Movie Review ~ One Night in Miami


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.

 

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

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

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

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

 


The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Veena Sud

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

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

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

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

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

 

The Facts:

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

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

Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Chemical Hearts


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A high school transfer student finds a new passion when she begins to work on the school’s newspaper.

Stars: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Peña

Director:  Richard Tanne

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The other day I was revisiting an old chestnut romance that has become a favorite for many.  By “old” I mean 1992 and the movie was The Cutting Edge, that sleepover-ready PG lovey dovey figure skating film that did decent box office when first released but caught on like wildfire when it arrived on home video.  Aside from having major nostalgia pangs for non-stadium general admission theaters and remembering finding the show times for it on MovieFone, what struck me about the film was how it never would have worked the way it does, or held up the way it has, if it weren’t for the undeniable chemistry between the two leads.  It fueled the movie and gave credence to everything their characters said and how they acted – we believed them because we believed the actors.  It’s a rarity in film, especially in ones meant to appeal to young adults which often are targeted for something lower than the heart.

So it’s nice when a movie like Chemical Hearts arrives and you can witness that same chemistry on display for a whole new generation of viewers, albeit in a movie far more complicated than one about Olympic dreams.  An adaption of Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 novel “Our Chemical Hearts”, an added emotional element the filmmakers couldn’t have planned for is that the high-school set film is arriving on Amazon’s streaming service at the tail end of a summer when the future is uncertain about what the upcoming school year will bring.  This gives the film a palpable immediacy on top of several issues it attempts to tackle during its short run time.

Henry Page (Austin Abrams, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is a high school senior that’s living your typical teenage experience.  He gets average grades but aspires to do better, holds his parents as a model for a healthy relationship though he hasn’t had one of his own, and simply aims to please everyone by being what they need when they need it, regardless if it pleases him in the process.  His life takes a swift turn when Grace Down (Lili Reinhart, Hustlers) transfers into the school and becomes not just his co-editor of the newspaper but also the object of his interest and, eventually, affection.  That love hits him so hard seems to both excite and scare him a bit, compounded by Grace harboring her own guarded emotions and heavy baggage.  During a tumultuous senior year, Henry and Grace will each have their own moments of growth and shared lessons in the strength found in working together.

We’ve seen countless movies about the boy/girl that likes another boy/girl who has an air of mystery to them and know that whatever love blooms will surely be tested by secrets that are revealed and Chemical Hearts is no exception.  That adapter/director Richard Tanne handles it all with such a fine hand is a breath of fresh air and I found myself growing closer to the couple the more the film progressed rather than keeping them at arm’s length in preparation for the other shoe to drop.  That’s partly due to that whole chemistry bit we discussed earlier but also because the characters have genuine interest and depth not often found in the YA genre.  Separately, Henry and Grace feel like people we can relate to and together they are a couple we want to root for, further illustrating how well-rounded Tanne, Abrams, and the quite mesmerizing Reinhart have made these leading players.

What doesn’t quite work, though, are the supporting group of friends and relatives that seem to interfere with the action more than they help propel it forward.  Truly stellar films have side characters that marry themselves nicely into plot points throughout but in Chemical Hearts almost anytime Abrams and Reinhart aren’t onscreen the movie feels like it slumps its shoulders.  That’s especially tangential plots regarding Henry’s friend pursuing a lesbian relationship and his weepy sister going through a traumatic break-up that doles out sage wisdom when the movie needs it.  With a bit more finesse, Tanne could have made this work but I wasn’t buying into it because while Tanne goes to the finish line for Henry and Grace, everything else becomes distracting footnotes.  Plus, I hate it when movies show long-time friends totally dumping one of their own the first time they don’t come through in a pinch for them.  That happens here and the pure forgiveness that comes lets the group off too easy, in my opinion.

Without much in the way of films that have spoken to this age group over the past several months, this is one of two movies released in the same weekend giving young adults mature entertainment that doesn’t speak down to them.  Along with Words on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts doesn’t go for the obvious sentiments about how being young is hard and that school is difficult but aims for something deeper that yields more fruit in the end.  There’s honesty throughout (again it should be stated that Reinhart and Abrams are terrific) and a sweet sincerity in its final moments that should please more than just its target audience.

Movie Review ~ The Vast of Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator and charismatic radio DJ discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.

Stars: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer

Director: Andrew Patterson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  With all the technology, ease-of-access, and overwhelming intrusions we have in our daily lives, it can be easy to wistfully wish we lived in a more simple time.  Maybe it’s back in the 80s when music was more fun and movies were just…better.  Or how about the 70s when gas was cheap and we could invest in the big ideas of tomorrow?  You could go to the 60s if you wanted to witness a true time of change and advancement…the list goes on.  Yet to do that you’d also have to take all the bad things that existed then as well.  For a boatload of cultural reasons I can’t even get into here, while the 50s were a grand time for film and television I would never want to return to that period of history.

In the late 50s and early 60s, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were popular with television audiences and each week offered up a new story of the strange and unusual.  Oft-imitated over the years but never truly matched, these shows pushed the boundaries for storytelling in a smaller medium and have had great staying power over the years that followed.  Watching them now, they may seem quaint by today’s standards but it doesn’t diminish their overall impact and originality.  Inviting you in for tales of unexplained phenomena, it inspired generations of filmgoers.

You can clearly see that screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger have spent some time thinking about these shows because their new movie The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the home-spun tales of an era long-since passed.  Instead of feeling reverential to an old formula, however, director Andrew Patterson uses the film’s limited budget to his advantage and creates an unusual and entertaining little marvel.  Employing a clever opening device to suggest this might be just another episode of an on-going anthology, The Vast of Night takes its time to settle in but once it grabs you it doesn’t let go.

Charismatic teenager Everett (Jake Horowitz) is helping set-up for his small town’s big Friday night event: the high-school basketball game.  In the first of several long tracking shots Patterson uses effectively, Everett winds his way through the gymnasium fixing sound equipment, benignly tormenting a friend in the band, and making sure he can leave for his nighttime job as the town’s radio host/DJ with all systems go.  He’s soon snagged by the younger Fay (Sierra McCormick) who has a new sound recorder she’d like some help with, a perfect way to maybe get close to a boy she has a secret crush on.  She’s also on her way to work as the switchboard operator so Everett escorts her and the two discuss life in the town and plans for the future.

The talky first half hour or so of the movie may put off viewers coming to the film looking for immediate results but I’d urge you to stick with it.  I found myself shifting a bit in my seat, too, but establishing these characters proves valuable later when Fay overhears a strange noise through her switchboard and contact with the neighboring towns is cut off.  Enlisting Everett’s help and his listeners, the two are eventually led down an increasingly dangerous path that has roots in the town’s history.  As the truth is uncovered and an impossible explanation starts to form, the two teenagers will be faced with saving their town from an unnamed entity.

I could easily see The Vast of Night having been adapted from a radio play (ala War of the Worlds) from back in the day.  With it’s long stretches of dialogue and specific sound design, the movie feels more tuned to your aural senses than your visual senses at times.  There are moments when closing your eyes and just listening give you the feeling you are more in the scene.  While it’s light on what most would deem “scares” this has a handful of admirable “thrills” to it, scenes that will send that shiver ripple up your spine and make you bring the blanket further up over your nose.  Knowing this was the first time effort from the director and screenwriters, it’s an impressive debut.

The two leads are appealing and I felt they could have popped out of the time period, particularly  McCormick with her gangly gait and cat-eye glasses.  Horowitz also nicely avoids the pull to play his character as a smart-aleck know-it-all…even though that’s kind of what he is.  We have to like these two and it’s pretty much right from the beginning we are on their side and along for the ride.   While the majority of the supporting cast is either heard through the switchboard/radio or seen in brief, Gail Cronauer has a memorable scene as a townswoman Everett and Fay visit who may have answers to what is occurring this dark night.

In some parts of the country I know that The Vast of Night is playing at drive-ins and I would love to have seen it on a big screen like that when it was good and dark.  At a trim 89 minutes the film zips along and is best enjoyed all in one bite, resist the urge to take breaks because this one is all about the momentum that is built up. Especially after the first half hour when our heroine and hero get to work, you’ll want to buckle in for their nighttime adventure.