Movie Review ~ A Thousand and One


The Facts:

Synopsis: After unapologetic and fiercely loyal Inez kidnaps her son Terry from the foster care system, mother and son set out to reclaim their sense of home, identity, and stability in a rapidly changing New York City.
Stars: Teyana Taylor, Will Catlett, Josiah Cross, Aven Courtney, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Terri Abney
Director: A.V. Rockwell
Rated: R
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review:  I recently finished Hollywood, Sam Wasson and Jeanine Basinger’s 768-page anvil of a novel charting the genesis of the film industry. Wading through chapters on every aspect of the business over decades, I concluded that it is a miracle movies survived as long as they have. We should all be grateful that even the poorest reviewed blockbuster debuted on a second-tier streaming service during the recent pandemic. Even more remarkable is that the independent film trade revitalized because big studios had to learn a thing or two from indies about make-it-or-break-it production stakes and take chances on releasing titles outside of their usual roster. 

That’s why “smaller” films like Coda and Everything Everywhere All At Once have nabbed the top prize at The Academy Awards the past two years and how a tiny movie from a first-time director like the Lena Waithe-produced A Thousand and One could arrive at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with a distribution deal (with Focus Features) already in place. Riding a wave of strong buzz, director A.V. Rockwell’s impeccable debut left the festival with the Grand Jury Prize and a mountain of good notices for its star, multi-hyphenate artist Teyana Taylor.

Taylor stars as Inez, recently released from Rikers Island, who returns to her Brooklyn stomping grounds in 1993, attempting to get her life back on track. Complicating matters is the 6-year-old she left behind when she went to prison, a young boy (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) named Terry, that remembers the abandonment and holds it against her even after she tries to make amends. He’s in the foster care system now, a red-tape-laden hornet’s nest she’s familiar with after spending her childhood being moved around. When he winds up in the hospital due to dangerous living conditions with his current living situation, Inez is determined not to disappoint the boy again. So, she takes him. 

Without a plan, a job, or a place to live, the following days and weeks are tenuous for the two as they learn to be around one another while finding safety. Inez is constantly in defensive mode, compounded by the threat of returning to prison for the crime she committed by taking Terry. When no one comes looking for him (or her), they breathe a bit easier and establish a life together, eventually welcoming Terry’s father, Lucky (Will Catlett), when he finishes his prison sentence. The years tick by, and we watch Terry grow into a 13-year-old (Aven Courtney) and eventually a sensitive 17-year-old (Josiah Cross) desperate to discover what’s next for him. 

Set aside some time after A Thousand and One to meditate on how many outstanding creative forces could come together in one film. Only adding volume to the battle cry that casting directors need more recognition in the film industry, there’s no single performance here that doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Veteran casting director Avy Kaufman worked with Rockwell to assemble a fantastic list of actors who vanish entirely into their roles.   

No critical analysis can outline just how good Taylor is…you must see it for yourself.   It’s incredible. The part above where I mention actors disappearing into their roles? Taylor becomes so linked up with Inez that you lose the actress early on and almost believe the film is a documentary. These mother roles are a dime a dozen, and many actresses have gotten by with only going halfway, but Taylor knocks it right out of the park. It must be remembered when the Oscars come around next year…it has to. Similarly, Catlett, Cross, Courtney, and Kingsley Adetola are all critical pieces to a familiar story told with unflinching honesty.  

I’m conflicted about Rockwell taking audiences through changes in NYC itself, all set to Gary Gunn’s dynamic, lyrical score. I appreciated seeing how the city changed and the brief touches of gentrification without making that the overall focus. However, these scenes weren’t speaking in complete sentences to solidify the intended message. Applause is warranted for noting September 2001 on screen, subtly causing the audience to brace themselves for tragedy and then taking things in an unexpected direction.

Released just as spring has sprung, A Thousand and One is the type of film you’ll want to get in on early so you can recommend it to others before they come knocking on your door to tell you about it. Rockwell and Taylor have worked hard to find an emotional core that allows real feelings to thrive, and the result is a movie that treats the viewer like a mature adult. 

Movie Review ~ Murder Mystery 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Full-time detectives Nick and Audrey struggle to get their private eye agency off the ground. They find themselves at the center of international abduction when their friend Maharaja, is kidnapped at his lavish wedding.
Stars: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Mark Strong, Mélanie Laurent, Jodie Turner-Smith, John Kani, Kuhoo Verma, Enrique Arce, Zurin Villanueva, Dany Boon, Adeel Akhtar
Director: Jeremy Garelick
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review:  While it won’t ever be remembered as the most significant hit for either of them, 2011’s Just Go with It introduced undeniable screen chemistry for superstars Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. The slight comedy is one of the better in Sandler’s run of par-baked rom-coms that were wafer thin but brought in huge box office dollars, no doubt aided by Aniston’s dry delivery and a fun cameo from Nicole Kidman as a free spirit in paradise. So, it wasn’t a massive surprise the leads worked together again eight years later in the summer Netflix feature Murder Mystery.

Arriving at the right time for the film to be a success, the film found the A-listers as a married couple that reached a plateau in their relationship but found their groove once they became involved with international treachery on a European vacation. Farcically continuing to implicate themselves along the way, the duo became semi-sleuths while they evaded the authorities and narrowed down the villain from a diverse array of suspects. Beating the original Knives Out to the punch by a full five months, Murder Mystery gave audiences a taste of what they could expect from the return of the whodunit. It wasn’t grand entertainment, but it did entertain.

The way sequels get churned out nowadays, I’m surprised it took four years for Murder Mystery 2 to find its way onto Netflix. Still, here we are with another harmless romp from screenwriter James Vanderbilt (who wrote the new Scream and Scream VI in the interim) that takes a concerning while to re-establish its charm. Mired in fuddy-duddy exposition that weighs down the opening stretch, once we settle in, there’s little to keep Sandler and Aniston’s follow-up caper from winning us over by its breathless pace alone.

Returning home after putting their first case to rest, Audrey (Aniston, Office Christmas Party) and Nick (Sandler, Hotel Transylvania) decided to go into business for themselves and start a private detective agency. Years later, it’s not turning a profit, and the same marital issues are beginning to rise to the surface again. Good thing that their old friend, the Maharajah (Adeel Akhtar, Enola Holmes), calls to invite them to his island wedding, an all-expense paid trip they leave for immediately. The weekend affair will end with the Maharajah marrying the beautiful, but maybe suspicious?, Claudette (Mélanie Laurent, Oxygen). However, before they can exchange vows, the royal is abducted for ransom, and a dead body is left behind…the first of several cadavers of characters we’ll be introduced to. 

It’s not long before Nick and Audrey are on the run again, falsely incriminated in the nefarious plot by real-world technology involving deep fakes (hey, how about that recent picture of the Pope in a designer puffer jacket?) and finding themselves in the convex of double and triple crosses. Whom can they trust? A scheming Countess (Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) and her sidekick (Zurin Villanueva, recently in MN as the lead in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical), a famous secret agent (Mark Strong, 1917), the Maharajah’s overlooked sister (Kuhoo Verma, The Big Sick) or head of security Colonel Ulenga (John Kani, Black Panther) who made a considerable sacrifice before for his boss?

New director Jeremy Garelick (The Wedding Ringer) takes over for Kyle Newacheck, resulting in a mixed bag of success.   The sequel feels on par with the first, eschewing the oft-told rules that say subsequent installments to a series must be more extensive and impressive. Fans will show up for the stars, not the intricate plot (if you can’t figure this one out, stay away from the complicated stylings of Matlock) or the impressive production design (Sandler and Aniston live in an apartment I swear Netflix has used in at least three other films they produced). Murder Mystery 2 is an ordinary sequel that gets everyone, including the audience, from Point A to Point B without too much trouble and then quietly says goodnight. Sometimes, that’s OK, and if you go in expecting another Knives Out film, you will be disappointed.     

Movie Review ~ Enys Men

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in 1973 on an uninhabited island off the Cornish coast, a wildlife volunteer’s daily observations of a rare flower turn into a metaphysical journey that forces her, as well as the viewer, to question what is real and what is a nightmare.
Stars: Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe, John Woodvine
Director: Mark Jenkin
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Read too much about a film beforehand, and you’ll likely form an unconscious opinion about it before seeing one frame. As much as we may try to remain objective, it’s challenging to put preconceived notions out of our heads, and it’s one of a number of reasons I’ve been working hard to go into as many movies as blind as possible. This leads to a full disclosure I’ll share with you now. A friend had told me about Enys Men before it came my way, and, the filmmaker being new to me, I did a little more digging under the surface of it beforehand than I had intended. This wound up getting me into the mindset that this extremely indie folk horror from the United Kingdom would be a much more difficult experience than it was. 

In his 2019 debut film Bait, director Mark Jenkin used a hand-operated camera for his shot on 16mm feature that was set off an island in Cornwall. The story’s gritty realism and the film’s washed-out visuals singled to the community that Jenkin was a filmmaker to watch. He’s back with another 16mm-shot tale set on the Cornish coastline, but this time it’s a far less accessible yarn that requires the audience to do much of the heavy lifting. What appears impenetrable, though, is slowly revealed to have purpose and form as a reward to those who take the time to put Jenkin’s many snarled puzzle pieces together.

Following a woman identified in the end credits as The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) through a daily routine of tasks on the tiny island centered on an essential piece of its flora, the repetition is about to become numbing when a variation is introduced that changes the experience from the viewer and The Volunteer. This change in order has a trickle-down effect that seems to awaken parts of the island long dormant, hinting at a deadly history time had nearly washed away. While The Volunteer attempts to right her system of habit and a psyche becoming untenable, we witness some horrors brought forth to… I’m not sure. Stop her? Help her? Comfort her? It can be hard to tell in various passages. Still, Jenkin has an evident talent for creating a sense of foreboding that may (or may not) come. The eventual uneasiness with her solitude becomes claustrophobic, even with an entire island at her disposal.

Using an older hand-held camera and the smaller frame film stock creates a surprisingly dazzling look for Enys Men. Yes, it’s not HDR friendly with everything smooth and clean, but I loved that Jenkin’s film felt like you just found it lying in a box in your attic and are watching it for the first time in fifty years. He’s cast the film exceptionally well, too, with Woodvine being nigh-perfect as The Volunteer. His camera loves her leathery, weather-worn face and piercing eyes, and they’ll likely haunt you long after the film has concluded. 

Enys Men (Cornish for ‘Stone Island’ and pronounced ‘Ennis Main,’ even pronouncing the title is a mind-swirl) will not be for everyone. It’s a particular type of film that hovers between experimental, arthouse, and faux nature documentaries. It most definitely isn’t easy to recommend to just anyone. For the right people, risk-takers up for something different without needing to ask many questions when the lights come up, this could be a stunning discovery.

Movie Review ~ Rye Lane

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two twenty-somethings, both reeling from bad break-ups, connect over an eventful day in South London – helping each other deal with their nightmare exes and potentially restoring their faith in romance.
Stars: David Jonsson, Vivian Oparah, Karene Peter, Benjamin Sarpong-Broni, Malcolm Atobrah, Alice Hewkin, Simon Manyonda, Poppy Allen-Quarmby
Director: Raine Allen Miller
Rated: R
Running Length: 82 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  There are a lot of things that rom-coms are these days. Brash, raunchy, hilarious, bold, unpredictable. Yet the one key ingredient missing, the main element that sets apart the classic romances made ‘back in the day,’ can be summed up in one word: sparkling. I know, the word seems almost too fluttery to pin down on a film description, but effervescent would be too airy a phrase, and bubbly is much too cute to describe it accurately. No, sparkling is what keeps the genuinely memorable films that have stood up to the passage of time near and dear to our hearts.

You’d be hard-pressed to get through all 82 minutes of Raine Allen Miller’s Rye Lane (from Searchlight Pictures, premiering on Hulu) and not get that sparkling tingle at one point or another. The film fits into all the adjectives I laid out above, but it caps itself off by harnessing the much sought-after component that allows comparison to titles with which it shares some DNA. Movies like Notting Hill or, more significantly, Richard Linklater’s 1995 unbeatable talky treasure, Before Sunrise

At an art installation in South London, Dom (David Jonsson) isn’t dealing with his break-up with long-time girlfriend Gia (Karene Peter) well at all. In fact, budding costume designer Yas (Vivian Oparah) finds Dom in a bathroom stall crying over Gia. Her eventual efforts to cheer him up result in the two of them spending much of the day strolling around the city discussing their romantic entanglements. She’s also recently out of a relationship, and after helping Dom face Gia for the first time, she figures he can help her with some unfinished business with her ex. 

The charm of Rye Lane comes with how the ‘meet-cute’ between Dom and Yas happens so unobtrusively but believably and continues from there. A lot of business has to happen quickly. Still, screenwriters Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia give the leads fresh and funny dialogue, making it all feel like realistic developments throughout a one-of-a-kind day. The script gets the film off the ground easily, but Jonsson and especially Oparah make it soar with winning performances, helping viewers easily invest in their success as people first and a potential couple second.

Director Miller and cinematographer Olan Collardy give Rye Lane a distinct visual language. Like adjusting to a new dialect, the filming may take a little getting used to because of how Miller frames the actors, and the jarring way Collardy shoots close-ups. Compound that with a production design from Anna Rhodes that celebrates a different side of the city than audiences are used to taking in, a unique score created by Kwes, and forward-thinking costumes by Cynthia Lawrence-John, which jump out of the screen thanks to their color palette. The cast and crew are made up of mostly newer faces (save for one brilliantly engaged cameo – truly excellent), and you get the feeling you’re watching the start of special careers in the making.

Gems sparkle, and Rye Lane is a gem of a film. It’s an example of why you’d want to go back to a time when theaters were open and this would have had a chance at a wider release. I fear it may get swallowed up in the crowd of offerings on Hulu, especially with its release date on the last day of the month before an entirely new crop of releases gets added to the service. Hopefully, you (and others) will walk down this street because Rye Lane is a brisk, lovely place to travel.