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.

Movie Review ~ One Night in Miami

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, the boxer meets with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown to change the course of history in the segregated South.

Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges, Hunter Burke, Nicolette Robinson

Director: Regina King

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s seems strange to say it, but movies like One Night in Miami make me miss live theater.  There are so many moments within this impressive feature film directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Regina King when I wished I was in the same room with the actors playing the roles of key figures in the history of Black America. The way they embodied these men with such alacrity seemed to give off a kind of electricity that I’m positive would have set off a charge strong enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  In the room where a play is performed, you take notice of these types of performers and what they are giving out to you and, in turn, you give back to them as audience members.  Without that opportunity to express that though, when it just halts at the barrier of the screen, something feels unfulfilled.

I suppose that’s why I’ve struggled with my thoughts on One Night in Miami these past weeks since seeing it and wondering why it hasn’t moved me in the way that I’ve heard it has for other people.  Not that I have to fall in step with the throngs because I’ve certainly defended my share of movies to those that didn’t respond like I did…but there’s something about this particular project that’s made me a little out of sorts.  The performances in the movie are stunning and just as awards worthy as you’ve heard (but maybe not in my mind the exact people being mentioned…more on that later) and the imagined dialogue that happens within the framework of the real-life set-up has a crackle to it.  However, there’s one element missing that there is no working around that keeps the movie from ever taking a sky’s the limit flight…and it’s that old electricity I mentioned before.

Adapting his 2013 play, screenwriter Kemp Powers (already having a jolly good year as co-director and screenwriter of Pixar’s Soul) opens the film with introductions to the four men that will feature in the night’s festivities.  Civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, The Commuter) struggles with maintaining his path forward in the face of threats of violence, a visit with a family friend of NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man) in Georgia starts sweet but ends with a sour reminder of the time and place, boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Godzilla) is established as the king of the ring and a true showman, and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) makes a dreary first impression at the famed Copacabana nightclub where his crooner numbers sink like a stone to the all-white audience.  These scenes have all been added to the film and are several examples of ways that Powers and King have wisely expanded the world of the one-act, 90-minute play…and not just for an excuse to pad the run time of the feature.

It’s when we get to the bones of Kemp’s play, when the men gather at a motel room after Clay’s victory and discuss his intended conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcom X, that the film starts to back itself into a corner.  Gone are the easy ways to keep the action moving and here to stay are speeches crafted as monologues and dialogue that sounds more like back and forth talking points to cross off on a checklist.  It’s unavoidable, I suppose, that a play about a gathering of men in a motel room would turn into a movie that feels like a play.  Only in the moments when the men excuse themselves and King follows them out of the room or travels back in time do we find ourselves slipping back into the magic and mood that are attempting to be evoked.  Every time we got back into that room, I felt like it was a return to actors running their lines again, stymied by four walls that were holding them back…much in the same way their characters were lamenting the way they were being held back from doing greater things.

The good news is that the performances are so superlative that they mostly overcome this stage-y feeling that infiltrates these scenes.  All are dealt nearly impossible tasks of recreating personalities that are instantly recognizable, but King has cast her film impeccably from top to bottom.  By far the star of the film is Ben-Adir, unforgettable as Malcom X…which is saying a lot because the doomed civil rights leader has already been played brilliantly before onscreen by an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s 1992 film.  Making the role his own, Ben-Adir channels Malcolm X from some otherworldly place, and it’s not a larger-than-life performance either.  Along with Hodge’s Brown, it’s likely the quietest one in the film but instead of just blending into the scenery, that solemn silence speaks volumes as he clashes with Sam Cooke over the popular singer’s refusal to be a more visible part of the movement.

I can understand why Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke is getting the advance notices for the film and an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Category wouldn’t be out of the question, but it would be folly not to speak of Ben-Adir in those same lines.  If anything, Cooke is pushed into more of a leading character with Odom Jr. performing several songs, including a thunderous take on ‘A Change is Gonna Come’.  Strangely, as over-the-top as Clay/Muhammad Ali was, Goree is the least memorable out of the four and it’s possibly because he’s the one that isn’t given as much to do when it comes to serious-minded debate compared to actors like Ben-Adir and Odom Jr.  Even Hodge gets to take a walk outside of the motel and have his opportunity in the spotlight, plus his early scene in Georgia with Beau Bridges leaves a lingering impression, a sting that is felt for the remainder of the film.

A long-time veteran of the business that has won a truckload of awards through the years, after taking home an Oscar two years ago for If Beale Street Could Talk it’s clear that King is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the director category in years to come.  Based on One Night in Miami, there is a lot to be excited about for King’s future as well as its cast of emerging stars.  I wish Powers had been able to solve the issues that plague every play that transfers from the stage to the screen, but the additional material that’s been added at the beginning, end, and interspersed within show that there was an awareness that movement was needed in order to give the film life.  Recommended on the strength of the performances because they definitely help when the film finds itself on shaky stage bound legs.

Movie Review ~ Herself

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Struggling to provide her daughters with a safe, happy home, Sandra decides to build one – from scratch. Using all her ingenuity to make her ambitious dream a reality, Sandra draws together a community to lend a helping hand to build her house and ultimately recover her own sense of self.

Stars: Clare Dunne, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Shadaan Felfeli, Cathy Belton

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  All through November and December leading up to Christmas, I did something I never did before, I watched a whole bunch of Hallmark movies in all their holiday predictable glory.  Maybe it was because this year I just needed something safe and comforting that wasn’t going to challenge me much during a stressful time of year but the movies just keep finding their way onto my DVR and I couldn’t stop watching them.  Even now, nearly halfway though January, I’m still finishing them off and not the least bit tired of their harmless charm.  In terms of quality of film, I have to say that for as much crap as these films have received over the years, a number of the ones I watched were quite decent and not the same silly dreck as others I have seen in the past.  All in all, they were just fine films.

Watching the new Amazon Studios release Herself, I heard that “just fine” sentiment echoing around in my head a lot as well.  While the movie has its good intentions, solid performances, engaging storyline, and is well-told by the filmmakers who obviously have invested an inkling of heart into the effort, there’s nothing that sets the movie truly apart from the crowd.  For a movie that wants to push some emotional buttons in the audience, that just won’t do because ultimately, I felt that something more had to be done to go further and elevate it to a higher level than where it lands.  Not every movie has to aspire to be better than what’s come before but when you put a spotlight on yourself and ask for that comparison, you better have something that actually makes you linger in the memory for some time after the credits are done.

When her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) finally takes things too far, Sandra (Clare Dunne, Spider-Man: Far from Home, who also wrote the film) leaves him and soon finds herself homeless trying to raise two daughters on her own in Dublin.  While she’s attempting to make ends meet by taking a job as a home aid to a doctor recovering from a broken hip (Harriet Walter, Rocketman) she thinks about how to create a new life and home for her young daughters (Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara).  Then, an idea comes to her on a bus ride home and she brings it to the housing authority that has been paying for all three of them to stay in a hotel.  Why not help her buy a piece of land so she can build a house?  Ultimately, the loan she needs for the land and the house would be cheaper than what they’re paying for their hotel upkeep now.  Unsurprisingly, she’s denied the solution to her current problem by an agency that can’t see a bigger picture presenting itself.

She’s not undeterred for long, though, because just like all great feel-good movies, Sandra benefits from having the right friends in the right place at the right time and soon she’s building her house in the most unlikely of places.  As she gathers her resources for the house and a motley crew of workers to assist her in its creation, a dark shadow appears in the skies.  Though he’s continued to see his children through court-appointed visits, her husband now wants the entire family to be together again.  Yet the house is a secret from him because it’s Sandra’s chance to finally get away from him; the longer the house takes to build the harder it is to keep it out of the conversation.  Leading to a series of dramatic climaxes and intense scenes that offset the good-natured charm offered in the first hour, Herself eventually turns into a standard drama symphony with the usual notes to play.

Let me be totally clear, Herself is a perfectly fine watch, it’s one I would recommend for Dunne’s leading performance and especially her scenes later in the film.  Even if it’s these very scenes that are the most commonplace, Dunne sells them in a way that gives them a breath of fresh air.  She can’t quite erase their familiarity, though, so the audience always is two or three steps ahead of the plot, up to and including its crescendo moment.  The husband is charming enough when he is nice to lead you to believe he may have changed but Anderson does well having his true colors show just below the surface in almost every scene, proving to all of us he isn’t as good at hiding it as he thinks he is.  It’s also worth it for Walter’s turn as a once-towering professional in her field that has been hampered by illness and personal tragedy in her life.  I was worried the relationship would start to look like the one in Wild Rose which was more of a savior/lost lamb situation but Dunne and Walter make a nice team in that both are strong women who lean on each other as they walk forward.

Director Phyllida Lloyd is best known for creating the stage musical Mamma Mia!, directing the movie version, and producing its hugely popular sequel.  While there’s music to be heard here (it must be noted the soundtrack is pretty dreadful, filled with songs that are so on the nose you practically want to wipe your TV with Kleenex), Lloyd is comfortable with the drama and lets the camera linger on some emotionally raw moments.  Thankfully, abuse scenes are either shown in quick flashes or not at all, the memories are shown on the faces of the victims and that is illustrative enough.  Her handling of the dramatic storyline feels more at ease than she was with The Iron Lady, yet it’s not as if you watch the movie and can tell what the director brought to the film.  She has no signature style to speak of so you get the sense that anyone could have really directed this.

Truly, Herself was always going to face a steep climb because it’s a story that is oft-told.  A battered wife packing up and leaving her no-good husband with her kids in tow and running into hard times trying to keep her children is something we’ve seen in books, TV, movies, songs, etc.  There’s a curious lack of overall ambition to make the movie something more than what is on the surface and that is where I found myself disappointed overall.  Dunne wrote a good script and turns in a strong performance along with Walter…that should be enough, but something’s missing from the final blueprint of Herself.

Movie Review ~ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Kazakh funnyman Borat risks life and limb when he returns to America with his young daughter to take on a pandemic as well as politics.

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Mike Pence, Rudolph Giuliani

Director: Jason Woliner

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s almost fitting that in a month where I’m running a series called 31 Days to Scare I’d also happen to screen a movie with a premise that makes me squirm more than any horror film out there.  There’s something about watching normal, everyday people being interviewed or at the center of an elaborate set-up where they aren’t in on the joke that makes me incredibly uncomfortable – it’s just not a space I like to live in, though I know it’s a sweet spot for a number of viewers.  Still, I watch through the kind of splayed fingers that I imagine many would screen a slasher film or gooey alien science fiction picture, feeling my blood pressure rise the longer the gag goes on.

Fourteen years ago, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought Borat Sagdiyev, his popular Kazakh journalist character that came to prominence on Cohen’s lightening rod program Da Ali G Show, to the screen.  That film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was made on a miniscule budget but was a runaway hit that saw its box office grow week after week and it’s title character’s quotable catchphrases enter the vocabulary almost instantly.  It also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, not too shabby for a film that featured large chunks of improvisation and introduced many audience members to the mankini.

Since that time, Baron Cohen has found ways to bring Borat back but he’s such a recognizable character that it was next to impossible to make a follow-up and capture that same innocence.  His subsequent attempts at new creations or taking the same route with other of his sketch eccentrics haven’t caught fire the same way, though Baron Cohen has gained some ground in feature films that allow him to stretch in other ways, most recently in The Trial of the Chicago 7 for Netflix.  Throughout the last year there had been rumors of Borat sightings and news of Baron Cohen’s run-ins with the law at key events gave the impression he might be up to something.

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, then, to have seen the announcement that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (shortened from, well, something longer) was not only a go but already done, edited, in the can, and ready for release on October 23 through Amazon Prime Video.  In the past, Baron Cohen said that if he did release another film that followed in the same footsteps as the original Borat it would be closer to an election to better highlight the failures of democracy and after viewing the sequel under a veil of steely secrecy I can see why.  No mistake should be made about the timing of this release, and if you’re reading this in the future remember that the third presidential debate is scheduled for October 22, the election is less than two weeks away, and someone in this film working for the Trump administration has been desperately trying to stir up trouble for the opposition in advance as a way to distract from an incident captured here that will surely come back to haunt him.

My first reaction to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that it’s missing the lightness that made the original have such near universal appeal.  In creating a character that was so misguided and culturally insensitive, Baron Cohen was able to represent a large swath of the world having their eyes opened at the same time – and in 2007 that still meant something.  Consider that since the first film was released the musical The Book of Mormon debuted to astounding acclaim and it covered similar ground using reverse satire and shockingly un-PC language to skewer topics of race and religion.  There’s an attempt to create a similar reaction in this sequel film but viewed through the 2020 lens it just doesn’t have the same impact because we’re not in that headspace of easy alignment, our division has grown too far and the message already conveyed via better methods.  So the abnormalities he’s shining a light on seem less vital and easier targets than what had once been interesting underground groups before.

Disgraced after his previous trip to America resulted in a film that embarrassed everyone in his country, Borat has spent the last decade breaking rocks in a grueling prison.  However, now that the government is pleased that “Obama’s reign of terror” is over, they are interested in making friends with their favorite supreme leader Donald Trump and, more importantly, Vice President Mike Pence and they decide to send Borat to offer a bribe of sorts to gain back the trust of the US.  Without his right-hand man (funnyman Ken Davitian is sadly missed here), Borat has only his stowaway daughter (Maria Bakalova) who becomes the back-up gift intended for Pence after the tragic demise of the first present. (Don’t ask).

Together, Borat and daughter move throughout America encountering locals who barely (unbelievably in some cases) bat at eye at the ludicrous situations a disguised Borat/Baron Cohen introduces them to and making over the daughter into a “Melania”.  A number of these sequences have the requisite effect of laughs but more than a few are in such poor taste even from a social commentary standpoint that you just feel awkward for everyone involved.  There are two people (women, naturally) that seem to take the antics seriously and, more importantly, to heart.  The time they take to have an actual conversation with the Bakalova and Baron Cohen are the most genuine moments in the film, the reinforcement of the good in our communities.  It’s worth nothing one of these women passed away after and the family is suing the producers for false representation, though I think she’s the one that handles herself with the most grace.

The moment that is sure to be talked about, though, and which I’m not going to spoil for you comes near the end of the film and it involves Bakalova’s interview with a certain former Mayor of a particular city known for its Broadway shows and Yankee baseball team.  It’s the part of the film I thought I was going to have to leave the room or not watch at all because it was too stressful…and then it takes things a step further and I was truly, completely, stunned.  If Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was looking to be part of the conversation leading up to the election…this is the scene that will make it happen.  And it should be talked about.  It’s right there on tope. That’s all I’ll say.

I still find the film lacking in an overall point, though.  The observations aren’t fresh and even the gags in the storyline (a whopping eight writers contributed to this) don’t feel that inspired.  Are period jokes, Holocaust deniers, and abortion riffs still the most shocking things that will get Americans going?  I hate to say that the production lucked out with the onset of COVID-19 but it definitely gave them more material to work with and exploit, not to mention it provided them with a key plot point that feels like the late-in-the-process script change it most certainly was.  What this feels like to me more than anything is Baron Cohen and his team having a thin idea for a plot but when they landed on something of importance within one of their typical ‘gotcha gags’ the rest was rushed to completion, forgetting to add the same creativity springing from curiosity into Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Evil Eye & Nocturne

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It’s Week Two of Welcome to the Blumhouse, the October collaboration between Blumhouse Television and Amazon Studios meant to drum up some scares with four curated genre films released over the course of two weeks.  Week One saw the arrival of The Lie and Black Box, both of which I found entertaining and, in the case of Black Box, a film I’d advocate you add to your queue, post haste.  I was expecting another week of sturdy films that couldn’t quite justify a theatrical release but made sense to appear in this curio of tales presented by producer Jason Blum.  Heck, I even expected them to save the best for the second week…but sadly these aren’t any stronger than the first entries, though one highly outranks the other in almost every way.  Looking over these four features, I’m glad these two entities joined forces and hope it happens again, albeit with product that feels like it was made for it and not just shoehorned in.  For this first time around, I’d pass on to Welcome to the Blumhouse a qualified return greeting.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A superstitious mother is convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago.

Stars: Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati, Bernard White, Anjali Bhimani

Director: Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Okay, so maybe I should walk back my comments above when I said the movies this week weren’t the strongest.  Thinking about it more I did find myself enjoying this low-key (really low-key) thriller based on a popular podcast originating on Audible.  This isn’t the first time a podcast has been adapted for television.  Amazon’s popular Homecoming successfully brought that buzzy paranoid drama to life a year or two ago, but Evil Eye does have an interesting premise and a lead that’s strong enough to earn a recommendation based on that factor alone.  That is winds up feeling like one of those old USA Mystery films by the end is more to do with the glossy direction from Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani than anything.

Thirty years ago in India, Usha (Sarita Choudhury, Admission) was attacked by a former boyfriend who she claims put a curse on her unborn baby.  The events of that night will come back to haunt her grown daughter, now single and living in New Orleans on her own.  Superstitious Usha has kept her daughter’s best interest in mind these past years and is always checking up and checking in on her, with her latest quest to find her daughter the proper Indian husband.  Matchmaking from halfway around the world isn’t easy on the mother-daughter relationship but Pallavi (Sunita Mani, The Death of Dick Long) lucks out and meets a keeper on her own, the darkly handsome Sandeep (Omar Maskati).  The one drawback is that though they are moving quickly, Usha’s senses tell her something is off about the match and even though the signs and mystics she normally consults tell her otherwise, she’s convinced her daughter is in danger.  Eventually, she becomes convinced that not only is Sandeep not the right man for her only child, but he’s actually the reincarnation of the man who tried to kill them both years earlier.

I haven’t heard Madhuri Shekar’s podcast so can’t tell you how faithfully she’s adapted it for the screen but this is a premise that works on a higher level than you’d think.  Silly though it sounds, it’s one that has to be taken with a degree of sincerity for it to work and everyone is onboard with that approach.  Steeped in Hindu culture with their own belief in reincarnation and their theory of the spirit never dying, there’s validity to Usha’s feelings even if no one around her actually believes what she says is true.  We don’t even know either, though it wouldn’t be much a thriller without that mystery hanging over our heads for a least a little bit.  The main suspense is due to how long we wait for Usha to get that one true sign that Sandeep is the man from her past, come back to finish what he started.

What gives the film its surest sense of worth is Choudhury’s lightening rod performance, first as the typical meddling mother and then as the parent, unraveling at the fact that she is too far away to save her daughter from an evil she may have unleashed.  Most of the film, Usha and Pallavi are separated and communicate only by phone yet Choudhury and Mani capably develop their relationship above simple surface level conversations.  As has been the case with many of these films, the supporting cast is tiny but I found myself liking Bernard White (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Usha’s husband and Pallavi’s dad…the one who is often stuck in the middle between the women he holds close to his heart.  I only wish Maskati had been a more convincing maybe-villain…he lacks a command of the screen and there are times when he’s working hard to come across imperious but winds up robotic.

As for thrills, Evil Eye is fairly light on any, though there was one moment involving the purposeful reveal of a pair of earrings and the direct fallout after that gave me chills.  It’s the one moment in the film that feels like it sprang from something more sinister and supernatural and I wish there were more of them.  Ultimately, this plays like a family drama with traces of the mystical intertwined which feels like a missed opportunity.  All that aside, it’s well-made and short enough to not overstay its welcome.  Choudhury’ll never bore you and she’s in the majority of the film so that’s a plus right there.  Let’s just say, you won’t give it the stink eye….unlike the next film.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage pianist makes a devilish deal in a bid to outplay her fraternal twin sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.

Stars: Madison Iseman, Sydney Sweeney, Brandon Keener, John Rothman, Rodney To, Jacques Colimon, Asia Jackson

Director: Zu Quirke

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy, a good plot synopsis will trick me every time.  I mean, every time.  Out of all the films in the Welcome to the Blumhouse stable, the one for Nocturne sounded the most interesting to me, which is why I saved it for last.  There’s something wickedly voyeuristic to any film or program where you have artists competing against one another who have already scarified so much and are willing to go a step further (see Suspiria and its remake) to attain their goals.  Now, recently Netflix had their own classical music horror show with twisted musicians in The Perfection and I was curious to see if Nocturne would measure up with the same level of bizarre developments and truly boffo ending.  Unfortunately, Nocturne has a totally different movie in mind to emulate and can’t even commit fully to that either.

Fraternal twins Violet (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home) and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) are senior pianists attending a celebrated private music institute that has trained some of the best talent in the country.  Raised by their airy parents who seem to want their kids to succeed even if it means they step over each other while doing it, Violet is the one that has landed a spot next year at Julliard while Juliet didn’t measure up and now is facing the next year with no back-up plan.  In Juliet’s eyes, everything seems to come easy for Violet.  She’s the one with the boyfriend, the friends, the opportunities, and the sister the teachers appear to favor.  Or maybe she just doesn’t take it all so seriously.  Either way, Juliet wants what Violet has.

When a classmate dies under suspicious circumstances, it leaves an opening for a replacement to take her place in a pivotal piece at the culmination of the year.  Everyone knows that Violet will get it…but Juliet wants it.  By chance, she discovers the notebook of the dead girl and in it finds a strange link to the occult and through it finds a power that may unlock the key to finally rising to the top.  Each turn of the page leads to a new opportunity to move her forward at the expense of something in return.  What price will she pay to be seen for once as the better twin and who will suffer for it the higher she climbs?

In 2010, I was all about Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s truly unforgettable Best Picture nominee which won Natalie Portman as Best Actress Oscar for her chilling take on a ballerina that becomes obsessed with playing the lead in a production of Swan Lake after paying her dues in second place.  The more her obsession grows, the more her psyche and body morph into the character she is portraying onstage, leading to a haunting one performance only showstopper that sees her achieve her dream for a brief shining moment.  Nocturne is such a direct copy of that Black Swan mold it could almost have been labeled a sequel in some way.  It has the same chilly tone, color scheme, music, dreams that turn to nightmares and then back to reality…it’s just all the same but done at a watered down level and totally toothless.

Writer/director Zu Quirke never truly makes the argument for Juliet to be worthy of the kind of attention she craves.  At least in Black Swan we get the idea that Portman’s character was maybe unjustly overlooked.  Juliet seems to want the spotlight just because her sister has it and makes deliberate steps to unseat her because she’s selfish…and that doesn’t make for a compelling watch.  Obsession of this sort should come from neglect, not from petty sister squabbles.  The mythology behind the magic also is a bit of a head-scratcher, with it making precious little sense and failing to be captivating – at the end they just feel like pages in a book.

I thought I was saving the best for last but Nocturne turned out to be the worst of the bunch.  Even its finale is bungled, lingering long enough to come off as a joke instead of a shock.  A better editor would have cut that final shot down and left the audience with their heart in their throat.  There is great deal of discussion about how classical music is a dying form and one character argues for it’s necessity…but not when it’s the driving force behind poorly recycled plots like this.