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. 

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


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.