Movie Review ~ The Batman

The Facts:

Synopsis: In his second year of fighting crime, Batman uncovers corruption in Gotham City that connects to his own family while facing a serial killer known as The Riddler.
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan
Director: Matt Reeves
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 175 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Across the Marvel Universe/Multiverse and throughout the DC Extended Universe, there is an enormity of strong beings, big and small, that have been integral parts of many childhood fandom origin stories. It could be through comics, video games, TV shows, or any of the numerous movies made over time. There seemed to be a set image for heroes and heroines with slight variance for a while. Over time, the vision of these crime fighters has evolved as our world has changed. Other institutions may be frustratingly stuck in a cycle of sameness, but for all the countless comic book installments we get seemingly every month in theaters, at least there are options for those looking to see themselves represented up on the big screen.

I realize I’m writing this preamble at the start of a review of another film about a white superhero. Yet it’s important to note that what The Batman represents is a significant step forward for the DC Extended Universe due to the folks involved taking a considerate step back to look at the world as a whole. In doing so, they’ve allowed the unpleasant fester of the underbelly to surface in a way that comes across as more balanced an approach than what we saw in 2019’s Joker. In that film, it felt like it sought to identify and, by coincidence, laud support to a faction that didn’t need to be given strength. Some of those same ideas bubble up in The Batman, but they’ve worked within the fantasy framework model that essentially separates Gotham City’s reality from our everyday life.

For director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and his co-writer Peter Craig (Bad Boys for Life), Gotham City is much darker than any previous incarnation we’ve seen. Barely skating by in his re-election bid, the current mayor presides over a city littered with crime and assault. Only a masked vigilante called The Batman has made an impact, emerging from the shadows to strike down those that would interfere with the good people of Gotham. The crude signal bearing his symbol created by James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, No Time to Die) that illuminates the night sky is both a call to action and a warning to crooks that vengeance is coming for them.

Of course, the tortured man behind the mask is Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), a wealthy orphan still haunted by the murders of his mother and father years earlier. Donning his cowl and body armor outfitted with an array of ingenious, practical gadgets and weapons, Bruce funnels his rage at his inability to save his parents into his speed at disarming criminals by any means necessary. In his second year as Batman, he already bears the body bruises and scars that reflect he’s just a man underneath it all and doesn’t possess the same type of superpowers other famous city sentinels do. Assisted by Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis, Black Panther), Bruce’s life is lived primarily out of the public’s view, despite his family obligations as head of his father’s company and philanthropy.

Someone else has been keeping an eye on the city and developed a plan to make people pay for their part of a high-stakes scandal years in the making and longer in the cover-up. Planting a series of deadly clues left for Batman, The Riddler (Paul Dano, 12 Years a Slave) begins laying traps for Gotham’s upstanding citizens, all tied to an event that started long ago and continues to infect the daily workings of city business to this day. Instead of simply exposing the truths and trusting justice or a court of public opinion to do their job, The Riddler takes it upon himself to escalate these shocking reveals by staging astonishing displays of his reach and capabilities as Batman, and the authorities stand by, helpless.

Somewhat amazingly, while this detailed detective story is happening, Reeves and Craig manage to work in another fully-formed B plot involving local gangster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, Gloria Bell) and the patrons of a popular nightclub he likes to visit. Managed by Oswald Cobblepot, nicknamed The Penguin (Colin Farrell, Voyagers), who might be conducting illicit business, it isn’t long before Batman ties The Riddler’s plot together with the Falcone/Penguin operation. Of course, Batman isn’t the only one looking into Falcone’s business. Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road) is also slinking around in a catsuit and knit cap cut out just perfectly to look like a nouveau Gotham feline. The more clues received as to who the next victim is, the more intriguing the mystery gets, and soon Batman realizes that the next target might be someone extremely close to him. Someone staring back at him in the mirror when he takes off his mask.

That’s all I should mention about the film’s developments that run just shy of three hours…the same running length as The Godfather. I know; I saw both movies in the theater over several days. It should be noted that both movies may be three hours but neither feel like it. Reeves and Craig have carefully put their plot together but shaving off the best parts of a gumshoe mystery and blending in elements of Seven and braiding in a bit of Blade Runner for good measure. There’s an actual puzzle to be solved; clues are deliberately withheld so as not to allow you to get too far ahead of the action. I appreciated being led gently along this way, not dragged forth by force. It will enable you to relax and enjoy meeting these characters, letting them form fully in front of you.

It’s an unenviable task to take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I genuinely thought Pattison was excellent in the role. That sullen, distracted gaze that made all those fans swoon in the Twilight series is put to even better use here, and he’s a sounder actor now as well, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch. Saying he’s better suited up and hooded as Batman might sound like a dig, but it’s the truth; there’s a strength and a confidence that’s hard to pull off when you’re under all these layers. However, Pattinson doesn’t let that weigh him down. It certainly doesn’t hold him back from finding the chemistry with Kravitz’s Kyle character; though Kravitz is so skillfully playing the role as a femme fatale open book, it would be hard not to generate some spark with her to see what would happen if a flame took. 

If Dano is maybe just playing another variation of his psychotic doughy creep role (I won’t say what other movie that is, no spoiler!), give him credit for conveying a lot of that scary energy through a frightening mask. Like the movie itself, my main criticism is that Dano’s third act isn’t nearly as strong as his first two, but up until then, it’s a chilling bit of work. As ever, Turturro and Wright are dependable in their more seasoned roles as opposite sides of the law coin. Reeves has made several other exciting casting decisions for his more minor roles, using actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (The Guilty) as Gotham’s District Attorney, Alex Ferns (Wrath of Man) as the current police Commissioner, Con O’Neill (The Way of the Wind) as the troublesome Chief of Police, and Jayme Lawson (The Woman King) playing the challenger for the mayoral seat. 

In all honesty, though, everyone takes a backseat to Farrell whenever he is onscreen. In some ways, I was glad I knew it was Farrell underneath all that make-up, but on the other hand, it would have been fun to be surprised. I’m only mentioning it because it’s not been kept under wraps, so it isn’t considered a spoiler. You’ll be amazed at the work Mike Marino did to make the trim Irish Farrell look like an overweight, balding Jersey boy with bad skin. It’s an unbelievable transformation, and there’s not a frame where I even spotted a hint of Farrell’s natural features. On top of all that, Farrell is excellent in the role, managing to be both funny and the type of Penguin you could see yourself finding ways to cheer on. No one will beat Danny DeVito’s Penguin (or Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, for the matter) in Batman Returns, but this is a solid take on the villain.

With a fantastic production design from James Chinlund (The Lion King) and costumes from Oscar-nominated Jacqueline Durran (Cyrano), it’s the A-team behind the camera as well. I’d hope March isn’t too early to put cinematographer Greig Fraser’s (Dune) name into the hat for awards consideration at next year’s Oscars for the breathtaking shots he delivers. The topper is Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek) dazzling score that gives you everything from the most haunting hint of Morricone to the slinky curve of John Barry at peak James Bond. The soundtrack for The Batman indeed might be Giacchino’s masterwork. I’ll be looking forward to hearing orchestras around the world play these tracks.

Ultimately, this is a high-water mark not just for a Batman movie but for the genre itself. It’s a superhero noir that bursts out of the gate with a brooding style and a moody tone it justifies with a complex plot that’s part pulpy mob flick and part hard-boiled detective yarn. Less origin story for Bruce Wayne and more of an engrossing look at how Gotham’s best and darkest first crossed paths, The Batman is a massive achievement for all involved in front of and behind the camera

 

Movie Review ~ The Lost Daughter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A professor’s seaside vacation takes a dark turn when her obsession with a young mother forces her to confront secrets from her past.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: There’s something to be said for investing in a two-hour movie with a central character that’s hard to like.  We’ve had to root for anti-heroes in a number of films in theaters and television over the years and it takes a certain type of character (and actor) to be able to pull of that fine tight-rope act of leaning into the unlikability of a persona but not overstep so far that you lose the audience.  It’s the ultimate trust-fall test to bet the house that viewers will turn up to be attentive to (and even eventually root for) an individual that we might otherwise recoil from.  Oscar-winner Olivia Colman has played brittle before and her success as Queen Elizabeth on The Crown has largely come from her ability to “staunch” like the best of them…so we already know she can win us over.  What do you do when the movie as a whole is hard to like, though?

While I haven’t read the source novel on which The Lost Daughter was adapted from, it’s not very hard to see the literary bones and stumbling blocks in the structure of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s version.  The actress, making her feature film directing debut as well as logging her first screenplay, takes Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel (which was translated from its original 2006 Italian version) and brings the psychological drama off the page with a fine cast of actors who struggle through a serpentine plot that gets more turned around on itself the longer it plays.  Each time you feel momentum is gaining on plot or performance, a new element is introduced to distract and take you out of the energy the film was building.  It creates a strong discord over time, eventually alienating the viewer almost entirely, giving a full pardon to us to let our minds wander.  It’s a pity too, because the movie is chock full of dynamic actors dutifully delivering in their assigned roles.

Gyllenhaal (Batman Begins) opens The Lost Daughter with one of my least favorite plot devices: the flash forward/backward. (Ugh!) We see a brief glimpse of a time other than when most of the action takes place.  Maybe it’s before, maybe it’s after but we’re soon with Leda (Colman, The Mitchells vs. The Machines) as she arrives at a Greek seaside village for a quiet holiday on her own.  Single and with two adult children, she’s free to do as she pleases and at first it looks like that will be keeping her own schedule on the tranquil beach and flirting (badly) with the sea-salty landlord (Ed Harris, The Abyss) she meets on her first night.

The serenity doesn’t last long.  Another family joins her at the beach, a large group that boisterously descends, or rather invades, the space and overtakes the area.  Determined to keep her holiday on her terms and able to tune them out for the most part, it’s only when she refuses to relinquish her space to them that their orbits truly collide.  It’s also when she notices Nina (Dakota Johnson, Our Friend), a young mother of a toddler that never gives her a moment of peace.  Seeing this woman struggle to find some second to gather her thoughts acts as a trigger for Leda, drudging up memories of her own past when she was young (played by Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) and hoping to balance motherhood and her own dreams of status in the educated world.

It’s here that Gyllenhaal creates a fork in the road for viewers as well as a gap that continues to widen for the rest of the film.  On the left is the older Leda who is there when Nina’s young daughter disappears briefly only to discover something else has been taken when she returns.  A greater mystery is then uncovered, creating a creeping sense of dread that Leda’s safety is at risk from Nina, her shady husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Bly Manor), and their extended family…or is it the other way around and does Leda harbor a dark side that’s ready to swallow all of them up? 

The second and, sadly, far less interesting fork is the one we’re continually pulled back to…that of the younger Leda’s life with her children who need their mother but are so clingy they begin to drive her away.  Her need for attention turns into desire for validation and, not finding that at home, she looks to a more mature colleague (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) who provides that outlet for her.  This section is meant to show why the older Leda acts the way she does but never fleshes out the history enough for us to have that full picture etched for us, or even halfway shaded in.  Brief conversations in both timelines hint at Leda’s mother playing a part in her feeling unwanted and that transference easily passing through her to her children. Gyllenhaal never explores that, and it feels like a missed opportunity…for us and for the actresses who are more than capable of taking on those tricky corners of the heart.

While a beautiful name, those with knowledge of Greek mythology will pick up on the scholarly burden that comes with the name Leda who was the wife of a King when a most famous God took a liking to her.  An unwilling bedmate (i.e. by force) to Zeus who masqueraded as a swan, the story goes that she wound up laying two eggs that hatched into children.  It’s a thinly veiled metaphor for what the older Leda goes through, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find she gave herself that name – she often acts like such a martyr it would feel in line with the character. 

Of course, it’s not Colman’s doing that she’s tasked with a most difficult through line to play and if anything works best about the movie, it’s her.  Displaying her usual bravado in making risky choices that pay off, she isn’t afraid to go to awkward places in her acting or let uncomfortable silences linger longer than they have to.  The scenes with Colman and Johnson are first rate, as is one scene early on between Colman and Dagmara Domińczyk (The Assistant), Nina’s cousin who has the initial run-in with Leda and attempts to make peace. 

There’s a lot of buzz around Gyllenhaal’s screenplay and it’s a bit of a puzzlement for me.  Any juggling of timelines is always looked on with favor but aside from a few admittedly knock-out scenes that appear to be building to something but amount to little more than a puff of smoke, there isn’t anything remarkable about the assemblage of The Lost Daughter.  It’s the performances that stand out far more than the script or the direction, both of which are serviceable.  This includes everything right up to the ending which could have been punctuated better to close out Gyllenhaal’s debut by finally finding its footing.  Instead, it literally trips and falls without much fanfare. 

Movie Review ~ The Guilty (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A demoted police officer assigned to a call dispatch desk is conflicted when he receives an emergency phone call from a kidnapped woman.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano, Bill Burr, Gillian Zinser, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Christina Vidal

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  American remakes of foreign films are a strange beast indeed, especially when the original is one you still are recommending to people when the English version is released for a wide audience.  That’s the dilemma I face when a film like The Guilty arrives for its limited theatrical run and streaming debut on Netflix.  Here’s a smart, compact, film from the slick streaming service by a popular director (Antoine Fuqua) with an enhanced screenplay courtesy of an in-demand writer known for their pot-boilers (True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto) and starring a red-hot actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who always attracts attention in any project he attaches himself to.  Sounds like a no-brainer, right?  Of course. The tiny wrinkle is that they’ve remade a 2018 film from Denmark still going strong (on Hulu) and while the 2021 has all the right players, does it improve the game?

At a 911 call center, LAPD officer Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) is nearing the end of his shift as the wildfires in the Hollywood Hills rages on nearby.  Relegated to a desk job as he waits on a trial for something we’ll learn more about as the 91 minutes tick away, Joe is a hot-tempered live wire…not a perfect match for the charged atmosphere he’s working in.  In between phone calls to his estranged wife, he receives a call from a teary woman (Riley Keough, The Lodge) who appears to be talking to a small child.  Eventually realizing the call to a “child” is a ruse to whomever she is with, Joe confirms the woman has been kidnapped and launches into a one-man mission to save her and reunite her with her children.

To say more of the film might give away one or two of the twists and turns present in the original and thankfully retained here.  It’s nice to see that Pizzolatto has kept a hold of much of the solid structure installed by original screenwriters Emil Nygaard Albertsen & Gustav Möller, adding small tweaks for its transport to America along the way.  Adding in the pressure of the California fires ups the ante for making Joe such a man on a solo mission, because much of the force is busy attending to that devastation and danger. 

Where you have to look at remakes is how they diverge from the initial film and then make your comparisons and as strong as the team is on the 2021 take, it can’t quite make it over the bar set so high by the 2018 Danish thriller.  The beauty of the previous film is that it was so simple a set-up which made the events unfolding so breathless and terrible all at once.  Here, everything is just awful all around so things start at level 10 and just have nowhere to go.  Fuqua and Pizzolatto remade The Magnificent Seven and, while no classic or in danger of besting the original, it had some fun moments of ingenuity that boosted a few of the characters in interesting ways.  Pizzolatto isn’t as successful here with the way they’ve added physical burdens to Baylor to go along with the emotional weight he’s carrying inside.  This is especially true in a strangely self-indulgent coda, not present in 2018, that stretches on far too long and is meant to turn our attention from the story to Gyllenhaal’s performance…and that doesn’t feel right.  It feels show pony chic and it cheapens the mood. 

The Guilty would actually have made a wonderful audiobook or podcast experience since so much of it is just Gyllenhaal onscreen talking to disembodied voices.  Keep your ears open and see if you can put some voices with the famous faces of actors and comedians that pop up throughout.  By all means, do yourself a favor and watch both films to compare but I’d still give my overall greenlight to the 2018 entry which does a better job with portraying the inner turmoil going on below the surface of the emergency operator and the way that his intervention might wind up doing more harm than good.

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – The Lie & Black Box

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You’ve got to hand it to über-producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse production company for creating a mini horror empire that is able to take a lot of lickings and keep on ticking.  Not unlike Michael Meyers, whom Blum had a hand in resurrecting in 2018 for a wildly popular and critically applauded continuation of Halloween, Blumhouse has taken its fair share of beatings by angry mobs but gets in a few nice stabs every now and then.  For every Fantasy Island there’s a The Invisible Man and while I thought a a female-helmed remake of Black Christmas was agreeably different, a bunch of horror fans (i.e. middle-aged men) disagreed.

With their planned sequel for Halloween as well as an intriguing new take on Candyman getting pushed out a whole year, other theatrically intended projects have either been delayed or moved to streaming like You Should Have Left (I’m also looking forward to Run Sweetheart Run, acquired by Amazon for a TBD release).  So Blumhouse has gotten creative with our at-home trappings and found an interesting way to ring in the chilly weather October brings.  Partnering with Amazon to premiere four new streaming films via Prime Video as part of their Welcome to the Blumhouse project, the first two movies showed up this week and fans were treated to a virtual premiere which could be enhanced by a mystery to solve after the film was over, depending on your level of desired interaction.

I thought the design of the premiere was fun and the puzzle to solve seemed to create engagement but I was here for the movies and was so curious to see if these titles were going to be also-rans Blumhouse was cleverly trying to get rid of or if they were quality that fit the theme.  With two down and two to go, I’d say Blumhouse has nicely curated their content for this platform and the audience which has come to watch – I don’t think either title would play particular well in the theaters but for a evening of entertainment, both films deliver.

 


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Suburban parents fall into a web of lies and deceit when they try to cover up their teenage daughter’s horrific crime.

Stars: Mireille Enos, Peter Sarsgaard, Joey King, Patti Kim, Cas Anvar, Devery Jacobs, Nicholas Lea

Director: Veena Sud

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The first movie in my line-up is actually the oldest one of the group.  Premiering a full two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Lie has sat on the virtual shelf until now and while it isn’t exactly the kind of tone or temperament that comes to mind when you think of Blumhouse, it has a chill to it that makes it a nice addition to this group of films.   Based on a 2015 German film and adapted by director Veena Sud, it treads similar territory to Sud’s other translation of a foreign property for American audiences, the the popular crime drama The Killing.  Featuring the star of that show, Mireille Enos (World War Z), and Peter Sarsgaard (The Sound of Silence) as parents of a teenage girl (Joey King, The Conjuring) who commits an unexpected crime, there’s a high sophistication from all involved which helps elevate The Lie from being the NBC Movie of the Week-esqe parental drama it is at the core.

Most of the time, it’s a detriment to have characters that you don’t much care for but it works wonders for keeping The Lie afloat for as long as it does.  King is such a willful, spoiled brat (something her parents are all too aware of) that even after she does what she does and fully admits to it, you are begging for her to get caught.  Each time her act is covered up, first from Enos by Sarsgaard and eventually from neighbors, friends, and the police by both parents, you wonder why they’re actively protecting someone that is so awful.  She must get it from her dad’s side of the family, though, because Sarsgaard’s character seems to have some moral quandaries of his own going on.  Taking the stance of “It’s our daughter, we must protect her” against his ex-wife’s protests of turning her over to the police and letting them sort it out, he only makes things worse at every juncture and his lies force the family into increasingly dangerous situations.

The strongest reason to see the film is for the razor sharp performance of Enos.  Beginning the film an icy parental figure used to daily routine and mothering by enforcement of rules (she’s a former cop turned lawyer, after all), her gradual breakdown into a person that could betray the law she’s sworn to uphold startles her and us at the same time.  For all his bluster, Sarsgaard is a good match for Enos as well and you can tell why they work better as divorcees than as a couple.  King is two years older now than she was when she filmed this and she’s improved in that time, considering as well it’s a tough character play because you aren’t rooting for her in the slightest.  Of the small supporting cast, I greatly enjoyed Patti Kim as a former police colleague of Enos that she first turns to for help…until she realizes she’s gone to the one person that really is looking to solve the mystery that surrounds them all.

The final fifteen minutes of The Lie have some turns that I didn’t see coming and kudos to everyone for distracting me long enough to let my guard down.  This is a small film but it has an impact that resonates more than I had originally thought it would.  The performances are strong and while the plot may seem simple at first, it sits on top of something a lot more thorny.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: After losing his wife and his memory in a car accident, a single father undergoes an agonizing experimental treatment that causes him to question who he really is.

Stars: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa, Donald Watkins, Troy James

Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: We all can agree that 2020 has bit the big one, right?  Well, I think we can also try to find the positives along the way and one thing I’ve noticed is that this year has been a great one for horror/suspense films to find exciting new (or new-ish) voices that are getting some nice exposure because their smaller films are able to be noticed.  If we were only talking about big blockbusters and focused solely on the money makers, we’d be neglecting to give accolades to so many worthy films. Let’s remember Natalie Erika James for the creepy multi-layers found in Relic, the keen ear for creating character amidst nail-gnawing gore from Egor Abramenko in Sputnik, or the way Lane and Ruckus Skye make the retro themes in The Devil to Pay feel fresh.

You can add writer/director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour to that list of names to watch out for because if his first feature Black Box is any indication, this is a filmmaker who has hit the ground running.  You can easily see why Blumhouse Television snapped this one up and featured it in the inaugural slate of Welcome to the Blumhouse pictures; it’s a perfect blend of spooky horror and mind-bending mystery wrapped up in a surprisingly emotional family drama.  I was expecting it to get my pulse racing but wasn’t thinking it would make me get all misty-eyed, either.

Months after a terrible car accident robbed him of his wife and left him with amnesia, Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie, Underwater) still needs help remembering the name of his former boss and the way to his daughter’s school, not to mention the proper way to do their secret handshake.  Though still a small child, Ava (Amanda Christine, Miss Virginia) has taken on a lot of the household responsibilities for her father who often forgets to pick her up and cook dinner.  He’s convinced by his physician best friend (Tosin Morohunfola) to take part in an experimental study offered by Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad, Creed) who specializes in memory loss for patients with brain trauma.

Pioneering a new technology with her “black box”, she works with Nolan in one on one sessions to bring him back to previous memories as a way to restore the part of his mind that was damaged in the crash.  At first, the treatment seems to yield positive results, with Nolan remembering his wedding day and seeing his newborn daughter.  Yet there is an unpleasant quality to these visions: everyone he sees has a blurred face so he can’t identify anyone.  Worse, each time their faces begin to come into focus, another figure enters the remembrance…a quadruple jointed, backwards-walking, bone crunching, evil entity that is coming after him.  Dr. Brooks dismisses this as the part of his mind that feels threatened but as the presence grows more intense, Nolan grows more convinced the treatment may be doing more harm than good…and that these memories may not be his after all.

Osei-Kuffour and his co-writer Stephen Herman have worked out a fairly clever plot that keeps viewers engaged for most of the run time.  What’s really happening to Nolan and how it is related to the treatment is something experienced viewers may guess at but it’s not as simple an explanation as you may think.  I was impressed that for a film relying on high-tech medical gadgetry to sell us on the premise, it acquits itself easily by keeping things as unpretentious as possible.  It also helps immensely to have Rashad explaining things because when she’s selling it, you buy it.

That’s true for all of the performances actually; everyone is so convincing that even when things start to go slightly awry in the latter half it doesn’t feel like the movie has lost any points overall because everyone has been cast so well.  Athie is excellent in the lead, totally convincing as a man who lost everything trying to put his life back together and hold down what he has left for his daughter.  It’s so wonderful to see Rashad in this type of role that has more than just one-note to play and Charmaine Bingwa and Morohunfola are strong in their supporting roles.  The real star is Christine as Nolan’s daughter – what a strong performance by such a young actress!  There’s a scene close to the end that almost breaks your heart and it’s her convincing acting that makes it so believable.

I found Black Box to be an exciting watch, one that kept me comfortably leaning forward in my seat and wanting to know more.  It only dips in energy as it reveals more of its secrets but bounces back with an well-earned resolution and nicely done finale that isn’t your standard “gotcha” moment.  Check this one out and don’t be surprised to see a number of these actors and the director show up in more projects on the horizon.

Movie Review ~ The Sound of Silence


The Facts
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Synopsis: A successful “house tuner” in New York City, who calibrates the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods, meets a client with a problem he can’t solve.

Stars: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Alex Karpovsky, Austin Pendleton, Bruce Altman

Director: Michael Tyburski

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I know it’s a horrible thing, environment-wise, but I miss the feel and smell of paper.  I especially had a fondness for receipts, the kind that were in a pad that you could write, rip, and hand off.  Feeling that slip of paper in your hand was such a enjoyable thing and the smell of the ink just put me in a comfort zone, like the aroma of an old book that has sat in a library for years.  Early on in the new film The Sound of Silence, a man gives his client a receipt like the one I mentioned and for a brief moment I was transported exactly to where these characters were in New York City.  I could see the apartment, understood the environment.  It all made sense.  All because of that one slip of paper that evoked such a strong memory in my mind.

It’s the first and last time I connected with the movie.

I could say the movie was one-note.  I could say the characters were off-key.  I might mention the script had pitch problems.  I’d offer the directing was a tad tuneless.  All puns I will refrain from using when discussing this languid tale of a man that specializes in finding what’s sonically out of alignment in your home and making adjustments to help you lead a happy life.  Based on a 17-minute short film that has been unevenly expanded to feature length by the original creators, it’s a somber sit that’s not made any easier by mannered performances that grate on the nerves.

Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie) is a character that can only exist in an indie movie set in NYC.  A rumpled tweed jacket-wearing specialist that has clients around the city needing his particular talents in sussing out what underlying tones might be giving them any sort of malady from anxiety to insomnia.  When he’s not performing tune ups, he’s searching the city for hot spots of ambient sound that he can record to corroborate his long gestating research project about urban soundscapes.  With his tuning forks in hand and ready to clang, he can be found in the park, on construction sites, or wherever the heart of the city beats greatest.  Though he longs to publish his work, he also can’t bring himself to completely share it with the world.  What’s worse, he eschews the oncoming corporatizing of the work he does as in independent contractor so he feels like his days as a big fish in a small pond are numbered.

His newest client, Ellen (Rashida Jones, The Grinch), calls on Peter to figure out why she can’t sleep at night.  Recently broken up from a long term relationship, she’s living in a rent-controlled apartment surrounded by memories of a partnership that’s over and a future that’s never going to happen.  Peter thinks she needs a new toaster.  The rest of us know that Ellen needs a new apartment.  For some reason (namely because writer Ben Nabors says so), Peter intrigues Ellen, even though he’s exhibited no charm or warmth toward her.  When her problems persist, the two start seeing more of each other so Peter can determine where his original analysis was wrong, while at the same time his research falls into the wrong hands and his fragile psyche begins to fall apart.

I wonder how much better the movie would have been with another actor cast in the lead role.  I’m normally a fan of Sarsgaard but not in this case.  He’s so glum and inward facing that there’s no room for audiences to get any insight into his character.  We don’t need to like Peter but we should at least get a sense of who he is and where he’s coming from.  The way Sarsgaard plays it, who would want to spend time with him or invest in his research?  Jones also is unnaturally muted, providing a flavorless take on a woman grieving a loss who bounces back with a total dullard.  In small supporting roles, Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Austin Pendleton (Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles), Alex Karpovsky (Hail, Caesar!), and Bruce Altman (Fifty Shades Freed) at least seize their opportunity to make some sort of impression with their limited screen time.

For an 87-minute movie, The Sound of Silence feels about twice that length.  It’s a bad example of a NYC-set indie that has people moping around in earth tones always speaking in ‘inside voices’ and desperately wanting to be taken seriously.  I’m fairly sure the filmmakers have made up Peter’s profession but the kernel of an idea they have isn’t a bad one, it’s just that it never grows into something that’s more interesting than it’s thirty second elevator pitch.  The characters aren’t interesting or worth investing in and the movie doesn’t end as much as it merely stops.  Kind of like this review.

Movie Review ~ Jackie

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ve found that the mention of the Kennedy clan is, at this point in American culture, met with either exhaustion or adulation.  Countless documentaries have been made over the years and it seems like a new and noteworthy book finds its way to shelves every other month.  That doesn’t even count the movies.  So, suffice it to say, the woes of the Kennedy’s are known and easily accessible to anyone that cares to investigate further.

So why Jackie and why now?  We’ve seen the first lady portrayed on screens big and small (and even on stage in a one-woman show) but we’ve never seen it quite like this before.  Taking a page from recent biopics that focus on one small window of time in the life of a historical figure, Jackie is an exceedingly engaging film that welcomes us to stare and gawk at the tragedy that changed the direction of our nation.

Jumping back and forth and around and through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay pulls the attention away from the president to focus on Jackie herself and how her grief revealed a woman bolder and stronger than even her closest allies realized.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín may be an out of the box choice for this American as apple pie film but perhaps being un-enamored with the legendary Kennedy family was needed to tell this tale with such uprightness.

As Jackie, Natalie Portman (Thor: The Dark World) gives the performance of her career and gets my vote for Best Actress of 2016 for the way she buries herself in the role.  The funny thing is, you always know it’s Portman but you see and hear Jackie through and through.  I was worried that her pronounced Kennedy accent would be a distraction and, honestly, it is but mostly because no one else in the cast rises to the same level of technicality in their work.  Even so, the performance is bravely honest when it shows Jackie at her most brusquely direct and emotionally powerful when she lets her guard down and her sorrow bleeds through. Here is a woman that knew the power of media (visual and print) and made a point to stay in the public eye in the days after the assassination so no one would forget the price she and her children paid.  Though Portman is featured in gorgeous costumes and is always pristine (even when covered in blood), the performance lacks any kind of vanity.  Truly exceptional work is on display here.

With a leading role sketched with such skill, the supporting characters need to be on point too and for the most part Jackie’s support staff get the job done.  Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) is nicely understated as a White House staffer/confidant, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) plays a fictionalized reporter Oppenheim uses as a framing device and serves as the voice of the people, and John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) turns up late in the film as a priest attending to Jackie’s questions of faith.  The only major disappointment is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) sonorously taking on Bobby Kennedy with neither the accent, looks, or charm that is profoundly needed.  Sarsgaard sticks out like a sore, unconvincing thumb…especially in scenes featuring him with Jackie and JFK.

Along with Madeline Fontaine’s glorious costumes and Jean Rabasse’s beautifully articulate production design, Mica Levi (Under the Skin) has composed a most unusual and original score that you’re either going to love or hate.  Nearly always conveying a mood that is opposite to what is happening on screen, it gives another layer of depth to feature film about a family possessing public vs private personas that often are in competition with each other.

Audiences going to see another recreation of JFK’s assassination or conspiracy surrounding it are advised to steer clear as Jackie is about the woman behind the president and the storm she weathered behind closed White House doors while she remained strong in public for a nation in mourning

The Silver Bullet ~ Jackie

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Synopsis: Following the assassination of her husband, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Release Date: December 2, 2016

Thoughts: No matter how much people try to predict it, the Oscar season is always filled with twists and turns. A few months ago, Jackie wasn’t even on the radar for many pundits but it’s sneaking in at the last minute and could upset an already full Best Actress pool.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman’s (Thor: The Dark World) performance of the former first lady is getting raves but I’m already seeing the late night sketch shows parodying her Jackie accent. She’s dead-on with it, no question, but it takes a while to get used to. Co-starring Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Billy Crudup (Spotlight), and John Carroll Lynch (Hot Pursuit), look for Jackie to be part of the conversation as we move toward peak award season buzz.

Movie Review ~ The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, Billy Slaughter, Vinnie Jones, Peter Sarsgaard

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I have two things to admit right off the bat. I’ve never seen the original The Magnificent Seven from 1960 or, worse yet, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the movie that inspired both films and countless other knockoff Westerns throughout the years. The second admission is that I’ve been wanting Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Flight) to lighten up a bit already…all of his movies are so serious, so steely, so tortured inside that it has me almost dreading every new film he’s headlining even though he’s one of our great working actors today. While Washington doesn’t quite achieve tranquility during the course of this remake, the actor does show some signs of a sense of humor in between the gunfire and exploding dynamite sticks.

The prologue sets the stage. It’s the 1870s and the town of Rose Creek has a problem whose name is Bartholomew Bogue (a typically ratty Peter Sarsgaard, Lovelace). Determined to buy up all the land in the area for 1/10 of what it’s worth, Bogue has staked his claim on Rose Creek and dares anyone to stand his way. Protected by a crooked town sheriff, Bogue and his army of gunslingers draws a line in the sand for the townsfolk; accept his low offer to purchase their plots of earth or suffer deadly consequences. Before the credits even begin, Bogue has struck down several strong-willed citizens (including an actor listed in the opening credits after he’s been killed) and prepares to return in three weeks to start rounding up and kicking out.

Rose Creek needs a savior, that’s why Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Girl on the Train) offers bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) all the town has to offer in exchange for his protection. Taking her up on her proposition partly because he empathizes with her and partly to exorcise his own personal demons, he recognizes he can’t go up against Bogue alone and recruits a sextet of men as he makes his way back to Rose Creek. First up is wise talking gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World), as good with a gun as he is with a deck of cards. Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) a longtime friend of Chisolm and former army sharpshooter now making a living off of managing the duels of the deadly Billy Rocks (Byung Hun Lee, I Saw the Devil). Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), a Mexican criminal on Chisolm’s wanted list is given a reprieve if he pitches in while Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) makes nice with Chisolm by chowing down on the heart of a freshly killed animal. Finally, we have Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) a soft spoken bear of a man that proves a dangerous person to underestimate.

Look, there’s a formula here and it’s shown to have worked for more than a century. Find someone that needs help, gather a rag-tag group of would-be heroes, and then let them loose in a fiery blaze of glory. It helps The Magnificent Seven that the heroes would likely be the bad guys of another movie but find themselves put to better use doing good. Working together they arm the town and stage some Home Alone-style booby traps that are a, ahem, blast.

At 132 minutes, it’s a long film but I found myself responding to it more than I thought I would. I love a good Western and while this won’t be remembered as any kind of classic I found it engaging and entertaining, two things we’ve had a serious lack of in 2016. It takes it’s time and maybe moseys when it should be sprinting but I didn’t seem to mind it and I think it’s largely due to the cast.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) teams up with Washington for the third time and clearly the two men have worked together enough to develop their own rhythm. Fuqua nudges Washington ever so slightly out of his run of stone-faced champion and gets the actor to feel his inner cowboy. Pratt’s role isn’t quite as challenging, largely being an extension of the good ole boy he’s played before. Hawke, too, turns in a performance that I wasn’t quite expecting. Robicheaux has some ticks and tricks that Hawke takes and runs with…much like D’Onofrio does with his odd, child-like lumberjack of a man. As the lone female, Bennett more than holds her own, stopping just short of going full on Linda Hamilton/Terminator 2 mode as the film reaches its pinnacle.

Pure popcorn entertainment with some great shots of canyons and dust bowls set to a purposeful score by the late James Horner, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t rise to the level of greatness its title implies. Still, there are far worse ways to spend your time at the movies and the cast makes it worth your while.

Movie Review ~ Lovelace

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of Linda Lovelace, who is used and abused by the porn industry at the behest of her coercive husband, before taking control of her life.

Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Juno Temple, Wes Bentley, Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale, Chris Noth, Robert Patrick, James Franco, Eric Roberts, Adam Brody, Chloe Sevigny,

Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  This is the type of review that you hope your parents don’t read…because then you’ll have to admit you’ve seen Deep Throat and, well, will Sunday brunch ever be the same again?  So Mom, if you’re reading this (and, let’s face it, you probably opted for another round of Candy Crush instead) just know that I have seen the infamous adult film that made porno mainstream…but I watched it under duress, I swear.

The star of Deep Throat was Linda Lovelace and she didn’t fit the mold of the adult film.  Pretty but not desirably beautiful, she had one particular talent that earned her the starring role and gave the film its title.  Though she only worked in the porn industry for a total of 17 days, her legend would live on but her story hasn’t been told on screen until now.

It’s too bad then that, as presented by Lovelace, her story isn’t all that interesting or intriguing.  Though it pulls a Rashomon-style switcheroo ¾ of the way through, the movie can’t make…um…head or tails of its starry cast or soapy subject matter.  Turns out that Linda Lovelace was either a) a willing participant that rolled with the punches or b) a victim of abuse forced into a life of drugs and prostitution by her smarmy husband.  The film wants us to feel sorry for Linda so the “b” option is presented in a more heavy-hitting fashion but so much time is spent on the set-up of the “a” option that you leave the movie not really sure of where the truth falls on the spectrum of history.

Credit should be given to all involved for taking care with the period aspects of the film set in the 70’s and early 80’s.  The production design is restrained and just tacky enough to let us know feathered hair and bell bottoms didn’t look all that bad on the right person.  Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman come from the documentary world and one would think that they’d handle their narrative with a bit more efficiency and not as presentational as screenwriter Andy Bellin has made the biopic.

That leaves the cast to make some magic but strangely nothing seems to get their motors going.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) has some nice moments in the last half of the film when we finally get to see a more vulnerable side of Linda but up until that point it’s not a very grounded character for her to work with.  Though the role is undeniably one-dimensional, as Linda’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine) has never met a creep he can’t play to the hilt and that’s true here.  The rest of the supporting cast really are simply brief cameos as the 92 minute film can’t accommodate so many familiar faces with jettisoning some of their scenes (they should be thankful…Sarah Jessica Parker filmed her role as Gloria Steinem only to be excised in the editing room).  It was nice to see Sharon Stone, albeit in an awful wig from a community theater production of Grease, as Linda’s tough, gruff mother.

It’s not the revealing biography that it’s intended to be and honestly I can’t say I took anything of value away from the movie.  Though it’s interesting to get a behind the scenes look about that particular time in film history (however blue the films were), Lovelace leaves the audience unfulfilled.

 

Movie Review ~ Blue Jasmine

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A life crisis causes a socialite to head to San Francisco, where she reconnects with her sister.

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I was pretty sure I was going to like Blue Jasmine for the mere fact that I didn’t enjoy Woody Allen’s previous film, 2012’s To Rome with Love.  Let me explain.  Like the Cohen Brothers, I tend to respond well to Allen’s projects about half the time because even a filmmaker as prolific as Allen tends to deliver a few snoozers along the way.  So after winning an Oscar for writing 2011’s Midnight in Paris it wasn’t a huge shock that I found To Rome with Love lacking.  Thankfully, Allen has returned stateside (the movie is set in San Francisco and New York City) for his latest work and it’s an absolute winner on every level.

A movie with shades of Tennessee Williams as filtered through Allen’s efficient dialogue, Blue Jasmine finds Allen on the tippy-top of his game with an assembled cast that is both surprising and surprisingly effective. 

I chuckled a bit when I saw that notorious comic Andrew Dice Clay was turning up in a supporting role but the comedian acquits himself nicely with a role that appears was written specifically for him.  Another comedian, Louis C.K., has a brief but enjoyable turn in a part that most surely would have been played by Allen himself were the director a few decades younger.  I normally find Alec Baldwin (Rock of Ages) to be an actor that colors his acting with broader strokes than necessary but here we find the actor at his most restrained and believable.  It felt like Baldwin took the time to craft this tricky character (only seen in flashbacks) from the ground up rather than pulling a performance from his wheelhouse to repurpose.

Sally Hawkins convincingly doffs her UK accent for an US one of indeterminate location (one minor quibble I did have was that everyone on the West Coast seemed to have an East Coast accent and vice versa) as she takes on a familiar role to anyone that is acquainted with Allen’s long list of family dramas.  She’s the put-upon sister that rolls with the punches and perhaps allows herself to be more of a punching bag than the audience would like.  Still, there’s a prideful dignity in the way she handles new changes in her life that contrasts nicely with Cate Blanchett as her acerbic sister.

Ah yes…Cate Blanchett.  If there’s any doubt remaining that Blanchett is one of the best actresses of her generation, it will be put to rest with her performance here.  We’ve seen these types of cluelessly delusional characters before (most recently in the awful Kristen Wiig film Girl Most Likely) and know that it takes a special kind of actress to take someone so unlovable and allow them to be loved for their faults.

Moving into her sister’s modest San Francisco apartment after her Ponzi-scheming husband loses their great fortune, Blanchett’s Jasmine is forced to start over again and get used to a much less lavish way of living.  She hilariously tries to school her sister on luxury living, starts taking community college computer classes, fends off the attention of an amorous employer, and attracts the attention of a suitor (Peter Sarsgaard, Robot & Frank) who might just be her savior.  In less skilled hands these vignettes could only be played for laughs and while many of these situations provide great humor they are all tinged with more than a little sadness.  Sadness for the past that can’t be replayed and for the future that is frighteningly unknown.

More than ever, I noticed the attention to detail in Blue Jasmine.  Allen’s films always have a nice sheen to them but this one just glows…whether it is in the vistas of California or the Park Avenue lavishness of Blanchett’s former life.  I especially loved Sonia Grande’s costume design…Blanchett has very little worldly possessions left and that includes her clothes.  Attentive viewers will notice she wears different combinations of the same half dozen articles of clothing she has…and manages to make each outfit look unique.  It’s a small touch that speaks volumes about the resourcefulness of the character…and also her need to make her outwardly put-together appearance cover up her inner turmoil.

Blanchett is rarely off screen and that’s fine and dandy.  In fact, it’s when she’s not the center of attention that the movie loses a little bit of air…which would probably please her character greatly.  The performance is razor sharp and the actress is in tune with everything going on around her – that’s thanks to Blanchett’s great instincts and the way that Allen has etched out her journey.  The film flies by and arrives at its conclusion with a certain grace not found in many mainstream movies today.  The ends that need to be tied off are complete but there’s more than a few loose strands that haunted me even now writing this review. 

This is a film that will surely land those involved in prime positions when award season comes around.  Blanchett is richly deserving of an Oscar nomination as is Allen’s wonderful script and direction.  The picture itself should find its way to the Oscar list of Best Picture nominees so it’s safe to say that this is a must-see.  It’s damn good.