Movie Review ~ The Starling

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman adjusting to life after a loss contends with a feisty bird that’s taken over her garden — and a husband who’s struggling to find a way forward.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn

Director: Theodore Melfi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After settling into watching the new Netflix dramedy The Starling the other day, I had a pretty good idea why the initial buzz I had heard after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was fairly lukewarm.  This is one of those movies that film snobs hungry to feast on spoiled leftovers just hate with a red-hot passion because it doesn’t wind up tasting all that bad.  It’s SpaghettiOs® in a season where fine Italian pasta in a rich, velvety sauce is sought and before you say that I’m knocking that canned bit of gold, I consider it a fine meal any day of the week.  Without a carcass to gnaw on, it could be easy to simply dismiss the emotions brought forth as overly sentimental TV-movie of the week junk, but in doing so you’d miss the bittersweet lead performances playing grieving parents still processing a profound loss.

Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy, Thunder Force) and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd, The Sapphires) have big plans for their newborn, plans they discuss in the film’s opening moments as they paint her nursery with an elaborate mural of a tree with inviting branches.  Flash forward to a time in the future after their daughter has died when Lilly is a zoned-out worker at a small-town grocery superstore and Jack is spending time at a mental health facility an hour away.  She makes the trip once a week for a visit that doesn’t seem to help either one of them deal with a pain they can’t share with each other.  Resentment from both parties is strong; she doesn’t understand why he has to work through this life altering event alone and away from her, he believes she’s moving on too quickly and can’t forgive himself for the loss of their child.

On the suggestion of Jack’s group leader, Lilly seeks out the town vet, Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline, Beauty and the Beast).  A former respected therapist, he gave up working with people and devotes his time to animals because they talk back less.  Resisting the unorthodox set-up, it’s the appearance of a persistently territorial starling in her garden that brings her back to Dr. Larry after the bird dive bombs her and draws blood.  As Lilly begins to open up, she exposes a wound she’d done a good job of bandaging up and in doing so it makes her more emotionally available to her husband as well as her new avian neighbor.  As Jack’s depression worsens, Lilly faces her anguish head on.  The stages of grief are accelerated after being pent up for so long and eventually the relationship between the husband and wife is put to a huge test.

Reteaming with her St. Vincent director Theodore Melfi, McCarthy demonstrates again why it’s so important for her to make films apart from her husband.  The married duo have made a string of movies together that they have collaborated on and produced and while they occasionally find a winner (The Boss actually improves with age) they also have their share of stinkers (remember Tammy?  Better yet, don’t.).  It’s clearly demonstrated that when she’s working with other directors and screenwriters, see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Spy if you don’t believe me, she really has a chance to shine. 

The lack of chemistry between McCarthy and O’Dowd is mostly attributed to the separation of their characters for a large part of the movie.  I never totally bought them as a couple so deep in love that they were being completely tested by this tragedy, but it’s not for McCarthy’s lack of try to instill some warmth O’Dowd’s way.  I liked O’Dowd as well, but he seemed to get too lost in the sadness and/or anger of his character and the shifts were jarring instead of understandable.  The real head scratcher is why Melfi cast so many familiar faces and then gave them nothing to do.  Timothy Olyphant (Mother’s Day) has two or three scenes total and they’re so insignificant it could have been played by anyone.  Same for Daveed Diggs (Soul), Loretta Devine (wasted even more here than in Queen Bees earlier this year), and Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who gets a high billing but may not even have any lines in the film if I’m remembering correctly.

A few years back I was in NYC and saw Kevin Kline’s soon-to-be Tony Award winning performance onstage in Present Laughter.  It was then I remembered how much I enjoyed watching him watching other actors.  He’s always listening and providing the kind of reaction that helps create a full character without having to say much.  It’s often wonderful to see him and he’s impressive here as a guy that resists getting too attached to his new patient, even though he has a hunch he can find a way to unlock what’s been holding her back.

Speaking of that, what’s difficult about the movie is what it holds back and that’s a lot of key details.  It’s never expressly stated how Lilly and Jack’s daughter died or how old she was.  I suppose it’s doesn’t really matter in the long run because the loss is the loss but it’s these finer points that help to round out the character arcs being put forth.  The starling also is a bit of a red herring because it doesn’t come into play much until the end of the film after making several stealth appearances (with some iffy CGI) in earlier scenes.  I understand that writer Matt Harris is trying to fast-track the narrative, but it can’t come at the cost of the finer points.

It’s interesting to see Netflix rolling out The Starling for a week in theaters before it arrives on the streaming service for the majority of its customers.  I don’t find the film strong enough for an awards run (though if the Golden Globes were a thing McCarthy would probably be a likely nominee for Best Actress) but perhaps they’re going for Kline…they’ll certainly want to push for any number of songs that were contributed by Brandi Carlile , The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, and Nate Ruess.  I think it’s best to just keep The Starling handy for a day/night when you require a little comfort food film, some warmth from the overstuffed and stodgy succession of movies that are coming down the pike.

Movie Review ~ Afterlife of the Party

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A social butterfly who dies during her birthday week is given a second chance to right her wrongs on Earth.

Stars: Victoria Justice, Midori Francis, Robyn Scott, Adam Garcia, Timothy Renouf, Gloria García, Spencer Sutherland

Director: Stephen Herek

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  OK – we’ve always dealt with honest truths here and I see no reason to stop now.  You know my love of movies set in space.  You are well aware that I’ll never shy away from a shark movie.  You certainly should be ready to supply me with an underwater adventure I’ve never seen before because I think by this point, I’ve seen them all.  However.  Do you know what other genre of movie that I just can’t ever say no to no matter how hard I try? If your answer was: silly comedies where dead people come back to mess with the living, then you would be correct. (And please, get out of my brain.)  I tell ya, there is absolutely nothing more comfort food-y than a good, old-fashioned ghost that no one else can see save for one person that gets driven totally batty until they adjust to this new spirit and eventually learn to live with the specter who needs their living friend to help them finish something so they can move on.  (See High Spirits, All of Me, Hello Again, Heart Condition, The Frighteners, the list goes on…)

That’s why I sought out Afterlife of the Party on Netflix to review and no, it’s not because I’m a huge Victoria Justice fan (full disclosure, I had to look her up to see what she was famous for).  This airy little bauble is a Sunday morning wake yourself up movie.  The kind you flip on as the coffee percolates and your eyes adjust while yawning to life on the couch.  There’s nothing at all wrong with the film per se, but there’s not a whole lot of substance to it either.  It’s calorie-free but you’ll be hungry for something more almost immediately when the credits roll.

Party girl Cassie (Justice, Fun Size) thinks that life should be lived to the fullest and that you can worry about your troubles tomorrow – a philosophy her roommate Lisa (Midori Francis, Oceans Eight) doesn’t completely agree with.  More of a realist than her more gregarious bestie, Lisa is focused on her career in science but doesn’t have the nerve to ask for what she deserves at her job.  Lisa’s hopelessly stunted encounters with a handsome next-door neighbor (Timothy Renouf) are also awkwardly awful, something Cassie notes as a thing they’ll need to work on…but after they go out for a night of celebration with friends.  When the overserved Cassie wakes up hungover the next day she stumbles to the bathroom, accidentally trips, and dies after hitting her head.

Ah…but that’s not the end my friend.  She’s brought to a fancy powder room where she meets Val (Robyn Scott) her guide between the Above and Below who tells her she has unfinished business to achieve that she has to wrap up before the week is out. It’s been a whole year since she died though, so Cassie will have to find a way to reach out to her loved ones (including both of her estranged divorced parents that she doesn’t speak to and Lisa, whom she fought with the night before she died) and get her affairs in order before the final decision is made where she’ll end up. If she can get things square (and make a few wrongs right) it might mean extra credit for the decision-makers that are currently holding her eternal fate in their heavenly hands.

Directed by Stephen Herek, who has amassed an assortment of notable ‘80s and ‘90s titles on his credit list from Critters to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, The Mighty Ducks, and Mr. Holland’s Opus, the script from Hallmark alum Carrie Freedle is a solid 20 minutes too long.  Far too much time is spent rehashing the same closure conversations, just with different people but not in any different ways.  Cassie’s attempt to connect with her sad-sack dad (Adam Garcia, Murder on the Orient Express) through health and wellness is an interesting way into the connection between mind, body, and spirit but the eventual meeting with her mom (Gloria Garcia, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, no relation to Adam) takes forever to get through. 

Where the film is at its snappiest is when Justice and Francis are working together.  Demonstrating that same crackle she did in last year’s Dash & Lily series for Netflix, Francis helps Justice loosen up and find more of the comedy in Freedle’s script.  It’s actually Francis that winds up with the more emotional journey and that’s only because we wind up wanting to spend more time with her character as it blossoms into someone in a far different place than where they began.  I can always use more ghost shenanigans and while Scott’s sorta-angel character is fun to have around, she isn’t as playful as I wanted her (or the movie) to get.

I don’t think audiences are coming to this one to be moved one way or the other, just for a pleasant diversion and Afterlife of the Party meets that challenge fully.  Production values are slightly lower than your usual Netflix film and fall in pace with a quickie seasonal movie you might find on Lifetime or Hallmark (hence why Freedle feels at home with introducing a number of late breaking non-challenging roadblocks for Cassie to face) but overall, this is one that floats into your life easily and drifts away after the credits roll just as smoothly.

Movie Review ~ Pray Away

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A powerful exposé on gay conversion programs, revealing the damage inflicted by shame and repression through intimate testimonies from current members and former leaders of the pray the gay away movement.

Stars: Julie Rodgers, Randy Thomas, Yvette Cantu Schneider, John Paulk, Jeffrey McCall

Director: Kristine Stolakis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Have I gotten too cold in my old age?  I asked myself that question a few times during Pray Away because the film didn’t make me as sad as I thought it would.  Oh, it made me mad alright and I’m glad I was able to watch it in my home and not in a theater when talking back to the screen would have been a given, but I kept thinking director Kristine Stolakis was going after something other than our anger-response button.  I’m the type of person that will sob through a live-action Disney movie from fifty years ago (a recent rewatch of Pollyanna from 1960 wrecked me…don’t judge if you haven’t watched it lately) but could Stolakis wring a single tear from me during her exploration of the rise of gay conversion programs over the last five decades? 

I’ve thought about this a lot since I saw Pray Away and I’m wondering if it has less to do with the subject (important) and more to do with the people that are interviewed about the subject (again, subject = important).  While documenting the rise of Exodus, an anti-gay program designed to “cure” men and women of their gay lifestyle choices and showing the effect of Exodus and other church-sponsored programs like it has on the “cured” and their families is pivotal in understanding continued wrongheadedness, it only goes so far.  Helping the discussion further along is interviewing survivors of these programs who talk openly about their experience, what it was like, and how they came out the other side. 

What I didn’t find as helpful in the overall case being made by the director was the interviews with the former heads of these groups (gay men and a former lesbian, now bisexual, woman) who essentially turned their backs on the communities they were a part of, denied who they were, and forced others just like them into doing the same.  Like watching the HBO series The Vow last year about former cult members that got out then turned their friends in to the FBI, the longer I spent with the main interviewees, the less I sympathized with them.  There’s a lack of accountability that’s frustrating to listen to as well, and it’s not like they don’t all recognize the pain they caused or the long-lasting effect their work had on laws and public mindset either.  While one person interviewed does express some true remorse and it feels genuine, I wish we’d seen others as contrite and/or in action working to undo the series of knots they tied.

The film finds surest footing when it stays with Julie, a lesbian preparing for her wedding while going back over her time in a conversion program she eventually became a leader in.  Hearing her journey is the real heart of the piece and where the thesis of Pray Away is actually found.  This brave woman came out to her parents and instead of supporting her they brought her to their church who tried to change her, eventually convincing her that she could lead others like her to change as well.  It’s only when she’s confronted face-to-face with the realities of what her organization has done to people does she wake up to the hurt she’s caused and what’s she’s been neglecting to own up to in her own life.  That’s when Pray Away is firing on all cylinders. Strangely, this footage is taken from a program years ago on another network…and it’s some of the most moving in the entire film.

By remaining neutral on the issue for the most part, Stolakis is able to get close to a convert who has been “cured” and has joined others in mobilizing outside of organized programs, getting out on the street and talking to people one on one.  These are some of the scariest moments of the film because listening to this group talk and the fear that is instilled by (sorry to say it, men that are clearly repressing their homosexuality), you can see why so many LGBTQ+ people are routinely murdered by people that have had unrealistic portrayals of the gay community shown to them.

Already brought to life on a larger Hollywood scale recently in Boy Erased, gay conversion programs are still in the spotlight and remain a hot button issue.  In that respect, it’s important for documentaries like Pray Away to present their viewpoints so more people can bear witness to the devastation the conversion programs have…and how ineffective they actually are.  Since people are born gay, you can’t covert to anything…you can change behavior, but you can’t change what’s on the inside in your heart.

Movie Review ~ The Last Mercenary

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious former secret service agent must urgently return to France when his estranged son is falsely accused of arms and drug trafficking by the government, following a blunder by an overzealous bureaucrat and a mafia operation.

Stars: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Samir Decazza, Assa Sylla, Djimo, Alban Ivanov, Miou-Miou, Eric Judor, Nassim Lyes, Patrick Timsit, Valérie Kaprisky

Director: David Charhon

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  For all the resurrection stories of old stars (and ‘90s action stars), none have been more interesting to me than the slowly winding road that is leading Jean-Claude Van Damme back into the hearts of viewers across the globe.  This is a now 60-year-old that, planned or not, has been playing the long game and taking his time to regain some of that boffo celebrity clout he had back in the early ‘90s when he was a can’t miss performer.  I mean, the run this guy had in the first part of the 1990’s alone is spectacular.  Bloodsport, Cyborg, Kickboxer, Lionheart, Death Warrant, Double Impact, Universal Soldier, Nowhere to Run, Hard Target, Timecop, Sudden Death…all made within a seven-year period and nearly all very watchable even to this day.  Sure, there are some groaners in the mix and Van Damme’s acting didn’t develop as fast as his biceps did, but the films were precisely engineered to his brand of strength…much more so than his contemporaries.

Then, an admitted rough patch occurred, and I won’t even go into the numerous flops, lousy sequels, vanity projects, and plain trash he got involved with that finally ended his run and victory laps around Hollywood.  The Muscles from Brussels retreated (going back on his promise from 1985’s No Retreat, No Surrender!) and though he worked here and there, it was only in gossip magazines about his private life that most fans got a look at what Van Damme was up to.  However, in 2008, a self-aware film he made titled JCVD seemed to indicate that whatever joke he had become, he was more than a little into it and he soon began to lean into that alter-ego persona quite heavily.  Culminating in the clever but cancelled too early Amazon Prime show Jean-Claude Van Johnson in 2017, it was clear that Van Damme’s comedic skills had sharpened to a fine point and after a few random action flicks he’s joined forces with Netflix for a new French action film making its debut in the US. 

If any of those films from the 1990’s I mentioned above is on your shortlist for go-to flicks when you need a nostalgic boost of action, The Last Mercenary is going to be right up your alley.  Here is a film that has been built from the ground up around Van Damme (The Expendables 2) and what he’s good at today.  Namely, kicking some butt, doing his trademark splits (I think), being goofy, and demonstrating an elevated commitment to a dramatic side that I hadn’t seen up until now.  Packaged with energy by director David Charon and featuring a supporting cast of likable players ready-made to run with a franchise should Van Damme feel like it, it’s an absolute treat for Van Damme-ers that have stuck with him all these years as well as newcomers that are keyed up for a breathlessly paced thriller.

A surprisingly chaotic script with numerous subplots from Charhon and co-screenwriter Ismaël Sy Savané makes watching this with subtitles a bit of a challenge, but compared to the terribly dubbed English version, it’s the lesser of two evils.  What you need to know is that Van Damme plays a French secret service agent known as The Mist who is called back to Paris when his son Archie (Samir Decazza) is targeted by government agents and a rogue faction within his own office when the protection/immunity granted for his son is accidentally lifted and his identity is exposed.  It might not have been that big of a deal for Archie, if a crazed arms dealer who fancies himself a modern-day Tony Montana from 1983’s Scarface hadn’t been committing crimes all over town using his name and immunity to get out of prosecution.  With that safety removed, a bunch of people want to get the fake Archie but are going after the real Archie by mistake.  The only one that can protect him is his father…who he has never met.

Father reuniting with estranged son is an easy base set-up and the screenwriters find creative building blocks to stack on top of their base which drive the movie furiously forward.  Van Damme helps to keep a lot of that momentum moving, bursting through the action sequences with the energy of someone ¼ his age (and I’m pretty sure a 20 year old was doing some of those stunts) and resisting the urge to drop too many one liners along the way.  The script has him donning a bunch of low-impact disguises that are less about fooling the crowd and more about entertaining the audience in showing how far Van Damme will go for a bigger laugh…and it works. If you don’t leap for the remote and rewind his short dance in a nightclub just to see him bust a move then you are a stronger viewer than I am.  If Decazza isn’t the most dynamic co-star as his son at first, he’s surrounded by a stellar ensemble including Assa Sylla as Dalila, a streetwise girl from the neighborhood who is likely the toughest of them all and some strong comedy from Djimo as Momo, Dailia’s brother. Alban Ivanov steals numerous scenes as a clueless government pawn who eventually has to wise up and take charge. 

Maybe it was the excitement to see Van Damme in such a well-made film (production design, effects, and even song selection are top notch) but I totally loved The Last Mercenary and found myself forgiving the occasional slide into conventionality.  It’s mild enough for parents who grew up on the violence of Bloodsport to show their young teens without worrying too much about bad content but also action-packed enough to keep genre fans enthralled for the duration.  I can imagine if this is a success (and I believe audiences will flip for it) a sequel will be guaranteed. Fingers crossed Van Damme can rise to the top of the Netflix charts because I want to see more of these characters in future installments.

Movie Review ~ Blood Red Sky

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman with a mysterious illness is forced into action when a group of terrorists attempt to hijack a transatlantic overnight flight. In order to protect her son she will have to reveal a dark secret, and unleash the vampire within that she fought to hide.

Stars: Peri Baumeister, Carl Anton Koch, Kais Setti, Alexander Scheer, Roland Møller, Dominic Purcell, Graham McTavish

Director: Peter Thorwarth

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I feel like in July, Netflix is giving me everything I’ve ever wanted short of a shark attack musical starring Sharon Stone.  Really, first that glorious Fear Street trilogy which started strong, built momentum, then brought it all together in a wonderful finale, and now Blood Red Sky.  Combining two of my favorite subgenres, the vampire horror film and the airplane disaster action film, this German/UK co-production is touching down at the perfect time when there is a tiny lull in blockbuster theatrical releases.  While it has no name stars and Netflix isn’t marketing it as well as they should, they are sitting on what could be a sleeper hit for their streaming service because this is one rocker shocker of a film that delivers endlessly from takeoff to landing.

As the film opens, a large airliner is unsteadily touching down at an airport where an array of tactical teams awaits its arrival.  After landing, one passenger exits from the baggage compartment while another sits in the cockpit in a sniper’s crosshairs.  Where is the crew?  What happened to the other passengers?  There are definitely answers and both of the individuals have what we’re looking for…but first we have to find out how we got here.  To do that, screenwriters Stefan Holtz and Peter Thorwarth (who also directed) take us back several hours to before the plane took off from Germany.

Young Elias (Carl Anthon Koch) checks in for a transatlantic flight from Germany to New York for both himself and his mother Nadja (Peri Baumeister).  She’s too ill to accompany him to the airport until just before the flight takes off later that evening because she’s suffering from a rare condition that has left her bald and requires an injection at regular intervals.  The two board the flight with the other passengers, taking off with little incident and settle in for the overnight flight which crosses time zones and will land in New York under a cloak of evening darkness.  What no one knows is that hidden amongst the passengers is a large team of terrorists who plan to hijack the plane and crash it into London, hoping to create another international incident that sends the stock market into a panic.

Midway through their flight, the terrorists (several of which come from unlikely places) stage their attack and during the struggle Nadja is shot and left for dead out of view of the other passengers.  Yet Nadja isn’t dead now.  She’s been dead before…and for a while.  Further flashbacks show us the snowy night when Elias was just a baby and Nadja encountered a terrifying creature along with her husband after their car broke down.  The creature that scratched her.  The creature she now is.  The creature that has been unleashed now that she’s missed her regular dose of medicine.

There’s quite a lot of fun to be had in Blood Red Sky and it all depends on how much you are willing to kick your shoes off and enjoy yourself.  If you’re going to overanalyze the movie on the merits of reality, you should probably go watch Air Force One or Executive Decision, both excellent films.  If you are a Snakes on a Plane kind of person or don’t mind some CGI mayhem injected into the mix, by all means come on over and check this out.  The more animalistic Nadja gets, the crazier Blood Red Sky becomes and just when you think Thorwarth has taken things to their limit, he pushes the boundary again.  Surprisingly, it all goes down smoothly and though the stakes are continually raised (often exponentially) it doesn’t even approach exhausting…. it’s rather thrilling.

A lot of this is owed to Baumeister’s almost mesmerizing work as this ever-evolving creature.  Helped along with make-up, it’s the physicality that Baumeister possesses underneath it all that sells it in the end.  Like the White Spikes created for The Tomorrow War on Amazon Prime, the vampiric creature SFX in Blood Red Sky are incredibly impressive and, without spoiling anything, plentiful.  The production design was another high point, with the airline set being both believably spacious and cramped when called for. 

Along with Baumeister, Koch is handed a lot of emotional material to work, and he acquits himself nicely.  The character is inherently a bit of a handful, always getting into some kind of mess, but Koch at least doesn’t get too obnoxious in the process.  As a fellow passenger and ally, Kais Setti gets the right message across by looking past the creature features of his aisle mate and Roland Møller (Land of Mine) is bit of a big dumb fun as a terrorist who is more annoyed with his fellow team members than the gnashing monster tracking them all down.  The prize of the film is without question Alexander Scheer’s demented hijacker, first taking pride in gruesomely killing hostages before finding benefit in Nadja’s powers…. you can tell Scheer is a go-for-broke performer and it’s exactly what the role calls for.

Blood Red Sky could (and should) be one of those titles that hover at the top of the Top 10 list on Netflix for a long while, long enough for people to be curious enough to give it a go or for word of mouth to spread.  It’s far above average and leveled-up entertainment that would have been good enough to play in theaters but instead is available right now at home.  I’ll still be waiting for Netflix fulfill my last request of that Sharon Stone outer space shark musical but for now…Blood Red Sky will more than fit the bill for my genre wish list.

Movie Review ~ The Last Letter From Your Lover

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young journalist in London becomes obsessed with a series of letters she discovers that recounts an intense star-crossed love affair from the 1960s.

Stars: Felicity Jones, Callum Turner, Joe Alwyn, Nabhaan Rizwan, Shailene Woodley

Director: Augustine Frizzell

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I vaguely remembered watching the trailer for The Last Letter from Your Lover when it was first released a month or so ago and as is the case with most previews I see now, I turned it off before it was halfway over.  I needed to see no more.  Period setting?  Love story?  Bit of mystery?  London setting?  A handful of actors I find intriguing? The boxes were unanimously checked, and this went straight into the ‘oh yes, please and thank you and when can I feast my eyes’ bucket.  I’m too lazy to go back and check now (and please don’t tell me) but did the preview also show how charming and adorable this late summer romantic drama was?  I honestly thought this was going to be far stuffier than it turned out but The Last Letter from Your Lover is a real find so late into July and a palette cleanser for those soured on scores of brainless comedies, action films, and an endless array of binged TV shows.

In reality, I should have seen it coming.  It’s based on a novel written by Jojo Moyes who managed to turn her book about the doomed love story between a small town pixie dreamer and rich paralytic into the rather memorable film Me Before You in 2016.  This isn’t in quite the same category and has its sights set on loftier goals, but both films rely heavily on sudsy romance and beautiful leads to win over audiences ready to swoon at the mere suggestion of unrequited love.  Moyes might even be called to the mat for going overboard by featuring not one, not two, but maybe even three hard-won romances in The Last Letter from Your Lover and darn it all if I didn’t get a little misty by the time it was all through. 

In present day London, Ellie (Felicity Jones, The Midnight Sky) a journalist for a popular publication is assigned to write a story on a recently deceased long-time employee who has left all her writings to the paper.  After battling with the paper’s fussy archivist (Nabhaan Rizwan, 1917) for access, she explores the cache of material and finds a rain-soaked letter within, a letter containing a love note from decades earlier.  We know the note is between Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley, The Mauritanian) the American wife of an upper crust but cold Englishman (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) and Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner, Green Room) a reporter that meets up with the couple while on vacation to write a story about the husband.  Unimpressed by the reporter at first, where there’s friction, there is soon fire and before long the two are swept up in a passionate affair.

Back in the modern time, Ellie continues to look into the history of the letter and finds more of them within the historical documents.  This spurs her into writing a new story about the affair, uncovering a love story that had laid dormant for quite some time, even as Ellie’s own romance with the archivist is taking on a life of its own.  The closer Ellie gets to finding out what happened to Jennifer and Anthony, the further she begins to retreat from her own happiness. Amidst her detective work, is she living too much in the past and making a mistake she’ll regret?

Taking a few steps back, I must admit there is a feeling that the cast skews slightly too young for the more mature nature of the story.  Even sitting in their late 20s/early 30s, Turner, Alwyn, and Woodley seem just slightly too young to be playing such established individuals and while Woodley looks totally ravishing in her luxurious wardrobe (by Anna Robbins, Downtown Abbey, with jaw-dropping ensembles that are never repeated twice) it can often feel like someone playing dress-up.  This is not a knock on Woodley’s talent in the least.  I just wonder what the whole thing would have felt like if Woodley (29) had swapped places with Jones (38) and was paired with Rizwan (24).  With all that said, the cast easily creates a chemistry with one another and it’s a chief reason why the film flows so smoothly through both time periods.

Director Augustine Frizzell (also an actress that has appeared in films such as The Old Man & the Gun and the remake of Pete’s Dragon) works a special kind of magic in the final act and while I won’t spoil it, it manages to bring a resolutely beautiful wrap-up to what could have been a maudlin and overly syrupy gathering of loose ends.  The performances by two actors (one of whom sadly passed away earlier this year) are especially strong and add to the effectiveness of these final moments, just another key ingredient along with the production design that give The Last Letter From your Lover that special something.  Make it a first choice for your next date night.

Movie Review ~ Fear Street Part Three: 1666

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1666, a colonial town is gripped by a hysterical witch-hunt that has deadly consequences for centuries to come, and it’s up to teenagers in 1994 to try and finally put an end to their town’s curse, before it’s too late..

Stars: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, Jeremy Ford, Gillian Jacobs, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Sadie Sink, Ted Sutherland, Jordana Spiro, Michael Chandler

Director: Leigh Janiak

Rated: R

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  OK – here we are in the final week of Netflix’s bam-bam-bam release schedule for a trilogy of scary releases based on the books of R.L. Stine.  Inspired by that author’s phenomenal roster of slim novels for young adults that everyone had tucked in their Jansport backpacks during the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the movies were pitched as an event saga for July and after the first two weeks I can say that I was truly looking forward to the final chapter.  Unlike Part One and Part Two, Netflix made press wait a bit longer to take in Part Three, likely to keep some of the more revealing spoilers at bay, but you know I wouldn’t dare dampen your fun.  With that in mind, if you haven’t yet seen either previous film you should steer clear of my review below because we’ll be covering the events of both movies.

Are you sure you want to go forward?

You’ve watched Part One: 1994?

You’ve come back safely from Camp Nightwing? (Part Two: 1978?)

OK…we’re a go for Part Three: 1666.

Some weeks back I expressed a gnawing trepidation in my review of the first in the Fear Street trilogy, set in 1994, feeling that by the end I wasn’t sure how the subsequent two films would continue to hold viewer interest.  That original film covered a lot of exposition that gave viewers a pile of backstory and overall history of the towns of Shadyside and Sunnyvale and the supposed witches curse that has haunted the land for over three hundred years.  With Sunnyvale and its citizens prospering with horrible things happening to those in Shadyside, by 1994 it’s just accepted that the less popular province is simply the epitome of the wrong side of the tracks.  After another killing spree puts the town on edge and high school flames Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) become involved with the witch’s curse, they watch as their friends fall victim to a bevy of resurrected killers from the past.

Thankfully, Part One was just an entertaining bit of groundwork that set the stage for the larger framework constructed during Part Two.  Fashioned as more of a summer camp slasher movie than an outright continuation of the story that began in Part One, the 1978-set film was quite fun as we saw a possessed axe-wielding killer with a face covered by a burlap sack hack his way through the camp on a rampage.  With only two once-bickering sisters to stop him, their sacrifice leads back into the 1994 present where Deena makes a connection to a time even further back than a previous decade.  As we saw at the end of Part Two, by making contact with the earthly remains of Sarah Fier, Deena now has a psychic bond and is able to “see” the part of the Shadyside/Sunnyvale creation story they haven’t been teaching in school.

This origin story forms the basis for most of Part Three and once again director Leigh Janiak and her co-screenwriter Phil Graziadei have brought in a third, Kate Trefry, to help flesh out some of the finer story points.  I’m so interested to see what the writing process for this was like because while there have been new writers on each film, there’s a collective voice and through line that has given them all a consistency and coherence.  While we’ve seen these stories of a person transported back in time a million times before, this isn’t that.  Deena isn’t “Deena” in the past, she actually “is” Sarah living her life.  For all we know, everyone else is “seeing” the real Sarah Fier (Elizabeth Scopel) and we are only seeing the actress playing Deena because that’s a character/actress familiar to us.  That’s also why actors from previous films (I’m not saying who) pop up, sometimes as veiled nods to who they play in earlier entries.  Perhaps this suggests their family line predestines them to certain behavior…

Janiak and her writers clearly have thought this one out because while the solution becomes readily apparent upon the appearance of another modern-day character, it’s well-explained and carried forward when the timeline inevitably jumps again.  When that happens, it’s another brilliant piece of ingenuity (and a clever way for Janiak to actually break the movie into a tetralogy right under our noses) and keeps the final act energy hurtling forward at breakneck speed.  It does get a little Home Alone-y but I almost wouldn’t have wanted it any other way – it’s all in keeping with the spirit of all three films.

What fun this series has been and who knows, perhaps another project like this could get made and readied for next summer. While this wasn’t based on a particular R.L. Stine Fear Street book by name, there are definitely a long list of titles that could be chosen from if they needed inspiration for the future.  They’d have to have this trilogy to contend with though, one that starts off strong and only gets better as it goes along.

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.

Movie Review ~ Fear Street Part 1: 1994

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A circle of teenage friends accidentally encounter the ancient evil responsible for a series of brutal murders that have plagued their town for over 300 years.

Stars: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, Jeremy Ford, Charlene Amoia, Noah Bain Garret, Ashley Zuckerman, Maya Hawke

Director: Leigh Janiak

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you suffer from severe bouts of nostalgia that only a well-worn VHS copy of The Breakfast Club or a dog-eared first edition of your favorite Christopher Pike paperback can cure, you’re the target audience for a rad new trilogy of films Netflix has cooked up to make this sweltering summer just a wee bit cooler.  Inspired by the Fear Street series of novels written by R.L. Stine, the three films would each take place in a different time period, were shot back-to-back, and will be released one week apart starting with Part One, set in 1994.  Timing-wise, I’ve seen the first two but will only be reviewing Fear Street Part One: 1994 here.  Come back next week for my thoughts on Part Two and the week after that for Part Three.  If the first two chapters are any indication, this is a trilogy where the suspense builds as you go along.

The fifth Scream film is due out in 2022 but those who can’t wait quite that long will get a fun little amuse-bouche in a pre-credit sequence set in the after-hours Shadyside Mall where one B. Dalton employee has a terrifying encounter with a masked killer.  Sadly, it’s not the first such incident for Shadyside, which has a bloody history dating all the way back to 1666 when the townspeople killed Sarah Fier, believed to have been a witch.  Every few years, seemingly normal people snap and go on a rampage, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.

While the killing doesn’t go unnoticed, it hardly registers for teen Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her friends Simon (Fred Hechninger, The Woman in the Window) and Kate (Julia Rehwald).  They’ve got their own problems to deal with.  Deena is feeling the sting of a break-up after her love interest moved to neighboring town Sunnyvale while Simon and Kate’s side-business of selling prescription drugs is constantly being threatened by exposure.   Coming face to face with her former flame, the still in the closet Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), at a sports event between the two towns leads to a prank that goes awry and stirs an evil curse from its slumber.  With the help of Deena’s brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) and more of the town’s history under their belt, the teens bond together to stop an unrelenting force and a barrage of Shadyside’s most infamous killers from finding them.

Part One is a bit of a strange beast and I think it’s almost helpful to know there are two more chapters that come after it.  Often I found myself wondering what purpose the other two movies would serve seeing that we already know what happens and even having footage of those two movies spliced in to prove it.  It’s like watching Friday the 13th and having clips from Parts II – IV cut in throughout – if we know where it’s all headed then why continue to watch?  Ah…but that’s where director Leigh Janiak and her co-screenwriters Phil Graziadei and Kyle Killen have some tricks waiting for you and, without any spoilers for this film or what’s to come, I’ll just say…keep watching. 

While that bodes well for the trilogy as a whole, it does leave Part One feeling very much as the introduction it firmly is.  I’d almost suggest waiting until Part Two is available so you can watch those back-to-back…or if you can wait then take in all three at once.  I like that Netflix is doling these out one at a time and hope they do this with future movies with similar themes but for me personally, Part One didn’t feel fully complete to me without having something to compliment it fairly quickly.  It also strains to make it past 90 minutes, with a number of conversations between Deena and Sam being stated and restated a number of times.  I know, I know.  Teen problems and all, but…there’s only so many times you can hear “I love you, but you moved.”  “I moved, but I still love you.” and not want to scream “Geography!  Get over it!”

These are also extraordinarily well-made films, with striking production values that don’t bop you over the head with period details (heck, they don’t even display any B. Dalton signage so the budget couldn’t have been THAT big) but instead focus on making things crisp and clean.  The gore is gruesome (and often unexpected) and people you may not think will get sliced get diced just when you’ve gotten comfortable.  The performances are good and, best of all, by the time it ends you’ll want to hop right into the next part…a sure sign that Fear Street Part One: 1994 is worth making a trip to.

Movie Review ~ Awake

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a sudden global event wipes out all electronics and takes away humankind’s ability to sleep, chaos quickly begins to consume the world. Only Jill, an ex-soldier with a troubled past, may hold the key to a cure in the form of her own daughter.

Stars: Gina Rodriguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher, Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, Shamier Anderson

Director: Mark Raso

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Blame Sandra Bullock and that darn Bird Box but ever since the 2018 film premiered on Netflix and created a massive amount of publicity for the streaming service, a number of imitators centered on a massive world event have tried to capture that film’s same energy.  It’s not that the original movie was all that special, but it hit at just the precise moment when audiences needed that particular kind of escapist entertainment and didn’t mind some of its sillier plot mechanics.  The point was, it was led by an A-list, Oscar-winning actress who may have brought people in initially, but who eventually stuck around for the effective scares.  Any attempt to duplicate that would be a bit pointless…but oh did people try.

At first glance, you may look at the new Netflix film Awake and chalk it up to another Bird Box wannabe, but any doubt of its intentions wears off within the first few minutes and you realize this is no mere imitation but a different kind of beast with its own plan of attack.  Like Bird Box, it can’t quite figure out how to untangle itself from third act problems and takes a bit of a nosedive just when it should be accelerating to the finish line. Up until that point, it’s a breathless thriller that succeeds on the merit of the performances and the skill of the filmmaking.

Recovering veteran and single mom Jill (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire, an excellent actress that always seems to be one role shy of truly breaking through) is putting her life back together working as a security guard for a government run psychiatric unit while repairing the fractured relationship with her two children.  While she occasionally lifts unused pills from her job so she can sell them in order to make ends meet, she’s largely on the level, which is beginning to earn back trust from her former mother-in-law (Frances Fisher, Titanic) and daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblat, A Bad Moms Christmas), though her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos, What If) remains wary that his mom has truly turned over a new leaf.

After a solar flare creates an enormous electromagnetic pulse, wiping out all electronic devices and means of transportation, at first the family believes they need to just wait out this incredible inconvenience.  However, soon it becomes apparent that the unexplained phenomena triggered something else within the human race, rendering them unable to sleep.  Returning to her workplace, Jill finds the unit in chaos and her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) scrambling to relocate their operation to The Hub, a secret facility where they can study what has happened and, using a mysterious woman who has been able to fall asleep, figure out a way to fix it. 

What Jill fails to tell them is that Matilda can also sleep, something her mother-in-law has already figured out and told their local pastor (Barry Pepper, Crawl) who, in turn, has told his congregation.  Already whipped into a frenzy due to their lack of sleep, the prospect of having one in their midst that might hold the key to getting back their slumber becomes too much for them and violence erupts.  That’s about where Awake reaches the first of its numerous points of no return and as an audience member you’re going to have to either love it or leave it as Jill and her family go on the run from all kinds of sundry sorts over the next 90 minutes. Encountering car thieves (two different sets of them!), a highway full of nude cultists, and, in one of the film’s eeriest looking moments, a small town with streets full of wandering prison inmates in orange jumpsuits, there’s danger down every highway for this household. 

It’s a lot to handle, but Canadian director Mark Raso (who wrote the film along with his brother Joseph) keeps the pieces moving in a rather orderly fashion the majority of the time.  Raso isn’t above putting young Matilda in as much danger as possible but managing to do it in a way that has a sort of cinematic thrill to it.  That sounds weird. Let me explain. There’s a scene where Jill, Matilda, Noah, and a passenger who I won’t reveal are all in a car and attacked from the outside. In one camera move (or meant to look like one) we are inside the car, front and center, for the attack and it feels real and raw.  All this intensity works up unto a point near the end and that’s when Awake veers off course into territory that’s more messy than structured.  The final act may be a letdown after such a promising start, but it doesn’t completely overshadow the skill in which Raso constructs the setup.

Rumors abound that a Bird Box 2 is happening sometime in the future but until then we are going to have to be satisfied with films that run a similar route to that earlier movie.  Awake is one of the better Netflix films to arrive and wholly worth keeping your eyes open for. I don’t believe the Rasos intended to create a film to outpace the popular Netflix film Bird Box, but they’ve wound up with one that could easily be mentioned in the same breath and draw some favorable comparisons.