Movie Review ~ Vanquish


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother is trying to put her dark past as a Russian drug courier behind her, but a retired cop forces her to do his bidding by holding her daughter hostage.  Now, she’ll use guns, guts, and a motorcycle to take out a series of violent gangsters — or she may never see her child again

Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ruby Rose, Patrick Muldoon, Julie Lott, Ekaterina Baker, Nick Vallelonga, Joel Michaely, Miles Doleac

Director: George Gallo

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (0/10)

Review:  It’s a good thing screeners for Vanquish were sent out so far in advance of its mid-April release because I’ve legitimately needed a solid three weeks to process just how bad the movie is.  Honestly, that may sound extreme, but you obviously haven’t seen this sorry excuse for an action thriller yet.  I’m hoping to turn you toward something more entertaining, like lying on a bed of discarded dentures watching an army of ants carry away a breadcrumb soaked in root beer.  Movies (and Oscar-winning acting careers) don’t get much more crud-tastic than this and if you aren’t popping your third Aleve after the headache inducing lighting and camera work by the time this is all over, there should be some ice cream coupon digital reward for your efforts. 

Once upon a time, seeing Academy Award winner and everyone’s favorite disembodied voice Morgan Freeman’s name attached to a film meant something.  If it wasn’t exactly clout, then it was that the production had something interesting going for it that attracted Freeman to sign on.  Other than the fact that he gets to sit for the entire film, I’m not sure why Freeman is co-starring as a retired cop playing mind games with a former drug runner who happens to be his housekeeper (or cook? It’s never clear but cleaning and cooking are mentioned, though lead Ruby Rose doesn’t show up to his unfurnished house dressed to do either.)  Instead, Freeman (Lucy) literally cools his heels for 96 minutes and totally tanks his reputation in writer/director George Gallo’s insanely gaudy and lurid female John Wick-ish wannabe flopparoo.   

The phrase “you know you’re in trouble from the start” is used often but it’s right on the money in the case of Vanquish because the credits alone tell you everything you need to know on the quality of the film about to unfold.  Clocking it at a zombifying six minutes and featuring some of the poorest photoshopping of old Freeman photos into fake newspaper stories that look like a fourth-grade book report only less literate, I stopped counting the number of times they used the same press photo from a previous Freeman film.  If you want to add some extra hilarity to your night, pause and read some of the headline gems. All sound like they were lifted directly out of Babelfish translator from one foreign language into English.  None of them read quite right.

This jumps into Gallo’s tacky, neon-colored fantasy version of (I think) Los Angeles, though I’m not sure it’s ever explicitly stated, where ex-cop Freeman sets up his personal care attendant (Rose, The Meg) to gather a wealth of cash from a series of rogue criminals, and not very nicely holding her daughter (cast with a young actress that appears incredibly tired the entire film) as collateral.  Obtain all the money for him and his goomba associates (played by the most offensively stereotypical and dumb character actors that obviously called in a favor to maintain their Screen Actors Guild benefits) and she and her daughter will go free.  Ah…but never get between a woman with a buzzcut and her child, especially one that decided to get out of the business, has successfully stayed clean, and doesn’t like to be pushed around. 

Described in the press notes as “glossy and stylized”, I’d describe Gallo’s vision as “syrupy and trite”, offering nothing of value either in the directing or writing categories.  Whatever mileage could have been gained from the very playable set-up of mother fighting back against all odds and punishing the vile men that put her in this position is lost among the noise of terrible filmmaking and worse acting.  This includes Freeman who doesn’t look like he doesn’t know what’s going on – he knows exactly what movie he’s in and decided to do it anyway.  He rightly blows every scene partner he has out of the water (poor Rose is practically mush when he’s through with her) but it’s such a surreally weird performance for Freeman to have taken that you spend most of the film wondering if Freeman simply saw the paycheck and signed on to the script sight unseen. 

Consider that Rose was once supposed to be the next thing and then take a look at the work being done here.  Strange line readings and emotions that are, misplaced would be putting it nicely.  As in the recent S.A.S. Red Notice, she’s decent when it comes to the non-dialogue action scenes but strap yourself in anytime she starts to act as that’s when the big trouble begins.  Thinking of how many strong female stars Freeman had shared the screen with and then watching him try to work his way through a scene with Rose and it’s almost laughable.  For an even more depressing thought, consider there is a double Oscar-winner Nick Vallelonga (producer and writer of 2018’s Green Book) playing a hammy supporting character (also terribly) present and realize that Freeman’s Oscar status is still likely the only one that will be discussed in the bad reviews for the film.  Then again, when the performance of Freeman ranks significantly lower than the one he gave several months earlier in a cameo as an animatronic crab in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, there’s clearly a big problem to solve. 

I cannot overstate what a flaming piece of garbage Vanquish is.  Every piece of the production is terrible.  Direction, writing, production, acting, music, cinematography…all awful.  Even the costume design looks like it was done via a straw poll between the actors.  What a pity as well because this one could have had some decent traction with better stars and a new director.  Alas, no, it is what it is and it is heinous. Vanquish is it named and vanquished from your must-see list it should be. 

Available in Select Theaters on April 16th and on Apple TV, and Everywhere You Rent Movies on April 20th
Available on Blu-ray and DVD on April 27th

Movie Review ~ The Map of Tiny Perfect Things


The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager contentedly living the same day in an endless loop gets his world turned upside-down when he meets a girl who’s also stuck in the time warp.

Stars: Kathryn Newton, Kyle Allen, Jermaine Harris, Anna Mikami, Josh Hamilton, Cleo Fraser

Director: Ian Samuels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: It must be soul crushing to be involved in a movie waiting to be released and then seeing one with similar plot elements show up to rapturous fanfare not too long before you are set to arrive on the scene.  It’s no one’s fault here, just a case of bad timing, but one movie is bound to be compared to the other and it’s likely not going to be the one that is sitting with a high critical and audience score on the aggregator websites.  There’s no way of bypassing that comparison, however, so the best that second arrival can do is to focus on what makes their project unique and sell that over anything else.  It’s going to be an uphill battle, but it’s absolutely worth the effort seeing that it’s possible both films can wind up winning in the end.  Then consider what would happen if yet another like-plotted movie found its way into the mix after yours was released…now you’re the pickle in the middle and in a, well, pickle.   

I’m not totally sure The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is running victory laps two months after it was released by Amazon Studios.  While I saw it back in February, I sadly am only getting to this review now as I wrestle with a backlog that was unavoidable.  I didn’t want to ignore this one, though, seeing that it fits into a worthy place in a discussion on similar time loop films released over the past year.  First with Palm Springs in July 2020 and then in March’s Boss Level.  All three are different styles of film with their own pros and cons but if Palm Springs is aimed at the frat crowd, then The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is meant for that audience’s tween brothers and sisters.   

Based on the short story by Lev Grossman who also wrote the film’s screenplay, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things thankfully starts up after Mark (Kyle Allen, the upcoming remake of West Side Story) has already found himself caught in an endless loop for thousands of days where he relieves the same mundane day repeatedly.  As in every other film that has a similar set-up, the rules are the same.  The moment Mark sleeps, everything resets, and he wakes the next day with knowledge of what he learned the day before but no one else retains the same information.  The opening moments show how he’s made some good use out of this time by finding ways to help/assist his family and others in town as they go about their daily life. What he’s mostly trying to perfect now is getting a pretty girl at the town’s pool to notice him but no matter how suave, humble, polite, or impressive he comes off, he isn’t getting anywhere. 

On his latest attempt, out of the blue something changes when Margaret (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back) intervenes, shocking Mark who thought up until now he was stuck alone in this crazy cycle.  Turns out Margaret has also been in her own loop for some time, watching Mark from the sidelines and only got his attention because of her own boredom.  That doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to buddy up with Mark because Margaret has her own reasons for wanting to stay in this circle of time that are as strong as the ones Mark has for finding a way out.   His family life is stuck in a rut and can’t change until he can get to the next day and her family life is…complicated. Together, they decide that until something changes, as a way to pass the time and perhaps a way to break the repeating day they should take the time to step back and look at all the “perfect” things/moments that happen throughout the day and map them out so they know where to find them.   

Ok, so perhaps it doesn’t mine a well that is super deep for ideas or emotional nuance but there is some nice message in Grossman’s script that reminds us to stop periodically and remember to recognize the importance in small victories and what others might deem insignificant.  Bolstering those up might help change your attitude, leading to greater happiness.  It’s rather perfect for the YA crowd and I can see the film being a dark horse suggestion at slumber parties by those in the know of good films that aren’t just about kissing, boys, prom, or a terminal illness given to one of the leads.  The light touch of director Ian Samuels also gives the film a bounce and I almost wonder if The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was pushed out for public consumption too early in the year.  It has such a summer spring in its step that an April or early May date might have made more sense. 

Another fine piece of this puzzle is the casting throughout, starting with Allen and Newton as the incredibly appealing leads.  We already know that Newton is a star on the cusp of something big and its earthy roles like this that she makes seem effortless that will continue to make casting directors put her at the top of their lists.  It’s also a nice showcase of Allen who has the looks of a football quarterback but the sensitivities of the tortured poet when you get right down to it.  Rounding out the cast are Jermaine Harris as Mark’s video game obsessed friend who might always be glued to a game but still can dish out expert advice when called upon, and Cleo Fraser as Mark’s sister.  Fraser and Allen have a nice sibling arc throughout that takes a nice, believable turn and both mesh well with John Hamilton (Frances Ha) as their dad who might appear to be aimless but, like Margaret, has secrets he keeps bottled up. 

Lacking the creative zing that made Palm Springs such a riot and missing the more audacious go-for-broke attitude which gave Boss Level extra bonus points, The Map of Perfect Things finds itself in third place but don’t look at that bronze medal as a sign of a lack of confidence.  Like the recent slate of YA films put out by Amazon Studios (Selah and the SpadesWords on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts), the film fulfills on what it promises by sending out appealing leads jumping through multiple loops to get their day right.  What it might lack in originality it more than makes up for with a casual air of unpretentious self-confidence. 

Movie Review ~ Silk Road


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The true story of Ross Ulbricht, the charismatic young tech-mastermind who unleashed the darknet website Silk Road, and the corrupt DEA agent determined to bring down his billion-dollar empire.

Stars: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Daniel David Stewart, Alexandra Shipp, Paul Walter Hauser, Jimmi Simpson, Lexi Rabe, Katie Aselton, Will Ropp, Jennifer Yun, Paul Blott

Director: Tiller Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: A handful of movies every year feel like some kind of oddball homework assignment you would have been given in school and been grateful for at the time but serves no purpose outside of a classroom teaching modern history.  You go into the movie knowing what the meaning of it all is and at least hoping to get some entertainment value out of it for the time you’re putting in.  Usually, there’s one of two performances to draw some memorable moments from or genuine unknown knowledge that can be pocketed as takeaway trivia for your next night with intellectuals as a way to impress them.  The wish and hope always is that it’s not just a bland rehash of the facts you could have quickly skimmed a magazine article about that’s been dramatized for effect.  

Released in February but totally blown down by review queue by accident, Silk Road is sadly one of those films that is never written into your memory at any point and therefore winds up being an eternal “Did I See That?” title you’ll likely watch the first ten minutes of repeatedly before realizing you’ve seen it before and turn it off.  Even writing a review some three months after seeing it I’m straining to remember some basic details so in a way it’s lucky writer/director Tiller Russell’s film isn’t creative in its storytelling and largely sticks to the order of events.  Adapting Rolling Stone columnist David Kushner 2014 article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall”, Russell’s only gutsy instinct is to give the film a bookended framework meant to create some suspense, though if you’ve ever watched a weekly procedural television show you know where it’s all headed.  And those are works of fiction. 

The film follows the rise of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, Shadow in the Cloud), a Texas native that initially started a book selling business online but eventually moved into the trafficking of illegal narcotics once his first endeavor failed.  Realizing he needed a stronger network to move his product, protect his customers, and safeguard his money, Ulbricht was a largely self-taught internet whiz that would up creating a piece of the dark web that traded in cryptocurrencies known as Silk Road.  Starting out small potatoes and winding up owning the whole crop, Ulbricht was the target of numerous government investigations both overt and behind the scenes as they searched for ways to prove his participation in Silk Road which began to attract all sorts of sordid business dealings. 

One person that became obsessed with tracking him down is DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, Pet Sematary), or, more to the point, Bowden serves as an amalgam of two different agents that tracked Ulbricht over the years.  Watching Clarke’s twitchy performance, it often feels like he’s playing two characters as well, with the actor never truly settling into the role and instead overcompensating for his discomfort by going big with everything he does.  Clarke is better than this and I honestly don’t know what he’s going for. Bowden comes across not just merely out of the loop on current tech matters but computer illiterate to the point of not knowing how to turn one on. The way Clarke pitches Bowden as on hair-trigger edge makes him feel like more of the villain of the piece than Ulbricht could ever be. 

Of course, Ulbricht is the villain and while Robinson has often been quite likable in previous roles he’s neither likable nor gives reason to root against him either.  We’re just indifferent to seeing another privileged white male float up the ranks in a origin story that feels similar in many ways to Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as portrayed in The Social Network.  Like that Oscar winning film, Ulbricht loses all of his friends and personal romantic relationships on his ascent but then realizes he likes it better being successful because he can replace people with more agreeable cronies.  The character is so aggravating that it goes beyond us not liking Ulbricht, the smarminess in Ulbricht and within Bowden makes the entire watch just drag on endlessly. 

If the low spot of the film is Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) as an early Ulbricht recruit (can I just ask something? What in the world is Hauser doing with his career that was only going up?  Performances like this, which feature him once again playing a slovenly male, support a stereotype he needs to avoid) then the bright spot is Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Dark Phoenix). Playing Ulbricht’s girlfriend, she sticks around as long as she can until she becomes excess baggage that needs to be jettisoned along with other non-essential items.  Shipp understands how to make an impression with limited screen time and I wished we had more time with her. 

A trip down the Silk Road is not a journey you’d have to make.  Instead, why not read the well-researched Kushner article right here and get the facts yourself.  It’s just like watching the movie anyway.  I had honestly expected something better from Russell having just come off of watching his fantastic (and fantastically creepy) Netflix miniseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.  While it does have some nice touches visually, dramatically this one doesn’t even make it out of the driveway. 

Movie Review ~ Come True


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenage runaway takes part in a sleep study that becomes a nightmarish descent into the depths of her mind and a frightening examination of the power of dreams.

Stars: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron, Tedra Rogers, Chantal Perron, Caroline Buzanko, Orin McCusker, Elena Porter, Brandon DeWyn, Karen Johnson-Diamond, Christopher Heatherington, Carlee Ryski, Austin Baker

Director: Anthony Scott Burns

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think I was born with a raging case of FOMO because I’ve always been a terrible sleeper.  Naps were nonexistent as a child and I was never one of those high schoolers that slept through their alarm like in some cliché teen comedy.  I stayed up late in college and preferred early morning classes so I could keep my afternoons free for, what else?, catching an early movie matinee if I felt like it.  I’m sure it has wound up taking a toll on my health in some way, but I’ve just had this aversion to sleep and perhaps that’s why movies about beddy-bye time have continued to intrigue me.   

Aside from the obvious Freddy franchise that kicked off with the landmark A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, plenty of films have explored the endless possibilities of dreams and the dark side of nightmares, not to mention a slew of documentaries following sleep studies and what we can learn from why and how we sleep.  The entire process is fascinating if you delve deep into dreamland and I’m always on the lookout for a new film coming down the pike that wants to dip into these waters. Taking stock of what has come before and then seeing what they can stir up can be fun, especially if it’s being released by an independent horror studio that has a solid track record for picking winners. 

At the outset, director Anthony Scott Burns Come True, being released by IFC Midnight, has the makings of giving you a fine little thrill that doesn’t give one inch in the way of hinting at what’s going to happen from scene to scene.  Viewers are dropped into one story that’s reached its climax just as another is about to begin. So we’re asked to keep track of where we’re going while piecing together how we got here in the first place.  Gradually, it becomes obvious Burns has gone and gathered so many ideas that it overwhelms the central core of his narrative and things outright collapse, only to be blown to smithereens by a sure to be controversial ending. 

For some reason, Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) doesn’t want to go home, preferring to sleep in a nearby playground and only briefly sneak back to grab some food and a change of clothes before heading off to school.  Looking weary and wary, she asks to stay at a friend’s house for a time but that isn’t going to solve her long-standing problem at home or do away with the haunting dreams she’s been having where she’s being pursued by a malevolent figure.  Coming across an ad for a sleep study that would pay her to sleep in a bed every night, she can’t believe her good luck and applies for the opportunity. 

Joining a small group of test subjects, Sarah’s dreams become more vivid and eventually cross the line into reality with deadly results.  With occasional answers being provided by a research assistant (Landon Liboiron) who falls for Sarah quickly as he watches her sleep (um, weird) and the other subjects either dropping out, getting injured, or worse, Sarah becomes convinced there’s more to the overall study that meets the eye.  The longer she participates, the closer the monster in her dreams gets to catching up with her until it’s too late for anyone to stop what’s coming forth. 

For only his second feature film, Burns definitely went all in and made sure the movie was his singular vision.  Serving as the director, writer, cinematographer, and composer (with Electric Youth) of the synth heavy but all together perfect score, it never feels like he didn’t know when to self-edit. Consider that remarkable when you think how often directors can barely do two things without it seeming like too much for them to make tough decisions on.  The visuals alone are enough to recommend the movie in some fashion.  It’s rare to see dreams put on screen with such clarity or cleverness but Burns has done it and they’re both distinctive and disturbing at the same time.   

Where Burns does suffer some is in the newbie-ness that comes with being a junior member of the indie directors coming up right now.  The first thing he has to do is find someone to show him how to direct a sex scene because there’s one in Come True that is so uncomfortably awkward I had to put my hands over my face until it was over.  I can’t explain it, you’ll just have to witness it for yourself.  Then there’s that ending which is just a love it or hate it kind of deal and I just c-o-u-l-d-n’t go with it…sorry, but I couldn’t.  Not when applied to what came before in the previous 100 minutes.  If you’re going to throw a wrench in your already twisted plot, make sure it’s at least part of the same family of tools. 

While IFC Midnight isn’t having quite the rock ‘em, sock ‘em year they had in 2020, their titles so far in 2021 (The Night, The Vigil) have been more cerebral than anything else and there’s room for those in the horror genre as well.  Come True follows suit which I supposed keeps it on brand. While it may leave viewers scratching their heads when the credits roll, up until then the stuff the dreams are made of are a pretty psychologically scarred picture indeed. 

Movie Review ~ The Vault (2021)


The Facts:

Synopsis: When an engineer learns of a mysterious, impenetrable fortress hidden under the Bank of Spain, he joins a crew of master thieves who plan to steal the legendary lost treasure while the whole country watches the World Cup.

Stars: Freddie Highmore, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Liam Cunningham, Sam Riley, Famke Janssen, Luis Tosar, José Coronado

Director: Jaume Balagueró

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Though I’ve been reviewing movies on this site for years by this point, I continue to be flabbergasted when I see otherwise rather decent movies shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to seriously poor marketing.  Pandemic or not, each film that makes its way for public consumption should have some kind of advance marketing, be it a teaser poster or short trailer that premiers before the final advertising that gives a more well-rounded look at what the film is about for audiences.  Ideally, audiences could read a short synopsis (like the one provided above) and let that be their gut guide if the film is for them but, as we are well aware, most of the casual movie-going public does need a bit of handholding to get them to their seat. 

That’s why I was so surprised after seeing The Vault just what a real tough nut to crack it was when it came to finding even a legit poster to use for the header of my review or even a decent production photo.  It’s like the studio releasing the movie decided to show their confidence in it by not devoting any substantial effort to give publicists or marketing teams adequate material for press to feature.  Even if the movie apparently changed titles in the US (from the more bland Way Down which it goes by in European territories) late in the game, there’s little excuse for the questionably designed work you see above that makes an old-fashioned heist film with high tech touches look like a soupy amped up spy actioner.  It’s even more of a pity considering this sometimes creaky but mostly well-oiled machine isn’t half bad and actually is quite well made.  

Beginning with a promising opening that includes a brief introduction concerning a grizzled treasure boat captain Walter Moreland (Liam Cunningham, War Horse) finding the remains of a shipwreck in the Atlantic that went down in 1645, it’s likely you’ll be like me and wonder why the film wasn’t snapped up by a major studio.  He’s after a particular item from this fabled ship but just as he thinks he has it in his possession, Spanish customs agents arrive and confiscate his plunder that was discovered off their coast.  Though he pleads his case in front of the judges in the Hague, Moreland is denied access to the item and it’s soon locked away in a Madrid bank vault notoriously impossible to break into.  Not even his connection with a British operative (Famke Janssen, GoldenEye) who, based on their past interactions likely has an agenda of her own, can get him what he wants.   

At the same time, brilliant but socially awkward engineer Thom (Freddie Highmore, August Rush) is being courted by a number of companies that are offering him big paychecks but not for the kind of work he feels drawn to.  His expertise has attracted Moreland and he presents Thom a way to, if not make a difference on the world, at least have an adventure and shake up his staid existence.  Weighing a future tied to a corporate behemoth or risking it all for a man he barely knows that won’t tell him exactly what he’s walking into, Thom makes the choice that best suits his immediate needs…and that’s joining Moreland’s crew to steal back the key to a fortune that’s been hidden for over three hundred years. 

Joined by former spy and second in command James (Sam Riley, Maleficent), brawny Simon (Luis Tosar), tech geek Klaus (Axel Stein), and chameleon-like Lorraine (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), Thom has little time to get up to speed on Moreland’s plan to penetrate the impenetrable bank.  There’s a mystery to be solved as to what exactly protects the vault and that’s why they need Thom, first to help them figure out what the security is and second how to get around it.  As with any good heist films, director Jaume Balagueró (Muse) inserts a breathless early break-in designed as recon for the main event and it’s this sequence when the heat in The Vault really starts to boil over.  There are the expected double crosses, near misses, and somewhat implausible turn of events but it’s all handled with a light touch by Balagueró and feels in line with the Oceans 11 franchise, which Thom even references at one point. 

A team is only as strong as its weakest link so having that essential chemistry between Moreland’s group is critical.  I got a kick out of Tosar’s rough tough guy with a soft center and he more than makes up for the personality that Riley lacks.  Stein is perhaps a bit too conventional in the traditional tech guy role as is Bergès-Frisbey whenever the filmmakers are trying to force a romance subplot between her and Highmore.  When they just let her be a good at her job and not grudgingly falling for the smarty pants new addition to their group, she shines.  Janssen is kind of getting unrecognizable and her looks seems to change from scene to scene…I’ll just leave it at that.  That brings us to Highmore and Cunningham who make for a nice leading duo, though for some reason Cunningham gets billed quite far down the line.  Highmore may be an obvious choice for a highly intelligent engineer but he’s an off the wall candidate to lead a burglary thriller, yet he does it quite nicely. 

With a total of five screenwriters (!) it’s amazing The Vault didn’t feel more patchy in places, but it has a relatively nice flow to it.  At 118 minutes it could lose at least ten and ratchet up some tension for its audience a bit more, losing some unnecessary lovey dovey-ness that doesn’t need to be there.  It works nicely to fill a gap to those that miss the mid-level budget thrillers that would often pop up every few weeks in theaters during the ‘90s.  It would do as a rainy-day option or a weekend watch if the mood struck you just right. 

Movie Review ~ kid 90


The Facts
:

Synopsis: As a teenager in the ‘90s, Soleil Moon Frye carried a video camera everywhere she went. She documented hundreds of hours of footage and then locked it away for over 20 years.

Stars: Soleil Moon Frye, David Arquette, Stephen Dorff, Balthazar Getty, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Brian Austin Green, Tori Leonard, Heather McComb

Director: Soleil Moon Frye

Rated: NR

Running Length: 71 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Although I know now there was a lot going on the world I wasn’t aware of when I was a young child in the early ‘80s, it holds so many warm memories of growing up that I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to go back and relive that time of my life.  Yes, the fashion was “truly outrageous”, the hairstyles were ghastly (or was that just mine?), and taste in general leaned toward gaudy excess but…what fun it all was!  Moving into the ‘90s is when reality started to set in for my sphere of consciousness and more self-awareness led to less freedom of expression.  You can see the shift in movies, television, and music as well, especially as the early part of the decade gave way to the mid ‘90s. When I tell you that I love the ‘80s it’s only because my current relationship with the ‘90s is…complicated.

A documentary like Hulu’s Kid 90 is both a blessing and a curse for someone like me who devoured pop culture throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s because it allows me to marvel at the stars I used to think were the “cool kids” but also feel the sting seeing the flip side to what all that adoration can do to someone so young.  While we’ve read many a cautionary tale of brilliant artists that have been taken too soon, either by accident, by their own purposeful hand, or through the overindulgence in substances that led to their eventual demise, it was always different when it was an actor your own age because it was often your first reality check with mortality.

Directed by and largely framed within the context of the life and career of child star Soleil Moon Frye who broke big early on with her starring role on Punky Brewster, it begins with Frye recounting her trajectory to fame and interspersing interviews she conducted with her old Hollywood friends throughout.  While it may have been obnoxious to her friends and family back then, Frye carried her video camera with her everywhere and has hundreds of hours of footage of the people she hung out with, and many of them happen to be stars we were used to seeing on hit television shows and blockbuster movies.  Seen at their unfiltered best and most at-ease worst, Frye isn’t out to shame anyone for their actions from years ago (mostly, more on that later) but more to just document what life was like off set when the professional cameras weren’t rolling.

What struck me most was the lack of female friends Frye has throughout the years.  While we see several during the course of the movie, Frye mostly hung around with guys and a number of the films divergent themes cover her romances that either soured or faded.  In the final act, she bravely recounts for the first time on camera an act of sexual violence toward her at an early age and the impact that had on her relationships for the ensuing years.  There’s also closure to be found in brief passages with some exes and hoped for loves that doesn’t feel stagey or forced in any way. More often than not, it feels as if everyone is happy to be walking down memory lane with a friendly companion, one that knows the pitfalls and won’t let them be hurt or led onto dangerous ground.

Once Frye gets to the segment showing just how many of these teen and young adults she knew and captured in her video memories didn’t live to see their thirtieth birthday, the sweetness of the nostalgia turns to sadness. What a shame that for whatever reason they didn’t make it and it’s no good now relitigating who is to blame because decades have passed.  That seems to be Frye’s take on the situation as well and where she finds herself as Punky Brewster begins a revival on television.  In the end, Kid 90 feels like a brisk, tightly edited way to put a few of the demons that have been circling her to rest, giving her control of the narrative as is her right, while at the same time honoring a generation that grew up in the public eye.

Movie Review ~ The Truffle Hunters


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the secret forests of Northern Italy, a dwindling group of joyful old men and their faithful dogs search for the world’s most expensive ingredient, the white Alba truffle. Their stories form a real-life fairy tale that celebrates human passion in a fragile land that seems forgotten in time.

Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Let me state for the record that the variety of truffles that float my proverbial boat are of the chocolate variety that come displayed in a fancy box.  I should also mention I have a serious aversion to mushrooms and/or edible fungi of every shape and size.  Any way you slice it (literally) I’ve never warmed to the taste or texture of the much sought-after truffle which also can set you back a pretty penny if you want the good stuff.  Even using truffle oil on fries, dusting popcorn with truffle powder, or sneaking it into macaroni and cheese hasn’t changed my stance – I’m just not dancing for joy (or even doing the, ahem, Truffle Shuffle) when I see the option available on a menu.

That’s why I could be forgiven for approaching the new documentary The Truffle Hunters sort of sideways and wincing a bit.  An 84-minute documentary about a bunch of old Italians wandering the forests with their dogs foraging for the rare fungus?  Is that what I wanted to find myself hip deep in and know I had only myself to blame because I knew quite well what I was taking on?  Well, it turns out that fungus may be the focus, but it isn’t the whole story.  Directors Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw take a hands-off approach to their narrative, presenting The Truffle Hunters as a series of loosely tied vignettes that weave together the lives of several men that have been taking to the woods for years in their tiny Italian town and making a meager living from their finds.

Of course, we wouldn’t be here discussing the film if it didn’t have some sort of hook to it and it’s because Dweck and Kershaw have curated such a disparate band of eccentrics that makes The Truffle Hunters well worth seeking out.  There’s the tiny man that barely speaks a word who appears almost compelled to continue to search his favorite hot spots in the dead of night when his eyesight is the worst and he’s apt to injure himself.  We understand his unspoken pull to keep moving while at the same time can side with his imposing wife that almost forcibly tries to make him stay indoors with her.  Seeing the slow moving man by day become one that rather nimbly sneaks out of a window at night like a teenager meeting his girlfriend is quite a sight to behold.

More foragers include a man with many dogs that treats them like his children, taking great care and pride in their well-being by personally taking a bath with them and, in one tense scene, using a hair dryer while both are half submerged in the tub.  He also tries to be as proactive as possible in protecting his dogs from dangerous rivals.  Shockingly, while the professional business side of things is chillier in the way it undercuts the men doing the grunt work (black market/under the table suppliers buy truffles for a pittance from rural towns and then turn around and sell them for 300% more than they paid), there are fellow scavengers that stoop so low as to leave poison traps for dogs that assist their owners in finding the truffles.

A legendary truffle hunter is getting up there in age and has people often coming to ask him to pass along his secrets, but he refuses, preferring to converse with his devoted canine friend.  At this point in his life, he worries more about where his beloved animal will go and if the family will use the dog skilled in the truffle trade for good.  It’s this worry about the inherent greed that has grown in people which caused a physical and emotional burnout in another respected forager that spends most of the film sounding off on the state of the line of work today and lamenting loudly and forcefully why he won’t ever dig up another truffle.

I kept thinking the directors were going to wrap their film up with some foregone conclusions but the easy flow from moment to moment continues throughout and it creates a pleasant ambiance.  Fully subtitled, it doesn’t always string together with perfect cohesion and there are times early on when you can’t tell a few of the men apart and even more occasions when you have the feeling you’d want to stick around a particular thread just a hair longer.  It likely misses an opportunity to explore more of the showy side of the industry, often framing the high price selling of the fungus as an exercise solely of excess for the wealthy or refined.  A little more context or big picture view of that side of the equation would have created more of a balance.

No matter, this is sweet little documentary that’s at times only peripherally about food that for once didn’t make me hungry.  The scenery is routinely gorgeous, as is the camerawork in general in the town and around the forest.  There’s even several sequence where the dogs were outfitted with cameras so we see the entire hunt from their perspective.  As expected, the camera is shaky but not as hard to watch as you may think – it’s another way The Truffle Hunters sets itself apart from the other items on your cinematic menu.

Movie Review ~ Thunder Force

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world where supervillains are commonplace, two estranged childhood best friends reunite after one devises a treatment that gives them powers to protect their city.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, Pom Klementieff, Taylor Mosby, Melissa Leo, Marcella Lowery, Kevin Dunn, Melissa Ponzio, James H. Keating, Braxton Bjerken, Tyrel Jackson Williams, Sarah Baker

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When the promos for the new Netflix comedy Thunder Force directed by Ben Falcone and co-starring his wife Melissa McCarthy started running, I had to go back and check some dates.  Wasn’t it just in late November that Superintelligence, their last collaboration arrived on the airwaves of streaming competitor HBOMax, having skipped a theatrical release due to the pandemic surge?  Turns out audiences have been without a new Falcone/McCarthy comedy for a little less than five months, so the biggest question I had going into Thunder Force didn’t have much to do with how well the duo could pull off a comedic twist on the superhero flick but if there was an appetite for another round quite so soon.  After all, though Superintelligence felt lighter than their other features (Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party), it was still plagued with their brand of specifically tuned laughs and tendency toward lengthy bits that leaned into their own amusement rather than one for a broader audience.

What’s good to report about Thunder Force is that like many superheroes, this film has a secret weapon and it happens to be the Oscar-winning actress who beat McCarthy for the top prize at the Academy Awards the year both were nominated for Supporting Actress.  Lifelong friend of the Falcone/McCarthy family Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) helps give the movie some balance when it sorely needs it, grounding it less in the normalcy of reality but more in plausibility filtered through the lens of wild flights of fancy.  That’s due to the way Spencer conveys such inherent trust; you easily buy what she’s selling and it plays as a perfect ying to McCarthy’s bull in a china shop yang. 

Beginning in 1983 and leaping through the kind of complex origin story Marvel or DC would have taken 12 movies and four television series to tell in full, Thunder Force brings us up to speed quickly on how cosmic rays struck Earth and genetically transformed a select few into superhuman villains.  Turns out these were people were always bad but the interstellar blast brought out their most evil side and gave them powers to keep on being wicked.  Known as Miscreants, they terrorized the city while the world watched and world leaders subsequently tried to find a way to combat their seemingly unstoppable super powers.

It was a Miscreant attack that leaves studious Emily (who grows up to be Spencer) an orphan and attending an inner-city school where she quickly becomes the target for bullies.  She finds a protector and best-friend in Lydia (played by McCarthy’s own daughter as a youngster before handing the reins to mom) until a silly fight separates them for the next two decades. (Side Note: I always find it amusing in these films that childhood best friends, while still actively in high school, just stopped talking to each other entirely and never made up ever. Doesn’t that say something about the friendship to begin with?)  Years later, Lydia is a blue-collar worker in Chicago while Emily has finally found the answer to defeating the Miscreants after years of study, which is why she has to miss her 25-year high school reunion.  Intending to finally make-up with her estranged friend at the reunion, Lydia decides to force the make-up to happen no matter what and finds Emily in her lab…only to press the wrong button and receive an injection meant for her ex bestie with a formula for super strength.  However…that’s only half of the solution and under the watchful eye of an all-business former CIA operative (Melissa Leo, Prisoners) and Emily’s daughter (Taylor Mosby, Breakthrough), Emily also undergoes a transformation of her own (find out what it is for yourself!), eventually joining Lydia in training to become the city’s only hope in overcoming a horde of rogue criminals.

In the press notes for Thunder Force, I read that writer/director Falcone came up with the basic plot of the film on a walk to work and that the script was one of the fastest things he’d ever written.  At times, this shows, because while there are plenty of inspired moments throughout the film (a dinner at Emily’s grandmother’s house is quite fun as is a musical fantasy sequence that pops up out of nowhere) a number of ideas and characters are introduced for effect only to be tossed aside and never heard from again.  The film is filled with loose ends and unanswered questions and not all of them can be saved for a sequel.  That leaves a viewer feeling like they get something with flavor in the moment but nothing that truly lasts.  While Superintelligence seemed like it had more focus than previous Falcone/McCarthy outings, Thunder Force veers off course early on and it’s most often when McCarthy is left to her own devices, something I’m realizing isn’t always the wisest choice.

There’s no denying the best scenes in the film are when it’s just McCarthy and Spencer and not even when there’s comedy involved.  We already know what Spencer can deliver but it says something that we have to continue to be reminded that McCarthy has depth as well.  The two actresses are so good at what they do that as entertaining as they are together in Thunder Force, at the same time they are absolutely resting on their laurels and not exhibiting much stretch either.  If Falcone, McCarthy, or Spencer had really wanted to shake things up, they would have had the women switch roles and see what could happen when Spencer was permitted to really (no, really) let her hair down and if McCarthy would step aside and be the straight person for once.

Falcone also has a strange penchant for featuring himself or friends in supporting roles that steal precious time from the characters we want to see more of.  Countless henchmen pop up for one liners that are just this side of not funny, not to mention a number of everyday workers are gifted one or two lines which always left me wondering who they were related to on the crew.  The villains of the piece are a little on the “eh” side and feature Bobby Cannavalle (Lovelace) as a crooked mayoral candidate out to suppress more than just votes, Jason Bateman (Bad Words) as The Crab, sporting crab claws for arms after a wince-inducing radioactive accident, and Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy) as the psychotic Laser who loves to dryly announce her plans for her prey before carrying them out. 

While it starts strong and begins to lose major steam as we cross the halfway mark, Thunder Force takes a weird downturn of energy the longer it goes on, ending oddly with a disappointing coda.  It’s still worth watching to see McCarthy and Spencer work up some sparks and sing a few tunes en route to kickin’ bad guy butt; if only we had more of these moments and less of the schtick that has proven time and time again to not dependably hit the target for Falcone and McCarthy.  They’ve got a series and a Christmas movie in the works for Netflix so let’s hope they keep on taking two steps forward and resist the urge to go one step back.

Movie Review ~ Voyagers

The Facts:

Synopsis: With the future of the human race at stake, a group of young men and women embark on an expedition to colonize a distant planet. But when they uncover disturbing secrets about the mission, they defy their training and begin to explore their most primitive natures.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Lily-Rose Depp, Tye Sheridan, Fionn Whitehead, Archie Madekwe, Chanté Adams, Quintessa Swindel, Madison Hu, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Viveik Kalra

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s an odd thing to look over the IMDb credits for director Neil Burger and see just how many of his films have found eerie similarities in other work.  Though it technically came out first, 2006’s The Illusionist is often dwarfed in memory by Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige which also featured dueling magicians and a woman that causes trouble between them.  The surprise 2011 hit Limitless may have secured some box office clout for Bradley Cooper but it had all the calling cards of a Luc Besson film just without the Frenchman’s guts to go truly wild.  Burger was behind the start of the Divergent series which was on shaky legs even in 2014 when it suffered big time comparisons to The Hunger Games, and this was before it released two more Burger-less sequels that were so bad they didn’t bother to even make the last movie.  Remaking the French blockbuster The Intouchables as The Upside in 2017 seemed like a ghastly prospect but while Burger’s take was harmless it made so much money that who directed it didn’t seem to matter much.

That brings us to Voyagers, which won’t remind you so much of any movie you’ve seen recently but perhaps a book you may have trotted out during quarantine.  Plenty of reviews of Burger’s new sci-fi yarn will correctly label it as Lord of the Flies set in space but to just put it in that ready-made box is doing a disservice to William Golding’s 1954 morality barometer disguised as a dystopian novel as well as this Lionsgate production which is entertainment at its coldest and most obvious.  Yes, it follows an uprising that divides two factions of young adults left to fend for themselves in a solitude from which there is no hope of escape, but Burger doesn’t forget what his job is in this concoction.  His audience isn’t at home under the covers reading a browning paperback by flashlight.  They’re in a theater (if you’re into that kind of thing being fully vaccinated and/or masked up) where this film opens on Friday or, as Voyagers will be in several weeks, in their homes waiting for the fun to begin.

With the Earth’s resources being depleted at a rapid rate, scientists continue to explore the boundaries of space for signs that there could be another planet humans could survive on.  Forty years from now, that planet is found but it will take another 86 years to get there.  A crew will need to be assembled to travel to this new world and report back what they find, but due to the time it will take to get there the crew that starts out the mission won’t be the ones that actually make the discovery…their grandchildren will.  Unable to find a crew of thirty to make that commitment, the team behind the mission resort to conceiving them via IVF with, ahem, contributions from the best and brightest minds of the day.

Watching over these children as they grow (literally) is Richard (Colin Farrell, Dumbo) a scientist that winds up being the sole chaperone when the young crew finally enter space and begin their journey.  Ten years later, the group are now teens that go about their daily ship business with a detached efficiency that’s only upset after Christopher (Tye Sheridan, Mud) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) stop taking ‘the blue’, a daily dose of liquid they discover has a mood controlling and sensory dulling drug added in.  Free to finally feel for the first time, the rest of the squad follows suit including Sela (Lily-Rose Depp, Tusk) the pretty chief medical officer that’s both a confidant to Richard and his bridge to the other teens.  Sela also begins to catch the eye of the newly hormonal Christopher and Zac, both fueled by alpha male frustration that’s built up for quite some time. 

After an accident leaves them stranded, on their own, and unable to communicate with Earth, at first the niceties of protocol are followed until Zac and others (including Midsommar’s Archie Madekwe) realize that no one is going to hold them accountable for stepping out of line.  They’ve been bred to produce and that’s all so why not take as much as they want, when they want it, while they can?  This pits former friends against one another and forces all to take sides.  The wider the division gets, the larger the danger of everyone losing in the end becomes.   

It’s easy to be a bit confused by Voyagers at first glance.  The trailers make it look like a clunky C-list castoff you’d settle on when all else fails and the poster gives off the impression it’s more of an erotic trip into teen space angst.  So I was surprised that the first half of the film gets off to a rather crackling start, luring the audience in with an engaging premise and laying the groundwork for an intriguing mystery that might factor into the plot (I won’t spoil it).  Burger takes his time with things…at first.  Rather suddenly, however, the rushing begins and the time between realization and full on knowledge of the facts shortens considerably for everyone in the film.  Everyone just seems to “know” what things mean the moment they see them, or if they don’t, they understand it quickly and these leaps are more for the plot to continue to make haste than anything else.

It’s also a bit uncomfortable to watch the teens embrace their hormones with such vigor – one character goes from touching a girl’s shoulder to pretty much honking her breast in an instant.  I know none of them have experienced these sensations before, but have they never read a book or learned about etiquette?  It’s like the scientists taught the boys everything but how not to fondle girls and taught the women all about plant hydroponics yet skipped over the “no means no” conversation.  The male dominance of it all was a bit suffocating and if Burger had just given one female a bit of the nasty business to do instead of relegating it all to the guys it might have come off better.  As it is, the females become galactic wallpaper, aside from the standout Chanté Adams (Bad Hair) as a strict-rule follower that won’t be silenced by the bullies that have risen to power.  While we’re talking about the cast, Sheridan comes across like he always does…perfectly fine but terribly shallow.  If you ask me, Depp reminds me more of her model turned actress mother Vanessa Paradis than her much in the news Oscar-nominated father, and that’s not a bad thing in the least.  The standout in the cast is Whitehead who achieves a goal of creating an oily villain that you can easily root against – none of this ‘redeeming quality’ nonsense.

Despite some sag in the middle which shows some areas where the 108-minute film could be trimmed a bit, Burger gets to a fairly lively final act quite nicely.  While the effects aren’t going to win any awards, for a film of this size and with a cast of this caliber (no shade here, all are decent and acquit themselves nicely in roles that carry troublesome moments throughout) they mostly look good but I’d imagine they’d appear crisper in a theatrical setting.  For fans of sci-fi or space like myself, Voyagers is a worthy watch but know that it’s purely surface level material that is good for a distraction and little more. 

Movie Review ~ Making Monsters

The Facts:

Synopsis: A successful social media prankster and his fiancée find their idyllic countryside weekend escape turn into the ultimate video prank where the stakes are life and death being broadcast onto the dark web.

Stars: Tim Loden, Alana Elmer, Jonathan Craig, Jarrett Siddall, Peter Higginson

Directors: Justin Harding & Rob Brunner

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: First impressions are often telling and with a film like Making Monsters, you pretty much know the film you’re in for within the opening five minutes.  It’s in this short amount of time you get nudity, bloodshed, gore, annoying characters, questionable acting, and shaky production values.  It’s almost as if writer/director Justin Harding and his co-director Rob Brunner wanted to lay their cards out on the table at the beginning and say to anyone watching, “This is what we’re doing tonight.  You either like it and stick around or find something else to watch.”  I respect that approach and even if I hadn’t agreed to review this low-budget horror film that’s made its way around the specialty festival circuit over the past two years, I likely would have taken the duo up on their offer to see more.

Thanks to Facebook, I’ve somehow gotten myself subscribed to those heinous prank videos where some dopey guy (usually one you find out does extensive print modeling to really pay his bills) or group of guys play practical jokes on each other.  We’re not talking bucket on top of a door kind of jokes, we’re talking dumping pee on you and your significant other while you’re sleeping, filming it, and then running away laughing hysterically.  These videos are becoming increasingly popular, so the pranks are getting far more outlandish – most are elaborately set-up and often everyone is in on the joke but there are times when the reaction is very real. 

One such YouTube prank star is Christian Brand (Tim Loden), and he’s made a name for himself scaring the beejebus out of his ever-understanding girlfriend, now fiancée, Allison (Alana Elmer).  They’re getting ready to settle down and start a family and Allison has one request – no pranking her while they’re trying to get pregnant.  Trouble is, Brand is afraid that Allison is his good luck charm and if she’s not part of his scare show then his ratings will sink.  That’s a discussion for a different day because the couple has been invited by a friend to his new home in the country, a renovated church that will be the perfect getaway to start the baby making process.

Arriving at the nicely furnished home, their friend isn’t back from a business trip but his partner David (Jonathan Craig) is happy to play host until he’s back.  The couple is wary of the eccentric David at first but loosen up once they get to know him for the artist he is. A night of partying and chemically enhanced reverie commences, sending the trio into a tailspin of visions and creepy frights.  The next time they wake up, the number of guests has dwindled, it’s several days later, and a terrifying masked killer is hunting them down.  Is it all an elaborate prank or is there another sinister activity taking place that weekend?

While it’s no future undiscovered classic, there’s enough interesting things going on around Making Monsters (either front and center or in the periphery) that throughout the tight run time one hardly has the chance to get too involved/distracted by their phone.  The small cast and simple location allow the production to get creative with practical special effects, a number of which are quite effective.  Though it eventually bites off more than it can gnash its gnarly teeth on (oh the subplots!), when it stays focused on one line of thinking it works better than it should.  And yet it’s so cruelly violent and grotesque that at the same time you can’t help walking away with the ravages of depression taking tiny bites at the edges of your good nature.