Movie Review ~ The Exchange

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A socially awkward but highly enterprising teenager decides to acquire a “mail order best friend”; a sophisticated exchange student from France. Instead, he ends up importing his personal nightmare, a cologne-soaked, chain-smoking, sex-obsessed youth who quickly becomes the hero of his new community.

Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Avan Jogia, Justin Hartley, Jennifer Irwin, Paul Braunstein, Jayli Wolf, David Huband

Director: Dan Mazer

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By coincidence, I was reading a book about John Hughes at the same I was sent a screener for the new high school comedy The Exchange. Perhaps having Hughes at the back of my mind helped, but you don’t have to squint your eyes too hard to see the parallels between the angst-y teenagers from the Hughes-ian ‘80s Chicago suburbs with the ones that filter through screenwriter Tim Long’s Quebec of a similar era.  Often, that comparison doesn’t come out in favor of the new kid on the block, but in the case of The Exchange there is an equality of sorts that keeps its sweet sentiment at the forefront and makes it a worthwhile way to spend your evening.

All Tim (Ed Oxenbould, The Visit) wants to find in his tiny Canadian provincial town is someone that appreciates art films as much as he does.  Sadly, this is a time when all kids his age wanted was their MTV and the town was more focused on celebrating what they are known for, the white squirrel.  With his mother (Jennifer Irwin, The Mortuary Collection) focused on putting together the annual parade to celebrate the mascot and his shop-owner father (Paul Braunstein, Jigsaw) concerned with the economic downturn closing a number of family-run businesses, Tim is largely on his own and fending for himself in a sea of sameness.

Then, his French teacher tells the class about the foreign exchange program and Tim has an idea.  Why not host a French student and import some culture not just into his life, but his stagnant family dynamic as well?  Not only would it benefit him, but it could help in other ways.  In short order, the papers are filled out and the big day comes and that’s when Tim is in for a culture shock he couldn’t have anticipated. Instead of a well-behaved, cultured Frenchman, Tim is matched with Stéphane (Avan Jogia, Shaft), a ribald and free-thinking ball of energy that isn’t anything what Tim expected, but turns out to be precisely what he needs. 

It shouldn’t be too hard to predict the direction The Exchange is headed from the start, but credit is given to Long and director Dan Mazer for taking a sunny scenic route to get to their final destination.  By spending some time in getting to know more about Tim and Stéphane, we get to see why each has something to offer the other and how their shared experience winds up being beneficial.  That’s also helped by the strong casting of Oxenbould and especially Jogia in the trickier than it looks Frenchman-out-of-water in a town that initially accepts him only to turn their back when he’s suspected of a crime he might not have committed.  That Stéphane is from a mixed background introduces some race politics in that Hughes wouldn’t have attempted in his day but Long handles it with a light touch, not letting things get too out of hand before drawing the comedy back into the events.

Aside from the two leads, the ever-dependable Irwin is on hand for the typical mom advice but also on a tiny journey of her own as well.  That there was time to fit that in during this 93-minute movie mostly focused on the typical bit of raunchy bit of teen romp business was nice to see as well.  An arrogant gym coach played by Justin Hartley (A Bad Moms Christmas) might have been good for some cheap laughs but it’s the one character played so arch it felt like a sketch creation rather than the real people the other actors were going for.  Hartley’s reach is admirable, but it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the company.  I also thought Jayli Wolf’s eccentric sorta-love interest for Tim was oddball fun as well – it’s definitely a character Hughes would have dotted on his periphery of a high school dance scene and used for a laugh or three.

A rather unexpected surprise (I nearly passed on screening this and am glad I didn’t), The Exchange is a nice retro throwback to the teen classics we love to revisit from the ‘80s…and it doesn’t need to resort to raunch or extremes to find its funny.  By keeping things genuine, it remains endearing. I think it’s c’est bon.

Movie Review ~ LX 2048


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A fatally ill man tries to secure the future of his family in a world where the toxicity of the sun forces people to stay inside during the daytime.

Stars: James D’Arcy, Anna Brewster, Delroy Lindo, Gabrielle Cassi, Gina McKee, Jay Hayden, Juliet Aubrey, Linc Hand

Director: Guy Moshe

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It’s easy to look back in hindsight now and say that many of the films released since the beginning of the pandemic have had uncanny timing but you have to admit that stepping back it is odd that in the last half year audiences confined to their homes from danger outside have had so many movies with claustrophobic narratives to keep them entertained.  Titles like The Rental, The Owners, Relic, 1BR, Vivarium, and the upcoming 2067 have either held the message to “Get Out” or “Stay In” and the directive can be confusing, especially if you just want that simple escapism to take your mind off of the creeping virus we learn more about from day to day.  What might have originally been produced with the intention of being a slick twist to a stifled genre now comes with the burden of being another ominous harbinger of even more danger to fear in an already precipitous time.

You can add the futuristic LX 2048 to that mix of films that have arrived at an odd moment in history.  Written and directed by Israel-born Guy Moshe, it joins a long list of movies set years from now where our way of living has become unstable, forcing the Earth’s population to come up with a different solution to continue our existence.  With the sun’s light turning lethal, people have to stay indoors during the day, venturing out only in heavy Hazmat suits to protect them from exposure to toxic levels of radiation that will kill them.  Most have opted to live in a virtual state, interacting through a digital platform and being replaced by clones once their human form has ceased to exist.  There is next to no human interaction and those that do choose to go into the office or continue to lead their physical existence do so at their own peril and often without the presence of their loved ones who have moved into what basically the Cloud.

This brings us up to date when we meet Adam Bird (James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas), a man that has resisted the transition away from humanity and wants to keep his connections with his wife Reena (Anna Brewster) and children.  The trouble is they have moved on without him and Reena especially resents him for his unwillingness to join in on the next stage of evolution.  They’re heading for a divorce when Adam discovers he is dying and seeks to make final amends before his time runs out and he’s substituted by a replicant with upgrades in personality and physicality designed by his wife. Working against a timeline he can’t control in an uncertain future, Adam attempts to seek alternate options for his finality that would suggest he has more control over his fate than he was originally led to believe.

Moshe introduces a wealth of interesting concepts in the film at the outset, ably laying the groundwork for what could have been a nice blend of questions of morality and mortality set in a future world where time is of the essence and the possibilities of imagination are endless.  The trouble is that the characters, all of them and I do mean all of them, are so intensely unlikable from the start that as a viewer you find yourself literally leaning away from the screen the longer the film goes on.  Though the visuals are well rendered for the most part, there is a particular ugliness in the character qualities of Adam’s resolutely passive aggressive mealiness and Reena’s selfish manipulation that it’s hard to find any warmth to relate to.  As a viewer, I simply didn’t care what decisions were being made, by whom, or why.  That’s a fairly large hurdle for a director to put in your way.

Unfortunately, though D’Arcy is a strong actor and can handle this type of material, that character likability factor becomes a major problem in the final act when it essentially becomes a one (well, two…kinda) man show.  It becomes, frankly, an interminable watch and at 103 minutes feels like a self-indulgent screenwriting experiment that needed editing down.  Even the presence of the normally engaging Delroy Lindo (Point Break) as the reclusive scientist behind the technology that has provided the advancements to essentially save the human race does little to spice up Moshe’s drab, overly talky sci-fi drama.  It doesn’t help matters that it’s a hard to follow narrative at times as well, with timelines jumping and converging at odd moments that don’t always line up.  Usually, there are better connections and visual cues that assist viewers in putting the pieces together…at least at some point.

Before eventually becoming a tedious meditation on one’s own existence, the film already has lost its way in the wilderness between two plots and one ill-advised side tangent involving a sex-doll come to life.  There’s more than a little overlap between this and Blade Runner 2049…but only in concept, not in the intelligent execution.  It isn’t required to have likable characters for a movie to succeed but you do need to provide some reason for them to exist and Moshe hasn’t given his creations (or viewers) in LX 2048 much hope for the future.

Movie Review ~ I Am Woman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: This uplifting biopic tells the story of Helen Reddy, the fiercely ambitious Australian singer behind the 1971 megahit anthem that became the rallying cry of the women’s liberation movement.

Stars: Tilda Cobham-Harvey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Chris Parnell, Matty Cardarople, Rita Rani Ahuja, Molly Broadstack

Director: Unjoo Moon

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than jumping on a bandwagon so I’m fairly surprised that after the unexpected success of the extremely mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 and the emotional satisfaction derived from the superior Elton John biopic Rocketman in 2019 there haven’t been an influx of similar musical biographies.  Before those films arrived, previous efforts at presenting the life stories of legends of the music industry had been spotty and only a select few managed to break past a paint-by-the-numbers approach to a life-story.  What about that long in the planning Dolly Parton film about her journey from the Smokey Mountains to finding fame in Nashville and the film industry?  Then there were the multiple projects at one time in the works set to cover the life of Janis Joplin that couldn’t get off the ground.  Surely, audience reaction to a Queen musical would fuel some further interest in those properties…right?

It’s interesting, then, that the first real film to be released that charts the ascent of a star singer doesn’t even come from Hollywood at all.  Arriving from Down Under, I Am Woman centers on Australian soft-rock vocalist Helen Reddy and how the single mother packed up her daughter and left their life in Melbourne with dreams and determination to make it as a recording artist.  At a time when her style of music wasn’t considered fashionable by executives that didn’t truly know what their market audience was looking for, Reddy hit a nerve in the industry with her #1 song that became the ever-present theme for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1960s, Helen (Tilda Cobham-Harvey) thinks she’s secured a recording contract after winning a contest back in Australia, only to learn from an oily recording executive that there’s no place for her kind of singing on their roster.  The music of The Beatles was popular and women didn’t sell records, besides, this record company already had their request solo female artist signed so…they couldn’t take on another one.  Reaching out to another NY transplant from her hometown for advice, rock journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, Paradise Hills), Helen begins singing at low-paying nightclub.

Up until this point, director Unjoo Moon keeps the film coloring inside the lines almost to a fault.  The script from Emma Jensen is jammed with eye-rolling dialogue that intends to tell you the true nature of everyone’s character from their first spoken line.  Helen’s meeting with the music exec is misogynistic to the point of parody as is an exchange between her and the club owner trying to stiff her on her pay.  Everything just feels so stodgy that you want things to loosen up just a tad, I mean, this was the 60s after all.  The relationship between Helen and Lillian proves for interesting interplay between two women that were capable of more than what people expected of them but it’s clear Lillian will be a sideline character quickly after Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, X-Men: Dark Phoenix) enters the picture and sweeps Helen off her feet.

A William Morris agent, at first Wald sends off all the traditional warning bells of an Ike Turner in the making but curiously manages to not follow the path you think he’ll tread.  Though initially challenged by Helen’s tenacity he appears to be someone that doesn’t just love Helen but actually believes in her too…though it takes a while (and a cross-country move) for him to make good on his promise to get her foot in the door with his music connections.  When she finally arrives, buoyed on the success of a hit cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him and then the blockbuster phenomenon of I Am Woman, her fame comes with the usual gains and losses.  The marriage to Wald is put to the test because of his drug and gambling addiction and her personal relationships with her friends and children are strained when she’s forced into choosing between her life as a performer and her offstage persona.

Objectively speaking, I Am Woman is fairly standard stuff and is akin to a rock skipping across the surface of a very wide and deep lake.  There’s a lot more to the story of Helen Reddy and a much deeper emotional well to mine, that’s for certain, but what’s presented onscreen feels respectful and ultimately an agreeable watch.  It helps immensely that Cobham-Harvey is positively electric as Helen, ably navigating the insecurities hiding behind perceived strength and wrestling with her own feelings of liberation while in a unique situation of her own where she feels at odds with the strong woman she sings about nightly.  Sadly, I was disappointed that she doesn’t do her own singing (Reddy’s vocals are either from her own recordings or recreated by Chelsea Cullen) and at times it shows that she’s just mouthing the words but overall she has Reddy’s mannerisms down.  I liked Peters as well, though his performance begins to slide into a series of sniffs and ticks as Wald’s addictions to drugs intensifies.

In addition to having a near ace-in-the-hole with its leading lady, I Am Woman also boasts cinematography from Memoirs of a Geisha Oscar-winner Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns).  Married to the director, BeeBe gives the film a radiant vibe and the faithfully recreated period production design from Michael Turner (The Great Gatsby) is overall exceptional, same goes for Emily Seresin’s (The Invisible Man) appropriately groovy costumes.  Hearing some of Reddy’s songs is quite nice, especially since Moon lets at least three of them play full out (including I Am Woman twice) but there’s little mention of Reddy’s work outside of the music world, including her film or stage work.  As one of Australia’s most respected performers, it’s right that the still living Reddy should get such a luxe film but I only wish the movie on the whole were quite as detailed as the sets and costumes that surround its star.

Movie Review ~ Becky (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenager’s weekend at a lake house with her father takes a turn for the worse when a group of convicts wreaks havoc on their lives.

Stars: Lulu Wilson, Kevin James, Amanda Brugel, Robert Maillet, Joel McHale

Director: Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When I was in my early 20s, I accompanied my parents on a trip to Las Vegas where we gambled, hit the buffets, and saw some shows.  It being our first time in the city, we did all the things the tourists do and by the time the week was drawing to a close, all my parents wanted to do was to take a night off and relax in the room.  I wanted to see one more Vegas show so I grabbed a last minute ticket to some random extravaganza playing at one of the off-brand hotels.  Sitting in my seat, I couldn’t believe my luck when before the show an announcer came on to tell the audience that going on between acts would be Kevin James!  Wow!  The King of Queens himself!  I waited through the dreary first half only to find out that a) it wasn’t the Kevin James I thought it was and b) this Kevin James was a lousy magician.

You’d understand, then, why I was trepidatious when reading the plot summary of Becky which listed Kevin James as an escaped neo-Nazi prisoner that terrorizes a family.  I mean, surely this time it really wasn’t the same guy, right?  Could the magician have gone into acting or was this really the funnyman known for his comedy turns on television and a string of half-hearted attempts to be a movie star?  Was James making a play for a more hardened character, distancing himself from the silly Adam Sandler umbrella he’s stayed safely under for more than a decade?  Admirably, Becky shows a new side of James but unfortunately for him the performance is part and parcel of such a repugnant film that the effort hardly seems worth noting.

Ever since her beloved mother died, Becky (Lulu Wilson, Annabelle: Creation) has had trouble adjusting to the new normal.  Her father Jeff (Joel McHale, The Happytime Murders) has tried to let his emotional daughter have her space to grieve but he’s decided to take steps to move forward, announcing his engagement to single mother Kayla (Amanda Brugel, Suicide Squad) at the start of what was supposed to be a father-daughter weekend at the family lake house.  Annoyed at the arrival of Kayla and her young son, Becky storms off to her tree fort in the woods…right about the time escaped prisoners Dominick (James, Pixels), Apex (Robert Maillet, Pacific Rim), and a few of their old friends show up on the hunt for an item stashed away.

As the audience, we’ve already seen the extent to which Dominick will go to get his way after his bloody flee from custody and a grisly crime that’s thankfully only hinted at.  He may have met his match, though, because Becky is an easily aggressed powder keg waiting to blow and doesn’t take kindly to the violence she witnesses going on in her home.  Thus begins less of a cat and mouse game but something more akin to two lions circling one another, with each devouring anything less important that gets in their way.  Becky uses her problem solving quick thinking and knowledge of the area to her advantage while Dominick relies on brute force to draw her closer, leading to a blood-soaked showdown.

The movie I’m describing sounds like an appealing and clever home invasion thriller and I bet the script from Nick Morris, Lane Skye and Ruckus Sky had some snap to it when it was originally conceived.  It wouldn’t be hard to sell me on a Home Alone meets survival horror movie but it’s a question of taste that has to be examined.  Under the direction of Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion Becky is about as repulsive an endeavor as you’re likely to see in 2020.  The bad taste on display is so egregious, from violence against animals to violence against children, it’s just absolutely no fun to watch and not even that fun to write about after the fact.  I’ve seen enough of these types of films to know that I don’t need to watch one that involves grown men beating up underage kids and killing pets – is that the kind of entertainment we’ve found ourselves craving and wanting to celebrate as a good time?

Honestly, it doesn’t help matters that Becky herself is awful – rude, dismissive, stubborn, and nihilistic, it goes beyond the typical beleaguered teenager and invites you to not so secretly want to root against her.  There’s the suggestion that maybe Becky has an evil streak in her as well, but no one involved behind the scenes was thoughtful enough to explore that more intriguing side to the character.  You get the feeling Wilson was trying to give her a sinister edge that wasn’t entirely on the page, but it’s largely silenced by Milott and Murnion’s glee for gore.  Instead of finding moments to see deeper within Becky’s psyche, we’re treated to another horrific bit of sleaze, often involving a sharp object and viscera.

Having two comedians (McHale and James) in dramatic leading roles also gives the movie a strange imbalance because there’s a sense of waiting for one of them to break during the deadly serious scenes.  McHale just isn’t cut out for dramatic acting and even his comedic turns are skating on thin ice, at least James does something with his part that feels like some homework was put in.  It’s not a revelatory performance but it’s a fine effort that should be noted and explored in further films down the line.  If the other supporting players offer little in terms of surprise, it’s only because there isn’t much space allotted to them seeing that Becky and Dominick suck up the air from most scenes.  Let’s also not forget that the entire movie hinges on Dominick being after something (I won’t reveal what) that makes precious little sense to anyone but him.  That all these characters should be swept up in the nonsense simply adds to the pointlessness of the whole exercise.

I felt really gross watching Becky and if it was something I’d casually picked out on Netflix, I probably would have turned it off twenty minutes in.  While I like the concept of what the script had laid out, it skewed too young and overly irresponsible for me and that left it feeling vacuous, like an experiment that failed to meet its potential.  It’s bloody and it’s brutal so gorehounds will likely sniff this one out fairly quickly, but will the connoisseurs of revenge thrillers go for a film served up with such foul ingredients?