2022 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals



Year 11 of The MN Movie Man was so much fun! Movies in the theater got back into a full(er) swing; before I knew it, 2022 was winding down, and it was time to think about this wrap-up once again!

I continue to be grateful for your feedback, comments, emails, tweets (RIP to my Twitter, though!), and Instagram messages. I’ve enjoyed getting to know more of you and connecting through social media over our love of (or disagreement on) film! More than anything, I appreciate those that support their peers and pay it forward when they can. It’s been wonderful to receive communication from PR agencies or promotion entities that said they heard about me from one of my followers or fellow critics. Let me know if I can ever be of help to YOU! 

This year, I took more time away to keep the burnout feeling down. I get to a point where I need to step out and leave the writing alone for a bit. I’m comforted to get emails/messages from you asking when I’m coming back – I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing this, but when I’m ready to retire, we’ll make it a fun send-off!

In closing, I’ll return to the challenge I give my fellow critics every year… “I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release.” Keep seeking out these smaller films and give indie filmmakers some exposure. At the same time, acknowledge your fellow critics who do good work, tip you off to certain movies, and support you throughout the year. I’m always looking to Brian Orndorf, Tim Lammers, and Jared Huizenga to see what they’ve been watching, and The Minnesota Film Critics Alliance is worth a peek as well for another roster of critics doing their thing. This year, I’m adding Deep Focus Review and The Cinema Dispatch to my list of can’t stop/won’t stop reviewers dedicated to writing reviews almost daily and regularly staying flexible to seeing a wide range of film genres. Like I said: Give credit where credit is due!

This is the 11th year of this blog (wow!), and I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence over time. Even if you read this every day but have never commented or made contact, I can still tell you’ve been here, and that means a lot. The number of readers and subscribers grows, the followers increase and the likes go up — it’s great to see!

If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Instagram, and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.

Best Wishes to you and yours for the happiest New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)

5. You Won’t Be Alone / The Northman – Strong storytelling will always get you high marks on my list, and this dynamic duo tied for my affections this past year. The first is a dark fairy tale from Macedonia starring Alice Englert & Noomi Rapace, playing critical roles in the life cycle of a shapeshifting witch that roams a mountain village in the 19th century. It could be that others come to You Won’t Be Alone thinking it’s an all-out horror film, and they’ll likely be disappointed it’s not some witch in the woods scare-fest. I still found elements of the movie quite frightening, but not for reasons you might think. Throughout its run time, Stolevski’s film covers more ground than is typical or expected, asking striking questions about life, death, and our humanity even as we are gripped by not knowing what may happen next. In contrast, Robert Eggers’s Viking epic The Northman was exactly the viciously gruesome movie I was hoping for from the visionary filmmaker. Sparing the audience little in the way of close-up violence and tragedy, it’s the original Hamlet story Shakespeare would use as inspiration for his classic play. A beautiful, hypnotic film with fantastic performances all around.

4. Everything Everywhere All at Once – Having not formally reviewed Everything Everywhere All at Once yet, I couldn’t tell you that it took me two viewings to appreciate the film for what it achieves. The first time I saw it (in a theater), I didn’t get the praise. Perhaps I was in a bad mood or sleepy, or the bar had been set too high, but I walked out of the cinema wondering what the big deal was. Anytime I have such an adverse reaction to the consensus, I have to watch the film again to confirm my feelings. I’m so glad I watched it again because when I saw it at home, I understood the extraordinary accomplishment it represents and the creative energy it has encapsulated. Star Michelle Yeoh has been working for decades in Hong Kong cinema and Hollywood but has finally been given a role to match her star power, and supporting actors Stephanie Hsu and Ke Huy Quan also shine brightly. Repeat viewings only enhance the movie’s solid meta-verse set-up, a strong sign it will live on long after the year has ended.

3. TÁR – I love discourse over movies, and of all the films released in 2022, TÁR has been the one I’ve seen more people pick apart, quibble, and quarrel over. And I love it. At close to three hours, TÁR is a bundle-up and hunker-down experience that is rewarding for more than just the art house crowd or those with a subscription to the symphony. It’s for anyone that has followed the political landscape of the last five years and is invested in future change. Like the titular character, though, it can be a tough nut to crack. Luckily, Cate Blanchett is magnificent, and director Todd Field surrounds her with an excellent supporting cast that is often given their moments to shine. It’s Blanchett’s film, though, and as genius turns to obsession and control and becomes an unwieldy creature she can’t tame or keep time with, her character’s downward spiral is a graceful accident we are eager to buy a front-row ticket to see.

2. The Menu – I’m naturally attracted to movies with a black heart, but screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy have cooked up something unnaturally dark with The Menu. It might not be to everyone’s palette, but it’s hard to consider anyone walking out of it feeling they hadn’t been well-served by all involved. This is a rare meal that gets tastier the more you find out what’s going into the pot, and yet you still can’t quite figure out what the end game is until it arrives. Through it all, there’s bountiful amounts of acerbic humor directed at everything from bad movies to infidelity. Each table features a mini murders row of talent, and it’s hard to single out one actor over another. That said, The Menu is a delectable showcase for Ralph Fiennes as a curious chef curating a menu with purpose. And never forget how grand Hong Chau is; her turn as a snobby (maybe sinister?) front-of-house host is a delight. You can imagine the restaurant serving as the jumping-off place (or ending up?) for an anthology series in a Knives Out style…

1. Top Gun: Maverick – The biggest blockbuster of 2022 is also easily my favorite film of the year. I saw it multiple times in theaters and brought back friends/family each time. For a while, it felt like a sequel to the bombastic classic 1986 film Top Gun would never see a theatrical release at all. Intended for release in July 2019 (yes, 2019), it was bumped back for a myriad of reasons along the way. The important thing is that star Tom Cruise held out to keep Top Gun: Maverick from being a victim of the studio’s wave of pandemic straight-to-streaming offloads…and we should be forever grateful. What a thrill ride! Featuring pulse-pounding, nail-biting action to keep you alternately on the edge of your seat or pushed back, gripping your armrests. Making good use of the IMAX cameras, it was filmed with incredible cinematography seamlessly blending the actual flying from any green screen; it’s as realistic an action-adventure as you’ll see this side of a documentary or Navy-approved training video. The cherry on top of this sweet sundae? Like an authentic ’80s summer sweltering blockbuster, it has a power anthem from Lady Gaga with a needle drop at a perfect position. 

Honorable Mentions: Emily the Criminal, Cha Cha Real Smooth, The Batman, I Love My Dad, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, X, Pearl, Chip n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Persuasion, Strange World, Aline

5. Pinocchio / Thor: Love and Thunder – I decided to combine these two Disney releases into one because both were equal offenders, making them interchangeable #5’s on my Worst of 2022. Their live-action version of Pinocchio went right into the woodpile thanks to ill-advised rewrites to the classic tale. There’s a creepy vibe to the Robert Zemeckis-directed work, and with each good idea (Broadway star Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy) came ten bad ones (barely having Erivo sing, changing the ending, adding characters that didn’t further the plot, etc.). As predicted, it languished in the shadow of Guillermo del Toro’s far more respectable take on the fairy tale that arrived a few months later. The new Thor sequel may have had one of the more exciting villains (Oscar-winner Christian Bale), and a dynamite sequence drained of color. Still, the misuse of returning star Natalie Portman, not to mention unfathomably poor visuals and hammy acting by most of the supporting cast, made Taika Waititi directed outing sink like a weighted hammer.

4. Vengeance – If you look at my review of Vengeance, you’d see that I don’t give it that low of a score. However, since I reviewed it initially, the film has gnawed at me for its cavalier ending, which I mentioned at the time. Still, it remains a sour note in what was purported to be a well-orchestrated symphony. Written and directed by star B.J. Novak, my favorite part of the film was, surprisingly, the performance of a laid-back Ashton Kutcher. Though only in two brief scenes, he makes the most of his screen time and leaves a stand-out impression. That ending, oof. I can’t forgive it, and while I would encourage giving Vengeance a look for Kutcher’s performance and the overall strength of some of Novak’s ideas he introduces, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it in the long run. Intelligent filmmaking also must include being a responsible authority. Novak chooses an easy out based less on good ideas and more on what might be pleasing to the audience for a moment.

3. The 355 – The genesis of The 355 is the most positive thing about it. Star Jessica Chastain wanted to create a female-driven spy franchise to rival the likes of James Bond or a modern-day Mission: Impossible, filling a void in the market. Those films had something The 355 doesn’t: good material. It’s a cringe-y outing for several likable actresses attempting to act smart through a pretty dumb movie.   Double crosses are introduced as if we can’t see them coming from a mile away, and romantic or familial entanglements are awkwardly asked to take center stage at inopportune times. Truthfully, it plays like a bad pilot episode of a show for television. I think it’s admirable that Chastain (who would win a deserved Oscar for The Eyes of Tammy Faye a month after this was released) talks the talk and walks the walk in work she has faith in. Still, if the end result is lackluster, it tends to diminish the original intention.

2. Babylon – I haven’t released my full review of Babylon yet, but you can wager a guess how well I liked it by where it’s featured on this ranking. The youngest winner of Best Director, Damien Chazelle, is back with a 3+ hour headache some were eager to embrace it as art, but I was just as happy to write off as junk. Opening with a twenty-five-minute orgy of throbbing music and bodies depicting an elaborate Hollywood party where every kind of liquid is consumed and fluid is unleashed, the film wants to shock and showcase a world that never existed. That’s why it all feels so unnecessary to participate in. Only when Chazelle bothers to turn off the noise and let his characters speak to one another (like a devastating scene between Jean Smart and Brad Pitt), do we get an idea of how great this film could have been. Margot Robbie is again asked to play a wild character whose sexual energy is her asset and downfall – I can’t imagine this will continue to work for her much longer if she stars in bomb after bomb. Worst of all for me is that after 3 hours, Chazelle landed a perfect ending, restoring my hope that he knew what he was doing. To my shock…there were still ten minutes left. 

1. Shattered – I’m going to majorly cheat here and go back on what I said in my review of Shattered. While I technically saw Shattered in 2021 (watched over my Christmas holiday), I didn’t publish my review until January 2022. At the time, I said I couldn’t put it on my Worst of 2021 list because it hadn’t come out yet, but I couldn’t put it on my 2022 list because I didn’t see it in 2021. Well, I’m going back on my word because it truly was the worst film I reviewed in 2022. Scraping the barrel down to the rivets, Shattered is an embarrassingly lousy mystery-thriller starring two charmless duds and supported by two men (Frank Grillo and John Malkovich) that should know better. While David Loughery’s script could have some merit as a sex-thriller with better stars, it’s expertly slimy and not given much life by director Luis Prieto. Exquisitely terrible.

Dis(Honorable) Mentions: The Gray Man, Summering, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders, The Noel Diary, Butter (2020), Offseason

Most Misunderstood: Blonde – Oof. Mind you; I’m not saying this is my favorite film of the year or even that good of a movie. Still, wow, did many miss the mark on this one. I understand the discomfort it drummed up and the questionable conversations it raised during the promotional tour. Yet I must take it back to the performance, and there’s no doubt that Ana de Armas turned in one of the year’s most unforgettable performances as Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. It’s an unenviable task to take on. If the Cuban-born actress doesn’t entirely sound like Marilyn (ouch, I hope some of the critics who blasted her for the accent don’t go back and read how racist and misogynistic their reviews came across!), there’s something to be said about finding the essence of spirit and conveying that to an audience. It’s breathtaking work. It’s also shocking that this streaming film with a limited theatrical run received an NC-17 when the far more graphic and profane Babylon skated into wide distribution with an R.
Honorable Mention: Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Brace yourself; my honorable mention for “Most Misunderstood” film is popping up at the top of many “Worst” lists of the year, and I have got to say…I don’t see it. Far from perfect, there’s more style in this long-delayed sequel to a never-ending franchise than it was given credit for, and the abuse thrown at it seemed to be off-balance. I enjoyed the time I spent with it on Netflix, and I’ve definitely paid to see much worse movies in theaters.

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2022 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Orphan: First Kill – Can you blame me for wondering how they would pull off a sequel to this movie 13 years after the original?  Those that are familiar with the first Orphan from 2009 knew that it hinged on a particular bit of visual trickery that gave it a delicious third-act twist.  Once you knew the twist, the movie’s mystery wasn’t so mysterious.  How would a sequel handle that?  Turns out the filmmakers had a new twist up their sleeve and proved many naysayers (including myself) wrong.  Though it starts off a tad rough, there’s a moment in Orphan: First Kill when it kicks into high gear and astonishingly changes the game. 
Honorable Mention: The Woman King – I could just as easily (and probably should have) put director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s based-on-fact tale the Agojie, the all-female band of warriors tasked to protect The Kingdom of Dahomey in Africa in the 19th century. I had to mention it here, though, because (stupidly), at the outset, I didn’t have extremely high hopes for this one. Previews made it look like another classic historical war drama, but I should have trusted in the combined reputation of star Viola Davis and Prince-Bythewood in delivering quality. Far more than a paint-by-numbers re-telling of history, this is an epic picture with dynamic performances and eye-popping visuals, and it opens a chapter of the past many have likely not been exposed to. You must immediately check it out on a streaming service if you missed it in theaters.

Movie You Probably Haven’t Seen but Should: Pretty Problems – Once again, in 2022, I was fortunate enough to attend a handful of festivals from the comfort of my own home and saw several interesting titles (some that still haven’t been released). Of all I saw, none have impressed me as much as Pretty Problems, a biting, often LOL comedy that in less interesting hands might have resorted to the cliché plot turns and eyeroll-repurposed jokes it never even gets close to. Instead, writers (and stars) Britt Rentschler, Michael Tennant & Charlotte Ubben focus less on punching down at others in exchange for intelligent commentary that winds up holding a mirror to our increasingly self-involved society

Others to Consider:  Some of these are titles released in 2022, some are films I saw for the first time in 2022, and some are titles I revisited in 2022 — all are worth a look but didn’t quite fit into any other category above!

American Gigolo
Attachment {Tribeca 2022 Film Festival}
Bad Axe {SXSW 2022 Film Festival}
Blow Out (1981)
Blue Bayou
Cyrano (2021)
Death on the Nile (1978)
Do Revenge
Don’t Make Me Go\
Father Stu
God’s Creatures
Gone in the Night
Heathers: The Musical
It Is in Us All {SXSW 2022 Film Festival}
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On 
Marry Me
Nuclear Family
Slash/Back {SXSW 2022 Film Festival}
Sunset Boulevard
The Body (El Cuerpo)
Train to Busan
Troll (2022)
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody 

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2022
Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 59
Total Movies Seen at Home: 479
Grand Total for 2022 (not counting films seen multiple times): 530
Where I Saw the Most Movies – At home!

Movie Review ~ The To Do List



The Facts:

Synopsis: Feeling pressured to become more sexually experienced before she goes to college, Brandy Clark makes a list of things to accomplish before hitting campus in the fall.

Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Scott Porter, Andy Samberg, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg

Director: Maggie Carey

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Fret not, all of you out there that have lamented the death of the 80’s screwball sex farce for a picture is coming that should get you all misty for a cinematic time long since passed.  In the grand tradition of films like Joysticks, Hardbodies, The Last American Virgin and the more ribald sequels to American Pie, The To Do List is a decidedly slight coming of age story chock full of crude humor and kooky performances.  Like those earlier films, though, there are some troubles to be had as the one joke set-up reaches its climax long before our leading lady does.

In an interesting bit of genre gender bending, The To Do List exchanges a nerdy, awkward virginal male for a nerdy, awkward, virginal female that has spent her high school hot lunch days with her nose in books rather than the crotches of her classmates.  After graduating and before heading to Stanford, Brandy (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed, Monsters University) has a summer job to look forward to and watching Beaches with her friends (Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele).

This being a sex comedy, of course the film has to take place in the past (1993 never looked so perfectly embarrassing), Brandy’s job is at a struggling summer pool that operates in the shadow of a larger country club and her two friends are stock character non-virgins more than happy to educate our naïve star on what she has to look forward to in college.  Taking advice from her foul mouthed sister (Rachel Bilson), Brandy makes up a list of all the sins of the flesh that she wants to commit before September rolls around.  This “To Do List” is filled with a variety of popular terms out of the urban dictionary that aren’t fit to print in a review my mom will probably read.  As Brandy goes through her list –  ‘Wow…there are a lot of ‘jobs’ here”  – the audience laughs along with the knowing nostalgia of where we were the first time we found out what a ‘shocker’ actually was.

As Brandy makes her way through the list and through several boys at her work (including a perfectly pitched performance by Johnny Simmons as an ardent devotee of Brandy) her end goal is to lose her V-Card to studly lifeguard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a bleach blonde 90’s stud that “feels like Marky Mark looks”.  Some nice turns from Porter and Bill Hader as the washed out manager of the pool do land where they need to but poor Connie Britton and Clark Gregg (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Marvel’s The Avengers) are underused as Brandy’s parental units…an understanding mom and uptight dad.  Britton and Gregg are talented enough to make their shoehorned in roles appealing but are ultimately stymied by an underwritten script.

Reportedly inspired by writer/director Maggie Carey (Hader’s wife) and her experiences before college, the movie is really just a series of the same punch lines over and  over again.  That works for a while but with a film that nearly reaches 105 minutes the laughs don’t come as often as they should and the lessons that will be learned are clear before the first reel is over

Though the dialogue is incredibly (and almost laughably) crude and there’s an abundance of bodily emissions that end up in the mouth of Plaza the film is surprisingly chaste.  The one thing that the 80’s film has on this entry is stars not quite famous enough to feel self-conscious about showing a little skin.  Even in the throes of passion everyone is covered up in the film but I’m not saying if the film had nudity it would have been more successful…just more in line with the old-school feel the more is obviously already going for.

For fans of these retro sex comedies, you’ll probably get more than a few laughs out of The To Do List but it’s a film that will probably play better on the small screen rather than in a cavernous theater where the laughs die quickly.  Though well acted by a more than game cast in an obviously low-budget production, the movie can only manage to get up to second base before losing stamina.

Movie Review ~ The Sapphires


The Facts:

Synopsis: It’s 1968, and four young, talented Australian Aboriginal girls learn about love, friendship and war when their all girl group The Sapphires entertain the US troops in Vietnam.

Stars: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell

Director: Wayne Blair

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Make no doubt about it; The Sapphires is a movie with a mission.  It’s a film that wants so badly to appease its audience and appeal to the masses that it sacrifices some chances to let a more honest story develop.  What the film does have is a healthy dose of charm that helps propel the movie to a viewing experience that’s nigh-joyful if not completely memorable as the days go by.

In 1968, three Aboriginal sisters from the Australian Outback team up with their cousin to form The Sapphires, a girl group managed by Dave Lovelace (O’Dowd, Bridesmaids).  Together, the five travel to Vietnam to perform for the troops, face old feuds, and discover themselves in a country torn apart by war.

A true life tale adapted from a stage play penned as a tribute to relatives of the author, The Sapphires transitions easily to the screen with the help of director Blair and screenwriter Tony Briggs.  Original cast member Mailman was a wise choice to bring along for the film version because she brings an earthy realness as the eldest sister that takes on a mother hen tough love role for the group.  There’s a barely there subplot about some family turmoil but the film excels when it’s focused on the rise of the group from singing in local bars to belting out R&B tunes of the day to soldiers on the front lines.

In addition to Mailman there’s fine work from Australian Idol finalist Mauboy as the youngest sister with the best voice and biggest attitude.  Tapsell is a hoot as the sister that never gets her way while Sebbens is less effective in an underwritten role.  That leaves O’Dowd who many critics credit with giving the film its best shot at mainstream appeal.  I don’t think O’Dowd is a noticeable enough star to pack ‘em in but his game performance is very appealing.  Like Bridesmaids, I think he benefits greatly from having a confident female in a leading role for him to play off of – I didn’t find much chemistry between O’Dowd and Mailman though the movie tries it damndest to create some sort of spark.

The musical numbers are staged well making the film not simply Dreamgirls Down Under and several moments create the kind of giddy excitement that doesn’t come around much in film these days.  Yet underneath it all is a manipulative presence suggesting the film is gung-ho about having its cake and eating it too.  It’s smaller budget make some of the Vietnam sequences look fairly fake and I liked the film most when it was exploring the origins of The Sapphires and utilizing some local color for a reality check.

The Sapphires swept the Australian version of the Oscars this year, winning 11 of its 12 nominations and becoming one of the biggest box office hits of the year.  While the film has struggled to find an audience outside of Australia, the Weinstein Company (who, as Miramax, had a nice run of Australian imports like Muriel’s Wedding in the mid 90’s) is throwing some cash behind it to see if it can catch fire here as well.  It’s an enjoyable film and one I wanted to root for but with its predictable contrivances it falls just shy of being the crowd-pleasing home run it so wants to be.  Going along with the baseball metaphor, let’s call this one a base hit…maybe a double if you factor in some strong performances.

Down From the Shelf ~ How to Survive a Plague


The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

Stars: Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Iris Long

Director: David France

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  This passionate documentary about how the AIDS crisis gave birth to a new form of activism isn’t the first film about the impact that HIV has had on our world to garner Oscar attention but it’s a strong addition to the historical record of how a disease labeled ‘Gay Cancer’ became a global issue that hit close to home for nearly everyone.

Using invaluable video records, documentarian David France brings the audience into the world of the early responders who demanded more information from a government that didn’t respond as fast or as well as they should.  From local politicians all the way up through the highest level of government, the call to action wasn’t heard until many people had died.

Two activist groups were front and center during these years and where the film really fires on all cylinders is charting the coming together of like-minded individuals and the eventual fracture that happened amongst them thanks to in-fighting and differences of approach taken to get the message out.  Both sides are impassioned in seeking answers and neither are wrong…the strength of the film lies in its middle of the road approach that lets the audience decide for themselves where they would figure into the mix.

As is typical of documentaries that deal with illness, many of the faces that we meet during the course of the film are no longer with us but they live on in the archive footage of their speeches at memorials, rallies, and backyard parties.  These men and women were ready to shout and scream until someone heard our cries for help.

Activism about the AIDS crisis continues even today and the film feels very current in its information – a new generation has grown up knowing what AIDS is and its effects on families and loved ones.  While the dark days of no information may be behind us, there’s still more work to do until a cure is found…and it’s inspiring to know that so many people fought so hard to educate the public.

A film with many moving moments, How to Survive a Plague gets to the heart of the matter early on and is perhaps just a little longer than it has to be.  Length is of little concern though since the subjects are so frustrating yet watchable.

Movie Review ~ Promised Land


The Facts:

Synopsis: A salesman for a natural gas company experiences life-changing events after arriving in a small town, where his corporation wants to tap into the available resources

Stars: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The ads for Promised Land make it seem like it’s a cross between Erin Brockovich and Silkwood — while there is a definite David vs. Goliath element to the plot, it turns out that the film is less interested in the business side of things and more focused in the subtle exploration of what constitutes the “right thing to do”.   In the end, the film is perhaps too subtle for its own good and ends up barely making a blip on the radar despite even keeled direction and strong performances.

Damon and McDormand are representatives for a natural gas company that is looking to lease precious farm land from a community sitting on top of a 150 million dollar payload.  Instead of going in as smarmy salespeople, the two seek to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople so they can make their pitch with ease.  It’s a tricky balancing act to perform; we aren’t sure if they believe what they’re saying/selling so it’s hard to know what to discredit.

We’re shown early on that the team of Damon/McDormand are at the top of their field, so it’s no surprise that any sort of problem with this particular town takes a while to become evident.  It’s the combination of an informed retiree (Holbrook) and the appearance of an environmentalist with a personal story to tell (Krasinski) that throws two very big wrenches in what should have been an open and shut sales trip.

I appreciated that the film kept the big city business element out of the picture – there’s very little involvement from the billion dollar company that has sent Damon and McDormand out to close the deal. Instead, we watch as the two continue to meet with their target audience to not only sell them on their plans but stand up to the claims that their mining procedures would eventually turn the soil and water toxic.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay from a story by David Eggers and the piece is very timely.  As we continue to deplete our natural resources and fight for oil overseas, there is the thought that we need to look within our own soil for a way to fuel our country.  As farming begins to disappear across the US, the leasing of land to natural gas companies may be the only way for families and communities to survive.  To its credit, the movie does make good points on both sides but because it never really takes a solid stand either way there is a feeling of neutrality that may leave some unsatisfied.

Reteaming with his Good Will Hunting director Van Sant, Damon delivers a nicely nuanced performance — though I found it hard to believe that it’s this particular town that opens his eyes to problems within his company.  A shoehorned semi-romance with a teacher (DeWitt) doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of the movie and the implied competition with Krasinski for her hand feels a bit too pat.  Speaking of Krasinski, it’s clear that he’s got more in him than the character he’s played for nine seasons on television’s The Office but it’s strange that he’s written himself such a one dimensional role.  It also bugged me that his environmentalist character is very concerned about chemicals in the ground but could care less about scattering hundreds of pamphlets around town and Damon’s truck.

It’s really McDormand that quietly steals the show from her male counterparts.  Clearly realizing this is simply a job to support her family, she can be equal parts bulldog and supportive parental figure.  Her scenes with a local business owner (Welliver) have the kind of on the money feel that the film needed more of.  Wearing little make-up and dressed down, she looks the part and acts it wonderfully.

Swede cinematographer Linus Sandgren helps Van Sant’s even-keeled direction with a nice eye for small town life.  There are the requisite shots of American flags, county stores, and endless fields of harvest but it’s straightforward enough to not feel gimmicky.  Danny Elfman’s score is a far cry from the work he’s done for Tim Burton and it’s nice to hear something smooth and considerate from him.

Promised Land is a perfectly fine film with good people doing good work.  It’s going to fade from your memory quite fast and probably isn’t a movie you’ll revisit after it’s over.  Perhaps it’s too small of a film to really have an impact on the big screen – had it been made for television it might have worked out better.  That being said, it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of anyone involved or some of the stronger thematic material it covers.

Down From the Shelf ~ Flatliners


The Facts:

Synopsis: Medical students bring themselves near death; their experiment begins to go awry

Stars: Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt, William Baldwin

Director: Joel Schumacher

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There are some movies that bring up a lot of memories when you hear the title and for me just hearing the name Flatliners takes me back to the summer of 1990 when I anxiously awaited the August release of this thriller.  I recall the movie was released when my family was at our cabin and I wouldn’t be able to see it until we returned to the cities but it wasn’t long until my dad took me (hey, I was still underage for an R-rated movie!) to Yorktown 3 for a weeknight showing.

Flatliners has always been a guilty pleasure film for me with its over-the-top concept, stylish direction by Schumacher, and enjoyable performances by a cast that have all gone on to bigger and better things (well, maybe Baldwin excluded).  Revisiting the film again recently, I found that it still packed a nice little punch even if my adult eyes saw many of the cracks that previously went over my head.

Schumacher was a hot director at the time and was still riding the successful high of The Lost Boys three years earlier.  His remake of a French romance (Cousins) was well-received yet Schumacher would change course again to deliver what may seem like a horror film but is really more of a drama-thriller.  Re-teaming with one of his Lost Boys (Sutherland) and nabbing shooting star Roberts (who filmed this before Pretty Woman was released in March of 1990) was a bit of a coup and both actors, along with Bacon, Platt, and Baldwin formed a nice quintet of players as medical students pushing the line between life and death.

Sutherland has always been an interesting actor (much like his father, Donald) and he turns what could have been a one note hero/anti-hero role into a guy with some depth though it’s masked by a false bravado.  Film history has established that doctors have a God-complex and that notion is played up as the medical students each take turns ‘flatlining’ in an after-hours illegal pseudo-study group.  It’s when they are brought back that, unbeknownst to them, they bring something else back with them.

Essentially, the same scenario is replayed over and over again as each of our leads has a different experience in the thin line between heaven and earth.  All of the post-revival happenings are menacing in one way or another but none are of the serial killer variety…though the film’s preview tries to trick you into thinking they are.  Sutherland begins to be terrorized by a boy from his youth, Roberts sees her dead father, and Baldwin’s seedy past comes back to haunt him.  The secret to Bacon’s struggle seems to parallel what Sutherland is going through but a surprisingly emotional twist brings the film its best scene between Bacon and someone from his past. 

This could have been made by any number of directors with any combination of actors but the group that has been assembled strongly delivers a thriller even with its definite B-movie origins.  Elevating it slightly is James Newton Howard’s alarming score and Jan de Bont’s excellent visuals.  The film was shot around Loyola University in Chicago and Schumacher mines the campus and its gothic design for all it’s worth.

Flatliners does fall, um, flat in the middle section but I’ve always responded well to the movie in my numerous viewings of it throughout the years.  Yes, the basic plot stretches the bounds of any logical credibility and in hindsight much of it doesn’t line up but I’m willing to forgive a lot from a film that has its eyes and ears in the right place.  From a visual standpoint alone the film is recommended, and if you’re looking for a slick thriller from the 90’s that isn’t too horribly dated, you can’t miss with this one.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Stella



The Facts:

Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.

Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason

Director: John Erman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas.  Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper.  Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop.  That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.

Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off. 

The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together. 

What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily.  All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy.  Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.

Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere.  Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable.  The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time.  Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky.  He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight). 

Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations.  The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.   

Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time.  I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina.  The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.