31 Days to Scare ~ Run Sweetheart Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: Initially apprehensive when her boss insists she meets with one of his most important clients, s single mother is relieved and excited when the influential businessman defies expectations and sweeps her off her feet. But at the end of the night, when the two are alone together, he reveals his true, violent nature. Battered and terrified, she flees for her life, beginning a relentless cat-and-mouse game with a bloodthirsty assailant hell-bent on her utter destruction.
Stars: Ella Balinska, Pilou Asbæk, Clark Gregg, Dayo Okeniyi, Betsy Brandt, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ava Grey
Director: Shana Feste
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Tracking the new film Run Sweetheart Run over the past two years reminded me of what it was like to follow a movie before the internet became this unruly beast. Back 20-25 years ago, there were a few sites online where you could find information about upcoming movies that updated more frequently than your weekly/monthly subscription magazines. Through these sites, often maintained by zealous fans and consisting of gossip tidbits, you could catch wind of a movie that sounded up your alley and then track it through production, marketing, and, finally, release. I can recall following along for the releases The Relic (charting the many delays to its 1997 arrival in theaters) and, the biggest one of all, the modern shark classic Deep Blue Sea in 1999.

Run Sweetheart Run had barely time to make it onto my radar after its debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival before its distribution into theaters was canceled when the lockdown closed movie houses and turned Hollywood into a ghost town. While many similar genre titles eventually found their way into viewers’ homes via streaming or minor theatrical releases once theaters began opening up, Run Sweetheart Run had seemingly vanished from existence. Though it had been sold off to Amazon quickly in May 2020, the streaming service and original producer Blumhouse sat on the film for over two years, a strange stretch to let such an innocuous title languish on a next-to-empty shelf. 

Movies that gather dust on a shelf start to gain a reputation, not a good one. I never quite understood why Blumhouse and Amazon would let the horror title, directed by Shana Feste (Country Strong) and written by Feste along with Keith Josef Adkins and Kellee Terrell, remain unreleased when they put out other titles that might have benefitted from later rollouts. I’d keep checking the IMDb page and news sources for information on the film (mind you, all I had to go on was the synopsis, the cast list, and a few random press photos, the original buzzed-about trailer was never even released online) but came up with nothing. Then…October 2022 rolled around, and it was time for Run Sweetheart Run to get its due.

I’ve followed many films that turned out to be duds, but I was so happy to find that Feste’s film was tremendous fun, the kind of bolt-for-your-life horror that moves so fast you don’t have time to clock how out of joint the logic is at times. The film feeds off the energy put forth by its appealing leads, Ella Balinska and Pilou Asbæk, and a pulsating-synth music score that turns Los Angeles into a neon-tinged town of menace for one woman desperate to survive a night of horrors and the man that is the cause of it all.

Single mother Cherie (Balinska, 2019’s Charlie’s Angels) is studying to get her law degree and working at a high-profile law firm with a boss (Clark Gregg, Moxie) that benefits from her hard work. She double-booked him tonight for an anniversary date with his wife and dinner with a client in town for the evening. Practically guilting her into going, a reluctant Cherie agrees to go out with the client, but when she meets Ethan (Asbæk, Overlord), she’s grateful for her supposed error. A handsome, successful man, Ethan seems interested in Cherie too and has said enough right things by the end of the night that he convinced her to cancel her ride home and come inside with him. As they enter the house, Ethan turns back and stares into the camera, stopping it from following the two of them indoors. What is about to happen is…private.

We don’t see what happens inside, but we hear it, one of several acts of violence toward women that Feste does not show. That may seem like it gives the audience a break from another movie depicting violence against women. Still, there’s something sinister in how characters break the fourth wall and physically move the camera so the audience can’t see what’s about to happen. Cherie is different, though, and is unwilling to go down gently. So begins a night where Cherie is pursued by an evil that won’t stop no matter who is standing in his way. Involving family and friends won’t help Cherie either because Ethan has more than worldly powers at his disposal.

There’s more than a nugget of good ideas and a ton of metaphor, but, almost blessedly, Feste doesn’t lean into this too much. Instead, Feste lets you take the analogy to heart and come up with your interpretation of who Ethan is and what he ultimately has been tasked to do. Feste imbues the story early on with some cheeky fun, but that melts away the further into the night the story gets. That’s also when Balinksa entirely takes control of the movie, and while she may share the lead responsibilities with Asbæk, she’s unquestionably the show’s star.

You can poke holes all around the story and screenplay, but it defeats the bloody-ied fun of the experience. It’s a shame the film got lost in the shuffle because it’s well done and comes across as a confident change of gears for many involved. I could have done with a little more time in the second act with a new character introduced in the final 1/3, but that would add additional time that I don’t think the simple set-up could have supported. Available on streaming, you won’t have to sprint to Run Sweetheart Run, but do walk quickly to add it to your list for a perfect weekend option leading up to Halloween.

Movie Review ~ Catherine Called Birdy

The Facts:

Synopsis: A 14-year-old girl in medieval England navigates through life, avoiding potential suitors her father has in mind.
Stars: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ralph Ineson, Russell Brand, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Kaye, Lesley Sharpe
Director: Lena Dunham
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With the phenomenal success and healthy run of HBO’s Girls, writer/director/creator/star Lena Dunham burst onto a scene that was often ill-prepared for her painfully honest responses to what the world was throwing at her. Some saw that honesty as a detriment even as they found it wholly refreshing to hear a voice that cuts through a lot of same-speak. So, even if you didn’t relate to Dunham’s generation or outlook on relationships, work, and family, a (sometimes begrudging) respect developed throughout that show. While I was happy to see Dunham recognized for her directing and writing, it wasn’t very reassuring to see awards bodies claiming to be progressive never go that extra mile and hand her the award along with the nomination. 

Anyway…

This isn’t a review to relitigate the rise of Lena Dunham and the fact that I think she never got her full due. No, this is to celebrate that Dunham has taken time after Girls to recalibrate, find love, and determine the next steps she wants to take in her career. To hear her tell it, the only thing she wanted to focus on after Girls was adapting ‘Catherine Called Birdy’, Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel Dunham sparked to as a kid. Never one to leave a goal behind, Dunham has gone ahead and done it. The result is this spirited period comedy arriving on Prime Video after being afforded a longer-than-usual theatrical window in key markets.

The time is 13th century England but to hear Catherine (Bella Ramsey, Judy) speak is to know that she is thoroughly modern. Catherine, called Birdy due to her collection of pet birds, is anything but prim and proper, the only daughter amongst a stable of boys. To the manor born, her father (Andrew Scott, Victor Frankenstein) is a proto-typical male who spends beyond his means and feels that women are to be married off. At the same time, her mother (Billie Piper) encourages her young daughter’s spunky nature but ultimately acquiesces to her husband. This pluck becomes an issue when she reaches womanhood (a harrowing passage that exposes a side of life in the Middle Ages we likely haven’t thought of in detail), and her father decides it’s time for her to marry.

Who would she marry, though? She can’t wed her best friend Perkin because he’s beneath her position and can’t offer the monetary advances her father requires of her suitor. While there are a few hints she harbors a crush on her hunky uncle (Joe Alwyn, Harriet) she can’t quite verbalize, even she knows that is off limits. Catherine then sets about sending each candidate off as quickly as possible in a montage of misbehavior until she meets her match in a greasy elder nicknamed Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye, Dracula Untold), who isn’t deterred so easily. As her time ticks away, can Birdy fly away from her imminent destiny into a future of her choosing?

Dunham has mentioned in interviews that she altered the book’s ending. While I haven’t read the source material, I did sneak a peek at the original conclusion, and what the writer/director has cooked up feels like a better finale for this character in this iteration. On paper, the ending Cushman wrote likely works, but the character Dunham has brought to life couldn’t have existed and satisfied an audience the same way. That’s because Ramsey is charmingly realistic in the role; you’re enamored within seconds of meeting her. You can almost see some of Dunham’s younger self in Birdy, and I’d imagine that’s what drew her to the book and, eventually, this movie. I haven’t even the space to discuss how much I enjoyed the supporting turns of Sophie Okonedo (Death on the Nile) as an eccentric woman that plays a part in Birdy’s understanding of female independence and Lesley Sharp as her nurse that doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

Announced before the pandemic and then delayed because of the lockdown, it’s taken a while for Catherine Called Birdy to take wing, but the results are lovely. It can be overly cutesy at times, and in all honesty, it’s not a film that’s made explicitly for me anyway, so I’m not going to be the best litmus test for it. The real goal will be to have children around the age of Birdy (boys and girls) watch the film and then talk with them about it after. Adults could have good conversations with youngsters about traditional roles and how they’ve changed since Birdy’s time. In that way, Dunham articulates how far we’ve traveled without learning vital lessons.

Movie Review ~ Lucy and Desi

The Facts:

Synopsis: Explores the unlikely partnership and enduring legacy of one of the most prolific power couples in entertainment history.
Stars: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Laura LaPlaca, Eduardo Machado, Charo, Journey Gunderson, Gregg Oppenheimer, David Daniels, Norman Lear, Desi Arnaz Jr.
Director: Amy Poehler
Rated: PG
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: We’re a little less than a month away from the Academy Awards, and one of the big questions of the night is if Nicole Kidman will win her second Best Actress Oscar for playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.  Inspired by one pivotal week in the life of Ball and her husband, Cuban entertainer Desi Arnaz, on the set of their series I Love Lucy, Aaron Sorkin’s film has been met with various cheers and jeers by fans and casual filmgoers alike. Some think it focuses too much on the showbusiness side and not enough on the personal; others feel the Hawaii-born but Australian-raised Kidman had no business playing the American as apple pie redhead. Yet there’s that notable trend in Hollywood where awards are concerned…they love to pat themselves on the back, and if they have an award in their hand while doing it, all the better.

Whatever the current temperature on Kidman is (Javier Bardem & J.K. Simmons also snagged Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations), there’s a new documentary available on Amazon that might tip the scale one way or another in her direction. Lucy and Desi was directed by comedian Amy Poehler (Moxie) and has been given the blessing of the children of the legendary television stars, with their daughter Lucie playing a prominent role in the movie as a keeper of the keys historian of sorts for her parents. Gaining that advocacy says a lot for a piece that examines the turbulent relationship of the duo who began their careers as individual draws but eventually became synonymous with a picture of domestic life that cast a shadow on the rest of their careers.

With audio recordings made by Ball, who had put the stories and memories down (and then away) for later use, Poehler structures a standard format documentary which only occasionally springboards into tangents the general public may not have been aware of going in. What Lucy and Desi does wonderfully well is take its time focusing not on the wedges that drove the gifted artists apart but what drew them together in the first place and kept them in each other’s lives even after they had divorced. In this film, as in Being the Ricardos, Arnaz is shown to be a keen man of business who tirelessly worked to build a legacy for his family. Arriving from Cuba with nothing (after once being among the wealthiest families), he watched his mother struggle and spent most of his life attempting to recreate their prosperity and gain her approval.

Even if Kidman may not have looked exactly like Ball, the stories told by her daughter and the wealth of footage of public appearances and private home movies show just how well the actress captured Ball’s off-screen presence. The Ball we knew best was the bubbly television housewife always in a jam and involved in a bit of slapstick comedy. In reality, Ball was a force to be reckoned with that wasn’t a natural comic but was highly gifted at it all the same. She had to work and rehearse it, but when she got it, nobody was better because she understood there was an art form to making people laugh. That’s why the show she created with Arnaz has endured for decades.

The documentary loses a bit of its edge when it pulls into the station to talk about the dissolution of the marriage, implying it was more of a personality conflict than anything else. Sorkin’s movie and many reports suggest that Arnaz was a womanizer, but the documentary makes no mention of any extramarital affairs. It’s absolutely within the family’s right not to want to open that door because it is, after all, a private matter that wasn’t in their contract with the public. It does seem odd to not even make a passing reference to it because it is so well known.

Fast-moving and chock full of fun information on Hollywood throughout the decades, I thought Lucy and Desi ended rather abruptly on the heels of a moving passage surrounding the final months of Arnaz’s life. Brought together by their daughter before he passed away, she recounts that time spent together, and that’s when you arrive at seeing these celebrities as people, rather than gawkable movie stars. Punctuated with an emotional kicker you’ll have to see for yourself, before you know it the credits are rolling, and that’s all there is. I could have watched another hour of material but recognize the story Poehler was telling the viewer is about the couple together, not their individual lives apart. That’s another story to recount entirely.

Movie Review ~ Mayor Pete

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With extraordinary access to the candidate, an inside look at the 2020 Pete Buttigieg campaign for President of the United States.

Stars: Pete Buttigieg, Chasten Buttigieg

Director: Jesse Moss

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  As I began watching Mayor Pete, I started to get this uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I suddenly began to long to check a bunch of news sites that had laid dormant in my history for over a year and felt the urge to confirm the events of the last twelve months hadn’t all been some Dallas-style Bobby-Ewing-was-just-in-the-shower dream.  That PTSD related to the November 2020 election is still alive for many, and this documentary about the race to secure Pete Buttigieg as the Democratic nominee for President wasn’t the first major media I had faced that reminded me what our country went through.  It was, however, one of the more interesting looks inside the inner workings of a campaign that sought to change and challenge the status quo.  While it doesn’t delve quite as deeply as it could, there’s an interesting portrait provided of a hometown boy makes good while living his life in a way many sadly still condemn. 

Full disclosure, I was never going to vote for Pete Buttigieg to be on the ballot for President.  As a gay man myself, trust me, it had nothing to do with his home life or anything like that.  It was simply that I had other candidates that I leaned toward more at that time.  I think the former Mayor of South Bend, IN has a strong political future and after watching this new documentary streaming on Amazon Prime from director Jesse Moss (Boys State) I’m inclined to think we’ll see him around for a long time. 

The current Secretary of Transportation under President Joe Biden, Buttigieg made the bold move to run for President without holding an office higher than his Mayoral post.  While not unheard of, experience is such a key factor for many voters that his lack of political years in office as a governor or senator meant he faced an uphill battle, not to mention he was also an out gay man married to his husband, Chasten.  Conservative America had only recently elected the first African American president and still was unsteady about a woman holding the top elected office…would they accept a gay man in that same position? 

The film shows that Buttigieg didn’t seek to “normalize” himself as much as refocus the discussion on the things he thought really mattered to the American people…and how that largely succeeded in advancing him far into the races for a time.  Working with his skilled team of young and hungry staff, including senior communications director Lis Smith, a strong and at times foul-mouthed (hence the R-Rating) powder keg, Buttigieg parlays his inexperience in the larger political arena into a benefit in being the change people were seeking for 2020.  For what it’s worth, you can see the idealism present before, during, and (importantly) after the campaign.  If Buttigieg was greatly discouraged with the overall outcome, Moss doesn’t show it and I don’t get the impression this is a total puff piece by the director.

It can be, at times, though.  I think the film skims the surface of the personal life of Buttigieg and rarely digs too deeply into his family history or much in the way of his life with Chasten.  If this was going to be about the man that wanted to be President and lost, giving more context into who he is would help so the next time he’s up to bat there is more info out there for people to draw from.  Keeping those chapters out of this book makes the story feel incomplete and Buttigieg winds up still being that frustrating enigma he was, which I believe cost him the overall primary votes.  It has to be said that his husband also has some…interesting ideas about how much he should be involved and included.  I’m not saying he has an Eva Peron vibe to him but…Don’t Cry for Chasten, South Bend.

Far from a frivolous composition but lacking greater detail to make the story come off as complete, Mayor Pete is a perfectly entertaining watch for ninety minutes and should make fans of his on any level happy.  If you voted for him, you’ll enjoy seeing this process unfold.  If you didn’t vote for him but liked the energy he brought in challenging his more experienced colleagues, I think you’ll appreciate watching the way he thinks about politics and his place in it.  All those that voted for the other guy…maybe give this a watch and see how a friendly, but still competitively agile, campaign can be run by intelligent staff.

Movie Review ~ Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Inspired by true events and adapted from the award-winning hit musical from London’s West End. While his classmates plan their livelihoods after they leave school, Jamie New, a teenager from Sheffield, contemplates revealing his secret career ambition to become a fierce and proud drag queen.

Stars: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Shobna Gulati, Richard E. Grant, Sharon Horgan, Ralph Ineson, Samuel Bottomley

Director: Jonathan Butterell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Two things a number of audiences have been missing over the past year were movies and musicals and are they ever in for a make-up session in 2021 with the release of no less than five movie musicals to hit both of their passions at once.  Despite June’s surprisingly dismal reaction to the highly promoted big screen adaptation of the Tony-winning In the Heights, perhaps something a little more under the radar for American audiences has a chance to build some word of mouth.  At least that’s what the producers of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie are hoping for, I’d imagine, and they certainly are being smart with releasing the film first for a limited run in theaters before making it more widely available on Amazon Prime a week later. 

Born in the West End in late 2017, the musical is the true-life story of Jamie Campbell, a County Durham teenager profiled in the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.  Though I haven’t seen the documentary, the musical written by Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells evidently hews close to Campbell’s and there’s a particular simplicity to the writing which implies no one needed to craft in dramatic peaks and valleys to shape it into a traditional three act structure.  Some stories are meant for the stage, others are destined to be musicalized…Campbell’s tale of growing up gay and fabulous in a small North England village was certain to be dazzling.

It’s Jamie New’s 16th birthday and what he really wants is a pair of sparkly red high heel shoes he’s saving up for.  He’s been earning money for them slowly with an early morning paper route but his hard-working mum (Sarah Lancashire, Yesterday) might have a surprise or two to unwrap when he gets home from school.  First, Jamie (Max Harwood) has to get through a day where his classmates don’t get him because he’s gay, his teacher (Sharon Horgan, Together) doesn’t see a future for him as a performer, and his only close friend is Pritti (Lauren Patel), “a Muslim girl with a Hindu first name”, is also the target for teasing.  As his mom shields him from a father (Ralph Ineson, Gunpowder Milkshake) that doesn’t want to know him, Jamie takes a few cautious steps forward into the world of drag, but without a clue of how to dip his toe in the water he’ll need some assistance before diving full-on in.

He finds a willing teacher in Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), the proprietor of a vintage clothing shop which caters to Jamie’s particular needs.  Still appearing occasionally as Loco Chanelle at an amateur nightclub, Hugo encourages Jamie to come fully out of his shell and embrace a full alter ego yet to be named but once released can Jamie balance both personas?  With prom coming up, there are rules to be broken, lessons to be learned, and truths to be revealed – all set to a lively set of up-tempo tunes and ballads that run the gamut from toe-tapping mild earworms to run-of-the-mill “I Want” songs. 

The film is ruled by Harwood’s lighting in a bottle performance as the charming Jamie New – you can see why he’s a bit of a mystery to the kids in his class but also someone you feel nearly pulled toward to be friends with.  A solid triple threat, Harwood takes command of the movie and never relinquishes control for a second…not that he’s selfish with his scene partners because he’s sharing the screen with a number of talented performers in their own right.  As his fellow outcast with the same noble spirit, Patel is another scene-stealer and even if her role is severely underwritten, she’s smart enough to lean away from the obvious choices and make Pritti an interesting person to watch even when she’s in the background.  The mother character in these films is either the tyrant or the tear-jerker and Lancashire falls into the latter category but doesn’t oversell it so it’s sappy.  She’s got a knockout 11 o’clock number and then follows it up with a scene where she just gets absorbs an highly emotional moment which is maybe even more moving.  Right there you have a trio of great performances…and that’s not even mentioning Grant’s lovely turn as an aging drag performer (his song sneaks up on you in devastating ways) and Horgan’s pleasant voice which shows why her role is easy to stunt cast on stage.

There’s entirely too much goodwill pulsating through Everybody’s Talking About Jamie from frame one to dissect it too much, a truth which I’m sure has kept the ticket sales flowing not just in the West End but in international productions currently popping up around the world.  A US version is set to debut in Los Angeles in early 2022 and a Broadway production might not be far behind.  I’m not totally sold that the music itself is all that memorable, if I’m being honest, but I also would want to experience the show live in person to get a feel for what that Jamie New energy could be like.  This is one of those shows that lives or dies on the actor playing Jamie so it’s entirely dependent on that star quality.  Thankfully, the film version nails the casting (and then some) with Harwood and finds a few pleasant surprises in the supporting players as well.  You may not be humming the tunes as you leave the film behind but you’ll remember the story.  If this one isn’t for you just wait, Dear Evan Hansen is out in a few weeks, tick, tick…Boom! releases on November 19, and the long-awaited remake of West Side Story arrives on December 10. 

Movie Review ~ Val

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The Facts:

Synopsis: For over 40 years Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial and/or misunderstood actors has been documenting his own life and craft through thousands of hours of film and video. This raw, wildly original and unflinching documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled, sometimes hilarious look at what it means to be an artist and a complex man.

Stars: Val Kilmer, Jack Kilmer

Director: Ting Poo, Leo Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  In addition to keeping you updated with the latest and greatest (and not so greatest) films that received a streaming release during the year-long lockdown, I also found time to do a lot of reading.  Most of the time it was those easy beach read thrillers or whatever was being adapted into an upcoming film, but I never can resist a good celebrity memoir.  One of the most entertaining selections I came across during this entire period was “I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir” by Val Kilmer, giving a greater insight into an actor that up until that point I had always believed to be exactly what the Hollywood insiders said he was.  Difficult to work with, arrogant, demanding, and pretentious were all words that came to mind when I heard Kilmer’s name and his recent spate of acting roles (in already dreadful films like The Snowman and Paydirt) didn’t do much to make me think I should give him a second thought.

That book changed my opinion of the actor, doing more for explaining the man underneath it all than the usual superstar autobiography.  On the heels of that book comes Val, a documentary being released for a limited run in theaters now before debuting on Amazon Prime in early August.  With an even more focused magnifying glass, audiences can witness firsthand the path the Los Angeles-born actor took to his stardom and see through an incredible amount of personal home movies and on-set videos he recorded the unvarnished side of moviemaking.  At the same time, Kilmer’s struggle with health issues related to a throat cancer diagnosis in 2015 make for a striking comparison with the ruggedly handsome man featured early on in his career.

Val actually opens with some onset horsing around with actors on the set of Top Gun and you almost can’t believe that film is nearly 35 years old at this point.  So many of the men on that set were at the start of their careers and even Kilmer was just coming off his first real feature film (1984’s Top Secret!), having already made his Broadway debut (alongside Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon who Kilmer captures mooning the camera) upon his graduation from Julliard.  It’s surreal watching brief clips of the red carpet premiere and opening night party for Top Gun, with the likes of Tom Cruise and others dancing the night away in their chic ’80s evening wear. After Top Gun, Kilmer’s star continued to rise, although he kept running up against roadblocks of his own making when challenging directors and producers that wanted Kilmer to be less of an actor and more of a silent commodity.  As the years went by, the leading roles in major projects dwindled as less directors (and a few costars) wanted to be involved in Kilmer’s often extreme approach to his method.

Kilmer’s full commitment was ingrained on him from an early age, growing up on a ranch formerly owned by Roy Rogers.  One of three sons born to parents that would later divorce, the family suffered an early tragedy that would haunt them, and especially Kilmer, for years to come and it would be this influence that would often propel Kilmer to go to edge.  You can say a lot of things about Kilmer’s choice in projects and roles but you can’t ever say he doesn’t commit 140% when he does sign up.  Throughout Val we see several projects that obviously were key films to him for one reason or another (Tombstone, The Doors, The Island of Dr. Moreau) where he went the extra mile to get it right or defend his choices.

With the throat cancer treated but leaving his voice severely impaired, Kilmer now speaks with the aid of a medical device and while his adult son Jack narrates the majority of the film using his dad’s words, Kilmer himself speaks often as well. It’s these ‘unscripted’ moments that Jack isn’t ready when the documentary is quite reflective.  Kilmer is open about his past mistakes and the way he approached the people he loved and the friends he came to know, and it’s not born out of a man that has come to the front step of death’s door and has regrets.  It’s from a person that reached a point in his life where he’s let go of a lot of the stones that have burdened him unnecessarily and watching that release in someone clearly exhausted is cathartic even for the viewer.  Knowing much of the footage shot wasn’t meant to be seen by the public at large makes it feel more genuine and less showy.

I think fans of Kilmer will be greatly moved by this documentary on his life and current journey toward peace – it reinforces that Kilmer has always had good intentions in his work but simply played the Hollywood game a bit too aggressively. Then he was dealt a raw hand by the system and by fate. Those that had perhaps written him off (full admission: like I had before I read his book) would do well to view Val for its raw and all-access unmasking of a complicated man that is more relatable than we might think. 

Movie Review ~ Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An elite Navy SEAL uncovers an international conspiracy while seeking justice for the murder of his pregnant wife. 

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lauren London, Brett Gelman, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Colman Domingo, Guy Pearce 

Director: Stefano Sollima 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 111 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6.5/10) 

Review:  I must confess to being a huge fan of the Tom Clancy films of the Sean Connery/Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford days and not so much from the later chapters when Ben Affleck took over for Ford, Chris Pine took over for Affleck (in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and John Krasinski took over for Pine in the popular TV series for Amazon Prime.  Each actor had their own spin on the role of Jack Ryan so you were bound to have someone along the way you could call your favorite.  Movies just aren’t made at the breakneck speed necessary to keep up with the pace that books are written so much of Clancy’s material has been left un-adapted and even the properties that were already brought to life have had to jettison key characters with stories too complex to include into larger narratives.

Take John Clark, Jack Ryan’s close friend and onetime bodyguard.  Featured in a number of Jack Ryan novels and eventually becoming nearly as popular as Ryan himself, Clark fits into many of the operations Ryan undertakes throughout Clancy’s blockbuster espionage thrillers.  However, it was in 1993’s Without Remorse that Clancy gave readers Clark’s origin story, including how and why he changed his name from John Kelly and why the CIA helped him change his identity.  Though the film has been bouncing around Hollywood for years trying to get made with several big names attached, it wasn’t until red-hot star Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) showed interest that the title became a must-have commodity again.  Now, as Jordan gets ready to direct and star in Creed III, he’s set himself up with another franchise starter but how would Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse measure up to the level of thrillers it has followed?

It’s a little bit of the whole good news and bad news situation right now.  Ripping the band aid off, I’ll say that the bad news is the overall ambiance of the movie doesn’t feel like the big budget production it should, considering the studio funds behind it and the producers involved.  A number of films originally intended for theatrical release acquired by a streaming service look like they were made for the big screen when you see them at home.  With Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, everything feels scaled down like the original goal was only to be for in-home distribution.  More on that later but for now let’s talk about the positives.  The good news is that Jordan is a natural for the role, well suited to be playing a skilled Navy SEAL back from a dangerous mission in Syria involving the CIA and the Russian military.  When members of his team are assassinated and his pregnant wife is killed, he’s left for dead by an attacker’s gunfire but survives.  This turns out to be, ironically, a good news/bad news situation all over again.  Good news for John Kelly and bad news for anyone that gets in his way of finding those responsible for the death of his wife and unborn child.  Taking the title of the movie literally, Kelly is a one-man machine of vengeance as he mows his way through high ranks of government both foreign and domestic to get the answers he wants. 

The final script was re-written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River and the upcoming Those Who Wish Me Dead) and it shows with his vernacular and tendency to use shorthand in his technical terms.  He has the actors speak like these professionals would talk and it assists in the authenticity of it all.  Working with his Sicario: Day of the Soldado director Stefano Sollima, Sheridan took over script duties form Will Staples so I can’t say who made the majority of alternations from Clancy’s original novel but the changes seem to be for the better in allowing this story to grow in future installments…because it should and will.  Apart from it filling a gap for representation in people of color as action heroes, Kelly’s a complex character like we haven’t seen much of lately.

Much of that complexity is owed to Jordan’s performance as well as his platonic relationship with Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) a friend and SEAL team member he can trust that has been watching out for him while he’s healed.  Working with the Secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce, Lawless) and a not entirely trustworthy CIA Officer (Jamie Bell, Rocketman), Kelly and Greer use their government resources to further their serach for the truth. Of course, this being an action film built around large(ish) scale set piece, Kelly stages some daring acts of aggression in order to extricate information from sources that can help them locate who put a target on all of their backs.

You’d likely be able to write down who the bad people are at the beginning the film, seal it, and open it again at the end of the film and find your correct answer within.  Along with a strange look that gives it almost a B-movie vibe, there’s little in the way of surprise as the plot moves from Point A to Point B.  Extended fight sequences are periodically thrilling but endless gunfire scenes start to get old rather quickly, especially when it becomes a challenge following the action.  Several times, Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Beautiful Creatures) leaves us lost amongst the action with no direction on where to look.  It’s all disorienting.

It might not rise to the ranks of The Hunt for Red October or Patriot Games but for a first outing with John Kelly, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is a sufficient introduction to the character.  This was a Saturday evening choice in my house and it proved to be a popular and rather perfect selection for a movie night.  Jordan is said to be coming back for a second film and if that proves successful I’m wondering if we’ll ever see him team with Krasinski or another new Ryan feature film in the future – now that would be the event film I’d like to see.

Movie Review ~ The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager contentedly living the same day in an endless loop gets his world turned upside-down when he meets a girl who’s also stuck in the time warp.

Stars: Kathryn Newton, Kyle Allen, Jermaine Harris, Anna Mikami, Josh Hamilton, Cleo Fraser

Director: Ian Samuels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: It must be soul crushing to be involved in a movie waiting to be released and then seeing one with similar plot elements show up to rapturous fanfare not too long before you are set to arrive on the scene.  It’s no one’s fault here, just a case of bad timing, but one movie is bound to be compared to the other and it’s likely not going to be the one that is sitting with a high critical and audience score on the aggregator websites.  There’s no way of bypassing that comparison, however, so the best that second arrival can do is to focus on what makes their project unique and sell that over anything else.  It’s going to be an uphill battle, but it’s absolutely worth the effort seeing that it’s possible both films can wind up winning in the end.  Then consider what would happen if yet another like-plotted movie found its way into the mix after yours was released…now you’re the pickle in the middle and in a, well, pickle.   

I’m not totally sure The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is running victory laps two months after it was released by Amazon Studios.  While I saw it back in February, I sadly am only getting to this review now as I wrestle with a backlog that was unavoidable.  I didn’t want to ignore this one, though, seeing that it fits into a worthy place in a discussion on similar time loop films released over the past year.  First with Palm Springs in July 2020 and then in March’s Boss Level.  All three are different styles of film with their own pros and cons but if Palm Springs is aimed at the frat crowd, then The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is meant for that audience’s tween brothers and sisters.   

Based on the short story by Lev Grossman who also wrote the film’s screenplay, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things thankfully starts up after Mark (Kyle Allen, the upcoming remake of West Side Story) has already found himself caught in an endless loop for thousands of days where he relieves the same mundane day repeatedly.  As in every other film that has a similar set-up, the rules are the same.  The moment Mark sleeps, everything resets, and he wakes the next day with knowledge of what he learned the day before but no one else retains the same information.  The opening moments show how he’s made some good use out of this time by finding ways to help/assist his family and others in town as they go about their daily life. What he’s mostly trying to perfect now is getting a pretty girl at the town’s pool to notice him but no matter how suave, humble, polite, or impressive he comes off, he isn’t getting anywhere. 

On his latest attempt, out of the blue something changes when Margaret (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back) intervenes, shocking Mark who thought up until now he was stuck alone in this crazy cycle.  Turns out Margaret has also been in her own loop for some time, watching Mark from the sidelines and only got his attention because of her own boredom.  That doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to buddy up with Mark because Margaret has her own reasons for wanting to stay in this circle of time that are as strong as the ones Mark has for finding a way out.   His family life is stuck in a rut and can’t change until he can get to the next day and her family life is…complicated. Together, they decide that until something changes, as a way to pass the time and perhaps a way to break the repeating day they should take the time to step back and look at all the “perfect” things/moments that happen throughout the day and map them out so they know where to find them.   

Ok, so perhaps it doesn’t mine a well that is super deep for ideas or emotional nuance but there is some nice message in Grossman’s script that reminds us to stop periodically and remember to recognize the importance in small victories and what others might deem insignificant.  Bolstering those up might help change your attitude, leading to greater happiness.  It’s rather perfect for the YA crowd and I can see the film being a dark horse suggestion at slumber parties by those in the know of good films that aren’t just about kissing, boys, prom, or a terminal illness given to one of the leads.  The light touch of director Ian Samuels also gives the film a bounce and I almost wonder if The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was pushed out for public consumption too early in the year.  It has such a summer spring in its step that an April or early May date might have made more sense. 

Another fine piece of this puzzle is the casting throughout, starting with Allen and Newton as the incredibly appealing leads.  We already know that Newton is a star on the cusp of something big and its earthy roles like this that she makes seem effortless that will continue to make casting directors put her at the top of their lists.  It’s also a nice showcase of Allen who has the looks of a football quarterback but the sensitivities of the tortured poet when you get right down to it.  Rounding out the cast are Jermaine Harris as Mark’s video game obsessed friend who might always be glued to a game but still can dish out expert advice when called upon, and Cleo Fraser as Mark’s sister.  Fraser and Allen have a nice sibling arc throughout that takes a nice, believable turn and both mesh well with John Hamilton (Frances Ha) as their dad who might appear to be aimless but, like Margaret, has secrets he keeps bottled up. 

Lacking the creative zing that made Palm Springs such a riot and missing the more audacious go-for-broke attitude which gave Boss Level extra bonus points, The Map of Perfect Things finds itself in third place but don’t look at that bronze medal as a sign of a lack of confidence.  Like the recent slate of YA films put out by Amazon Studios (Selah and the SpadesWords on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts), the film fulfills on what it promises by sending out appealing leads jumping through multiple loops to get their day right.  What it might lack in originality it more than makes up for with a casual air of unpretentious self-confidence. 

Movie Review ~ Coming 2 America

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Prince Akeem Joffer is set to become King of Zamunda when he discovers he has a son he never knew about in America – a street savvy Queens native named Lavelle.

Stars: Eddie Murphy, James Earl Jones, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Shari Headley, Teyana Taylor, Michael Blackson, Louie Anderson, Paul Bates, Wesley Snipes, Leslie Jones, KiKi Layne, Rick Ross, John Amos, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tracy Morgan, Garcelle Beauvais

Director: Craig Brewer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There are good ways and bad ways to do a sequel and Eddie Murphy has seen them both.  The careless cash grab follow-up to a surprise hit never goes the way anyone wants it to (see 2000’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and Doctor Doolittle 2 from 2001) and is ultimately stymied by a studio that wants to capitalize on the popularity of a proven money-maker without worrying about silly things like creativity or furthering the character we liked.  Then there are the ‘make ‘em wait’ sequels that Murphy has had notable wins with, like 1990’s Another 48 Hrs., a more than worthy follow-up to his breakout 1982 feature film and, to a somewhat lesser extent, his two sequels to 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop.

The biggest wait of them all was the 32-year gap between 1988’s Coming to America and Coming 2 America, its long in the works sequel which is premiering on Amazon Prime after the health crisis led to its theatrical release being bypassed.  It’s a shame the film didn’t get a chance to play in theaters because this is one of those rare successes that make you wish you had a packed audience to enjoy it right alongside you.  One of Murphy’s longest lasting hits (I watched it again recently and marveled at how well it holds up, even the more problematic jokes weren’t as wince-able as I thought they’d be), it’s a sequel fans had been requesting but Murphy had resisted making because he didn’t feel the script/story were quite right.  Remember…this is from a man that made The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Norbit.  Anyway…

Now that Murphy had been experiencing a nice little renaissance over the past several years with a carefully thought-out comeback of sorts, the time was evidently right for a return to Zamunda and for fans of the original film, this is exactly the movie you’ve been asking for.  Though one could argue Murphy and a small army of writers that contributed to the screenplay simply worked back through a laundry list of favorite moments from the first movie, I’d counter and say Coming 2 America goes beyond mere fan service and moves into rewarding devotees not just of the three decades old film it follows but of Murphy’s career in general.  You’ve stuck with him all this time and here is 110 minutes of well-oiled comedy (and yes, a few creaky bits) as your prize.

Thirty years after finding his bride in Queens, NY, Price Akeem Joffer (Murphy) is a father of three strong girls and loves his life with Princess Lisa (Shari Headley, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween).  While his father (James Earl Jones, The Lion King) is in declining health, he still rules Zamunda with authority so Akeem doesn’t have to worry about the dictator from next door (literally from Nextdooria) trying to overthrow the throne…yet.  There is a problem though and with each passing day it grows more worrisome to the King.  Without a male heir to the throne, the Prince will have to find a proper husband for his eldest daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk) and she’s none too thrilled about being betrothed instead of finding her own match.  If anything, she’d rather her father just change the way things are done and let her be first in the line of succession. This is the 21st century, after all.

Through the magic of filmmaking and a slight tweaking to the original film, we eventually find out that during his 1988 trip to New York, Akeem had a one-night stand with Mary (Leslie Jones, Ghostbusters) and nine months later, when he was back in Zamunda, she gave birth to their son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler, The Opening Act).  With a viable heir to Zamunda, Akeem’s problems seem to be solved.  Now he can get General Izzi (Wesley Snipes, Chi-Raq) of Nextdooria off his back and perhaps broker further peace between them by having Lavelle marry Izzi’s temptress daughter.  Yet, like his father, Lavelle isn’t about to do what is expected of him and his arrival begins to cause more rifts within the royal house as all adjust to this new factor of the family equation.  As Lavelle is put through the trials the prove he is ready to become the crown prince while Meeka watches on and coaches her half-brother from the sidelines, Akeem learns a lesson from those around him about trusting your own self in making the decisions that will affect your future and not relying on age-old traditions.

Joined again by Arsenio Hall as Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi, Murphy easily slips back into the character and doesn’t waste much time in giving viewers what they’re looking for: Murphy and Hall under a wide array of impressive make-up designs as a half-dozen (or more) other characters that drop in along the way.  Returning favorites will show up as well as a few new ones, so keep your eyes peeled.  You’ll also be treated to a number of characters from the original and even minor one-liner players cross the screen – just for those super fans out there.  Surprising musical celebrity cameos also feature heavily in a handful of numbers, all decked out in Oscar-winning designer Ruth. E. Carter’s (Black Panther) truly eye-popping and mind-blowing costumes.  Carter always does thoughtful, beautiful work that’s pleasing to look at but in Coming 2 America she outdoes herself…and then some.

The energy and investment start at the top with Murphy and manages to have a pleasant trickle-down effect throughout the appealing cast.  It may seem at first like Hall isn’t as present as he was in the first film but he’s playing so many other secondary roles he’s plenty busy yukking it up reprising his fast-talking barber or bible thumping preacher.  I wasn’t sure at first how Fowler would fare when standing toe to toe with a number of imposing comedic figures, but he makes for a nice next generation star, as does Layne’s who is absolutely an exciting actress to keep your eye on.  SNL alums Morgan and Jones take big bites out of any project they’re a part of so are often best absorbed in small doses and director Craig Brewer nicely doles them out in a perfect amount.

Simply put, it’s a nice treat to find a sequel that feels like it went the extra mile to make it up to loyalists that have waited for it over the years.  Its plot isn’t anything super deep but it isn’t a strict rehash of the original, either.  There’s some depth to Coming 2 America with an always worthy message of charting your own path and the performances are up to par with, and often exceeding, what made the first film such a delight in the first place.  It’s entertaining as all get out and always wants you to be in on the fun.  Can’t ask for more than that.

Movie Review ~ Bliss

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mind-bending love story following a recently unemployed divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who is convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is just a computer simulation.

Stars: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson, Madeline Zima, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Joshua Leonard, Ronny Chieng

Director: Mike Cahill

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There really is nothing more depressing than watching two good actors in a mediocre movie.  Not a bad movie, mind you, just a mediocre one.  There’s something to be said about the thrill of a classically trained actor sludging their way through a total turkey of a flick (remember the big screen version of The Avengers?  No, not that one…the one from 1998?) or a bad performance by an actor in a good movie (let’s just go the easy route and say Cameron Diaz in 2002’s Gangs of New York) but I get so uncomfortable watching usually dependable stars turn up in a film that goes nowhere.  I’d rather they fail spectacularly or succeed exuberantly…anything that coasts through the middle isn’t worth the effort – there’s just too much content to warrant mediocrity.

The latest example of this is Bliss, an exquisitely commonplace driller (drama/thriller) that shows the shine of promise early on but gets increasingly duller as time goes by.  Written and directed by popular indie filmmaker Mike Cahill and starring two actors that we don’t see nearly as often as we should, I went into Bliss with no expectations or knowledge of the premise.  This gave me the advantage of being totally at the mercy of Cahill’s storytelling capabilities and his acumen in the creation of a warped quasi-reality always being called into question.  It also let me fully take in the performances of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek without the trailer spoiling key moments of surprise along the way, which it rather rudely does.  The result is a watchable but frustrating bit of hokum that doesn’t sit well with both actors and gets laughably funny at times…for all the wrong reasons.

Holed up in his drab office at Technical Difficulties, Greg Whittle (Wilson, Inherent Vice) is ignoring phone calls from his boss demanding an important meeting, promising his daughter he’ll be there for her graduation ceremony, and spending the morning drawing pictures of a luxury villa he’s never been to and a strikingly beautiful woman he’s never seen.  He’s also run out of his prescription for an undisclosed medication just at the time he seems to need it most.  As he dashes off to a meeting with his boss he wades through a crowd of co-workers all on the phone droning “We’re sorry you’re having Technical Difficulties”, one of the few clever moments Cahill has going for him. The meeting with his boorish boss doesn’t go well…at all.  Hoping to avoid the fallout, he retreats to a bar across the street and meets Isabel Clemens (Hayek, Sausage Party) and it seems like she’s been waiting for him.

Recognizing a kindred soul when she sees one, Isabel brings Greg into her circle of confidence and tells him they are actually part of a computer simulation and nothing around them is real.  The buttoned-up Greg takes one look at the dreadlocked, un-showered, dusty Isabel and can’t make that equation add up in his head…so she’ll have to prove it to him.  That’s just what she does (or does she?) over the course of several days involving various crystals, long talks in shanty towns underneath highway overpasses, and several detours through a strange new world that might be the real reality or just another simulation they need to escape from.  Meanwhile, Greg’s daughter (Nesta Cooper) is looking for her father who has gone missing and clearly needs help.  Can Isabel help Greg back to his true reality or is she just another figurative piece of a puzzle Greg has been trying to assemble for years?

While I don’t write my thoughts down as I’m watching a movie to reference later (I’ve never found notes to be helpful, only confusing me as I try to figure out what I scribbled blindly in the dark) I’m wondering if I should start writing down a number at various intervals to see what I rank the movie at key points.  If I’d have done that with Bliss, I’m sure I would have given the film high marks for its first half hour because Cahill creates a nice sense of disorientation that keeps the viewer just off-balance enough to be intrigued but not confused which leads to frustration.  It’s not hard to dig under the metaphors of what Cahill is laying out nor is it difficult to “get” what is really going on so it becomes a bit mysterious why the film doesn’t understand that we already are aware of where its headed long before it reveals itself to us.  If it had, it could have excised several long (and silly) passages that wind up meaning nothing if you go back and think it over.

That’s the oddest thing about Bliss.  Tracking it back again in my mind so much of the movie becomes almost a pointless exercise that you start to resent the time you spent on it.  Had Cahill moved his film forward with the same kind of mystery and raw energy that was found in the first third of Bliss, he might have had something unique and buzzworthy.  Instead, it’s an overly emotional in theory but emotionless in receipt attempt at a mind meld that gets weaker the longer you turn it over in your fingers.  Add to that the somewhat ridiculous scientific jargon the actors have to say without laughing and you are in for a rough ride.  You haven’t truly begun 2021 until you’ve heard Hayek say “Brain Box” with the same serious conviction as one would say “Heart Transplant”.

Speaking of Hayek, while it’s nice to see her back onscreen (and in a few scenes looking like the glam fabulous trend-setter she is) she seems completely miscast in this role, though it’s an admirable attempt at stretching past the roles she’s played in the past.  She was such a scream in Like a Boss that I wish she’d play more out-there roles like that.  Isabel it out there too, but not in the way we want her to be.  I feel largely the same way about Wilson.  He begins the film as a slightly out of it dweeb that never seems to do anything right…and sort of stays that way for the rest of the movie.  There’s just no challenge or change present in the character so where’s the appeal?  I was far more invested in Cooper’s character and the journey she goes through to follow and find her missing dad, only to see that once again he’s fallen into a pit he can’t escape from.

What little happiness there is to be found in Bliss is that it’s short but even then Cahill’s film feels much longer than that.  A very odd detour halfway through the movie has been spoiled by the trailer and while I’m not going to give that away here in case you haven’t seen it, I will say that though it was a nice reprieve it felt like padding to a tale that was only meant to be a short episode of The Twilight Zone or another anthology project.  Find your bliss somewhere else.