Movie Review ~ South of Heaven

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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.

Movie Review ~ Gunpowder Milkshake

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A secret sisterhood comes to the rescue of a mother-daughter assassin team.

Stars: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, Chloe Coleman, Paul Giamatti, Ralph Ineson, Adam Nagaitis, Michael Smiley

Director: Navot Papushado

Rated: NR

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As the credits were rolling on the new hyper-stylized action film Gunpowder Milkshake (which features copious glamor shots of both, I might add), a small but lively debate raged on between my partner and myself over the age-old notion of style over substance.  He argued the film was basically plotless, just a shell for Israelian director Navot Papushado to exercise some considerable effort in filming extensive action sequences where a whole bunch of people get shot, stabbed, beaten, maimed, bludgeoned, squished, and squashed.  I took the position that what is an action film but a basic set-up which leads to a series of events that bring resolution to that initial set-up?  With most of our deliberations, movies or otherwise, it ended with a détente, reasoning that we were essentially both right in the case of this admittedly sleight but nonetheless entertaining technicolor-hued romp. (I’m a little more right…because I’m the one with the blog 🙂 )

Originally intended for major theatrical distribution when it was announced for production back in 2018, the film was bought by Netflix from its original production house STXfilms for its continuing summer series pledging new movies every week.  Gunpowder Milkshake fits right in with early 2021 title Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead thanks to over-the-top action and a willingness to go the extra mile with gore and ultra-violence throughout.  Unlike that earlier “zombies in Las Vegas” epic which was always meant for a major Netflix debut at home after its awards qualifying run in theaters, Gunpowder Milkshake feels as if it should have been first experienced on the big screen to allow audiences to truly be immersed in the environmental space Papushado and his collaborators have created.

After being abandoned by her assassin mother (Lena Headey, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) fifteen years earlier, Sam (Karen Gillan, Oculus) has followed in the footsteps of her estranged parent and learned to detach herself from the jobs she is sent on.  Under the wing of The Firm (not the Tom Cruise movie, the other one) and her contact Nathan (Paul Giamatti, Saving Mr. Banks, appearing far less blustery than usual), she has survived not only on her skill but her ability to do what she’s told and little else.  Her latest assignment has left a pile of bodies in her wake, one the son of a prominent gangster (Ralph Ineson, Dolittle) that now wants her dead.  To save themselves embarrassment and willing to lose their great asset, The Firm offers her up…a decision made easier by the fact that she just lost them a tidy sum of money.

Along with the money issues, Sam comes into a guardianship role for Emily (Chloe Coleman, My Spy), a precocious tot Sam feels she owes a debt to.  The Firm first sends a trio of their own henchmen to snuff her out, leading to a spectacular hallway battle where a disadvantaged Sam manages to come up with a clever way to gain the upper hand on her opponents.  It’s not the first of Papushado’s numerous breathless action sequences but it’s the one I remember feeling my jaw drop open out of surprise more than once.  A bowling alley, a library, a fantasy forest, and a fictional shipwreck are all locations that pulsate with color and provide ample playing space for cinematographer Michael Seresin (with a career spanning titles like 1980’s Fame and 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes) to capture Gillan, Headey, and a trio of butt-kicking friends of the two women duke it out with a never-ending onslaught of henchmen.

Surprisingly, it’s the three reasons most will be enticed to see the film that may prove the most disappointing for some.  Those hoping to find Gunpowder Milkshake to be one featuring equal time for Angela Bassett (Soul), Carla Gugino (San Andreas), and Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) could be vexed at the long gaps the three vanish from sight.  Despite an early appearance, which shows good promise as Sam visits the library lair the women use as a front as well as a watchtower of sorts, we have to wait a solid 40-45 minutes before they are back again.  While all three get in on the action, it almost feels like Papushado waited too long to release his secret weapon.  Up until then, Gillan has remained strangely strained in her role, confusing detached for clipped and robotic.  Finding some moments of levity and lightness when Coleman enters the picture, Gillan comes to regard the youngster with some of the motherly protection she never received.

Miraculously, all of this finely dialed-up mayhem is an original work from Papushado and Ehud Lavski and not, as I had thought throughout, an adaptation of a previously published graphic novel.  You’d forgive me for thinking that, seeing that there are so many key points during the film where it feels like the filmmakers are paying fan service to something…else…that only specific audience members are meant to get something out of.  Mostly, it trends toward a mishmash of different styles from auteur filmmakers that need only go by their last name: Tarantino, Fincher, Bekmambetov, Leone, Besson.  For some, the nods may feel overly emblematic of a movie with no style of its own but I tended to enjoy the way Papushado took something we know as classic Leone (utilizing a haunting Ennio Morricone’s score) but giving it his own twist.

Running about ten minutes too long for my tastes, though with all the slow motion it likely clocks in around 104 minutes instead of 114, Gunpowder Milkshake’s vision may not be as boldly original as one might hope but there’s plenty of worth to be found within.  Despite Gillan’s uncharacteristically shaky leading performance, the supporting cast (especially Gugino) totally understands the tone of the film they’re in and plays it to the hilt.  I won’t spoil if all will come back for seconds but there’s enough story left to tell and you can bet an additional serving could be prepared if it proves popular with audiences.

The Silver Bullet ~ Big Bad Wolves

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

Release Date:  January 17, 2014 (limited)

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