REVIEW: “The Lost City” (2022)

Life has a funny way of changing your plans on the fly. For that reason I was a little late getting to “The Lost City”, the star-studded action-adventure comedy from directors Adam and Aaron Nee. While I do try to see nearly every major release, I wasn’t that upset about missing this one. Sure, I liked the old 90’s throwback look to it and seeing Brad Pitt ham it up is a plus. But for some reason “The Lost City” wasn’t high on my priority list (perhaps seeing the trailer 100 times in the theater wore me out).

“The Lost City” turns out to be a fairly entertaining romp, driven by the charisma of its three big stars, Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, and Brad Pitt. The movie starts strong and by far its funniest moments are found in the first 30 minutes. After that the humor dries up as the script (written by Oren Uziel, Dana Fox, and the Nee Brothers) tries but can’t quite squeeze out the laughs. Thankfully there happens to be just enough of a “Romancing the Stone” vibe to keep things fun.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Bullock plays Loretta Sage, a popular romance novelist who has closed herself off following the passing of her archeologist husband John. Despite struggling to find inspiration, the deadline for Loretta’s new book “The Lost City of D” is quickly approaching. It’s the highly anticipated final chapter in her hit series that follows the romantic adventures of lead characters Dr. Angela Lovemore and Dash McMahon. Her publicist and friend Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) already has a book tour scheduled which thrusts a hesitant Loretta back into the public eye.

To promote the book, Loretta is asked to appear with Alan Caprison (Tatum), her dimwitted Fabio-esque cover model who portrays Dash from her books. To her chagrin, the enthusiastic crowd is far more excited about Alan (and the prospect of him taking off his shirt) than her or her writing. A perturbed Loretta storms out, but while waiting for her ride she’s kidnapped by some meatheaded goons working for Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe). He’s a weaselly billionaire with family issues who needs Loretta’s help finding a tomb containing a legendary relic called the Crown of Fire.

Fairfax zips Loretta away to a remote island in the Atlantic where he has discovered an ancient lost city at the base of a brewing volcano. After reading Loretta’s last book, he’s convinced that she can help him translate a parchment which will reveal the location of the tomb holding the Crown of Fire. But Alan proves himself to be a doofus with a heart. He hires former Navy Seal with weathermanly good looks, Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt) to help him rescue Loretta and prove to her that he’s more than a cover model. As you can guess, hijinks ensue.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

I won’t dare spoil things, but let’s just say the rescue doesn’t go exactly as planned. Loretta and Alan find themselves alone in the jungle with Farifax’s henchmen hot on their trail. Meanwhile there’s a not-so-funny side-story with Beth and a cargo pilot (Oscar Nunez) trying to find the island and help with the rescue. That’s not to say there aren’t some amusing moments scattered throughout the rest of the movie and Bullock and Tatum have decent chemistry. But the story kinda sits in one gear the rest of the way, and it doesn’t quite do enough to make it feel original.

In the end, “The Lost City” makes for a fairly entertaining way to spend 100 minutes. But though it starts really strong, the second half plays more like a copy-and-paste of past movies. Bullock is a solid anchor, Radcliffe gets a couple of humorous lines, and Tatum does his best. But it’s Pitt who steals the show. So much so that the drop-off is pretty significant whenever he’s not on screen. Still, there’s enough here to pass the time as long as you know what to expect. “The Lost City” is now playing in theaters.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Last Bus” (2022)

With “The Last Bus” Scottish director, writer, and accomplished painter Gillies MacKinnon gives us a warm-hearted road-trip movie that happens to be right up my alley. Driven by an outstanding lead performance from screen vet Timothy Spall, “The Last Bus” tells a simple and straightforward story. But that’s exactly what this tender and bittersweet drama needs to be.

Written by Joe Ainsworth, the story centers on an elderly man named Tom Harper (Spall) and most of what we learn about him is fed to us throughout his journey. What journey, you ask? The 838 mile trip from John O’Groats on the U.K.’s northeastern tip to Lands End, the mainland’s most southern point. And why is he making such a trip? Because of a pledge he made to his late wife Mary.

Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

“The Last Bus” is several things, but above all it’s a moving meditation on life, love, and the commitments we make to those closest to us. It’s also a beautiful reminder of the blessing of memories. Tom’s journey is intercut with well handled flashbacks to key moments with Mary – highs and lows that defined their loving marriage. They’re framed as memories brought to Tom’s mind during different stops on his meticulously planned pilgrimage.

With his free bus pass in hand, Tom moves from town to town, stopping at diners and B&Bs that he and Mary visited in their youth. Along the way he encounters an eclectic blend of strangers, often relying on their kindness to keep him going, especially as the arduous journey begins to take its toll. Yet he pushes on, determined to reach his destination. “I just want to keep my promise.

Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

It turns out the more we learn about Tom and Mary’s backstory the more predictable the movie becomes. With each stop things become more obvious and the conclusion, though undeniably sweet, seems like an inevitability. There’s also a strange addition to the story as word of Tom’s travels gets around. He unknowingly becomes a social media sensation with radio stations broadcasting his progress as reported by people who catch a glimpse of him on the road. It’s an amusing and well-meaning twist, but one that feels tacked on and that doesn’t really lead anywhere.

Recently there have been several movies about widowers reckoning with grief and/or mortality. Some have taken serious looks at those themes while others have been more whimsical. “The Last Bus” falls somewhere in between. It certainly has the whimsy, but it also has its serious moments too. And much like all these movies, it has a big heart that finds its way into every scene. And even though you know where things are going, you’ll still want to stay on the bus and see it through till the end. Just like Tom. “The Last Bus” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Long Night” (2022)

The new rural horror film “The Long Night” is a prime example of a movie that’s working from a good idea but that lacks the substance (and at times the budget) to see that idea through. It’s a bit of a mishmash of several horror sub-genres which is intriguing in itself. But there just isn’t enough story to even fill the film’s 90-plus minute running time.

Directed by Rich Ragsdale and penned by Robert Sheppe and Mark Young, “The Long Night” focuses on a woman named Grace (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her search for her parents who she’s never known. We learn that she grew up in a foster home and has spent the last ten years looking for clues about her family and their Southern roots. Most have led to nothing but dead-ends.

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA

While in her New York City apartment, which she shares with her Ivy League boyfriend Jack (Nolan Gerard Funk), Grace gets a call from a man named Frank who has been doing research for her in an unidentified Southern state. He tells her he’s found a compelling lead about her parents and she needs to come to his farmhouse ASAP. He gives her the old “If I’m not there, let yourself in. The key is under the flower pot.” There’s your first red light.

As they pack, Jack suggests a detour to the Hamptons where he can finally introduce Grace to his parents. She is immediately overjoyed but also a bit anxious. “Don’t worry”, Jack assures her, “everything is going to be fine.“ Talk about famous last words in a horror movie. And there you have red light #2.

Cut to the opening credits were Grace and Jack are driving down a remote country highway. Things clearly didn’t go well with Jack’s parents which has left Grace with a sour taste in her mouth. Soon the couple arrives at Frank’s rustic two-story farmhouse as ominous and foreboding music (that doesn’t really match the beautiful rural scenery) wails in the background. That aggressively creepy music – red light #3.

As you probably guessed, Frank isn’t home but the key is right where he said it would be. The two settle in and check out the house. Grace finds the old-timey style charming while Jack’s jerkiness and upper-crust condescension kicks in. But then there are the signs that something’s not right – the off-putting smell in the bedroom, a snake in the kitchen, and the weird totem in the nearby woods. “It’s a southern thing,” Grace explains. Ummm, is it really?

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA

Of course there is something ‘not right’, namely the black-robed demon-worshiping cultists in cattle skull masks who appear after dark and surround the home. What follows is a lot of screaming, lots of fog, lots of running around in the house, lots of running through the woods, lots of hazy hallucinations, lots of spiraling camera tricks. Even Jeff Fahey pops up out of the blue.

Unfortunately what we don’t get is much in terms of story. The movie struggles to fill the space between its catchy setup and the eventual reveal. Ragsdale incorporates a rather pointless chapter structure to break things up a bit, and Taylor-Compton gives it her all. But neither can compensate for the lack of emotional and dramatic heft during the film’s middle patch. And neither the spooky backwoods tropes or the deranged death cult can muster the kind of tension this movie desperately needs. “The Long Night” is out now in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

Sundance Review: “Lucy and Desi” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

On its surface, “Lucy and Desi” looks like a fairly by-the-books documentary. There’s little to its style or approach that sets it apart from countless other docs. But don’t be misled. In addition to its compelling subjects, the feature is energized by director Amy Poehler who isn’t just throwing out facts and old footage. Instead she frames her film as the love story of two beloved entertainers who forever changed television and our culture.

That warm and sincere focus is what makes Poehler’s film such a delight. As you might expect, the movie will resonate most with those familiar with the wild and improbable success story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But Poehler’s approach results in something that’s both endearing and insightful which should open the documentary up to anyone regardless of their history (or lack of) which the iconic couple.

“Lucy and Desi” is full of entertainment history but it’s also intimate and personal. One of my favorite touches is in how much is told in the couple’s own words and through their own voices. Clips from a number television and radio interviews give us their true perspectives on the ups and down of their incredible journey together. Meanwhile interviews with their son, Desi Arnez Jr. and daughter, Luci Arnez Luckin shed even more light but from yet another personal angle.

And of course, we also hear from entertainers who not only knew them but were inspired by their work – Carol Burnett, Charo, Bette Midler, among others highlight the impact Lucy and Desi had on generations of performers. Words like “fearless”, “effortless” and “extraordinary” often were used especially in describing Lucy. She had a natural talent for comedy, but she was also a fiery straight-shooter which proved invaluable in an industry ran predominantly by men.

Image Courtesy pf Amazon Studios

Poehler rightly gives time to the couple’s years prior to meeting. As Lucy left New York City for Hollywood, Desi was escaping Cuba for Miami. Only a short time later, the two met for the first time in the commissary at RKO Pictures and were married six months later. From there the couple’s personal and professional lives took off in large part thanks to the massive success of “I Love Lucy”.

Poehler takes time to stress the importance of “I Love Lucy” and the impact it made on the television industry, both on screen and behind the camera. We hear about how each show was performed in front of 400 studio audience members and with no retakes. About how they once did 41 shows in 41 weeks. And how “I Love Lucy” would help establish the rerun model that would be used forever after. And of course there was the relationships with their co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley.

Their business partnership extended beyond “I Love Lucy”. The film covers the formation and success of their own studio, Desilu Productions which would produce such shows as “The Untouchables”, “Mission: Impossible”, and “Star Trek”. The couple would grow Desilu into the second-largest independent television production company in the United States. And of course there was their later purchase of RKO Studios.

But in “Lucy and Desi” it always comes back to the personal – in this case the relationship between the two stars. The stress and demands of fame hurt their marriage leading to an eventual split. But as Poehler shows us, there remained a deep connection between them even as they were miles apart and with new spouses. The two loved each other as much as the country loved them. By stressing that truth, Poehler’s film, though very much a documentary, comes from a place closer to the heart. And that’s a choice which makes “Lucy and Desi” stand out.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Luzzu” (2021)

The blue-collar Maltese drama “Luzzu” tells a story of modern industry not just encroaching on a way of life, but crushing it under its boot heel. Written, directed, edited, and produced by Alex Camilleri, “Luzzu” has a lot to say. But is doesn’t use lengthy speeches, heavy exposition or overly dramatic scenarios. Instead, it makes its points by sitting us down and showing us in the most authentic and unvarnished way possible.

Camilleri brings a documentarian’s clarity to this story of a Maltese fisherman being pushed out of the only business he knows. It’s hard to miss the Italian neo-realism influence all over the film, and fans of Belgian filmmakers the Dardenne brothers will be drawn to Camilleri’s real-world grit. And much like his inspirations, Camilleri uses non-professional actors to great effect. It’s one of many touches that helps the movie shine a heartbreaking yet honest light on a struggling lifestyle and a dying tradition.

Image Courtesy of Kino Lorber

The story revolves around a fisherman named Jesmark (played by an actual Maltese fisherman named Jesmark Scicluna). We first see him out on his luzzu – a small twelve-foot fishing boat that has been in his family for generations. He mans his vessel with a workmanlike efficiency, navigating the seas, pulling nets, icing down his catch. But the fish are becoming more scarce in large part due to a huge container port that’s crowding the harbor. And strict EU regulations have inexplicably made certain fish seasonal, limiting fisherman even more.

It’s even worse at the dock where increasingly harsh standards are enforced by harbor inspectors. And then you have the fish auctions where ruthless black marketeers undercut the smaller sellers, forcing them to try and sell their fish to local restaurants and merchants while their catch is still fresh. It’s no wonder some of Jesmark’s friends have made deals with the government to decommission their boats for a meager buyout.

Camilleri lays all of this out with a clear-eyed sincerity, putting us on the boats, around the docks, and in the warehouses. At the same time, there is a poignant dramatic angle that adds an extra layer of realism. Jesmark and his wife Denise (a terrific Michela Farrugia) learn that their infant son “isn’t growing properly“. He needs to see a specialist, but that costs more money than the young couple can afford.

Denise wants to get help from her overbearing mother while Jesmark is determined to take care of his family. But it seems the deck is stacked against him, especially after he learns his luzzu has hull damage and needs immediate repairs. With no means of bringing in money, he gets in with a shady smuggler (Stephen Buhagiar) which adds more stress on his already fraying marriage.

Image Courtesy of Kino Lorber

A key to the movie’s success is its authentic sense of place. Camilleri’s unwavering focus on grounding his audience in reality plays a big part. It’s also helped tremendously by cinematographer Léo Lefèvre’s immersive camerawork. The sun-soaked Mediterranean, the electric bustle of the city, the vibrant rainbow array of colors that coat Jesmark’s luzzu – it’s all shot in a way that helps us to feel a part of this rich and textured world.

Even more, “Luzzu” is full of graceful touches that bring even more emotional heft to the story. Scenes like older local fisherman reminiscing about simpler times. Or the soul-shattering way Jesmark lovingly looks upon his son (the raw truth in Scicluna’s eyes during these moments is powerful stuff). All of this adds a tenderness to the world of “Luzzu”. But there is still a tragic element to the story – one that lingers for the duration of this captivating and heartfelt drama.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Lost Daughter” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut in “The Lost Daughter”, an assured and daring first feature that’s full of surprises both narratively and technically. It’s a worthwhile adaptation of the novella “My Brilliant Friend” by Italian author Elena Ferrante. The book is the first in Ferrante’s four-part series called the Neapolitan Novels and it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Empowered by Gyllenhaal’s keen writing and no-frills direction along with a terrific Olivia Colman lead performance, “The Lost Daughter” offers a subversive examination of motherhood from an angle we rarely (if ever) see in movies. It’s a slippery psychological drama that’s willing and unafraid to challenge cinema’s common perception of women. And it does so with an alarming clarity.

The script is soaked in mystery, beginning in one place before ending somewhere else entirely. The story revolves around an enigmatic 48-year-old woman vacationing in the Greek Isles. What at first feels like a tale of loneliness and loss soon curdles into something dark and sour. And to Gyllenhaal’s credit, she always keeps us guessing while never bending to our expectations.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The sure-footed Colman plays Leda, a literature professor on summer vacation. As she arrives on the picturesque island she’s greeted by Lyle (Ed Harris), the caretaker of the area’s rental properties who lugs her suitcases full of books and clothes to her upstairs apartment. Their exchange provides our first glimpse into Leda’s demeanor. She’s friendly enough but somewhat socially awkward and at times plain-spoken to the point of being off-putting. In this case she wants to be left alone and she has no interest in Lyle’s spiel about the island’s history or how the air conditioner works.

Later Leda makes her way down to the beach to enjoy some peaceful alone time. But any hopes of quiet and solitude are shattered when a large and rambunctious family suddenly arrives. You can see the frustration simmering in Leda’s eyes as the noisy invaders become even harder to digest. But one member of the family catches her attention – a twenty-something mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) struggling to keep her frisky daughter occupied.

Over time Leda’s curiosity turns into a creepy fixation that triggers flashbacks to her own time as an exasperated young mom. In those scenes, Jessie Buckley plays the younger Leda and she shares a startling symbiosis with Coleman. Their performances are both fueled by a similar emotional intensity and are so in-tune with each other that you never doubt you’re seeing the same woman.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Gyllenhaal’s confidence in her storytelling really shows once the flashbacks are introduced. These scenes fluidly weave into and out of the central story, illuminating the main character with an uncomfortable clarity. I won’t dare spoil where the movie goes, but Leda’s story (both past and present) take us down some roads as unpredictable as they are unsettling.

“The Lost Daughter” quickly becomes a movie built around revelation. Gyllenhaal urges her audience to invest in Leda even if we don’t like what’s revealed about her. But that’s part of the film’s allure. It challenges our perceptions and expectations in a brutally frank way. It isn’t worried about us liking Leda. It’s far more concerned with portraying her honestly. So we’re left with a character so sincerely constructed that some will find her impossible to like. Me? I found myself juggling empathy with disdain for Leda which (I believe) is exactly the conflict the movie wants us to have.

While Maggie Gyllenhaal’s shrewd direction and cagey storytelling are real strengths, her visual choices range from sumptuous to suffocating. DP Hélène Louvart’s reliance on intense close-ups can be overpowering and a part of me wishes she had done more visually with the setting. At the same time, her unfussy approach keeps our focus where it needs to be – on the prickly, complicated Leda. She’s the true centerpiece of this achingly melancholy first feature from Gyllenhaal who shows she has a bright and exciting new future ahead of her.

VERDICT – 4 STARS