Movie Review ~ Night Raiders

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A desperate Cree woman joins an underground band of vigilantes to infiltrate a State children’s academy and get her daughter back.

Stars: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Amanda Plummer, Violet Nelson, Gail Maurice

Director: Danis Goulet

Rated: NR

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s only natural that as representation in film (especially genre films) grows, so do the complexities in the cultures that are presented to audiences.  This is doubly true in the horror and science fiction community which have long drawn from ancient civilizations and previously underrepresented societies for their own skewed version of practiced traditions.  Thankfully, more of these peoples are having their voices heard and platforms on which to showcase their talent are more readily available to them.  Already in 2021, First Nations horror film Don’t Say Its Name has been making the rounds of genre film fests and while I didn’t much spark to that one, it’s undeniable the talent that was a part of getting it made.

Next up is Night Raiders, a far more successful attempt that takes us into a post-apocalyptic future with a set-up that feels familiar but featuring enough engaging performances and directorial choices to keep it afloat for most of its running length.  It’s not going to rock your world but it’s far better than any of the direct-to-video junk Bruce Willis has made recently, mostly because you can tell that those involved want to be there. 

Written and directed by Danis Goulet, Night Raiders is, at its most boiled-down, the story of a Cree woman surviving twenty years in the future with her daughter after a world changing event who has to make an agonizing choice in order to save her child.  With her daughter’s life on the line, she leaves her behind so she can receive the medical care she desperately needs and then turns around and immediately plots how to retrieve her from a mysterious military regime which trains children’s to be soldiers.  Eventually, the woman teams up with a resistance movement made up of her own people as well as other races. Ultimately, she fights to save not just her family but the hope of a future that looks increasingly bleak.

Goulet’s future appears as depressingly glum as all the others in a similar vein, but not all had an actress like Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers acting like a beam of light in the middle of it all.  Tailfeathers does great work here, nicely leading a strong cast of performers of varying experience.  It’s not all smooth sailing but for the most part Night Raiders goes over easily and, surprisingly, winds up being more entertaining than it hints at early on.  The marketing on this one is smart and will draw people in with promises of more action and suspense than are actually there, but for once that’s an OK thing.  What’s here is actually better, because strong performances and developed characters will always win me over.

Movie Review ~ tick, tick…BOOM!

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The Facts:

Synopsis: On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship, and the pressures to create something great before time runs out.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, MJ Rodriguez, Richard Kind, Judith Light, Ben Ross

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  As a life-long RENThead and a true RENT-aholic*, I was already quite familiar with the 2001 off-Broadway production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! before it was made into a Netflix movie by musical theater Swiss Army Man Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I was also aware that Miranda had starred in a smaller concert version of the show which seemed like a natural fit for him.  Miranda, the multiple award-winning composer/lyricist behind In the Heights and the behemoth known as Hamilton was greatly influenced by RENT’s late composer, and the two have lead strikingly similar career paths.  It’s not hard to see how Larson might have had the same type of trajectory as Miranda has rightfully enjoyed had he not passed away so tragically at age 35. 

I had reached a bit of a Miranda saturation point when this film was announced and if I’m being really real with you (like, really really real), tick, tick…BOOM!! always felt like a minor cash-in on RENT’s juggernaut rocket ship took off.  What started as a solo show by Larson was adapted into a one-act play that was a small success off-Broadway but nothing on the scale that RENT had.  It went on to do quite well regionally but it served more to show that Larson was a good songwriter from the start…but that even good songwriters wrote some clunkers at the beginning as well.  The impending arrival of the movie didn’t set off any major bells or whistles to me because it wasn’t one I felt strongly about either way.

So, take it from that perspective as I write that in the days since I’ve seen tick, tick…BOOM! I’ve been unable to get it out of my head, and not just the music.  The performances given by the cast Miranda has assembled and what the director has brought to the screen surpasses anything that had been put onstage before.  Screenwriter Steven Levenson bounces back from the disastrously bad adaptation of Dear Evan Hanson with a positively inspired take on how to further mold what was once a one-man show.  Miranda takes all of these elements and then puts a Broadway polish on it all, the cherry on the top of what is already a musical theater fan’s starry-eyed dream come true.

While the 2001 stage version wasn’t as direct, the movie layers the real-life story of Larson’s life as a struggling artist over the existing script and it amazingly works.  I wasn’t sure at first how much I wanted to see Larson’s life essentially made into a musical, an existing musical even, but everyone involved treats it with such respect, grace, and dignity that it doesn’t come off as either too serious or overly sentimental.  This is sincere moviemaking through and through and if it had leaned in either direction too far it would have collapsed in on itself.  Levenson’s screenplay is sturdy enough to hold together.

The glue, or cement rather, that solidifies it though is Andrew Garfield’s mesmerizing performance as Jonathan in what is without a doubt career-best work for the actor.  Put aside the fantastic dramatics he brings to the more emotional side of the character but from all the documentaries, books, film clips, etc. I’ve seen over the years in conjunction with RENT, Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) has Larson the person down to an eerie “T”.  He looks like the composer and easily conveys the charm everyone that knew him always speaks of.  And when he’s not speaking, his singing is first rate.  All the singing in the film is soaring and, in another extremely smart move, Miranda switches between Garfield as Larson performing the show with an onstage cast (including Bad Boys for Life’s Vanessa Hudgens and Broadway powerhouse leading man Joshua Henry, Winter’s Tale) and what are often their “real-life” (movie-wise) counterparts, Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) as girlfriend Susan and Robin de Jesus (The Boys in the Band) as Michael.

Much of the film (and the play) is leading to Larson’s composition of “the song”, a powerhouse ballad he’s been trying to create for his new show.  Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (played by The Cabin in the Woods’s Bradley Whitford sometimes and the real man himself on voicemails) encouraged Larson to keep writing and, if you believe the musical, it’s his advice that kept him searching for this major movie moment.  It’s very much worth waiting for and what existed onstage as a satisfying 11 o’clock number for an actress turns into something far more surprising here.  Then there’s even more movie to come.  I won’t spoil it but Miranda and company continue to blur the lines between what is the solo show, the musical, and the movie musical in clever ways throughout. 

Sure, the musical retains at least one of the songs that fails pretty spectacularly (mostly because it sounds achingly like the title song from RENT) but then again you have to remember this was written first.  Of all the movie musicals that have been released lately, this might be my absolute favorite in terms of overall success in transition from stage to screen.  It’s hard to expand these worlds and while In the Heights worked wonders with its transition, what Levenson and Miranda have accomplished here with tick, tick…BOOM! is sort of amazing.  The show now lives on in another completely new form separate from the original creation by Larson and the updated version reconstituted after his Pulitzer Prize winning musical became a revolutionary touchstone.  I would never be so bold as to make a statement like “Jonathan Larson would have loved this.” but I can say that as someone that was so moved (and changed) by the work that Larson has put forth and a fan of his for decades, this was a monumental undertaking with an exceptional execution.  Do not miss this one.

*What’s the difference between a RENThead and a RENT-aholic?  Well, RENTheads are fans of the show that have seen it more than five times and have won the lottery to sit in the front two rows at least once.  RENT-aholics have traveled across more than two state lines to see the show from any vantage point…and yes, I’m certified as both…and not just in NYC!

Movie Review ~ Ghostbusters: Afterlife

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a single mom and her two kids arrive in a small town, they begin to discover their connection to the original Ghostbusters and the secret legacy their grandfather left behind.

Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts

Director: Jason Reitman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  This is a public service announcement to all major Hollywood studios (and any independent ones with franchise opportunities) that are tossing around ideas of rebooting or relaunching their most valuable properties.  There are a million ways you can go wrong in resurrecting what has made you a boatload of cash in the past and will continue to bring in money moving forward as you churn out repackaged Blu-rays, coffee mugs, and ugly sweaters.  Don’t go cheap, instead why not think big, shoot for the moon, great creative, spend the cash, take the time.  Fans will wait for the product if the product is quality.  It’s late as I’m writing this and reading over these last sentences, I’m not sure if I’m writing a review for Ghostbusters: Afterlife or giving a pep talk to an ad agency that just lost a big client.  No, I’m definitely writing a review for this long in the works and much called for sequel, which was delayed over a year due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

I feel as if I need to give this announcement to Tinsel Town (since all the big execs are reading this, naturally) because Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a prime example of why waiting to get the right group of people together and aiming for perfect instead of “acceptable” is how the best sequels are made.  I can’t even begin to describe how pleasing this film is and not just on the low-bar scale of fan service.  Fan service is often the easiest box to to check of all so critics that ding a film for “paying fan service” aren’t really giving an adequate critique of the film.  No, this is a movie that not only understands its audience but cares about them as well.  It knows how long they’ve waited, suspects they may be bringing their own children to the movie, and provides an entertainment package that work fantastically for the generation that grew up with one set of Ghostbusters while paving the way for the next generation to get their own heaping dose of kicks from the festivities.

Does it help having some knowledge of the first two movies (the original in 1984 and the divisive sequel in 1989 being the reference points, the female-led reboot in 2016 isn’t acknowledged as far as I could tell) going in?  Sorta, but only because you’ll pick up more of the small tips of the proton packs director Jason Reitman (son of original director Ivan) makes to what his dad crafted before.  It’s more or less a continuation from the second film which picks up today in a small town in Oklahoma where Egon Spengler retreated to after the Ghostbusters disbanded, abandoning his young daughter in the process. Living life as a recluse before recently dying (original star Harold Ramis passed away in 2014), his now grown daughter (Carrie Coon, Gone Girl) is a single mom to Phoebe (McKenna Grace, I, Tonya) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, The Goldfinch) and needs a place to stay after being evicted.  Her dad’s ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere will have to do. Working through the hard feelings she has will have to wait a bit.

Ah, but Spengler picked this town and this house for a reason, as we’ll come to see.  First, we’ll learn a bit more about the town from Phoebe’s summer school science teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd, This is 40) and Podcast (Logan Kim, a star in the making) her lab partner and, soon, her partner in crime.  Seems the town is known for its strange earthquakes even though it isn’t anywhere near a fault line or any other natural developments which would normally cause them.  Then there’s the abandoned mine which has seemed to have some activity lately.  Oh, and who can forget all the fun discoveries Phoebe finds around the house when the inquisitive girl who has trouble fitting in starts to poke around with a ghostly helping hand.

Uh-oh…I think I’ll stop there because I wouldn’t want to get ahead of myself or let you in on what Reitman and screenwriter Gil Kenan have cooked up for the remainder of the film’s exciting second half.  The thrills and adventure only rises as the stakes grow, resulting in a movie-going experience that works as a sort of fountain-of-youth-filmgoing.  I went in as an adult but left feeling fifteen years younger.  It’s that fun of a watch and while it does have the allure of a summer blockbuster, its spooky tone fits right into its late fall/Thanksgiving release slate. 

Led by a solid cast of young talent and given great support by its adult cast who ace the fast-talking dialogue in Reitman/Kenan’s finely tuned script, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the sequel fans have been waiting (dreaming?) for.  This isn’t a quickie get rich quick project or a recycled brain-dead treatment.  Reitman (Labor Day) grew up on the sets of these films so it’s no surprise he has spoken of how personal these films are to him.  It shows in nearly every frame on screen and continues to the very end of the movie which has one of the longer post-credit scenes I’ve seen in a while.  The movie won’t be complete if you don’t stay until that absolute final credit is through. I suspect by the time the movie is over, you won’t need any prodding to stay through the credits.

Movie Review ~ Belfast

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Buddy is a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, whose life is filled with familial love, childhood hijinks, and a blossoming romance. Yet, with his beloved hometown caught up in increasing turmoil, his family faces a momentous choice: hope the conflict will pass or leave everything they know behind for a new life.

Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Lara McDonnell

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If they haven’t yet, the Belfast tourist board should consider asking writer/director Kenneth Branagh to film their next tourism campaign.  The opening and closing shots of Belfast, his semi-autobiographical film, show a modern-day Belfast that remembers its history and the working-class people that built it with pride.  These full color moments are fleeting, and soon we’ll be taken into the black and white past to experience a brief moment in time through the eyes of a child during a period of change.  For his family, for his neighborhood, for his country.  At the beginning, you immediately get the impression the story you are about to see is going to be something special.  At the end, you know it was.

It’s the tail end of 1969 and all Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) knows is his small community in Belfast.  At the opening of the film, the neighborhood is besieged by a mob involved with the Troubles, the decades long conflict between Protestants and Catholics which led to much violence and bloodshed.  This attack leaves the area scarred and scared and we get the impression it’s the first time the young boy has seen the idyllic idealism of his youth interfered with in such a massive way.  With his father (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) often off in England to provide for his family, his mother (Caitriona Balfe, Ford v Ferrari) rules the roost and does so with a strong arm but loving heart. 

Guided by his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds, The Woman in Black) and grandmother (Judi Dench, Skyfall) when his parents can’t be there, Buddy navigates the absence of his father by applying himself in school to impress a girl he likes and reveling in the time his dad is there. These reunions are clearly the biggest memories and some of the most cherished to recreate. While their marriage is strained by the distance, the couple bonds over their affection for their family and wanting to do what’s best.  As the violence increases and the taking of sides is demanded, choices have to be made about the future and what ultimately makes a home.  Is it where you grew up or where you rest your head at night? 

Branagh’s film is, like many autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works, episodic in nature because that’s often how our memories feel.  He’s smartly placed Buddy in a number of scenes as an observer to adult conversations, allowing his knowledge of important decisions and discussions to make sense.  It’s in that way the film comes off feeling entirely authentic yet dream-like at the same time.  Perhaps it’s Haris Zambarloukos’s (Eye in the Sky) gorgeous black and white photography but at times it does feel like we’re tooling around in someone’s stored memories, their half-remembered dreams of how they recollect certain events.

Having directed a number of films from Shakespeare drama to comedies to action and fairy tales, Branagh understands the magnitude of cinema and uses that scale for maximum impact in Belfast.  I mentioned the opening and closing are in color, but he chooses a few other moments of color to punctuate a point. I won’t give away what those are, but it’s used so well, mostly because it’s exactly the type of thing a child would remember in full, vivid color.  His screenplay is both tender-hearted, wise, and, at times, deeply funny.  For every scene that tugs at the heartstrings (like Balfe’s wondrous monologue to her husband about why she prefers to stay in Belfast) there are lovely, well-tuned moments of comedy that don’t feel shoehorned in for laughs.

Casting is essential and I’m sure it wasn’t a cakewalk having to think about what are pretty much stand-ins for your real life loved ones but Branagh (All is True) has assembled an excellent cast from top to bottom.  Aside from the impressive Hill who so ably carries the film on his small but mighty shoulders, we have Balfe and Dornan doing career-best work as his parents.  The two work believably well as a couple and as parents to Hill and the boy playing his brother.  There’s an easiness to how they act with one another and their brief musical moment where Dornan sings and Balfe dances is sure to be one of my favorite moments of 2021.  Can you ever say a word against Dench?  Speaking or not speaking, Dench is always right there in the scene and completely takes you into the world.  I think my favorite performance might be from Hinds, though, and surprisingly he’s the one that I feel has been talked about the least.  This is the one more people should be looking at because it’s secretly the heart and soul of the movie…and I think Branagh might agree because he’s clearly written in that way.

Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and already on track for a slew of Oscar nominations, this is what you’d call a “contender” and a sure-fire crowd pleaser.  It’s the perfect length and pitched just right to stir your emotions to the balanced mix of comedy and drama.   One of the very best movies I’ve seen in 2021, take this trip to Belfast and a look back into history for Branagh’s special story of growing up in a specific time and place.  Really a joyous experience that fills your cup to overflowing.

Movie Review ~ Home Sweet Home Alone

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After being left at home by himself for the holidays, 10-year-old Max Mercer must work to defend his home from a married couple trying to steal back a valuable heirloom.

Stars: Ellie Kemper, Rob Delaney, Archie Yates, Aisling Bea, Kenan Thompson, Timothy Simons

Director: Dan Mazer

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: “Holiday classics were meant to be broken.”  That’s the tagline being used on the marketing for Home Sweet Home Alone, the sixth (!) film in the series that began back in 1990 with the cheeky cheery blockbuster.  It’s a pretty bold statement for any movie to make, least of all one that is so far down the franchise ladder.  In my mind, I was thinking director Dan Mazer and writers Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell (both from Saturday Night Live) had worked up something clever that would rise above the rather tacky logline.  Instead, both they and the film are firmly on The MN Movie Man’s naughty list for 2021 because this isn’t just a lump of coal…it’s a pile of something else entirely.

Formalities out of the way first.  The story revolves not around young tyke Max (Jojo Rabbit scene-stealer Archie Yates) but financially strapped dunderhead married couple Pam and Jeff McKenzie (Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney) who think the boy has made off with a doll that could get them out of their dire straits.  That Max has been mistakenly left behind by his immediate and extended family who have jetted off to Toyko for the holidays is barely the B story.  Halfway through the movie you realize Day and Seidell are far more interested in the perspective of the bad guys than the boy forced to defend his home from a suburban couple who don’t have the first clue about how to break into their own house, much less his.

The result is a painfully unfunny 90 minutes with no one to root for, nothing to care about, and a general awe of just how many wrong decisions could be made in a single film.  If the filmmakers won’t even go the distance with making the movie comically adept, what’s the point?  I kept asking myself (often out loud) who this movie was made for.  Kids won’t find any of the hijinks the least bit hilarious because the physical humor skews so violently painful and realistic, something that will surely astonish their adult parents who will already be aghast at the lack of timely jokes.  Dated references to OJ Simpson and Beverly Hills Cop feel like they came from a script written ten or more years ago and that’s just the tip of the out-of-left-field references iceberg that act more like cultural touchstones for the writer’s own memory book than anyone else’s. 

The small attempts made to connect this movie to what has come before offer glimpses at the right direction the filmmakers could have taken things.  Keep your eyes and ears open for references to the McAllisters and one family member that pops up, along with an admittedly clever (hence the 1 star) update to the video Kevin watches in the first film.  Why the writers and Mazer (The Exchange) didn’t go further with this is beyond me.  We definitely didn’t want to spend so much time with Kemper (Sex Tape) and Delaney (Bombshell) and their obnoxious family, including Tim Simons (Draft Day) showing up as a Cousin Eddie-ish knob that rankles Delaney at every turn. Who cares that this couple needs to sell their house because the husband can’t find a job as in the IT field? Would the original Home Alone have been such a hit if we followed Joe Pesci’s character home and hung out with his relatives? This is premiering on Disney+, a streaming service that took all of the major swear words and objectionable content out of Adventures in Babysitting, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised what they’ve done here.

Let’s also just acknowledge another major problem – the movie looks absolutely awful.  Within the first ten minutes there’s an editing error involving Kemper’s character showing up in two different scenes at once that’s so noticeable I rewound it just to make sure I didn’t fully dream it. How did this make it through a professional editor’s gaze?  There’s also a terrifically terrible scene where the duo is trying to climb over a large wall when we can clearly see a lower wall right next to them…and it’s not for comic effect.  Bad use of green screen which make the actors look like paper dolls and a general lack of kinetic energy in the finale keep the film as lugubrious as the script. Sanitized beyond all measure to leave no one truly “bad”, this is quite truly a pointless holiday cash-in on a beloved family chestnut.

With the first three Home Alone films available on Disney+ (as bad as the third movie is, it looks like The Grapes of Wrath in comparison to this), there’s just no reason to even consider watching Home Sweet Home Alone.  It will only break your heart in unbearable ways, especially when they corrupt the beautiful Oscar-nominated John Williams score and attempt to stir emotions when it doesn’t deserve our sentiment.

Movie Review ~ Red Notice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An Interpol-issued Red Notice is a global alert to hunt and capture the world’s most wanted. But when a daring heist brings together the FBI’s top profiler and two rival criminals, there’s no telling what will happen.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Plenty of movies (and good movies) have sailed into financial and critical success based on the charisma of their leading players.  The story may be lackluster and the efforts behind the scenes could be minimal, but get a bona fide movie star, or a combination of stars, in your film and just watch how a dud can turn into a winner.  I’m betting that anyone seeing the trailer for Red Notice, now streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters, could have guessed the film was going to be all about its three huge A-listers and the energy they are known to bring to their projects.  How would they have known these same celebrities would be leaving all their valuable (and turns out much needed) screen presence at home? 

Likely the laziest action thriller I’ve seen in years, Red Notice also accomplishes what previously could have been thought to be impossible: making its charming stars totally devoid of personality.  Wait, you may be thinking, is this guy telling us that not only are Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) bland walking posterboards where superheroes once stood but Rampage’s Dwayne Johnson is too?  Oh yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you.  Writer/director Rawson Marshal Thurber (We’re the Millers) reteams with his oft-collaborator Johnson after their enjoyable Central Intelligence in 2016 and cheesy but fun Skyscraper in 2018 for this hollow bit of blah which is at its best, casually distracting and at its worst, so forgettable from scene to scene that when it inevitably reveals a set of double crosses you aren’t even sure who was originally loyal to whom.

A National Treasure-y plot using historical artifacts finds three eggs belonging to Cleopatra being the MacGuffin in which the adventure centers on.  The location of two of these eggs are known but the third is a mystery.  Of course, it isn’t, or else why would Reynolds as super thief Nolan Booth be trying to gather all three eggs for a rich Egyptian and collect a hefty finders fee before equally skilled cat burglar The Bishop (Gadot) can beat him to it?  Trying to stop them is John Hartley (Johnson) an American copy tracking Booth and The Bishop who only wants to protect the eggs, having a severe distaste for con artists and criminals due to some strained family history with thieves.  Forced to team up with Booth when The Bishop frames them both and gets them tossed in a Gulag style prison, Hartley traverses the globe with his new cellmate while an Interpol agent (Ritu Arya, Last Christmas) attempts to keep a handle on all three, trusting no one.

It’s a mystery to me just what transpired to have Red Notice turn out as bad as it did.  Maybe it’s because all three roles are too easy for these stars and they are coasting on autopilot.  Made during the pandemic, this was a fast way to stay afloat and perhaps start a new franchise in the process.  I hope the thinking wasn’t that they’d get it right in the second round because this original outing is so limp and uninspired, I wouldn’t want to travel down the block with any of them again.  The only one of the three that seems to marginally understand the assignment is Gadot, but there’s such little chemistry with either of her co-stars (not entirely her fault) that the role winds up sort of flailing in the wind and feeling like a supporting player instead of a third lead.  Banter between Johnson and Reynolds is tired and uninspired and so much of the movie is digitized even the international adventure of the movie feels phony, so you can’t feel involved or engaged for any length of time. 

For a movie of this size and stature, there’s been a relatively quiet amount of publicity for Red Notice and now I know why.  It plays fine as an extremely thin spy flick and nothing more.  It’s the type of uneventful movie with easy solutions that doesn’t bother to explain why a bunker hidden for decades could be found under less than an inch of dirt or why a car that hadn’t been started for almost a century runs like a top with barely a sputter.  It’s because the screenplay said so and nothing else.  If the movie doesn’t bother to think too deeply about why it exists, why should we?

Movie Review ~ Mayor Pete

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With extraordinary access to the candidate, an inside look at the 2020 Pete Buttigieg campaign for President of the United States.

Stars: Pete Buttigieg, Chasten Buttigieg

Director: Jesse Moss

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  As I began watching Mayor Pete, I started to get this uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I suddenly began to long to check a bunch of news sites that had laid dormant in my history for over a year and felt the urge to confirm the events of the last twelve months hadn’t all been some Dallas-style Bobby-Ewing-was-just-in-the-shower dream.  That PTSD related to the November 2020 election is still alive for many, and this documentary about the race to secure Pete Buttigieg as the Democratic nominee for President wasn’t the first major media I had faced that reminded me what our country went through.  It was, however, one of the more interesting looks inside the inner workings of a campaign that sought to change and challenge the status quo.  While it doesn’t delve quite as deeply as it could, there’s an interesting portrait provided of a hometown boy makes good while living his life in a way many sadly still condemn. 

Full disclosure, I was never going to vote for Pete Buttigieg to be on the ballot for President.  As a gay man myself, trust me, it had nothing to do with his home life or anything like that.  It was simply that I had other candidates that I leaned toward more at that time.  I think the former Mayor of South Bend, IN has a strong political future and after watching this new documentary streaming on Amazon Prime from director Jesse Moss (Boys State) I’m inclined to think we’ll see him around for a long time. 

The current Secretary of Transportation under President Joe Biden, Buttigieg made the bold move to run for President without holding an office higher than his Mayoral post.  While not unheard of, experience is such a key factor for many voters that his lack of political years in office as a governor or senator meant he faced an uphill battle, not to mention he was also an out gay man married to his husband, Chasten.  Conservative America had only recently elected the first African American president and still was unsteady about a woman holding the top elected office…would they accept a gay man in that same position? 

The film shows that Buttigieg didn’t seek to “normalize” himself as much as refocus the discussion on the things he thought really mattered to the American people…and how that largely succeeded in advancing him far into the races for a time.  Working with his skilled team of young and hungry staff, including senior communications director Lis Smith, a strong and at times foul-mouthed (hence the R-Rating) powder keg, Buttigieg parlays his inexperience in the larger political arena into a benefit in being the change people were seeking for 2020.  For what it’s worth, you can see the idealism present before, during, and (importantly) after the campaign.  If Buttigieg was greatly discouraged with the overall outcome, Moss doesn’t show it and I don’t get the impression this is a total puff piece by the director.

It can be, at times, though.  I think the film skims the surface of the personal life of Buttigieg and rarely digs too deeply into his family history or much in the way of his life with Chasten.  If this was going to be about the man that wanted to be President and lost, giving more context into who he is would help so the next time he’s up to bat there is more info out there for people to draw from.  Keeping those chapters out of this book makes the story feel incomplete and Buttigieg winds up still being that frustrating enigma he was, which I believe cost him the overall primary votes.  It has to be said that his husband also has some…interesting ideas about how much he should be involved and included.  I’m not saying he has an Eva Peron vibe to him but…Don’t Cry for Chasten, South Bend.

Far from a frivolous composition but lacking greater detail to make the story come off as complete, Mayor Pete is a perfectly entertaining watch for ninety minutes and should make fans of his on any level happy.  If you voted for him, you’ll enjoy seeing this process unfold.  If you didn’t vote for him but liked the energy he brought in challenging his more experienced colleagues, I think you’ll appreciate watching the way he thinks about politics and his place in it.  All those that voted for the other guy…maybe give this a watch and see how a friendly, but still competitively agile, campaign can be run by intelligent staff.

Movie Review ~ Passing

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1920s New York City, a Black woman finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend who’s passing as white.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe

Director: Rebecca Hall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Movies are by design a visual medium so it’s always worth noting when one comes along that manages to hit several different senses at one time.  Audiences are so trained to respond to what they see flash across the screen in bold exclamation points that a quieter, more fragile film like Passing may require a bit of an adjustment period.  As black and white images slowly fade in and come into focus while lilting sounds of voices layer in, the viewer is brought into this dream-like period-piece based on novelist Nella Larsen’s acclaimed, but often little known, 1929 novel.  Adapted by actress Rebecca Hall (The Night House) making her directorial debut and streaming on Netflix, it’s a delicate portrait of two women living complex lives nearly a century ago.

Out shopping for a book her children desperately want at an upscale store in New York City, Reenie Redfield (Tessa Thompson, Sylvie’s Love) is “passing” and hoping to not be found out.  Her ancestry has allowed the black woman with light skin to move among white society at times, but fear of discovery weighs heavily on Reenie and her marriage to a man of color and children that could not pass makes full immersion in that life impossible.  This day however she retreats into a posh whites-only hotel to get out of the heat and is spotted, but not for the reasons she is afraid of. 

Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga, Ad Astra) is also at the hotel, sees her childhood friend across the room, and instantly reaches out to reconnect.  Married to a smug racist (Alexander Skarsgård, The Aftermath) who isn’t aware of her mixed heritage or her life passing as white, she now longs to be with “her people” and sees Reenie as a lifeline to her past.  Used to getting, or rather taking, what she wants, Clare invites herself into Reenie’s circle of friends and community, attending events for the Negro Welfare League and using her allure to charm Reenie’s children and husband Brian (André Holland, A Wrinkle in Time).  All this while continuing the charade that she’s a white woman with another life outside the Redfield’s Harlem home. 

Don’t think that Passing is some sinewy thriller in the Fatal Attraction vein though. Hall’s film is very much a character study of Clare and Reenie and how both women have adapted to the norms of society, albeit in different ways.  Clare has used the advantage of hereditary and a bit of performative ambition to carve out the life of luxury she dreamed of growing up without much of anything while Reenie has found a different way to achieve equality with her neighbor and even the opposite gender.  There is a constant threat of danger in the way Clare was living; you get that sense just by the few breathless moments that Reenie felt she was found out in the early part of the movie.  To fully live a life passing as white, the film is telling us you had to be willing to deal with the ultimate consequences.  Reenie understands this but can’t accept that Clare wants to have it both ways – and that’s where the conflict between the women grows.

The two actresses have a heavy task in balancing their power struggle that rears up in the final act.  It’s less of an all-out brawl but there is some maneuvering, though how much of it exists only in the mind of the increasingly tenuous Reenie is debatable.  Hall and Thompson go down that instability route bravely and humanely, always paying respect to the high wire both intelligent characters were walking.  Thompson’s impressive as always but it’s Negga’s performance that stands out just a little more and I think it’s intentional.  Clare is meant to be this galvanizing force that commands attention and draws focus and Negga can only oblige the script and Hall’s sensitive direction.

Shot by Edu Grau (Boy Erased) in a smaller aspect ratio to give it an even greater feeling of the era and largely free of incidental music outside of a rather onerous piano refrain from composer Devonté Hynes (Queen & Slim) that is purposely repetitive to a wincing fault, Passing is just a gorgeous movie from performance to design.  Even in black and white you can tell how rich the costumes from Marci Rodgers (BlacKkKlansman) are and see the intricate details in Kristina Porter’s production design.  I always worry about how a deliberate film like this will play on a streaming service where a viewer can be easily distracted, and I wish I had seen this on the big screen where I could be totally brought into this experience.  There’s little doubt that Hall has made a wonderful first feature; one that engages history, culture, and class in a sophisticated dialogue with two iridescent performances forming its core.

Movie Review ~ The Deep House

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While diving in a remote French lake, a couple of YouTubers who specialize in underwater exploration videos discover a house submerged in the deep waters. What was initially a unique finding soon turns into a nightmare when they discover that the house was the scene of atrocious crimes…and they are not alone.

Stars: James Jagger, Camille Rowe, Eric Savin, Carolina Massey

Directors: Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While I’ve been swimming since I was six months old and am a heckuva good snorkeler, I’ve never learned to fully scuba dive and I think it’s partly because I want to have an excuse for never going too deep.  As much as I love the beauty and the mystery of large bodies of water, I also have a secret nervousness not just what lies beneath the surface but what sits at the bottom and it’s movies like The Deep House that only confirm that I have a right to be worried.  Obviously, it’s a work of Euro-niche horror fiction but there’s elements to its cleverly creepy premise that are absolutely true to life.  If you weren’t scared of what could greet you under an idyllic lake before you watched this, you’ll be sticking to the shallow end after.

A rather pointless pre-credit opening introduces us to engaged video bloggers Ben (James Jagger, Sound of Violence, son of Mick and Jerry Hall) and Tina (Camille Rowe) as they explore an abandoned hospital said to be haunted.  It’s an odd waste of time for writer/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (the duo behind the recent Leatherface) to stumble with so early on, perhaps there was an editing mishap for time, but at least it gets a non-pay off out of the way before the title appears.  Soon, we’re along for the ride with the couple in France as they head to a lake created after a town was purposely flooded.  Hoping to explore the submerged buildings that wait below, they are disappointed to see it is a popular tourist destination – not exactly the place that will get a lot of hits on YouTube.

Here’s one way the film unfortunately dates itself, and continues to do so throughout, by mentioning the streaming video service as the place Tina and Ben are hoping to break big on.  Wanting to monetize their first-person investigative videos venturing into unknown spaces, Ben is constantly dropping lines like “This will get a lot of clicks” or remarking on how many views or subscribers their creation will generate.  Will something like that even track in five, ten years?  Now that anyone can be Internet-famous, the bar has been raised (lowered?) to go big to get the most attention so when Ben hears from a local that in another part of the lake that’s not open to tourists there is a house perfectly preserved and unexplored he jumps at the chance, much to the tentative Tina’s wariness.

We’ve already gotten the idea that Tina wasn’t keen on diving to begin with and was relieved to have dodged the original underwater shoot, so this new and potentially more dangerous discovery is a major stressor.  Not wanting to show too much fear, she soldiers on, and accompanied by a drone that will serve to capture additional footage as well as act as a kind of canary in a coal mine, they descend.  The house is as promised, intact and undamaged by the lake waters.  In fact, it’s almost too pristine.  For a structure that’s been in this environment as long as it has, it should be more rusted, corroded, eroded, etc. but there’s a curious lack of degeneration to the manse and all the items within.  That’s creepy enough…and then they open the wrong door.

We’ll stop right there and leave the rest of the movie for you to uncover on your own.  At an efficient 81 minutes, Bustillo and Maury get to the goods within the first twenty minutes and keep us underwater for nearly an hour without any reprieve.  The sustained level of tension is laudable, as are a number of very frightening sequences as the couple gets to know the house better.  I feel it’s only fair to come clean and also say there’s an unexpected scare early on that sent me jumping so far out of my chair I wound up like attached to the ceiling like a cat.  It’s simple, but brilliant.  Perhaps it was the late-night watch, but it got me like few films have in any type of recent memory. 

There’s a lot of good shocks to be had in The Deep House, making it one of those fun watches where you get rattled and then have that nervous titter after, laughing at yourself for jumping so easily.  Yet it’s a sign of skilled filmmaking and not just mere loud noise jump scares that keep you on the edge of your seat, breathlessly watching the helpless couple struggle with an unfamiliar location and an increasingly bad situation.  It gets more than a little messy as it ramps up to the end and that’s disappointing because it almost makes it through without major missteps. Substituting confusing camera work when additional plot would have helped, Bustillo and Maury could have given the movie a few extra minutes and fleshed out some of the narrative they’ve introduced quite creepily. For me these unwieldly moments weren’t enough for me to write it off completely.  There’s still a solid horror film present, one that wins out with its nifty practical effects and The Deep House is built on sound scares and reinforced with entertaining execution.

Movie Review ~ The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The extraordinary true story of eccentric British artist Louis Wain, whose playful, sometimes even psychedelic pictures helped to transform the public’s perception of cats forever.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Stacy Martin, Sharon Rooney, Hayley Squires, Aimee Lou Wood, Adeel Akhtar, Julian Barratt, Asim Chaudhry, Indica Watson, Sophia Di Martino, Taika Waititi, Olivia Colman

Director: Will Sharpe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: As has often been the cast for the past several years, actor Benedict Cumberbatch has two movies that are arriving near the end of 2021 that are playing at a number of film festivals.  One film is a bit elusive and hard to see unless you are attending one of the most prestigious events.  The other one is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  One film is getting the actor much acclaim and buzz about another Oscar nomination after his stoic turn in 2014’s The Imitation Game.  The other movie is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  Available at quite a number of film festivals over the past several months, you can see Amazon Studios and its other producers fighting a losing battle to get some traction on The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the secondary Cumberbatch movie. However, with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog readying for release on Netflix, it’s lights out for this twee bit of falderal that sparks early only to be undone by it’s overreliance on puffy artistry on the back end.

Look, before I saw this biographical drama, I had no clue the English artist Louis Wain played such an integral role in helping the domestic cat gain such popularity in Europe through his artwork.  As a dedicated cat lover (an animal that has a box for its own litter which it also covers for you, keeps it distance when it’s not in the mood to be bothered, and can tell when bad weather is approaching is A-OK in my book!) I am ever in his debt for normalizing the attitude toward cats in his country because many of those feelings became popularized the world over.  I was unfamiliar with his art before a viewing of director Will Sharpe’s film and the recreation of his style and technique through the screenplay Sharpe co-wrote with Simon Stephenson (Paddington 2) were fascinating bits of mechanics to watch – it’s everything else that surrounded it that became so befuddling.

Perhaps it’s the feeling that Sharpe was grasping for a style and tone that didn’t completely make sense all the time.  The opening stretch and final hour are flighty bits of quirkiness that feel curated and calculated, like what someone attempting to be irreverent with the life of a colorful character would put on screen.  By all accounts, the mental health issues that plagued Wain and various members of his family were present for a long while but only presented themselves rarely over the years until they became more serious in his older days.  It was during his romance of the family governess (Claire Foy, Breathe) when Wain found his true happiness and it’s also when Sharpe’s movie gets into its best and most easily accessible mode.

The early marketing materials and trailers I saw of the movie suggested the Foy/Cumberbatch relationship was going to be far more rambunctious, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Yet it turned out to be my favorite parts of the movie.  The two have such a natural ease of working together and I can’t help but think that it’s Foy that consistently brings out the best in her male costars, melting some icy actors down and letting audiences see the softer sides.  She absolutely lets us see another side of Cumberbatch, a far more tender one that finds himself caring for another when he previously felt like that part of his life would never come to pass.  These are the meat the film feasts on…but the meal can’t last forever and before too long it’s back to the same old ticks and tricks once more.

I’m all for biographies that color outside of the lines (and The Courier’s Suzie Davies production design along with Paddington’s Erik Alexander Wilson’s cinematography are never lacking for bold color choices) but it has to circle back to a point – something The Electrical Life of Louis Wain takes an awful long time to get to.  Along the way Sharpe stops to create several beautiful moments (a shot of Foy and Cumberbatch sitting in a meadow is gorgeous) but it’s balanced with far too many repetitive scenes of Wain fighting with one or more of his disapproving sisters.

Controversially, I’m not as sold on Cumberbatch as most are.  I loved him for Sherlock but have since found him to be decidedly hit or miss with his work, feeling that perhaps he’s more limited in his range than we’d care to admit.  He’s not bad in this new film but he’s been better in others that are about far less important people and ideas.  Fans of his will want to check out The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, all others should save their Cumberbatch Cinema of 2021 for The Power of the Dog.