31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Madres & The Manor

We’ve come to the end of another year of Welcome to the Blumhouse and I’m a little sad it’s already done. I feel like we just got started! With five Fridays in October leading up to Halloween, I wish they had staggered the release of these four movies and not clumped them together…it would only spread the wealth in what turned out to be a much stronger year than 2020. (Click the title for reviews of Black Box, Nocturne, The Lie, and Evil Eye) I sort of understand why Blumhouse would want to keep Friday, October 15th clear…it’s when their sequel to the 2018 Halloween arrives but why not just skip that week? In any event, this final push has the two best releases and while I felt overall the four films were stronger than last year, the two below are the ones you should consider first with the slight edge going to The Manor for getting the job done.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Expecting their first child, a Mexican-American couple move to a migrant farming community in 1970’s California where strange symptoms and terrifying visions threaten their new family.

Stars: Ariana Guerra, Tenoch Huerta, Elpidia Carrillo, Kerry Cahill, Jennifer Patino, Rachel Whitman Groves, Ashleigh Lewis

Director: Ryan Zaragoza

Rated: NR

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If the third time is truly the charm, then Madres should be the star attraction in this cycle of Welcome to the Blumhouse.  And y’know what?  From the looks of it so far (at the time of this writing, I hadn’t yet seen the fourth entry, The Manor) it most definitely is.  While last week held the elders with an attitude fighting against a demon battling them through gameplay in Bingo Hell and a New Orleans teen staking vampires in her recovering community in Black as Night, I had a feeling this second and final week would hold the more prestigious edge just by the look of the marketing materials.  Continuing to raise the bar like its previous week predecessors, Madres embraces the mission to highlight underrepresented voices in minority communities and crafts a throwback bit of paranoid domestic horror which aims more for the heart and head than just the gut.

Set in 1977, Mario Miscione and Marcella Ochoa’s screenplay is low-key and takes its time to slowly introduce both the characters and the creeping menace into their lives as a young couple moves from the big city to a small farming community in California.  In the city, their lives were cramped and futures not totally clear but with the move there is a chance to own a larger home to start a family and truly build a life, embracing what was then celebrated as the American Dream.  Diana (Ariana Guerra) and Beto (Tenoch Huerta, The Forever Purge) are already ahead of the game in the family department, with Diana far along in her pregnancy and looking forward to giving birth within the next few months.

Not long after they arrive, the warning signs start to pop up that they’re living in a house with secrets and the history of the previous tenant isn’t something the townspeople are eager to discuss.  They have their own problems anyway, with several illnesses being reported supposedly linked to a curse that has haunted the area from a woman with a soul that is not at rest.  Of course, it’s the same woman that wants to reach out to Diana but…why?  That’s the mystery Diana must solve, all while trying to bridge the gap between her culture and learning her husband’s.  While he has immigrated directly from Mexico and speaks the language, she grew up in a family that believed in assimilating as a way of protection.

Miscione and Ochoa work with director Ryan Zaragoza to give the film a distinct period setting, and Zaragoza taps the production side to keep everything appropriate for that era but also timeless as well.  The strange things that happen (this was inspired by true events) could still happen now and while there are ghostly goings on that tingle your spine, Zaragoza seems interested in making your moral conscience itch more than sending a shiver through your bones.  That can often be scary in and of itself, even during the later moments when Madres gives way to more conventional plot mechanics.  Up until then, though, there’s a ship-shape film going on with taut storytelling and performances that are far better than we’ve been accustomed to in what could be considered a B-Movie.  Guerra is the standout star and for good reason.  With charisma and chemistry with the equally charming Huerta, they make a dynamic duo, bonding together as a team to figure out what’s going on around them.  No Rosemary’s Baby like double crosses going on here…though there is plenty gaslighting going on, I’m just not saying who’s zoomin’ whom.

While watching these movies I also can’t help but wonder if Blumhouse is auditioning directors for bigger projects and Zaragoza is far and away the strongest candidate so far to be given a larger budget and production to work on.  On paper, Madres might not have had quite the impact it has when you see it up on its feet and it’s a tribute to Zaragoza assembling the right team in front of and behind the camera that it delivers the goods and then some. Carrying the horror of the film even further, the dark coda brings reality in, leaving you with a takeaway meant to gnaw at your nerves more than anything you’ve seen so far.

The Facts:

Synopsis: After suffering a stroke, Judith moves into a historic nursing home, where she begins to suspect something supernatural is preying on the residents.

Stars: Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, Nicholas Alexander, Stacey Travis, Fran Bennett, Katie A. Keane,  Jill Larson

Director: Axelle Carolyn

Rated: NR

Running Length: 81 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Whelp, I guess I’m all about the oft-used phrases today because Welcome to the Blumhouse saved the best for last, at least in the order that I was given to watch them.  The Manor is the fourth and final entry of the 2021 titles and not only is it the one that has the most polish (in a far above average crop to begin with) but the acting is top-notch with plot and pacing also working well in its favor.  Like the rest of the movies released under the banner up until now, it’s just under the mark of what would be considered something that would be released theatrically but is perfect for a direct to streaming event of this nature.  While it doesn’t confront its underlying topics (ageism, families abandoning their loved ones into the care of others) as fervently as the others, it aims for more of an entertaining balance of real-life horror with the things that go bump in the night.

Recently celebrating her 70th birthday, former dancer and widow Judith (Oscar-nominee Barbara Hershey, Insidious) suffers a stroke and, not wanting to burden her own widowed daughter and teenage grandson who she lives with, makes the decision to enter a nursing home.  Some viewer adjustment is required at the outset to conceptualize how a then-nearly 70-year-old can drop everything in her life to care for her daughter but when the roles are reversed the child (Katie A. Keane) doesn’t seem equipped to help in the same way.  However, it is what it is and Judith doesn’t wish to add more stress to anyone’s life and makes up her own mind, something we can see she doesn’t have any trouble doing being a headstrong and independent woman that apparently had a wild child streak in her youth.

It’s an adjustment at the home.  No cell phones, restricted access to outdoors without being accompanied by a staff, restraint at night to those that refuse to stay in their beds, regular sedation if you can’t go through the night without incident.  She’s cheered up by sunny trio of residents Trish (Jill Larson, The Taking of Deborah Logan), Ruth (Fran Bennett, The Doctor), and Roland (Bruce Davison, Insidious: The Last Key) who feel, like her, that staying young at heart is what will keep you alive longer. The good spirit boost doesn’t last long because Judith starts to see a frightening figure at night creeping around the manor and when people start to die, she fears she’s next.  Or is it all in her head, part of the growing confusion of dementia? Is she merely fearing the inevitable and conjuring a portent of the specter of death, much like the black cat that roams the halls and is believed to be a predictor of who will be the next to die?

Writer/director Axelle Carolyn (Tales of Halloween) has had an interesting career up until this point.  Beginning as a journalist before getting into the film industry as a sometime actress and then moving behind the camera, she was married to flash in the pan horror director Neil Marshall.  Now making her own name for herself, she’s written and directed this short but (bitter)sweet story that’s as much about getting older and cast aside as it is about what may be preying on the elders at a retirement home.  It’s the best kind of paranoid horror film in that it drops teeny clues along the way, blink and you miss them hints at the direction you should be considering.  It suggests thought was put into each character (down to minor ones) and that all were integral to the solution that arrives. 

Playing her first lead in a film in nearly two decades, Hershey is brilliantly cast as the still-vibrant woman knowing she’s not crazy and having to defend her sanity to people in her life that should be her advocates not her adversaries.  It’s frustrating to watch the way the nursing home staff and medical personnel speak to her, like she’s a child.  People in this confused state, which they sometimes are, don’t need to be harangued or snapped at, they need care and understanding, and Hershey’s take on the role only gets us more on her side the further we get.  It’s also nice that Carolyn doesn’t lean too far into the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope for Judith…we see what she sees so there’s little doubt as to what’s going on.  I also liked her trio of allies that give her the lay of the land and keep her spirits high and Ciera Payton (Oldboy) as a friendly nurse makes for another strong supporting player.  Judith’s daughter and grandson are middling, but only because both are so aggravatingly inert in their efforts to help their relative, especially Keane’s character who essentially gets told by a suspicious doctor at the manor, “Don’t believe your mother or let her leave her.” and then just refuses to listen to anything she says.

At 81 minutes, you’d think The Manor would miss something critical as it tries to jet to the action, but it doesn’t.  Surprisingly, it nimbly gets on its feet and keeps moving at an easy clip without dragging right until the end.  That doesn’t allow viewers a chance to get too far ahead of what’s to come, creating a solid package.  It’s sparse on jump scares but has a few creepy visuals that are effective in rattling your bones at just the right frequency.  With taut pacing and tight acting, The Manor and Madres should be the blueprints of Welcome to the Blumhouse films in the future, and I do hope they come back next October with more.

Movie Review ~ Sylvie’s Love

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Sylvie has a summer romance with a musician who takes a summer job at her father’s record store in Harlem. When they reconnect years later, they discover their feelings for each other have not faded.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Lance Riddick, Jemima Kirke, Erica Gimpel, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tone Bell, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Regé-Jean Page, Aja Naomi King, Eva Longoria

Director: Eugene Ashe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With all of the delays due to the pandemic, Disney and Amazon Studios couldn’t have predicted that both would be releasing films about jazz musicians examining their lives at critical junctures around the same date in December but here we are, several days out and both Soul and Sylvie’s Love loom large ahead of us.  The two films are unique at their core and speak for different audiences, but the way they overlap is interesting to note, in particular the way that it deals with the role of influential men in the lives of the young.  This Christmas, it will be nice to see multiple options of representation for inclusive storytelling available to distinct target demographics.

One also can’t even begin to talk about Sylvie’s Love, a romantic drama from writer/director Eugene Ash that’s been in various stage of development as far back as 2014 and not mention the old-fashioned melodramas so popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when the film takes place.  Emulating the feel of a Douglas Sirk escapade that’s more big-city than Anytown, USA, Sylvie’s Love wears its many factions of homage clearly and proudly, which succeed in making it a more entertaining feature and also prevents it from being accused of not understanding that it is neck-deep in soap-opera scenarios.  Unfortunately, it bites off more than it is capably comfortable chewing on and experiences serious drag in the final 1/3, a disappointing shift in what up until that point had been a nice balance between the sudsy and the serious.

After a brief glimpse of the early ‘60s, we go back to the late 1950s where Sylvie Johnson (Tessa Thompson, Creed) is working at her father’s record store while her fiancé is overseas.  Since her mother (Erica Gimpel) runs a popular local charm school and it wouldn’t be ladylike for Sylvie to, gasp, work, Sylvie and her father (the excellent Lane Reddick, Angel Has Fallen) have to pretend she’s just watching the store and have placed a Help Wanted sign in the window, though it’s really just for show. Then musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, Hello, My Name Is Doris) walks in to apply for the job, mostly to talk more with Sylvie and also because he needs a little more income seeing that his band isn’t booking big gigs at the moment.  The job is his and, hopefully soon her heart will be too.

As expected, the two eventually fall in love despite her mother’s protestations on Robert’s profession and financial situation.  Their summer together is filled with new experiences and special moments, often conveyed by Sylvie with twinkle eyed wonder to her more experienced best friend, Mona (Aja Naomi King, The Upside) as they lay out listening to records and taking in some sun.  When Robert books a job that takes him overseas, he expects Sylvie to go with him…a decision that changes their lives together for the future.  When the film jumps back to the 60s to find Sylvie an assistant producer to a brassy TV cook (Wendi McClendon-Covey, What Men Want) and Robert a successful musician, we witness them navigate their relationship and how it has evolved, for better or for worse.

With both stars serving in some form of producer role on the film, you can tell they have a vested interest in how the characters are represented.  That may be why there’s more to Sylvie’s Love than just, well, Sylvie’s love.  Back in the day these romances always had some motivating side stories but there’s more time spent on these diversions in this instance, so much that they begin to come off as distractions from the people we do want to see more of…Thompson and Asomugha.  While it’s filled with familiar faces in supporting roles that range from the large to the tiny, none are interesting enough to pull you in their direction…well, maybe except for McLendon-Covey who Thompson’s character sees a spark in that’s being hidden by the senior producers of her show.  Casting Longoria as a fiery Latinx singer and then having her actually sing and dance was smart but, again, unnecessary since she is barely seen or established up until her late in the game production number.

The film does thrive when it’s just Thompson and Asomugha sharing the spotlight together.  Thompson tends to bring out the best in whatever costar she’s working with, human or CGI and here she’s matched with one that doesn’t need too much prodding to deliver.  A former NFL cornerback for nearly a decade, Asomugha cuts a convincing figure as a jazz musician and is a fine actor on top of it all.  Though he’s sadly part of several of the film’s less successful attempts at arch melodrama, he comes out unscathed from these sequences thanks to his honest approach to the character and to Thompson.  There’s a vulnerability to Asomugha, and in Thompson to a lesser extent, that is appealing and becomes an effective tool in keeping the audience with him along the way.  I liked that the script gave Thompson more autonomy that we usually see in films set in this era and it’s that unpredictability that keeps the movie from running too far out of gas, though it does feel like it has several endings as it makes its way to the final finish line.

Set to a gorgeous score from Fabrice Lecomte, the overall production design of Sylvie’s Love sublime and while Ashe hasn’t directed that many films, he clearly has an eye for what stands out and an ear for setting the mood. While Ashe is able to lean away from Sirk’s penchant for going overboard with strife as the film nears the conclusion, enough roadblocks are put in the way of our main couple to keep the resolution hard to figure out until the finale.  Even though an early glimpse may hint at the future, it isn’t quite the wrap-up audiences might think while watching.  It’s a completely worthy watch for those who miss an old-fashioned love story, well-told and performed, that isn’t trivialized or heavily weighted down with a coat of syrup.

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Evil Eye & Nocturne

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It’s Week Two of Welcome to the Blumhouse, the October collaboration between Blumhouse Television and Amazon Studios meant to drum up some scares with four curated genre films released over the course of two weeks.  Week One saw the arrival of The Lie and Black Box, both of which I found entertaining and, in the case of Black Box, a film I’d advocate you add to your queue, post haste.  I was expecting another week of sturdy films that couldn’t quite justify a theatrical release but made sense to appear in this curio of tales presented by producer Jason Blum.  Heck, I even expected them to save the best for the second week…but sadly these aren’t any stronger than the first entries, though one highly outranks the other in almost every way.  Looking over these four features, I’m glad these two entities joined forces and hope it happens again, albeit with product that feels like it was made for it and not just shoehorned in.  For this first time around, I’d pass on to Welcome to the Blumhouse a qualified return greeting.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A superstitious mother is convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago.

Stars: Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati, Bernard White, Anjali Bhimani

Director: Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Okay, so maybe I should walk back my comments above when I said the movies this week weren’t the strongest.  Thinking about it more I did find myself enjoying this low-key (really low-key) thriller based on a popular podcast originating on Audible.  This isn’t the first time a podcast has been adapted for television.  Amazon’s popular Homecoming successfully brought that buzzy paranoid drama to life a year or two ago, but Evil Eye does have an interesting premise and a lead that’s strong enough to earn a recommendation based on that factor alone.  That is winds up feeling like one of those old USA Mystery films by the end is more to do with the glossy direction from Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani than anything.

Thirty years ago in India, Usha (Sarita Choudhury, Admission) was attacked by a former boyfriend who she claims put a curse on her unborn baby.  The events of that night will come back to haunt her grown daughter, now single and living in New Orleans on her own.  Superstitious Usha has kept her daughter’s best interest in mind these past years and is always checking up and checking in on her, with her latest quest to find her daughter the proper Indian husband.  Matchmaking from halfway around the world isn’t easy on the mother-daughter relationship but Pallavi (Sunita Mani, The Death of Dick Long) lucks out and meets a keeper on her own, the darkly handsome Sandeep (Omar Maskati).  The one drawback is that though they are moving quickly, Usha’s senses tell her something is off about the match and even though the signs and mystics she normally consults tell her otherwise, she’s convinced her daughter is in danger.  Eventually, she becomes convinced that not only is Sandeep not the right man for her only child, but he’s actually the reincarnation of the man who tried to kill them both years earlier.

I haven’t heard Madhuri Shekar’s podcast so can’t tell you how faithfully she’s adapted it for the screen but this is a premise that works on a higher level than you’d think.  Silly though it sounds, it’s one that has to be taken with a degree of sincerity for it to work and everyone is onboard with that approach.  Steeped in Hindu culture with their own belief in reincarnation and their theory of the spirit never dying, there’s validity to Usha’s feelings even if no one around her actually believes what she says is true.  We don’t even know either, though it wouldn’t be much a thriller without that mystery hanging over our heads for a least a little bit.  The main suspense is due to how long we wait for Usha to get that one true sign that Sandeep is the man from her past, come back to finish what he started.

What gives the film its surest sense of worth is Choudhury’s lightening rod performance, first as the typical meddling mother and then as the parent, unraveling at the fact that she is too far away to save her daughter from an evil she may have unleashed.  Most of the film, Usha and Pallavi are separated and communicate only by phone yet Choudhury and Mani capably develop their relationship above simple surface level conversations.  As has been the case with many of these films, the supporting cast is tiny but I found myself liking Bernard White (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Usha’s husband and Pallavi’s dad…the one who is often stuck in the middle between the women he holds close to his heart.  I only wish Maskati had been a more convincing maybe-villain…he lacks a command of the screen and there are times when he’s working hard to come across imperious but winds up robotic.

As for thrills, Evil Eye is fairly light on any, though there was one moment involving the purposeful reveal of a pair of earrings and the direct fallout after that gave me chills.  It’s the one moment in the film that feels like it sprang from something more sinister and supernatural and I wish there were more of them.  Ultimately, this plays like a family drama with traces of the mystical intertwined which feels like a missed opportunity.  All that aside, it’s well-made and short enough to not overstay its welcome.  Choudhury’ll never bore you and she’s in the majority of the film so that’s a plus right there.  Let’s just say, you won’t give it the stink eye….unlike the next film.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage pianist makes a devilish deal in a bid to outplay her fraternal twin sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.

Stars: Madison Iseman, Sydney Sweeney, Brandon Keener, John Rothman, Rodney To, Jacques Colimon, Asia Jackson

Director: Zu Quirke

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy, a good plot synopsis will trick me every time.  I mean, every time.  Out of all the films in the Welcome to the Blumhouse stable, the one for Nocturne sounded the most interesting to me, which is why I saved it for last.  There’s something wickedly voyeuristic to any film or program where you have artists competing against one another who have already scarified so much and are willing to go a step further (see Suspiria and its remake) to attain their goals.  Now, recently Netflix had their own classical music horror show with twisted musicians in The Perfection and I was curious to see if Nocturne would measure up with the same level of bizarre developments and truly boffo ending.  Unfortunately, Nocturne has a totally different movie in mind to emulate and can’t even commit fully to that either.

Fraternal twins Violet (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home) and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) are senior pianists attending a celebrated private music institute that has trained some of the best talent in the country.  Raised by their airy parents who seem to want their kids to succeed even if it means they step over each other while doing it, Violet is the one that has landed a spot next year at Julliard while Juliet didn’t measure up and now is facing the next year with no back-up plan.  In Juliet’s eyes, everything seems to come easy for Violet.  She’s the one with the boyfriend, the friends, the opportunities, and the sister the teachers appear to favor.  Or maybe she just doesn’t take it all so seriously.  Either way, Juliet wants what Violet has.

When a classmate dies under suspicious circumstances, it leaves an opening for a replacement to take her place in a pivotal piece at the culmination of the year.  Everyone knows that Violet will get it…but Juliet wants it.  By chance, she discovers the notebook of the dead girl and in it finds a strange link to the occult and through it finds a power that may unlock the key to finally rising to the top.  Each turn of the page leads to a new opportunity to move her forward at the expense of something in return.  What price will she pay to be seen for once as the better twin and who will suffer for it the higher she climbs?

In 2010, I was all about Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s truly unforgettable Best Picture nominee which won Natalie Portman as Best Actress Oscar for her chilling take on a ballerina that becomes obsessed with playing the lead in a production of Swan Lake after paying her dues in second place.  The more her obsession grows, the more her psyche and body morph into the character she is portraying onstage, leading to a haunting one performance only showstopper that sees her achieve her dream for a brief shining moment.  Nocturne is such a direct copy of that Black Swan mold it could almost have been labeled a sequel in some way.  It has the same chilly tone, color scheme, music, dreams that turn to nightmares and then back to reality…it’s just all the same but done at a watered down level and totally toothless.

Writer/director Zu Quirke never truly makes the argument for Juliet to be worthy of the kind of attention she craves.  At least in Black Swan we get the idea that Portman’s character was maybe unjustly overlooked.  Juliet seems to want the spotlight just because her sister has it and makes deliberate steps to unseat her because she’s selfish…and that doesn’t make for a compelling watch.  Obsession of this sort should come from neglect, not from petty sister squabbles.  The mythology behind the magic also is a bit of a head-scratcher, with it making precious little sense and failing to be captivating – at the end they just feel like pages in a book.

I thought I was saving the best for last but Nocturne turned out to be the worst of the bunch.  Even its finale is bungled, lingering long enough to come off as a joke instead of a shock.  A better editor would have cut that final shot down and left the audience with their heart in their throat.  There is great deal of discussion about how classical music is a dying form and one character argues for it’s necessity…but not when it’s the driving force behind poorly recycled plots like this.

 

Movie Review ~ Get Duked!


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Deep in the Scottish Highlands on a camping trip competition, four city boys try to escape a mysterious huntsman while the police trail behind, failing to provide assistance.

Stars: Eddie Izzard, Kate Dickie, James Cosmo, Kevin Guthrie, Jonathan Aris, Alice Lowe, Samuel Bottomley, Viraj Juneja, Rian Gordon, Lewis Gribben, Brian Pettifer, Georgie Glen

Director: Ninian Doff

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  A fun bit of movie trivia that always interests me is finding out the original titles of films that either went into production under a different name or saw their title get changed after their original festival run.  Most of the time, the change is for the better.  Would we still be talking about Alien today if it had been released as Star Beast?  How about imagining seeing Charlize Theron in Coldest City instead of Atomic Blonde?  Would Julia Roberts star turn in Pretty Woman had the same seismic impact if it came out as 3000?  Don’t even get me started with Warner Brothers desperately trying to get Tim Burton to swap out Beetlejuice for their preferred alternate House Ghosts.

A few months back, I reviewed and recommended The Shadow of Violence which was previously released and seen in its early film festival runs as the more interesting Calm with Horses and this week sees the debut of another film on Prime Video that’s had a title swap on its way to a wide release.  Filmed originally as Boyz in the Woods, Amazon Studios picked up the film after it played well at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and promptly gave it a new name.  While Get Duked! leans into the more playful aspects the viewing experience has to offer and steers clear from sounding like a sketchy film you may not want showing up in your queue, it also exposes some of the problems at the forefront of the movie that’s about as one-joke as they come.

Prior to firing Get Duked! up I had no awareness of the The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award which was started a half-century ago by the Queen’s husband and meant to attract youth that hadn’t yet found their group/club to join.  Designed to promote participation in volunteering, physical fitness, and an expedition to achieve the top rank, it has spread through more than a hundred countries since its inception.  So…clearly, it’s a big deal.  I’d imagine also, at least based on writer/director Ninian Doff’s wacky screenplay, it’s a program that draws some level of ribbing because the jokes at play in Get Duked! feel remarkably on pointe and specifically taking aim at several organizations throughout.

Doff gets things off on the right foot by staging an enjoyably cheeky first 1/3 that introduces us to the three slacker mates forced into participation for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award by their teacher Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Arias, Vivarium) and the one nerd-ish lad who was more than eager to volunteer.  While the three are hoping to find cell phone reception and a place to get high the moment the adult is out of sight, Ian, the sweet-natured fourth (Samuel Bottomley, Ghost Stories), just wants to make new friends and end the weekend with the Duke’s prize to top it off.  Ian learns quickly that Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben) and William aka DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja) have no outdoor experience (or many brain cells) and rely on him to get them through the terrain toward their final destination.

The four have more to worry about than mossy rocks and spoiled haggis though, because what they don’t know at first is that they’re the new prey for hunters out to “cull the herd” of the misspent youth in society and this weekend will be more about survival than they could have ever imagined.  Who is hunting them is a mystery that is solved fairly quickly – it’s a rather famous royal played by Eddie Izzard (The High Note) who has an even more famous wife as his accomplice.  At the same time, the local police led by Sergeant Morag (Kate Dickie, Prometheus) are attempting to apprehend a local bread thief (no joke) and somehow manage to get tangled up in the boys flight from their hunters, which only complicates matters in oddly decreasingly funny ways.  The more that Doff’s screenplay brings these disparate characters together, the funnier it should get, but to me it became less and less interesting instead.  It’s never as crackling as it is in those first 40 minutes and even brief moments of fun (a musical moment featuring DJ Beatroot and a crowd of blissed out country folk is gold) can’t quite drag the film back into alignment.

Now, I’m sure Get Duked! is going to play to crowds looking for that fun Friday night comedy like gangbusters and maybe it’s my problem for watching it on a late afternoon early in the week.  It’s one that has a bit of a party vibe to it, one that allows you to be distracted from the one-joke premise that gets old quickly and can’t hide that the endeavor would have worked better as a short or part of a larger anthology.  It must be said, though, that there’s no shortage of style or creativity in filmmaking and performers, especially Juneja as a freestyle rapper with flow but no show, are great.  Yet I never fully found myself loving it and that began to nag at me after awhile because it reminded me a lot of better movies like Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End, or Hot Fuzz.  Unlike those films, Get Duked! has a one-joke premise that it sticks to, for better or for worse.

Movie Review ~ Chemical Hearts


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A high school transfer student finds a new passion when she begins to work on the school’s newspaper.

Stars: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Peña

Director:  Richard Tanne

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The other day I was revisiting an old chestnut romance that has become a favorite for many.  By “old” I mean 1992 and the movie was The Cutting Edge, that sleepover-ready PG lovey dovey figure skating film that did decent box office when first released but caught on like wildfire when it arrived on home video.  Aside from having major nostalgia pangs for non-stadium general admission theaters and remembering finding the show times for it on MovieFone, what struck me about the film was how it never would have worked the way it does, or held up the way it has, if it weren’t for the undeniable chemistry between the two leads.  It fueled the movie and gave credence to everything their characters said and how they acted – we believed them because we believed the actors.  It’s a rarity in film, especially in ones meant to appeal to young adults which often are targeted for something lower than the heart.

So it’s nice when a movie like Chemical Hearts arrives and you can witness that same chemistry on display for a whole new generation of viewers, albeit in a movie far more complicated than one about Olympic dreams.  An adaption of Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 novel “Our Chemical Hearts”, an added emotional element the filmmakers couldn’t have planned for is that the high-school set film is arriving on Amazon’s streaming service at the tail end of a summer when the future is uncertain about what the upcoming school year will bring.  This gives the film a palpable immediacy on top of several issues it attempts to tackle during its short run time.

Henry Page (Austin Abrams, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is a high school senior that’s living your typical teenage experience.  He gets average grades but aspires to do better, holds his parents as a model for a healthy relationship though he hasn’t had one of his own, and simply aims to please everyone by being what they need when they need it, regardless if it pleases him in the process.  His life takes a swift turn when Grace Down (Lili Reinhart, Hustlers) transfers into the school and becomes not just his co-editor of the newspaper but also the object of his interest and, eventually, affection.  That love hits him so hard seems to both excite and scare him a bit, compounded by Grace harboring her own guarded emotions and heavy baggage.  During a tumultuous senior year, Henry and Grace will each have their own moments of growth and shared lessons in the strength found in working together.

We’ve seen countless movies about the boy/girl that likes another boy/girl who has an air of mystery to them and know that whatever love blooms will surely be tested by secrets that are revealed and Chemical Hearts is no exception.  That adapter/director Richard Tanne handles it all with such a fine hand is a breath of fresh air and I found myself growing closer to the couple the more the film progressed rather than keeping them at arm’s length in preparation for the other shoe to drop.  That’s partly due to that whole chemistry bit we discussed earlier but also because the characters have genuine interest and depth not often found in the YA genre.  Separately, Henry and Grace feel like people we can relate to and together they are a couple we want to root for, further illustrating how well-rounded Tanne, Abrams, and the quite mesmerizing Reinhart have made these leading players.

What doesn’t quite work, though, are the supporting group of friends and relatives that seem to interfere with the action more than they help propel it forward.  Truly stellar films have side characters that marry themselves nicely into plot points throughout but in Chemical Hearts almost anytime Abrams and Reinhart aren’t onscreen the movie feels like it slumps its shoulders.  That’s especially tangential plots regarding Henry’s friend pursuing a lesbian relationship and his weepy sister going through a traumatic break-up that doles out sage wisdom when the movie needs it.  With a bit more finesse, Tanne could have made this work but I wasn’t buying into it because while Tanne goes to the finish line for Henry and Grace, everything else becomes distracting footnotes.  Plus, I hate it when movies show long-time friends totally dumping one of their own the first time they don’t come through in a pinch for them.  That happens here and the pure forgiveness that comes lets the group off too easy, in my opinion.

Without much in the way of films that have spoken to this age group over the past several months, this is one of two movies released in the same weekend giving young adults mature entertainment that doesn’t speak down to them.  Along with Words on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts doesn’t go for the obvious sentiments about how being young is hard and that school is difficult but aims for something deeper that yields more fruit in the end.  There’s honesty throughout (again it should be stated that Reinhart and Abrams are terrific) and a sweet sincerity in its final moments that should please more than just its target audience.

Movie Review ~ Chameleon


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A struggling ex-con and his unpredictable accomplice scam superficial trophy wives and their rich older husbands in self-obsessed Los Angeles.

Stars: Joel Hogan, Donald Prabatah, Alicia Leigh Willis, Jeff Prater, Acelina Kuchukova, Daniel Tolbert, Fernanda Hay

Director: Marcus Mizelle

Rated: NR

Running Length: 80 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Over the past few weeks, I’ve been on a run of watching a lot of movies from the early ‘90s and not only reclaiming some of my young movie-going memories I thought I had lost but revisiting my sadness that many of the films made during this time are a thing of the past.  It used to be that each week for every blockbuster that came out there’d be two or three smaller titles that could fill the other screens at the multiplex – after all, back then there were less options for at-home viewing but still a healthy number of feature films released week-to-week, depending on your market.  I’ve said it here before but the genre I greatly miss above all else are those crime-drama-mystery-thrillers that wouldn’t open huge at the box office but would stick around for weeks gathering weeknight crowds.

For everyone out there that has been shuffling through your various streaming sites and bemoaning that they don’t make neo-noir ‘90s movies like they used to, the slithery Chameleon might be one to check out.  Writer/director Marcus Mizelle’s (very) indie film checks off many of the requisite boxes: sex, murder, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and an added layer of a fractured narrative to keep you on your toes throughout.  Now, I’m going to forewarn you and say that Chameleon isn’t going to fill your cup if you are desperate for a Basic Instinct type experience but if you get a warm feeling when you see the Hollywood Pictures logo and think a film as bland as 1990’s Guilty as Sin merits some measure of discourse, add this to your queue, post-haste.

Parolee Patrick (Joel Hogan) isn’t out long before his prison pal Dolph (Donald Prabatah) comes knocking on his door with a proposal.  Would Patrick want to continue to wash dishes making chump change or enter into a scheme with Dolph to swindle wealthy couples out of a nice chunk of money?  Assessing his options, Patrick opts for Dolph’s offer and the two begin to locate well-off Los Angels men and their bored wives.  Patrick sweeps in and seduces the wives before Dolph kidnaps them and holds them for ransom.  Patrick gets the husbands to pay, mostly for the return of their wives but perhaps to protect their pride a bit as well.  The scam proves lucrative for the two ex-cons, which can only mean that greed will eventually enter into the equation and when new target Rebecca (Alicia Leigh Willis) becomes something more to Patrick, it changes the loyalties of all involved.

Mizelle has made a smart (read: tricky) move by bifurcating the timeline pretty early on so the audience is thrown off-kilter as to what is happening and when.  It doesn’t so much confuse as to simply delay putting the final puzzle together and even then there always seems to be at least one more mystery to solve.  Viewers with a good eye will be able to keep track of how time plays out by watching Patrick’s hair length throughout.  What keeps the film from truly taking off, though, is some unavoidable issues that plague low-budget productions.  Performances range from shallow to serviceable and the dialogue could use a punch up to remove a number of too clever “no one talks like this” phrases that zap the viewer out of the movie.  That being said, much of it is quite lovely to look at and at 80 minutes (well, let’s say 72 with a s-l-o-w credits roll) it keeps moving at a good pace.  If the audience winds up far ahead of the characters before the end, it’s only because the plot contrivances can only divert for so long.  Eventually, you see where this is heading and start to patiently wait for it to get there.

I saw Chameleon on my first day at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest in October and it was the only one of its kind genre film I was able to see this go-around.  For that, I was glad to see something that attempted a clever angle and achieved most of what it set out for.  Thinking about it months later, I wonder what this would look like down the road for Mizelle if he remade this after some script revisions with a bigger budget and a few casting shifts.  There’s some strong potential here and Chameleon is worth a look in its current form…but I think with some reshaping the possibility of something better is strong.

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 ~ 7500


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pilot’s aircraft is hijacked by terrorists.

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Aylin Tezel, Omid Memar, Aurélie Thépaut, Carlo Kitzlinger, Paul Wollin

Director: Patrick Vollrath

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For nearly a decade now, we’ve had an open and honest relationship here on this website.  Though it’s often (ahem, always) one-sided, I believe I’m comfortable sharing with you some personal details from my life without fear of too much judgement.  From the wacky to the relatable, you’re easy to talk which is why I think we can circle back to my favorite hang-up…flying.  I’m a terrible flier and I don’t see that changing too much in the future.  Love to travel, love adventure…hate the transportation getting there even though I find it a truly amazing feat of engineering with more than a touch of magic.

To add an even stranger wrinkle, while I’m known to white-knuckle it as a passenger, as a viewer there’s nothing I leap at with quite as much fervor as a film about flying the friendly skies.  Give me a stewardess coming to the rescue and landing a jet in distress, just try and hold me back from a mid-air heist, and don’t even think about making me miss a Jodie Foster movie where her daughter vanishes on a transatlantic flight.  So it’s easy to see why the new film 7500 appealed to me and why I thought it was going to be another run of the mill easy in/easy out round trips…turns out I should have kept my seat belt on for the entire ride.

The film takes off in Berlin with the crew of a flight to Paris readying the plane for boarding.  The veteran pilot (Carlo Kitzlinger) gets to know his soft-spoken co-pilot Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises) in between their safety checks.  It’s in these opening minutes that director Patrick Vollrath starts his claustrophobic push into the flight deck which is where we’ll largely stay for the next 80-some odd minutes.  While I won’t spoil the gritty details of what happens after the captain turns off the fasten seat belt sign, shortly after take-off there’s an emergency involving an attempted hijacking that leaves the crew and passengers in a precarious position and Tobias at the controls.  With only a small video monitor to communicate with the back of plane, he has to navigate his aircraft to safety while negotiating with forces that didn’t come to bargain.

I’ll be upfront and say the first hour of 7500 is tough on the nerves and pulls few punches.  Vollrath establishes what I can only gather is accuracy in flight operations and maneuvers to establish the pilots with some authority…making what happens in the air and the following of protocols all the more tragic.  Anyone with a fear of flying or in-air disasters should steer clear of this one because it’s got some whopper moments that will give you nightmares.  If you’re game, though, there’s a nifty movie there with some real excitement we haven’t had for a while…even if it comes at the expense of feeling just a tad bit dated.  What I mean to say is that I feel we’ve just gotten past the point of the fear that all Islamics are terrorists and the movie seems like it wants to make a point by steering the thoughts back in the opposite direction on purpose.

There’s some justification for this near the end and while I can semi-see where the rationale was, it doesn’t totally gel for me in the context of this particular film and what transpires throughout.  Again, without spoiling any details I can’t say why the movie sort of sputters when it should be roaring into the landing but the final twenty minutes are unquestionably the low points that pander and when it becomes obvious that the script from Vollrath and Senad Halilbasic perhaps might have worked better as a stand-alone episode for an anthology streaming program.  There’s just not the same level of excitement maintained here that there was in the first 2/3 of the film.  Still, you only realize that after the movie is over…and it’s because you’re catching your breath after the true breathless thrill of the preceding hour.  Absolutely worth the watch…but be prepared for a disappointing nosedive.

Movie Review ~ Selah and the Spades


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Five factions run the underground life of Haldwell School, a prestigious east coast boarding school. At the head of the most powerful faction – The Spades – sits Selah Summers, walking the fine line between being feared and loved.

Stars: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams

Director: Tayarisha Poe

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I suppose it’s a natural feeling to be excited about what we know.  When I was in high school, I devoured anything about that high school experience.  Books, TV, movies, music, plays…anything.  It wasn’t escapist entertainment; I enjoyed my high school quite a lot so I wasn’t looking for something better but I was interested in what it was like seen through the eyes/ears/prose of another.  Those same feelings have continued through to adulthood and I know this isn’t some unique revelation because I’m fairly sure that’s how we’re supposed to relate as we age.  Heck, I recently watched Four Weddings and a Funeral for the first time since 1994 and I appreciate it so much more in 2020 because now as opposed to then I’ve actually BEEN to a wedding and a funeral.

To that end, I find it harder and harder to take movies in a high school setting because I feel so far removed from that world and too often the filmmakers paint the students as nothing more than authority bucking party monsters.  Instead of young rebels without a compelling cause, I crave either more authentic depictions or perhaps those that have a tad more bite to them.  Plenty of streaming services offer intriguing options and indie film isn’t short on offerings that skew to the abstract (hello Knives + Skin) but it’s been a while since someone found the right balance.

Though it doesn’t always land on its feet, Amazon Prime’s Selah and the Spades comes awful close to a bulls-eye and that’s thanks to a kinetic energy pulsating throughout.  Starting with a dynamite leading performance and filtering down through the cinematography, writing, and music, this is a movie that speaks to the here and now and isn’t attempting to remain timeless.  In remaining focused, it allows the characters to have a particularly strong voice and amps up their narrative to create something well worth spending some time on.

There’s a neat little introduction to the five cliques that rule the hallways of the Haldwell School at the opening of Selah and the Spades.  It’s here the film shows off the bat it has a sense of humor with a sharp edge to it and you better be prepared to keep up with its pace.  Each groups serves a particular population of the student body but to hear the voice-over narration tell it, you’d think these were crime families watching out for their own.  Sitting squarely at the top of the heap are the Spades, governed with respected imperiousness by senior Selah (Lovie Simone, an absolute revelation who has a part in the upcoming remake of The Craft) with assistance from her trusted right-hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight).

Self-possessed and always focused on the end goal, Selah works to keep her group strong even when rumors of a turncoat are raised just as she is about to pass on her torch to the next generation of underclassmen.  Under consideration for taking over is new student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) who is quickly befriended by Selah not so much because of her potential but for how much Selah can mold her into the leader she wants her to be.  As you can expect, forces outside and inside the Spades act to create situations that challenge Selah over the dwindling months before graduation.

It’s nice to find an original script like Selah and the Spades because I could easily have seen this one being adapted from a popular YA novel but writer/director Tayarisha Poe has clearly given a lot of thought to how each character moves throughout the film.  While I would have liked there to be more to all of our central characters than what is onscreen, with the limited time we have Poe wisely sticks to the important beats.  Only Selah is afforded more depth, explaining some of her control issues during a tense visit home with her severe mother (Gina Torres) who recites a familiar story with a cold acidity.

I don’t know how much Haldwell School reflects the current state of affairs in high school but no matter, I left Selah and the Spades once again glad that I am not a teenager.  The pressures they are under are great and the choices they make have bigger consequences than when I was their age.  Even if there are times when Selah drifts into dark Heathers territory, it’s the more realistic it gets that are the most scary sequences.