Movie Review ~ Little Joe

The Facts:

Synopsis: A plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and finds her newest creation blossoming into something sinister.

Stars: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Phénix Brossard, Leanne Best, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Jessica Hausner

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Though I was a pretty good gardener when I was growing up, try as I might I just cannot keep a plant alive in my apartment.  Perhaps it’s because we don’t have control over the heat and being on the top floor it tends to rise, making our place nice and toasty during the winter but a steam box during the summer.  Normally, this would be good for plant growing but the Midwest greens that I’ve been trying to keep alive these past years have just not taken to any kind of tending I’ve tried.  I swear they should put up a warning sign about me at my local flower shop, barring any future plant sales.

Watching a movie like Little Joe, it makes me glad my green thumb has turned a rosy shade of pink.  This paranoid sci-fi yarn is a neat little corker that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year and walked away with a major prize.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or (that went to the excellent Parasite) but did manage to snag Best Actress for its star Emily Beecham.  I saw Little Joe without knowing the breadth of its Cannes reach and, in a way, I’m happy I did because I was able to judge the movie and the performance on my own without having that “awards prestige” applying undue influence.

Single mother Alice (Beecham, Hail, Caesar!) has a job as a high-tech botanist working to create a new species of plant designed to induce happiness in all that come in close contact.  Her company is pushing their scientific groups to meet a deadline so they can introduce their line of flora at a convention that’s rapidly approaching.  With a competitive edge developing between the plant breeders, Alice and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) may have used some questionable methods in their sequencing but with the results so positive, what’s the harm?  Dubbing their flower Little Joe after Alice’s son (Kit Connor, Rocketman), the cherry-red flower is indeed alluring and has a strange affect on those that spend an extended amount of time with it.

When Alice breaks protocol and brings a Little Joe home to give to her son, she notices changes in the relationship they used to share.  What was once an open and friendly bond has now turned secretive and harsh, with Joe spending more time with friends he introduces to Little Joe and excluding Alice from his conversations.  At the same time, a co-worker of Alice’s (Kerry Fox, The Dressmaker) starts to put together that the plant is the cause of shifts in personalities, first in the devoted dog she brings into the laboratory and then in the people she works with daily.  Unable to see the connection on the outset, Alice brings her initial fears about Joe’s behavior to her therapist (a serene Lindsay Duncan, About Time) who suggests the paranoia may be linked to a past event Alice has tried to put behind her.  The longer Alice waits to take action, though, the less people she’ll have to trust because Little Joe has a secret…and perhaps even a plan to keep anyone quiet who threatens to expose its endgame.

I can say Little Joe reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and it not be too much of a spoiler, because it’s not that kind of a movie.  This isn’t that same type of alien horror film but something manufactured by humans that just happens to bite back.  Director Jessica Hausner co-wrote the script with Géraldine Bajard and she’s definitely on to something with her tale of mass-produced happiness that turns deadly. You can easily draw lines between the flower and modern technology.  Could be a stretch but sub out Little Joe for a cell phone or any other kind of tech gadget and see if that doesn’t fall in line with the feeling of exclusion Alice falls into when her son and co-workers turn their backs on her.

If only Hausner had found a way to round out the movie with something a little more interesting.  I kept waiting for the film to take a left turn and get out of the sane lane but it seemed stubbornly stuck in its course forward and that’s disappointing.  Right up until the end, I was almost begging for something other than what was happening to happen just so I could give the movie a higher final score – there just had to be some other way to put a button on this story than what was presented here.  It’s a fault in storytelling that became a flat note to end what was otherwise a strong showing.

That’s especially sad because Beecham is so very good as the increasingly addled Alice.  When the film begins she’s cool as a cucumber, with her Dorothy Hamill haircut and slightly out of date clothing.  (Though the movie is ostensibly set in modern times it looks to the ‘80s and late ‘70s for style inspirations)  Giving strong Nicole Kidman vibes, Beecham earns that Best Actress award from the Cannes jury by metering out her unraveling in small ways and never giving over to the huffy puffy hysteria the situation might bring other actresses to.  Instead, her reactions are muted shock and an almost instant realization of her part in the problem at hand, never being able to fully absolve herself of what she did to bring about the events of what transpire.  Which, come to think of it, may inform the ending that I so desperately didn’t like.  In supporting roles, Whishaw is nebbishly fine pining for Alice but it’s Fox who steals the show as an already tightly wound woman who has her coils curled further when she becomes the only voice of reason.

Worth seeing on the big screen if only to see the glorious cinematography from Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) of all those dramatic crimson petals set against the sterile confines of a lab setting, Little Joe blooms early but wilts under pressure of an ending that’s too pat.  I wonder if Hausner had anything else in mind to bring the movie to a close of if this is what she planned all along, it’s hard to imagine a concept so slow burning for 95 minutes would just throw in the towel so easily in the last ten minutes.  Still, I would recommend this based on those 95 minutes because they’re well done.  It’s a perfect selection for those that miss the paranoid thrillers so popular in the ‘70s and audiences that appreciate their sci-fi horror on the reserved side.

Movie Review ~ Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The sensational true story of The National Enquirer, the infamous tabloid with a prescient grasp of its readers’ darkest curiosities.

Director: Mark Landsman

Rated: NR

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Several times a week, I have something I do called “visiting my sites” and I have to confess they are indeed internet websites that specialize in celebrity/entertainment gossip.  Yes, I understand I’m actively feeding a gross beast that enables a bunch of pervy photographers and annoying average citizens to become pseudo-newsmakers but part of me just enjoys the mindless detox these precious moments give me.  I put little to-no-stock in what is being reported and truth be told I’m much more interested in the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of Hollywood business than actual personalities but still, a juicy tidbit is a juicy tidbit nonetheless.

What I’ve never been that into, though, are the so-called ‘rag mags’ that proliferated in supermarkets throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, mostly because I was too young to care much about them at that time.  I was a casual consumer of these tawdry tabloids that spoke of the latest celebrity love child or whatever soap star was a critical overeater, not to mention the more far out paps that told of botched plastic surgeries or bat boys born in Borneo.  I never took them too seriously and it struck me odd that anyone would believe something so patently false and I definitely wouldn’t have thought in a million years there was any kind of serious journalism that was involved with these publications.

The granddaddy of all supermarket sensationalist reading, The National Enquirer, was often that last great impulse buy you succumbed to in the checkout lane and tossed in with your groceries.  The new documentary, Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer sheds light onto the inner workings of one of the all-time famous tabloids, and it’s an informative look at its creation, the people that helped sustain it during its rise, and what exacerbated its decline.  Though candid interviews with former staff, director Mark Landsman takes audiences on a step-by-step walk through the history of how a paper that started as a local publication for New York readers became a nationally distributed water-cooler discussion fodder that was read and talked about around the world.

What began in 1926 as The New York Evening Enquirer was bought by Generoso Pope Jr., the son of a famous Italian newspaper magnate in 1952 and originally run as a salacious gross out mag featuring pictures of murders, sex, and death. (A warning.  Though unrated, early in the film is a montage of pictures that are fairly grotesque and disturbing).  Though circulation kept rising, it was when Pope wanted to expand into the growing suburban grocery market that he realized he had to tone down his content and center his magazine more on celebrities to appeal to housewives.  Hiring a staff of ruthless journalists and giving them a healthy spending budget allowed this eager staff to go anywhere in the world to get a good story and pretty soon The National Enquirer gained a well-earned reputation for its lack of scruples.

Looking back on some of their work now, not many of the writers interviewed seem all that phased by the work they did because at the end of the day they were doing their job and often reporting the truth…as ugly as it may have been.  Where celebrities were concerned, they took the stance (as many do) that once you are a celebrity there are certain privacies you give up in exchange for a life of fame and fortune.  Landsman recounts Pope killing a story of Bob Hope’s extramarital affairs in exchange for one on one interviews with the entertainer in future magazines.  There’s also an unpleasant section where the editors were exposed as having actively assisted in protecting the likes of Bill Cosby and Arnold Schwarzenegger when stories of their womanizing were growing while the stars were at the height of their popularity.

Where the film starts to reach an interesting peak/point is when it begins to center on the rise of Donald Trump and how he formed a symbiotic relationship early on with The National Enquirer.  Often calling the magazine to give tips about his own life, the future President seemed to have some kind of special relationship with key executives and to watch evidence of this play out in clips is interesting to say the least.  It’s clear Trump recognized the power of this “fake news” paper and used it to his advantage, whether The National Enquirer was aware of it fully at the time or not.

Fast moving and edited with precision, Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer keeps things interesting by never staying in one place for too long.  I wasn’t aware of just how many stories the paper provided some key bit of information about that went on to assist in a future criminal or civil trial, nor did I know the extent of its reach into the 2016 presidential race.  Like its source subject, it’s not incredibly deep or complex but it’s involving nonetheless.

Movie Review ~ Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

drunk_stoned_brilliant_dead_the_story_of_the_national_lampoon

The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the history of the American comedy publication and production company, National Lampoon, from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010, featuring rare and never-before-seen footage.

Stars: Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, Al Jean, Billy Bob Thornton, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, Judd Apatow, P.J. O’Rourke

Director: Douglas Tirola

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though I’ve watched quite a few of the big screen offerings boasting the name National Lampoon, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the bawdy, rule-challenging magazine that started it all. Those in the same boat as me will be well served to devote some time to Douglas Tirola’s Lampoon love letter Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon because it gathers nearly every living member that was a major contributor to the magazine and films, detailing how the magazine rose to record high circulation before crashing and burning near the turn of the century.

The ground-breaking publication had a 28 year run starting in 1970, born as an offshoot of sorts to the Harvard Lampoon, a chaste satire magazine that I’m pretty sure didn’t feature as many bare breasts as its wicked cousin. Attracting some of the best and brightest in young comedic talent, the magazine grew to phenomenal popularity in pop culture and found its players turning up on a radio shows, stage plays, and, eventually movies.

The timing seems right for this documentary, coming on the heels of the numerous retrospectives that surrounded the 40th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live. Looking at the members of the National Lampoon that were eventually lured away to form the original cast of SNL, you get an even greater sense as to where they cut their satiric teeth before achieving the national spotlight every Saturday night.

It’s a fairly straight-forward documentary with good sound bites presented by people with names we recognize more for their behind the scenes contribution than anything onscreen. Though they are now older and (maybe) wiser, the wealth of timeworn photos show that in their heyday these people partied hard and produced a ribald humor magazine that was a counter-culture phenom of its time. It’s hard to know if such a thing could happen in this day and age, making the National Lampoon a time capsule of sorts for how things (and people) (and humor) used to be.

The Silver Bullet ~ Iris

iris

Synopsis: A documentary about fashion icon Iris Apfel from legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Renowned documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles passed away in early March, but not without leaving audiences with one final work.  Though Albert, along with his brother David (who passed away in 1987) are best known for their jaw-dropping cult doc Grey Gardens, they were responsible for dozens of other fascinating biopics from features to short subjects.  Showing some of the same wry New York wit that was on display so lovingly in Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me, fashion maven Iris Apfel first popped up in the 2013 doc Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and she moves center stage for Maysles’ peek behind the style.  Looks like an appealing watch, made more intriguing by it being the swan song for a legendary documentarian.

The Silver Bullet ~ White Bird in a Blizzard

white_bird_in_a_blizzard

Synopsis: In 1988, a teenage girl’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears.

Release Date:  September 25, 2014

Thoughts: Star Shailene Woodley has been on a roll ever since making an impressive bid for stardom opposite George Clooney in The Descendants.  In 2014 alone she’s been an action star (in the otherwise forgettable Divergent), broke YA hearts (as a cancer teen in The Fault in Our Stars) and now takes on another dramatic role in Gregg Araki’s coming of age tale White Bird in a Blizzard.  With Araki’s history of putting the squeaky clean youth of Hollywood through his adult blender, expect Woodley to mine new ground and bare all (literally) as a teen affected by the disappearance of her unbalanced mother (Eva Green, Cracks) in the late 80s. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Honeymoon

honeymoon_ver2

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 ~ Life Itself

1

life_itself_ver2

Synopsis: A documentary film that recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert.

Release Date: July 4, 2014

Thoughts: Gulp, I got a little teary just watching the trailer for this documentary of Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert. Inspired by (and taking the title from) Ebert’s must-read autobiography, Life Itself will probably be required viewing for any casual movie fan and for sure anyone that claims to be a movie critic. Though I didn’t always agree with Ebert’s reviews, I often found myself checking in on what he thought if I was on the fence – a practice I still follow to this day for older movies. Even through his famous clashes with Gene Siskel, I have always respected his style and his willingness to take every movie for face value and report back on his experience. Losing him was a huge blow for film criticism and this documentary looks as reverential as it has every right to be.

Movie Review ~ Europa Report

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).

Got something you think I should see?
Tweet me, or like me and I shall do my best to oblige!

The Silver Bullet ~ Grand Piano

grand_piano_ver3

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.

Movie Review ~ How I Live Now {Twin Cities Film Festival}

how_i_live_now_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: An American girl sent to the English countryside to stay with relatives finds herself fighting for her survival as the UK turns into a violent military state.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, Anna Chancellor, Harley Bird

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The more movies I take in the less surprised I seem to be.  When you think about it, isn’t everything just a variation on the same several plot points across a limited amount of genre categories?  That’s why when I catch a movie that surprises me, I tend to sit up a little straighter in my seat and find that I’m willing to give myself over a little more to it.

I didn’t know what to expect from How I Live Now before I saw it at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival.  I had read a little about it and knew that it was adapted from a YA novel penned by Meg Rosoff but I deliberately skipped watching the trailer and generally avoided anything that might give away too much, lest I go in with certain expectations that wouldn’t, couldn’t be met.  When you’re as in to movies as I am, this lack of knowledge can sometimes be a huge gift and it’s probably the reason I wound up liking the movie as much as I did.

Though she started out 2013 in a blah adaptation of another popular YA novel (The Host – for which my negative review inspired an unhappy fan to say they wanted to punch me in the face), Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan comes back swinging here with a performance unafraid to be unlikable.  She’s a temperamental (read: bitchy) American girl visiting her aunt and cousins in their quaint English countryside estate when nuclear war breaks out in major cities around the world.

That’s about all you’ll need to know before seeing where How I Live Now takes this character and charts her experiences as she struggles to come to grips that her life will never be the same.  Where the first half of the film has the audience reeling at how bitter Ronan’s character is (we get the sense that her widowed father shipped her away for some peace and quiet), the second half turns the tables and easily wins the viewer back to Ronan’s side.

There’s nice support from a largely unknown and young cast who handle the harrowing material very well.  I liked Tom Holland’s performance in 2012’s The Impossible and he does equally strong work here as Ronan’s sensitive younger cousin. George MacKay rises above his characters questionable relationship with Ronan and tiny Harley Bird survives several scary scenes where her character is in grave danger.

The movie struggles with some tonal shifts that may be a little hard for people to roll with.  One moment it’s a dark comedy, the next a survivalist tale before switching to human drama and then into a dewey (and kind eeeewy) romance.  Even so, there was something about how director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) keeps everything afloat and slightly off balance that had me modestly mesmerized.  I wasn’t sure how the movie would end or if I’d even be happy with the resolution but thankfully the wrap-up makes sense as it aligns with everything that came before it.

You probably missed this one during its brief run in theaters but if you happen to be browsing your local Blockbuster (whoops!) I mean, your local Redbox or Netflix queue this one might be a more than pleasant surprise.  After all, it’s always the movies you are least expecting that find a way to sneak up on you.