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
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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.

Movie Review ~ Premature


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Seventeen year old Ayanna meets handsome and mysterious Isaiah in her path towards self-discovery. Her entire world is turned upside down as she travails on the rigorous terrain of young love on the summer before she leaves for college.

Stars: Zora Howard, Joshua Boone, Michelle Wilson, Alexis Marie Wint, Imani Lewis, Tashiana Washington, Myha’la Herrold

Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green

Rated: NR

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Seeing movies at film festivals is, honestly, often a crapshoot.  Though the movies have been curated by a supposedly sensible staff there are times when you find yourself watching a selection and wondering how on earth the committee thought a crowd would respond to this title.  Thankfully, the group behind the Twin Cities Film Festival have an exceedingly good feel not just for what will appeal to their festivalgoers but also what filmmakers/actors/projects could be the next buzzy project.  It’s these films that are often selected to either open the festival or be the closing night title, so I always tend to pay close attention to what gets those coveted slots.

At the 11-day event this past year, Premature snagged that closing night position so I made sure to get it on my schedule and I was glad I did because it lived up to the hype.  Catching a movie so early in its festival run can be difficult because it can fade from memory when it finds a wide-release date but that wasn’t the case here. Now, seven months later it’s finally debuting on the streaming service Hulu after winning a number of awards, including Film Independent’s  Someone to Watch Award for director Rashaad Ernesto Green back in February.

When Ayanna (Zora Howard) meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone) during one hot summer in her Harlem, NY neighborhood, she isn’t looking for any kind of a relationship.  She’s on her way to college in the fall and is tentative about getting involved with the older man, charming though he may be.  Her poetry and journaling is her method of expression and she pours her feelings into lines that hold great power.  When she inevitably finds herself moving forward with Isaiah, her life changes in ways she never expected and emotions of both pleasure and pain factor into her thoughts on building a future with him.

Co-written by Green and star Howard, this is a sensitive drama involving young love that doesn’t follow the typical trajectory we’re all used to seeing.  Bucking most conventions of the romance genre, it gives voice to the black community in current, vibrant ways and you can feel its energy pulsating off screen from beginning to end.  It’s a frank film, in language and sexuality, yes, but also in honesty of emotion and all feel entirely earned and justified.  Simple resolutions don’t exist in Ayanna and Isaiah’s world and I appreciated seeing the world from that vantage point.

The script is one thing but the performances are what elevate Premature to that next level.  Green has assembled a hell of a fine cast, from bit players to supporting actors playing Ayanna’s pseudo Greek chorus girlfriends.  Though made on a tiny budget you get the feeling all of these people have known each other for years and Green just made a few phone calls to get them all together to shoot.  Boone and Howard have a fiery chemistry that is so very rare to see and Boone makes what could be a problematic character less so with his gentle approach.  The movie belongs to Howard, though, and not just because she’s written an especially strong female lead for herself.  Ayanna’s imperfections is what makes her so understandable and whether she’s struggling with communicating with her mother (a strong Michelle Wilson) or reacting to a perceived slight from Isaiah, we understand her frustration more than we are aware.  It’s a bold, brave, memorable turn.

Premature was always going to be a tough sell even without the quarantine and pandemic to quiet it’s already small release in theaters.  Now that it’s going straight to streaming on Hulu there’s a chance more people will discover it early but it’s a true gem that you should get on the bandwagon early for.  It falls into the same step with If Beale Street Could Talk with presenting straightforward black relationships without resorting to cloying clichés.  That should be celebrated and encouraged.

Movie Review ~ The Wretched


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A defiant teenage boy, struggling with his parent’s imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.

Stars: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley

Director: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It was all the way back in 1991 when I was first introduced to the novels of Christopher Pike with the classic, Whisper of Death.  The pseudonym of Kevin Christopher McFadden, writing as Pike he gave teens a boatload of thrills tinged with some mature themes and I just couldn’t get enough of them.  Pike is going to have a bit of a resurgence now that it’s been announced super-hot director Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep) is adapting his novel The Midnight Club (and interweaving a few others) into a new series for Netflix.  I also couldn’t quite get Pike’s prose out of my mind while watching The Wretched, a new indie horror flick released on streaming that’s better than you think even if it plays like a really strong YA novel adaptation.

Sent to live with his dad in a sleepy resort town on the coast of Michigan for the summer after a bit of wild teenage fun got out of hand (and left him in a cast), Ben (John-Paul Howard, Hell or High Water) is all angst and over-it attitude.  However, he starts to come around when he is coaxed out of his shell by Mallory (Piper Curda), a co-worker at the marina his dad oversees.  The fun doesn’t last long, though, because Ben’s neighbors with two small children are starting to act funny…perhaps it’s because of the grotesque creature we saw crawl out of a deer carcass and hide in their basement or the strange markings on their front porch.  When their children vanish and no one claims to remember them, Ben becomes convinced something strange is happening…and it all seems to center on a tree in the woods that hides a terrifying creature.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in The Wretched, starting with a spooky prologue set 35 years ago and writer/directors Brett and Drew Pierce keep things moving at a decent clip for the first hour or so.  While the territory is familiar with no one believing the already troubled teenager, there’s a particular comfort in watching it play out so by-the-numbers.  Maybe it’s because the cast is so benignly appealing and the production values are a step-up from the normal indie schlock-fest.  The make-up effects (by a dude named Erik Porn, no joke) are aces and much of the work is practical with CGI used sparingly, at least as far as I could tell.  Genre fans will have fun picking out the influences on hand, from Rear Window to Fright Night to Invasion of the Body Snatchers…heck, even to William Friedkin’s much maligned 1990 movie The Guardian…but instead of leaving feeling that the movie lifted the best bits I got the impression the filmmakers had a deep affinity for those movies they wanted to emulate and they succeed with that.

Where The Wretched gets into some trouble is not being able to connect the dots to its ideas at the end of the day.  Like that spooky prologue I mentioned before.  It sets a nice tone but unfortunately (and this isn’t a total spoiler) it doesn’t truly come back in a meaningful way later in the film.  Even the most strident of television movies would have at least find a way to bring that back but the Pierce brothers seem to have forgotten about furthering their mythology about whatever wicked presence has long been feeding in the area.  Also, I have to say the doozy of a ending didn’t work for me…like, at all.  It’s one of those rug-pulling twists that could have worked but it doesn’t have the logic (or running time) to back it up.

Even if it falters toward the end, I found The Wretched be a far above average entry in the genre film that pops up on my recommended list.  It’s scary but not aggressively so, one of those weeknight watches you won’t feel too bad about spending time with

Movie Review ~ True History of the Kelly Gang


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.

Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Over the past years writing reviews for this blog, it’s been well-documented that I don’t always keep up with my history lessons but I have a feeling I could be forgiven for not being as up to date as I could be on the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.  Though he’s a divisive figure in his native land, a folk hero to some and a murderous villain to others, he’s not as well-known here, only making his mark in various forms of media over the last century.  Though 2003’s Ned Kelly starred the late Heath Ledger as the titular character and featured Orlando Bloom as his right-hand man Joseph Byrne, it didn’t connect with audiences and wouldn’t rank high on either actor’s roster of credits.

While many historical records are available to put together a fairly accurate account of Kelly’s life starting in the rugged outback until his death at the end of a hangman’s noose before he turned 30, director Jed Kurzel (Macbeth) takes a different, more controversial approach to his telling.  Working with screenwriter Shaun Grant, he’s adapted Peter Carey’s celebrated 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang which is largely (and proudly) a work of make-believe that mostly follows Kelly’s life but takes certain liberties along the way.  The novel created a ruckus from Kelly naysayers who were dismayed another work glorifying his crimes became so popular and enticed others open to the history books being cleverly reworked.

The resulting film Kurzel has made from this work is having the same effect and that almost instantly makes it something to seek out so you can decide for yourself.  Here is a bold movie that shouldn’t be taken as the final word on anything Kelly related, especially because it says from the beginning that none of what audiences are about to see is true.  Instead, it invites the viewer to ponder how the story could unfold if the man himself were sitting in front of you telling it.  What would he leave out?  What would he embellish?

Life for the Kelly clan was rough in the barren outback of the 1860’s.  After his father is sent to a dredge of a prison, his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, The Babadook) establishes herself as a bootlegger willing to do anything to keep her family with food on the table.  Eventually, she goes so far as selling off her eldest son Ned (played as a youngster by Orlando Schwerdt) to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, Boy Erased) in the hopes he could learn his thieving ways.  Horrified both by his mother’s betrayal and Power’s wicked bloodlust, Ned returns briefly before entering jail himself.  As an adult, the brash Ned (George MacKay, How I Live Now) runs with a smaller crowd that includes Joe (Sean Keenan), doing what they can to stay away from the long arm of the law.

When Ned is introduced to Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), a friendship that might have helped him turn his life around winds up sending him in the other direction when both men show they are unable to fully divest themselves from their convictions and their past.  This sets the stage for the film’s final act, sending Ned on the run with his “Kelly Gang” that leaves a trail of violence and bloody bodies in their wake.  When Ellen is jailed and Ned decides to stage a grand scale escape for his mother, it gives way to a final confrontation between the Kellys and the policemen that becomes the stuff of legend.

Plenty of movies about history have been given a modern edge with a little rock and roll twist but Kurzel finds a viscerally pleasing way of juxtaposing the luxe with the rough.  At times, the costuming and music give the feel of a movie taking place a century or more later, yet the movie never feels like it’s pawing at a theme it can’t follow through on.  As he’s shown in previous films, Kurzel has an eye for scale and he gives viewers some excellent scans of the burnt out landscape the Kellys call home as well as the more tony living of the upper crust.  Though the technique starts to overwhelm the film near the end, with the final confrontation become a bit of a headache inducing mess – the lead-up to it is pretty invigorating and chilling.  Kurzel also isn’t shy about showing copious amounts of violence, there’s enough blood and guts tossed about in the movie for several horror films yet it somehow still felt like it was authentic to the story being told.  Were the director to pump the brakes in these moments, it would feel like he was cheating so in that sense I appreciated he didn’t spare us these stomach churning sequences.

Where the movie truly excels are the performances.  Nearly landing an Oscar nomination for his work in 1917, MacKay follows it up with a commanding performance as Kelly that hits all the right notes.  He gives the character a humanity, yet doesn’t make him sympathetic at the same time.  That’s a hard line to draw because where folk heroes are concerned there is a tendency to try to overly humanize them just to make them likable…MacKay nicely walks the thin tightrope by just making him human.  The showstopper is Davis as his scheming mother, though.  In a truly remarkable performance, Davis (who is married to Kurzel) makes Ellen so resolutely devoted to her family that she’s willing to destroy everything else that gets in their way…even if it means sacrificing her other children.  This is the stuff Oscar nominations were made for.  Crowe and Hoult are strong, too, as are Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) as a love interest for Ned the author has created for effect, and Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), as the first lawman Ned has to face head on.

Not going to lie, this is a tough blister of a movie but it’s worth your time if you are into these visually arresting skewed history lessons.  The performances are first rate and the production design seemed to always be keeping me on my toes.  It’s unpredictable in a way that historical dramas just aren’t crafted to be – and how fun is that?

31 Days to Scare ~ Ghost Stories

The Facts:

Synopsis: Skeptical professor Phillip Goodman embarks on a trip to the terrifying after being given a file with details of three unexplained cases of apparitions.

Stars: Alex Lawther, Martin Freeman, Andy Nyman, Jill Halfpenny, Jake Davies, Nicholas Burns

Director: Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It should be clear by now that I’m a fan of anthology horror.  If you don’t believe me, take a gander at my reviews of After Midnight, Cat’s Eye, From Beyond the Grave, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The Willies, Tales of Halloween, and the Creepshow films.  There’s something satisfying about compact tales of terror that are to the point and, if they aren’t your cup of tea, don’t overstay their welcome.  What you often have to deal with in these omnibus films are framing devices that are hackneyed and can have little to do with the interwoven stories.  This makes the overall experience feel choppy.

Why Ghost Stories is unique, aside from the fact that it’s adapted from a stage play, is that the interstitial scenes that tie everything together actually play a part in the tales themselves.  So there’s value in paying attention to what’s going on throughout. Even when the film starts to go off the rails near the end, it remains a cleverly crafted and unique entry in the anthology genre…and one that is often quite frightening.

A TV personality known for debunking supernatural occurrences, Phillip Goodman (writer and co-director Andy Nyman, Judy) is summoned to meet one of his childhood idols, Charles Cameron.  A leading paranormal investigator in his day, Cameron is haunted by three cases he was unable to solve and asks Goodman to take a look to see if he can figure out the mystery that surrounds them.  The first case involves a night security guard (Paul Whitehouse) working at an abandoned women’s sanitarium that might not be as empty as it seems.  Next, Goodman looks into a teenager (Alex Lawther, The Imitation Game) who has a literal run in with the Devil.  Finally, we’re introduced to Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, Black Panther) a man awaiting the birth of his child who arrives with…complications.

Each story has it’s own stable of shivers but it’s the first one set in the shuttered hospital that will really give you the chills.  With some great camera work and expert timing, Nyman and his co-director/writer Jeremy Dyson goose the audience with the right amount of scares to get the blood pressure up.  The subsequent investigations have nice moments of dread but are ultimately a bit more depressing than scary.  The outcome of Goodman’s inquiries are surprising and not exactly what you’d expect…just when you think you might know how it’s going to end (or when it’s going to end), Dyson and Nyman have another trick to unmask.  It’s not an entirely slam-dunk ending, to be honest, but it definitely wasn’t what I could have guessed at the beginning.

I can’t imagine how this was produced on stage and would have loved to see this one during its initial run in the West End where it played to great success for some time.  It subsequently toured through Europe but I’m unaware if it’s had a premiere stateside yet.  I would think it would be a special engagement show NYC audiences would get a kick out of but would take some expertise in staging regionally.  In any event, Dyson and Nyman have translated it to the screen with style and if the play is half as scary as the movie I’d bet the shrieks would be as loud as the applause.

Movie Review ~ The Sound of Silence


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A successful “house tuner” in New York City, who calibrates the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods, meets a client with a problem he can’t solve.

Stars: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Alex Karpovsky, Austin Pendleton, Bruce Altman

Director: Michael Tyburski

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I know it’s a horrible thing, environment-wise, but I miss the feel and smell of paper.  I especially had a fondness for receipts, the kind that were in a pad that you could write, rip, and hand off.  Feeling that slip of paper in your hand was such a enjoyable thing and the smell of the ink just put me in a comfort zone, like the aroma of an old book that has sat in a library for years.  Early on in the new film The Sound of Silence, a man gives his client a receipt like the one I mentioned and for a brief moment I was transported exactly to where these characters were in New York City.  I could see the apartment, understood the environment.  It all made sense.  All because of that one slip of paper that evoked such a strong memory in my mind.

It’s the first and last time I connected with the movie.

I could say the movie was one-note.  I could say the characters were off-key.  I might mention the script had pitch problems.  I’d offer the directing was a tad tuneless.  All puns I will refrain from using when discussing this languid tale of a man that specializes in finding what’s sonically out of alignment in your home and making adjustments to help you lead a happy life.  Based on a 17-minute short film that has been unevenly expanded to feature length by the original creators, it’s a somber sit that’s not made any easier by mannered performances that grate on the nerves.

Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie) is a character that can only exist in an indie movie set in NYC.  A rumpled tweed jacket-wearing specialist that has clients around the city needing his particular talents in sussing out what underlying tones might be giving them any sort of malady from anxiety to insomnia.  When he’s not performing tune ups, he’s searching the city for hot spots of ambient sound that he can record to corroborate his long gestating research project about urban soundscapes.  With his tuning forks in hand and ready to clang, he can be found in the park, on construction sites, or wherever the heart of the city beats greatest.  Though he longs to publish his work, he also can’t bring himself to completely share it with the world.  What’s worse, he eschews the oncoming corporatizing of the work he does as in independent contractor so he feels like his days as a big fish in a small pond are numbered.

His newest client, Ellen (Rashida Jones, The Grinch), calls on Peter to figure out why she can’t sleep at night.  Recently broken up from a long term relationship, she’s living in a rent-controlled apartment surrounded by memories of a partnership that’s over and a future that’s never going to happen.  Peter thinks she needs a new toaster.  The rest of us know that Ellen needs a new apartment.  For some reason (namely because writer Ben Nabors says so), Peter intrigues Ellen, even though he’s exhibited no charm or warmth toward her.  When her problems persist, the two start seeing more of each other so Peter can determine where his original analysis was wrong, while at the same time his research falls into the wrong hands and his fragile psyche begins to fall apart.

I wonder how much better the movie would have been with another actor cast in the lead role.  I’m normally a fan of Sarsgaard but not in this case.  He’s so glum and inward facing that there’s no room for audiences to get any insight into his character.  We don’t need to like Peter but we should at least get a sense of who he is and where he’s coming from.  The way Sarsgaard plays it, who would want to spend time with him or invest in his research?  Jones also is unnaturally muted, providing a flavorless take on a woman grieving a loss who bounces back with a total dullard.  In small supporting roles, Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Austin Pendleton (Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles), Alex Karpovsky (Hail, Caesar!), and Bruce Altman (Fifty Shades Freed) at least seize their opportunity to make some sort of impression with their limited screen time.

For an 87-minute movie, The Sound of Silence feels about twice that length.  It’s a bad example of a NYC-set indie that has people moping around in earth tones always speaking in ‘inside voices’ and desperately wanting to be taken seriously.  I’m fairly sure the filmmakers have made up Peter’s profession but the kernel of an idea they have isn’t a bad one, it’s just that it never grows into something that’s more interesting than it’s thirty second elevator pitch.  The characters aren’t interesting or worth investing in and the movie doesn’t end as much as it merely stops.  Kind of like this review.