Movie Review ~ Torn Hearts

The Facts:

Synopsis: A country music duo seeks out their idol and ends up in a twisted series of horrors that force them to confront the limits they’d go for their dreams.
Stars: Katey Sagal, Abby Quinn, Alexxis Lemire, Joshua Leonard, Shiloh Fernandez
Director: Brea Grant
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Horror is a genre that can be mighty deceiving to unsuspecting audiences, creating many unhappy campers that have selected their watch based on shaky marketing. Sure, the poster looks spooky and slick, but the film is a bottom-of-the-barrel cheap-o endeavor that barely rises above home movie footage. So, you must be smart and look at the studio releasing it. You can tell a lot from the production company that either puts their money into the movie as a financer or picks up the film after completion for distribution. Either way, they’re putting a stamp of approval on it that speaks to their brand.

Admittedly, Blumhouse Productions have a line of stinkers in their roster, and this is going to be a positive review of Torn Hearts, so I’m going to leave them out. Instead, let’s focus on the good ones that far outweigh the bad apples. Titles like Paranormal Activity, Get Out, Happy Death Day, The Purge, and the 2018 Halloween are their bread and butter, not to mention all their numerous sequels. While the pandemic slowed the pace of their production slightly, they had no trouble ramping back up quickly once cameras were rolling again. However, not all are meant for big-screen releases, and that’s where an intriguing effort like director Brea Grant’s Torn Hearts comes in. Debuting through Blumhouse Television and EPIX (as well as other pay-to-play sites like Amazon Prime), it mixes a dangerous cocktail of bold ambition, country music, and bloody brutality.

Nashville country duo Torn Hearts checks most of the boxes that signal they are ready to begin a long career in the business. Jordan (Abby Quinn, Little Women) is the songwriter and guitarist singing harmony along with Leigh (Alexxis Lemire, The Half of It), who tackles the melody while playing tambourine. Leigh is the more marketable of the two, and both know it, though they also recognize they are stronger working as a team than as solo artists. While Leigh is dating their manager (Joshua Leonard, Four Good Days), Jordan can’t stand to see her friend fall into that cliché trap. 

A chance introduction to country superstar Caleb (Shiloh Fernandez, The Evil Dead) hints at the possibility of opening for him on tour, but the women wind up with what they imagine to be a real jackpot. Caleb came close to recording a comeback single with the antisocial Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal, Pitch Perfect 2), half of a sister act that retreated from the public eye after Harper’s sister killed herself while she watched. Caleb gives Jordan Harper’s address, and before you know it, the women have skipped their early morning recording session for a quick jaunt to meet their idol. 

They find a nervy, finger-tapping recluse who resists meeting them at first but, after sizing them up, decides to hear them play. Seeing something in both women reminding her of what she once had with her sister, Harper invites the duo to stay and collaborate on a song…or so they think. Preying on both of their insecurities in increasingly manipulative and violently bizarre methods, Harper tests their strength as individuals to see if they have what it takes to remain unified or if their idea of fame is more focused on a solo spotlight.   

I feel that Torn Hearts might have still worked if it hadn’t had celebrated television star and former Bette Midler backup singer Sagal in a central role, but it absolutely would have lacked the bite Sagal brings. There’s a certain authenticity, especially in the limited singing Sagal is allowed to do, that makes you believe her unhinged character has the potential for enacting any mayhem she chooses. Sagal is working in The Zone, and it elevates the film from a random horror/thriller to a level of more sophistication. She’s supported nicely by Quinn’s acerbic Sara Gilbert in Roseanne-esque take on an alternative modern woman in country music. If Lemire winds up feeling a bit soft, it’s only due to writer Rachel Koller Croft designing her to be a bit of a limp noodle throughout. Besides, once Sagal enters the film around twenty minutes in, all you’ll be wanting is more more more of her.

Director Grant balances time between acting (so great in The Stylist and Lucky) and directing (12 Hour Shift) and clearly has a talent for this genre, especially for creating strong female protagonists (even if they are off their rockers) with a clear point of view. I appreciate that Blumhouse Television and EPIX is making room for filmmakers like Grant and Croft and giving roles to actresses like Sagal while expanding the careers of Quinn and Lemire. All have experience in the industry, but the extra exposure of a well-made release like Torn Hearts increases their value.

Movie Review ~ Four Good Days

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A mother helps her daughter work through four crucial days of recovery from substance abuse. 

Stars: Mila Kunis, Glenn Close, Stephen Root, Joshua Leonard, Rebecca Field, Chad Lindberg, Michael Hyatt, Sam Hennings 

Director: Rodrigo García 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 100 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review:  Bless her long-suffering Oscar-less heart but Glenn Close is a trooper, ain’t she?  An eight-time Academy Award nominee, Close has had the good fortune to land meaty roles in more than a few unforgettable classics and deservedly earned her polite accolades for her efforts.  What she hasn’t brought home yet is that one piece of golden hardware many think she’s toiled long enough for.  While she could have won it early on for her supporting work in The Big Chill or in a more daring choice like Fatal Attraction, she very nearly grazed the glory in 2017 with The Wife.  That film definitely wasn’t her best work but the general consensus was that she was good enough to make the honor not feel totally like a sympathy nod.  Then along comes Hillbilly Elegy and a less subtle role Close seemed to gnaw on hoping it would attract the right kind of attention.  Sadly, again it was not meant to be.

While Close continues to hold out hope of a Sunset Boulevard musical film adaptation (for real, get going on that Hollywood! Close will devour that role and give you the Oscar performance you’ve been wanting all along!), until that happens, we’ll have to settle for seeing her in smaller titles like Four Good Days, rolling into theaters this weekend.  An indie drama centered on drug addiction that could have gone so maudlin and wrong it winds up being a better showcase for Close than Hillbilly Elegy ever hoped to be.  Heck, she even gets to wear another slightly questionable wig and manages to pull it off.

Close stars in this adaptation of an article from the Washington Post penned by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eli Saslow.  Though it changes the names and location of that original piece, by and large it sticks fairly close to the true story of a heroin-addicted daughter (Mila Kunis, Bad Moms) who returns home to her mother (Close, Guardians of the Galaxy) seeking shelter where she can detox.  Having been on this ride before with her daughter (thirteen times, we later learn), Deb initially refuses to let Molly back into her life or into her home but after some convincing that Molly is serious about her choice, she drops her off at rehab and hopes this will be the stay that takes.

Coming out of detox, Molly is told about a treatment that would be able to combat the sensation of getting high, a shot given once a month but only if the person has no drugs currently in their system.  To be safe, the doctor wants her to wait another four days to let her last fix work its way out.  Needing a place to stay so she doesn’t relapse in that short time, Deb agrees to let her stay with her and and her new husband (Stephen Root, Bombshell) and mother and daughter spend the next several days reconnecting over past traumas and mending bridges both had a say in tearing down.

Those expecting Four Good Days to be one of those Lifetime Television Movies will be in for a nice surprise because Saslow and co-writer/director Rodrigo García’s script isn’t as one dimensional as it might appear to be.  Yes, it practically goes through a checklist of required items in these sort of films (parent doesn’t trust, parent learns to trust, parent gets burned, child feels bad, everyone cries, lessons are learned) and there’s enough motivational quotes to make a slew of school cafeteria posters, but there’s a deeper being worked through that’s far thornier.  In addition to showing us the outcome of years of addiction, García (Albert Nobbs) is also addressing issues of enablement and accountability and that’s what winds up setting Four Good Days apart from the crowd and giving its two leading actresses many opportunities to shine.

What has always been so depressing about Close not winning an Oscar all this time is that she easily was first runner up for a number of these races.  Her training and commitment to the work makes her an ideal actress to convey empathy we can relate to.  I wouldn’t call her character dowdy but Close clearly understands where this part-time esthetician chooses to direct her energy and so we feel every weight she carries around from her life so far.  I’ve always had a fondness for Kunis (another actress that nearly made it to the Oscars with her role in 2010’s Black Swan) and am glad to see her turn up so successful in a part that is saddled with a lot of extra business which might overtake someone unable to handle it all.  The hair, the gait, not to mention the teeth (oh, the teeth!), could have all been pieces Kunis used to do the work for her but she goes beyond those outward tools and finds Molly from within.  Watch for the moment when her two young children are visiting and she’s playing a video game with her son that gets heated.  There’s a moment shared between the two of them that could go either way and you hold your breath because you know what’s she’s feeling and how she wants to react…Kunis shows it all in the smallest flutter of her eyes and doesn’t have to say a word. 

Together, Close and Kunis are dynamite and, as I imagine it would be for their characters, it’s hard for anyone else to get between them.  Root’s role is reduced to pretty much a cameo and you’ll start to wonder if Close is still married because he vanishes for so long.  There’s a nice, but brief, scene between Deb and her other daughter (Carla Gallo, We Bought A Zoo) and the contrast between their relationship and the one she has with Molly is clearly defined by Saslow and García but not in a cloying way.  There’s a number of good supporting performances, actually, even down to Michael Hyatt (The Little Things) as a member of Deb’s support group for mothers of addicts.

Released by a small studio with little advance fanfare, Four Good Days is the type of film I wish Close would be championed for and encouraged to make more of.  Same goes for Kunis.  Close has more experience in this arena but the realism without heaps of sentimentality is a refreshing change of pace for family dramas centered on drug abuse.  Ending with a Diane Warren song (another Oscar nominee for a song from The Life Ahead that went home empty-handed this year) sung by Reba McIntire that’s pretty much in line with most Warren ballads of late, the entire movie exceeds expectations with both actresses making it absolutely worth a watch.

Movie Review ~ Bliss

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mind-bending love story following a recently unemployed divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who is convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is just a computer simulation.

Stars: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson, Madeline Zima, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Joshua Leonard, Ronny Chieng

Director: Mike Cahill

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There really is nothing more depressing than watching two good actors in a mediocre movie.  Not a bad movie, mind you, just a mediocre one.  There’s something to be said about the thrill of a classically trained actor sludging their way through a total turkey of a flick (remember the big screen version of The Avengers?  No, not that one…the one from 1998?) or a bad performance by an actor in a good movie (let’s just go the easy route and say Cameron Diaz in 2002’s Gangs of New York) but I get so uncomfortable watching usually dependable stars turn up in a film that goes nowhere.  I’d rather they fail spectacularly or succeed exuberantly…anything that coasts through the middle isn’t worth the effort – there’s just too much content to warrant mediocrity.

The latest example of this is Bliss, an exquisitely commonplace driller (drama/thriller) that shows the shine of promise early on but gets increasingly duller as time goes by.  Written and directed by popular indie filmmaker Mike Cahill and starring two actors that we don’t see nearly as often as we should, I went into Bliss with no expectations or knowledge of the premise.  This gave me the advantage of being totally at the mercy of Cahill’s storytelling capabilities and his acumen in the creation of a warped quasi-reality always being called into question.  It also let me fully take in the performances of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek without the trailer spoiling key moments of surprise along the way, which it rather rudely does.  The result is a watchable but frustrating bit of hokum that doesn’t sit well with both actors and gets laughably funny at times…for all the wrong reasons.

Holed up in his drab office at Technical Difficulties, Greg Whittle (Wilson, Inherent Vice) is ignoring phone calls from his boss demanding an important meeting, promising his daughter he’ll be there for her graduation ceremony, and spending the morning drawing pictures of a luxury villa he’s never been to and a strikingly beautiful woman he’s never seen.  He’s also run out of his prescription for an undisclosed medication just at the time he seems to need it most.  As he dashes off to a meeting with his boss he wades through a crowd of co-workers all on the phone droning “We’re sorry you’re having Technical Difficulties”, one of the few clever moments Cahill has going for him. The meeting with his boorish boss doesn’t go well…at all.  Hoping to avoid the fallout, he retreats to a bar across the street and meets Isabel Clemens (Hayek, Sausage Party) and it seems like she’s been waiting for him.

Recognizing a kindred soul when she sees one, Isabel brings Greg into her circle of confidence and tells him they are actually part of a computer simulation and nothing around them is real.  The buttoned-up Greg takes one look at the dreadlocked, un-showered, dusty Isabel and can’t make that equation add up in his head…so she’ll have to prove it to him.  That’s just what she does (or does she?) over the course of several days involving various crystals, long talks in shanty towns underneath highway overpasses, and several detours through a strange new world that might be the real reality or just another simulation they need to escape from.  Meanwhile, Greg’s daughter (Nesta Cooper) is looking for her father who has gone missing and clearly needs help.  Can Isabel help Greg back to his true reality or is she just another figurative piece of a puzzle Greg has been trying to assemble for years?

While I don’t write my thoughts down as I’m watching a movie to reference later (I’ve never found notes to be helpful, only confusing me as I try to figure out what I scribbled blindly in the dark) I’m wondering if I should start writing down a number at various intervals to see what I rank the movie at key points.  If I’d have done that with Bliss, I’m sure I would have given the film high marks for its first half hour because Cahill creates a nice sense of disorientation that keeps the viewer just off-balance enough to be intrigued but not confused which leads to frustration.  It’s not hard to dig under the metaphors of what Cahill is laying out nor is it difficult to “get” what is really going on so it becomes a bit mysterious why the film doesn’t understand that we already are aware of where its headed long before it reveals itself to us.  If it had, it could have excised several long (and silly) passages that wind up meaning nothing if you go back and think it over.

That’s the oddest thing about Bliss.  Tracking it back again in my mind so much of the movie becomes almost a pointless exercise that you start to resent the time you spent on it.  Had Cahill moved his film forward with the same kind of mystery and raw energy that was found in the first third of Bliss, he might have had something unique and buzzworthy.  Instead, it’s an overly emotional in theory but emotionless in receipt attempt at a mind meld that gets weaker the longer you turn it over in your fingers.  Add to that the somewhat ridiculous scientific jargon the actors have to say without laughing and you are in for a rough ride.  You haven’t truly begun 2021 until you’ve heard Hayek say “Brain Box” with the same serious conviction as one would say “Heart Transplant”.

Speaking of Hayek, while it’s nice to see her back onscreen (and in a few scenes looking like the glam fabulous trend-setter she is) she seems completely miscast in this role, though it’s an admirable attempt at stretching past the roles she’s played in the past.  She was such a scream in Like a Boss that I wish she’d play more out-there roles like that.  Isabel it out there too, but not in the way we want her to be.  I feel largely the same way about Wilson.  He begins the film as a slightly out of it dweeb that never seems to do anything right…and sort of stays that way for the rest of the movie.  There’s just no challenge or change present in the character so where’s the appeal?  I was far more invested in Cooper’s character and the journey she goes through to follow and find her missing dad, only to see that once again he’s fallen into a pit he can’t escape from.

What little happiness there is to be found in Bliss is that it’s short but even then Cahill’s film feels much longer than that.  A very odd detour halfway through the movie has been spoiled by the trailer and while I’m not going to give that away here in case you haven’t seen it, I will say that though it was a nice reprieve it felt like padding to a tale that was only meant to be a short episode of The Twilight Zone or another anthology project.  Find your bliss somewhere else.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

town_that_dreaded_sundown

Synopsis: 65 years after a masked serial killer terrorized the small town of Texarkana, the so-called ‘Moonlight Murders’ begin again. Is it a copycat or something even more sinister? A lonely high school girl with dark secrets of her own may be the key to catching him.

Release Date: October 16, 2014

Thoughts: I know, I know…another modern remake of a minor classic that will surely be gorier than the original, sacrificing mood for cheap thrills…ugh.  Right?  Still, there’s something about this one that has me wondering if a re-tooling wasn’t in order.  I only remember bits and pieces of the 1976 original but I do recall thinking it wasn’t anything to write to your horror pen pals about.  It does have that “We’re Going Retro” feeling to it and I’m a fan of a return to horror that’s less ‘torture porn’ and more ‘slow burn’ in the way it presents itself.  No doubt the film will feature copious amounts of flesh and blood but if it’s balanced with a strong narrative and decent acting it will all be worth it.  Bonus points for MGM resurrecting the Orion Pictures logo, something we haven’t seen for 15 years.