Movie Review ~ The Starling Girl


The Facts:

Synopsis: 17-year-old Jem Starling struggles with her place within her Christian fundamentalist community. But everything changes when her magnetic youth pastor Owen returns to their church.
Stars: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Kyle Secor, Claire Elizabeth Green, K.J. Baker, Jessamine Burgum, Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt, Ellie May, Austin Abrams, Chris Dinner, Paige Leigh Landers
Director: Laurel Parmet
Rated: R
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Over the last several years, there have been several documentaries and limited series across streaming services that have taken eager viewers behind the scenes into religious communities, unveiling practices that may seem foreign, strange, or wrong to an outsider. Removing the judgment that comes with a lack of understanding and putting aside some of the shock and awe meant to accompany these programs, I’ve appreciated getting these glimpses into a different way of finding a path forward in spirituality or family. 

One of those paths is through belonging to a church where the literal interpretation of the Bible is observed, like the one fictionalized in The Starling Girl. Correctly understanding and following God’s Word is the only way to your final reward, and those who stray are doomed to lead a cruel life after death.   It’s in this community of devoted faith that we meet Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women), a 17-year-old of good intentions who has reached a point in her adolescence where the world seems incredibly small when staring straight ahead at the mirror but also temptingly large if she glances over her shoulder at what might be waiting just out of reach. 

As she approaches her 18th birthday, her parents (Jimmi Simpson, Fool’s Paradise, and Wren Schmidt, Nope) are preparing for the courting tradition to begin, likely with preacher’s son Ben (Austin Abrams, Do Revenge), a strange boy Jem has no inclination toward. Ben’s older brother Owen (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick) has recently returned to town with his wife to continue his youth ministry and learn the ways of the church from his father. Drawn together through some indescribable pull, Owen and Jem are surprised at how the other has changed while Owen was away. They begin a flirtation (already considered taboo and not just because of their age-difference) before giving in to an illicit interaction that threatens to derail their lives and families. 

While ostensibly a work of fiction, it wouldn’t be hard to squint your eyes and see writer/director Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl being a dramatized version of a story that came out of one of these fundamentalist sects that operate along the Southwestern Bible belt. That’s partly where Parmet’s inspiration originated, with the filmmaker using her lived experiences and research within similar Christian communities. That authenticity in tone helps Parmet’s film through a few of the slower and more repetitive passages, bridging the gap between its fiery high points when you can’t look away even though you feel you should.

Aiding that pull is Scanlen’s immensely controlled work as Jem. As a coming-of-age story, The Starling Girl is already firing on all cylinders showing a young woman learning the hard way that first love isn’t without pain, but Scanlen’s deep well of feeling gives it an extra kick of grief. It’s tough in the final act when Jem faces an imbalance of consequences that will likely frustrate most viewers as much as it did me. Parmet manages to handle both sides of the agreement without ever coming down harshly on either, it’s clear something terrible has happened, but Parmet is not here to tell audiences about the inequalities that exist in the world.

While the film is often quietly riveting, it’s often just too quiet to gather much momentum for longer than a few scenes at a time. Scanlen is in nearly every scene of the movie, but she can’t be in multiple places at once, so it’s up to others to carry some of the burden. Pullman is a good partner for Scanlen, and the two have an electric chemistry that feels dangerous from the start. Richards also has a few solid passages as Jem’s devout mother, forced to make decisions based on faith instead of maternal instinct. Several supporting characters and side plots are trite, causing the film to go flat at critical junctures.

Likely to find more of an audience when it flies onto streaming/on demand, The Starling Girl is a respectable debut for Parmet as a writer/director. Teaming with cinematographer Brian Lannin (Somebody I Used to Know) for some gorgeous views of Kentucky at several gauzy moments, you can tell Parmet has a voice and a viewpoint we’ll get more of.  

THE STARLING GIRL will be exclusively in theaters

Movie Review ~ Silk Road


The Facts

Synopsis: The true story of Ross Ulbricht, the charismatic young tech-mastermind who unleashed the darknet website Silk Road, and the corrupt DEA agent determined to bring down his billion-dollar empire.

Stars: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Daniel David Stewart, Alexandra Shipp, Paul Walter Hauser, Jimmi Simpson, Lexi Rabe, Katie Aselton, Will Ropp, Jennifer Yun, Paul Blott

Director: Tiller Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: A handful of movies every year feel like some kind of oddball homework assignment you would have been given in school and been grateful for at the time but serves no purpose outside of a classroom teaching modern history.  You go into the movie knowing what the meaning of it all is and at least hoping to get some entertainment value out of it for the time you’re putting in.  Usually, there’s one of two performances to draw some memorable moments from or genuine unknown knowledge that can be pocketed as takeaway trivia for your next night with intellectuals as a way to impress them.  The wish and hope always is that it’s not just a bland rehash of the facts you could have quickly skimmed a magazine article about that’s been dramatized for effect.  

Released in February but totally blown down by review queue by accident, Silk Road is sadly one of those films that is never written into your memory at any point and therefore winds up being an eternal “Did I See That?” title you’ll likely watch the first ten minutes of repeatedly before realizing you’ve seen it before and turn it off.  Even writing a review some three months after seeing it I’m straining to remember some basic details so in a way it’s lucky writer/director Tiller Russell’s film isn’t creative in its storytelling and largely sticks to the order of events.  Adapting Rolling Stone columnist David Kushner 2014 article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall”, Russell’s only gutsy instinct is to give the film a bookended framework meant to create some suspense, though if you’ve ever watched a weekly procedural television show you know where it’s all headed.  And those are works of fiction. 

The film follows the rise of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, Shadow in the Cloud), a Texas native that initially started a book selling business online but eventually moved into the trafficking of illegal narcotics once his first endeavor failed.  Realizing he needed a stronger network to move his product, protect his customers, and safeguard his money, Ulbricht was a largely self-taught internet whiz that would up creating a piece of the dark web that traded in cryptocurrencies known as Silk Road.  Starting out small potatoes and winding up owning the whole crop, Ulbricht was the target of numerous government investigations both overt and behind the scenes as they searched for ways to prove his participation in Silk Road which began to attract all sorts of sordid business dealings. 

One person that became obsessed with tracking him down is DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, Pet Sematary), or, more to the point, Bowden serves as an amalgam of two different agents that tracked Ulbricht over the years.  Watching Clarke’s twitchy performance, it often feels like he’s playing two characters as well, with the actor never truly settling into the role and instead overcompensating for his discomfort by going big with everything he does.  Clarke is better than this and I honestly don’t know what he’s going for. Bowden comes across not just merely out of the loop on current tech matters but computer illiterate to the point of not knowing how to turn one on. The way Clarke pitches Bowden as on hair-trigger edge makes him feel like more of the villain of the piece than Ulbricht could ever be. 

Of course, Ulbricht is the villain and while Robinson has often been quite likable in previous roles he’s neither likable nor gives reason to root against him either.  We’re just indifferent to seeing another privileged white male float up the ranks in a origin story that feels similar in many ways to Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as portrayed in The Social Network.  Like that Oscar winning film, Ulbricht loses all of his friends and personal romantic relationships on his ascent but then realizes he likes it better being successful because he can replace people with more agreeable cronies.  The character is so aggravating that it goes beyond us not liking Ulbricht, the smarminess in Ulbricht and within Bowden makes the entire watch just drag on endlessly. 

If the low spot of the film is Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) as an early Ulbricht recruit (can I just ask something? What in the world is Hauser doing with his career that was only going up?  Performances like this, which feature him once again playing a slovenly male, support a stereotype he needs to avoid) then the bright spot is Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Dark Phoenix). Playing Ulbricht’s girlfriend, she sticks around as long as she can until she becomes excess baggage that needs to be jettisoned along with other non-essential items.  Shipp understands how to make an impression with limited screen time and I wished we had more time with her. 

A trip down the Silk Road is not a journey you’d have to make.  Instead, why not read the well-researched Kushner article right here and get the facts yourself.  It’s just like watching the movie anyway.  I had honestly expected something better from Russell having just come off of watching his fantastic (and fantastically creepy) Netflix miniseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.  While it does have some nice touches visually, dramatically this one doesn’t even make it out of the driveway. 

Movie Review ~ Unhinged


The Facts

Synopsis: After a confrontation with an unstable man at an intersection, a woman becomes the target of his rage.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie

Director: Derrick Borte

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  They tried, bless their money grubbing hearts, but they tried.  Studios that had big summer plans with franchise films set to open since the beginning of April have desperately adjusted their schedules to see if their movies could possibly debut and bring in some dough.  Disney kept pushing their live-action Mulan back before finally announcing it would debut in most countries on their streaming service for a $30 rental fee, Universal moved both their newest Fast and Furious flick and October’s Halloween sequel to 2021, and hard-nosed Warner Brothers continues to deny science and nudged Christopher Nolan’s Tenet back a week at a time before picking a date in September and (as of now) sticking with it.

Who could have ever predicted that the first new film arriving in theaters to welcome back brave audiences would be Unhinged from Solstice Studios, a fledgling company soldiering forward with its initial release in a country still taking stock of a massive virus crisis?  And what a welcome back it is.  Movie-goers that have been busying themselves on repeated viewings of nostalgic classics, binging on television shows, and trying out the latest offering from the well-stocked on demand sector are in for a rude howdy-do courtesy of Russell Crowe’s garish road-rage thriller.  It’s tense as all get-out and slick as can be but it’s also so nasty and mean-spirited you’ll wish you had watched it home so you can shower after to wash its palpable grime off after.

A grim prologue finds Crowe’s Tom Cooper already hopping over the line of bad judgment, leading into a current events credits sequence that might just send you hunting for your last Xanax.  Before we see Tom again, we’re introduced to Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines) a young mother going through a divorce and teetering on the edge of barely getting by.  Her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman, 2019’s Child’s Play) and live-in brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) are all too happy to point out her shortcomings but not so into helping out with solutions to her crumbling business or relationship.  Only her lawyer friend Andy (Jimmi Simpson, White House Down) seems to be actively looking out for her best interest.  Everyone else wants something from her or needs her to make good on promises she can’t always keep.

She’s near the end of a short fuse when she finds herself behind a truck at an intersection while already running late to drop her son off at school.  When the truck doesn’t move at the green light she lays on her horn once…then twice…then swerves around only to find herself in bumper to bumper traffic going the other direction, more than enough opportunity for the truck (and the man within) to catch up with her.  Re-enter, you guessed it, Tom Cooper who demands an apology which Rachel isn’t eager to give.  When strained niceties turn to aggressive threats, Rachel finds herself and her loved ones at the epicenter of Cooper’s dangerous psychotic rage.

What’s good about a film like Unhinged is that it perks up someone like me who has been missing those fun B-movie thrillers of the 90s.  After all, it wouldn’t be very sporting of me to drone on in my reviews about the death knell of those mid-budgeted suspense yarns and then kick to the curb the literal first one out of the gate when theaters have reopened.  All the same, there’s such an inherent meanness to Carl Ellsworth’s original screenplay that I have to say what started off as a nail-biting tale fueled by impending dread gives way to something far less well-intentioned.  When Cooper becomes an unstoppable monster hell bent on destroying Rachel’s life with his bare bloody hands in the most grievous ways possible, Unhinged becomes an upsetting and increasingly uncomfortable watch.  Is this supposed to be the kind of entertainment we have been clamoring for?

It would be easy to argue that the violence Cooper inflicts is no less gratuitous than your standard Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers sequel but there’s a clear distinction between those fantasy world characters and this film that’s set squarely in our realistic modern times.  It’s as if Ellsworth’s created a cypher for some kind of anger he feels toward society and uses it as a battering ram against anything that gets in the way.  Countless innocent lives are lost in the film, some for no other reason than they may be annoying in a way our judgmental culture has deemed them to be.  You also can’t skirt the fact that while Cooper is indeed a psychopath, Rachel is given multiple opportunities at the outset to put a pin in their traffic scuffle but refuses to do so…which propels Cooper to pounce on his murder quest.

It almost feels too easy to say Crowe (The Water Diviner) is perfectly cast in the role of an off-his-rocker nutjob but…he is.  Wearing a faux fat belly so fake looking I swear I saw the square edges when he turned from side to side, Crowe plays the role like a white privileged slob of an American.  I’m shocked he didn’t throw a Trump/Pence bumper sticker on the truck to complete the picture, but you can’t alienate your audience in the south or date yourself too much, ya know?  Anyway, Crowe is menacing enough and blusters his way through the 90-minute movie with an apt presence but little in the way of any character coloring.  Some blanks are filled in, but Cooper is mostly a mystery…which is probably the point.  As the object of his abject hate, Pistorius makes the most out of a role written to be a train wreck at the beginning and a full-on ten-car pile-up by the end.  At some point, you start to think her character must not know how to dial 911 because it takes her forever to make that call.  The rest of the cast is barely worth mentioning, though I’d like to state for the record Bateman looks and acts like another younger brother to Pistorius rather than her son.

I’ll be quite interested to see how audiences respond to Unhinged in this first weekend of screenings back and also how theaters in turn deal with new crowds at their theaters.  If there’s one thing to be thankful for, it’s that Unhinged is being marketed in a way that should keep families staying home and avoiding the temptation to haul young children out to see this terror-filled picture.  With this pandemic still an active concern, it’s not worth the risk of venturing into the theaters yet and Unhinged is absolutely not the one to take the chance on it with.