Movie Review ~ Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary about Anthony Bourdain and his career as a chef, writer and host, revered and renowned for his authentic approach to food, culture and travel.

Stars: Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Bourdain, David Chang, Helen M. Cho, David Choe, Christopher Collins, Morgan Fallon, Joshua Homme, Alison Mosshart, Doug Quint, Eric Ripert, Lydia Tenaglia, Tom Vitale

Director: Morgan Neville

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

AFIDocs Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’d originally caught this documentary at the AFI Docs Film Festival which ran from June 22-27 where this was scheduled pretty perfectly on Bourdain Day.  In my original review, I said that Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain was “an intriguing look at a very complicated man, a documentary that balances a warts and all approach with a deeply felt sense of loss at the empty seat at the table left by his suicide in 2018.”  I’d still stick by that statement even now, after some recent information has come out that called some of the methods director Morgan Neville used to piece together the narrative structure of the film into question.  We’ll get into that in a minute but it’s worth noting how many critics are doing such an about-face based on this nugget of news.  It’s like we’ve never been emotionally manipulated before…weird.

I’ve had my ups and downs with Bourdain over the years, starting out hot with his early entry into popular entertainment courtesy of his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential that was later turned into a very short-lived television show starring newcomer Bradley Cooper.  Bouncing right into the groundbreaking Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, a hybrid of travel/cooking show that he largely pioneered, Bourdain became known for his extreme tastes and willingness to try just about anything. That’s about when I started to drift away to less spicier meals that didn’t always seek to press the hardest of buttons with such vigor. 

Bourdain just rubbed me the wrong way, and from what I gather in director Neville’s sharp interviews in his highly glossy doc (in true Bourdain style, I might add), many of his closest friends felt that way at one time or another as well.  A few of them seemed to not like him very much at different points in their relationship…like the man that sobs recalling when Bourdain, in a depressive funk, cuts him down by saying he would never be a good father. Ouch. I’d cry too. I’d still be crying.  The world-traveling, zest for life, consume anything bad boy chef is what was presented to the viewer.  That’s the Tony many saw on camera but not the one that struggled with crippling self-doubt, depression, or a need to be loved/perfect.  Neville interviews numerous people in his life: bosses, co-workers, colleagues, ex-wives, friends, and they all paint a picture of a man that lived hard and loved at the same speed. 

At nearly two hours, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a lot of Bourdain to take and the trajectory of his life is approached by Neville in fairly standard measures, so it plays easily, even when it grows slightly staid.  The final fifteen minutes, when discussing Bourdain’s death and the aftermath are when Neville’s expertise as a filmmaker really shows and also when the emotional ripple through his circle of friends takes its notable toll.  Fans of Bourdain will, I think, find this hard to watch and rightfully so…it’s likely Neville’s point to show the impact of such an act. 

Is this perhaps why the headlines in the days up until the wide release have been all about how Neville essentially used a deep fake of Bourdain’s voice to narrate parts of the film he wanted to nudge in a particular direction?  Feeding over 10 hours of Bourdain’s voice into a computer and then using that compiled voice to speak requested “lines” seems like a big issue if we’re talking true documentary realism…right? While it may add dramatic effect to the movie for the general public, it has most certainly cost Neville any awards respect it could have earned. And this is an Oscar-winning director already.

Bourdain was a popular personality and I’m confident Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will still prove to be a project that is much sought-after and not just by foodies that know their salad fork from their dinner fork. This has crossover potential for even those with casual knowledge of Bourdain – but now I think not by those who are put off by some slick tricks by the filmmakers.

The Silver Bullet ~ Last Night in Soho

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Synopsis: A young girl, passionate about fashion design, is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s where she encounters her idol, a dazzling wannabe singer. But 1960s London is not what it seems, and time seems to fall apart with shady consequences.

Release Date:  October 22, 2021

Thoughts: I normally don’t get to have the “full” movie-going experience anymore when going to theaters.  Ha… “when I go to theaters” that hasn’t happened in over a year!  Sorry, let’s start again.

Back when I went to theaters, I normally didn’t get to have the “full” movie-going experience because there are rarely previews at press screenings.  Movie trailers in general don’t tend to interest me anymore because I can just look at the length and know they are going to show the majority of the film, so I don’t even bother.  It’s helped a great deal in going in blind, so I’ll usually just watch the first 30-60 seconds to get a feel and then shut it off.

With Last Night in Soho, I found that I wasn’t able to turn it off after 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds…I had to watch the whole thing.  An eternal caveat I need to remember is that every bad movie can be edited into a fantastic trailer but there’s something about this new Edgar Wright (The World’s End) thriller arriving in October that looks like it is up to something good.  Starring exciting up and comers Anya Taylor-Joy (Radioactive) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), it shows a lot but tells a little – the perfect kind of teaser.  Other trailers may arrive as the release date grows near, but I don’t need to see anything more.  Along with the intriguing poster…I’m sold at first glance on Last Night in Soho.

Movie Review ~ Profile

The Facts:

Synopsis: An undercover British journalist infiltrates the online propaganda channels of the so-called Islamic State, only to be sucked in by her recruiter.

Stars: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Amir Rahimzadeh, Morgan Watkins

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Above all else, I’m grateful that Profile has come along now because it forced me to find the actual word to describe the unique way it is presented to viewers.  That would be Screenlife.  In a nutshell, Screenlife is the format of a movie (or TV show) where everything you see happens on a “screen”.  That could be a computer, iPad, iPhone, or other electronic devices that can be displayed across one ‘desktop’.   So, whatever you are watching it on becomes the entire “world” of the piece.  The first movie I can remember seeing this in was 2014’s Unfriended and what I assumed would be a tiresome gimmick wound up being the baseline for a solid thriller, made even scarier if you sat close enough in a theater so the screen took up your entire field of vision.  I repeated the same experience with the far underappreciated Searching from 2018 and 2020’s Host (filmed mid-pandemic) was a clever mash-up of haunted Zoom-meeting and Screenlife terror.

Now along comes Profile and again I was hesitant to embrace this schtick again, wondering how far the concept could be taken before it became stale.  Shot in nine days back in 2018 and appearing in several festivals in the same year, it’s admittedly odd that it’s taken so long for Profile to come out.  By now, it almost feels like a period piece because so much of the conflict described has changed and the recruitment procedures have gone further underground.  Would there be room for another Screenlife entry that didn’t have a supernatural angle but still dealt with horror of a more real-world kind?  More importantly, is this the kind of film an audience just getting back to movie theaters would want to line up for a ticket to?

Based on French journalist Anna Érelle’s non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist: Inside Islamic State’s Recruitment Networks, Profile sticks close to Érelle’s account of how she pretended online to be a teenager who recently converted to Islam, creating fake Facebook profiles in an attempt to lure members of ISIS to her.  All of this began as a story for a news magazine about a teenager from Belgium that went missing and was thought to have flown to Syria to join ISIS after being recruited and then sold to sex traffickers.  Eventually connecting with a man in Syria, Érelle (a pseudonym, by the way) quickly found herself in over her head and while she escaped any imminent danger, a bounty was put on her life and she must live in anonymity for fear of repercussions for her reporting.  Scary stuff.

The screenwriters of Profile do some decent work fictionalizing the story to alter things just enough, not only to separate their story from Érelle’s but also to amp up the tension that will add to the experience.  Instead of Anna we have Amy (Valene Kane, Victor Frankenstein) a UK journalist freelancing for The Guardian who wants to do a story about ISIS recruitment of British females. She’s finally convinced her wary boss (Christine Adams, Batman Begins) to let her pose as a teenager on Facebook where a number of girls find the men that will bring them over to Syria with promises of marriage and prosperity.  Armed with a new identity, Melody Nelson, and continuing to read up on Islamic culture, Amy goes fishing in a lake of darkness and catches a whopper that she isn’t prepared for.

Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif, The Commuter) shows interest right away and before long the two of them are Skyping (with a Muslim co-worker of Amy’s standing by for guidance) and getting to know one another.  Amy, quick on the keyboard, is able to divert Bilel’s attention when he asks questions she isn’t prepared for or wants to see her personal screen filled with “Amy” folders and pictures of her and her boyfriend.  As the conversations continue, they grow more personal and lines get blurred, calling into question the ethos of journalistic integrity and what Amy is willing to do for her story.  Each new piece of information from Bilel could be another story she can write so why not get everything she can? Is she willing to go the distance (literally) to gain that knowledge?

For a time, this back and forth feels like a vice grip that director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is turning tighter and tighter, daring the audience to stay with Amy’s story as she falls deeper into a pit of her own making.  Quick glimpses of ISIS recruitment videos (including some well-known brutal beheading videos that stop short of anything major) are meant to rattle and achieve their goal quickly and then ease off.  This technique works on a nice clip to a certain point until we see Amy making one too many errant mistakes, both as a person and a professional journalist.  Plenty of characters in horror movies act like dingbats and we write them off as expendable sacks of blood but there’s something different about this reality-based approach that doesn’t allow us to afford Amy that same grace.  She should know better, and it becomes a question of her overall intelligence after a while. 

At first, I thought it was perhaps due to Kane’s waif-ish presence that feels so flimsy you believe a strong cough might send her shooting backward through a window.  It might play well as Melody when pretending to be subservient for Bilel but it’s there as Amy, too.  Even the usually obnoxious millennials in Unfriended and its solid sequel (which just so happen to be produced by Bekmambetov) come off as more grounded than Amy.  That also stymies the relationship being built with Latif’s character who at times feels like the most appealing person in the entire film.  Apparently unburdened by the approach to the filmmaking, Latif is often required to be in motion when speaking but he never drops his character and stays laser focused.  It’s an intense performance that the movie benefits immensely from.

Of all the Screenlife films so far, Profile is the least engaging.  Part of that is the run time which in no way needs to be 105 minutes and another factor is that its entire plot feels ever-so-slightly like old news.  The energy level can’t help but run low after a time and with less characters to juggle, there’s fewer people to care about or be interested in.  I wouldn’t say it’s something to skip because if you ever watch how these films are made you can appreciate the work that goes into it and I do think it hits each of its beats when and how it is supposed to. It just doesn’t hit them with as much clarity as it could have. 

Movie Review ~ Limbo

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An offbeat observation of refugees waiting to be granted asylum on a fictional remote Scottish island focusing on Omar, a young Syrian musician who is burdened by the weight of his grandfather’s oud, which he has carried all the way from his homeland. 

Stars: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kais Nashif, Kenneth Collard 

Director: Ben Sharrock 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 103 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4/10) 

Review:  Back in my early college days as I was starting to fine tune my movie tastes and expand my horizons past the multiplexes with easily accessible titles, I became a frequent visitor to the local art house theater that was on a good run of films which could easily keep one busy from week to week.  In fact, the selections were so stellar that it wasn’t uncommon for you to show up, realize a showtime was sold out and not be bothered in the least to just buy a ticket to whatever was starting next.  This went on for some time and often peaked in awards season.  It was the period after all the awards had been handed out that the real interesting properties would arrive and my education got even more eclectic.  Now, I could take in international offerings there would be no way I’d have access to normally and I wasn’t very discerning on what I’d slap down some of my hard-earned student worker money for. 

The new drama Limbo reminded me so much of one of those movies I’d have taken a chance on back then and walked out of thinking I had a sort of a one upmanship bragging rights on others.  Which is silly. It didn’t make me any smarter than my fellow film fanatic and spoke nothing to the overall quality of the movie, it just was a film I saw for no other reason than it was there.  Of course, here and now I made a choice to see an advanced screening of Limbo which is opening in theaters and having seen several hundred movies since those halcyon days when moviegoing was less complicated I feel more inclined to provide the kind of feedback I don’t think I could have given then.

Waiting for asylum on a Scottish island dreamt up by writer/director Ben Sharrock, the refugees we meet are from places such as Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria.  All are waiting for decisions that will tell them whether they can remain in the United Kingdom or be sent back to their native land.  Some have been waiting for years, others like Omar (Amir El-Masry, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) are recent arrivals still adjusting to life on the windy isle.  Always carrying his grandfather’s oud (a stringed instrument resembling a lute) which reminds him of his days as a musician, Omar makes frequent calls to his relocated parents that compare him to his older brother that stayed behind to fight for their country. 

As they wait, the men attend classes on adjusting to life with English customs taught by Helga, the lone female seen in the film (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Inferno), and get to know one another better.  There’s a main foursome of men that make-up Omar’s core group, including Freddie Mercury loving Farhad (Vikash Bhai) an eccentric Afghan nearing his third year on the island who seeks asylum so he can continue to live his true self. On the polar opposite side of the coin, Nigerian brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi, Cherry) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) aren’t as open as Farhad is for reasons that slowly come into focus the more we learn about their backstory.  Hoping to play soccer when his asylum is granted, Wasef feels the burden of caring for Abedi, routinely causing strife between the two of them. 

If you do your homework on film before seeing them and read several reviews before making a decision (and you really should, second or third opinions are always great) you’re going to see Limbo described as “offbeat” and “deadpan” and that’s what originally drew me to it.  Despite not being immediately sold based on the preview alone, I chalked it up to a marketing misstep and scootched my way under the bar like a true limbo star because I dig these non-U.S. films that handle comedy in ways far different than we would.  Outside of our country, comedy is more observational than physical, more cerebral than lowbrow so that’s why it’s possible to have a comedy with few “laughs” but still have a wealth of humor. 

What I’ve learned from my experience with Limbo is that there’s a vast difference between “deadpan” and what the film really is: dour.  Although it flirts with fun in the wildly strange moments involving Helga’s class (the opening of the movie tricks you right away), Sharrock is much more in favor of following glum Omar around the gloomy island.  There’s little humor of any level to be found in rather long stretches of the film, which isn’t a bad thing if it’s substituted for material that sticks to the bones in a similar way.  It didn’t for me.

Perhaps it’s because El-Masry’s performance aids in that sinking into the bleak of it all.  This is not saying the character needs to be “happy” or anything of that nature, it’s just that when all you have in your film is sad conversations on a lone payphone sprinkled in amongst arch classes on etiquette, you can’t turn around and claim “offbeat” or “deadpan” as your subgenre of choice.  I struggled with staying involved or engaged with any of the characters aside from Farhad and even he fell victim to Sharrock making him overly odd and not just merely eccentric. 

Who knows?  Maybe this is one you did have to see in a dark theater with an audience getting the full experience of Limbo (and see some of the rather beautiful scenery) who could help you with audible cues to gauge their response.  Then you’d at least know if the movie called for reactions along the way.  Hey, at least you’d get popcorn for your efforts. 

Movie Review ~ Land

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of an unfathomable event, a woman finds herself unable to stay connected to the world she once knew and retreats to the magnificent, but unforgiving, wilds of the Rockies.

Stars: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens, Warren Christie, Brad Leland

Director: Robin Wright

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It’s always intriguing to me to see what actors will eventually try their hand at directing.  Some stars will go their entire careers without stepping behind the camera, preferring to stay in front of the lens and leave that responsibility to someone else.  Others move to it naturally early on, even doing double duty which can lead to great success (like a number of Clint Eastwood films) or middling returns (see any Zach Braff movie for perfect examples) but it’s always the actors that come to the directing chair later in their career that tend to bring a sage sense of purpose to the piece.  Now, let me be totally clear about that observation.  That doesn’t always equate to a perfect film or even one that is ultimately worth your time, but it should at least warrant your attention because in this business, experience does stand for something. 

It’s actually a surprise it’s taken veteran actress Robin Wright so long to helm her first feature film.  With almost a dozen episodes of her Netflix show House of Cards under her belt, a proper movie was obviously next in line and Land turns out to be a smart choice as her debut.  Instead of juggling too many spinning plates at once, Wright has opted for this small, intimate drama that’s nearly a one-character piece that takes place almost entirely in a single location.  That gives her the opportunity to feel her way through the movie and take the time to get it right, leaving the more difficult directorial duties for another film later down the road.  The result is a solid, if admittedly slight, showcase for Wright as a director and star.

An unknown trauma has led Edee (Wright, Blade Runner 2049) to monumental decision: she’ll leave her former life, family, and friends behind in favor of the isolation of a ramshackle cabin in the Wyoming Rockies.  With no electricity, running water, or means of communication (her phone gets discarded soon after she arrives in the nearest town), Edee is choosing not only to go it alone but to make life as tough on herself as possible.  Through wordless vignettes over her first few days, we get the impression Edee is not exactly the outdoors-y type, however this isn’t a story of a woman from the city triumphing over the harsh wilderness but a restrained piece about grief and how everyone deals with theirs differently.

Facing down her sorrow in a cabin that leaks and learning to live off the land as she goes, winter is right around the corner and the bitter cold nearly breaks her after a series of setbacks curtails what successes she has achieved up until then.  Around that time is when screenwriters Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam introduce Miguel (Demián Bichir, Chaos Walking), first as a saving grace when Edee needs it most but eventually as more than just someone Edee can have outside contact with. Both seem to gain something from the other during their quiet discussions and a shared friendship develops, allowing Edee to see the value in her own humanity again. 

With the changing of the seasons comes a changing in the tone of the film and before you know it, Wright has snuck in and changed the piece from a solo study on loneliness to one of kinship and reaching out to others…but only so far.  I appreciated that Wright and the screenwriters manage to maintain a sense of truth to their central character throughout because it’s tempting in these types of stories of sorrow to be overly redemptive or apologetic for feelings/emotions.  The loss Edee has gone through is enough to set anyone back a step or five and maybe following through with her plan to go it alone is what she needs, not as a defense mechanism but as the salve for her wound to heal.

Wright’s performance is strong as expected and she easily handles the rigors of wearing both hats.  Working with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski to capture some incredible scenic vistas, it’s a small production but doesn’t wind up feeling like a small movie.  Running a scan 89 minutes (with credits), Wright engineers her picture and her performance like a long-distance sprint and there is some kind of palpable energy coming at the viewer throughout which lets the film fly high, even when Land is at its most grounded.

Movie Review ~ Boogie

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: While his parents pressure him to focus on earning a scholarship to an elite college, Alfred “Boogie” Chin, a basketball phenom living in Queens, N.Y., must find a way to navigate a new girlfriend, high school, on-court rivals and the burden of expectation.

Stars: Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige, Pamelyn Chee, Perry Yung, Mike Moh, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, Alexa Mareka, Dave East, Domenick Lombardozzi, Eddie Huang

Director: Eddie Huang

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It’s been said (and written about by Christopher Booker) that there are only seven basic plots and every movie, tv show, or book can fit into one of these categories.  Aside from these seven, there is what is known as the meta-plot and I think that’s where a film like coming-of-age dramas such as Boogie fit in. The meta-plot proposes that although the work may have a wealth of characters that revolve around the central figure, the plot is only ever truly concerned with that main protagonist, the “hero”.  All of the other characters become important because of how they connect with that “hero” and that’s why everyone, eventually, becomes important to us.  That winds up making a lot of sense to me when you apply that to classics like Stand by Me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Clueless, Sing Street, Lady Bird, or even an off the wall choice like Carrie.  If only Boogie were more in line with the caliber of those films, it could be a title we’d still be talking about one or two decades in the future.  Alas, it’s a frustratingly lifeless tale with little in the way of surprise over 89 minutes, demonstrating a dismal sense of creativity in how writer/director Eddie Huang chooses to take his shot on his debut feature.

A fortune teller predicts the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Chin will be rocky but their child has a good chance at success, which is prosperous news for the couple hoping for a better life in Queens, N.Y.  Years later, Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi) is a hot-headed basketball player entering a new high school chosen for it’s marching bad…just kindding.  Of course Boogie’s parents have chosen it for its basketball team, though it’s not exactly the kind of group to get hyped about.  The hope is that his presence on the team will turn their luck around and that by doing so and taking the credit he will earn a full ride scholarship to a college, paving the way to a professional career.  At least that’s the long-term plan according to his always hustling mother (Pamelyn Chee), much to the continued chagrin of his less strict father (Perry Yung) who cares more that his son is happy experiencing freedom in his fast-moving life than anything.

His thoughts always on the game, a pleasant distraction shows up with the feisty Eleanor (Taylour Paige, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) a girl in his class who doesn’t give him any kind of pass because of his skills on the court.  Eleanor challenges Boogie to think about more than just basketball and outside of his own personal goals, which increases the growing rift between him and his mother.  As an important game draws near with a rival team lead by the imperious Monk (Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, who tragically was killed in 2020 before the movie could be released) and with a family acquaintance acting as his unofficial agent on the authority of his mother, Boogie finds himself at a crossroads and having to choose between his family and his future, realizing too late they might overlap more than he thinks.

The problem from the outset of Boogie is that there’s nothing overtly new or interesting being relayed to us so watching the film feels as if we’re seeing a repeat of an old episode, albeit one we can’t quite remember the exact ending of, though we definitely know how it ends.  In films like the documentary Hoop Dreams, or dramas such as Above the Rim or, heck, even White Men Can’t Jump, we get a look at the perils of the urban basketball scene and how a home court advantage might only protect you within a small city block, but you can’t stay near the net forever.  So that means all of the fuss that Boogie takes on in its final thirty minutes feels quite a lot like warmed over leftovers from better films.  All we have to do is sit back and wait for the final full court press and reconciliation on an empty court after the crowd has dispersed.

It pains me to say it, but the performances also don’t serve the story either, starting with Takahashi’s bland showing as the title character.  Charmless with little in the way of a leading man’s charisma that would have gone a long way in improving our engagement with the film, Takahashi manages to turn us away from Boogie the more the movie goes on instead of trying to win us over.  It’s odd the way he alienates himself so soundly by the end.  Same for Chee as his mother, though in her slight defense she’s playing someone who’s behavior we’re supposed to be agog at.  Even so, there’s some of her line delivery that you can tell she has no confidence in.  And either she looks as young as her son or Takahashi comes off as old as she is but their relationship felt more like sibling than like a parent and a child.  On the good side of things, Paige is a standout as Eleanor, and she acts circles around her onscreen love interest as does Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Bumblebee) playing Boogie’s best friend and confidant.  I wish Paige and Lendeborg Jr. were in a stronger movie that represents them better.

Another thing I found strange about the film is how poorly the basketball scenes were shot.  Boogie is supposed to be this phenom of an athlete, yet cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz (Ready or Not) makes it appear as if Takahashi’s and his teammates not only learned to dribble a basketball a few weeks before the shoot but also mastered walking and talking around the same time.  I sometimes dread “The Big Game” in sports movies but this was resoundingly bad because there is just no energy or excitement in the final match. This is also partly to do with the editor not cutting it correctly, but the coverage had to be there to begin with so…the blame could go plenty of places.  Instead of Huang instilling some stakes for Boogie to hang his future on, that final meeting between him and Monk with everyone looking on seems like just another day at the office.  They aren’t taking it seriously so why would we?

I’m not quite sure who Boogie was made for.  It’s overly foul language and tendency to go for a crude joke (Boogie’s first line to Eleanor as she’s working out is one for the ‘no thank you’ record books) makes it too adult and adults will be put off by the juvenile antics of Boogie and his friends.  As the original creator of Fresh Off the Boat on ABC, Huang clearly has a voice and point of view that needs to be heard and represented, Boogie just doesn’t cut it as the kind of entertainment that can convincingly win a crowd over.

Movie Review ~ Half Brothers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A successful Mexican aviation executive is shocked to discover he has an American half brother he never knew about. The half-brothers are forced on a road trip together. masterminded by their ailing father, tracing the path he took as an immigrant from Mexico to America.

Stars: Luis Gerardo Méndez, Connor Del Rio, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Pia Watson, Bianca Marroquin, Mike A. Salazar, Vincent Spano

Director: Luke Greenfield

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: In the days that have passed by since seeing Half Brothers I’ve been telling a lot of people how good it is and the response has universally been, “Really? It looks so silly.” and I can hardly blame them.  I mean, just look at that poster.  You gaze at that targeted piece of marketing and you think you know exactly who the Mexican American production is aiming for.  Here’s a hint, it’s not the Merchant-Ivory crowd.  With the wide-eyed expressions and the man holding the goat, it’s understandable how discerning viewers get a tremor of seasickness with the threat of boarding that slapstick comedy cruise line.  And that’s piteous considering the studio is selling the film, the stars, and, in the end, itself short because Half Brothers is far more interesting and full of heart than you’d guess if you’re making your choice only off of the advertising.

One of a growing number of movies that has fallen in my lap in 2020 that I knew zilch about before pressing Play aside from the basic premise, I hadn’t even watched the trailer so braced myself for anything.  I’ve found that it’s good for me to take this approach because there’s no expectation for what I’m about to find and that helps in the opening set-up of Luke Greenfield’s film, showing Flavio Murguía (Juan Pablo Espinosa) leaving his family in Mexico in search of a better life for them in America.  His young son Renato idolizes his dad and is changed forever when sometime later he finds out that Flavio has started a new life with an American family in the U.S.  Growing up to be a top executive in the aviation sector of Mexico, Renato (Luis Gerardo Méndez, Charlie’s Angels) channeled his experiences flying model airplanes with his father into making him a successful businessman.  He’s about to be married to a single mother (Pia Watson) with a humorously death-obsessed son when he receives a call that his father is dying and wants to see him one last time.

Encouraged by his fiancé to take this opportunity for closure and also as a way to learn to be a more open and caring example for his new stepson, Renato flies to the U.S. but the long history of pain prevents him from fully engaging with his dad.  That hurt is compounded when he learns he has a half-brother, the free-spirited and free loading Asher (Connor Del Rio) who he hates on sight, partly because he doesn’t know him but mostly because he’s had their father all to himself for over two decades.  They’ll have to learn to tolerate one another because soon the two find themselves on a cross-country road-trip that compels them to work together on a sort of scavenger hunt meant to act as an explanation from their father on a number of unanswered questions and unspoken truths.

I went into Half Brothers expecting something far more ribald and raunchier and was impressed that Greenfield keeps things so light and fast-moving throughout.  While it tends to breeze past some of the more nefarious points of the dirty business of immigration trafficking, it also doesn’t shy away from exploring hard choices that are made in the course of doing what’s right.  I can see the problematic core of the film which glorifies a type of hero worship onto a character that might not deserve it but dang if I didn’t lose the battle in my fight against some salty teardrops toward the film’s conclusion.  While they’re not exactly Laurel and Hardy, Méndez and Del Rio bounce off each other nicely and while we can see the end of the journey so well we practically can see their parking space, it doesn’t diminish the small pleasures of their discoveries about each other along the way.  Though we may know how it will wind up, I found the film unpredictable in the best ways and genuinely funny, not obnoxiously so.

Thinking back, I’m not sure exactly how to pitch this film in a way that doesn’t highlight some of the more crazed antics experienced by the men along the way but Half Brothers is as much about the heart as it is about revolving around the comedy.  Yes, the scene on the poster is a fun moment of frivolity but its wild shifts in tone keep viewers on their toes and not in that bad way where you have a sense screenwriters Eduardo Cisneros and Jason Shuman didn’t know what they were doing.  The often bi-lingual film has a breathless quality to it, rarely stopping to take a rest for its breakneck speed.  I think audiences will appreciate that quick pace and observance of time…and I also believe Half Brothers is destined to be one of those underrated comedies that thrives on word of mouth over time.  Truth be told, as we get to the end of the year I feel drawn to movies like Half Brothers and Superintelligence, films that have a good natured spirit at their core and let the comedy often be the second item on the menu.  The ending wouldn’t have gotten me like it did if I wasn’t invested with these characters and I was very much along for this family road trip.

Movie Review ~ Let Him Go

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the loss of their son, a retired sheriff and his wife leave their Montana ranch to rescue their young grandson from the clutches of a dangerous family living off the grid in the Dakotas.

Stars: Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Lesley Manville, Will Brittain, Jeffrey Donovan, Kayli Carter, Booboo Stewart

Director: Thomas Bezucha

Rated: R

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Let’s be straight up real about the last few months in the world of cinema.  While we’ve seen an impressive run of surprising films from the next generation of filmmakers, the old guard of Hollywood has been noticeably absent.  Now, that’s not quite all their fault because this pandemic has sidelined nearly all of the major studio films set for release, waylaying their A-listers with them but also serendipitously making way for a roster of exciting new talent to be seen.  Still, I must admit I’ve secretly been craving a few of those headliners that bring with them a particular caché you just can’t put a price on.  It may mean you know what to expect from a certain performance, yet you’ll know it will get the job done.

Had it not been released in the middle of this strange time, a film like Let Him Go very likely would have made that much of a ripple in anyone’s film-going tide pool.  It’s a pretty quiet and introspective film, one that prefers to keep its audience at arm’s length a lot of the time, much like several of its central characters.  The plot doesn’t vary too far from a standard Western formula that’s been resuscitated numerous times in television and film, though the 2013 novel by Larry Watson which it is based on does manage to incorporate a few interesting curveballs that keep viewers from getting too comfortable.  What makes Let Him Go such a welcome gift right now, and a gift it truly is, are its two central performances and the kind of confident direction that earns trust early on.

It’s a quiet life for Margaret and George Blackledge on their Montana ranch as the film opens.  It’s the 1950’s and they have their only son living with them, along with his wife (Kayli Carter, Rings) and their young grandson.  George (Kevin Costner, Draft Day) is a retired sheriff now content to help his wife (Diane Lane, Trumbo) with the horses on their property and working alongside his son. This peaceful existence is broken by a tragic accident which leaves their grandson without a father and a few years later sees their daughter-in-law get remarried to Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain, Everybody Wants Some!) who gives Margaret an uneasy feeling.  When she witnesses Donnie hitting his new wife and stepchild in public and gets the sense it isn’t the first time, she makes up her mind to bring them back to the ranch…only to find they’ve vanished from their apartment a few miles away.

In a nice reversal of roles, it’s Margaret who is the impetus for action throughout and it’s she who convinces George to go with her to find out where Donnie Weboy has taken their grandchild.  Their journey takes them across state lines, hundreds of miles from home but brings them closer together, bridging a small unspoken divide that has formed since the death of their son.  As they get closer to Weboy and eventually the town that houses the viper’s nest of his family, headed by menacing matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread), they find a deeper understanding of their own grief of loss they haven’t resolved.  Arriving into a situation they aren’t prepared for, they’re instantly thrown off guard by the hold the family seems to have on the town and sense of entitlement they have to any outsider.  They also haven’t encountered anyone quite like Blanche Weboy, nor so they have a clue as to the deadly lengths this mother will go to keep her family together.

It might surprise some people to know Let Him Go was adapted and directed by the same person that gave us the cult favorite holiday film The Family Stone back in 20025.  The lighter tones of that film gave way to a more somber underbelly so we know Thomas Bezucha can navigate the changing of temperatures when necessary.  So really it’s no real surprise he can easily move through Let Him Go’s swiftly shifting moods which often turn on a dime.  In a less assured filmmaker, this could spell trouble and be rattling but Bezucha makes these transitions with ease and inline with the laid-back, casual feel of his film.  It also adds the necessary punch when the film ratchets up some well-earned tension in its final act, leading to a finale that was unpredictable at the time but a foregone conclusion in hindsight.

The best reason to see this one is to watch the kind of career-high work Costner and Lane are doing.  At a time when actors of their stature are being relegated to less showy roles or definitely not sharing the same type of meaty two-hander spotlight Let Him Go provides, both actors are impressive and note-perfect in their emotional journey they undertake.  Aside from both looking like they haven’t aged but a year or so since the mid ‘80s, I easily believed the two had shared a lengthy marriage and, more than that, an understanding of what it takes to be a couple during that time period.  Maybe it’s because of their previous time together as Clark Kent’s parents in 2013’s Man of Steel but, no, it’s more than that.  Costner is not usually this engaged and I feel like Lane has brought out the absolute best in him, something she’s known to do in so many of her co-stars.  If I had to pick, I’d say it’s Lane’s movie by a nose…only because of the added complexity of her character having such a strange parallel with Manville’s scheming villainess.  You know from the moment you lay eyes on Manville she’s going to be trouble, but you won’t be prepared just how bad she’ll get.

Arriving in theaters prior to a release at home, this is one that I was able to screen from my living room and for that I’m grateful.  I’m still not ready to head to the theater yet, even though I’m longing for more A-List star-vehicles like Let Him Go.  I hate for it to feel like I’m short shifting the movie by quantifying its appeal based on all the release date shifts in Hollywood.  This would be a strong movie with excellent performances whenever it was released, it’s just particularly impactful now because we’ve so been needing these kinds of Hollywood star turns.  I wish the awards field were wide enough to embrace performances like Lane’s because she’s so very good in this and Manville’s cackling witch of a woman is the kind of broad baddie that earned Jackie Weaver a nomination for Animal Kingdom back in 2010.  Whether they are play the good character or a bad one, let’s keep rewarding strong female turns in films.

31 Days to Scare ~ Come Play

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A monster targets a non-verbal autistic boy along with his family and friends by manifesting through their smart phones, computers, and other electronic devices.

Stars: John Gallagher Jr., Gillian Jacobs, Azhy Robertson, Rachel Wilson, Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, Eboni Booth, Alana-Ashley Marques

Director: Jacob Chase

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Too often, it feels like we think of horror on a grander scale than it has to be.  Why must everything be catered to the masses or to what a certain demographic wants to see on the big screen?  Sometimes it’s nice to push play on a scary movie that feels like it was targeted for a particular group of viewers, maybe not even your own, but at least you come away with the impression the filmmaker(s) knows their audience they’re seeking screams from.  The best place to find examples of this is in horror shorts that pop up on festival circuits, carefully curated bite-sized morsels that are compact in size but jam-packed with tension.

In recent years, a number of these shorts that were so well received at global festivals have caught the eye of studios looking for projects that aren’t going to cost them an arm and a leg to produce.  After all, horror is the genre that regularly pays for itself in the opening weekend box office receipts so why not pick a young talent out of the crowd, give them their big break, and maybe make a little money out of the deal in the end?  That’s how we came to get 2013’s Mama from director Andy Muschietti who would go on to direct the 2017 blockbuster remake of IT and it’s less-successful 2019 sequel.  It’s also how David F. Sandberg expanded his 2013 freaky short Lights Out into a full-length 2016 film and parlayed that into directing gigs on the well-received Annabelle: Creation and hit superhero movie Shazam!.

Before Come Play crossed my desk, I’d never heard of Larry, the 2017 five-minute short from writer/director Jacob Chase that he expanded into this new film released from Focus Features and Amblin Partners. (You can watch it below)  Knowing that a number of these short film inspirations would recreate or gently rework their original scenes in their longer film, I deliberately kept away from watching the short film until after and I’m glad I did.  The short film is all about scares (and good ones, too) while Chase has struggled with the expansion of his idea, showing that not all shorts can make the leap to long-form and consistently maintain what made them so special to begin with.  Admittedly, Come Play has its moments to admire and maintains a slick shine of a filmmaker with promise, but it’s lost a valuable simplicity of design in favor of efficiency of storytelling.

Young Oliver (Azhy Robertson, Marriage Story) is a non-verbal autistic who communicates chiefly through an app on his phone that speaks his words for him.  This has created an attachment to the electronic device that is both regrettable and necessary at the same time.  His deep dependency on his technology has even distracted him from the situation developing in his own home because his parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, Life of the Party) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr., Underwater) are in the middle of a separation.  She’s frustrated from always being the enforcer of rules and watching Marty sweep in to be the “good” parent; he doesn’t want to say it, but deep down hasn’t fully accepted his son’s diagnosis.

Late at night, Oliver’s phone suddenly displays a new program, a story he can swipe through about an unhappy monster named Larry who has no friends.  Curious to Larry’s tale of woe and feeling a sense of kinship to the friendless outsider, Oliver progresses through the e-book and the further he goes, the more strange things begin to happen around him.  Lights flicker, objects move, a Snapchat filter picks up more than just Oliver’s face as he stands next to a dark closet…all leading to a fateful sleepover between Oliver and several kids from his class that normally bully him.  The four boys also read the book to terrifying and lasting consequences.

Up until this point, Chase has built up a nice amount of suspense as Oliver is essentially stranded alone to face whatever evil entity Larry is.  His dad has moved out and his mom doesn’t understand his fears, pushing him to socialize more for her benefit than his.  Chase introduces some interesting dynamic between this mother-son relationship but never truly cracks the code, and sadly that’s mostly the fault of Jacobs who is completely miscast as Oliver’s overstressed mother.  Her line readings are so bad and insincere you almost wonder if she was trying to make her character sarcastic and Chase or his editor cut the film incorrectly to make her look bad.  It’s a performance that has a large impact in breaking the film in two, with Jacobs on one side and the rest of the cast on the other.

The more we learn about Larry the less the creature manifesting in front of us begins to make sense or follow whatever rules Chase has designed…if any are given at all.  One moment he has set his sights on Oliver and the next, he’s after Marty at his nighttime job as a parking lot attendant.  There are two scenes set here and they’re arguably the ones that will give you best case of the shivers…so it’s no coincidence the original short film was the inspiration for these passages.  Strange, then, that Chase didn’t include the best scare from that short in his feature…because it was a doozy.  You would think he’d at least include that.

There are some good things to report, though.  Child actors can be the absolute worst but Chase lucked out with not one but four good kids cast in roles.  I cannot imagine how impenetrable that sleepover scene would have been if those kids had been impossible to watch, but they play the dialogue and rising fear so well without becoming obnoxious that you have to applaud their performances.  The scares are decent too, with a number of shocks that don’t come with loud music stings or unknown haunters jumping out at you – it’s often what you aren’t seeing or just the suggestion of a presence that sends you sliding down in your seat.  As much as I disliked Jacobs, she’s part of a visual near the end that is truly nightmare-inducing.

The good news bad news here is that Come Play is overall a fine film and that’s why I’m rating it higher than you might think after reading the review.  It stumbles a bit during its last act and doesn’t have a finale that feels fully explored but Chase has crafted a well-made, technically sound film if you’re stepping back and looking at the big picture.  I missed a simpler brand of storytelling in favor of a deeper complexity with a “message” that made it more than it needed to be, but for the audience it is aiming to please I think it mostly makes it up the hill it chugs up for 90-some odd minutes.  There’s definitely a spark in Chase that studios should explore and for a Halloween option new release, Come Play might be worth inviting your friends over for.

 

The original short film, Larry, from director Jacob Chase.

Movie Review ~ Kajillionaire


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.

Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Diana Maria Riva, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf

Director: Miranda July

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in March I was getting to the point where I was considering limiting my screenings to no more than two a week in theaters, if that.  The process of getting home from work and having no time to catch my breath before heading out to a screening or finding a way to fit one in during the daytime was tough stuff, especially when you consider there was a full-time job and relationship that I had to prioritize.  Then there were the audiences which, as anyone that’s been to a movie in the last two years can attest, have been growing into a headstrong pack of rogue-texting, seat-kicking, popcorn-chomping, late-arriving, no-shame-about-it-talkers that proceed to treat their fellow movie-goers as witnesses to their showcase of bad behavior.  I know, I know…this is all “woe is me” and the kind of “spoiled critic”-type complaining I normally gag at, but my candle burning at both ends was about to melt away completely and my patience level was wearing thin.

Then this pandemic hit and I suddenly found myself in an audience of one (or two if I wasn’t being impossible that day) with only myself to complain about. And I discovered something interesting.  If there’s one thing I’ve really missed these past seven months watching films at home it’s…audiences.  Not just heading to the theater and milling about shoulder to shoulder in the lobby wondering what everyone else is seeing or waiting in line to get into your auditorium but the communal nature of everyone having a shared experience of discovery together.  Laughs are great at comedies, shrieks are fun at horror, and it’s secretly fun to spot alpha males walking out of a “guys cry too” film with their eyes red and watery.  For me, though, my favorite moments are when an audience catches on to something at the same time a character onscreen does and can’t help but gasp or let their jaws hinge open.

There’s two of these very surprises in director Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire and I couldn’t help but get a small pang of sadness when I realized how much fun it would have been to be in a packed crowd to see it for the first time.  Now, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what these little moments of movie magic are, what kind of emotion they’re meant to elicit, or when they occur, but the first is easy to pick-up on while the second might be something that will sneak up on you after the movie has finished.  Known for her more avant-garde work in independent film in the past, July continues her recent streak of staying in a more commercial lane with Kajillionaire.  Thanks to emotionally resonant work from her star and a trio of fine supporting performances, July may have made her most accessible film yet…though in an ironic twist it’s primarily about the inaccessibility of emotions between a daughter and her parents.

A family of con-artists make their way through Los Angeles barely scraping by with their small time swindles and quick schemes.  Like a modern day version of the grasping couple the Thénardiers from Les Misérables, Robert (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) and Theresa (Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment) aren’t above stealing from the dying to get ahead or lying their way out of any situation if it means they might eventually turn a profit.  Yet we learn early on they’re also impulsive in their decisions and reckless spenders when they do find funds, which begins to alienate their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, Frozen II) who learns on her own the value of money and the emotions that come with it.  How Old Dolio got her name is another mystery the film holds onto until late in the game and when we learn its origin it manages to be both terrifically funny and tragically sad at the same time, another of July’s gifts in storytelling.

When Old Dolio cooks up a plan to help pay the back rent they owe through a con involving an airline luggage insurance claim, her parents somehow manage to bring Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation), into the fold.  Sensing immediate competition from the more glamorous girl, Old Dolio begins to distance herself from her family, even after Melanie comes up with her own plans to use the trio to advance a money-making hustle of her own.  Thankfully, July lets things get as messy as possible over the ensuing hour and supplies her cast with great material in which to explore the relationships between parents and their children as well as young women finding their own inner strength even without a role model/strong parental figure to guide them.

Wood completely disappears into her role, pitching her voice to a dull low monotone with a hint of California surfer thrown in for good measure.  It’s not a “dumb” voice but one that wasn’t ever exposed to any emotional levels that would signal a change in dynamics she could learn from and that’s not her fault.  Clearly, Robert and Theresa never took the time to parent their child, only using her as we see them using her now…as part of their con in one way or another.  You almost wonder at some points if she’s even their real daughter or if her birth was planned as part of another plot that paid out previously.  Though strong as ever, I feel like I’ve seen Jenkins play this kind of aloof father figure before, his complete disregard for the feelings of others stings like a slap in the face even to us the viewer.   With each passing film, I’m more and more impressed with the parts that Rodriguez takes on, they never seem to be quite the same person and she’s obviously pushing against any kind of bubble Hollywood is trying to stick her under.  A true legend when it comes to screen presence and talent, Winger is always (always) a welcome sight and her brittle character is fairly fascinating; watching her turn on a dime from uninterested to fully committed for the sake of the swindle is spooky…you’ll want to dissect it later.

Careening a bit too much with tonal issues that start to distract more than help audiences fully sync up with Old Dolio and her lot, July eventually spins Kajillionaire out of control but regains some semblance of order for a rewarding finale that I had no idea what to expect from.  These are the kind of movies where you don’t know the ending at the beginning and that’s an exciting film to be able to step up to the line for.  I’d have liked to have trusted the film a bit more in the second half when it wanted to be more serious as it shifted into a different gear, but by that time it had trained you to be on the lookout for dishonesty so much that it was almost impossible to let your guard down. Add to that characters that have made it their mission to deceive and you never know if you’re hearing the full truth, a version of the truth we want to hear, or an outright lie.  It makes for an interesting movie, which Kajillionaire certainly is, but an uneasy view.