Movie Review ~ Bruised

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A disgraced MMA fighter finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.

Stars: Halle Berry, Adan Canto, Adriane Lenox, Sheila Atim, Danny Boyd Jr., Shamier Anderson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denny Dillon, Valentina Shevchenko, Lela Loren, Nikolai Nikolaeff

Director: Halle Berry

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There are few actors working in Hollywood today that I find myself actively rooting for more than Halle Berry.  An actress that had long paid her dues in television and a run of forgettable features in the early ‘90s before becoming the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for Monster’s Ball, Berry has a knack for finding herself in terrible projects but coming out smelling like a rose.  I recently watched her in the 1996 stinker The Rich Man’s Wife and, aside from believably pulling off a character named Josie, she managed to elevate what should have been a TV movie of the week to something worthy of a cinematic release. A continuing role in the X-Men franchise has kept her afloat when the big swings don’t pan out, but Berry has never gotten back to that same level of promise she showed around that Oscar era.  I mean, the now 55 year old survived the disaster that was 2004’s Catwoman so she must have nine lives of her own.

One glance at Bruised may give the impression that Berry has found the exact kind of project that could be the significant comeback story she has been looking for.  As the director and star of this gritty story following a retired MMA fighter working her way back into the ring for personal redemption at the same time the son she gave up when he was a baby is left on her doorstep, the film’s logline reads like it was tailor-made for an actress with just the kind of gumption Berry has leagues of.  Even considering that Berry wasn’t the first choice for either role (originally, Nick Cassavetes was signed on to direct Blake Lively), her history as a dedicated MMA fan made her an ideal selection because she understood the sport, athletes, and sacrifice required. It doesn’t quite work out as planned…but, we’ll get to that.

Jackie Justice (Berry, The Call) used to be someone special in the brutal sport of MMA cage fighting until she lost her nerve and walked away from it all.  Years later she’s barely scraping by, working odd jobs she often loses due to her temper.  Living with her boyfriend (Adan Canto, X-Men: Days of Future Past) who wants her to get back into the ring, Jackie simply wants to forget that part of her life, but the past has a way of delivering a right hook when she least expects it.  That sly jab comes when the six-year-old son she abandoned as an infant is dropped off by her pill riddled mother (Adriane Lenox, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) in the middle of the night.  Refusing to speak after seeing his informant father gunned down, Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.) was told his mother was dead so this woman before him, worked over by life, is difficult to accept.

With the added responsibility of a child to take care of, Jackie begins to clean up her act.  That means ridding her life of several of her addictions, both chemically and personally.  It takes a while for Michelle Rosenfarb’s script to get around to taking care of business and it’s one of Bruised’s drawbacks that the film moves slowly through several situations that should be more incidental than they wind up being.  Basically, it keeps us from meeting Jackie’s new trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim) for that much longer and that is just…not acceptable.  As it turns out, this is the most interesting character in the entire film and after we are introduced the viewer spends the rest of the film waiting for them to show up again.  It helps that Atim is such an electric presence onscreen that they could be playing a Bingo card and I’d want to watch them buy groceries.

That a secondary character moves into being the central character the viewer relates to speaks to another problem with Bruised.  Ostensibly the leading character is Jackie but for much of the film she’s so flimsy that it’s hard to find a way into her side of things.  Berry doesn’t help matters with a performance that’s overly earnest in the fight scenes and way too dialed back in the quieter moments.  If it’s worth anything, the scenes with Jackie and Manny or Buddhakan are the best of the best because it allows all three performers to shine the brightest.  There’s no question Berry is a gifted actress and once she has less to contend with in terms of moving pieces around her, she’s right on target. 

Built around a handful of fight sequences and trainings for the fight sequences, I was a little disappointed at how poorly filmed and edited the early scenes were and it didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the final match, what the entirety of the movie was building to, would be much better.  Surprisingly, while I often find these “grand finales” a little overwrought, Berry pulls out all the stops physically and as a director.  You can tell she wanted to get this section, out of all of them, correct and that quest for perfection shows. 

Like the central character, Bruised is often rough around the edges and needs some time to settle down and relax.  Once you get past the some of the scratchier elements that Berry can’t quite smooth out, there’s a fairly decent film to be found with several nicely tuned performances.  It’s not going to be Berry’s new calling card or a golden ticket back to the Oscars, but I think it will continue to open her up to new opportunities like this.  If anything, I was appreciative to be let into Berry’s MMA fandom through this dramatized story that finds occasional emotional resonance through its strongest supporting performances.

Movie Review ~ Awake

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a sudden global event wipes out all electronics and takes away humankind’s ability to sleep, chaos quickly begins to consume the world. Only Jill, an ex-soldier with a troubled past, may hold the key to a cure in the form of her own daughter.

Stars: Gina Rodriguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher, Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, Shamier Anderson

Director: Mark Raso

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Blame Sandra Bullock and that darn Bird Box but ever since the 2018 film premiered on Netflix and created a massive amount of publicity for the streaming service, a number of imitators centered on a massive world event have tried to capture that film’s same energy.  It’s not that the original movie was all that special, but it hit at just the precise moment when audiences needed that particular kind of escapist entertainment and didn’t mind some of its sillier plot mechanics.  The point was, it was led by an A-list, Oscar-winning actress who may have brought people in initially, but who eventually stuck around for the effective scares.  Any attempt to duplicate that would be a bit pointless…but oh did people try.

At first glance, you may look at the new Netflix film Awake and chalk it up to another Bird Box wannabe, but any doubt of its intentions wears off within the first few minutes and you realize this is no mere imitation but a different kind of beast with its own plan of attack.  Like Bird Box, it can’t quite figure out how to untangle itself from third act problems and takes a bit of a nosedive just when it should be accelerating to the finish line. Up until that point, it’s a breathless thriller that succeeds on the merit of the performances and the skill of the filmmaking.

Recovering veteran and single mom Jill (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire, an excellent actress that always seems to be one role shy of truly breaking through) is putting her life back together working as a security guard for a government run psychiatric unit while repairing the fractured relationship with her two children.  While she occasionally lifts unused pills from her job so she can sell them in order to make ends meet, she’s largely on the level, which is beginning to earn back trust from her former mother-in-law (Frances Fisher, Titanic) and daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblat, A Bad Moms Christmas), though her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos, What If) remains wary that his mom has truly turned over a new leaf.

After a solar flare creates an enormous electromagnetic pulse, wiping out all electronic devices and means of transportation, at first the family believes they need to just wait out this incredible inconvenience.  However, soon it becomes apparent that the unexplained phenomena triggered something else within the human race, rendering them unable to sleep.  Returning to her workplace, Jill finds the unit in chaos and her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) scrambling to relocate their operation to The Hub, a secret facility where they can study what has happened and, using a mysterious woman who has been able to fall asleep, figure out a way to fix it. 

What Jill fails to tell them is that Matilda can also sleep, something her mother-in-law has already figured out and told their local pastor (Barry Pepper, Crawl) who, in turn, has told his congregation.  Already whipped into a frenzy due to their lack of sleep, the prospect of having one in their midst that might hold the key to getting back their slumber becomes too much for them and violence erupts.  That’s about where Awake reaches the first of its numerous points of no return and as an audience member you’re going to have to either love it or leave it as Jill and her family go on the run from all kinds of sundry sorts over the next 90 minutes. Encountering car thieves (two different sets of them!), a highway full of nude cultists, and, in one of the film’s eeriest looking moments, a small town with streets full of wandering prison inmates in orange jumpsuits, there’s danger down every highway for this household. 

It’s a lot to handle, but Canadian director Mark Raso (who wrote the film along with his brother Joseph) keeps the pieces moving in a rather orderly fashion the majority of the time.  Raso isn’t above putting young Matilda in as much danger as possible but managing to do it in a way that has a sort of cinematic thrill to it.  That sounds weird. Let me explain. There’s a scene where Jill, Matilda, Noah, and a passenger who I won’t reveal are all in a car and attacked from the outside. In one camera move (or meant to look like one) we are inside the car, front and center, for the attack and it feels real and raw.  All this intensity works up unto a point near the end and that’s when Awake veers off course into territory that’s more messy than structured.  The final act may be a letdown after such a promising start, but it doesn’t completely overshadow the skill in which Raso constructs the setup.

Rumors abound that a Bird Box 2 is happening sometime in the future but until then we are going to have to be satisfied with films that run a similar route to that earlier movie.  Awake is one of the better Netflix films to arrive and wholly worth keeping your eyes open for. I don’t believe the Rasos intended to create a film to outpace the popular Netflix film Bird Box, but they’ve wound up with one that could easily be mentioned in the same breath and draw some favorable comparisons. 

Movie Review ~ Endings, Beginnings


The Facts
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Synopsis: A Los Angeles woman unlocks the secrets to her life after meeting two handsome best friends at a party.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, Sebastian Stan, Wendie Malick, Matthew Gray Gubler, Lindsay Sloane, Ben Esler, Shamier Anderson, Kyra Sedgwick

Director: Drake Doremus

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  When I was growing up, if I disappointed them the most crushing thing my parents could say to me was “We love you, we just don’t like you right now.”  Even though it still reaffirmed that they cared for me (and my parents were awesome and endlessly supportive through my many flights of fancy) and highlighted that my actions had an impact on how people perceived me, losing that bit of luster even for a moment was heartbreaking.  While movie characters aren’t quite on the same level as letting down your family, I found that phrase popping up often while watching Endings, Beginnings.  I truly like most of the actors in the film, I just didn’t like any of their characters.

It’s the story of Daphne (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars), a California artist moving back into the pool house of her sister and brother-in-law after breaking up with her latest boyfriend.  You get the sense she made the decision to end things but is already having second thoughts because she can’t quite get him (or a hazy encounter with another unidentified man) out of her mind for much of the film.  Deciding to go cold turkey on men and alcohol for six months, she looks for work but finds it hard to stay away from her vices for long.

That’s when she meets two men in quick succession.  Jack (Jamie Dornan, Fifty Shades Freed) is a slick success story that charms the side of Daphne that craves stability while the handsomely rumpled Frank (Sebastain Stan, I, Tonya) meets her needs for satisfying love without deeper emotion.  Both, on their own, might not be all that she is looking for but together they provide a yin and yang that leaves her feeling whole.  Writer/director Drake Doremus (Like, Crazy, Equals) gives this modern love triangle a few sharp edges but the crux of the decisions Daphne has to make tend toward the soap operatic the more involved she gets with both men.

For a time, Endings, Beginnings creates a dreamy mood that invites you into Daphne’s world and that’s due in large part to Woodley’s charisma which continues to shine through.  Though she’s never been as good as she was in her star-making turn in 2011’s The Descendants (WHY didn’t she get an Oscar nomination, I ask you?), she has a good showing here even making the semi-improvised dialogue not sound like remnants from an acting class exercise.  The longer the movie goes on, though, the less you relate to the character because she stops being somebody real and morphs into a creation that could only happen in the movies.

As the men in her life, Dornan and Stan provide at least some interesting stakes for her to gamble on, even if they seem to exist only to get her to hop off the wagon of no men and no drinking.  That they actively push her to drink and don’t always respect her boundaries is a little off-putting, to be honest, and feels just a tad antiquated in a film as modern as this purports to be.  In small supporting turns (too small for my taste), Wendie Malick (Scrooged) has a few nice scenes as Daphne’s mom and the always reliable Kyra Sedgwick (Man on a Ledge) shows up as a friend in Daphne’s weekly art clutch.  I’m so used to seeing Malick playing vamp-y women that it was a nice change of pace to find her so restrained and while Sedgwick’s character seems designed only to spout sage advice and then disappear, at least she breaks up the monotony of scenes with Daphne and her men.

One more thing before I go.  I don’t know why I noticed this but the amount of smoking in this movie was absolutely obscene.  I’ve never mentioned this in any review before because it hasn’t been something that’s caught my eye but I swear I could smell smoke emanating from the screen at times because there are so many cigarettes consumed ad nauseam by Daphne, Jack, and Frank.  It’s used so much, I half expected it to be a plot device later in the movie…spoiler alert…it’s not.  I guess I just find it surprising that a filmmaker in 2020 would choose to feature this vice so prominently when it isn’t essential to any character or plot element.

For Woodley’s performance, I would give this a cautious recommendation with the caveat that the film gets markedly weaker as it goes along before completely disintegrating.  Here’s hoping Woodley gets another chance soon to play a mature character like this and can sink her teeth into a script that meets her step for step – she’s obviously willing to go the distance in her performance.  Now let’s get her something solid to work with.