Movie Review ~ Val

The Facts:

Synopsis: For over 40 years Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial and/or misunderstood actors has been documenting his own life and craft through thousands of hours of film and video. This raw, wildly original and unflinching documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled, sometimes hilarious look at what it means to be an artist and a complex man.

Stars: Val Kilmer, Jack Kilmer

Director: Ting Poo, Leo Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  In addition to keeping you updated with the latest and greatest (and not so greatest) films that received a streaming release during the year-long lockdown, I also found time to do a lot of reading.  Most of the time it was those easy beach read thrillers or whatever was being adapted into an upcoming film, but I never can resist a good celebrity memoir.  One of the most entertaining selections I came across during this entire period was “I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir” by Val Kilmer, giving a greater insight into an actor that up until that point I had always believed to be exactly what the Hollywood insiders said he was.  Difficult to work with, arrogant, demanding, and pretentious were all words that came to mind when I heard Kilmer’s name and his recent spate of acting roles (in already dreadful films like The Snowman and Paydirt) didn’t do much to make me think I should give him a second thought.

That book changed my opinion of the actor, doing more for explaining the man underneath it all than the usual superstar autobiography.  On the heels of that book comes Val, a documentary being released for a limited run in theaters now before debuting on Amazon Prime in early August.  With an even more focused magnifying glass, audiences can witness firsthand the path the Los Angeles-born actor took to his stardom and see through an incredible amount of personal home movies and on-set videos he recorded the unvarnished side of moviemaking.  At the same time, Kilmer’s struggle with health issues related to a throat cancer diagnosis in 2015 make for a striking comparison with the ruggedly handsome man featured early on in his career.

Val actually opens with some onset horsing around with actors on the set of Top Gun and you almost can’t believe that film is nearly 35 years old at this point.  So many of the men on that set were at the start of their careers and even Kilmer was just coming off his first real feature film (1984’s Top Secret!), having already made his Broadway debut (alongside Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon who Kilmer captures mooning the camera) upon his graduation from Julliard.  It’s surreal watching brief clips of the red carpet premiere and opening night party for Top Gun, with the likes of Tom Cruise and others dancing the night away in their chic ’80s evening wear. After Top Gun, Kilmer’s star continued to rise, although he kept running up against roadblocks of his own making when challenging directors and producers that wanted Kilmer to be less of an actor and more of a silent commodity.  As the years went by, the leading roles in major projects dwindled as less directors (and a few costars) wanted to be involved in Kilmer’s often extreme approach to his method.

Kilmer’s full commitment was ingrained on him from an early age, growing up on a ranch formerly owned by Roy Rogers.  One of three sons born to parents that would later divorce, the family suffered an early tragedy that would haunt them, and especially Kilmer, for years to come and it would be this influence that would often propel Kilmer to go to edge.  You can say a lot of things about Kilmer’s choice in projects and roles but you can’t ever say he doesn’t commit 140% when he does sign up.  Throughout Val we see several projects that obviously were key films to him for one reason or another (Tombstone, The Doors, The Island of Dr. Moreau) where he went the extra mile to get it right or defend his choices.

With the throat cancer treated but leaving his voice severely impaired, Kilmer now speaks with the aid of a medical device and while his adult son Jack narrates the majority of the film using his dad’s words, Kilmer himself speaks often as well. It’s these ‘unscripted’ moments that Jack isn’t ready when the documentary is quite reflective.  Kilmer is open about his past mistakes and the way he approached the people he loved and the friends he came to know, and it’s not born out of a man that has come to the front step of death’s door and has regrets.  It’s from a person that reached a point in his life where he’s let go of a lot of the stones that have burdened him unnecessarily and watching that release in someone clearly exhausted is cathartic even for the viewer.  Knowing much of the footage shot wasn’t meant to be seen by the public at large makes it feel more genuine and less showy.

I think fans of Kilmer will be greatly moved by this documentary on his life and current journey toward peace – it reinforces that Kilmer has always had good intentions in his work but simply played the Hollywood game a bit too aggressively. Then he was dealt a raw hand by the system and by fate. Those that had perhaps written him off (full admission: like I had before I read his book) would do well to view Val for its raw and all-access unmasking of a complicated man that is more relatable than we might think. 

Movie Review ~ Old

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family on a tropical holiday discovers that the secluded beach where they are staying is somehow causing them to age rapidly, reducing their entire lives into a single day.

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Kathleen Chalfant, Alexa Swinton, Nolan River, Kylie Begley, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Alex Wolff, Emun Elliott, Thomasin McKenzie

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Looking back over the director credits for M. Night Shyamalan, I’m wondering if we weren’t the ones that ultimately set him on his shaky trajectory in the late 2000’s after the cool reception that greeted 2004’s The Village.  Yes, I know viewers still bristle at the mere mention of Shyamalan’s sixth feature film and first to break his major winning streak of uniformly positive reception from critics and audiences alike.  The “big twist” everyone had come to expect felt like something overly orchestrated by a director wanting to be appreciated for rug pulling than for what came before and after and ticket-buyers weren’t having it. 

This led to a downward spiral for the Oscar-nominee who broke so big with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and his two follow-ups after The Village, The Lady in the Water in 2006 and The Happening in 2008, were dull flop-a-roos.  Several more disasters would be released and a so-so TV series on FOX would come before Shyamalan would bounce back quite nicely with 2015’s The Visit with Split coming out just a year later in 2016.  Nicely tying into 2000’s Unbreakable, he used Split’s success to complete a trilogy with Glass in 2019 and parlayed that film’s moderate success into a new deal with Universal for two additional films he would direct. (This is above and beyond Servant, the creepy under the radar half-hour series that’s been renewed for a third season on AppleTV+). 

The first film to meet that new deal is Old and, surprisingly, it’s not based on one of Shyamalan’s original ideas.  Instead, it’s inspired by Sandcastle, a graphic novel by Swiss artists Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters.  Given to him as a gift by his daughters, Shyamalan responded to the illustrated tome’s themes Levy and Peeters dabble into when they weren’t revealing how a secluded beach in paradise becomes a nightmare for a group of vacationing tourists.  Reviewing what types of family-based stories Shyamalan has been compelled to tell in the past, it’s not hard to see why he felt a kinship with the creators of Sandcastle or why he thought he’d like to bring those ideas to life on screen.  For a while, Old even feels like something new.  Then…some tired tricks resurface.

Arriving with their two children at a luxe resort in an unnamed tropical utopia (the movie was filmed in the Dominican Republic), Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) and Guy (Gael García Bernal, Coco) are hoping for one last relaxing vacation before reality sets in.  Already planning to separate before the trip was set into motion, life-changing medical news has arrived for one of them which suggests this might be the final time the four of them can spend together as a family.  At least they are truly being waited on hand and foot, thanks to Prisca stumbling on the hotel on the internet and getting a great deal for the week.  The kindly hotel manager suggests a day trip to a private beach that is sure to impress and the foursome, wanting to kick back, swim, and sun, only need to be pointed in the right direction.

Dropped off at the beach by their driver (Shyamalan, popping up in his usual cameo) along with a doctor (Rufus Sewell, Judy), his trophy wife (Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon), their 6-year-old daughter, and his mother, they make the short walk to the beach through a towering rock wall, and it is indeed the private haven the manager promised it would be.  There is already someone there though, a famous artist (Aaron Pierre) Prisca’s daughter instantly recognizes and who soon becomes the first clue that something isn’t quite right at the beach.  Before we know more, a third couple (Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung) shows up and our beach party seems to be complete.  Then…the first dead body is found.

In the interest of your own enjoyment of Old, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination and say that up until that point, Shyamalan had done a solid job of carefully gathering a bunch of strings together he could ably pull taught.  Though featuring a lot of stock characters (the doctor is a controlling bore, the trophy wife is a looks obsessed snob), he’s cast the film with enough interesting actors that you are curious to see where their beach journey to The Twilight Zone will lead them.  Even the first few developments where they figure out something supernatural (or otherwise) is taking control over them and preventing them from leaving, Shyamalan maintains a great deal of tension while we fret right alongside the characters in true peril.

It’s only when we start to get long gaps in between events do you see how flimsy the structure of the piece actually is, how repetitive the attempts to leave are, and how helpless the characters act when they could be taking fuller charge of the situation.  The worst thing about it is that up until this point, many of these people were portrayed as independently minded, intelligent beings but somehow once they get a little sand in their swimsuit, they don’t put up much of a defense when challenged.  That’s why nearly the entire midsection of the film is simply a series of false starts and fake outs, never gaining any momentum until the end when secrets are revealed, giving the story more of its purpose and creating a renewed interest in what’s been happening.

To his credit, I think Shyamalan is going for exactly the movie Old is.  He wanted these pauses when families could talk about growing older and reflecting on watching parents age as their children experience life that has begun to move at a rapid pace all around us.  It’s an odd construct for a horror film of this nature and doesn’t always feel in harmony with everything else going on but…I do see where he’s coming from.  Perhaps part of the problem I had with it all is that I never believed Krieps and Bernal had breathed the same air for more than two hours before we first see them, much less been married for over a decade.  There’s just no chemistry there so attempts to create dramatic sequences for the two of them don’t have anywhere to go.  The most successful couple in the film is probably Amuka-Bird (The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Leung (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) who manage to create some kind of connection in the little amount of downtime they are afforded.  I also have to say that while Lee has to play some silly scenes in the first half of the film, Shyamalan certainly gives her a few memorable bits in the latter sections.

I wouldn’t recommend you keep your distance from Old because as jumbled up as the middle section gets, the bookends do manage to redeem it on pure curiosity alone.  You can’t help but be drawn into the world Shyamalan has created and that’s a gift he’s always maintained.  He’s the type of writer/director that easily ensnares you into the theater with an intriguing story, only to leave you slightly disappointed the tale isn’t quite as he originally described it.  He thinks it’s better than what he promised.  You wish it were better than what you got.  That’s nothing new. 

Movie Review ~ Blood Red Sky

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman with a mysterious illness is forced into action when a group of terrorists attempt to hijack a transatlantic overnight flight. In order to protect her son she will have to reveal a dark secret, and unleash the vampire within that she fought to hide.

Stars: Peri Baumeister, Carl Anton Koch, Kais Setti, Alexander Scheer, Roland Møller, Dominic Purcell, Graham McTavish

Director: Peter Thorwarth

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I feel like in July, Netflix is giving me everything I’ve ever wanted short of a shark attack musical starring Sharon Stone.  Really, first that glorious Fear Street trilogy which started strong, built momentum, then brought it all together in a wonderful finale, and now Blood Red Sky.  Combining two of my favorite subgenres, the vampire horror film and the airplane disaster action film, this German/UK co-production is touching down at the perfect time when there is a tiny lull in blockbuster theatrical releases.  While it has no name stars and Netflix isn’t marketing it as well as they should, they are sitting on what could be a sleeper hit for their streaming service because this is one rocker shocker of a film that delivers endlessly from takeoff to landing.

As the film opens, a large airliner is unsteadily touching down at an airport where an array of tactical teams awaits its arrival.  After landing, one passenger exits from the baggage compartment while another sits in the cockpit in a sniper’s crosshairs.  Where is the crew?  What happened to the other passengers?  There are definitely answers and both of the individuals have what we’re looking for…but first we have to find out how we got here.  To do that, screenwriters Stefan Holtz and Peter Thorwarth (who also directed) take us back several hours to before the plane took off from Germany.

Young Elias (Carl Anthon Koch) checks in for a transatlantic flight from Germany to New York for both himself and his mother Nadja (Peri Baumeister).  She’s too ill to accompany him to the airport until just before the flight takes off later that evening because she’s suffering from a rare condition that has left her bald and requires an injection at regular intervals.  The two board the flight with the other passengers, taking off with little incident and settle in for the overnight flight which crosses time zones and will land in New York under a cloak of evening darkness.  What no one knows is that hidden amongst the passengers is a large team of terrorists who plan to hijack the plane and crash it into London, hoping to create another international incident that sends the stock market into a panic.

Midway through their flight, the terrorists (several of which come from unlikely places) stage their attack and during the struggle Nadja is shot and left for dead out of view of the other passengers.  Yet Nadja isn’t dead now.  She’s been dead before…and for a while.  Further flashbacks show us the snowy night when Elias was just a baby and Nadja encountered a terrifying creature along with her husband after their car broke down.  The creature that scratched her.  The creature she now is.  The creature that has been unleashed now that she’s missed her regular dose of medicine.

There’s quite a lot of fun to be had in Blood Red Sky and it all depends on how much you are willing to kick your shoes off and enjoy yourself.  If you’re going to overanalyze the movie on the merits of reality, you should probably go watch Air Force One or Executive Decision, both excellent films.  If you are a Snakes on a Plane kind of person or don’t mind some CGI mayhem injected into the mix, by all means come on over and check this out.  The more animalistic Nadja gets, the crazier Blood Red Sky becomes and just when you think Thorwarth has taken things to their limit, he pushes the boundary again.  Surprisingly, it all goes down smoothly and though the stakes are continually raised (often exponentially) it doesn’t even approach exhausting…. it’s rather thrilling.

A lot of this is owed to Baumeister’s almost mesmerizing work as this ever-evolving creature.  Helped along with make-up, it’s the physicality that Baumeister possesses underneath it all that sells it in the end.  Like the White Spikes created for The Tomorrow War on Amazon Prime, the vampiric creature SFX in Blood Red Sky are incredibly impressive and, without spoiling anything, plentiful.  The production design was another high point, with the airline set being both believably spacious and cramped when called for. 

Along with Baumeister, Koch is handed a lot of emotional material to work, and he acquits himself nicely.  The character is inherently a bit of a handful, always getting into some kind of mess, but Koch at least doesn’t get too obnoxious in the process.  As a fellow passenger and ally, Kais Setti gets the right message across by looking past the creature features of his aisle mate and Roland Møller (Land of Mine) is bit of a big dumb fun as a terrorist who is more annoyed with his fellow team members than the gnashing monster tracking them all down.  The prize of the film is without question Alexander Scheer’s demented hijacker, first taking pride in gruesomely killing hostages before finding benefit in Nadja’s powers…. you can tell Scheer is a go-for-broke performer and it’s exactly what the role calls for.

Blood Red Sky could (and should) be one of those titles that hover at the top of the Top 10 list on Netflix for a long while, long enough for people to be curious enough to give it a go or for word of mouth to spread.  It’s far above average and leveled-up entertainment that would have been good enough to play in theaters but instead is available right now at home.  I’ll still be waiting for Netflix fulfill my last request of that Sharon Stone outer space shark musical but for now…Blood Red Sky will more than fit the bill for my genre wish list.

Movie Review ~ Joe Bell

The Facts:

Synopsis: An Oregonian father pays tribute to his gay teenage son, embarking on a self-reflective walk across America to speak his heart to heartland citizens about the real and terrifying costs of bullying.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Morgan Lily, Gary Sinise, Tara Buck, Ash Santos, Igby Rigney, Cindy Perez

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Part of this review is going to include a minor spoiler of the movie, because it will be next to impossible to discuss it in any depth without including this bit of information.  It’s nothing that hasn’t been shown in the trailer but on the off chance you have yet to see the preview or don’t know the basic premise of Joe Bell, feel free to stop reading now and come back once you’ve watched it. 

You ready to move on?

We’re forging ahead with this review, so be ready.

OK…let’s go.

Living in a small town in the northeast corner of Oregon, Jadin Bell was singled out for being different.  The only openly gay student at his high school, he was a member of the cheerleading team and while his parents did their best to support him in the way that they knew how to, lack of true understanding of what it meant to be an ally left Jadin without the resources he needed to deal with the bullying he endured at school.  With few friends and an administration that didn’t stand up for him, he saw little hope for the future.  At fifteen, he hanged himself from the school’s playground equipment,

A devastating loss for his family, Jadin’s death sends his father Joe (Mark Wahlberg, All the Money in the World) into a depression.  Always prone to moody outbursts, he directs his anger at Jadin’s younger brother (Maxwell Jenkins) while his wife Lola (Connie Britton, This is Where I Leave You) looks on, unable to help her husband out of this darkness.  Then, an idea occurs to him.  Joe didn’t stop the bullying when Jadin came to him and asked for help, but he could tell others about his son and what could happen if harassment went unresolved.  He’d further hammer home that point by walking from Oregon to New York, where Jadin hoped to go to college after graduation.  As Joe makes his way across the country, he meets a number of individuals from all walks of life that have been in his shoes in one way or another and the impact they have on his life continues his own evolution of thinking. Accompanying him at times in Joe Bell the film would be Jadin himself.

The conceit of a dead character popping up to speak to a live one and acting as a kind of guide from the other side isn’t anything we haven’t seen done countless times before.  In fact, since I saw Joe Bell earlier this week, I’ve already watched another movie coming out in early August that employs the same narrative gimmick…sometimes to better effect.  What the speaking spirit often accomplishes for the screenwriter is the opportunity to have a two-way conversation on a solo journey of self-discovery.  The walk that Joe Bell is taking is purportedly to raise awareness on high school bullying and the devastating effects it can have, but it is more about his own atonement than anything else.  Having Joe’s deceased son Jadin present for long stretches of his walk, acting as a challenging sounding board adds to that immediacy for an emotional response from an audience but doesn’t always further the overall journey from a storytelling perspective.

Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, both of whom won an Oscar for adapting Brokeback Mountain in 2005, I believe Joe Bell wants to tap into that same poignancy which made that earlier work such a memorable milestone in modern cinema.  Unfortunately, though the true story on which the film is based is incredibly moving (and has more surprises than you may initially think), the way it has been assembled as a film doesn’t open itself up in the same kind of way that Brokeback Mountain did.  Though both films have a timeline that jump back and forth, Joe Bell’s important items have happened long before the movie begins and we spend a good sixty-minutes piecing together what led up to the events in La Grande, Oregon in 2013. 

It’s not meant to be a pleasant watch and I’m not suggesting it should be.  I’m not even saying the events should be laid out in chronological order.  The true element to the story means that certain events need to stay as-is and I appreciate that Ossana, McMurtry, Wahlberg, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green resist the urge to give Joe a huge speech where he suddenly becomes a great orator.  This is a man that isn’t good with words or grand statements.  He’s blunt, rough around the edges, and often says one thing when meaning the other.  So many of us have parents or know parents that are like that, and Joe Bell is no different.  What happens is that there begins to exist a disconnect between the emotion of the piece and the emotion of the true story it’s based on.  Things start to pile on as the film nears its conclusion and you can start to feel Jadin’s voice drowned out amongst all the mawkishness of the redemptive arc Joe is undergoing.  Is this Jadin’s story we’re meant to hear and understand or Joe’s?

In the title role, Wahlberg gives it his all as the dad trying to do good but missing the mark because when he didn’t know what else to do he just resorted to how he was raised.  I think Wahlberg did service to the real person and kept it as true as could be and that’s to be respected.  Reid Miller as Jadin has a bit of a wider field to play with and this is the performance that should be studied carefully.  His flashback scenes are deeply emotional and hard to watch, considering you know how it all turns out.  The “on the road” scenes where he’s tagging along as his dad goes on his cross-country walk are a little less focused. I’m not sure I needed to hear the two actors do quite so much of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ but then, I digress.  There’s never a time when Britton is not completely dependable and a value-add to a film, but I was genuinely surprised when Gary Sinise (Ransom) showed up as a small-town sheriff with a tender-heart. It’s a small part in a much larger story, but in a short amount of screen time Sinise makes a big impression.

Originally thought to be an Oscar play for Wahlberg before the pandemic hit in 2020, the mediocre reception Joe Bell received when it played the festival circuit (when it was called Good Joe Bell) last year put that dream to rest and that’s really for the best.  This is a film that shouldn’t be made for awards consideration.  Joe Bell would be a fine model to point to as someone that attempted to make good of something bad and the movie largely follows suit. 

Movie Review ~ The Last Letter From Your Lover

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young journalist in London becomes obsessed with a series of letters she discovers that recounts an intense star-crossed love affair from the 1960s.

Stars: Felicity Jones, Callum Turner, Joe Alwyn, Nabhaan Rizwan, Shailene Woodley

Director: Augustine Frizzell

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I vaguely remembered watching the trailer for The Last Letter from Your Lover when it was first released a month or so ago and as is the case with most previews I see now, I turned it off before it was halfway over.  I needed to see no more.  Period setting?  Love story?  Bit of mystery?  London setting?  A handful of actors I find intriguing? The boxes were unanimously checked, and this went straight into the ‘oh yes, please and thank you and when can I feast my eyes’ bucket.  I’m too lazy to go back and check now (and please don’t tell me) but did the preview also show how charming and adorable this late summer romantic drama was?  I honestly thought this was going to be far stuffier than it turned out but The Last Letter from Your Lover is a real find so late into July and a palette cleanser for those soured on scores of brainless comedies, action films, and an endless array of binged TV shows.

In reality, I should have seen it coming.  It’s based on a novel written by Jojo Moyes who managed to turn her book about the doomed love story between a small town pixie dreamer and rich paralytic into the rather memorable film Me Before You in 2016.  This isn’t in quite the same category and has its sights set on loftier goals, but both films rely heavily on sudsy romance and beautiful leads to win over audiences ready to swoon at the mere suggestion of unrequited love.  Moyes might even be called to the mat for going overboard by featuring not one, not two, but maybe even three hard-won romances in The Last Letter from Your Lover and darn it all if I didn’t get a little misty by the time it was all through. 

In present day London, Ellie (Felicity Jones, The Midnight Sky) a journalist for a popular publication is assigned to write a story on a recently deceased long-time employee who has left all her writings to the paper.  After battling with the paper’s fussy archivist (Nabhaan Rizwan, 1917) for access, she explores the cache of material and finds a rain-soaked letter within, a letter containing a love note from decades earlier.  We know the note is between Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley, The Mauritanian) the American wife of an upper crust but cold Englishman (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) and Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner, Green Room) a reporter that meets up with the couple while on vacation to write a story about the husband.  Unimpressed by the reporter at first, where there’s friction, there is soon fire and before long the two are swept up in a passionate affair.

Back in the modern time, Ellie continues to look into the history of the letter and finds more of them within the historical documents.  This spurs her into writing a new story about the affair, uncovering a love story that had laid dormant for quite some time, even as Ellie’s own romance with the archivist is taking on a life of its own.  The closer Ellie gets to finding out what happened to Jennifer and Anthony, the further she begins to retreat from her own happiness. Amidst her detective work, is she living too much in the past and making a mistake she’ll regret?

Taking a few steps back, I must admit there is a feeling that the cast skews slightly too young for the more mature nature of the story.  Even sitting in their late 20s/early 30s, Turner, Alwyn, and Woodley seem just slightly too young to be playing such established individuals and while Woodley looks totally ravishing in her luxurious wardrobe (by Anna Robbins, Downtown Abbey, with jaw-dropping ensembles that are never repeated twice) it can often feel like someone playing dress-up.  This is not a knock on Woodley’s talent in the least.  I just wonder what the whole thing would have felt like if Woodley (29) had swapped places with Jones (38) and was paired with Rizwan (24).  With all that said, the cast easily creates a chemistry with one another and it’s a chief reason why the film flows so smoothly through both time periods.

Director Augustine Frizzell (also an actress that has appeared in films such as The Old Man & the Gun and the remake of Pete’s Dragon) works a special kind of magic in the final act and while I won’t spoil it, it manages to bring a resolutely beautiful wrap-up to what could have been a maudlin and overly syrupy gathering of loose ends.  The performances by two actors (one of whom sadly passed away earlier this year) are especially strong and add to the effectiveness of these final moments, just another key ingredient along with the production design that give The Last Letter From your Lover that special something.  Make it a first choice for your next date night.

Movie Review ~ Broken Diamonds

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the wake of his father’s death, a twenty-something writer sees his dream of moving to Paris put in jeopardy when he’s forced to temporarily take in his wildly unpredictable, mentally ill sister.

Stars: Ben Platt, Lola Kirke, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alphonso McAuley

Director: Peter Sattler

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I have a fear of Ben Platt.  It’s undiagnosed, but I think it’s medically sound.  I’m fairly sure it began around the time he sang Leonard Bernstein’s ” Somewhere ” live at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in 2018 (the vibrato haunts my dreams) and it’s only grown since then.  I’ve tried exposure therapy by binging both seasons of The Politician on Netflix and I saw my pulse decrease significantly between season 1 and season 2 so I know I’m making progress.  I suffered a minor setback with the recent debut of the Dear Evan Hansen trailer and am already mentally preparing for the September 24th release date, but I put my head between my knees after I saw his hair and with some deep breathing I was able to work through the anxiety.

I truly thought Broken Diamonds was going to be another training exercise for myself, a trial to see how far I could be pushed to my breaking point where Platt was concerned.  After all, aside from his appearances in Pitch Perfect and its sequel, Platt hasn’t had much time to appear in many films.  Roles in 2015’s Ricki and the Flash and 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk were forgettable but led to a more pivotal one in the 2019 drama Run This Town that didn’t even break a sweat in the US.  In all honesty, not a whole lot is riding on Broken Diamonds. Apart from it looking an awful lot like 2014’s The Skeleton Twins, it appears to have been filmed in the middle of 2018 and is being distributed by a small indie company that usually reissues old TV movies on Amazon. So even if it were a disaster for Platt, it would be easy to shove this one under the rug pretty fast.

The thing is, Platt’s performance in Broken Diamonds is maybe the best thing I’ve seen him do.  It’s his least mannered, least controlled, and least curated to death role to date.  That this is the film of his that likely not a lot of people will see is a shame because the actor is doing something special within the framework of 90ish minutes and more attention should be paid.  Working alongside the equally impressive Lola Kirke (Gone Girl), the two form a dynamic duo for a family drama focusing on two siblings aiming to find balance in their lives which are dramatically out of synch.  She’s a diagnosed schizophrenic kicked out of her mental health facility just as her brother has packed up his apartment and is moving to Paris, following his dream to become a writer.  All this happens the same weekend their father unexpectedly passes away.

Offering little complications along the way, Steve Waverly’s script is all about getting these two in the same room and talking it out as much as possible.  Sure, Platt’s character, Scott does his fair share of griping about his sister Cindy to her therapist (Catherine Lough Haggquist, Fifty Shades Freed, powerful in just a few short scenes), to their stepmother Cookie (Yvette Nicole Brown, Lady & the Tramp), and their estranged mother (Lynda Boyd, The Age of Adaline) who stays away mostly because she suffers from her own degenerative mental condition.  Without many friends of his own and with Cindy burning all of her former bridges, the siblings have no one left but each other, so the movie is comprised largely of face-to-face conversations about rough childhoods growing up in the shadow of mental illness. 

Before you go too bug-eyed and think this is all gloom and doom depressing, let me assure you that director Peter Sattler manages to keep the film from leaning toward being singularly focused on the darker side of things.  There’s plenty of small bits of humor that break up the mood from being too severe, comedy that doesn’t feel out of place or disingenuous to the more serious subjects being taken up.  Yet the film does have to get to a dramatic peak and in the end, it winds up not shying away from the black edges that mental illness can take people to.  This is where Kirke has a chance to shine as well.  We’ve already seen her do good work over multiple seasons in Amazon’s dearly departed Mozart in the Jungle but there’s some deep digging going on in Broken Diamonds that’s to be admired.

The fear of Ben Platt still remains, I think it will always be there.  I find, however, that Broken Diamonds was a good tool for me to use when I have those Grammy nightmares or think of his Instagram videos where he’s wearing overalls for the sixth or seventh day in a row.  It’s in these moments of chilling cold sweats that I’ll remember he can turn it out when he wants to and pull back for the right film and message.   

Movie Review ~ Here After

The Facts:

Synopsis: A struggling actor dies right after a bad breakup, awakening to a singles Purgatory where he must find his soul mate in order to cross over to the other side as if dating in New York wasn’t hard enough already.

Stars: Christina Ricci, Andy Karl, Nora Arnezeder, Jackie Cruz, Michael Rispoli

Director: Harry Greenberger

Rated: NR

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  Doing this long enough you know not to make up your mind about a movie in the first five minutes because, more often than not, a film (especially an indie one) needs some time to settle in and shake off some jitters.  It’s almost a common courtesy to give some extra breathing room and I’m more than happy to grit my teeth a little longer, giving a movie the benefit of the doubt as long as possible.  I tell you this so you know that I tried, I really tried, to give Here After (or, Faraway Eyes, it’s listed as both on IMDb and in the end credits) the widest berth to win me over during its incredibly overstuffed run time.  After 125 minutes, I’m afraid that my thoughts toward it at the beginning hadn’t changed much.  This was a seriously problematic movie with an especially pungent lead character.

You don’t KNOW how much this bums me out because I truly enjoy Andy Karl (Joyful Noise) who plays Michael, the unfortunate soul who dies in a car crash shortly after breaking up with his girlfriend at the airport.  Opening with Michael on a gurney giving a monologue directly to the camera about a sexual escapade he had at 16 involving handcuffs and a cute redhead from school, I’m unsure how writer/director Harry Greenberger thought this would go over to the majority of audience members.  Did he think this story would be endearing?  Funny?  Charming?  It’s sort of…misogynistically putrid and everything that happens to Michael after that point you almost completely don’t care about because of how we meet him.  Yet we still have two hours to go.

After he dies, Michael has a meeting with Scarlet (Christina Ricci, Mermaids) a platinum haired, glassy-eyed corporate-type heavenly being in a red suit that tells him he died without ever finding his soulmate.  He can’t “proceed” without finding his soulmate among the other souls that are currently wandering around without a match.  Michael doesn’t take this news well and heads straight for the bar where he launches into another bit of odd stream of consciousness ramblings. Finally, he remembers he has a schmuck uncle (Michael Rispoli, Cherry) who died recently and perhaps he also stuck around and could offer some advice.

This is where the movie truly goes gutter because Rispoli’s character has got to be one of the most repugnant and repulsive creations put to film.  Always ready with some trashy remark about the opposite sex or a tired slur about the same sex, Michael’s uncle eventually takes him to a women’s locker room for a man to man talk where they can discuss their situation on finding a mate while invisibly watching naked women walk around.  Interspersed through all of these uncle scenes are a bevy of totally filthy comments about body parts, cavities, and sex devices that were almost enough for me to throw in the towel.

The movie thinks it’s picking up when Michael meets Honey Bee (Nora Arnezeder, Army of the Dead) but that’s just when it begins ripping off Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series.  Ever wanted to know what it’s like being on a date with two boring people that are getting to know one another…especially when they start to talk about what kind of music they like?  Fire this one up!  Loading plot complication upon plot complication, not only is Honey Bee alive but can still see the undead Michael (so couldn’t be the soulmate he seeks), but she also has a psycho stalker (Alex Hurt) that won’t leave her alone.  I mean…has he walked around talking about music with her?  He’d run for the hills if he had.

I’m a little surprised Broadway star Karl (and he’s great on Broadway, I’ve seen him, I’ve met him, he’s a star, no question) showed up in this.  Either he’s a friend of Greenberger or the chance to star in a film was too big of an opportunity to pass up.  It’s a shame because Here After is a real dog, for everyone involved.  Even the supporting players get stuck with lame dialogue and this odd CGI space that looks like a Zoom background set to ‘Blur’.  Poor Jackie Cruz (Midnight in the Switchgrass) …not only does she have to say Greenberger’s gaggingly smug dialogue but she’s wedged into this weird wig.  The small bright spot of Jeannie Berlin (Inherent Vice) as Michael’s mom doesn’t burn bright for long, Greenberger keeps making her reference jars of pickles she gave him that he kept in his refrigerator.  I know, this sounds odd.  Now think about my having to watch it and then recount it for you.

You roll the dice with every movie you watch, and they aren’t all going to be winners.  Sometimes you roll the dice so hard they bounce back and hit you in the forehead and that’s what Here After felt like.  It’s so thick with heavy-handed plot devices that rely on toxic maleness it’s almost stifling.  Speaking of stifling, try not to full on yawn during the closing song from Debbie Harry played over the credits.  Advertised on the poster, it was the one thing I was looking forward to as things were drawing to a close but it was just as off-key and strange as the film. 

Movie Review ~ Ailey

The Facts:

Synopsis: Alvin Ailey was a visionary artist who found salvation through dance. Told in his own words and through the creation of a dance inspired by his life, this immersive portrait follows a man who, when confronted by a world that refused to embrace him, determined to build one that would.

Stars: Robert Battle, Rennie Harris, Darrin Ross, Don Martin, Mary Barnett, Linda Kent, George Faison, Judith Jamison, William Hammond, Sylvia Waters, Hope Clarke, Sarita Allen, Masazumi Chaya, Bill T. Jones

Director: Jamila Wignot

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Though you may not know the name Alvin Ailey, you surely have seen some piece of his work over the years.  The revolutionary choreographer was an artist ahead of his time that saw dance as a language he had the power to translate, and his work is representative of that.  My own exposure to the works of Ailey has been quite limited and that’s why a documentary like Ailey is a rare opportunity to delve deeper into not just the history of the man himself but into what the dance brought to life in the time it was developed.  Each move told a story, and each step had a purpose, and as viewers of this documentary will find out, much of it was born from the pain (personal and professional) experienced by Ailey throughout his life.

Born in Texas in 1931 during the peak of the Great Depression, Ailey rose from picking cotton with his mother to living with her after moving to Los Angeles in 1941.  Beginning his formal dance with Lester Horton and the (now legendary) dancer Carmen De Lavallade, he started out in Horton’s troupe and eventually formed a nightclub act with future poet laureate Maya Angelou.  This led to numerous tours, club dates, and his Broadway debut but kept Ailey longing for a role that was more tailored to his choreographic interests.

Director Jamila Wignot’s film traces these early years and the eventual formation of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater using archival materials from Ailey and stock footage from the era along with Ailey’s own voice recordings recounting his life story.  Weaving through and helping to propel the narrative further are Ailey’s own choreographed dances, preserved forever on film and many of them captured with their original performers.  Not only do these represent the raw talent that Ailey was working with and who knew his style intimately, but it gives viewers a true taste of what an experience of seeing his pieces must have been like under the watchful eye of the man himself. 

Ailey’s most famous piece, Revelations, has entered the cultural lexicon as his calling card of sorts but it was this piece that would haunt him for the remainder of his life before his death of AIDS in 1989.  This extraordinary piece charts the black experience using the church and church music as its inspiration.  Given an extra bit of attention in Wignot’s documentary, Revelations is fairly stirring even now and along with a dozen or so other works, it can be easy to be swept away into any of the archival numbers presented throughout Ailey.  I’m so sorry for those seeing this in theaters, watching it at home I could rewind the film and re-watch the incredible Judith Jamison leave it all on the stage performing Ailey’s propulsive Cry in 1971. 

Where the documentary comes up short (feeling padded for time even at 95 minutes) is when it shifts back to the present and watching choreographer Rennie Harris piece together a new work honoring Ailey’s 60th anniversary for the company.  What Harris was putting together would, I’m sure, be wonderful but since we don’t get to see that final product it’s just random rehearsal footage and time I’d rather be spending with more of Ailey and his acolytes recounting the history.  That’s where the greatest wealth is to be found here.

Perfect for newcomers to Ailey or dance in general, it’s a primer that gives you nearly all the information you need and then encourages further exploration after.  While Ailey goes just to edge of some of the more personal aspects of his life, I can’t quite tell if Wignot didn’t want to turn over too many stones that have settled in a good place or if it simply wasn’t part of the story being told.  No matter, it’s filled with enough grace and style to catch your eye…most especially Ailey’s long-time stage manager recounting the first performance given after Ailey’s death.  Grab your Kleenex.

Movie Review ~ Midnight in the Switchgrass

The Facts:

Synopsis: While in Florida on another case, FBI agents cross paths with a state cop who is investigating a string of female murders that appear to be related. When an undercover sting goes horribly wrong, it plunges the team into grave danger and pitting them against a serial killer in a twisted game of cat and mouse.

Stars: Megan Fox, Bruce Willis, Emile Hirsch, Lukas Haas, Colson Baker (aka Machine Gun Kelly), Caitlin Carmichael, Sistine Stallone

Director: Randall Emmett

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  I think we all need to stop and have some kind of memorial service for the Bruce Willis we once knew.  The Bruce Willis of the 1980’s and 1990’s who gave us some of the most memorable action movies out there.  The risk-taking Bruce Willis who went blonde for Luc Besson in The Fifth Element and went in the buff for Richard Rush in Color of Night.  This was the Bruce Willis married to Demi Moore who was part owner of Planet Hollywood and looked like he enjoyed making movies and being a member of the Hollywood A-List.  Scanning over the last several years of films on the IMDb credits for Willis, it’s clear this version of him is gone.

It’s hard to even call what Willis is doing in Midnight in the Switchgrass acting because he’s basically “present” in the film more than anything.  Sitting most of the time and only standing/moving in blink and you missed it moments, Willis has made a habit of this type of show-up-and-speak kind of roles that represent a sorry state of affairs for the actor that used to have so much pull in Hollywood.  If Midnight in the Switchgrass had been a better movie, this type of appearance might be just a minor bummer because you’d wish Willis had wanted to participate more.  Sadly, the movie is resoundingly terrible and now the lack of energy Willis shows in his appearance only signals what the audience will feel after sitting through this ungainly schlock which never figures out who the star is or what mood it wants to set.

Someone is abducting vulnerable women and leaving their bodies (not in the switchgrass!) along various roadways.  Pretty early on in Alan Horsnail’s leaden script, we find out that someone is truck driver/family man Peter (Lukas Haas, First Man, forever trying to extricate himself from his baby-faced child acting days) and his ugly, backward attitudes toward women (the ones he kills and otherwise) are laid on so thick you wonder if Horsnail is making a point or just exacerbating one.  His latest catch wanders out in a drug haze from a motel that also happens to be the site of an FBI sting operation originally set to trap him – what a coincidence.

Though she purposely set out to trap Peter, beautiful (but tough!) FBI agent Rebecca (Megan Fox, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) instead nabs a disgusting pimp (the equally disgusting Colson Baker aka Machine Gun Kelly, Fox’s real-life boyfriend) and their grueling matching of {nit}wits make an already lengthy first act set-up that much longer.  Sitting out in the car listening to all this and constantly threatening to “come in there!” is Karl (Willis, Glass), Rebecca’s partner who thinks she’s playing with fire tempting a killer out of hiding.

Also looking for the killer is state police office Byron (Emile Hirsch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), who arrives at the scene of a victim and makes some stunning conclusions on motive and method having seen ¼ of the crime scene.  After promising the mother of the victim that he’ll find the killer, after sitting through her looooong story that is only important because it gives us the title reference, he ditches all other responsibilities (and his weepy wife played by Here After’s Jackie Cruz in a thankless role) and eventually teams up with Rebecca to track Peter down.  Doing some good old fashioned detective work, the film hits some sort of mild stride when the younger cops work together, only to be quickly flattened by a drawn-out finale that just sort of slumps over and gives up.

Director Randall Emmett makes his feature directorial debut after producing, wait for it, 119 movies, the bulk of those within the last 10 years.  Even the most prolific producer can’t have quality control over 20 good movies over 10 years…so that should tell you why there are multiple gaffes in the film, evidence of a shoddy production where even relatively smart actors like Fox and Hirsch get tripped up every now and then.  Recently on a redemptive streak and scoring in Till Death just a few weeks back, Fox is dragged down by the man in her life (Machine Gun Kelly) and her scene partner (Willis), both of whom give her little to work with.  When she’s left to her own devices, the movie at least gets somewhat interesting.  Hirsch oversells his role to the extreme, but at least he’s hawking something…even if he fully changes accents several times throughout the film and at one point even adopts a lisp for a brief scene. 

This is a cheap, stupid, pointless excuse of a film that represents nothing but $$$ for everyone involved.  It will keep the lights on in whatever lake cabin they have or perhaps an acting class or two for some of the local supporting cast that desperately need it.  It doesn’t meet the demands for the thriller genre and Midnight in the Switchgrass certainly won’t cut it as an action suspense picture.  I suggest firing up the lawnmower and cutting this weed down to the root.

Movie Review ~ Pig


The Facts
:

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

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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