Movie Review ~ South of Heaven

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: After serving twelve years for armed robbery, Jimmy gets an early parole. Upon his release from prison, he vows to give Annie, his childhood love, now dying from cancer, the best year of her life. The best last year of her life. If only life were that simple.

Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly, Mike Colter, Shea Whigham

Director: Aharon Keshales

Rated: NR

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know about you, but it’s a little funny to me that the same weekend Jason Sudeikis closes out his second season playing the Emmy-winning title role of his multiple award lauded serio-comedy Ted Lasso, he’s also premiering a hard-nosed crime drama that at one point sees someone sliced in half.  That he pulls both off convincingly is a sure sign that Sudeikis is another SNL alum that was always meant for something more.  Up until now, Sudeikis has mostly thrived in comedic films but South of Heaven represents a gear shift that’s likely to feel jarring for many of his fans that have come to expect a lighthearted Sudeikis or, more recently, the Ted Lasso-y Sudeikis with a perennial good-nature we secretly all wish we could emulate more of.

The sunniness Sudeikis brings to that show on Apple TV+ is mostly cloudy in South of Heaven.  Right from the start when we see Jimmy Ray (Sudeikis, We’re the Millers) in front of a parole board being up front and honest that he should be released so he can spend as much time as he can with his terminally ill fiancé.  Yes, he committed a crime but it was a first offense and after 12 years, has his time been served?  He’s a middle-aged white guy so…of course he’s let out.  Waiting for him is Annie (Evangeline Lilly, Ant-Man and the Wasp) and with her pixie cut and glowing aura, she looks like she’s already practicing for her guardian angel gig she’s most certainly getting hired for.  The reunion between the two is sweet, bittersweet, and then ultimately tender as both realize how quickly they have to re-learn their old routines to maximize the time they have left with one another.

Not long after Jimmy Ray’s return, his rat-like parole officer (Shea Whigham, The Quarry, always on call when a weasely character is needed) makes sure Jimmy Ray knows that he’s under his thumb and even prompts him to get involved with under the table business on his behalf or risk being sent back to prison on trumped up charges he creates.  Unwilling to part from Annie again, Jimmy Ray agrees to retrieve a package for the parole officer and it’s on his way back that something happens which shifts the film from being one story to a different one in a similar vein.  It’s one of several adjustments director and co-screenwriter Aharon Keshales makes for the next 75 minutes which will keep the audiences on their toes, wondering where all of these tone shifts are going to lead.  Will they add up to beautiful music or is just all banging on a keyboard?

Working with fellow screenwriters Kai Mark and Navot Papushado, Keshales manages to make South of Heaven into that rare bird that refuses to stay in one place for too long but doesn’t feel too flighty at the same time.  The movie has about 5 endings as it nears its conclusion (and that was one too many for me) and with each progression to a new level the stakes are raised quite convincingly and, more importantly, with an entertainment value that works for nearly everyone involved. The only person it isn’t completely successful with is its leading man.

I’m not sure if it was Sudeikis now being so tied to the Ted Lasso of it all but it took a long time for me to lock into what he was doing here and go with it.  There was a dramatic side to him that he doesn’t wear totally convincingly in, oh, 78% of the movie and it’s only working with Lilly in some of the final scenes and in a climactic sequence near the end that it feels like the talented actor is working in a zone.  Yet you see the actor trying new things and new ideas as he journeys to get to that zone and you can’t fault someone that’s actively trying to make something work in what had to be a tight shooting schedule.  He’s got great support with, as mentioned, Lilly who is a real breath of fresh air here and Mike Colter (Girls Trip) as a soft-spoken crime boss that doesn’t like to have to ask for things twice.  I also got a kick out of seeing former C-movie action star Michael Paré as a mostly silent hired muscle for Colter, who isn’t too shabby in the bicep category himself.

If there’s one thing that might be problematic for viewers it’s that Keshales doesn’t seem to be able to settle on the mood of the film, shuffling the deck at random.  This tends to lessen the weight of heavier scenes and makes you wonder whether dialogue that is supposed to be dramatic is coming off just a tad phony.  In more than one scene, an actor is drawing from a deep well to convey emotion but the sincerity was so over emphasized that the effect is insincere.  Put all of these little moments in a line and it would result in an unconvincing watch but when they are peppered within the fabric of a film you can forgive it a little easier as a quirk the filmmaker is working through.

At this point, you have to be wondering what I’m even thinking about the film, right? It sounds like I’m down on it but I was way more into South of Heaven than I originally thought I would be, even when it overstays its welcome ambling toward one of its many endings.  For all its emotional ups and downs, I didn’t have a clear idea of where it was headed and that’s a refreshing feeling after sitting through countless tales that are sunk by predictability.  When it does get to its ending, it’s not what I expected (and probably not what I wanted) but I appreciated one final rug pull from a director that wasn’t afraid up until that point of shaking things up to keep the action interesting.

31 Days to Scare ~ Monsterland

1


The Facts:

Synopsis: Encounters with mermaids, fallen angels, and other strange beasts drive broken people to desperate acts in this eight-episode anthology series.

Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Jonathan Tucker, Charlie Tahan, Nicole Beharie, Hamish Linklater, Marquis Rodriguez, Bill Camp, Michael Hsu Rosen, Taylor Schilling, Roberta Colindrez, Adria Arjona, Trieu Tran, Kelly Marie Tran, Mike Colter, Adepero Oduye

Created by: Mary Laws

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Before this pandemic began the concept of binge watching was something that always sounded like a good idea to me and one that I only occasionally was able to participate in…but it had to be for the right show.  Even then, I would motor through a 10-episode season over a long weekend and then emerge from those three days a bit dazed and not exactly sure what I had taken in. Had I really invested the time to let the story, characters, and ideas enter my brain and take root or did it just fly by as quickly as I clicked into the next episode?  What’s worse is that by the time the next season of a show rolled around in a year, it had been so long since the last batch of episodes I blazed through that I barely remembered plot details.

Recently, I’ve found that I can do a sort of binge watch but stretch it out to make it like a long meal I am snacking on for a week or so.  This helps me process and, if the show is good, extends the pleasure of the piece even further.  So I have to say that getting the chance to see Hulu’s new horror anthology series Monsterland early was a treat but I wasn’t quite able to take my time with it like I was with other multi-episode shows that are released all on the same date.  Working on a deadline, I watched the eight episodes in two blocks and while it helped me get to them all, it wound up easily exposing what chapters stood out from the rest and the overall weakness of the show in general.

When Hulu announced they were working with creator Mary Laws who was a co-writer on the 2016 film The Neon Demon and produced the cult-favorite TV program Preacher for AMC on a show based off of Nathan Ballingrud’s short-story collection “North American Lake Monsters”, there was considerable interest in what that partnership would yield. Produced by Babak Anvari and Lucan Toh who had already worked with a Ballingrud adaptation in the past, this seemed like an interesting path for Hulu to take. While the title of the book and show implies a creature feature this is more of a “monster within us” sort of deal with a healthy dose of the supernatural and mythological thrown in to spice things up.

Each episode is named after a town and while some of these anthologies don’t need to be watched in order, I would say there are a few chapters that do include a tiny bit of overlap (I won’t say what or which ones) so would suggest you go in order.

Things get off to a promising start with Port Fourchon, Louisiana featuring Kaitlin Dever (Booksmart) as a single mom working as a waitress that encounters a drifter (Jonathan Tucker, Charlie’s Angels) at her oceanside dead-end diner.  We know he’s got a station wagon full of boxes labeled with the names of missing girls but what’s in them is…well, you’ll find out. Dever’s having a nice run of things lately and she makes this character a realistic entity struggling to make ends meet while dealing with her feral child that could be more dangerous than the stranger who takes a peculiar interest in her.  The second ep features a lonely teen taking care of his ailing mother in a familiar plot that honestly almost feels irresponsible being recycled in 2020.  I quite liked the third episode set in New Orleans, Louisiana that puts Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth) through a night of hell as a socialite who came from nothing dealing with her world crumbling around her.  It’s all predicated on the question of if she knew about a secret involving her family from years ago and looked the other way just so she wouldn’t lose out on a life of privilege that was within her grasp.

It’s back to ho-hum-edness for the New York setting in episode four with Bill Camp (Joker) as a Trump-ian business mogul that gets punished for his evil transgressions by literally being possessed by a god-like figure (kinda tacky, IMHO) as his family and business team watches on in a mixture of horror and glee.  This one is so obviously aiming its message at an audience of one that will never see this episode that it feels like you’re watching someone’s angry letter to the White House.  The one thing about this episode that I found fairly entertaining is Tina Benko as a deadly serious medium brought in to communicate with the spirit that has taken residence in the businessman.  Benko’s voice cements her being so hysterically committed to the role that I can’t tell if she was trying to be comical or if she really was attempting to be serious.  Either way, she’s the gold star highlight of this drab episode.

Episode five features Taylor Schilling (The Lucky One) and Roberta Colindrez as married lesbians dealing with Schilling’s bi-polar disorder that eventually leads to a dark place, leaving Colindrez to literally pick up the pieces of her wife.  Very strangely, when I checked just now this is the episode that has the highest rating from viewers so far even though I found it an oddly talky vamp on the zombie narrative.  Which, come to think of it, is probably why it’s so popular.  It’s the most straight-forward of all the tales in that deals with mental illness (a content warning precedes the episode) in a humanistic way…though it is essentially about learning to love your zombie wife.

After the first episode, Episode 6 and 7 are likely the star players of the lot.  Taking place in Palacios, Texas, episode 7 finds a disfigured fisherman (Trieu Tran) who finds an injured mermaid (Adria Arjona, Life of the Party) on the beach and brings her back to his double-wide where he attempts to nurse her back to health.  Trouble is, this is no fairy-tale mermaid and she has a craving for red meat and isn’t the friendliest fish in the sea.  In all of Monsterland, my favorite tale by far was from Iron River, Michigan and it finds Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) as Lauren, a sweet bride preparing for her wedding day but still haunted by the legend of the local woods where her friend disappeared when they were teenagers.  An opening prologue and flashbacks alter the storyline of the events of the vanishing, suggesting Lauren may have been more involved than originally thought.  What starts off seeming like it will be a standard “Did she do it” becomes a simmering Grimm’s Fairy Tale and it’s by far the best of all the episodes.  Which makes the bizarre (truly, bizarre) finale featuring Mike Colter (Girls Trip) and Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) as grieving parents of a missing girl given the opportunity to heal thanks to mysterious “angels” that have fallen from the sky, that much more of a letdown.  I was really put off by the ending, I have to be honest.

Wildly inconsistent from episode to episode with even the good ones having their own problems, Monsterland feels like an enormous missed opportunity.  The production has gathered an intriguing mix of casts and directors that create dynamic work but the scripts didn’t serve any of these players well.  Only a few of these episodes wound up being inspired by Ballingrud’s short stories and even then I know his work is more cerebral – so perhaps this was always the world Monsterland was going to create.  My main beef overall is that I would have liked to see the episodes tied together a bit more.  There is one connection that made sense to me but another that is of absolutely no consequence to anything else and that just felt strange.  It’s as if the actor was just passing by the set that day and they decided to let them in the scene without thinking anything through.  Linking these up in a more clever fashion would help give the overall breadth of the work a more finished feel.

Movie Review ~ Before You Know It


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pair of sisters find out the mother they thought was dead is alive and starring on a soap opera.

Stars: Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Alec Baldwin, Mike Colter, Mandy Patinkin

Director: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Once you’ve been to New York City and done all the touristy things, that’s when the real adventure starts. Only then can you truly get to the heart of the city and explore the neighborhoods to find hidden gems that are off the beaten path. Restaurants, clothing stores, art galleries, and little theaters are all over the place just waiting to be discovered. Back in the day, the films of Woody Allen that were set in the Big Apple had a way with making good use out of these little-seen corners of a mostly familiar city.

It’s probably not the best comparison to make at this time or might not be exactly the kind of praise the writers and director of Before You Know It would love to hear but there’s a Woody Allen-esque quality to this quirky comedy. It would be easy to fathom Allen conjuring up this NYC set tale on his typewriter, assembling his cast drawn from a stable of familiar faces, and garnering praise for its astute look at familial relationships that break down at the most inconvenient times. Yet this isn’t another offering from that divisive director but the product of two women that wrote, directed, and star in the film. Being so interwoven into the framework of the movie can, at times, be the kiss of death for those that take on multiple roles on a film production but that’s not the case here – in fact, it makes the movie richer.

Living above their tiny off-off-off Broadway theater, sisters Jackie (Jen Tullock) and Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt) have taken on their responsibilities to keep the operation afloat. Free-spirit actress Jackie takes to the stage and supplants that work with other odd jobs on the side while her more serious younger sister tends to the business side and directs. Their father, Mel (Mandy Patinkin), who raised them on his own after their mother died, is a former Broadway actor turned playwright that’s just earned a prestigious fellowship, one that will help produce a long gestating play the family has been working on together. Mel abhors the corporatization of the theater and doesn’t do much to ingratiate himself with his new benefactors…so when he suddenly passes away and leaves the sisters with mounting debts and an unfinished play they aren’t in the mood for more surprises.

A visit to their lawyer to hear the reading of their father’s will reveals a whopper, though. The mother they had been told passed away is actually very much alive is the sole owner of the theater…and she’s closer than they might have guessed.  Leaving her family all those years ago to pursue her dreams of stardom, Sherrell (Judith Light, Amazon’s Transparent, making a rare but welcome appearance in a feature film) is a famous actress on a popular soap opera that’s feeling the sting of ageism at work. When her daughters sneak onto her set and make a surprise appearance, it isn’t exactly the happy reunion any of them had imagine.  As they get reacquainted with a woman they don’t know and pretty much abandoned them for a different life, all three women are forced to take a hard look at their choices in the past and plans for the future.

Directed by Utt and written by Utt and Tullock, the women do more than just play on their strengths and fashion their movie around several highlighting moments. Jackie and Rachel both have their own hang-ups that get some attention but the spotlight is shared with the supporting cast as well. Having an affair with her daughter’s new therapist (played in brief cameo by Alec Baldwin, Still Alice), Jackie is used to taking the backseat to the stronger personalities she surrounds herself with. At the same time, without being able to find a work/life balance, Rachel is unable to maintain a steady relationship with any woman she finds interesting. When they meet their long-lost mother, instead of filling a gap they’ve been missing they find maybe her taking off wasn’t such a bad thing.

The trickiest role is given to the most interesting actor and Light steps up to the plate and hits a home run. Obviously drawing from her years starring in the One Life to Live, Light’s soap diva wants to be taken seriously but doesn’t want to look bad doing it. She’s OK if they make her an evil twin…just not an “ugly” one. Light makes the character brittle but not broken, vain but not vapid.  I thought I knew where her character was headed but was surprised at the little things Light does along the way to keep us interested. When Rachel offers to rewrite some of the dialogue her mom finds beneath her, they bond in a way neither expect…leading to drama between the sisters and their newly acquired parent.

There’s some extraneous storytelling when the action shifts from the sisters and Sherrell to Jackie’s daughter being befriended by an accountant (Mike Coulter, Girls Trip), who shows up to do the books. It’s the only askance bit of narrative I found in the film but it eventually finds a cohesive way into the story Utt and Tullock wrap up nicely by the end. Though writing as two there’s the feeling of a single voice in the screenplay and that helps keep the film buoyant, with laughs in unexpected places and honest bits of drama along the way.