Movie Review ~ To Catch a Killer

The Facts:

Synopsis: A talented but troubled Baltimore police officer is recruited by the FBI’s chief investigator to help profile and track down a disturbed individual terrorizing the city.
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Jovan Adepo, Ralph Ineson, Rosemary Dunsmore
Director: Damián Szifron
Rated: R
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s always a bit of a head-scratcher why a film would ditch a decent title for one so dull you couldn’t blame the average viewer if they pass it up because it sounds achingly basic. That happened with the psychological thriller To Catch a Killer, which underwent a name change during post-production after filming around Canada in early 2021 under the title Misanthrope. It’s not as if the average viewer with confuse this slick crime procedural for Molière’s 17th-century play The Misanthrope…right?

Or perhaps it was because some audiences would be like me and need to Google the definition of the word misanthrope: a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society before making up their minds to take a chance on the film. Oscar-nominated writer/director Damián Szifron (his 2014 film Wild Tales was up for Best International Feature in 2015 after a successful run at Cannes) created anything but generic work. Still, I think it has an uphill battle to find its intended audience with its current ho-hum name.

Opening with a bang during Baltimore’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, it takes us a few seconds to realize the parties we’re visiting are turning into murder scenes as a sniper begins eliminating people at random. Dozens of people are killed in a short time frame, the gunshots hidden by the fireworks spectacle happening all around the city. Police Officer Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley, The Last Letter from Your Lover) is near one of these crime scenes and a first responder, following a hot trail directly to where the sniper took aim. When the tables are turned on local officers and the incoming FBI task force headed by Agent Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn, Cyrano), Falco’s quick thinking onsite gets her noticed and, eventually, assigned to Lammark’s outfit.

Calling on her skills as a proficient officer and her instincts as someone struggling with a dark past, Falco works with Lammark and fellow Agent Mackenzie (Jovan Adepo, Overlord) to create a profile of the killer to determine if (and when) they will strike again. Wading through red tape protocols and a sea of bureaucrats thinking more about their careers than the safety of their constituents, the trio is consistently thwarted by lesser minds who aren’t asking the right questions, all while potential leads vanish into thin air. As the stress of resolving the case grows, the nagging demons she’s suppressed for years come knocking on Falco’s door.

Even I went into To Catch a Killer, not expecting much. Clearly, the movie’s budget was spent on the film itself and not through marketing because the poster and trailer leave much to be desired. If those didn’t do their job of selling me, the pitch wasn’t great either, by comparing Woodley’s character to Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs. Anytime you invoke that unparalleled classic, you better come to the table ready to work for your supper and clean the dishes while you’re at it.

Thankfully, Szifron and co-screenwriter Jonathan Wakeham have delivered a (mostly) quality thriller, with rough patches threatening its credibility in critical moments. These iffy scenes are pretty bad, mostly revolving around the illogical moves being made by the FBI to serve as plot devices to get the film from Point A to Point B.   There had to be better ways to transition characters through their arcs than to force them so crudely along. It’s got the benefit of a full-throttle opening (recent Oscar-nominee Carter Burwell contributes the score), and cinematographer Javier Julia (also represented at the 2023 Oscars with Argentina, 1985) manages to find a handful of gorgeous camera shots to fit in between the chilly winter scenes of Montreal, standing in for Baltimore. (Also, if you didn’t recognize Montreal, you’d be able to notice the larger-than-normal amount of Canadian accents in this release. I know a Baltimore accent when I hear one, and these actors are full-on Canuck)

Recommended to fans that miss those lovely barn burner serial killer thrillers that would get released every few weeks back in the late ‘90s/early ’00s, To Catch a Killer may have a dinky title, but it’s a classy effort. Woodley is, as usual, in top form, and her pairing with Mendelsohn, on this case, creates a snappy chemistry that is easy to engage with. I’d love to see Woodley take this Falco character forward in another film/case – but please don’t call it something lame like The Hunt or Eyes in the Dark

Movie Review ~ Somewhere in Queens

The Facts:

Synopsis: Leo and Angela Russo live a simple life in Queens, surrounded by their overbearing Italian-American family. When their son ‘Sticks’ finds success on his high school basketball team, Leo tears the family apart trying to make it happen.
Stars: Ray Romano, Laurie Metcalf, Tony Lo Bianco, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jennifer Esposito, Jacob Ward, Sadie Stanley, Dierdre Friel, Jon Manfrellotti
Director: Ray Romano
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s one of the first principles of writing that every teacher will tell a student: write what you know. The best place to start is where you feel most familiar. The comfort zone is your friend, and from that place, you can step your toe out an inch at a time, testing the waters for what else could be out there for you to explore. Maybe the temperature is too hot, and you get roasted, so you retreat to the security of where you are comfortable. Or perhaps you find the environment welcoming and discovered a new area where you can be creatively authentic.

This deep dive was sponsored by Ray Romano’s new film, Somewhere in Queens. It’s a film that feels recognizable to fans of Romano’s successful TV sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond in that it depicts the warts and all lives of a close-knit family in NYC. That’s not to say Romano’s directorial debut is an R-rated retread of material he’s already covered before. This movie, co-written by Mark Stegemann, is deeper and more character-driven than the light-hearted and lovely Everybody Loves Raymond was even at its peak. (Don’t read that as a knock. I loved that CBS half-hour comedy and it was one of the few shows on network TV I watched every episode of.)

Romano appears to want to expand on what he started on his early television show and explore what happens to a family at a time when no one is on the same page, even though everyone is supposedly working toward the same shared goal. That goal is happiness, and at the beginning of Somewhere in Queens, a wedding reception, no one seems to be having the best time. And it’s only going to get more complex over the following months.

Leo (Romano, The Irishman) works with his brothers and father in the family home remodeling business. Often the sibling that takes the brunt of the pressure because of his unwillingness to fight back, he lets his family walk all over him with barely a whimper. His marriage to high-school sweetheart Angela (Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird) is solid but strained, still delicate with emotion after Angela’s recent brush with cancer. Their son Sticks (Jacob Ward) is a star basketball player but doesn’t have college plans, at least not until a college scout attending a game to see another student tells Leo and Angela how much potential he has.

Leo needs this encouragement to find a fire within himself to help his son take advantage of his skills and make the kind of big-dream lifestyle he never had. Sticks is ambivalent about college but sure about his girlfriend Dani, finding his motivation from her admiration. When things go south with her, and Leo realizes Dani makes all the difference, he forms a plan to get them back together, which might be a band-aid for the present. Still, he can’t hold back an inevitable future that will come crashing back with mighty consequences for everyone.

It’s evident from the quality of filmmaking that Romano has paid attention when on set throughout his career. Listening and observing gave him the tools he needed to deliver admirable work. Somewhere in Queens is not simply well-written and well-acted (I mean, anyone in a scene with the outstanding Metcalf is only bound to be better because of it) but looks excellent and has been assembled with a fine eye for detail and pace. It’s the exact length it should be and not a second longer. 

That’s enough time to demonstrate how solid Romano is as an actor, creating an endearing portrait of a father wanting success for his son and trying to give it to him any way he knows how…and not being able to admit he doesn’t know how. The colorful supporting cast also has a few gems in it (stage veteran Jennifer Simard walks away with any scene she shows up in), and you rarely must wait long for a line with some ring of authenticity to it. It’s not a sitcom script filled with quippy repartee but dialogue that sounds like these people would speak. With that good ear for dialogue and intelligent ey for casting, Somewhere in Queens often rules above other comedic family dramas.