Maria’s curdled flesh and sharp fingernails crave the child’s blood, but the mother makes a bargain to spare the baby until she’s 16, after which Maria may return and take her as her own. After all, Maria can’t go through life alone. Requiring some sacrifice, the witch takes the baby’s tongue to stop her crying and from ever speaking. Though the mother tries to hide her child on holy ground, a witch’s bond will out, and after 16 years, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) joins her new guardian in a vagabond life, ostracized from the community.

Already isolated her entire life (ala Rapunzel), Nevena uses her shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate another community to learn how to be human first, a witch second. These experiences, as both genders, give her insight into the different feelings going on inside the bodies of men and women, children and adults. Nearly all her thoughts are communicated to us in voiceover, often in simple terms but gradually growing into whole ideas that encapsulate her complete understanding of a lived life. Conveying all of these discoveries is challenging enough for one person, and while Klimoska handles the bulk of it with wide-eyed amazement, she “shares” the role with Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep), and Carloto Cotta (Frankie), each is striking a somber balance in their cycles with the witch.

It could be that others come to You Won’t Be Alone thinking it’s an all-out horror film, and they’ll likely be disappointed it’s not some witch in the woods scare-fest. I still found elements of the movie quite frightening, but not for reasons you might think. There’s a lot of sadness here, like Rapace’s rather devastating but finely tuned performance, which starts feral but becomes more controlled as she’s taken under the wing of a kindly older woman. Cotta is strong too as the male the witch inhabits, first to find out what it’s like to experience pleasure but then to discover the more private and tender moments. 

I’ve been thinking about You Won’t Be Alone ever since I saw it; the rich characters (Marinca’s sinister witch has, like most witches, a tragic backstory) and invested performances coupled with the picturesque setting push this one far ahead of most of the other movies I’ve seen so far this year. You have to give it some space to get moving, but only slightly. Stolevski’s feature film debut is assured, and a can’t miss effort for filmgoers apt to enjoy a scary story before turning the lights off at night.

Movie Review ~ All the Old Knives

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two CIA operatives, and former lovers, reunite at idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea to re-examine a mission six years ago in Vienna where a fellow agent might have been compromised.
Stars: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Ahd, Corey Johnson, David Dawson, Orli Shuka, Jonjo O’Neill
Director: Janus Metz
Rated: R
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Right now, on Broadway, ex-James Bond Daniel Craig and Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga have just started previews for their new production of Macbeth. Down the street, married couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick appear in a revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. These are just two examples of famous names in the industry that find themselves on the Great White Way in a play that’s often based mainly on scenes featuring just two people onstage, talking. That’s how some films start too, live on stage and then adapted into films. Some can easily break the bonds of being stage-bound, and others are enterally trapped in that theatrical flourish that can’t so handily be swept to the side.

In hindsight, I wasn’t surprised to learn All the Old Knives had been originally announced as a project for Chris Pine back in 2017. I was astonished to discover that the film wasn’t the product of a stage-to-screen adaptation but was instead written by Olen Steinhauer from his 2015 novel of the same name. So much of the movie involves characters (usually two) sitting across from one another talking that I could have imagined it being plucked from some short-lived Broadway run and expanded for the silver screen. Either way, All the Old Knives features several old tricks that will justifiably get the knives out for Steinhauer and a cast of likable, if bland, actors.

It’s been years since colleagues Harry Pelham (Pine, Wonder Woman 1984) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton, Solo: A Star Wars Story) have seen one another, not since she left him the day after their CIA office was involved with a mission that led to the deaths of hundreds of people on a hijacked aircraft. Recent intel has indicated a leak within their agency tipped off the hijackers, and Harry has been tasked by his boss (Laurence Fishburne, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) to suss out the mole. A phone call traced to one of the offices narrows it down to two people, so Harry pays them a visit. 

The nightmares of that day still plague Celia. Agreeing to meet Harry seems like a good way to close that chapter of her life. While their meeting at a coastal restaurant in wine country begins as benign reminiscing, it quickly evolves into a relitigating of the days leading up to the event and its immediate aftermath. As the evening stretches on and the bottles of wine keep coming, more truths are exposed between former flames who thought the other had been honest throughout their time together. By the end of the night, who is interrogating whom? 

Steinhauer keeps our heads spinning by having multiple people tell their version of the story, each with slightly different perspectives. I don’t think Steinhauer deliberately tries to confuse the audience or pull a fast one. Still, the effect of the repetition without consistency winds up creating a mind jumble anyway. Danish director Janus Metz teams with cinematographer (and fellow Dane) Charlotte Bruus Christensen (A Quiet Place) to give the past a steely blue hue and the present a shiny, almost waxy, glow. Also waxy, Pine in several bad wigs as we travel through distinct time periods. The worst is a longer one that gets more unruly as the film wears on, but Pine has competition from other cast members in the lousy wig department. Newton has several questionable fitted coifs as well.

There’s a problem with the film staring us straight in the face, and it’s a big one. The two stars have next to no chemistry. Now I know that Michelle Williams was initially set to star opposite Pine but dropped out when this was delayed, so maybe that combo would have worked better. Newton’s movie could have been better with a more exciting co-star, and Pine’s performance might have leveled off a bit sooner had he acted opposite someone who wasn’t so far ahead of him. Newtown is just too good of an actress to operate in the same hemisphere Pine (a pleasant actor that’s never going to win an Oscar) is living.

With a home stretch that drags out interminably long after providing a half-hearted attempt at a cop-out ending, any way you slice it, All the Old Knives is a bit of a lumbering mess. That being said, I would have paid a top price to see the same stars (yes, even Pine) on stage doing the same piece. I could readily see this operating as a slick piece of live theater that employs a small cast enjoying some juicy roles. It’s overstuffed as a film but sized right for the stage. Watch it (if you must) and see if you agree.

Movie Review ~ The Contractor

The Facts:

Synopsis: After being involuntarily discharged from the Army, James Harper joins a paramilitary organization to support his family in the only way he knows how.
Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, Florian Munteanu, Kiefer Sutherland, Nina Hoss, Amira Casar, Fares Fares, J. D. Pardo
Director: Tarik Saleh
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
ReviewThe ContractorThe Contractor?  Really?  Will they ever learn?  Here we go again with a more than decent film saddled with the most cardboard brown-colored title you can imagine, though it was filmed under one that had a little more flair.  When actors Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gillian Jacobs signed on to Tarik Saleh’s muscle-y military film, it was for a script named Violence of Action.  Still, it was not entirely descriptive or exemplary enough to set it far apart from the direct to video junk starring a washed-up fourth-billed actor from a late ‘90s cop show, but…at least it had some movement to it.  The Contractor could be any movie.

Title qualms aside, and I had to put them aside, this is a surprisingly brisk and engaging action thriller that deservedly was bumped from a wide theatrical release in favor of a streaming debut.  It doesn’t have the full-bodiness to warrant that trip to the cinema but fits nicely with the new niche carved out for starry vehicles that need a home.  Orphaned by its original studio, Paramount snapped this one up, and they’ve made a wise purchase.  While it won’t ever be high on the resume for anyone involved, it acquits itself nicely as an otherwise engaging action thriller that keeps moving and doesn’t sag under easy-to-spot oncoming twists.

Sidelined from service due to a bum knee, Special Forces Sergeant James Harper (Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) struggles to provide for his family and is watching the bills pile up.  When he meets up with old army bud Mike (Foster, The Finest Hours), who appears to be living beyond his means, he finds out about Mike’s side work running covert jobs for Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners).  Bringing his friend into the fold, Mike leaves out a few key details. James figures these out quickly as he’s thrown into a dangerous mission exposing shady alliances that put his life and the well-being of his wife (Jacobs, Life of the Party) and child in jeopardy.

Six years after their runaway hit Hell or High Water, Pine and Foster have skilled onscreen chemistry, making them an ideal pair.  Director Saleh doesn’t have to spend much time establishing their history because both actors play their roles so convincingly that we don’t need a lot of backstories to understand their relationship.  That takes The Contractor only so far, though, and eventually, audiences will have only the standard plot mechanics of J.P. Davis’ script to carry them forward.  It’s not that Davis hasn’t crafted a strong three-act action-thriller; it’s just that nothing you can’t see coming a mile down the road happens. 

Compelling enough to not feel like a waste of time but routine in overall execution, The Contractor is best when it’s letting Pine and Foster continue to develop their non-action dramatics.  Once the mission takes over, interest starts to wane, and you’re in overly familiar territory.  The upside? You’re likely watching it for free (or far less than usual prices) at home, so you haven’t sunk movie theater prices on the watch.

Movie Review ~ Infinite Storm

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a climber gets caught in a blizzard on Mount Washington, she encounters a stranded stranger and must get them both down the mountain before nightfall.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Billy Howle, Denis O’Hare, Parker Sawyers
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert
Rated: R
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Over time, I’ve found certain actresses that I gravitate toward because they have a quality, a spirit, that you can’t help wanting to get behind. Australian actress Naomi Watts is on that shortlist for me. Perhaps it’s because she’s a dedicated veteran that’s given it her all in films that haven’t allowed her to be painted into a corner. Most of the time, it’s yielded successful results, but it hasn’t brought her a golden trophy named Oscar she can rest on her mantle. It’s a goal I feel Watts tries to aim for, often blatantly, and the newest effort is the survival drama Infinite Storm. Whereas her traumatic performance in the pulverizing tsunami film 2012’s The Impossible last brought her to The Academy Awards, Infinite Storm will leave her (and audiences) out in the cold.

Not that Watts doesn’t, as usual, go for broke playing an experienced climber who works as a volunteer search and rescue operator that finds herself caught in an unexpected storm. Polish directors Malgorzata Szumowska & Michal Englert take their time getting Watts to her mountain, taking audiences through her morning routine, and chit-chat with a shop owner (Denis O’Hare, Dallas Buyers Club) before she zips up and heads out. It’s an otherwise ordinary journey up Mount Washington until the weather suddenly turns, and her instincts send her down to safety. She’s not faster than the storm, though, and she gets caught up in it, along with another mystery man (Billy Howle, Dunkirk) she runs into on her way down. Without the proper equipment, she has to do the work for both of them if either is to survive.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that there’s more to the film than what you see in the trailers, but I wish I could hint that it’s worth checking out. Even the first half, which should see pulses race as Watts kicks into survival mode, fail to quicken much, and it’s primarily due to a curious lack of connection between the actors with each other or the viewer. There’s not much to grab onto, so you’re left to flail around aimlessly. That makes for a tiring experience, made more exhausting by the screenplay from Josh Rollins that consists primarily of Watts saying her companion’s name ad infinitum. She says his name (John) so much that you almost start to hope one doesn’t make it down alive…almost.

Based on a true story drawn from Ty Gagne’s article, “High Places: Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue”, I wanted Infinite Storm to operate on a scale as impressive as some of Englert’s gorgeous cinematography. Too much is lost to a blizzard of histrionics that again keep Watts from finding a prime role of which she’s been deserving. Scale this mountain at your own risk.

INFINITE STORM will be available on demand starting April 12th

Rent or buy on all major platforms including Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play & Vudu.