REVIEW: “All My Life” (2020)


You would be hard pressed to find a more wildly diverse group of films than the last four made by director Marc Meyers. In 2017 he made “My Friend Dahmer”, a biopic about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years. Next he made the blood-soaked horror-dark comedy “We Summon the Darkness”. And earlier this year he released “Human Capital”, a family drama, crime thriller, and mystery all wrapped into one. So what’s the fourth film you ask? Meyers’ latest is “All My Life”, a warm and fuzzy tearjerker. See, diverse.

“All My Life” (written by Todd Rosenberg) is based on the true relationship of Solomon Chau and Jennifer Carter. The film is carried by the expressive Jessica Rothe, a talented rising star with a pretty diverse resumé of her own. Here she plays Jenn, a young woman who has spent most of her life looking ahead but rarely living in the moment. Everything changes when she goes to a sports bar with friends and has that chance meeting of a lifetime (dramatic music swells) with Solomon (Harry Shum Jr.), a hunky amateur chef. The very next day the two go out for a jog, sparks fly, and off we go.


Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The first half of “All My Life” is a sweet and fairly grounded story of a young couple falling in love, moving in together, and setting their eyes on a future together. There’s a really nice chemistry between the two leads and a surprising amount of heart which makes them not only a likable couple but people we feel good about rooting for. Everything is ideal in these early scenes and they’re even shot with this radiant storybook glow. We get the tender romantic moments, some hip music, and eventually a flash mob marriage proposal sequence with enough cheese to clog every artery.

But then there’s the second half where their modern day romance is cut short after Sol is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. It’s the flip-side of the story that we know is coming from the start. Meyers doesn’t go deep into the internal conflicts or dive into themes like mortality and fate. Instead he keeps it mostly on the surface, offering plenty of tissue-worthy moments while (thankfully) avoiding the annoying sap that you may get in a Nicholas Sparks flick. Meyers and Rosenberg make their film all about living. More specifically, about making the most out of the time you’re given.


Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

With the help of their fun but nondescript group of friends, Jenn and Sol decide to go ahead with their wedding, determined to make every day they have together memorable. The film wisely doesn’t gloss over the bumps in the road. “People will see a widow in white,” Sol tells Jenn during one particularly dark and crushing scene. But the film mostly keeps its head up as the friends start a GOFUNDME account to cover expenses and help Jenn and Sol have the best wedding possible under the circumstances.

Despite its best efforts there are still those gooey moments that seem custom made for the movies rather than plucked from real life. But every time the film gets too close to schmaltzy Meyers is able to rein it back in. And while we could have learned more about their characters (does Sol even have a family???), there is an infectious charm to the young couple and this is a case of a film being helped by its ‘true story’ element. Sure it’s all pretty familiar and it misses opportunities to do something original. But it also avoids many of the usual trappings and has genuine heart, something quite honestly I wasn’t expecting. “All My Life” is now playing in theaters.



REVIEW: “A Rainy Day in New York” (2020)


Even if you question Dylan Farrow’s accusations, you have to admit Woody Allen’s personal life has been suspect and that’s putting it nicely (many would say repugnant is more accurate). In the wake of #MeToo few have seen their careers take a hit quite like his. Despite his fervent denials, Allen has been shunned by many in the film community. As a result he was released from his contract with Amazon Studios and his latest film pulled from their release schedule.

Allen has since acquired the film rights from Amazon and has slowly been releasing “A Rainy Day in New York” across the globe. It’s now out in the States and within minutes of watching I had spotted practically all of Allen’s most recognizable signatures: the neurotic and insecure narration, a strong sense of location, classic piano chords dancing in the background, the cloud of melancholy hanging over numerous characters. And while several of Allen’s later efforts feel like exercises in rinse-and-repeat, I still find his movies effortlessly watchable, this one included.

“A Rainy Day in New York” certainly won’t fall among Allen’s very best works. It’s a movie that gets off on the right foot and for the first 45 minutes or so I was enamored with it despite some noticeable flaws. But then the few threads of plot begin to unravel leading to a messy final act full of thinly sketched characters and underdeveloped ideas. It doesn’t completely undo the film, but it highlights an unfortunate lack of depth and focus.


Photo Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

This time around Allen’s avatar is Timothée Chalamet. He plays Gatsby Welles, the eccentric son of stuffy upper-crusters and boyfriend to Ashleigh (Elle Fanning), a sweet and flighty girl from Tucson. The two attend Yardley University, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Ashleigh enjoys school and is a reporter for the university’s newspaper. Gatsby doesn’t have much interest in grades, class or anything else school related. Instead he’d rather be lounging at a Manhattan piano bar or buying into a high-stakes poker game. When asked about his plans for the future he quickly replies “floundering“.

Ashleigh lands a big interview with tortured indie director Roland Pollard (Liev Shreiber) in (where else?) New York City. Gatsby jumps at the chance to return to the Big Apple and immediately starts planning their time together. But his plans get shot down when Ashleigh’s one-on-one interview turns into a madcap caper of sorts as three highfalutin movie men strangely vie for her affections.


Photo Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

The men – the brooding Pollard, his nervy screenwriter Ted Davidoff (Jude Law) who suspects his wife Connie (Rebecca Hall in little more than a cameo) is having an affair, and a heartthrob actor (and easily the most shallow of the three) Francisco Vega played by Diego Luna – shuttle Ashleigh from one scenario to the next eventually stranding her character at a frustrating narrative dead-end. Fanning deserves credit for charming her way through scene after scene, but ultimately she’s let down by a storyline that gives her no meaningful place to go.

That leaves Gatsby to mope around the rainy city in his tweed jacket and unruly mop, waiting for Ashleigh to call and offering up sardonic musings whenever the script calls for it. While strolling he bumps into Chan (Selena Gomez), the snarky younger sister of an old girlfriend and they decide to kill some time together. It’s clear the two are supposed to have some kind of spark, but the chemistry between Chalamet and Gomez is inconsistent at best. Still, there is some fun and witty chatter between them that may not sound like anything real college kids would actually say yet it feels right at home in a Woody Allen movie.


Photo Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

As an out-of-her-element Ashleigh rubs noses with the entertainment elite, Gatsby goes to the Metropolitan with Chan, visits his buffoonish brother who wants out of his upcoming wedding due to his fiance’s “fatal laugh“, sits in on a big-money poker game, and meets a call girl named Terry (Kelly Rohrbach) in a dive bar. All of this while trying to avoid his aristocratic parents who are throwing a lavish party for their friends in the 1%. Both of the dual storylines are a bit scattered but have their own quirky Allen-esque allure. That is until the aforementioned final half-hour when Allen throws all of the characters at the screen before limping to the finish line.

And that leads to my other issue, one that I just couldn’t shake – Chalamet. For starters he seems way too young for the role Allen has penned. That’s not so much his fault as it is the writing and/or casting. There’s also an inconsistency with his delivery. There are plenty of times where Chalamet could pass for an authentic person. But there are far too many instances where it looks as if he’s doing an impression of a traditional Woody Allen character. It’s difficult to put into words, but in these scenes you can see Chalamet straining to fit in a mold.

It’s hard to watch “A Rainy Day in New York” and not feel like it’s something you’ve seen before. Simply put, Allen doesn’t have much new to say in this, his 48th movie. Yet there are times when the film pulsates with the same satisfying energy of Allen’s past work. Its soaked with familiar feelings of nostalgia, from its anachronistic lead character unwittingly channeling a bygone era to more personal Allen obsessions that spring up throughout. It may not paint the most modern portrait, but in many ways I think that’s the point. Allen has often dabbled in real-world fantasy as a way of wrestling with ideas and longing for the past. It’s no different here, just a bit messier.



REVIEW: “Alone” (2020)


In the lean taut thriller “Alone” a woman finds herself constantly in the unwanted company of a creepy middle-aged stalker with all the markings of a serial killer. It’s a simple premise and director John Hyams wrings out every drop of tension while once again proving that when it comes to cinema less is often more.

“Alone” is a remake of the 2011 Swedish film “Gone”. It’s written by screenwriter Mattias Olsson who wrote and co-directed the original. The film opens on a woman named Jessica (Jules Wilcox) loading a Uhaul trailer. She fills it with the last of her personal items, gets into her car, sets the GPS and heads out. She leaves the unnamed city and is soon traveling along winding rural roads lined with beautiful tall timber and scarcely a house to be seen. We aren’t told where she’s going, but we get the sense she’s leaving something behind, perhaps in an attempt to make a new start.


Photo Courtesy of Magnet

From there Hyams begins to tighten his narrative screws. The story is broken into chapters with the first called “The Road”. As Jessica travels she gets behind a slow-moving SUV and attempts to pass. But the driver speeds up almost causing Jessica to have a head-on with an oncoming 18-wheeler. The SUV then begins riding her bumper, honking and flashing its lights before finally veering off at an intersection. Later while getting gas she sees the SUV again. After staying the night at a motel she finds the mustached SUV driver (Mark Menchaca) waiting for her as she starts to leave. He apologizes for their encounter before hitting her with the creepily ambiguous “I’ll see ya around.” Yeah, I’m sure you will.

It’s followed by four more chapters, each with titles like “The River” and “The Rain” that mark our progression through the story. Needless to say the man doesn’t go away and Jessica soon finds herself in a match of wits and survival, alone with a maniac in a dense isolated forest that resembles the Pacific Northwest. In fact they’re so alone that Wilcox and Menchaca are the lone cast members except for a brief but excellent appearance by Anthony Heald (“Silence of the Lambs”). The performances really are terrific led by Wilcox who convincingly sells Jessica’s terror while showing her grit and ferocity specifically in the second half. And Menchaca is absolutely chilling, bringing an ‘average Joe’ menace to every scene he’s in.


Photo Courtesy of Magnet

Hyams helps his cast by showing off a great eye both with the camera and in the editing room. He works with DP Federico Verardi to put together a tense and immersive visual presentation. Keen touches like small and steady camera movements, crafty angles, and stunning high-resolution drone shots. And his co-editor work with Scott Roon is equally effective. Surgically precise cuts that are not only technically impressive, but that also ratchet up the nail-biting tension.

File “Alone” into the Really Nice Surprise category. From the very start the filmmakers commit to their premise, proving the movie’s simplicity is one of the its biggest strengths. We do learn a few character details along the way, but for the most part “Alone” remains an intensely focused thriller anchored by two dramatically different but equally effective performances. “Alone” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD.



REVIEW: “Ava” (2020)


In case you didn’t know it, Jessica Chastain is a bonafide movie star. Case in point, take a look at her latest film “Ava”, a mixed bag of a movie made considerably better by Chastain’s terrific lead turn. Star-powered performances can often (but not always) carry a movie and elevate it beyond what it would have been otherwise. Chastain does just that with “Ava”, driving the film with killer charisma and intense commitment.

As you probably guessed, Chastain plays the title character Ava Faulkner, a globetrotting assassin doing jobs for a shadow organization simply known as “management”. Sound familiar? That’s because writer Matthew Newton borrows a lot from the action genre he’s playing in. Newton was also slated to direct the film but bowed out amid assault and domestic violence allegations. Tate Taylor was hired as a replacement, directing Newton’s script but bringing nothing particularly new to the film. Instead he puts the bulk of the load onto his able cast, specifically Chastain.


Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Ava is one of the organization’s best assassins but she comes with some baggage. She’s a recovering alcoholic slowly losing her grip on sobriety. She’s also having bouts with her conscience. In hopes of justifying her actions, Ava begins questioning her “subjects” about their sins before offing them. That’s a big no-no in her line of work and “management” starts to worry. Thankfully she has Duke (John Malkovich), her handler for the organization and proverbial father figure, a welcomed replacement for the slug of a dad she had growing up. Duke works to convince his boss Simon (Colin Farrell) that Ava is stable and still an asset. MmmHmm.

That’s all one side of the story. We get the flipside once Ava returns home to Boston. Surprisingly, the movie spends a ton of its running time on this part of Ava’s story. In one sense the filmmakers should be applauded for bringing depth to its lead character. They do so by digging into her dysfunctional family history with her sharp-tongued mother (Geena Davis) and her embittered sister Judy (Jess Weixler). Toss in the presence of Ava’s ex-fiancée Michael (a painfully wooden Common) who’s now engaged to Judy. Talk about throwing gas on an already raging family fire.

Chastain shines in both sides of Ava’s story. She’s a tough, physical force and makes for a thoroughly believable action movie lead. And she brings strong and relatable emotion to the family drama half of “Ava”. The problem is the two sides of the story are at odds with each other. You watch and wait for their inevitable convergence but oddly they never come together (at least not in a truly meaningful way). Instead they both kinda play out, connecting superficially rather than substantively.


Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Strangely both of the movie’s two halves work good on their own but they don’t gel together in the way they need to. Sadly it’s the action stuff that gets shortchanged the most. Chastain brings intensity and physicality to the shoot-outs and fight scenes while Bear McCreary’s pulsing score amps up the energy. But ultimately it all needs more time and setup.

While “Ava” may not come together to form the most cohesive movie, it has enough meat on its bones to make for an entertaining escape. It’s also sure to catch a lot of people off guard, especially those expecting a more straightforward action flick. Instead “Ava” is just as much a tough dysfunctional family drama. If only the two parts melded together to make a better whole. So we’re left with a movie that teases franchise ambitions but will probably end up as a one-and-done. It’s a shame because I wouldn’t mind following Chastain’s Ava on the next leg of her journey. “Ava” is now available on VOD.



REVIEW: “A Girl Missing” (2020)


There is so much packed into the new Japanese drama “A Girl Missing” – jealousy, spite, brokenness, and revenge. It looks at elderly care and rabid news media. Guilt by association and the dangers of keeping quiet only scratch the film’s thematic surface. You would think a movie with this many narrative tendrils would have its hands full covering so much ground. Instead “A Girl Rising” is every bit of a slow burn – a movie almost too casual to add punch to any of its interests.

“A Girl Rising” comes from writer-director Kōji Fukada and is the follow up to his highly acclaimed 2016 film “Harmonium”. Fukada has some interesting ideas most notably starting his one single storyline in two different places and then walking them to their inevitable convergence. It’s crafty storytelling no doubt. Unfortunately the parallel stories clash more than they connect adding a level of confusion to much of the film. But when Fukada does bring it all together, it paints a big picture that I couldn’t help but admire.


Photo Courtesy of Film Movement

Mariko Tsutsui gives a terrific two-pronged lead performance. We first meet her as Risa, a troubled and downcast woman who develops what seems like an obsessive attraction to a hairstylist named Yoneda (played by Sosuke Ikematsu). Next we see Tsutsui playing Ichiko, a caring and compassionate home health nurse who loves her job and is engaged to be married. Two very different lives at two dramatically different junctures.

Ichiko’s story gets the bulk of the attention and it’s by far the most cohesive of the two. She works as a caregiver for an elderly ex-painter and through her caring service she has become close with the matriarch’s family. Especially the two granddaughters, the moody Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and her outgoing younger sister Saki (Miyu Ogawa) who Ichiko helps with their studies.

After one of their study sessions Saki disappears and her story quickly makes citywide headlines. Police believe it’s an abduction and Ichiko’s nephew Tatsuo (Ren Sudo) the prime subject. Motoko convinces a reluctant Ichiko not to share her family connection to Tatsuo for fear that she’ll be fired. But Motoko’s motivations are murky and keeping that kind of a secret adds suspicion whether deserved or not.


Photo Courtesy of Film Movement

Interestingly the abduction of Saki (and the film’s title itself) plays a relatively small part in the story. Instead the film’s main focus is on how quickly the walls of Ichiko’s happy life crumble. Meanwhile Risa’s pursuit of Yoneda turns into a patchwork romance that essentially springs out of nowhere. Most of the character detail and patience put into Ichiko’s angle is missing from Risa’s. Thankfully Fukada does eventually connect the dots in a satisfying way that makes you rethink Risa’s story. But getting that point is a little rocky.

So “A Girl Missing” ends up being both fascinating and frustrating. One angle puts ample attention into building its character and exploring the unfolding drama surrounding her. The other feels like an appendage, tagging along and waiting for the movie to finally grant it relevance. Once together, Fukada’s vision is impressive, even audacious. And I really admire Mariko Tsutsui’s performance and the depth she brings to her Ichiko character. She infuses that storyline with a wealth of humanity and Fukada gives her plenty of room to work. If only the other story angle worked as well.



REVIEW: “A Call to Spy” (2020)


In August of 1941 the German occupation of Europe was well underway. Northern France was next to fall leaving Great Britain alone and vulnerable. With Hitler poised to cross the English Channel a desperate Winston Churchill orders a section of his Special Operations Executive (SOE) to begin recruiting and training women as spies. Their goal would be to infiltrate and disrupt the occupying German forces in France while building a clandestine network of resistance.

This is the compelling premise of “A Call to Spy”, a mature character-driven historical drama that examines yet another shamefully untold true story from World War II. It may be a tad too ambitious when it comes to scope, but for a small budget indie it’s a remarkable accomplishment. More importantly the film never loses sight of its characters, their individual plights, and their dedication to service. Not only are their stories informative and inspirational, but they’re rich with lessons still relevant today. Better yet this is a female led movie that shines on both sides of the camera. Take note Hollywood.


Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The film features an Oscar-nominated director in Lydia Dean Pilcher who ably covers a lot of ground while never allowing the dialogue-heavy story to bog down. That’s made easier by Sarah Megan Thomas who is the heart of the film both on screen and behind its production. Thomas stars, produces and writes the screenplay with passion, motivation and empathy. Extensive research and family interviews led her to make something far more intimate and illuminating than your typical genre period piece.

The story focuses on three woman, each with their own personal obstacles to overcome but joined in their determination and courage. The first is Vera Atkins (brilliantly portrayed by Stana Katic), Romanian by birth and positioned as the secretary to SOE section head Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache). In reality Vera was his head of intelligence, but due to constantly being declined British citizenship she was restricted from officially holding an officer’s position. Despite often being the smartest person in the room, Vera frequently comes face-or-face with the military’s longstanding patriarchy. And even Buckmaster’s unwavering trust can’t protect her from some of the quieter prejudices that surface later in the film.


Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Vera is tasked with finding and vetting their initial batch of female recruits. “Women would be more inconspicuous.” They would be tested, trained and then sent off “to build resistance and set France ablaze“. Vera in instantly drawn to Virginia Hall (played by Thomas), an American eager to serve as a diplomat but repeatedly denied by her country because she’s a woman and due to her “condition”. She has a wooden leg which she affectionately calls Cuthbert, the result of a tragic hunting accident years prior. Intelligent and committed, Virginia instantly shows grit and leadership, both invaluable assets in the “ungentlemanly warfare” she would be facing.

Next is Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a gentle, unassuming Indian pacifist and top-notch wireless operator. She’s immediately met with skepticism by many of the men who view her small stature and kind spirit as weaknesses. But Noor earns the confidence of Vera and Buckmaster and begins training for fieldwork. Meanwhile Virginia is sent to Lyon to establish a secret hub for the growing resistance. Once there we follow her as she makes connections and works to win the trust of the already embedded operatives. With England desperate for information and the German occupation intensifying, Noor soon joins Virginia despite not finishing her training.


Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Thomas’ script nimbly moves back-and-forth between the stories of the three women. Each story thread is neatly connected to the others while still feeling very personal to the individual characters. For example Virginia quickly develops into a keen resistance leader, managing the many lives hinging on her decisions and making tough calls when need be. But her disability is a very real part of her story. Thomas doesn’t gloss over it, acutely showing it as both a strength and a struggle. She shows the same sensibility for Noor, a brave young woman out of her element, moving from place to place while narrowly avoiding capture. Same for Vera who follows her recruits from back home, parsing through messages and supporting their efforts while feeling the breath of sexist and anti-Semitic sentiment.

“A Call to Spy” is exactly the movie I hoped for. An eye-opening true story of uncommon valor, told through capable direction, a smart affecting script, and three central performances that vividly portray these heroes. And their heroism wasn’t just reserved for the arena of war. Whether in the trenches or the war room, these woman fought uphill showing their true mettle in the face of hardship. The film also works as a thoughtful World War II history piece with an immersive setting and ample reminders of what was at stake and the sacrifices made. “A Call to Spy” opens October 2nd in select theaters and on VOD.