Movie Review ~ The Shadow of Violence


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In rural Ireland, ex-boxer Douglas `Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, while also trying to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son, Jack.

Stars: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, Kiljan Moroney, Anthony Welsh, David Wilmot

Director: Nick Rowland

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Even though we’re in the midst of a national health crisis, household chores still need to be done just like movies need to be watched and reviewed.  So the other night, I knew I had The Shadow of Violence coming up in my queue to screen and thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and do a little cleaning while I watched the film.  Now, when a movie is involved I’m not the kind of multi-tasker than can truly do two or three things at the same time…I’m more of a one and a half tasker-type so anything I pair with a movie has to be something that’s truly mindless.

Reading the description of The Shadow of Violence (previously titled and released in some international territories as the more interesting Calm with Horses, which is taken from the short story the movie is based on) I thought I’d be safe going about my movie and a half task.  After all, you’ve seen one quiet thug working for a dangerous family who turns out to be not so bad crime drama before, you’ve seen them all.  Right?  Well, in the case of this hard-nosed and surprisingly intriguing film from Ireland it shows there’s still room for effective storytelling within a genre that’s seemingly been played out.  It wasn’t too long into things that I found myself absorbed into the action, leaving all thoughts of my other work behind and intently watching director Nick Rowland’s unpredictable corker.

You’d be forgiven if you watched the first ten minutes of The Shadow of Violence and thought you’d found your way into yet another cliché-ridden film about small-time gangsters in an even smaller town.  Beefy brawler Arm (Cosmo Jarvis, Annihilation) is the muscle the notorious Devers family uses when they want to send a message.  Haunted by a past he can’t change and living in a present he can’t fix, Arm goes through the motions as a means to an end in order to provide for his  developmentally challenged son and estranged girlfriend (Niamh Algar).  Struggling to be a good father that shows up for his son but lacking the maturity to deal with a child that needs his full attention, Arm takes his guilt out on whatever sad soul the Devers send him to rough up.

In service more as a henchman to Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer)  than to any one of his more fearsome elder relatives, we first meet Arm doing menial bloody knuckle work on those that have run afoul of the Devers good will.  Things turn dark though as Arm is drawn into a web of betrayals when he becomes part of a family dispute that sours quickly.  Forced into a life or death situation that winds up putting him in a moral dilemma, Arm makes a choice that has a ripple effect throughout the Devers family, the town, and his own home.  Now, having to navigate through a system of deceit while ensuring the safety of his family, Arm brings those he fears closer while trying (perhaps in vain) to shield everyone around him from a wrath waiting to be unleashed once he is discovered.

It’s nice to find movies like The Shadow of Violence which, despite their dime-a-dozen title, and less than inspiring tagline turn out to amount to far more than what you see on the surface.  Working from screenwriter Joseph Murtagh’s adaptation of Colin Barrett’s short story, Rowland lets the film’s first act develop at a leisurely pace…almost too leisurely at times because with so many characters introduced you start to lose track of who is related to whom.  He snaps things back nice and taut, though, for the final half and delivers an unexpectedly rich examination of a bruised soul that sought redemption in the worst place possible who winds up finding some semblance of hope where it had been all along.

I had no trouble buying Keoghan as the unhinged enfant terrible of an already nasty family.  The actor’s tendency to oversell his intentions winds up working for him here and Dympna makes for an interesting quasi-villain you kinda can’t stop wanting to see more of.  Speaking of seeing more of, Algar’s performance as Arm’s fed-up significant other is gutsy and boldly memorable, a not easy task when sharing the screen with the likes of the scene-chewing Keoghan and the quiet magnitude of Jarvis.  It’s Jarvis that makes the movie work when all is said and done – you have to buy this thuggish bloke would have a brain and heart to go with his muscles and in scene after scene Jarvis keeps us rapt.

There’s a bleakness to the film that will be off-putting for some and I can understand not wanting to go to that place right now.  However, if you’re up for something that feels familiar but is handled with a fresh and feisty spirit, you’re going to want to find your way to The Shadow of Violence to meet the Devers familyIt’s a gritty visit to the Irish countryside that packs a nice punch.

Movie Review ~ The Secret: Dare to Dream


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Miranda Wells is a hard-working young widow struggling to raise three children on her own. A powerful storm brings a devastating challenge and a mysterious man into her life.

Stars: Katie Holmes Josh Lucas, Jerry O’Connell, Celia Weston, Sarah Hoffmeister, Aidan Pierce Brennan, Chloe Lee, Katrina Begin, Sydney Tennant, Samantha Beaulieu

Director: Andy Tennant

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If this were a normal summer, we’d be neck deep in sonic boom blockbusters and hyperactive animated family entertainment at theaters by this time.  The majority of the touted releases would have seen their big debuts and faced the critical eyes of audiences around the world, hopefully making their money back and more.  When the pandemic closed movie houses around the globe and forced studios to shift their tentpole pictures months or years out, it left a rare opening for films less reliant on a built in fan base to get seen and that’s why smaller (mostly horror) movies like Relic, The Wretched, The Rental, Valley Girl, Miss Juneteenth, and Palm Springs have all posted decent numbers in their limited releases at drive-ins.  Now it’s not mega-money, the #8 film at the recent box office made $535 bucks, but at least it’s something.

If a movie like The Secret: Dare to Dream had kept to its original release date, it would have shown up in mid-April right before the heavy hitters started to appear but even so it’s hard not to see the film for the keen bit of counter-programming it is.  As someone that can take or leave these soapy romantic dramas but isn’t totally averse to giving one a chance, I was curious to see what a film based on a 2006 new-agey self-help documentary and its spin-off book would look like.  Though it doesn’t come armed with a doctrine as obvious as I anticipated, there’s an underlying message of goodness to be found and for once it doesn’t feel strained.  It’s more formulaic than the theory of relativity but also, oddly, almost compellingly watchable in the way these types of easily digestible movies so often are.

Louisiana widow Miranda (Katie Holmes, Woman in Gold) is keeping her head above water even as the bills pile up and the life she thought she had planned slips through her fingers.  Her children are your typical movie youths running from temperamental teen to pony-loving grade schooler, yet they all manage to band together to help boost mom’s spirits when they can.   Their grandmother (Celia Weston, The Intern) wishes Miranda would sell their large but in need of repair house and marry a local entrepreneur (Jerry O’Connell, Wish Upon) but there’s something keeping Miranda from starting a new life.  Opportunity presents itself the same day a hurricane is set to hit their town, when she winds up in a fender bender with Bray (Josh Lucas, Ford v Ferrari) who just happens to be looking for her.  She doesn’t know it yet, but Bray has business with Miranda that becomes the Big Secret the movie holds onto until the Big Reveal near the end.  In the first of many wholly unbelievable plot contrivances, Miranda welcomes this total stranger into her home without question and the only one other than the grandmother that seems to find this odd is the viewer.  Charming though Lucas may come across on screen, he does appear a bit squirmy in the balmy humidity of a Louisiana hurricane season; why Miranda would accept him so effortlessly, especially with her young children present, is a mystery.   Evidently, stranger-danger is a think of the past.

At the outset, you can feel the influence of the source material on the movie and the situations screenwriters Bekah Brunstetter, Rick Parks, and Andy Tennant (Grease 2) place Miranda and Bray in.  The film stops cold when Bray walks the children through a demonstration with magnets on the laws of attraction, a tenet of The Secret which makes the claim that thoughts (good and bad) can change a person’s life directly.   There’s a bit of mumbo-jumbo to suggest some magic in the air with this power of positive thinking having some influence on wishes coming true but almost as soon as these instances appear, they seem to be abandoned for more straight-forward dramatic storytelling that’s familiar and predictable.  Also serving as director, Tennant has helmed his fair share of rom-coms and while the movie isn’t big on laughs it does have the tiniest bit of a spring it its step and a sliver of a sense of humor which helps it from being taken too seriously.

Audiences will know the ending long before Miranda and Bray do so your enjoyment of the movie hinges on what you think of its stars.  Holmes has grown from a child star into a nicely committed actress, very much at home in these types of mom/comfort-giver roles and while there’s not a lot of range shown she finds a nice balance in the material so that it doesn’t teeter into overly saccharine.  Dealt a bit of a tough hand, Lucas has to battle back some early creeper vibes…the more you tell yourself this is a PG romantic drama the more you’ll convince yourself he isn’t there to do any harm to Holmes or her kids.  You feel especially bad for O’Connell in a totally thankless role as Miranda’s would-be suitor.  He barely gets an introduction or a proper good-bye.  Perhaps the most interesting character is meant to be the most irritating and that’s Weston as the fuddy-duddy grandmother that’s always a pest, until she does an about face because the film needs her stamp of approval.

Take away all the rhetoric and hokey nonsense that the filmmakers don’t even stick with for long and there’s an occasionally interesting and comfortably casual viewing experience.  There are certainly more aggressively cheerful movies in recent release attempting to elicit the same type of audience reaction to far less successful results…I’d watch this one again before I’d get anywhere near something like the soggy Fisherman’s Friends, for instance.  To be clear, The Secret: Dare to Dream is as average as they come (don’t even get me started on that dreadful title) but truth be told it managed to keep me engaged far longer than I thought it would.

Movie Review ~ Rebuilding Paradise


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A moving story of resilience in the face of tragedy, as the community of Paradise, California, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, ravaged by disaster comes together to recover what was lost in the devastating wildfires in 2018 and begin the important task of rebuilding.

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: As anyone that’s gone through a tragedy like a death of a loved one can tell you, the hardest part is often not while you are in the immediate stages of grief.  Yes, those first hours, days, weeks, when you’re living in the shock of the loss is painful and puts you through every kind of emotional ringer there is…but that’s just one part of the process.  The second wave comes when all those people that came to your side when the tragedy occurred go back to their lives and continue on where they left off.  You’re left broken and needing to find your way in a new normal and everyone else goes forward…seemingly unchanged in your eyes.

It can also be that way for major events like national disasters.  Hurricanes, floods, riots, school shootings, fires, you name it.  We watch these monumentally life-altering occurrences happen, often from the peacefulness of a comfortable safe distance, and send our prayers and good thoughts along with everyone else.   The news media covers the destruction and its immediate aftermath but rarely do they stick around to show what really happens to the individuals and communities at large that are left picking up the pieces of a life shattered.  New cycles of news take over and televisions are changed to new channels while webpages are updated with the latest celebrity gossip.

On November 8, 2018, the town of Paradise was overcome by the raging wildfire that resulted from faulty electrical work from power company PG&E (anyone familiar with Erin Brockovich should remember that infamous corporate magnate) and much of the community was lost.  A total of 85 people were killed, 50,000 residents were displaced, 100,000 acres of land were destroyed, and 18,000 structures in a town that had existed over a century were wiped out.  This was all broadcast for the world to see and the footage is as horrifying to watch today as it was two years ago.  Also paying attention was Hollywood director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who had a family connection to the town.

Partnering with his old friend producer Brian Grazer and National Geographic Documentaries, Howard had camera crews go into the town and pick-up where the news crews left off, capturing the efforts by the town to get back on its feet.  The resulting documentary Rebuilding Paradise is a strong, if occasionally rote and repetitive, testament to the strength of spirit represented in the town. What Howard and his crew captured over the course of a year isn’t your standard fix-all approach with an end result of complete reparation by the time the credits roll.   Instead you see the ups and downs of the townspeople as they work through their own personal turmoil and a series of frustrating roadblocks preventing them from returning to the town they loved.

If I’m being honest, it took a while to find a groove with the documentary and I wasn’t quite sure why.  The opening ten minutes are fairly spectacular viewing, even if they depict the terrifying real life Camp Fire that engulfed the city and destroyed the lives of its residents.  It’s no surprise the director of Backdraft was able to cut this sequence together to be an effective and breathless opener…but it sets a strange edge at the beginning the rest of the documentary struggles to contend with for the remainder.  Despite the occasional personal story that hit a chord (no spoilers but some truly unexpected events happen during the time the cameras filmed) the subjects chosen to be focal points don’t quite grab you.  Even the people being followed don’t seem to always like having someone tagging along with them – it’s an awkwardness that never goes away.

What I do applaud the documentary for (as well as Howard and the producers) is that is shines a light not just on the aftermath of this devastating event but on the importance of judicial follow-up on failure and exposing companies for less than honest dealings.  I imagine an entire documentary could be compiled on the PG&E section of the film alone, but Howard wisely keeps the heavier government business out of the mix and gets back to the more personal stories that have a greater impact on Rebuilding Paradise.  Though it starts to feel ever so padded as it comes up on the 90 minute mark, there’s enough goodwill built by the filmmakers to keep you engaged and eventually more than a little enraged when you realize how all of this could have possibly been avoided.

Movie Review ~ She Dies Tomorrow


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman’s conviction that she will die tomorrow spreads like a contagion through a town.

Stars: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michelle Rodriguez, Josh Lucas, Adam Wingard

Director: Amy Seimetz

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  In theater, there are a number of urban legends about productions or performances that were so bad the audience began to turn on the actors onstage.  There is the long-held rumor (that I don’t quite believe) of the matinee crowd attempting to sing above Sheena Easton in a Broadway production of Man of La Mancha to overcome her off key warbling.  The granddaddy of them all, though, is the tale meant to send a shiver down the spine of every theater nerd that dared overact and provide hearty laughter to everyone else.  Yes, it’s the one revolving around a troupe’s noble effort in a staging of The Diary of Anne Frank that had such poor acting it had one fed-up patron proclaim loudly “They’re in the attic!!!”

I couldn’t help but think of that particular anecdote shortly after She Dies Tomorrow began…because it’s around that time I blurted out “Is it tomorrow yet?” and then spent the next 75 minutes waiting for that moment to arrive.  Though it boasts a nifty poster and an appealing premise that appears tailor-made to the self-contained uncertainty we find ourselves living in, this incessantly grating bit of delirium shouldn’t have waited to put anyone (least of all us , the viewers) out of its misery.  Thus, it ends up being exactly the kind of messy dreck that gives indie films good street cred by those that seek out obscure titles to fawn over but is a complete dud for anyone else.

Though she’s recently moved into a new apartment and appears to have a semblance of a decent life, Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil, You’re Next) thinks she’s going to die tomorrow.  That’s it…that’s basically the entire premise of the movie that gets repeated over and over again within actress turned writer/director Amy Seimetz’s (2019’s Pet Sematary) languid script.  Actually, there’s a supposed bit of intrigue as to how Amy’s belief of her impending doom infects everyone she comes in contact with and how they in turn spread that paranoia onward.  Her friend (Jane Adams, Poltergeist, a kooky bright spot at times) passes it to her brother (Chris Messina, Cake), his wife (Kate Aselton, Bombshell), and their friends (Tunde Adebimpe, Marriage Story and Jennifer Kim, Spider-Man: Homecoming) before handing it over to a few other familiar faces that must have owed Seimetz a favor.  How this extended circle deals copes with their purported demise runs the gamut from the cruel to the criminal — not the kind of material that’s exciting to watch or that gives the usually talented performers much to work with.

It all comes back to Amy, though, and while Seimetz attempts to give an origin story to the fear that drives Amy to panic it’s covered in so much heavy-handed missteps in eye-crossing cinematography drowned out by an often ear-plugging score that you can barely pay attention.  So whatever larger message Seimetz is trying to convey gets lost amidst a clamor of her own making.  The same goes for the performances which range from the zombified (Sheil) to the whacked-out (Michelle Rodriguez, Widows) and in the end it’s Adams who likely comes out the best because the entire utterly bizarre film plays right into her wheelhouse of strange characters moving through this earthly plane.  Reportedly Seimetz used her salary from Pet Sematary to fund this picture and you wonder if the money wouldn’t have been better spent on an actual cemetery for pets instead of this eye-rolling folderol.

I can already see this being heralded a triumph by those bored on the straight-forward offerings available these past few months, but I saw no real artistry on display, unfortunately.  I felt like I should have responded differently but whatever takeaway I was meant to be left with vanishes among the punishing noise.  Even looking at the movie as metaphor for anxiety or grappling with the inner monologue of one’s own mortality lets the film off a hook it deserves to be hitched to.  So it’s not as if the intent wasn’t clear…it’s the execution that left me completely at odds with nearly everything else the film brought to the table, rendering it unwatchable in my book.  Its impenetrable notions of gloom and doom may send you scrambling toward your cure-all for the blues but it makes you wonder…when life is already so tenuous, why add more inexplicable horror to your plate if you don’t have to?  She Dies Tomorrow but pick something else today.

Movie Review ~ Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The iconic Canadian musician, Gordon Lightfoot, reflects on his life and career.

Stars: Gordon Lightfoot, Randy Bachman, Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan, Tom Cochrane, Burton Cummings, Sylvia Tyson, Lenny Waronker, Geddy Lee

Director: Martha Kehoe & Joan Tosoni

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’m getting old.  I know this not by the birthdays with cakes that have enough candles to recreate the finale of Backdraft or the amount of complaining I do about the assortment of aches and pains I have but in my relationship with music.  Used to be that I knew the popular songs of the day and the artists that were involved but a recent scan of the top charts at the Billboard website reads like a Who’s Who of who’s not on my radar at all.  The rare song I do catch hardly speaks to me the way I remember the medium had in the past and I think it’s because the artist behind the tunes have changed.

That’s never clearer than in the new documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a sometimes candid but more often than not straight-up love letter to the folksy singer-songwriter.  Blazing a trail through his native Canada with his storytelling through song coupled with his melodic voice before making a similar splash in the states, Lightfoot’s songs have been covered by artists across a number of genres, further proof of their lasting appeal.  Yet the music that was often written out of emotional points in Lightfoot’s life wound up coming back to haunt him over the years and he paid a personal price his devoted audience wasn’t privy to.

Growing up in a city outside of Ontario, Lightfoot sang in his church choir and excelled at music throughout his high school years and moved to California in 1958 to study music seriously.   Returning to Toronto, he left his day job in a corporate environment that would have left him unfilled for an opportunity to perform on a country western music television show.  From there, he sang in various bands and side gigs before finally going solo, eventually finding success in Toronto’s burgeoning coffee house folk music scene.  Writing songs that would go on to be recorded/covered by the likes of Peter, Paul, and Mary, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, and contemporaries such as Sarah McLachlan, and Diana Krall, Lightfoot came to be known for his deeply felt lyrics and ability to transport the listener.

Interviewing Lightfoot now, directors Martha Kehoe & Joan Tosoni mostly let the acclaimed musician drive his own narrative, choosing what he wants to cover and skillfully dodging the more personal moments along the way.  While Lightfoot’s addiction to alcohol and resulting sobriety serve as a main focus for an extended sequence in the home stretch of the film, there’s little about his marriages or his six children included.  Perhaps that’s at their request or maybe it’s because Lightfoot has felt the blowback of drawing on inspiration from his intimate life before in his art.  For example, his tumultuous affair with backup singer Cathy Smith (herself the center of controversy over her involvement in the death of John Belushi) led Lightfoot to write the hit song ‘Sundown’.  It’s also a bit surprising that Kehoe and Tosoni sidestep Lightfoot’s health issues in recent years, like a minor stroke that happened onstage a decade ago.  It’s not because there’s a particular need to see any kind of suffering but because the entire film feels like a testimony to his staying power. At 81, Lightfoot is still performing, often sharing the stage with the same band members that have been by his side for several decades.  So why not show his journey back like they do with his canoe trips that helped him when he gave up booze?

Canadians and fans of Canadian musicians will surely spark to the interviews with a number of famous faces from that scene, all who join the chorus to sing Lightfoot’s praises.  They speak of their first experience with his music and how it inspired them in their careers, often recounting the personal impact of his lyrics with great emotion.  The only interview that seems out of place is Alec Baldwin who doesn’t seem to share any ties with Lightfoot other than being a fan.  It’s a weirdly shoehorned in discussion, like he was doing a favor for the directors.

Running a too-short 91 minutes, I can’t help but wonder when a big-screen biopic of Lightfoot will make its way to theaters or spring to life as a limited series.  The internet has already pegged Chris Pratt as bearing a striking resemblance to Lightfoot in his early to mid-adult years but in his later period he’s beginning to look a lot more like Bryan Cranston…so there’s definitely options if this ever came to be.  For now, hear (most of) the story from the man himself and take a journey in song…and what good songs they are.

Movie Review ~ Fisherman’s Friends


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A fast living, cynical London music executive heads to a remote Cornish village on a stag weekend where he’s pranked by his boss into trying to sign a group of shanty singing fishermen.

Stars: Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, David Hayman, Dave Johns, Sam Swainsbury, Tuppence Middleton, Noel Clarke, Christian Brassington, Maggie Steed, Jade Anouka, Meadow Nobrega

Director: Chris Foggin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I’ve mentioned several times over the last few months that being cooped up inside and kept away from the bigger budgeted bombastic films in theaters has allowed me greater opportunity to enjoy smaller fare.  It’s been grand having no excuse to miss tiny features that could have been overlooked in weeks when the latest franchise film was gearing up for release and being offered the kind of gems I was used to discovering long after they’d found their way onto streaming platforms.  With that, I’ve also noticed the slightest loosening up of the critical approach at times, being a little too eager to overlook rough corners or treacly plot points in keeping with the spirit of positivity.

It’s movies like Fisherman’s Friends that help bring me back to reality though, films that remind you that even the best intentions have consequences and it’s perfectly ok to throw back what the cinematic sea giveth. The dam started to break with Military Wives which pushed the limits of how much forced saccharine an audience can handle but the filmmakers behind the similar true-life story found in Fisherman’s Friends run their boat ashore early on and never can get back in the water.  Though it wants to have that cheeky charm that kept The Full Monty or Calendar Girls feeling so fresh, it winds up smelling like catch of the day that’s sat in the sun too long.

On a bachelor weekend in the tiny seaside town of Port Isaac, London-based Danny (Daniel Mays, 1917) and his fellow music exec mates don’t make the best first impression on Jim (James Purefoy, John Carter), his daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton, Downton Abbey), and the rest of the hard-working blue collar townspeople that frequent the local watering hole.  Loud and obnoxious, the stag party does minimal damage to the Cornish town and is about to wrap up their weekend when they hear the weekly performance of the town fishermen singing shanties by the seashore.  As a joke, his boss (a member of the bro weekend) convinces Danny he wants to sign the group to their record label and quickly leaves him stranded to figure out how to talk a bunch of gruff sea-goers into becoming the next boy band.

As you can likely guess if you’ve ever seen any movie that carried the “feel-good” label, the longer Danny stays in Port Isaac, the more he gets to know the townspeople as greater than just their prickly exterior and the less they see him as a posh snob.  Friendships are formed among unlikely comrades, romance blooms between individuals that once couldn’t stand each other, and loyalties are royally tested in a neat and tidy (if arguably overlong) package.  The triumvirate of screenwriters is made up of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth and none can help director Chris Foggin find the right key that would help the movie play a tune we haven’t heard numerous times before.

The biggest issue I had with the film is that maybe I found the group severely lacking in charm.  The first time the men raise their voices in song, the crowd onscreen seems to love it but I was left scratching my head wondering what all the fuss was about.  Not for nothing but there are a handful of scenes featuring others having the same reaction I did.  The ribald and raunchy old tyme ditties are good for a laugh but they wear thin quickly and fade from memory even faster.  I never connected with why Danny is so obsessed with pursuing them into the limelight.  It’s like hearing about a great dancer with fabulous technique only to watch someone gamely get through the Electric Slide without injuring themselves.

If the IMDb pages are to be believed, a sequel is planned for March 2021 but with the pandemic who knows if that has thrown things out of whack.  I’d have been more in favor of a documentary about the real men involved with the group instead of this hokey-pokey dramatization that sells whatever charisma they had short.  As a Sunday watch while completing the 1,000 piece puzzle that’s been gathering dust on your table, Fisherman’s Friends might be good background noise but as the main event selection for an evening’s entertainment,  you’ll be better off dropping anchor somewhere else.

Movie Review ~ Radioactive


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of pioneering scientist Marie Curie through her extraordinary life and her enduring legacies – the passionate partnerships, her shining scientific breakthroughs, and the darker consequences that followed.

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale, Jonathan Aris

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  With the increasing convenience of streaming services available to the general public, it has become much easier to tell stories at a pace that’s entirely up to the filmmaker.  Gone are the days where writers, directors, and stars are tied to having to decide between a two-and-a-half-hour movie or a two night miniseries.  Now there’s the limited series that can run anywhere between three and twelve episodes, giving the space that’s needed if a life, a legacy, an event won’t fit into the same old standard package.

Releasing on Amazon Prime after debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, Radioactive is an odd case of a film recounting a life that feels shortchanged.  Though it has an admirable cast, a talented director, and focuses on a source and subject that hasn’t been explored in this kind of narrative detail before, you leave the movie without any deeper understanding.  Sure, you may glean some Jeopardy! factoids about the advances Marie Curie brought forth but it’s nothing that speaks to any kind of emotional resonance it appears the filmmakers were attempting to uncover.

Before watching Radioactive it’s sad to say my only exposure to Marie Curie on film was in the much-maligned but cult favorite Young Einstein from 1988.  Aside from that supporting role, Curie was a brief topic in my history classes with the Polish scientist living in Paris being given credit for her discovery of the elements polonium and radium and her development of the theory of radioactivity alongside her husband Pierre.  Her work earned her not one but two Nobel prizes, the first woman to ever win the award and the only female to ever win it a second time.  Modern medicine and general science effectively owes its practice to her pioneering efforts.

Much of director Marjane Satrapi’s film covers these breakthroughs and even flashes forward decades in time to the lasting effects (good and bad) of Curie’s work.  Basing the film off of Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, screenwriter Jack Thorne (How I Live Now) hits all the necessary milestones with a workmanlike efficiency and a kind of rote necessity.  This has the effect of shading some of the make or break moments as less urgent and more like another day at the office for the Curies instead of the gigantic scientific innovations they were.  Surely the Curies were more multi-dimensional than Thorne’s screenplay makes them out to be and not the drones going through the emotional touchstones of the ups and downs of being married partners that also worked together.

Things get even more rocky when the action shifts from science to Marie’s personal life.  As Marie, Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher) is the right choice for the role, I think, but isn’t served well by Thorne’s sedate dialogue.  You can sometimes feel Pike itching to roll her eyes at the words she has to utter, especially when Curie moves from celebrated physicist to pariah almost overnight thanks to a relationship scandal.  Viewed now, you almost want to throw something at the screen for the way the brilliant woman is thrown to the wolves but then again the historical context bears remembering.  It’s once Marie starts to suffer the effects from being so close to the radium that Pike gets down to her acting business and Satrapi lets her leading lady be looser with the material.  Working with a fine but not memorable Sam Reilly (Sometimes Always Never) as her husband, Pike starts to take control of the movie rather forcefully, so much so that the last forty minutes of Radioactive are downright compelling.  It only makes you wish the previous sixty minutes were as good as the final act when Marie was tackling her last battle alongside her daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy, Split) who would soon after have a Nobel Prize of her own.

In the end, I was left wondering if Radioactive wouldn’t have worked better like the recent Netflix limited series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.  In four episodes totaling a little over three hours, the history of another important female was told and felt like a thorough examination that didn’t cut corners.  Clocking in at barely over ninety minutes, Radioactive feels like it needed more time to get under Marie’s skin and certainly with the cast and creative team Satrapi assembled (the haunting music from Evgueni & Sacha Galperine who also worked on the score for 2019 Oscar nominee Corpus Christi is right on the money) it would have truly glowed bright.

Movie Review ~ The Rental (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two couples on an oceanside getaway grow suspicious that the host of their seemingly perfect rental house may be spying on them. Before long, what should have been a celebratory weekend trip turns into something far more sinister.

Stars: Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, Jeremy Allen White, Sheila Vand, Toby Huss

Director: Dave Franco

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I love to travel but I’m kinda weird about it.  Here’s the thing, when I go on vacation I want to feel like I’m away from home and want the place I stay to feel special and not like…well, my home.  That’s why I’ve always found the Airbnb craze to be a little whack-a-doo because who would want to stay in a person’s house (or even a place someone else decorated or, shudder, put their bare feet on the pillows?) when you could get pampered at a hotel for sometimes half the cost?  I know that for large parties it may work out better but there’s just something a little creepy to me about the entire set-up.  After watching The Rental, I’m even more convinced I’m right to be worried.

The first feature film directed by Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), The Rental could have easily gone in another direction that was more cliché and expected and that would have been a gigantic and exasperating disappointment.  Thankfully, Dave seems to have learned from the strange misfires his older brother James made as both a director and star and kept his debut tight.  He also wisely hasn’t made it more difficult on himself by starring in the film as well but instead remains behind the camera as director and co-writer with indie favorite Joe Swanberg (You’re Next) who knows his way around these types of slow-dread genre films.  The result should have audiences ready to check-in and hunker down for a corker of a chiller.

Excited for a weekend away from their busy city lives, Charlie (Dan Stevens, Lucy in the Sky), his wife Michelle (Alison Brie, The Five-Year Engagement), his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Viena and the Fantomes) and Josh’s girlfriend/Charlie’s business partner Mina (Sheila Vand, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) book a beach house in the woods that’s just secluded enough to help them unwind  and party without disruption.  Things get off to a jittery start when Mina, who is Middle Eastern, requests to book the house and is denied but Charlie, who is white, is accepted immediately.  Arriving to find the owner (Toby Huss, Halloween) affable at first but vague when questioned about the perceived racism in the booking snafu, the foursome shake off any lingering bad feelings and try to enjoy their first night at the spacious house.

The calm doesn’t last long though as a night of partying leads to the first of a number of secrets that are eventually exposed, along with a danger that none of them could have ever predicted.  Situations go from bad to worse when a split-second decision changes the course of their weekend plans from a fun retreat with family/friends to a downward spiral of mayhem.  As miscommunication, distrust, fear, and anger start to take hold of the group, what starts as a weekend to relax quickly devolves into a surprisingly effective fight for survival stemming from a mystery they are racing to unravel.  To reveal more would not be playing fair and Franco/Swanberg largely stick to realistic developments that rely on spur of the moment choices and their devastatingly quick consequences.

I was genuinely impressed with the acumen Franco shows for maneuvering his small troupe of actors around and the way he works with Swanberg to keep us on our toes throughout.  The twists and turns presented in The Rental are often unpredictable and you’ll lose valuable time the more you try to figure out what’s happening or where the action will go next.  Leaving little room for extra fat to weigh things down, the 80 or so minutes are free from the normal pitfalls of first time filmmaking, suggesting again that Franco has been paying attention when he’s been on sets these past years as an actor.

Frustrating though they all may be at times and not without blame for much of what happens during this weekend from hell, the characters are all appealing in some fashion.  I’m usually not a fan of Brie (Franco’s real life wife) but she’s quite fun here and despite a slow start where her character is a bit more passive than we’re used to seeing from Brie she revs up and gets a few good zingers in during the second half.  Every time Stevens pops up in a movie my partner notes that ever since he left Downton Abbey the actor seems totally averse to speaking in his native UK accent and here again he’s not wholly successful in showing off his elocution.  Stevens hasn’t quite found his footing, post-Downton and while he’s been well-reviewed in a number of films he continues to come up lacking for me…but in The Rental that cool from a distance feel actually works for his often compromised pseudo-nice guy.  As Charlie’s screw-up brother, White is fine in a role that gradually gets aggravating but it’s Vand’s commanding presence that is the real find here.  Taking the role as serious as it needs to be, Vand handles some character developments and choices that could be poison with an unusual amount of grace, keeping us oddly on her side.

Franco has said the idea for The Rental came from his caution about staying in an Airbnb property and his trepidation shows with an end product that’s drenched in paranoia.  Building to a sharp sting around the halfway mark before rising to a spine-tingling crescendo that’s sustained through the credits, The Rental is a four-star winner for the weary traveler wary of where they lay their head at night.

Movie Review ~ Irresistible


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Democratic political consultant helps a retired Marine colonel run for mayor in a small Wisconsin town.

Stars: Steve Carell, Chris Cooper, Rose Byrne, Topher Grace, Mackenzie Davis, Natasha Lyonne, Eve Gordon, Brent Sexton, Will Sasso, Debra Messing, Alan Aisenberg

Director: Jon Stewart

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: About a month ago, I shut down all my social media for about two weeks because I just couldn’t  take it anymore…things had gotten so ugly in all aspects.  Everyone hated everything and there was nothing nice that could be said about anything happening in the world.  What was the point in reading page after page and tweet after tweet of negativity?  Eventually, I had to give in and get back into the swing of things if I wanted to promote my reviews and, let’s face it, see what the celebrities were up to on Instagram.

This brief respite was nice but I know it’s only going to get worse as we head toward the election in November.  Political comedy has changed from what it was during the time Saturday Night Live was spoofing Gerald Ford, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. and the humor has morphed from eliciting belly laughs to grimaces because it is a little too on the money.  The reality of our current administration is so spoofable that it should be funny…until you realize that it’s no laughing matter with lives and livelihood on the line.  It’s hard to joke about a heightened politicized climate that is increasingly volatile and hostile.

That’s what makes a movie like Irresistible such a strange beast to approach.  On the one hand, writer/director Jon Stewart (Rosewater) has delivered a pleasantly serviceable comedy aiming to address topical issues concerning the way government can be manipulated and in that way the film is a success.  However, if you look at it through the lens of where the country sits at the present within its release platform, the message being received feels out of touch and off key.  In his sophomore outing as a director, Stewart’s film almost instantly casts a shadow on itself, categorizing it squarely as a decent effort with sadly little impact.

Political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) still feels the sting of the 2016 election where he saw his Democratic candidate win the popular vote but ultimately not emerge victorious in the general election.   After one of his staffers shows him a video gone viral of a retired colonel (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) defending the rights of immigrant workers in a small town in Wisconsin, he decides to travel to the Midwestern town and convince the conservative veteran to run for Mayor…as a Democrat.  Initially hesitant, Jack agrees to enter the race and with Gary’s help begins a campaign to oust the current Republican mayor (Brent Sexton) who is taken off-guard but this late-breaking opponent.

Gary’s plan is bigger than a Wisconsin mayoral race, though, and that’s when political rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, Like a Boss) enters the picture.  Arriving in town to serve as the strategist for the mayor, she comes with Republican money to pour into the campaign in order to hold their ground.  She knows as well as Gary that if he can flip this heartland community from conservative to Democrat, perhaps he can use that to his advantage in the 2020 cycle.  Soon, Faith and Gary are circling each other like the sharks they are and readying their dirty tricks as the townspeople and Jack’s daughter (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049) watch from the increasingly forgotten sidelines.

As a straight up comedy, Irresistible has its moments of clarity and hilarity and Stewart mines the gold in the comedic hills of Gary’s big city ways clashing with the homegrown support of the townspeople.  It’s when the movie walks the line of balancing itself out as a political satire that things begin to get a bit hazy.  There’s a good deal of fun to be had at the expense of both Democrats and Republicans and Stewart has his talking points clearly laid out to drill home again and again.  We understand he thinks the current system is designed to fail the small and benefit the large but it’s packaged in such a transparent framework that the message doesn’t come off feeling as clever as he thinks it is.  That’s especially true for a rather cuckoo twist he unwraps at one point and it’s then you see the entire movie was designed around this gotcha moment.

If Stewart can’t quite nail the narrative of the piece, at least he’s cast the film with commendable effort.  Carell is nicely pitched in the lead and I’d be interested in hearing a commentary track for the film where the two men discuss the process of Stewart pitching the project to his old corespondent at The Daily Show and how they worked together making it.  I like that Carell didn’t play to the usual lunacy of the fish out of water tale but laid off the gas pedal for a more reserved reaction to everything that came his way.  Speaking of laid back, Cooper exerts the exact amount of energy required for the role and then sort of coasts…that’s not a negative per se, it works for what he’s trying to accomplish in any given scene.  I consistently like what Davis does on screen and while Stewart doesn’t really develop her character until the end, Davis is smart enough to use what she’s given in early scenes to make what transpires near the end come off better than it should.  She’s not in the movie as much as the poster and trailers make you think she is, but when Byre is present she’s the best thing happening and easily steals her scenes.

If Irresistible had been released five years ago would we feel differently about it?  I think so.  There’s just too much bad going on in politics right now to be able to stop and find the satire clever or the pointed importance in the small potatoes mash Stewart puts on the plate.  Viewed solely as a comedy about a man in limbo needing to learn a lesson about himself, I think it’s enjoyable on the whole but the moment it has to be classified in the political arena the frivolity of the affair becomes less appealing.

Movie Review ~ My Spy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A hardened CIA operative finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family.

Stars: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Ken Jeong, Devere Rogers, Greg Bryk

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The last movie I had on my schedule to see in theaters before the pandemic shut everything down was My Spy and to be honest it was a film I was considering skipping all together.  Sometimes you just have to say no to movies you don’t think you’ll like, right?  I know that makes me sound less like the well-rounded critic I profess to be but if you are going in with some preconceived notion that predetermines you to not like the film, you aren’t going to give the movie a fair shot…and that’s almost worse, right?  I offer this up at the beginning of my review for My Spy because when the film was eventually snapped up by Amazon to be released via the streaming service and an opportunity to review it at home came up – I was desperate for a comedy to watch and accepted the mission with little reservation.

Again, dear reader, I say to you that The MN Movie Man is not infallible and I’m not sure if my craving for a laugh overcame my critical eye or what but I found My Spy to be the kind of easy to digest fun that is a rare treat to enjoy.  It’s a harmless endeavor that showcases the continued appeal of Dave Bautista and makes a stronger case for the wrestler turned actor to keep headlining projects that show him flexing not only his muscles but his comedic chops.  Further, bypassing a theatrical release and going straight to streaming was the best thing that could have happened to My Spy because it gives the film a fighting chance to be seen/enjoyed by more than just the target family audience…which it’s not even a great fit for.

Freshman CIA agent JJ (Bautista, Skyfall) biffs a major weapons trade as the film opens, a big blunder that doesn’t sit well with his boss (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians, in his umpteenth iteration of the perpetually annoyed authority figure role) who quickly busts him down to a low impact stakeout in Chicago.  Paired with nerdy tech Bobbi (Kristen Schaal, Toy Story 4) that has a fangirl crush on JJ’s agent status, the two are keeping an eye on the sister-in-law and niece of a French baddie trying to build a nuclear bomb.  What should be an easy and uneventful assignment gets complicated when wiser-than-her-years fourth-grader Sophie (Chloe Coleman) figures out what JJ and Bobbi are up to.  Blackmailing the CIA agent into being her friend, protector, and trainer in all things spy, Sophie puts the tough as nails JJ through the ringer and, not wanting to further get in trouble with the home office, he complies.  Visiting school for career day, ice skating in the park, and making a good impression on her mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley) are all part of the bargain in balancing his double life, even as the danger of Sophie’s uncle draws closer.

Though it has its moments of originality here and here, I couldn’t help but think that the script from Erich Hoeber (The Meg) & Jon Hoeber (Battleship) reminded me an awful lot of Kindergarten Cop.  Thankfully, it reminded of the good parts of that movie and director Peter Segal (Second Act) keeps things moving along with workmanlike efficiency.  It’s largely a predictable affair but then again you likely didn’t go into My Spy thinking you’ll be surprised by the plot – it’s best to just fire it up and let it roll.  It has some geniune moments of fun and they don’t all come at the expense of low brow jokes and gags — even the usually grating Schaal has a few potent zingers that land right on target.

The main thing that’s wrong with the film at the end of it all is that I’m not sure who the target audience is.  Carrying a PG-13 rating and justly earning it thanks to violence and other content behooving some parental caution, this wouldn’t be a movie for families to enjoy in line with their PG movie night.  It also wouldn’t be something I think would appeal to the Bautista base that know him from the Guardians of the Galaxy films.  That leaves it in a strange limbo place where the audience will have to find it on their own which is why I think the streaming platform was the best place for it to debut.  If you do choose My Spy (as a guilty pleasure watch or otherwise), do so with confidence because it’s far better than it looks and more entertaining than you’d think.