Movie Review ~ SAS: Red Notice

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An off-duty SAS soldier must thwart a terror attack on a train running through the Channel Tunnel.

Stars: Sam Heughan, Ruby Rose, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen, Noel Clarke

Director: Magnus Martens

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  Do you ever find yourself watching a movie with lauded actors and ask yourself “What are YOU doing in this movie?”  It may be a good movie, it may be a bad movie, but the question itself is valid at that moment.  What we’re really asking is: Did you do it for the money?  Plenty of actors show up in films, television shows, or commercials because of one thing: the payday.  While I’d like to net the kind of dough they make on those projects (and so do you!)  I wonder if taking on these types of roles makes them enjoy those Caribbean vacations a little less or causes them to stop a few seconds longer at the stoplight in their Tesla pondering why.  Ah…who am I kidding.  They don’t give it a second thought.  Work is work and plenty of people would give their eye teeth to do what they do.

Even though I do believe that, watching SAS: Red Notice, I would have loved to have had a direct line to stars Tom Wilkinson and Andy Serkis to ask them to level with me and admit that they made this one for the money.  Both men look positively miserable throughout; Wilknson comes off like he’s about to cry often while Serkis compensates by gritting his teeth so loudly it sounds like a rogue squeaky wheel shopping cart has become another character in the movie.  They have every right to look pained, too, because SAS: Red Notice is a total turkey, an absolute howler of film that boasts action scenes almost as flat as the acting and lots of explosions that produce more heat than the main love interests.  At one point early on, I thought the film was intended to be a farce in the vein of The Naked Gun because the tone being conveyed was so far off from the Mission: Impossible-esque mood the storyline suggested.

A family of elite assassins, The Black Swans, have been hiding out in London trying to avoid detection and capture for war crimes they were hired to commit by the highest levels of the Queen’s government.  Determined to keep their dirty business dealings under wraps, the Prime Minister (Ray Panthaki, Official Secrets) orders his top guy George Clements (Serkis, Long Shot) to take out William Lewis (Wilkinson, The Lone Ranger) and his crew, including his daughter and skilled protégé Grace (Ruby Rose, The Meg).  With assistance from SAS soldier Tom Buckingham (Sam Heughan, Bloodshot) the Lewis compound is raided but when their targets slip through their fingers it only leads to more problems for Buckingham and his team.

Waiting to regroup, Buckingham and his doctor girlfriend Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen, Ant-Man and The Wasp) decide to head to Paris for a weekend away but wouldn’t you know it, they’re leaving on the wrong train at the wrong time.  Then again, perhaps it is the right train/right time because Grace has infiltrated the speeding railcar, taking the passengers hostage.  Threatening to set off a bomb as the train makes it way through the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris, Buckingham is a one-man army onboard as he works his way through a deadly batch of trained killers while his fellow SAS mate Declan Smith (Tom Hopper, Terminator: Dark Fate) tries to help him from London.  At the same time, Grace has figured out someone is attempting to stop her and also found the one person on board the train that can be used as a bargaining chip…Sophie.

Based on the first of three books featuring Tom Buckingham written by Andy McNab, the adaptation by Lawrence Malkin features dialogue so silly it’s amazing none of the actors throughout to suggest changing it…or removing it.  Hearing Sophie tell a complete stranger about Buckingham carrying around her recently deceased cat might have made a good anecdote in the book but on screen it makes Buckingham look creepy and turns Sophie into one of those women in distress that can only talk about their boyfriends when they aren’t in the room and then spend every moment they are in the room fighting with them.  It’s no wonder a number of the characters she winds up talking to make a quick exit (either out of the scene or off the Earth) because who wants to hang around her for too long?  Speaking of Buckingham, McNab and Malkin seem to have made him a mixture of Ethan Hunt from M:I and Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s novels but, like that tins man in Oz, they forgot to give him a heart.  Wait for the scene where Buckingham attempts to emote with complete and total conviction…and try your hardest not to laugh.  Not that it helps things that Heughan is an absolute dud dud dudderson as Buckingham, displaying zero charm and negative zero charisma with John-Kamen as his supposed long-time girlfriend.

The only chemistry that is generated is between John-Kamen and Rose in a strange bit of the captive and the captor having a kind of weird unspoken romantic connection.  It’s not at all implied and neither actress is strong enough to pull those nuances out of the script or even thin air but it’s some natural instinct given off that makes it feel so.  After the action sequences where she doesn’t speak, it’s the only other good thing Rose can be noted for because her acting is frighteningly wooden here.  A flash in the pan when she debuted on Orange is the New Black years ago, she hasn’t ever really acquitted herself in the acting department.  Even though her fight scenes are well done and she has the appropriate energy and style to pull them off, anytime (absolutely anytime) she’s required to act past that the movie grinds to a dead stop.   It’s unfortunate because Rose feels like she could be a star if all the pieces lined up better — there’s a place for her but not at her current level.  Not by a long shot.

It’s just a mess of a film across so many areas that fixing one wouldn’t do the trick.  When you have none of the actors are on the same page, there can be no dynamic created. It feels like a group of strangers just showed up and were put on film.  Much of the movie depends on those pre-existing relationships and without that base, there’s nothing to go off of.  Piling about nine endings on in the last ten minutes and then making us wait for the absolute longest aerial pull in I’ve ever seen, SAS: Red Notice can’t even end the movie correctly.  Having never read the books (and now having no interest in reading the next two) I can’t know if the jokey style of the film was in response to the source material’s tone or if director Magnus Martens just couldn’t figure out how he wanted his picture to come across.  If he wanted action, he got some.  If he wanted comedy, he struck gold.

Movie Review ~ Phobias

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Five dangerous patients, suffering from extreme phobias at a government testing facility, are put to the ultimate test under the supervision of a crazed doctor and his quest to weaponize fear.

Stars: Alexis Knapp, Charlotte McKinney, Lauren Miller, Monique Coleman, Martina García, Hana Mae Lee, Leonardo Nam, Benjamin Stockham, Anthony Gonzalez, Steve Park, Macy Gray, Ross Partridge, Joey Luthman, Micah A. Hauptman, Mackenzie Brooke Smith

Director: Jess Varley, Maritte Go, Camilla Belle, Chris von Hoffman, and Joe Sill

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I like bad horror films just like every other true horror fan out there.  You horror fans reading this, don’t pretend like you read that sentence and don’t agree with it because for as much as we love our tried and true classics like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. we also have a fond soft spot for the other side of the movie score.  These stinkers may not reach favor with the majority of the public, but odds are if you like a silly/stupid horror film there’s a good chance someone else chalks it up as one of their long-standing must-sees as well.  Yet there’s a definitive line in the sand that gets drawn between the bad horror films that just land off the mark, but you could tell at least aimed in the right direction, and the horror flicks that are just bad movies overall.  Those are the ones to look out for, heed the warnings on, and avoid at all costs.

Newly added to this running list is the new cheap-o lame-o dumb-o anthology film Phobias.  Consisting of five short vignettes joined together by a wraparound story, you may want to have your dictionary handy to look up the definitions of the phobias because making a point of defining anything clearly isn’t the first priority of any writing or directing in this headache.  Instead, the tone from piece to piece is wildly different (somewhat excusable at first seeing that each has a different director) but there is no real cohesion to the entire saga, so the audience is left lurching forward and braking hard based on what director shows slightly more promise.  The result is a discouraging downward spiral for a concept that should work better than it does and one that could have set the stage for an easy round of sequels had the collective unity of the films been clearer.

A marginally decent start kicks of Phobias using Robophobia (fear of robots, drones, robot-like mechanics or artificial intelligence) as a jumping off theme.  Asian-American Johnny (Leonardo Nam, One for the Money) is a meek programmer caring for his ill father and avoiding local bigots that regularly torment him.  All this begins to change when he receives a new friend that promises to turn things around for him.  If only the friend wasn’t a sinister AI program that’s out to take over Johnny’s life and move from a digital space to the real world.  This clunky yet promising chapter/prologue ends right when it’s getting interesting so we can see how it will feed into the rest of the night’s events.  The next time we see Johnny, he’s at an undisclosed location along with several others monitored by a quack doctor looking to “harvest fear” through one of those contraptions that looks like it was made for a grade school production of Frankenstein.  While our visits to this interlacing story are brief, they unfortunately leave enough time for Ross Partridge (The High Note) to gnosh on some of the cardboard scenery as the psycho scientist.  To his credit, Partridge looks unhinged enough to believe the whack-a-doo malarkey he is spinning.

Each patient in the ward with Johnny has a particular phobia the dear doctor wants to exploit to gather the most fear in a single dose.  So we ping over to the usually fun Hana Mae Lee (Pitch Perfect) in Vehophobia (the fear of driving) who delivers an oddly detached and dead-eyed performance as a cruel woman that has manipulated men all her life and is about to pay a price.  While Hoplophobia’s fear of weapons has the potential to be more of a cautionary tale that maybe deserved a different platform with a longer space in which to tell its story, actor turned director Camilla Belle (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) doesn’t yet have the right tools to fashion it into a mature angle.  Ephebiphobia is the fear of youth and when you meet the wretched scuzzbuckets that terrorize a woman in the middle of the night you might come down with it as well…or does the woman have her own secrets that absolve the meen teens from their dirty deeds?

That brings us to Atelophobia, or the fear of not being good enough.  Looking up the definition afterward (you’re welcome, by the way for getting these as you go!) I was surprised this was how the phobia was defined because it’s the simplest definition for the wildest of all the chapters in a very dull book.  It’s honestly the reason to see the film at all and I have a sense the people involved knew it, and knew reviewers would say it, and that’s why it’s conveniently right at the end of the movie.  Starring singer Macy Gray as a stern executive striving for perfection at all costs, it has the most gore and I think looked the most polished.  Gray is sort of all over the map, acting-wise, but her oddball behavior seemed to make sense with the weird nature of her character.  I wouldn’t spoil where this story ends but kudos to Gray for really buckling down and embracing some gruesome work.

If it weren’t for that final Atelophobia segment and Gray’s off-the-wall performance (I’m not sure if it was good…I think it was…but it could just as easily be terrible.) Phobias would be a complete write off because even the small flashes of style it has are completely consumed by a lack of insight into anything fresh or engaging. Substituting crass dialogue in place of clever lines that enriched the story, the lack of polish only winds up reflecting poorly on those onscreen and you can’t blame it all on them.  Numerous writers/directors were involved with Phobias and it feels as if none of them ever met to discuss what this project was about and intended to be…or who it was for.  It’s certainly not for serious horror fans or even those of us that enjoy the occasional cheese-ball title.  Watch it for Gray or skip it all together.  Better yet…watch Arachnophobia again.  That’s one that never gets old.

Movie Review ~ Body Brokers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Drug addicts living on the streets in rural Ohio are recruited by a body broker and treatment center mogul and offered treatment in Los Angeles, where saving lives comes second to the bottom line.

Stars: Jack Kilmer, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jessica Rothe, Alice Englert, Peter Greene, Owen Campbell, Thomas Dekker, Sam Quartin, Frank Grillo, Melissa Leo

Director: John Swab

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It was bound to happen sooner or later but I think that finally, in February 2021, we’re starting to see the effect of the slowdown of film production in Hollywood.  Even a minor halt in filmmaking has a ripple effect that catches up eventually and the unusually long hiatus brought on by the health crisis in 2020 is about to come crashing in on us.  Sure, it still seems like we’re getting a nice dose of new titles weekly, but a number of them are really just delayed releases finally making an appearance, smaller festival films that normally would have played to more niche art-house audiences, and middle of the road indie fare you’d be apt to discover in Redbox or down the new release list as your scroll through your streaming site of choice.

I’m thinking Body Brokers is one of those properties that likely would have gone unnoticed for most, only discoverable for fans of the actors and anyone who trusts the “recommended for you” lists even the pickiest of viewers fall for in a pinch.  While it aims to shine a brighter light on the corruption that exists within the drug rehabilitation industry, it keeps getting in its own way in strange narrative aspects, burying a compelling story underneath flimsy drama.  The resulting two hours are a squirmy sit, keeping viewers wondering where the characters they like went and wishing those they aren’t engaging with would get their act together.

Young druggies in love Utah (Jack Kilmer, The Nice Guys) and Opal (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) steal to survive and feed their habit in a dead-end Ohio burb.  If they aren’t holding up a local convenience store for a paltry sum, Opal is turning tricks to pay for her drugs while Utah waits outside their hotel room, nervously biting his nails and wondering how he’s ended up in this situation.  Both are thrown a lifelife when Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams, 12 Years a Slave) crosses their path and buys them breakfast before pitching the two on a rehab clinic in California that he can get them into if they decide to get clean.  Opal isn’t falling for what she thinks is another good Samaritan who wants something more but Utah’s gut tells him this is his one opportunity to get out and he better take it…so he does.

Arriving in California by himself to enter a posh rehab center run by Dr. White (Melissa Leo, London Has Fallen), he meets a former addict working intake at the clinic (Jessica Rothe, Valley Girl) and begins his detox and journey toward sobriety.  It’s about this time writer/director John Swab starts to turn the dial on Body Brokers from its humble trajectory about kicking a habit to a less interesting crime drama that tracks Utah being recruited by Wood to make money off of other addicts.  Working as a sort of twisted pyramid scheme, the more addicts Utah can get into rehab (and the more times they go to rehab) the more money he can make, specifically when he is working with the facilities owned by Frank Grillo’s (The Grey) amped up greasy huckster.   Teaming up with Wood, the partnership becomes more of the mentorship his recovery should have been…until the risks start to outweigh the reward.

If you’re going to see the movie at all, it should be for another solid performance from Williams.  Though Swab gets a lot of things wrong in Body Brokers, one thing I will give him credit for is creating “bad guys” that aren’t what you’re used to seeing in these types of films.  Neither Wood nor Utah become these obnoxious boneheads the more money they make, they actually seem to be learning and absorbing the ins and outs of the con and you get the impression that, were it not all so illegal, they might have put their minds to better use on a sustainable business elsewhere.  Williams could have carved Woods with a darker edge to his actions, but he sticks to his original instincts in keeping him forthright and it gives the character extra authority later on when it becomes important.  He at least helps Kilmer out when the young actor struggles to make difficult scenes in the final act appear more of a challenge.  Without Williams on hand Kilmer is often a bit at sea, and he doesn’t get much help from Leo and Grillo, both of whom show up in glorified cameos.  I like Englert and Rothe but Swab has written them with such a two-dimensional slant that if they were to turn profile they’d disappear altogether.

More than anything, the impression I was left with is that there’s a better movie (or documentary) to be made about this subject.  I found that the people I was most interested in were the characters played by Leo, Rothe, and Grillo…and they’re hardly even touched upon aside from being pawns that Utah and/or Wood have to work around.  Even though Body Brokers ends with a sort of cruel reminder of the fragility of addiction, it doesn’t acquit the rest of the film from feeling a bit unnecessary.  That’s not exactly how you want to summarize your night’s entertainment when turning off your TV.

Movie Review ~ Shadow in the Cloud

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A WWII pilot traveling with top secret documents on a B-17 Flying Fortress encounters an evil presence on board the flight.

Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale, Taylor John Smith, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Joe Witkowski, Byron Coll, Liam Legge, Asher Bridle

Director: Roseanne Liang

Rated: R

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I think we’ve talked before about my not-so-secret aversion to flying but by very public (at least on this blog, anyway) love of all things involving movies and planes.  It’s a strange dichotomy, I know, and it must be the universe’s way of trying to cure my fear through a medium I enjoy…but I’m so stubborn that my white-knuckle nature when flying the friendly skies just can’t be fixed.  I’m also not talking about enjoying your standard airplane disaster movies like 1970’s Airport or it’s numerous silly sequels but more along the lines of the truly scary ones that present throat-clutching scenarios that elicit yelps and have been the cause for many a canceled transatlantic flight.

One of my favorite examples is Nightmare at 20,000 Feet which is actually part of a larger anthology film, 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.  (Yes, I know it was originally from a 1963 episode of the original TV series.)  I’ve yet to discuss that movie at length as part of my 31 Days to Scare and still might so won’t say much more about it, but it’s a dandy of a freaky fifteen minutes.  Clearly, someone else has an affinity for it as well because there’s a new film out that takes a page or two (or three) from that story and uses it as an inspiration for a larger period piece that’s an eventful, if completely ludicrous adrenaline rush of a ride.  As one of the last movies to come across my desk in 2020, the overly eager Shadow in the Cloud could have been the last gasp of a year that didn’t know when to quit but it manages to eek by on its suspense and “did they just do that?’ far-fetched action sequences.

In the throes of World War II, a highly classified package needs transportation out of an army base in Auckland, New Zealand and Air Force Capt. Maude Garrett shows up to the all-male crew of The Fool’s Errand, a B-29 bomber charting a course to Samoan Islands with papers granting her a seat.  Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz, Greta) is used to the male bravado instantly on display to both intimidate and (improbably) entice her but doesn’t let it distract her from the job she’s been tasked with.  With the only seat available in the gun turret below the main cabin, her cargo must remain above her guarded by a kind crew member (Taylor John Smith, Insidious: Chapter 3) while she is in the cramped space below.

As the plane takes off, the Brit must contend with the close quarters of her seating arrangement, the “locker room talk” of the crew she hears over the radio, a small crack in the glass that separates her from the clouds below, the threat of enemy planes engaging for attack, and another danger that has also hitched a ride on The Fool’s Errand.  If you haven’t yet watched the trailer for Shadow in the Cloud, I’d advise against it as it gives away sadly too much of the surprises the hectic flight has in store, including a disappointing amount of the very end of the movie.  No, it’s best to go into the movie as blind as possible because that’s how you’ll wring maximum enjoyment out of the wild ride writer/director Roseanne Liang has in store for anyone brave enough to withstand takeoff.

Working from a script originally written by the problematic Max Landis (click here for more details), the producers have gone to great lengths to separate themselves from that predatory persona.  I hope that his name still lingering as a writer for legal reasons doesn’t deter people from seeing Shadow in the Cloud because this is largely a fun film with its eye squarely on keeping you at attention, ready at a moment’s notice for things to change course.  With the first 45 minutes largely a solo endeavor for Moretz to command the screen (a challenge she meets nicely, by the way) with growing suspense, Liang pivots the movie to a full-scale action/horror mash-up when things get hairy.  At a trim 83 minutes, there’s not a lot of breathing room or time to acclimate yourself so you have to keep up with the rapidly changing developments as they fly by.

At times in the first half of the movie I found myself closing my eyes and wondering what this would sound like as a podcast.  With only Moretz seen onscreen and everyone else from the crew heard on radio, Liang relies on a good sound design and well-done CGI effects to convincingly isolate her young star in the underbelly of a plane where she’s exposed in a glass dome for everyone to see.  When she gets a glimpse of something out of the ordinary and can’t do anything about it, the tension meter starts to rise exponentially and Liang keeps her thumb on our pressure points straight through to the finale.  Aside from Moretz’s strong performance, the rest of the cast is a bit of a blur of accents and standard military male archetypes; I mean, it took me forever to even notice Love Simon’s Nick Robinson has a small part as another gunner in the unit.

If the film loses you during it’s juggernaut of a final twenty minutes when the action takes over and the stunt work blends with some at-times unconvincing CGI, I think you may be the wrong audience for the film.  I found these sequences to be most audacious and rapscallion, with Liang providing escapist fun for female audience members first and not caring about paying service to the fanboys out there that may decry some of the more non-period implausibility’s.  Like Patty Jenkins did with expectations of Wonder Woman and its (better than you’ve heard) sequel, Liang knows how to make a “female action film” without gender-ing it to death.

I found Shadow in the Cloud to be so enjoyable and mostly unpredictable in the way it played out.  Maybe experienced travelers will foresee some of the final details and small twists that are interspersed in the film throughout, but I appreciated the way the movie introduces some rather big game changers and then just moves on without lingering in the reveal, pleased with its cleverness.  It has a job to do and doesn’t have time to waste basking in any rug pulls.  It’s brawny but not quite brainy and gets some good jolts in along the way.  You can hardly ask for more in a film of this type.  Very worth the travel time.

Movie Review ~ Robin’s Wish


The Facts
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.