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 ~ Blue Jean

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1988, a closeted teacher is pushed to the brink when a new student threatens to expose her sexuality.
Stars: Rosy McEwen, Kerrie Hayes, Lydia Page, Lucy Halliday, Stacy Abalogun, Deka Walmsley, Gavin Kitchen, Farrah Cave, Amy Booth-Steel, Lainey Shaw, Aoife Kennan, Scott Turnbull
Director: Georgia Oakley
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Though Pride month may be over, it’s crucial not only to keep looking ahead at the future of those who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community and protecting inalienable rights for all but to understand the history of how we got to where we are today. Battles have been fought, and many lives have been lost in the struggle for acceptance, and it’s on the shoulders, backs, and necks of brave individuals that we stand stronger than ever. It hasn’t been easy, though, and sometimes it’s vital to remember small victories of inner courage or frustrating losses that aren’t memorialized in plaques on bars.

While a work of fiction, it isn’t hard to imagine Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean as a story several people could relate to while living in Britain in the late ’80s. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which introduced Section 28, prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality by localized authority figures. This led to many formal support systems for the LGBT communities to close and forbade normalized discussion of it in schools, stranding those needing guidance at difficult times. 

That’s where we find PE teacher Jean (Rosy McEwen), a closeted woman who leads a double life. By day she’s a well-liked (if aloof) educator at a local school, and in the evenings, she’s often with her vibrant girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) and their equally out and proud friends. Yet Jean is still coming to terms with who she is, barely out of the closet after ending a heterosexual marriage and definitely not out to any of her school co-workers. To do so would risk losing her position when the country was already suffering an economic downturn.

Problems start when shy new student Lois (Lucy Halliday) arrives, and Jean can’t help but sense a familiarity that urges her to attempt to bring her out of her shell. Encouraging the teen to join the netball (similar to our basketball) team, she’s hopeful she can stave off any torment for Lois by helping her find her way with the cliquey girls. Then she sees Lois at her late-night gay bar, and Jean’s two worlds collide instantly, unable to ever be separated again. With one student knowing her secret, Jean begins to question each move Lois makes, affecting her relationship with Viv, her family, and her co-workers. How long can she wear two masks without revealing the real woman underneath?

There’s a lot of sorrow to be had in Blue Jean, but thankfully, Oakley doesn’t focus on the pain that stems from the time or the situation Jean finds herself in. Instead, she casts an actress like McEwen, who turns in a sensitive but unwaveringly bold performance that allows viewers to sympathize with but never pity. Much of the rough road Jean travels on is of her own making, and we grimace every time she walks away from a hand outstretched to help her to a smoother path. You can see in McEwen’s performance that Jean wants to be happy but doesn’t know how to achieve the correct result. Happiness comes with experience, and she’s too new to know but scared to try again. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s real.

McEwen’s getting the lion’s share of praise (rightfully so, I might add), but you can’t ignore that Hayes is also giving a kind of miracle performance. Viv is the antithesis of Jean, and that’s likely why they would make a great couple, but Viv also deserves someone that will be there for them in a way Jean isn’t capable of yet. Both women have scenes where they are incredibly vulnerable (physically and emotionally), and that rawness is what makes Oakley’s film so immediate and natural, even though it was set thirty-five years ago.

Watching Blue Jean now, you’d hope that the laws being discussed, harsh laws that strip people of support and rights would be a thing of the past, something we would have long ago realized was a terrible thing to have even considered. Yet here we are, slowly inching our way back to those horrific times. I sincerely hope that in another 35 years, we can watch it from a different space in history, where everyone is treated equally no matter whom they love or want to spend their lives with. Otherwise, we’ll all struggle with leading double lives like the central figure of Oakley’s creation.

Movie Review ~ Dalíland

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1973, a young gallery assistant goes on a wild adventure behind the scenes as he helps the aging genius Salvador Dali prepare for a big show in New York.
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Barbara Sukowa, Christopher Briney, Rupert Graves, Alexander Beyer, Andreja Pejić, Suki Waterhouse, Ezra Miller
Director: Mary Harron
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: It’s taken a while, but I’m finally beginning to see the inherent problems with the standard approach in tackling the biopic genre. Until now, I’ve been mostly forgiving in films that have read like encyclopedic breakdowns of a life because often that’s the most direct way of conveying that information to the broadest net of viewers. Color any further outside those lines, and then the filmmakers start veering into the taking of liberties that blur factual boundaries. However, sometimes a rote retelling can be so dry that you wonder if reading the Wikipedia biography might have been more worth your time.

That’s a bit of an overly harsh swipe at director Mary Harron’s Dalíland, a 97-minute reflection on the life of surrealist painter Salvador Dalí told from the perspective of, what else?, an outsider that enters the famous artist’s orbit for a brief shining moment only to emerge on the other side bruised but wiser for the experience. Yet it remains an accurate observation of the film that has been made about the visual artist. Its central thesis, stated early on, is “Did you know Dalí was an eccentric?” and it rather bullishly sticks with that idea without bothering to go much deeper.

Screenwriter John Walsh centers the film around Dalí’s later years when he was creatively and financially declining, only briefly looking back at his younger days when he met his wife, Gala. The lack of background is due to Dalíland being narrated by James Linton (Christopher Briney), an art-gallery assistant that first comes to know Salvador and Gala in New York circa 1973. The young man (an amalgam of several similar assistants that served the same function for the couple) quickly becomes swept up in the Dalí’s extravagant lifestyle of decadence. Yet it comes with a hefty price tag that his conscience eventually can’t continue to pay.

In his advanced years, the Spanish painter is played by English Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley (Exodus: Gods and Kings), and the younger Dalí is brought to life by Ezra Miller (also represented in theaters now with The Flash). While Kingsley remains one of our most treasured elder statesmen in the acting profession, he’s playing outside his nationality, and it’s sometimes an awkward fit. Why Harron didn’t go for an actual Spaniard for the role is a head-scratcher; there are enough options out there that would have made the film feel less of a curio showcase for Kingsley and, to a lesser extent, Miller. 

The same could be said for what Barbara Sukowa (Air) is turning in as Gala Dalí. The German actress positively nails the chilly Russian’s ability to turn her affection on and off, and she’s afforded the best (read: the most believable) arc of the film as she balances specific arrangements within her marriage and has to defend them to an outsider’s judgment. Gala’s public affair and lengthy romance with Jeff Fenholt, the star of Broadway’s Jesus Christ Superstar, is featured prominently. Compared to the pivotal role she plays for her husband, the complexities of that relationship make for the most compelling moments in the movie. Instead, I’d have preferred the film to be about her than Dalí himself and the Linton amalgam.

While the hour and a half we spend with these characters are never dull, it’s never more than surface-level entertainment, and that’s not what we should expect from a film about the most famous surrealist painter in history. It’s incredibly frustrating because the production looks so good, with the cinematography from Marcel Zyskind and the production design by Isona Rigau (Mary Queen of Scots) being a highlight, capturing the feel of the era without resorting to gaudy excess. Harron (American Psycho) is too good of a director to spend too much time with films like Dalíland, and I hope she’s booked a one-way ticket out.

Movie Review ~ Master Gardener


The Facts:

Synopsis: Narvel Roth is the meticulous horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, a beautiful estate owned by wealthy dowager Mrs. Haverhill. When she orders Roth to take on her troubled great-niece Maya as his apprentice, his life is thrown into chaos, and dark secrets from his past emerge.
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, Esai Morales, Victoria Hill, Eduardo Losan, Rick Cosnett, Amy Le, Erika Ashley, Jared Bankens, Cade Burk, DJames Jones, Matt Mercurio
Director: Paul Schrader
Rated: R
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: In his sixth decade working in motion pictures, writer/director Paul Schrader has seen his ups and downs in the movie business. From the early high of a one-two punch in 1976 of Taxi Driver and Obsession to the struggles in the early ‘90s to regain his voice, Schrader regained some traction in 2017, landing his only Oscar nomination with First Reformed. He followed that in 2021 with the well-received The Card Counter and has completed the triumvirate of stony-faced men giving major side eye in the posters with Master Gardener

To say that Schrader’s latest finds him in the weeds is both a cheap pun and a thorny bouquet way of stating that this drama fertilized with thriller elements is a withered mess. Dry and brittle, it features the director pandering to his worst, most self-indulgent instincts and bringing down a good cast with him. It’s the type of film where a supposedly respectable, eloquent woman utters the phrase ‘tit cancer’ in the same breath she waxes poetic about an old black lab she’s named ‘Porch Dog’ because, you know, he sits on the porch. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, however…

The opening of Master Gardener suggests that Schrader is back to his First Reformed ways of internalizing the emotional arc of a troubled soul and inviting the audience to watch how repressed feelings seep out in small doses over two hours. Sadly, that blasted ‘tit cancer’/ ‘Porch Dog’ scene happens (lines only Schrader would dare to write), and the illusion is broken almost as soon as it has begun. By that time, we’ve established Joel Edgerton (Boy Erased) as Narvel Roth, an enigmatic horticulturist employed on the estate of Norma, a mannered woman (Sigourney Weaver, The Good House) who has invited Roth into her gardens and, as we find out awkwardly, her bed.

Roth lives on the massive acreage, all the better to stay close to the plants, and keeps detailed journals about the precise interaction between flora and fauna – some that will parallel the twisty entanglements to come. Norma asks Narvel to take on her orphaned grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, Black Adam) as a new apprentice, teaching the inexperienced teen how to make the garden grow. It isn’t long before the teacher becomes more than a little interested in the student, first taking on the role of protector from an abusive boyfriend, then an interventionist, and ultimately (cringe!) her savior.

The relationship between Narvel and Maya (as played by Edgerton and Swindell) is painfully chemistry-free, so when the script thrusts them together as lovers (not precisely a spoiler because you can see it coming a mile away) and tells you they have found a weird sort of affection you can’t fully accept it. Narvel is clearly the two decades older the actor Edgerton is over Swindell, and throw in some issues Narvel has with his absent teen daughter, and you have something gross to sort out on your own time. That’s the only fast-moving plot point in Schrader’s meandering film, which takes longer to get through than a stroll through an actual botanical garden.

Huge plot problems aside, the acting is disappointing too. Edgerton was on a roll with parts that allowed the Australian actor to push past the typical Hollywood leading action star mold and expand into something different. You can see where the appeal was to work with Schrader on a character with Narvel’s complexities (I’m deliberately leaving out a significant character detail that informs much of his actions). Still, it doesn’t fully come through in the execution. As a wealthy shrew who uses her money to control others, Weaver fares better because she’s adept at circumnavigating parts for women who tend to dismiss them outright. However, even she can’t acquit Norma from some very odd dialogue that sometimes makes her sound like she’s in 1920s Maryland and others as if she’s slumming it in 1997 Hoboken. 

Schrader gets fed up with the Hollywood machine every few years, throws his hands up, and goes silent. Perhaps it’s time to take a breather again and sort out some of the problematic elements of Master Gardener that take it so awry. The icky romance (for real, so gross), the non-starter thriller aspects, and the dull flashback drama told in pieces that never come together to form a complete picture. It’s nothing shocking considering that Schrader has gone back to this older man/younger woman concept now dozens of times. Still, it is staggering that the director keeps writing the same film over and over again but can’t ever validate it as a worthwhile idea. This comes across as a first draft that no story editor got to before filming began. Skip it and go plant a tree instead.

Movie Review ~ In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis

The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the first nine years of Pope Francis’ pontificate, including trips to 53 countries, focusing on his most important issues – poverty, migration, environment, solidarity, and war – while giving rare access to the public life of the pontifical.
Stars: Pope Francis
Director: Gianfranco Rosi
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: While the box office has been known to be set ablaze by dramatized faith-based feature films (see Jesus Revolution for the most recent example), there is a curious lack of opportunity in the documentary realm to get closer to a religion without having to take a side. Indeed there are areas within the church and religious orders that need to be brought out into the open after years in secrecy and darkness. Still, at the same time, I see an equal benefit in the unbiased approach that can shed a different kind of light. 

A strong case for this is In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis, director Gianfranco Rosi’s cinema verite-esqe examination of the head of the Catholic Church. Using primarily archival footage, Rosi trims down a wealth of material concerning the papal leader and his travels abroad, painting a picture bound to surprise audiences expecting something completely different. While it could kindly be called languid at the outset, it ultimately is rewarding for those that understand the importance of its subtle shifts and deliberate pace.

Without a narration to guide the viewer, we depend on dates and locations that appear onscreen throughout. Most are in sequential order, but when the timeline diverges, there doesn’t seem to be a huge explanation as to why, save for more significant cinematic impact. As Pope Francis globe trots from one nation to another, those that come to see him embrace him with the respect the position calls for, but the man himself appears to understand the great responsibility this requires. Rosi (Oscar-nominated in 2017 for the short film Fire at Sea) presents moments of deep spiritual reverence in tandem with random errors in speaking (whether it be due to language barriers or differences of belief) and then how the pontificate deals with the correction.

I wouldn’t like to claim I know much about the Catholic Church or its history of authority, but I know that Pope Francis has been heralded as a leader with an eye on a hopeful future. That comes across clearly in In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis, and it’s not because Rosi has molded his film to come to that conclusion. The footage reveals a leader that prefers to be out among people and not stowed away in the confines of Vatican City. For that reason alone, it’s easy to recommend this revealing look at his worldwide journeys.

31 Days to Scare ~ Piggy

The Facts:

Synopsis: When her bullies are kidnapped by a stranger who develops a protective fixation on her, Sara faces a dilemma: help the police find them or seek vengeance on her tormentors. 
Stars: Laura Galán, Richard Holmes, Carmen Machi, Irene Ferreiro, Camille Aguilar, Claudia Salas, Pilar Castro
Director: Carlota Pereda
Rated: NR
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  With a title like Piggy and a poster as in-your-face as the one for Carlota Pereda’s feature-length version of her award-winning short, audiences shouldn’t be surprised by what they’ll encounter in the wild ride this Spanish film provides. I was both anticipating and a little nervous about diving into this intense thriller, a movie I’d seen making its way through the festival circuit since the beginning of the year. As I grow older, I’m less fond of films that start from a place of cruelty as a way to justify the disposal of otherwise helpless victims, but at the same time, a tricky bit of revenge pulp can be just what the doctor ordered. 

That fine razor’s edge is constantly being rocked in Pereda’s film, and it rarely falls victim to blunt edges that haven’t been appropriately sharpened. Much of that has to do with simple storytelling devices that come with expanding a short film to feature length. History has shown that sometimes there’s not enough in an original concept to take up so much extra space and frequently, what worked well in a compact running time falls apart the more time you are allowed to spend with the characters. It almost gets to Piggy as well, asking the viewer to sympathize with its central character at the outset as she’s targeted by bullies and then sticking with her as she makes a series of questionable choices. What keeps you invested is a brilliant, fearless lead performance that gives the film its heart and guts.

Sara (Laura Galán) is a lonely girl that keeps to herself, enduring constant teasing from the girls in her peer group and disapproving glances from her mother (Carmen Machi). Their family-owned butcher shop supplies many households in the town, but the customers’ children regularly make fun of the overweight family, with Sara their primary target. Nicknamed Piggy, she has taken to the town swimming location after everyone has gone to avoid being seen in a swimsuit. Already encountering the nastiest of the girls who delight in humiliating her, she wants a cool down in the water. 

This particular afternoon Sara is just about to step in when a man unfamiliar to her pops up halfway out in the water. Of course, this is when the gaggle of unkind girls walks by and wages a cruel prank on their favorite target. However, they’ve picked the wrong audience member to perform in front of. Neither they nor Sara knows why the man has come to town, why he was in the water, or what he’s capable of. Making off with her clothes and forcing her to walk home in her bathing suit, the girls think they have the upper hand…but they’re crossing paths with a killer that doesn’t appreciate their wicked ways.

As Sara walks home and is caught without her clothes by local boys, there is even more humiliation in store for the poor girl. Yet she gets an eyeful when she takes a shortcut off the main road and sees the man from the lake loading one of her bullies into the back of his car, and he sees her. An understanding develops between the psychopath and Sara, explored/exploited for the remainder of the film. Sara has the opportunity to speak up and possibly help the authorities find the missing girls but stops short of saying anything. With the killer staying active nearby, a fixation develops. The excitement (and fear) of being wanted grows in Sara but with dangerous consequences for all around her.

Were it not for the grindhouse horror of the final bloody act of Piggy, Pereda would have a corker of a psychological thriller on her hands. How the girl with no friends reacts to a man that literally cuts away her pain is an interesting angle to dissect, and it hums along nicely thanks to Galán’s hypnotic performance as the titular star. I also enjoyed Machi as her fed-up mother; it’s another role that’s hard to like but admirable for the character work done by the actress. With all of the bloody business and raw meat, Piggy might make you turn vegetarian, but it’s a tart meal for those with a strong stomach for revenge.

Movie Review ~ I Love My Dad


The Facts:

Synopsis: A hopelessly estranged father catfishes his son in an attempt to reconnect.
Stars: Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, Rachel Dratch, Claudia Sulewski, Ricky Velez, Lil Rel Howery, Amy Landecker
Director: James Morosini
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In my family, summer was always leading up to the road trip. Either up to our cabin or visiting family way out yonder, there was nothing but the open road to greet us and lots of activity books to keep me busy along the way. I miss those pre-technology days when you had to converse with your loved ones, and maybe that’s why I spark to films that feature one or more parents traveling with their adult children because it recaptures something we’ve lost in this modern age. Communication. Growing apart from your parents is a natural part of becoming an adult but reconnecting through maturity is another aspect of ‘adulting’ I find an interesting area to explore.

This summer, we’ve already had one emotionally resonant familial drama involving a parent and child making a cross-country trip. While Don’t Make Me Go threw some friendly chuckles our way, it wasn’t after our funny bone. While most have been downgraded through dopey slapstick and gross-out humor, I thought we’d seen the last of the dependably entertaining road trip comedies. It turns out we just needed to add a bit of father-son drama to the mix to resurrect the genre. That’s how a gem of a movie like I Love My Dad zooms in and parks itself on your must-watch list.

Writer/director/star James Morosini uses his own life as the basis for this whale of a tale that could have abused its absurdity with out-of-place humor but instead embraces it with winning compassion. A suicidal adult son alienated from his absentee father is coaxed out of his shell by an attractive girl he meets online, opening up to her and finding that he may have found his soulmate. The trouble is, the girl of his dreams is his father (the spectacular Patton Oswalt, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), under a fake profile in a last-ditch attempt to connect with his son, who has blocked all contact after a lifetime of disappointment.

The film handles the switcheroo nicely, with Claudia Sulewski as the imaginary girl blessedly standing in for conversations with Morosini, so we don’t have to read endless texts back and forth. I get a little cross-eyed in films that make us read the text bubbles onscreen while simultaneously watching the actor react to the same message. Likely a way to save on post-production effects, having this digital back and forth become IRL discussions adds a bit of magic to it all. It surely reduces the growing dread we have of what might happen next.

The catfish set-up is as awkward as it sounds, making the well of uncomfortable situations only grow as the film progresses as Morosini’s character decides he wants to meet his online girlfriend in person. In lesser hands, this could have turned into a raunchy yuck-o yuck fest, putting Morosini and Oswalt into situations I don’t even want to visualize. The movie resists that urge and lets the situation be the weirdest thing in the room, allowing the genuine spirit of Oswalt’s performance to come through. Often relegated to featured sidekicks, it’s terrific to see Oswalt’s talents used (and recognized) in this way; his scenes with Morosini have a great sincerity to them, while his work with Rachel Dratch is where he can turn the comic volume up. Avoiding the pitfalls of being the writer/director, Morosini feels unbiased in how he keeps things moving and genuine in his performance. 

I first saw I Love My Dad at the SXSW Film Festival in 2022 and felt then that it would be an audience pleaser. It went on to win not just the Audience Award (as predicted) but the Grand Jury Award. The sweet and sincere film well deserved the win(s), and I can tell it’s a title that will move around via word-of-mouth recommendation.  

After a successful theatrical and digital release, I Love My Dad is coming home for the holidays! In addition to being available at the sites listed below, you can purchase the movie on DVD and Blu-Ray at your retailer of choice. Details below!

Release Details

Street Date: November 8, 2022
Digital Availability: Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, DirecTV and more
SRP: $26.98 (DVD), $29.98 (Blu-ray)

Movie Review ~ My Old School


The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1993, 16-year-old Brandon Lee enrolled at Bearsden Academy, a preparatory school in an upper-middle-class suburb of Glasgow. After an initially awkward start, Lee — who had, until then, been privately tutored in Canada while on tour with his opera singer mom — would quickly become the school’s brightest and most popular pupil.
Stars: Alan Cumming
Director: Jono McLeod
Rated: NR
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: As a spoiler-free movie review site, I like to keep as much of the plot developments under wraps and leave it to the viewer to experience the film as fresh as possible. Sometimes, the basic outline of a movie can make that difficult, and the documentary is frequently one of the trickier genres where I need to be extra on my game. I had a devil of a time thinking about that approaching the review of My Old School, director Jono McLeod’s look back at one strange year during secondary school and the classmate who left a lasting impression on him and his classmates. To say too much would be to rob McLeod’s carefully constructed narrative, but withholding information wouldn’t leave much to say. 

McLeod makes great pains to conceal the twist, and I also feel like I should. So, if this review feels more like a vague dance-around plot than usual, it’s in service to your overall entertainment if you see this enjoyable docu-mystery. I had it spoiled for me, and I will admit that knowing the secret already, it managed to color the first half of the movie when I was supposed to be in the dark. Try if you can avoid finding out any more information than you need because My Old School has several head-turning curveballs to throw.

Interviewing an array of his former classmates, McLeod takes us back to 1995 when their school in Bearsden, Scotland, received a new student, Brandon Lee. Brandon couldn’t help but stand out from the other students with his tightly curled hair and odd facial features. Still, he made a good impression on the teachers and fell into a group of friends and school activities that fit the definition of an active participant in the high school experience. His professional maturity on stage acting in South Pacific was even called out by the stern headmaster, who didn’t dole out compliments easily. When he graduated, Brandon set his plans to attend medical school, and off he went to a nearby college to become a doctor.

Typically, this is where the tale would end for a preparatory school success story. Yet the tale of Brandon Lee was just beginning. McLeod and his classmates walk us through the experience of being in school with him and several odd events that occurred. Living with his grandmother after his opera-singer mother was killed in a car wreck and his father passed away, Lee would have friends over and treated people well…but it always appeared as if he were holding something back. Driving in a car with friends late one night, they noticed a police car appearing out of the murky darkness, and Brandon, thinking the siren in the distance was going to pull them over, turned to his friends and admitted that if he was pulled over and questioned, the name on his license might not match the one they knew…

Candid interviews with the former students reveal a close-knit class that bonded over the daunting school, its somewhat overbearing faculty, and the saga of Brandon Lee that touched them all in one way or another. While many know the whole story, some only know bits and pieces revealed during McLeod’s interviews. They learn the truth(s) as we do, and it’s fascinating to see decades of lies cleared up in a matter of seconds and the wave of disbelief that follows. Interspersed with photos and video footage from back then, McLeod tells much of that past time through animated segments that aren’t Pixar/Illumination quality but have that art class vibe, further establishing this as a home-spun project with heart.

The most impressive interview of all is with Brandon Lee himself. Not wanting to be interviewed on camera, Lee agreed to an audio interview, and McLeod enlisted actor Alan Cumming to lip-synch it on camera. At one time, Cumming (GoldenEye) was set to star in a film version of this wild story, but the project never got off the ground. In a way, My Old School is a full circle moment for the actor, who completely nails mouthing the words along with the audio so well that by the end, you forget he isn’t the one speaking the lines. 

I think the film runs a little longer than needed, with some story padding that could be shored up with editing. Yet it’s not a boring tale to follow. I also get why McLeod would want to tell the story and rope his classmates into recounting their impressions. Still, My Old School doesn’t contain the kind of cathartic resolution or reflection by the filmmaker (who often appears on camera) to drive home why McLeod ultimately made it. Is it to close a chapter for the class who never really got the chance to end things on their terms? Or is it meant to start a new paragraph for a story that continues today? 

Movie Review ~ Dreaming Walls


The Facts:

Synopsis: The end of a long upmarket renovation of the legendary Chelsea Hotel is partly longed for and partly dreaded by the artists who still live there. The film grants us access to their apartments and interweaves the past with the present.
Director: Maya Duverdier, Amélie van Elmbt
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Fans of the 1960s counterculture movement in New York City that gave birth to iconic artists like Janis Joplin, Jackson Pollack, Diego Rivera, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ching ho Chang, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, and countless others would likely be able to spot the landmark location on which this documentary centers. The famed Chelsea Hotel served as home/playpen/stomping ground for these legendary contributors to art and commerce, with the dwelling serving as inspiration for quite a lot of their work over the ensuing years. Plenty of books, songs, movies, and paintings have been created documenting its influence, but time cannot stop progress, and the cost of living in NYC is at a premium…and so is the value of history.

Directors Maya Duverdier & Amélie van Elmbt have created their documentary Dreaming Walls as a tribute not only to those that made the Chelsea famous but to those that have endured over time within the space. As the hotel continues years of renovations, turning it into more of a luxe location for out-of-town tourists or new money movers and shakers, what happens to the tenants that have inhabited it for decades? Similar to construction magnates across the country buying up plots of land or offering considerable sums to homeowners to give up their houses so they can be demolished in favor of buildings shinier and new, the owners of the Chelsea hope to throw enough money at those living in rent-controlled units to vacate. Or perhaps the goal is to make the living conditions so inconvenient they will move of their own volition.

Never underestimate the tenacity or fortitude of a starving artist, no matter how old they are. As the filmmaker’s behind Dreaming Walls show, the ones that have stayed are the true lifeblood of the Chelsea and living history of the tenets that made it into such a storied spot. Using clips from previous documentaries and personal materials from the subjects, we get an idea of what the past was like compared to the reality of the present situation. It’s a fascinating look inside lives from an all-but-forgotten time (to us) that remains vivid to those who haven’t moved on/out.  It’s little wonder the film attracted the attention of executive producer (and dyed-in-the-wool New York-er) Martin Scorcese, The Irishman.

Running a scant 80 minutes, it doesn’t feel like we ever touch down with anyone in the Chelsea for very long. Maybe that’s a good thing because their privacy has already been invaded by construction crews who work later than they should and have taken years longer to complete the renovations than initially promised. Duverdier & van Elmbt mix up their interview styles, with some subjects speaking directly to the camera while others make their remarks in voice-over. It combines to form a striking portrait of a groundbreaking residence on the precipice of vanishing. In that way, having Dreaming Walls as a minor key to unlock the past of the Chelsea Hotel is extremely valuable.

Movie Review ~ A Taste of Hunger


The Facts:

Synopsis: A power couple within the Danish gourmet scene run the popular restaurant Malus in Copenhagen.  The couple is willing to sacrifice everything to achieve their dream – getting the coveted Michelin star.

Stars: Katrine Greis-Rosenthal, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Charlie Gustafsson, Dag Malmberg, Nicolas Bro, Flora Augusta, August Christian Høyer-Kruse-Vinkel

Director: Christoffer Boe

Rated: NR

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  During the height of the reality TV peak (and, I’ll be honest, a good deal after), my most strict appointment television was Top Chef and its spin-offs and, in my weakest moments, the saltiest of them all, Hell’s Kitchen.  While I eventually had to chuck these weekly commitments due to not being able to keep up with so many, I always appreciate these types of competition shows that were more about output than social popularity.  It didn’t matter how much of a terrible human being you were; if you made a good appetizer that week, you would outlast the nice guy who overbaked the fish course.  As with all reality television, one could easily spot the formula that went into casting these shows and filming and editing them, so they became predictable to plot out at a certain point, and just the same comfort food television as sitcoms are to us ‘80s babies.  Formulas aside, I also got to the point where I couldn’t stand the egos of the featured chefs.  While the tantrums made for good TV, they didn’t do much to show viewers that these were people who deserved substantial cash rewards for their outbursts of rage.

Since these shows have premiered, movies about the culinary industry have taken that celebrity chef character and either made them the villain or the misunderstood mensch on a redemptive arc, to varying degrees of success.  Boiling Point recently used a one-take approach that managed to rise above the gimmick to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at a dinner service that goes wildly off the rails.  Looking over the plot details, I was half expecting the new Dutch film A Taste of Hunger to provide the same experience as similar films that have come before and not much more.  Admittedly, early on, I was nervous that Christoffer Boe’s drama would remain stuck on a low boil, what with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s rising star chef berating an employee in front of the rest of the staff.  Was there ever going to be a movie about the high-pressure restaurant scene that didn’t have a scene like this, or is it de rigueur by now?  Ah…but I just had to get through that first course because Boe was about to serve up a surprisingly compelling and infinitely more satisfying feast.

Told in chapters divided by the combination of elements that go into the conception of the perfect dish, A Taste of Hunger is intrinsically the love story of Carsten (Coster-Waldau, The Silencing) and Maggi (Greis-Rosenthal), the co-owners of Malus, a new gourmet restaurant in Copenhagen.  Hoping to create a signature dish so enticing the experience will earn them a coveted Michelin star, gaining that seal of approval would guarantee a level of success and a future both desire.  Through the flashbacks, Boe chronicles how they first meet during a failed catering event Carsten is responsible for and how Maggi turns the awkward situation into a valuable springboard to his reaching for a higher goal.  This bond establishes power dynamics in the relationship, continuing throughout the film, with Maggi being the driving force behind many big plays. 

Maggi’s determination for Carsten to succeed is the focus of much of the present storytelling in between the flashbacks, and it exposes the weaker parts of an otherwise strong film.  Though detailing the surprising number of sacrifices made to get them where they are makes for captivating viewing, the relentless drive for achievement makes some of the events in the final half-hour (which I won’t reveal) a bit frustrating to navigate.  It’s precisely when the film starts to feel more dictated by norms of moviemaking than real life and when Boe’s characters begin to act like creations instead of humans. 

Not that Greis-Rosenthal or Coster-Waldau can be faulted too much for that questionable ingredient in A Taste of Hunger because both give the kind of chemistry-driven performances (alone and together) that Hollywood can only dream of capturing on film.  Coster-Waldau has always been a “is that Sean Bean?” actor to me, never breaking as big as he likely should have, yet he’s so good in everything he does it’s a wonder he hasn’t graduated to higher-profile roles.  As good as Coster-Waldau is, this is Greis-Rosenthal’s movie, and she’s excellent in a tricky role that requires her to be determined in a way we can relate to but not judge her for it when she takes it a step too far.  There’s a fine line to playing a part in managing scruples like this, especially for a woman, but Greis-Rosenthal finds a way to the heart of it without coming off as apologetic.  Plus, there’s an electric spark between her and Coster-Waldau that is hard to deny; they feel well-matched and believable as this type of power couple. 

Boe fills out his supporting cast with long-time collaborator Nicolas Bro (Riders of Justice) as Carsten’s brother, who holds little faith at the outset his sibling has the discipline to make it in the demanding world of culinary arts. Charlie Gustafsson is also strong as a disciple chef of Carsten’s, who grows up to be a rival for Maggi’s affections.  Coming in late in the game to steal some scenes is Flora Augusta as Maggi and Carsten’s observant daughter, inadvertently impacting the lives of them all when she involves herself in part of the lives of her parents she doesn’t fully understand.  Augusta is asked to play some heavy scenes but does it with extraordinary grace, never let down by Boe or her costars.

A Taste of Hunger is a well-done and effective film that I liked a great deal, and quite different than I thought it would be.  It helped that I went in without any knowledge or expectation, and you should do the same.  My advice would be the skip the trailer entirely because watching it after the fact sadly gives away multiple plot details that I would think the filmmakers would want to keep under wraps and let the audience be surprised.  Once you watch the preview, you already know where things are headed, and that will certainly lessen the impact of Boe’s film and the intense work being done by Greis-Rosenthal and Coster-Waldau.