Movie Review ~ Robin’s Wish


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An intimate portrait of Robin Williams and his invulnerable spirit, Robin’s Wish is the story of what really happened to one of the greatest entertainers of all time – and what his mind was fighting.

Stars: Susan Schneider Williams, Shawn Levy, John R. Montgomery, Rick Overton, David E. Kelly

Director: Tylor Norwood

Rated: NR

Running Length: 77 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Some days you’ll never forget.  The day Robin Williams died was one of them.  I know that it may sound strange in the grand scheme of life to mourn a celebrity death but Robin was one of the first stars I remember growing up knowing and recognizing.  Encountering him while I was a child as the Genie in Aladdin and the title character in Mrs. Doubtfire to becoming an adult and graduating to his less funny work in Insomnia and One-Hour Photo, I felt like I could chart my life, certainly my movie-going life, though him.  So thinking back to that day in August of 2014 when I got a text that asked me if I’d heard that Robin Williams had died will always bring a flush to my cheeks.  That night, I watched The Birdcage because I hadn’t seen it in forever and I wanted something that represented him well – solid comedy, solid heart.

In the days, months, weeks, and years since Robin left us, we’ve learned more about what he was suffering with that led him to commit suicide at the age of 63.  Though many assumed at first it was due to drugs or depression, it was revealed that although Robin had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease it was actually Lewy body dementia that likely led him to take his own life.  The implications of this are complicated and complex, requiring far more information that can be provided in a simple movie review.  Still, it gave a name and an explanation to what many of his close family and friends had been unable to pinpoint until after he was gone.

In the new documentary Robin’s Wish, Robin’s widow Susan Schneider Williams and director Tylor Norwood lay out this diagnosis and provide informative details about the series of events that, in hindsight, showed as early warning signs.  Interviews with several of those that knew him well in addition to neighbors in Marin, CA where he called home most of the time further color in the lines of the Robin off-camera that many of us didn’t see.  It’s a sweet, if not all-together enlightening, look at the actor that was beloved by many but struggled valiantly in his final years to stay afloat.

Those seeking an in-depth overall look at the life and times of Robin Williams won’t find it here, that’s been covered and done well in the 2018 documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind as well as several nicely researched biographies.  Although a brief overview of his early days at Julliard with classmate Christopher Reeve and their lasting friendship is mentioned, the majority of the film follows his later years with Schneider Williams, his third wife who he married in 2011.  More of a memory book on their life than anything, it definitely paints a picture of serenity in their union and how much they meant to each other…but it’s notable that none of his children are interviewed, seen, or even mentioned at all.  There’s not even a whisper of them when Schneider Williams was recalling how devastated Robin was when he found himself in failing health.  It all just seems, well, odd.  Like a piece of a difficult puzzle had been purposely left out.

What was nice to see were memories of Robin not from the usual suspects.  Instead of gathering a host of celebrities and recognizable names, Norwood interviews next-door neighbors, cycling buddies, and old comedy friends from back in the day.  Again, maybe this was something to read further into but I found it nice to hear from others that didn’t know Robin from the red carpet or movie sets but from seeing him walking his dog or taking out his trash.  Sometimes that’s when you get to know a person the best.  The film takes a sharp turn as it heads toward the finish line when it shifts to being all about Schneider Williams and her efforts to bring awareness to Lewy body dementia.  The jaded critic in me felt this smacked of infomercial-level filmmaking but there’s still a sincerity to her that appealed to me on a personal level.

Robin Williams left a large gap in the hearts of many movie fans and a larger one in those of his loved ones.  The movie never quite makes it clear what his “wish” was but raising awareness for this tragic disorder would surely be something he’d be a supporter of.  The film takes time to show his efforts with the USO and wounded veterans and his time with Comic Relief is well-documented.  It’s sad that he’s not here to help in the fight for a cure but perhaps this tiny film will inspire greater visibility to the cause.

Movie Review ~ Hard Kill

Available On Demand and Digital August 25, 2020


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A team of mercenaries find themselves tricked into a deadly showdown with an old enemy —and racing the clock to stop a world-changing computer program from being triggered.

Stars: Bruce Willis, Jesse Metcalfe, Natalie Eva Marie, Lala Kent, Sergio Rizzuto, Tyler Jon Olson, Texas Battle, Swen Temmel

Director: Matt Eskandari

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  Over the past year, I seem to have found myself with a lot of Bruce Willis in my life.  Reading Demi Moore’s insightful autobiography, I learned a bit more about their marriage and got a glimpse into life outside of the spotlight.  I also happened to watch several episodes of Moonlighting, the mid ‘80s TV show that paired him with Cybill Shepherd and made him an overnight star.  His move from television to move stardom was swift and, for my money, well-earned with a series of interesting films that showed some range – even if they weren’t always totally within his grasp.  What came through more than anything was that he was willing to try and that effort was delivered with a defined, unmissable twinkle in the eye and loads of charisma.

Sadly, that sparkle Willis used to get him over the finish line for many years is gone and he’s now to be found in quickie action thrillers that feel far beneath him.  Looking over his recent credits on IMDb reads like a list of titles considered but thrown out for the latest Call of Duty video game.  Precious Cargo, First Kill, Air Strike, Acts of Violence, Extraction…all blandly blend together so you can’t tell one from the other; it doesn’t help Willis looks the same in each so he appears to be playing the same character.  Reteaming with director Matt Eskandari for the third time in two years (their Trauma Center was released in 2019 and Survive the Night arrived in early 2020), Willis is in full-on glide mode which might be marginally OK if he was surround by a decent script, creative direction, and a supporting cast that picked up the slack.  Instead, every element of Hard Kill takes the easy route to Dullsville and sputters out before it can even get that far.

Former combat soldier Derek Miller (Jesse Metcalfe) now works as a mercenary gun for hire, which is how tech magnate Donovan Chalmers (Willis, Split) finds him and enlists his protection.  Apparently, Chalmers, with the assistance of his daughter Ava (Lala Kent, Spree), have created technology that is of vested interest to a terrorist called The Pardoner.  The vaguely European-y villain is evidently someone Miller and his team are familiar with from past encounters and Chalmers doesn’t want it falling into his hands which is why he wants their expertise to take the extremist down.  If Miller and his group of rugged professionals can fend off the radical and his goons from gaining access to a much-discussed security code that would activate the next-gen software meant to infiltrate precious security systems, it could mean the difference between peace and war.

In its journey to the screen, what sounds like a relatively straightforward actioner was, surprisingly, scripted by no less than four writers.  There are some attempts to add personal hang-ups and dramatic complexities to give the characters some shading but the script isn’t sophisticated enough nor are the actors prepared to tackle the necessary ups and downs.  It’s a remarkably poorly acted film from the top down, Willis often can’t even be bothered open his eyelids all the way, let alone to stand up, for many of his scenes.  The main bad guy is played by Sergio Rizzuto and a quick Google search returns results that for a time he was best known for being on a 2017 episode of Love Connection as a “Secret Billionaire” – which should tell you all you need to know about his acting as the lame-o The Pardoner.  Forgettable is the kindest way to describe the rest of the cast.  Most look like they spent more time in the gym than doing anything acting-related that could have spruced up the dreary proceedings.

Cheaply made with most of the action taking place in a large warehouse that hosts an endless series of low impact, poorly staged gunfights as well as a number of melodramatic scenes to balance out the action, Hard Kill should be an easy hard pass for you.  Even if you’re a fan of Willis I wouldn’t get too choked up about the actor and his selection of roles as of late, if you skip this one I’m sure you’ll have another similarly titled/themed one available in six months or so.  Hopefully that one will have a little more style and energy.

Movie Review ~ Archive


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two and a half years into a three-year research contract, George Almore is on the verge of a breakthrough working on a model of a true human-equivalent android. His prototype is almost complete. But this most sensitive phase of his work is also the riskiest.

Stars: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Williams, Toby Jones

Director: Gavin Rothery

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Remember how we’re always told not to judge a book by its cover?  The saying that just because something looks a certain way at first glance it may hold something completely different if you dig deeper?  How we’re supposed to look inside for what makes it special?  All that applies to movies as well.  Used to be that it was just the poster/video box that you could loan that tried and trusty saying to, then it applied to previews when an early trailer would give the impression a movie looked particularly bad, and now it’s graduated to those thumbnails we see when scrolling through streaming content.  These quick glimpses have to catch the eye of a potential viewer and entice them not just to explore more, but to commit the time to see what’s inside.

Your first impression of Archive (as was mine) could be that it looks an awful lot like 2014’s Ex Machina, the Oscar-winning sci-fi flick that gave Alicia Vikander an extra boost of star-power.  It wouldn’t be totally off-base to say the two films share some small similarities.  Both deal with chilly inventors creating lifelike robots that just happen to look like beautiful models.  That’s where the similarities end, though, because Archive has less of the slick thriller elements that made up the bulk of Ex Machina’s final act and more of its heady dive into the wonders and dangers of advancements in artificial intelligence.

Taking place in a future not so far removed from our current time, scientist George Almore (Theo James, Divergent) is working at a decommissioned science lab in the mountains of Japan to develop the next generation of robotics.  After three years living in near solitary confinement with no one but his earlier less refined models to keep him company, he’s come to a critical phase of his research that must be handled delicately. His boss (Rhona Mitra, Hollow Man) wants faster results but George is holding back giving her the full details for personal reasons that will become clearer as writer/director Gavin Rothery’s sparse but impactful plot develops.

By the time J3 (Stacy Martin, All the Money in the World) comes online, George is already at odds with the J2 model that begins to exhibit signs of jealously toward the upgraded machine replacing her as well as the man that created them both.  The more attention George pays to J3, the more willful J2 becomes which leads the film in unexpected directions finding strangely effective emotions along the way.  Throughout, we piece together the life George led before he arrived at the testing site, the pain he has been carrying for years, and how he intends to use boundary pushing technology to make his family whole again.

It should come as no surprise that Rothery was in the art department as a conceptual designer for 2009’s Moon, a moody mostly one-man show that had similar themes of solitude as a substitute for grief.  He’s made his film in familiar territory and for a first time director I think that’s a wise decision.  Sticking with what he’s comfortable with allows him to ease up on overthinking the plot and overdesigning the laboratory.  Not that the visuals and special effects aren’t handsomely rendered and the story doesn’t have some heft to it – it’s that they don’t feel so overbaked with the earnestness of a novice filmmaker.

I haven’t had the chance to take much note of James up until this point but he turns in a level performance as a man looking to science to help him through an emotional journey.  He’s equally good working with straight-up humans (Toby Jones, The Snowman, shows up in a typically wormy cameo) as he is sharing the screen with different robotic co-stars.  Tasked with the hardest job is likely Martin who has to sell quite a lot of looks to the audience throughout, starting with a full body robotic suit that viewed close up exposes the budget limitations the film was working with.  Yet Martin achieves high marks for keeping us engaged and convinced that she’s a well-oiled machine.

A rare film that maintains it’s energy and suspense until the very end, Archive is one of those films you’d stumble over by accident and then recommend to your friends as a nice surprise.  It’s not going to make a huge mark like Ex Machina did because aside from its achievements in finding root emotions in unlikely places, it doesn’t have anything that stands out and above the rest.  What it does have going for it is a consistency of tone and more emotional weight explored than many of its genre sisters and brothers.

Movie Review ~ Ghosts of War


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Five battle-hardened American soldiers assigned to hold a French Chateau near the end of World War II. However, they encounter a supernatural enemy far more terrifying than anything seen on the battlefield

Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Kyle Gallner, Theo Rossi, Alan Ritchson, Skylar Astin, Matthew Reese

Director: Eric Bress

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Looking at the movie releases over the years you begin to see the cycles of genre pics.  There was a time when war films were all the rage, then it was westerns, then horror films, then mysteries/noirs, then war films, then slasher films, then drama/art house films, then war films, then gross-out comedies, then war films, then horror films…are you spotting the pattern?  If there’s two genres that never seem to miss their cycle it’s war and horror and since war is so often equated with real-life horror it’s not totally an unexpected correlation.

It makes sense, then to see a movie like Ghosts of War emerge onto the spooky mist of streaming entertainment.  While I know it’s not the first movie to combine elements of horror into the mix of wartime, it’s the most recent attempt to add an extra dose of scares to what was already a horrific period of history.  The resulting film has its admirable moments but hinges on a disappointing late-breaking game changer, turning what had been an atmospheric ghost tale that thrived in its simplicity into something decidedly more complex and far less interesting.

In the midst of World War II, American soldiers Chirs (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus),  Tappert (Kyle Gallner, The Finest Hours),  Kirk (Theo Rossi, Cloverfield), Butchie (Alan Ritchson, The Wedding Ringer),  and Eugene (Skylar Astin, Pitch Perfect) are stationed far into the French countryside and soon cut off from their command.  Keeping watching over an expansive mansion previously used by Nazi commanders until they are relieved from duty, they aren’t in their dwelling one night before strange things begin to take place.  Visions of the dead, Morse code warnings, near miss accidents, and black magic calling cards begin to form a picture of what happened in the chateau before they arrived.

As the days move ahead the history of the house and its former owners comes into greater focus, with a found diary filling in the terrifying gaps of the story the bumps in the night are unable to tell.  Just when you think you’ve figured out where writer/director Eric Bress is taking you, he pulls the dusty rug out from under to reveal a twist that will either elevate the movie in your mind or sink it without reprieve.  Unfortunately for me (and the movie), it was a step I couldn’t take with the filmmakers and the final ten minutes faltered when they should have frightened.

Not to say it was smooth sailing until that point either.  Before the men get to the chateau, the film takes a bit to get going and we have to slog through our introductions that Bress makes feel heavy handed.  Even more than that, Bress seems intent to make the opening act particularly gruesome and unpleasant with off-putting violence.  Then there’s the case of a character that goes missing for a long stretch with no explanation.  I actually went back and watched a full twenty minutes of the movie again to make sure I didn’t miss a rationale and found none.  It’s these little things that make big impacts on the storytelling as a whole.

In the twist, Bress (who hasn’t directed a movie since 2004’s The Butterfly Effect) has something of interest but I just didn’t care for how it played into the storyline (not to mention the acting truly didn’t support this section) and that’s too bad because Ghosts of War isn’t a total wash.  There’s abut 45 minutes where the movie achieves a pleasant pace, blending decent scares (mostly of the jump variety) during the mystery solving by the soldiers.  Recommended as one of the more sturdy films of its kind, even if it starts of shaky and totally collapses at the end.

Movie Review ~ Miss Juneteenth


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A former beauty queen and single mom prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant.

Stars: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes

Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: To many, movies are simply escapist entertainment that are nice distractions from our daily lives.  We live in such tumultuous times with harsh realities and difficult uncertainties, why not check out for an hour or two and leave that all behind to lose yourself in some fantasy – would anyone really blame us?  Then there are those, like myself, who feel that film can also be a mirror of sorts to what is going on in our world and give us insight, however small, into another person’s experience we may have no idea about.  It can’t replicate that experience but if we are cognizant enough to recognize it, we can do our homework and learn more on our own time after the credits have ended.

The new film Miss Juneteenth is a good example of representation to a widely observed holiday that I was woefully uneducated to before seeing the film.  Like I’m sure many of you, Juneteenth was something I had heard about but never really understood the depth of its significance as a holiday to the black and African American communities.  Juneteenth, also known as the state holiday Emancipation Day in Texas, commemorates the date June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved African Americans were finally liberated in Texas, well over two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and it became law.  In recent years there has been an increasing call for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday and a number of organizations now include it as a paid holiday for their employees.  (My company just announced they are recognizing it as such in 2021).  Though Miss Juneteenth was written and filmed before the renewed calls for social justice reform over the past month and is far from a politically charged movie, its release is well-timed and features strong representation throughout the production.

When she was a teenager, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, Shame) won the Miss Juneteenth pageant in her Texas hometown, a long-standing, high-profile event that awards full scholarships to traditionally black universities to its winners, many of whom have gone on to be prominent members of the community both locally and nationally.  Now a single mother to Kai (Alexis Chikaze), Turquoise makes ends meet by managing a local watering hole and working as a funeral home make-up artist.  As the film opens, the Miss Juneteenth pageant is coming up and Turquoise pushes her shy teenager into competing for the crown, hoping her daughter can win despite the odds being stacked against them both.  Maybe she wants her daughter to win just so she has the money to afford college…or maybe she sees a possible win as a redemption to fulfill the promise she couldn’t when she held the title.

Far from being a simple pageant movie featuring the typical mother-daughter strife throughout, Miss Juneteenth may follow a familiar trajectory on the surface but does so in refreshing ways.  Director Channing Godfrey Peoples is from Texas and is clearly writing from a place she has great insight to.  There’s an air of authenticity throughout, even in the inauthentic way some of the women behave toward Turquoise and Kai, judging the mother for not taking a traditional post-pageant route and letting that influence what they think of the daughter.  An added layer of complexity comes with the relationship between Turquoise and her own mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes), a churchgoing, God-fearing woman that has her own demons hiding in the shadows.

If there’s one place that Peoples struggles with its convincing the audience that Turquoise would put up with some of the men in her life for as long as she does.  The father of her daughter (Kendrick Sampson) seems to be stuck in a pattern of disappointment and it feels out of her independent character for Turquoise to bend to his charms, especially when it begins to come between the dream of a future for their daughter.  Her boss at the mortuary is also pursuing her and that story line is thinly developed…and maybe it’s just because the dynamic between Beharie and Chikaze is so much more interesting that whenever they aren’t on screen together you’re just waiting for their next scene.  Only Marcus M. Mauldin, as the world-weary and wise owner of the bar she helps run, found a way into the narrative that made an impact.

The film is all about Beharie, though, and it’s a performance you aren’t going to soon forget.  An actress that has shown up in smaller but memorable roles in movies and television over the past decade, she hasn’t truly made that big leap yet but this could and should get her into the conversation for major work in the future.  It’s a difficult character to navigate because it would be easy to make Turquoise sharp with pointy edges so it’s a credit to Beharie and Peoples that they’ve given her depth and marked clarity – this is a woman in full control of her situation and isn’t someone that needs to be saved.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Miss Juneteenth isn’t a film leading to a huge climax of anguished realization with a token “Oscar clip” emotional outburst.  Instead, Peoples has sprinkled little gems of scenes throughout the picture, allowing a number of actors to instill some knowledge upon others, the audience included.

Watching to the very end showed how much of a community effort it was to make the film – I can’t remember ever seeing a movie list the hundreds of extras involved in the credits.  Small touches like this, including a tuneful collection of songs for the soundtrack and location shooting add to the charm of it all.  Like I said when we started, if you aren’t familiar with the Juneteenth holiday the pageant celebrates, do you homework before; while the movie gives some background there is more to be known that is important to discover on your own.

Movie Review ~ Inheritance (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A patriarch of a wealthy and powerful family suddenly passes away, leaving his wife and daughter with a shocking secret inheritance that threatens to unravel and destroy their lives.

Stars: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Nielsen, Chace Crawford, Patrick Warburton

Director: Vaughn Stein

Rated: NR

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Over the past few months while I’ve been cooped up there’s been time to do more than watch movies, a shocking thought to be sure.  Though I resisted at first, I’ve only recently given over to becoming a member of the puzzling community and now I have another project to occupy my time.  The jigsaw puzzle I’m working on now is tricky because the picture you see on the box doesn’t match the final one displayed in the finished work, meaning that you can only use the original image as a reference point.  What’s even trickier is that some pieces seem to fit right at first but wind up not being the exact match you originally thought they were.

Watching the new thriller Inheritance is a lot like putting together this puzzle because what you see isn’t exactly what you get and it’s made up of pieces that don’t fit.  Audiences in the mood for a twisty suspense film are willing to piece together intricate plot points but you have to provide them with the proper skill level for their efforts.  While I feel the finished project is overall an entertaining one that rises above some more standard tropes, it can’t get away from some big red flags that prevent it from rising to the next level.

Wealthy Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton, Ted) has passed away suddenly, leaving his wife Catherine (Connie Nielsen, Sea Fever) and children William (Chace Crawford, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding) and Lauren (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror) in shock.  The head of a successful and influential family, he was also a hard and harsh man toward his children and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of love lost at his demise.  At the reading of his will, his estate is divided between Catherine and William with Lauren receiving a smaller portion of his fortune.  This comes as no surprise as politician William is mounting another reelection bid and Lauren has always been somewhat of a disappointment to her father…even though she’s the District Attorney of Manhattan. (!)

Lauren gets something more for her inheritance, though.  A secret.  Delivered by the Monroe’s lawyer (Michael Beach, Aquaman) she becomes keeper of the keys to a secluded bunker behind her family estate that holds a dark mystery from her father’s past.  Now, it’s hard to speak of what this is without revealing too much of the wild turns Inheritance begins to take but suffice it to say it involves a man (Simon Pegg, The World’s End) who could sully her family name. Their relationship eventually forces Lauren to make the choice between family and virtue and leads to the awakening of some deep-seeded resentment toward her father we see played out in flashback.

Directing only his second feature film, Vaughn Stein takes Matthew Kennedy’s at times far out there script and finds a nice visual balance by draining the film of a lively color palate.  Upstate NY (actually Alabama) looks bleak, leaving our heroine literally out in the cold for much of the film.  Stein has a good eye to keep the film interesting to look at, even if he allows it to go on longer than it should because with a running time of 111 minutes it’s could easily lose 14 of them and be a tighter, tauter affair.  Reviews of Inheritance have given away the twist and I could have expanded on what’s in the bunker but I’m deciding to be deliberately obtuse because I saw the film without any knowledge of the deeper plot and that’s how I think you should too.  There’s a lot about the movie that’s, frankly, silly so the more you can take the seriousness when it’s available I say run toward it.  While it builds to some truly ludicrous switcheroos and supposedly smart people acting like complete dopes, I found a lot of Inheritance to be an an engaging ride.

Remember how I mentioned that puzzle piece that seems like it fits but really doesn’t?  That would be Collins as the leading lady who gives it her all but is just miscast in the role.  Taking over the role from Kate Mara (who would have been aces), Collins doesn’t look old enough to be the Manhattan DA, let alone have a child that barely needs to be in a car seat.  It feels like these character points were written when Mara was still cast and weren’t changed when Collins came on board.  Had the script been tweaked to make her child younger and alter her career position (not because she couldn’t hold the position but because I didn’t believe she was old enough to have it yet) I would have been able to buy her character fully.  Though Collins acts up a storm, she just feels out of place throughout.  Aside from some truly heinous acting from a bit player Collins meets with to get answers about her father, the acting is strong from the rest, particularly Nielsen who feels underutilized…until she isn’t.

Inheritance is a perfectly OK thriller, one of those films that you’d see pop up on your Netflix queue that you’d give some time to and walk away none the worse for wear.  It has some good points (I was surprised at a few rather spooky set-ups) and some stumbles but having approached it with no real investment there was nothing for me to be let down by.  It’s well-made and nicely assembled with performances that are nothing less than fully committed – I just wish the script was tailored more to the actors playing the roles and not the other way around.

Movie Review ~ Miss Virginia


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A struggling inner-city mother sacrifices everything to give her son a good education. Unwilling to allow her son to stay in a dangerous school, she launches a movement that could save his future – and that of thousands like him.

Stars: Uzo Aduba, Matthew Modine, Niles Fitch, Vanessa Williams, Aunjanue Ellis, Adina Porter, Amirah Vann

Director: R.J. Daniel Hanna

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Growing up, the hardest subject for me to master was math.  It took a while to get the basics but after I did, it was easy to spot the patterns once I figured out the formulas.  It all boils down to a simple equation that, no matter the length or contributing factors, follows a strict guideline without deviation.  It allows for confidence in solution and outcome and, often, predictability from the start.  You can apply the same algebraic analogy to a movie like Miss Virginia, a drama inspired by real life events which runs down a checklist of oft-used devices to come up with an expected, if only occasionally stirring, resolution.  It may not be incredibly thought-provoking filmmaking, but it does have a certain passing charm.

In 2003, Virginia Walden Ford (Uzo Aduba) was a single-mother raising a 15-year-old son in Washington D.C. who we first meet in the principal’s office at her son’s inner-city public school.  Finding out James (Niles Fitch, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has been skipping school without her knowledge, she imparts on him the importance of applying himself only to wind up back in the office a short time later when James is caught bullying another student, though we know he’s only guilty by unfortunate association.  Frustrated by the lack of support from the administration and afraid of seeing her son withdraw further into a troubled life she enrolls him at a nearby private school and takes on an extra janitorial job for Lorraine Townsend (Aunjanue Ellis, If Beale Street Could Talk), a congressional representative, in order to pay the high tuition fee.

As she gets to know Lorraine, Virginia educates herself on a flawed structure that funnels money into the public school system when it could be used to provide scholarships/vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.  Wanting that for her son, she attempts to get Lorraine on board, only to find the helpful ear she thought she had might already be bought and paid for by a town full of lobbyists.  Organizing a grassroots campaign, Virginia pounds the pavement and stirs a community with similar interest for their sons and daughters, putting a target on her back along the way.  When she joins with a popular but eccentric congressman (Matthew Modine, Pacific Heights) she enters the big leagues and her personal life becomes fair game used by the opposition to discredit her platform.

As a feature film, Miss Virginia plays a little light in the dramatic heft department.  Without any strong names to ground the picture it has the feel of a made for television movie that found its way into your local theater.  That’s not a dig on the actors in any way because the performances across the board are delivered with the exact amount of Serious Importance (save for Vanessa Williams doing her umpteenth catty arched eyebrow role) but watching the film from home I get the impression it played better than it would on a screen 50 times as large.  There’s not a lot of flair to R.J. Daniel Hanna’s direction and certainly not to Erin O’Connor’s so-so script.  O’Connor seems to be ticking off boxes in a how-to book for screenwriters with these types of films, including an unfortunate late-breaking incident meant to create an additional dramatic push forward for the community that only serves to remind audiences how derivative a turn the movie is willing to take.

I’m surprised that it’s taken this long for Aduba to appear in such a prominent role in a movie.  An Emmy-winning breakout star on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Aduba has been busy with that show for the last several years but with that series wrapped I look forward to seeing her more in roles that give her a chance to show a different side.  While she isn’t always successful in transitioning her internal feelings to the external, you can see her working through Virginia’s incredulity with a system that seems designed to see her fail and her determination to prevail shining through.  With his hair looking as crazy as his accent sounds, Modine is quirky but never dull as Virginia’s Capital Hill insider and the two work well together.  Modine is making some interesting choices here, I’m not sure it totally works, but I liked it whenever he was onscreen with Aduba.  A special shout-out to Amirah Vann (And So It Goes) as a woman in Virginia’s neighborhood that joins her cause, bringing some vitality to the movie when it starts to sag.

Not being familiar with Virginia Walden Ford or the landmark D.C. legislation she had a hand in securing before seeing Miss Virginia, I’m glad this one came my way.  It’s pleasantly light in the political area, steering clear of the stumping and denser legal maneuvering in favor of a more personal engagement narrative.  Though generic in tone, it’s big in spirit and intention.  I wouldn’t make it a priority to catch this one in theaters, though do add it to your streaming queue when it shows up there shortly.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Final Girls

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Synopsis: A young woman grieving the loss of her mother, a famous scream queen from the 1980s, finds herself pulled into the world of her mom’s most famous movie. Reunited, the women must fight off the film’s maniacal killer.

Release Date: October 9, 2015

Thoughts: The concept of meta-horror was ushered in by Scream in 1996, spawning hundreds of imitations with diminishing results. The idea of a high concept horror film was jettisoned in favor of all out torture porn or found footage cheapies that did little to show there was any life in the fading genre.

With the revitalization of Scream as a television show on MTV and Scream Queens premiering on Fox this fall, meta-horror seems to be coming back in style so I’m interested to see where The Final Girls falls on the spectrum. Don’t get this one confused with Final Girl, another 2015 entry starring Abigail Breslin…especially confusing because both movies feature Alexander Ludwig (Lone Survivor) in a prominent role.

I’m not sure yet how this one is going to wind up – it’s either going to be a total 80s throwback gem or a stinker you want to throw back from whence it came. The rather long trailer seems to give away much of the overall joke and production values look questionable…but with a game cast featuring Malin Akerman (Rock of Ages), Adam DeVine (Pitch Perfect 2), and Taissa Farmiga (The Bling Ring) it’s definitely worth taking a shot on.