Movie Review ~ Nitram

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Nitram lives a life of isolation and frustration with his mother and father in suburban Australia in the Mid 1990s. That is until he unexpectedly finds a close friend in a reclusive heiress. However, when that relationship meets a tragic end, he begins a slow descent that leads to disaster.
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis
Director: Justin Kurzel
Rated: NR
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Here in the U.S., in the pre-pandemic days, it seemed like stories of gun violence were almost writing themselves with the daily reports of mass shootings printed in boldface across our newspapers.  Endless debates about stricter gun safety laws drew lines in the sand among friends and family about what responsible measures were necessary to protect people from one another and why gun owners needed automatic weapons for hunting.  While the violence and events haven’t gone away, it felt like they had subsided slightly during the lockdown because fewer people were out in public and could be targeted as routinely. 

Within these debates, many pointed toward Australia for their radical and swift changes to gun control laws, with politicians and ordinary citizens wondering why those with opposing views couldn’t work together to enact similar rapid change in hopes of eliminating known threats.  Most don’t realize what led to these laws in the first place and how it came to pass that Australia enacted this legislation with support from multiple sides of their government at the time.  I, for one, had no idea about the tragedy that occurred in 1996 in Port Arthur, Tasmania, that left 35 people dead and 23 wounded when a murderer went on a rampage at the popular tourist site.

I can imagine what a movie like Nitram must symbolize for the people of Australia then.  The story of the man behind the gun is sure to raise anger in the survivors of the single-person mass shooting and questions in those wanting the country to continue its healing process.  Director Justin Kurzel, a South Australian native, takes great pains not to glamorize or excuse the perpetrator but instead, I think, aims to understand the situation and, in doing so, find another path toward healing for those still in limbo.  Gathering some of Australia’s top talent, including his wife Essie Davis, Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) has put together a shattering portrayal of the worst kind of wreckage, one you can see coming in slow motion but are powerless to stop.

25-year-old Nitram (Caleb Landry-Jones, Contraband) is an intellectually disabled young man living at home with his parents, known around his neighborhood as both a troublemaker and troubled.  His father (Anthony LaPaglia, Annabelle: Creation) is a well-intentioned businessman hoping to find a place in an unforgiving world for his stunted son by purchasing a bed and breakfast they can run as a family.  Not that his mother (Judy Davis, The Dressmaker) holds much faith in either of the men in her family. Mainly content to watch as they try and fail and ready to pick up the pieces when they do, she’s supportive to a degree but judgmental to a fault.  She’d also like her son to get motivated and find his calling, but on terms that she sets.

Her control over him significantly loosens when he meets Helen (Essie Davis, The Babadook), an eccentric heiress living alone in a Grey Gardens-esque lot with only her dogs to keep her company. Initially stopping by to mow her lawn, Nitram becomes her companion, her roommate, and eventually, something more.  Much to his mother’s horror, Helen replaces her as the author of Nitram’s future plans, and it’s after a tragic accident occurs, that Nitram once again falls back into his mother’s grasp.  This time, though, he’s had a taste of what it was like to feel free and newly empowered and funded to do what he pleases, he treads a dark path that leads him to commit a heinous crime that will forever change his country.

The press materials for Nitram ask us specifically to avoid naming the actual perpetrator of the crime and omitting the use of particular words that might be misinterpreted out of context, and I can understand why.  Talking about something so intimate and personal is difficult, let alone making a movie about it.  I think Kurzel and his cast pay a great deal of respect to the families of all involved up through the chilling finale (which, I should add, is not shown, nor is there any such violence depicted in the film).  The mere suggestion of what is to come is enough – and this is from the director of violent films like an update of Macbeth and True History of the Kelly Gang.  The restraint is critical to keeping the movie within an emotionally intelligent space.

Kurzel has assembled the right cast and crew as well.  The cinematography from Germain McMicking (Mortal Kombat) is a nice balance between gritty realism and a soft-focus dream-like flutter.  Pairing the production design and costume design always leads to a measure of success, and Alice Babidge helps give harmony to everything the eye touches.  Jed Kurzel’s music is appropriately ominous but can be a bit on the nose.  The quartet of leading performances is riveting, starting with Landry-Jones tackling the crucial title role.  It had to have been hard to find a way into the character without giving off too much sympathy, but the balance struck is more than equitable.  LaPaglia is one of the most underrated actors working today, and in his native Australia, he’s found another solid role to tuck under his impressive belt of films. 

An intense scene partner for Landry-Jones, Essie Davis is kooky at the start. As she gradually understands the man she’s invited into her house, her acceptance of his strange ways speaks to her loneliness and desperation for companionship.  More than anything, a lasting impression is left by Judy Davis as perhaps the most complex of all involved.  The mother looks the other way so often, and Davis lets us sit with several long takes of her just drinking in her surroundings and some of the insanity around her.  It’s only after the film is over you recognize she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, yet she’s spoken volumes with the way she carries herself all the same.

The film leaves us with staggering facts about Australia’s gun laws and how things stand today, eye-opening numbers for anyone thinking the country has everything figured out.  Gun violence is an issue that isn’t going away and needs more work and support from multiple angles before we can even begin to address the heart of the matter.  Films like Nitram won’t get the job done, but they can serve as solemn reminders of the kind of individuals that never should be allowed to own a gun.  Until we all accept that it is ok to deny that right to those that can’t be responsible, we all have a target on our backs.

Movie Review ~ Clean

The Facts:

Synopsis: Tormented by a past life, garbage man Clean attempts a life of quiet redemption. But when his good intentions mark him as a target of local crime boss, Clean is forced to reconcile with the violence of his past.

Stars: Adrien Brody, Glenn Fleshler, Mykelti Williamson, RZA, John Bianco, Michelle Wilson, Richie Merritt, Chandler Ari DuPont

Director: Paul Solet

Rated: NR

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  For a while, it seemed that after winning an Oscar for Best Actress, women who tucked the award away on their mantle would suffer from some curse for some time after. Their following projects would tank, and they would struggle to regain the credibility that an Academy Award would bring them. For recent examples, I’d offer you Halle Berry as Exhibit A, and Hilary Swank as Exhibit B.  Swank even had to go back and win a second Oscar to get things back in order, only to return to making lesser-than efforts. My point to all of this is that no one seems to look at the Best Actor winners, many of whom walked the same path but, unsurprisingly, aren’t held to that same standard.

For the review of Clean, let’s look at Adrien Brody. To some, his win for The Pianist in 2002 came as a surprise, but one need only watch the film to know why Brody easily bested his competition that year. Since that time, Brody hasn’t exactly set the box office on fire and often plays third or fourth banana in ensemble projects (like 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) or even takes the backseat entirely to special effects bonanzas (as in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong). Still, it’s not like Brody doesn’t seem aware of that. It’s probably why he’s generating his own work and curating projects that speak to him. However, if Clean is what he’s leaning toward, I’d rather see him in an update of 1986’s King Kong Lives.

Serving as the producer, co-writer, composer (!), and star, Clean is Brody’s take on the gritty dramas made famous in the ‘70s by unlikely stars such as Charles Bronson and his Death Wish series. The familiar tale of a man with a past (or, better yet, no past) who becomes the beacon of hope for a person (or family, or neighborhood, or city) in danger from violent thugs is well-worn enough to be threadbare but it isn’t without its merit and charm. When done right. There’s something kind of dirty about the entirety of Clean, which tends to have a grime that rubs off like a grease and makes it hard to wipe away when the film concludes. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad effect, per se, for a film to have on an audience. Still, I couldn’t get over feeling like director/co-writer Paul Solet (Tales of Halloween) and Brody’s persistent focus on the deep dark made any grasp at redemptive light nearly impossible to see.

Loner garbage man Clean (Brody) quietly works the night shift hauling away trash from decaying neighborhoods in a city that offers him little comfort. Plagued with nightmares from a horrific trauma he’ll never get over, he tries to distance himself from emotion by staying busy with work and repairing small appliances he finds on his route. With no family of his own, teen Diandra (Chandler DuPoint) is someone he can be a pseudo-father figure to, even if her mother Ethel (Michelle Wilson, Premature) has suspicions about the overly kind man that says he’s just watching out for her child. The enormity of violence and gangs creeping into the streets where Clean and Diandra live require constantly staying alert, and when Diandra begins to fall in with the wrong crowd (almost out of necessity for survival) and Clean intercedes, it puts him and those he wants to protect in the path of Michael, a most dangerous criminal.

Usually, the villain of a movie like this gets a scene here or there to illustrate the extent of their wickedness, and Solet/Brody don’t skimp on opportunities to show just how evil and manipulative Michael (Glenn Fleshler, Joker) is. He runs two long-standing family businesses in tandem. One is fish, the other foul (drugs), and recently paroled son Mikey (Richie Merritt) wants nothing to do with either one of them. The discord between father and son is another familiar device used to create a tension that boils over and leads to their paths crossing with Clean and the bloody repercussions of their actions.

As is often the case with these types of genre-specific films, the payoff for wading through some thick yuck in abhorrent violence by the bad guys in the first two acts of the movie is the reward of watching the good guys (and gals) take them down with extreme prejudice in the final salvo. The problem with Clean is that by the time we arrive at Brody strapping himself into tactical gear and literally pulling out the big guns, none of the “good” characters have won us over to give us reason to actively root for them. Sure, they’re far better than the vile alternative (Fleshler and specifically Merritt make it way too easy for you to want them exterminated), but we’re so little invested in the characters that Clean could have ended in multiple ways, and it wouldn’t have made much difference.

Movie Review ~ The Feast

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A wealthy family gathers for a sumptuous dinner at their ostentatious home in the Welsh mountains. When a mysterious young woman arrives to be their waitress for the evening, her quiet yet disturbing presence begins to unravel their lives.

Stars: Annes Elwy, Nia Roberts, Julian Lewis Jones, Steffan Cennydd, Sion Alun Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Lisa Palfrey, Caroline Berry

Director: Lee Haven Jones

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  You’d think that by now people would learn.  After countless movies over the years have shown land and animals rebelling against crooked land developers, evil miners, mad scientists, and villainous officiants that should know better, there are still those that tempt fate by messing with Mother Nature.  Or whatever Mother Nature looks like from country to country, tradition to tradition, culture to culture.  You can’t escape the wrath of a tree root that doesn’t want to be chopped or a plot of earth that doesn’t feel like being tilled and getting all rumpled up.  Most of the time, the results are a good round of devastating special effects bonanzas but when you drift over into the European market you can rest assured that when retribution is doled out, the grand finale isn’t going to be a walk in the park.

That’s absolutely the case with The Feast, a Welsh film from director Lee Haven Jones that sets an ominous tone (literally) from the start and maintains a tense grip on your nerves throughout.  There’s seldom a moment when you can let your guard down and not because there are jump scares waiting around one or more of the dark corners in the secluded modern home the film centers itself in.  The real scares here are from the sense that the impending doom could somehow be prevented at any time but those in peril sally forth without bothering to check in with their surroundings and notice things are amiss.  Once The Feast begins (and the actual feast referred to in the title starts) there is no going back for any of the guests, hosts, or viewer.

A young woman named Cadi (Annes Elwy, Apostle) arrives to assist well-to-do Glenda (Nia Roberts), in hosting a dinner party for an investor her husband Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) works with.  They’ve invited their neighbor from a nearby farm, with a plot of land not that dissimilar to theirs where they have already tore down the woman’s childhood home and erected the chic but soulless house where they are assembling the meal.  Also attending will be Gwyn and Glenda’s two troubled sons, ice-blonde health nut Gweirydd (Sion Alun Davies) and sandy-haired screw-up Guto (Steffan Cennydd).  Right away we can see that Cadi either isn’t who she says she is or has an alternative agenda with the family, but to what end.  Getting to know the family during the day as the meal is prepared, we start to see hints at her true nature, only to have our expectations altered as the evening progresses.

Credit to screenwriter Roger Williams and director Jones for keeping things moving at a good clip without sacrificing any little character details along the way in The Feast.  Cadi acts like a tiny fly on the wall and observes the inner workings of the family, so we see firsthand how odd Gweirydd is and that he might be hiding a secret.  The small actions of other characters hint at this too, you have to pay close attention to pick these up and it only adds to the richness of the finale if you understand why things are unraveling as they do.  The violence is grotesque at times but sort of beautifully done in its own way as well.   Fans of folk horror will, pardon the pun, eat this one up.

Movie Review ~ The Nowhere Inn  

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When St. Vincent sets out to make a documentary about her music, the goal is to both reveal and revel in the unadorned truth behind her on-stage persona. But when she hires a close friend to direct, notions of reality, identity, and authenticity grow increasingly distorted and bizarre.

Stars: St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Ezra Buzzington, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquilino, Drew Connick

Director: Bill Benz

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  It’s always an interesting exercise to approach a project featuring a performer with a devoted following that I’m not all-too familiar with.  In the case of The Nowhere Inn, there’s two of them, starting with Carrie Brownstein, who appeared for seven seasons in the cult hit comedy series Portlandia.  Disclosure time: I’ve never seen the show (one can only take on so much) but have heard tell of its brilliance and of Brownstein’s ability in particular to shift, chameleon-like, between characters, genders, styles, etc. Also a talented musician, Brownstein’s feature-film work has been limited with roles in films like 2015’s Carol and 2018’s Tag being small but memorable.  

Am I a dyed-in-the-wool fan of St. Vincent (the stage name of multi-hyphenate artist Annie Clark)? Not exactly.  However, anytime I’d seen her perform on television or heard her music there was something undeniably captivating about the way she was able to draw an audience in with her enigmatic presence.  A bit of an all-around mystery and perfectly willing to change up her look so completely that if you hadn’t seen her in a few years, you may think you’ve bought a ticket to the wrong show, St. Vincent has amassed a legion of fans waiting to see what happens next.  They’re in for a treat as the musician moves into film (after appearing as her off-stage alter-ego in Brownstein’s television show) and works with Brownstein to write a most unusual, but ultimately mesmerizing, bit of meta moviemaking.

A stretch limo speeds through a desert carrying St. Vincent to her next gig.  The limo driver doesn’t know who she is, has never heard of her. He calls his son. He’s never heard of her either.  They ask if she’d sing one of her songs.  She does.  It doesn’t have the memory-jogging effect any of them hoped.  So begins The Nowhere Inn (“Where nothing and no one wins.” according to the lyrics of the haunting title track), a documentary (sort of) crossed with a mockumentary (kinda) alternately filtered through a experimental horror lens…with concert footage interspersed throughout.  It’s a lot more accessible and interested in the way people tick than the trailer or I have made it seem, so you just have to trust me that where the movie begins is quite different than the way it ends.  And when I say ends, I mean you have to stay until the last note of the film has been struck even after the credits have completed.

As she embarks on a concert tour, St. Vincent hires her friend Carrie Brownstein to make a documentary of life on the road.  Ready to capture the good, the bad, and the ugly of the tour route, Brownstein signs up, even with reservations about leaving her sick father and wondering in the back of her mind how this will test the close personal relationship she has with her friend, now employer.  While the shoot progresses and Brownstein realizes she’s not getting the footage she needs, she encourages in her subject opportunities to come off less like the easy-going off-stage persona (Annie) and more like the adopted identity she formed as St. Vincent. As the line between the performer and the person blur, it throws an increasingly biting wrench into not just the success of the film but in the future of the long-standing friendship.

Using St. Vincent’s music, at one point a family of homestead musicians do a rollicking rendition of 2011’s “Year of the Tiger”, director Bill Benz keeps the action propelling forward and it all stays on track right up until the end when it can’t help but fall into David Lynch territory.  That’s a bummer and though Lynch himself would I think love the movie, even he’d likely admit there were better ways to check out of The Nowhere Inn.  Until then, Brownstein and St. Vincent (as aggressively impressive in the film acting department as she is onstage performing) have kept upping the stakes with one another, seeming to dare the other to take different risks with each passing scene.  Even a few random appearances by Dakota Johnson (Our Friend) can’t derail the tense and increasingly perilous kinship between the musician and the friend she’s hired to document the reality she now actively is rebelling against.

Movies such as The Nowhere Inn with their clever wink-wink to the audience can only work if the filmmakers are willing to embrace the audience and involve them in the cleverness they construct.  That’s why so many similar genre fare fails, because little attention is paid to the people out there in the dark that will be watching and digesting what’s being put on their plate.  What Brownstein and St. Vincent have whipped up is a soufflé that’s light as air but richly filling the deeper you dig in.  At the center is the breakdown of a friendship and unveiling that even when something is shown to be real you can’t always trust that reality.  That’s nothing we haven’t seen harvested before, right?  It’s the way the screenwriters have added their own voice and vocabulary to the set-up that you find yourself tethered to their emotions almost as much as they are, eventually getting to the point where you are hanging on each word and every visual framed by Benz and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl. To conclude my fancy Yelp review: checking in and checking out The Nowhere Inn is a must-do when you have the chance.

Movie Review ~ Come True

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The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Anthony Scott Burns

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ A Call to Spy

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the beginning of WWII, with Britain becoming desperate, Churchill orders his new spy agency to recruit and train women as spies. Their daunting mission: conduct sabotage and build a resistance.

Stars: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache

Director: Lydia Dean Pilcher

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  As a critic, the absolute worst feeling is coming across some film that you desperately wanted to like and find that it just doesn’t like you back.  You’ve read about it and think it sounds like a perfect subject to base a movie off of and wonder why it hasn’t been told before, or if it had why you hadn’t seen it yet.  Then you see it’s a largely female production behind the scenes as well and it only makes you more convinced you’re on the right track and you’re bound to be in for a project done right.  Only then you get that opportunity to see the film and wonder where things went wrong and why you didn’t warm to it like you thought you would, why it felt so phony, and why you now have to write the next sentence.  I did not like A Call to Spy.

Yes, it’s unfortunate to admit it but I was severely disappointed in the new WWII historical drama that revolves around the recruitment of females to be sent behind enemy lines as spies and radio transmitters, risking their lives just as much as their male counterparts.  We’ve been treated to countless stories of men doing the same thing and even ones that spied and transmitted without ever having to leave the UK, but A Call to Spy suggested it was going to provide more of the backstory about this program and its participants.  The trouble is that it’s such a thinly written piece with a narrow focus, it doesn’t allow for a broader view of the initiative beyond it’s limited scope.  It’s general topic may be interesting but the movie is a fairly solid snoozefest.

Recognizing that women were less likely to be perceived as a threat or wouldn’t be thought to have the capacity to spy for their country by the Nazis, Churchill instructed his recently formed spy agency to move forward with a proposal raised by Vera Atkins (Stana Katic, Quantum of Solace) that would allow women the opportunity to receive formal training.  If they were cleared and a mission presented itself, they would be prepared to go where the need was.  This is how the agency came to recruit Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) a quiet but brilliant radio operative and Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) an American stationed in Britain continually denied her request to be a diplomat on account of her wooden leg.   Both are unlikely choices…which, in a way, makes them perfect choices.

Director Lydia Dean Pilcher stages early scenes of training in a strangely haphazard way, which begins a pattern of confusion over location and timeline that continues through the remainder of the film.  It’s never truly clear where or when the action is taking place because the Pilcher switches often between Noor and Virginia in their separate missions and Vera back home keeping an eye on the program and trying to plan for her own survival should the Nazis get closer.  The main men in the film, Linus Roache (Non-Stop) as Vera’s superior and Rossif Sutherland (Possessor Uncut) as a contact Virginia befriends are around for emotional sounding boards, no more, no less.

What is meant to elicit suspense barely raises the pulse and in these espionage films there should be a little tension here and there.  Though I was paying attention to the film and following along with the women on their assignments, it got muddy to who was aligned with whom and where everyone was heading — making moments meant to be shocking just confusing.  Perhaps that’s due to the leading performance of Thomas.  Serving also as the writer, Thomas has given the role some meat that is likely meant to be a stretch but doesn’t seem to sit well on her.  I didn’t buy her transformation into the covert emissary she becomes and it’s from that weak point other lacking areas are exposed.  The dialogue is trite, the scenes staged without much precision, and, again, the editing doesn’t help keep the narrative in check.

This one bummed me out.  I had high hopes for it and wanted to like it far more than I did.  I’m a sucker for movies set at this point in history and anything to do with untold stories of ordinary people called in to do extraordinary things is grand in my book.  It just hit none of the marks for me that I expected.  On the other hand, I can’t stress enough how vital the story being told by all involved is and on that basis, I would absolutely recommend the film as a jumping off place for viewers wanting to know more about this part of history.  As a film, though, A Call to Spy is one I wouldn’t venture to answer a second time.

Movie Review ~ Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Follows chef Yotam on his quest to bring the sumptuous art and decadence of Versailles to life in cake form at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Stars: Yotam Ottolenghi, Dominique Ansel, Ghaya Oliveira, Dinara Kasko, Sam Bompas, Janice Wong

Director: Laura Gabbert

Rated: NR

Running Length: 75 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Flip on any of the numerous cable channels devoted to food and you’re likely to land on a show that celebrates the sweet and the decadent.  The cakes tend to take the cake when it comes to what is popular with viewers and programs that feature wars of the cupcake variety and the tales of the bosses of cakes regularly find themselves with massive followings.  Who can make the best and most elaborate sponge, butter, or biscuit is always changing and everyone from amateur to pro has thrown their hat into the mix.  There is truly something for everyone.

The new documentary Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles literally raises cake-making to high art by following five pastry chefs from around the globe as they bring to life their own interpretation of Versailles through dessert.  Curated by famed Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s 2018 summer event The Feast of Versailles, director Laura Gabbert follows the chef as he prepares for the event alongside museum administrators and the colorful artists he selects for their diverse talents.  The results were surely tasty for those in attendance but less satisfying for those of us at home that can only go so far in the overall experience of the fête.

The inherent problem with Gabbert’s film is best illustrated by a scene halfway through where one chef struggles with a recipe that worked well at home but isn’t coming together so well in The Met’s kitchens.  The Met’s head chef tells her that her ingredients lack a fat, a bonding agent, to hold everything together and that’s what’s missing in Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles as well.  Though Ottolenghi is the through line that Gabbert constructs her narrative around, he’s not a strong enough central figure to hold the entire film up.  To be fair, it appears that aside from the recipe drama and a brief electrical issue that threatened to stymie one of the elaborate displays, there isn’t much in the way of suspense to be mined so it appears Gabbert worked with what she had.  I wonder what this could have been if it were a chapter in a longer film that either focused solely on Ottolenghi, the chefs being featured, or as part of a larger look at The Met and its history.  This appears to be such a specific piece of a larger puzzle that’s been removed from a bigger idea.  While the material has moments of interest, I found myself wanting to know more about Ottolenghi or the various people that worked at The Met more than the singular event being highlighted.  That speaks to some disconnect between storytelling and subject.

Even at 75 minutes, this feels like it strains to hit feature length and plays more as a long episode of a show you’d see on the Food Network.  The history of Versailles has been covered in greater detail before and reconstructed in its full glory for big budget films in the past so the mini staged conversations between Ottolenghi and historical experts feels a bit like a forced refresher course added for padding.  That being said, when Gabbert turns her lens on the food and the art created from the layers of decadence it’s hard not to feel your cheeks start to swell and your taste buds long for a bite.  Would that the rest of Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles have been as sumptuously stimulating.

Movie Review ~ Centigrade


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple find themselves trapped in their frozen vehicle after a blizzard and struggle to survive amid plunging temperatures and unforeseen obstacles.

Stars: Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza, Mavis Simpson-Ernst

Director: Brendan Walsh

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Some people say that it’s never as fun to watch suspense movies alone as it is to turn off all the lights and hunker down with another person.  I could go both ways with that.  If you’re watching with someone that can handle the scares and will go along for the ride, sure, that’s fun but if you’re in the presence of an unwilling participant that’s going to make light of the frights as a way to relieve their own fears, then you’re in for a long 90 minutes.  Then there are the thrillers that sort of demand you have another viewer with you so you can commiserate on the people in the film and that’s where it’s always handy to know who you’re watching with.

I had intended to watch Centigrade all by my lonesome because it looked to be the kind of chilly thriller fare my partner just doesn’t go for but he stuck around for the first few minutes of this based-on-true-life events and was intrigued enough to put his feet up and hang out for a while.  This was a good thing for two reasons.  The first is I was glad he was around so I could vent my frustration at the situation the lone couple featured in the film find themselves in and the second was that this turned out to be one of those interesting relationship-building movies where you find yourself asking how you’d react if you were in the same situation with your significant other.

After stopping in the middle of the night on the side of a mountain road due to bad weather conditions, pregnant writer Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez, Man on a Ledge) and her husband Matt (Vincent Piazza, Jersey Boys) awake to find the blizzard they were in has covered their vehicle with ice and snow, fully trapping them in their rental car.  In Norway to promote her book, no one knows precisely where they were on this leg of their trip and with no cell phone reception, they aren’t even sure how far they were from their hotel when they pulled over.  Reasonably consoloed someone will be coming by their frozen fortress soon, they wait.  And wait.  The waiting turns to panic as they realize they are entombed in ice on a desolate stretch of road and with limited supplies may not be rescued for days.

At first, the couple is observant of the needs of their spouse and tries their best to accommodate the little things that might annoy them otherwise in consideration of the situation.  The space they have to move around in is small, though, and before long paranoia creeps in and begins to unravel husband and wife as the days stretch on and all hope seems lost.  When they disagree on how to move forward and with Naomi’s pregnancy coming to the forefront of their worry, bold choices have to be made that could end up being the difference between a cold death in the elements if they break free or a slow decline in the car if they choose to stay where they are.  Staying in the car has created an igloo effect which is keeping them relatively secure but would breaking a window and chancing the urge to dig their way out help their overall odds?

I’d imagine watching Centigrade with your loved one might inspire some debate over who is the in the right as the film progresses.  I definitely found myself talking back to the screen more than I had at other films lately and found that I alternated sides with Matt and Naomi throughout…the more they came to loggerheads the deeper I tended to dig my heels in for either party.  That should say something for both the performances of Rodriguez and Piazza and the writing of director Brendan Walsh and Daley Nixon.  While I could see this being written off as a one-note slog that begins to swallow itself into wallow territory around the 60 minute mark, I found it oddly compelling viewing…even when my thoughts drifted to thinking about where all the #2’s were being put.

Neither actor is any kind of household name but they both have the kind of movie-star looks that keep them from truly portraying “real” people.  Piazza tends to fly fairly under the radar and some attempts by Walsh and Nixon to flesh out his backstory don’t pan out as intended but he has a good chemistry with Rodriguez.  For her part, Rodriguez is saddled with a strangely half-explored medication issue but still manages to keep the fires of interest burning when things start to get cold in the final stretch.  I wish there were a few more of the heated exchanges we get early on in the film between the two but the need to conserve energy realistically sadly outweighs the desire for more dramatic tension and the liveliness peters out to a few random blips as Walsh moves the film toward its predictable conclusion.

While it could have tightened up a bit more heading into its last act, Centigrade makes for a mostly taut 90 minutes that could also double as a bit of easy couples shout therapy.  At several points, I was thankful that Walsh and Nixon’s script was so sparse because it gave us a chance to discuss what we’d do in the same situation…and then argue with one another as to why the other person’s plan wouldn’t work.  Lack of propulsive drive forward may knock it down a few degrees, but Centigrade is still good for a few chills.

Movie Review ~ Sputnik


The Facts:

Synopsis: The lone survivor of an enigmatic spaceship incident hasn’t returned back home alone-hiding inside his body is a dangerous creature.

Stars: Oksana Akinshina, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anna Nazarova, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Vitaliya Korniyenko, Aleksandr Marushev, Albrecht Zander

Director: Egor Abramenko

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s been surprising to me how much I’ve adjusted to seeing movies from the comfort of my own home these past several months.  For the most part, I’ve enjoyed moving from point A in my living room that serves as my office to point B in the same area which turns into my nightly space for screenings.  Sure, it’s taken just a tiny bit of the “event” feeling out of going to the movies but there hasn’t been anything I’ve seen so far that has truly cried out for the big screen experience.  Until now.

Watching the new Russian monster movie Sputnik, I felt the first honest pangs of nostalgia for being in a darkened movie theater staring up at a moving image.  This is the type of film that would have been a lot of fun to catch with an audience or even just flying solo as a weekday matinee to fill in some time between work and evening plans.  At the same time, what a thrill to find a movie so on the money when it comes to creative ideas and working wonders with overwrought plot mechanics; it’s arguably in the top tier of films I’ve seen in 2020 and easily a new genre favorite.

It’s 1983 and two Russian Cosmonauts are in orbit preparing to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, discussing plans for what they’ll do when they return home.  Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) longs for a hot bath while Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov, The Darkest Hour) has more family-oriented matters to attend to.  All plans are put on hold, though, when their capsule has more than a close encounter with an…unplanned visitor.  Back on Earth, neurophysiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina, The Bourne Supremacy) is facing sanctions for her unorthodox handling of a patient and the young doctors brash willingness to ignore authority catches the attention of Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) who has an interesting proposition for her.

If Semiradov can smooth out Tatyana’s present troubles, would she be willing to consult on a new patient at a top secret, heavily guarded government facility?  Intrigued and seeing this as a quick solve to a annoying problem, Tatyana agrees to meet with the man Semiradov has been tasked with guarding: Cosmonaut Konstantin. Returning to Earth with little memory of what happened to him and his comrade, Tatyana dismisses his symptoms at first as a case of traumatic PTSD leading to temporary amnesia.  That is, until she witnesses first hand his rather large problem that only comes out at night…

I think I’ve been trained for so long to be let down by movies that have a tantalizing opening act that I was particularly on edge with Sputnik.  When would the other shoe drop, and how would screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev make some silly error that betrayed the three dimensional characters that were so carefully etched early on?  Would director Egor Abramenko give in to the pressure to show off instead of draw the viewer in closer, making the experience less about craftsmanship than pure gimmickry?  That the movie showed some of its cards at the outset made me nervous, but it turned out to all be part of the scary plan Sputnik’s creators had in store for audiences.

Bound to be compared to Alien and justly earning the same echoes of praise, this is one impressive discovery that continued to hold surprises well into its final stretch.  That should be especially good news to those that want a little plot to go with their slimy guts and gore (which the film has buckets of, by the way) and the performances match the finely tuned suspense sequences.  As the chilly young doctor plagued by a past that has ties to her present situation, Akinshina is as compellingly watchable a lead as I’ve seen in this genre.  Bringing a Cold War steeliness to her early scenes and, in getting to know more about Konstantin, finding small ways of slowly letting her guard down, Akinshina carefully navigates a complex strong female character to make her as important as whatever gooey creature might be right around the corner.  Fyodorov is nicely balanced too, playing a man expecting to return home to a hero’s welcome only to be imprisoned without any explanation why and kept from his family to be used as an experiment.  The more he comes to realize his part, the more his allegiances change…but how much does he actually know to begin with?  Also serving as a producer of the scare pic, Bondarchuk makes for a nice human villain when the well-designed beast isn’t onscreen.

Good performances and script can’t save a movie alone and there’s obviously been some money spent on Sputnik because it looks and sounds excellent.  The cinematography by Maxim Zhukov is never too intrusive on the action but also doesn’t shy away from clever positions and tricks.  I was particularly drawn in by Oleg Karpachev’s ominous and haunting score which helps to set the mood…and then some.  Use of night vision and an abundance of 80s security video can be a little distracting at times but it keeps the mood of the piece just right and helps with that whole “less is more” feeling when showing the creature at the center of it all.

Had this opened in movie theaters, I still doubt it would have gotten as much attention as one of the proposed summer blockbusters or even a glazed over second tier release but it might have generated the kind of buzz that would have gotten it to audiences in select cities.  That could have kept word of mouth going and will, I think, benefit its streaming debut because now the news of it being one to watch can spread quicker.  It’s also worth noting this is arriving in the US via IFC films (IFC Midnight to be exact) and this is the third film this summer (after The Wretched and Relic) that has been a bona fide winner in my book.  The folks at IFC clearly know how to pick ‘em and Sputnik is their latest bullseye.

Movie Review ~ The Trip to Greece


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan travel from Troy to Ithaca following in the footsteps of the Odysseus.

Stars: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Tessa Walker, Michael Towns, Marta Barrio, Kareem Alkabbani

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  It’s funny how our tastes change over time, isn’t it?  Much like how we continue to develop our palate for new foods as we grow, our interest in certain topics and curiosity in outside stimuli remain in flux well into our adulthood.  That’s probably why I’ve found myself throughout this time of shelter in place going back through a number of older movies that I’ve seen before when I was much younger but can only really appreciate now.  Films like Cabaret or Broadcast News look different when viewed as an adult and newer (to me) titles like North by Northwest (don’t judge) and Sullivan’s Travels are discoveries long overdue.

All this preamble is meant to illustrate is that I can easily see my younger self staying far away from the quartet of films in The Trip series because they wouldn’t have spoken to me until I reached this point in my life.  The first film, released in 2010 was an out-of the blue delight and it’s 2014 follow up, The Trip to Italy, took the original premise and found new ways to mine laughs and pathos.  If 2017’s The Trip to Spain wasn’t quite in the same league, it was still miles ahead of other comedic endeavors because the series as a whole is so unique to begin with.  There’s just nothing quite like it and it’s hard to explain why following around two middle-aged men through various picturesque locales as they quip, nip, and nibble is so incredibly entertaining.  So when I got wind that The Trip to Greece was setting sail, I couldn’t wait to escape for another adventure.

Returning once more to play exaggerated versions of their own personas, Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Blinded by the Light) are found at the top of the movie in Turkey already at their first stop for their latest road trip.  Coogan’s publisher wants him to write a piece that follows the journey of Odysseus across Greece, bringing Brydon along for company and commentary.  Together, the men dine at fine restaurants in front of jaw-dropping vistas and stay at luxe accommodations as they see the sights the countryside has to offer.  Through some amazing cinematography, it’s the best kind of postcard for Greek tourism the country could ask for…and extra painful right now when all I want to do is travel.

Director Michael Winterbottom (The Look of Love) has a long history with Coogan and Brydon by this point and more so than other entries this feels like it has longer takes with more freedom for the men to improv and riff off of each other.  This leads to a series of riotously funny sequences with the competitive guys trying to best the other, be it with impressions of Mick Jagger, determining who can swim better, or who hits the best falsetto notes on an old Demis Roussos song.  The comic takedowns are endless and rapid fire, but they are all in good fun and you can easily see how much the two like one another.

While other entries have all had some sort of dramatic interlude that brings the fun fantasy trip back to reality, The Trip to Greece takes a more somber turn than I expected and it’s a jarring transition.  This being the supposed final entry in the series (for now at least) I had hoped to see it go out with a different message but I suppose there’s a take away from where we last see both men as the film draws to a close.  I won’t spoil the ending for you but when you reflect back on all the places we’ve traveled with Steve and Rob and all the wonderful meals we’ve shared with them, you realize that it truly is about the journey and not so much about the destination.