Movie Review ~ The Marsh King’s Daughter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman with a secret past will venture into the wilderness she left behind to confront the most dangerous man she’s ever met: her father.
Stars: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, Gil Birmingham
Director: Neil Burger
Rated: R
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: At first glance, The Marsh King’s Daughter looks like a movie that should receive a wider release as we make the curve out of the early fall season into more wintery watch weather. It’s coming from a mid-sized studio (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions), a director with a respectable list of credits to his name (Neil Burger, Voyagers, Divergent), and a cast that, while not fully A-list, at least has developed a reputation for delivering quality performances. It’s also based on a widely praised international bestseller from 2017 which remains a popular read today.

Ah, but then you get a look at Burger’s film, adapted from Karen Dionne’s novel, and you begin to understand why it’s taken so long to get the movie out of development hell and into theaters for a limited release in the first place. Initially set to begin filming in 2019 with Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander in the title role, production stalled out and soon lost its star and director (The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum) before getting started again two years ago with Burger taking over directing with Daisy Ridley assuming leading lady responsibilities. Who knows what the Tyldum/Vikander version would have looked like or if it could have been any better, but as it stands now, The Marsh King’s Daughter is a soggy slog of a suspense drama.

I’m unsure where to draw the line on spoilers for the framework of Dionne’s mystery, so I’ll start by saying there’s an evident familiarity with what’s happening at the film’s beginning. Young Helena (Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project) lives a secluded life off the grid with her parents and is devoted to her father (Ben Mendelsohn, To Catch a Killer). This survivalist has been raising his daughter to fend for herself without emotion. Helena’s mother (Caren Pistorius, Unhinged) isn’t on the same page and is often excluded from the daddy/daughter exploits in the wilderness. A twist is revealed that separates the father from the two, and the film jumps ahead to an adult Helena (Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), now a mother with a family of her own.

Having put her time with her father behind her, when she receives news that he is likely coming back to look for her, memories of the past are drudged up. These memories provide greater context to the life she thought she was leading as a child and paint a different picture of the man she idolized and now fears. To protect her daughter and loved ones (including a totally wasted Garrett Hedlund, The United States vs. Billie Holiday), she’ll put the skills she was taught, that she never forgot, to the ultimate test as she comes face to face with the man who gave her everything she knows…and can anticipate her next move.

The first hour of The Marsh King’s Daughter is a snoozefest, a real languid exercise in a silly narrative construct that builds up this house of cards we can see will be knocked over by a Dramatic Turn of Events. Burger, who has displayed a verve for movies that have a simmering underlying energy, is off the mark on this outing, giving viewers nothing to build any dramatic weight off of. It’s only when Helena leaves the safety of her new life and ventures back to the one she left behind that the movie takes off, but by then, even intense work from Ridley and Mendelsohn can’t drag the proceedings back to solid ground.

Ultimately, I feel The Marsh King’s Daughter made for a good read but would never make anything other than an inert movie. Though screenwriters Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) and Elle Smith punch things up for the finale, that opening hour is so slow and uneventful you wonder what could have been done to save it. Even the production design feels barebones, though there are some nice cinematographic flourishes from Alwin H. Küchler along the way. If you are a fan of the book and want to see how the characters on the page look in motion, check this out. For all others, there are better places to travel than this buggy boggy Marsh.

Movie Review ~ Hunt (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a high-ranking North Korean official requests asylum, KCIA Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho and Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do are tasked with uncovering a North Korean spy deeply embedded within their agency. When the spy begins leaking top secret intel that could jeopardize national security, the two units are each assigned to investigate each other.
Stars: Lee Jung Jae, Jeon Hye Jin, Heo Sung Tae, Go Youn Jung, Kim Jong Soo, Jung Man Sik, Jung Woo-Sung
Director: Lee Jung Jae
Rated: R
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
ReviewHunt is a complex spy thriller that runs over two hours but took me almost twice as long to finish. Why? I had to go back and watch long stretches of it more than once because the screenplay by director/star Lee Jung-Jae is a tricky knot to unravel. Usually, this would be a ball of string I would happily follow up with and stick with until I’d untangled it. However, at a certain point in Hunt, I realized it was making no effort to engage with the viewer. That’s when it all felt like a pointless exercise in running behind a locomotive that sold me a ticket but never intended to let me ride.

A long-gestating project for Lee, it’s the age-old tale of two men competing to ferret out a mole within their institution. Of course, they both suspect the other, and we spend much of the film flip-flopping our allegiance between them. If Hunt were simply this story, it might have been seen as another standard entry into the espionage genre…but it would have maintained a biting crackle that gets snuffed out the moment historical Korean politics gets layered in. 

For American audiences unfamiliar with the history of the military dictatorship that existed in Korea during the 1980s, Hunt will likely be a frustrating journey through a truncated timeline only partially explained.   This is due to the balancing of the thriller element, and because, after the rough showing the film had in Cannes, the filmmakers returned and re-edited the film to make it easier to understand. The result of that tinkering weakens everything because now the focus is quite prominently on a chronicling of events for our education instead of our entertainment.    

Rising to international acclaim with his role in overnight sensation Squid Game, Lee was already an established star in South Korea, but Hunt serves as his feature film debut for most of the audiences that took to him on the popular Netflix show. Admittedly, I haven’t made my way to that streaming phenomenon, but I have witnessed the acclaim lauded on the actor. While his passion for the material is evident from a filmmaking perspective, his performance is stiff and unconvincing. 

Between Hunt and Decision to Leave, my ordinarily strong feelings toward South Korean cinema took a significant hit in 2022. I appreciate what Lee was going for and recognize compromises were made to bring this movie to U.S. shores, but sometimes you have to let a film stand on its own and allow the viewers to embrace it or not. When you cast the net wide so clumsily, there’s nothing to grab onto.

Movie Review ~ You Are Not My Mother

The Facts:

Synopsis: Char’s mother goes missing in a North Dublin housing estate. When she returns, Char is determined to uncover the truth of her disappearance and unearth her family’s dark secrets.
Stars: Hazel Doupe, Paul Reid, Carolyn Bracken, Ingrid Craigie, Jade Jordan, Jordanne Jones, Katie White, Aoife Spratt
Director: Kate Dolan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: If you’re a fan of horror like me and struggle to find something new to view, you’ve probably done something like what I try now and then.  You’ll search “Best Horror films on <insert streaming service> right now” and see what luck you have.  Between some obvious choices of mainstream fare making their debut on your service of choice, there’s always an unknown title that turns out to be a hidden gem.  The internet may be a cesspool at times, but this is a case when it is good for something.

This new Irish horror film from director Kate Dolan is one that I’m pretty sure will become part of this list once enough people get a chance to see it.  The title alone, You Are Not My Mother, has a lot of eye-catching heft to it, and, as it turns out, so does Dolan’s effective screenplay and creepy production.  Dolan gives her audience a nimble and rewarding ride by bringing you in with what you think are tropes associated with the straightforward family dynamic drama and then changing sharply into the richly detailed mythology of folk horror.  Local flavor in the performances elevates the picture further, making it an authentically felt experience.

Teenager Char (Hazel Doupe, The Shadow of Violence) is used the stares from the townspeople in her small Irish village.  After all, she’s the child of Angela (Carolyn Bracken), who is known for her mental health struggles over the years.  Bearing a visible scar on her face from one of her mother’s episodes, Char is mainly friendless and tries to make it through the day without attracting the attention of neighborhood bullies Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) and Kelly (Katie White).  Living with her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) eases some of the tension because she’s experienced with keeping an eye on Angela. Still, even Rita can’t explain where Angela has disappeared to now.  Unable to find her mother for days, there’s little anyone in the town can (or wants) to do to find her.

When Angela does return, something is different, and Char sees it right away.  The darkness that plagued her has lightened, the willingness to be involved is finally there, and the mother she wanted has returned.  Yet, this strange about-face doesn’t seem entirely correct, and a late-night peek between a door jam reveals to Char why she should be afraid of Angela…and what evil she has brought back with her.  As her mother tries to draw her nearer and bullies circle her like vultures, Char needs to rely on inner strength to battle her growing demons.

Dolan directs her first feature after spearheading several shorts over time. The result is a confident debut that draws out uniformly good performances, especially from Doupe and Jones as Char’s nemesis that, like all bullies, has more to her than meets the eye.  Giving these characters more personality and depth than usual helps create a real-world space for this horror to invade and more reason for audiences to invest time in wanting them to survive.  Despite some iffy special effects near the end, all of the playing field Dolan is working with in You Are Not My Mother has a ring of truth to it, so you can feel that chill up your spine just as much as the characters do.  This solid effort is one to watch for and not scroll by so easily.

Movie Review ~ The Burning Sea

The Facts:

Synopsis:  An oil platform dramatically goes down on the Norwegian coast, and researchers try to find out what happened when they realize this is just the start of something even more serious.
Stars: Kristine Kujath Thorp, Rolf Kristian Larsen, Anders Baasmo, Bjørn Floberg, Anneke von der Lippe
Director: John Andreas Andersen
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  For a while, Hollywood seemed to be getting the hang of the disaster film. Going back to the grandparents of the genre, The Poseidon Adventure in 1972 and 1974’s The Towering Inferno, there’s been a push-pull in the effort to balance dramatic situations with the large-scale action set pieces that get audiences to buy a ticket. The movie can’t be all special effects, so those interstitial scenes have to count for something. Otherwise, you’re just watching characters you don’t have any feelings for getting rocked by an earthquake, consumed by lava from an exploding volcano, or swept out to sea by a tsunami ripping through a seaside town. Reaching its apex in the early ’80s and then remerging when CGI was all the rage, these films are cycling back into favor, but Hollywood hasn’t quite landed on the right formula to make them as exciting as they were before. I mean, Moonfall was not a great movie, but it had its moments.

At least our friends overseas are happily still finding ways to destroy things at the same pace as ever before. The difference between them and us is that the dramatics come more naturally to our foreign friends, and it’s why their films are often a real thrill because, by the time the Big Event takes place, you can easily track the characters you want to see survive. That’s what drives the new Norwegian disaster on the ocean film The Burning Sea into a higher gear than others of its ilk, allowing screenwriters Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Lars Gudmestad to use the real-world situations as a framework and only marginally coloring outside the lines into the outlandish to create intense suspense.

A brief history of the oil business in the North Sea nestled close to Norway opens the film, showing the benign beginnings of what eventually becomes an environmental concern and danger to the men and women working on the rigs stationed miles offshore. William Lie (Bjørn Floberg, Kingsman: The Secret Service) started his career as one of those workers and has seen it all, making him a good representative of the blue-collar worker. As an executive at the oil company, he’s more aware of the bottom line than ever before; so when the unthinkable happens, and a huge platform rig collapses and sinks, trapping crew members on board, he’s forced into making decisions on saving lives or saving money.

Attempting to work his options, he calls in Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen), local experts specializing in robotic submersibles that can go to extreme depths and report back any signs of life. Familiar with the risks taken not only because of the job but her relationship with a single father (Henrik Bjelland) working on a rig further down the line, Sofia can help the company get the answers, but not without raising more questions on future drilling in the area. All signals point to imminent dangers for the rest of the crews still out at sea, and when Sofia and Arthur’s theory proves correct, Sofia’s new love is placed on a deadly path with no outside means of help. Now they’ll need to work together to save the man before the government is forced into making a desperate decision that’s bigger than just their lives.

Building off the surprise success of 2015’s The Wave and its 2018 sequel The Quake, writers Rosenløw-Eeg and Gudmestad don’t let the pace of The Burning Sea (titled Nordsjøen in its home country) slack for a moment, even in land-based scenes. The decisions going on behind closed doors have equal amounts of tension, and with the eerie similarities to other natural disasters involving oil spills over the last four decades, it’s not hard to picture this fictional scenario in the realm of future possibility. The special effects that create the visual of this spectacle go a long way in the convincing as well. It’s not often you see the ocean cave in and swallow ships and other seemingly immovable objects from the surface into its abyss.

The performances often take a back seat to the action and effects in these films, but director John Andreas Andersen gets a stoic realism from his cast that never strays into mawkish dramatics. It could have quickly gone the other way, too. With the eyes of a fawn, the son of Sofia’s new boyfriend gets the closest to tipping the film into oversentimentality when everything seems to be at its bleakest, right around the time the government decides to set the oil slick on fire to prevent it from spreading inland. The rest of the cast valiantly rallies against having their “noble hero” moment, though the inevitable sacrifice for the life of another is eventually made.

It’s entirely possible audiences will find The Burning Sea and not know until it starts that it’s a foreign film, and I hope they keep with it. That’s how I found The Wave and while that one had its famously awful English dub to contend with, make sure to watch this one in its original language to get the full effect and for the beauty of the speech. More than your average disaster of the week extravaganza, The Burning Sea has a fiery intensity to its production and truth in its corner to offer viewers a rare voyage of genuine excitement.

The Silver Bullet ~ Honeymoon


Synopsis: Young newlyweds struggle as their honeymoon spirals mysteriously into chaos.

Release Date: September 12, 2014

Thoughts: This low budget indie out of England probably won’t play in many theaters around the country and your best bet will be to catch this OnDemand or when it arrives at Redbox/Netflix.  I can’t vouch for how good this Honeymoon will be, but the makings are there for a tidy bundle of scares in the woods for our nubile couple hoping to celebrate their nuptials in seclusion.  I’m digging the poster and the early footage seen in the trailer and as a lover of these types of horror films, I’m hoping to love, honor, and obey this one in sickness and in health.

The Silver Bullet ~ Stage Fright (2014)


Synopsis: A snobby musical theater camp is terrorized by a blood-thirsty killer who hates musical theater.

Release Date:  April 3, 2014

Thoughts: I’ve no illusions that Stage Fright will be anything more than a diversion of sorts from the recent patch of franchise horror films that Hollywood churns out at peak times each year.  Yet I can’t help but find that I enjoy this trailer for the slasher musical quite a lot, mostly because it’s clearly lampooning several different genres at once…walking the tightrope between taking itself too seriously and treading into Naked Gun-ny territory.  Clearly inspired by the Scream series and probably the minor cult hit Camp, Stage Fright could be the perfect treat for the musical theater nerd that loves horror films or the horror aficionado that doesn’t mind occasionally blasting a Sondheim tune.

The Silver Bullet ~ Big Bad Wolves


Synopsis: A series of brutal murders puts the lives of three men on a collision course

Release Date:  January 17, 2014 (limited)

Thoughts: You’d be forgiven if this preview for a gritty Israeli thriller reminds you a tad of the intense 2013 US film Prisoners (so good it made my Best of 2013 list) because the plot is eerily similar: an ordinary father and a dedicated cop are drawn to the dark side when investigating a horrendous crime against children.  Though Prisoners left little the imagination (but did it with some class), it looks a bit like Big Bad Wolves may take it a step further though I hope the same kind of restraint is exhibited by the filmmakers.  With a superlative endorsement from Quentin Tarantino, Big Bad Wolves could be a nifty breath of nasty crime drama air for audiences.

Movie Review ~ Europa Report



The Facts:

Synopsis: An international crew of astronauts undertakes a privately funded mission to search for life on Jupiter’s fourth largest moon.

Stars: Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca

Director: Sebastian Cordero

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For all the big budget sturm und drang blockbusters coming out of Hollywood nowadays, it’s nice to be reminded that good films can still be made on smaller budgets.  Now, we all know that an indie comedy or drama could be produced for next to nothing but what about a science fiction film taking place in a galaxy far from earth?

That’s the first question I had when I saw the preview for Europa Report, director Sebastian Cordero’s thoughtfully meditative sci-fi morsel, back in early 2013.  I’d recently come off of a run of impressive space set features (like the exquisitely designed and audience dividing Alien prequel Prometheus) so even though my interest was piqued my eyebrow was raised in a most questioning manner.

Ten minutes into the film and I knew Cordero had a winner on his hands, a film with the dramatic thrust of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the hidden unknown of The Abyss, and the threat of danger of the aforementioned Prometheus.  Though small in scope the film is an impressive achievement considering the budget was less than 10 million dollars, didn’t boast any big name stars, and was released during the busy summer months when films like Iron Man 3 and Fast & Furious 6 were ruling the charts.

The set-up is mostly hum-drum with a crew of six traveling to a moon of Jupiter to investigate any signs of life.  As these missions often go, the crew encounters as many troubles getting there as they do when they arrive including damaged equipment, sensory deprivation, in-fighting, and arguing over who drank the last serving of Tang (OK, that last one doesn’t happen but I can’t imagine after a year in space something similar wouldn’t occur).

What makes the film come to life is how Cordero works with his resources to make his movie not just another C-grade space set adventure.  There’s a consideration for savvy moviegoers who don’t necessarily want their sci-fi with lasers and slimy slimeballs but would appreciate an esoteric space journey that has mysteries of its own.  Revealing more would damage the impact so let’s just say not everyone onboard gets a chance to marvel at Jupiter’s vistas with their colleagues.

A gathering of international actors like Sharlto Copley (Open Grave, Elysium), Michael Nyqvist (Disconnect, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), Embeth Davidtz (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Amazing Spider-Man), and others gives the film a believably United Nations feel with each actor making the most out of their finely drawn characterizations.

When it starts to deal less with the unknown and more of the known the film loses a bit of its built up steam but the majority of its trim 90 minutes keeps you invested in the mission and the fates of the crew.  The production design is rich, whether the audience is watching the actors on earth, in their shuttle, or venturing out into the black darkness and it’s compounded nicely by just right special effects from several VFX studios (Phosphene, Method Studios, Look Effects, Perception, Quadratic Digital).

This is a film with a brain and one that may turn off those looking for a more action-packed outer space adventure (for that, make sure to see Gravity in 3D) instead of a smaller, slower-paced film that takes its time arriving at the final destination.

After a small release in theaters and OnDemand, Europa Report is available on most streaming services.  It’s one you’ll want to add to your queue if you like your sci-fi without a bunch of spiny aliens gnashing their gooey teeth at Sigourney Weaver (which, incidentally, I’m always a fan of).

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The Silver Bullet ~ Grand Piano


Synopsis: Moments before his comeback performance, a concert pianist who suffers from stage fright discovers a deadly note written on his music sheet.

Release Date:  March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Taking more than a few choice notes from the likes of Hitchcock and De Palma (Passion), I’m hoping that Grand Piano is better than it looks.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a taut thriller set in a confined space where our lead had to figure out a way to escape death without tipping off the killer but I’m not sure if Elijah Wood has that everyman quality that made Cary Grant and James Stewart so appealing.  The trailer also makes the mistake of giving away the identity of protagonist which could be a risky move if there are no more surprises in store.  Arriving On Demand before a theatrical release, this is one that may go down easier from the comfort of your own couch.

The Silver Bullet ~ Best Night Ever


Synopsis: A group of women go on a life changing adventure.

Release Date: January 31, 2014

Thoughts: I’m sure I’ve seen this movie before.  It was The Hangover (or The Hangover Part III), right?  Or was it Bachelorette?  Wait!  It was Spring Breakers.  Oh…it’s actually a new movie?  Hmmm.  Ok.  Though it’s billed as coming from the producers behind Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Conjuring this is supposedly a comedy but the laughs are scant in this first look at the low-budget Girls Gone Wild in Vegas exercise in Jackass-y taste.  At least one of the producers of this film knows how to market the hell out of his projects so he’ll  have his work cut out for him because based on the trailer it’s going to be a tough sell.