REVIEW: “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” (2021)


Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy is trapped in an unending time loop where he’s forced to live the same day over and over again. Pretty familiar, right? We saw it in the terrific comedy gem “Groundhog Day”. We saw it last year in the not-so-terrific “Palm Springs”. We saw it in the fun sci-fi action flick “Edge of Tomorrow”. Now we get a Valentines season teen rom-com that attempts to bring its own flavor to the well-worn premise and does so with pretty mixed results.

“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is directed by Ian Samuels and written by Lev Grossman. The film is an adaptation of Grossman’s own short story and stars two young up-and-comers with enough charisma and chemistry to keep things interesting. Unfortunately it’s not quite enough the shake the feelings that we’ve seen this narrative, these characters, and their inevitable relationship several times before. Still there’s something to say about good performances and their ability to infuse life into an otherwise shaky story. And to Grossman’s credit, he adds some needed emotional weight in the final 15 minutes that makes this more than some meaningless retread.


Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The story begins by introducing us to Mark, a spirited high school teen played by Kyle Allen (who looks old enough to be out of college but be that as it may). Mark wakes up every morning to the exact same day, one that continually repeats itself before resetting each night at midnight. Mark has been in the loop long enough that he’s attuned to every detail, every event, every conversation. You could say he’s the king of his own ‘temporal anomaly’ where everyone but him follows the script and then rinses and repeats.

But there’s a ripple in Mark’s cyclical existence when he sees Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a rogue addition to this tightly scripted world. Realizing he’s not the only person with free will stuck in the loop, Mark is immediately enamored and full of questions. Where did she come from? Does she know how this happened? What has she been doing all of this time? Does she think he’s cute? After following her around a bit Mark finally introduces himself. At first his playful enthusiasm clashes with Margaret’s distant curiosity. He’s an open book, laying everything out without a second thought. She’s harder to read and with things in her life she would rather keep to herself.


Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Of course the two soon develop a peculiar connection which the movie spends the bulk of its time exploring. A long stretch of the story ends up playing like a conventional YA romantic comedy, surviving on the charms and chemistry of Allen and Newton. Both are really good but they can only keep the movie afloat for so long. But just as the movie starts to sink (and I was about to check out), Samuels and Grossman inject it with feeling and pathos. The story adds some layers to the characters, particularly Margaret, that helps us to see them as more than just another cutesy teen movie couple. And while it doesn’t fully avoid the temptation to slap on a little sap, the ending lands well enough and makes the rest of the film (rough patches and all) seem more meaningful.

“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” isn’t something that will stick with you long, but it does (barely) save itself in its final act. Even more, for those who don’t know them, it’s a nice introduction to two talented young stars with a load of potential. I think it’s safe to say Allen and Newton have promising careers ahead of them. I doubt this movie will go down as one of their best, but if you’ll stick with it through the rocky and not-so-original middle you’ll find it endears us to these characters in a thoughtful and surprising way. “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.



REVIEW: “Malcolm & Marie” (2021)


John David Washington and Zendaya have both seen their acting careers take major leaps forward over the past few years. The 36-year-old Washington’s big breaks have come a little later in life following his college and professional football career. Now he’s following in his father’s sizable footsteps especially after nabbing noteworthy leading man roles in Spike Lee’s “BlackKklansman” and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”.

The 24-year-old Zendaya started in the entertainment business at an early age, appearing in a number of kids television shows and movies. But her big screen breakout came in 2017 when she was cast in “Spider-Man: Homecoming”. Since then she’s appeared in “The Greatest Showman”, “Spider-Man: Far from Home”, and the highly anticipated remake of “Dune” (assuming it does eventually come out).


Image Courtesy of Netflix

The two stars come together in the new Netflix film “Malcolm & Marie”, an exquisitely shot chamber piece about a couple laying bare their tumultuous relationship over the course of a single fight-filled night. The film is written and directed by Sam Levinson who unquestionably has the commitment of his two lone cast members. But despite its charismatic co-leads, “Malcolm & Marie” devolves into an endurance test for the audience, one that grows more and more unlikable as it winds on.

Washington plays Malcolm, a filmmaker coming off a successful premiere screening of his new movie. Zendaya plays his girlfriend Marie who attended the premiere with him but was left with a sour taste in her mouth. The story begins with the couple arriving at a posh ultra-modern house provided by the production team behind Malcolm’s movie. Malcolm’s plan is to spend the night celebrating with his girl. So the first thing he does is grab a drink, cranks up some James Brown, and playfully dances from one room to another.

Marie is hardly as enthusiastic. She walks straight to the bathroom then to the kitchen where she puts on a box of mac-and-cheese to boil. Malcolm’s dizzying good mood leads to the first of two long-winded tangents about pedantic white film critics. A visually uninterested Marie listens to his rambling but clearly has something else on her mind, namely Malcolm forgetting to thank her during his speech at the premiere. While not mentioning her rightfully irks Marie especially since she believes she was the inspiration for his film, it just cracks the door for what becomes a night of fighting, fighting, and more fighting.

“I promise you, nothing productive is going to be said tonight“, Marie warns Malcolm before the venom starts to spew. Boy she wasn’t kidding. From there Levinson feeds us a steady buffet of profanity-laced tirades, meltdowns, and savage arguments with each of the two characters using long monologues to tear each other apart. It’s a toxic and unceasing back-and-forth that both Washington and Zendaya work hard to sell. But regardless of how convincing their performances are, it’s not easy to buy all that they’re saying and you can only take so much high-volumed vitriol before the characters become insufferable.


Image Courtesy of Netflix

Levinson’s script may drown us in animosity and resentment, but it does succeed in opening up his characters. Malcolm and Marie’s fights (and the occasional short breathers in between) tell us quite a bit about them, picking at scabs from their pasts and exposing their anxieties and insecurities. Then you have Levinson shooting on the experience of black filmmakers and the frustrations they feel when labeled, pigeonholed, and forced into categories because of the color of their skin. While equally loud and abrasive, these scenes do give us one of the few points of agreement between Malcolm and Marie – a shared disrespect for “Karen from the LA Times”, a white film critic indelibly entrenched in Malcom’s (and Levinson’s) headspace. But like everything else, even that turns into a disagreement between them.

“Malcolm & Marie” was filmed early into the COVID-19 lockdown on a minuscule budget, with a two person cast, one location, and a very limited crew (Zendaya actually did her own hair and makeup). The film offers up some alluring visual compositions, using the monochrome and the house’s walls of windows to do some interesting things with the camera. But regardless of how good the movie looks, by the end I was simply exhausted from the yelling. I was left cold and unconvinced of the central relationship. And I was left asking what was the point? Is it that love is hard? That love is messy? Both of those things are true, but I can’t help but think there are better and more bearable ways of conveying those themes. “Malcolm & Marie” is streaming now on Netflix.



SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Mass” (2021)


“Mass” has generated a ton of well-deserved buzz following its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Writer-director Fran Kranz makes his feature film debut with this crushing close-to-home drama about two couples still coping with the loss of their sons years after a deadly school shooting. The film is driven by Kranz’s masterful script and four powerhouse performances. The material is heavy, the emotions are raw, and everyone brings the kind of honesty that a subject like this demands.

I can’t imagine taking on a topic like this was easy. But Kranz was compelled to tackle it following the Parkland school shooting in 2018. In penning the script he chose to focus on the aftermath rather than the shooting itself. In doing so he’s able to give time to the other victims – those who have had loved ones taken away from them through these senseless and unfathomable acts of violence. The characters Kranz gives us are so authentic they could be any number of real-world people who have been impacted by this stomach-churning trend.

The movie begins with the camera resting on a small town Episcopalian church. Inside, staff members led by the affable but slightly neurotic Judy (Breeda Wool), prepare one of their rooms for a meeting. Four chairs and a table are set up the center of the room. Water and snacks in the corner. A very businesslike social worker named Kendra (Michelle Carter) comes in and examines the room, rearranges the chairs, and scans for any emotional triggers. She’s well aware of what’s about to take place and she needs everything to be exactly right. Kranz doesn’t lay everything out right away, but he gives us clues to point us in the right direction. Essentially Kendra is a mediator bringing two sides together and the room is a neutral site where they can meet.

Just as Kendra has the room to her liking the first couple arrives. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and his wife Gail (Martha Plimpton) enter the church already looking worn down and emotionally spent. They’re there but reluctantly, seemingly following the advice of their therapist back home. “Don’t interrogate. Don’t be vindictive.” they repeatedly remind themselves. Within moments the second couple arrive, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), equally unsure about being there and a bit apprehensive. They too come with an incredibly heavy weight on their shoulders, one that forever connects them to the couple across the table.


Kendra leaves and the next 90 minutes are spent in the room with the four pain-ridden adults. After navigating through some awkward and uncomfortable small talk, Kranz and his characters start to unpack the real reason they have come together. Both families lost their sons in the same mass school shooting years earlier. Jay and Gail’s son Evan was among the many killed inside the school that day. For Richard and Linda the sobering difference is that their son Hayden did the killing.

In a remarkable show of restraint, Kranz keeps the conversations that follow firmly grounded and crushingly real. There’s nothing big or showy about them and there’s no waving to awards season voters. The closest he comes to a “big scene” is in a key moment with Gail, but it’s so deftly handled by Plimpton that you never second-guess it. That’s really the marvel of the film as a whole. You never second-guess any of it. Not the characters, not the interactions, not the emotions. Everything is rooted in truth. There’s not a hollow moment or a single false note.

It goes without saying that movies like this inevitably sink or swim on the backs of their cast. In “Mass” the four central performances are nothing short of magnificent with each screen veteran doing career-best quality work. Each performance is perfectly calibrated and distinctly personal to each particular character. Isaacs barely suppresses Jay’s frustration as he still tries to grasp the logic behind the shooting, quoting studies on the human brain while readily admitting he’s ill-equipped to understand them. Plimpton has less dialogue but her pained expressions tell us everything. Gail is holding so much inside of her that she could burst at any second. Dowd is so earnest in portraying a shattered woman tortured by her inability to reconcile the son she loved with the murderer he became. And Birney brilliantly balances Richard’s thinly veiled exasperation with his crippling sense of guilt.

“Mass” is a harrowing and emotionally draining chamber piece that may test your endurance. Kranz takes that into consideration, occasionally stepping out of the room to let us catch our breath. But despite the film’s challenging material, it doesn’t end without a ray of hope. It may just be a glimmer, but when dealing with something of such gravity and when the very notion of hope feels so foreign it’s a welcomed touch. And it works here because it feels genuine and it doesn’t undermine everything that came before it. It’s also fragile and far from guaranteed. By the end we still aren’t sure of what’s ahead for these four people or how their lives will play out. But that small sliver of hope gives us something to cling to.

In the end Kranz doesn’t pretend to have all the answers and he smartly makes his film about people rather than hot topics. There are references to the things that are often thrust to the center of these discussions – guns, violent video games, the internet. But the truth is something deeper has changed within our society. Something has polluted our ways of seeing each other, our ways of communicating. Our ability to respect, empathize, and show compassion has dulled. Why? We as a nation and a society are much like the four people in the church room. We don’t have an answers and we’re still looking. The key difference is they’ve been affected in the most devastating way imaginable and their experience should be an eye-opener for the rest of us.



REVIEW: “The Marksman” (2021)


Let it be known that no pandemic is going to keep Liam Neeson down, especially when there is yet another batch of prefabricated villainy to deal with. This time it’s a drug cartel set along America’s southern border. This time there’s a young boy to save. This time Neeson has yet another helpful set of ‘skills’. But this time he’s far from the usual gravelly-voiced one-man-army we’re accustomed to seeing. Well, he still has the signature gravelly voice, but he’s not the impervious imposing force from so many of his other action thrillers.

With “The Marksman” Neeson teams with writer-director Robert Lorenz who is best known for producing several Clint Eastwood films including the Oscar-nominated trio of “Mystic River”, “Letters From Iwo Jima”, and “American Sniper”. It’s probably safe to say “The Marksman” won’t be joining those three esteemed films and that’s okay. These sturdy Neeson thrillers are built with a particular fan-base in mind which is both a strength and a weakness. If you’ve watched a number of them you can’t help but notice some similarities. But there’s often just enough nuance to set them apart. And Neeson brings a certain gravitas to these rather familiar exercises that make them somewhat of a guilty pleasure.


Image Courtesy of Open Road Films

In many ways “The Marksman” feels like a movie Clint Eastwood could have made a few years ago (there’s even a funny little reference to the 90-year-old legend that I’ll let you discover). Neeson plays James Hanson, a decorated Vietnam veteran struggling to hang onto his dusty old ranch that sits on the Arizona/Mexico border. James is a lonely man still mourning the death of wife to cancer. Now he spends his days watching over a few scrawny heads of cattle and radioing local border patrol whenever he spots immigrants illegally crossing the border.

Fresh off an encounter with a bank executive who gives him 90 days to pay his loan and save his ranch, James runs into a migrant mother named Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) sneaking through the border fence with her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) and a bag full of money. James’ first inclination is to call border patrol, not out of some cold disdain or political ideology. He’s not that type of character. Instead he’s a broken shell of a man unplugged from society; lost without his wife and self-sentenced to a life of loneliness. So when the frantic mother pleads for his help his first response is more mechanical than emotional.

But things quickly escalate when soldiers from a Mexican drug cartel led by the overtly menacing Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) pull up on the other side of the fence. They demand James hand over Rosa and Miguel, he promptly refuses, and gunfire is exchanged. When it’s over Mauricio’s brother is dead on one side of the fence and Rosa is mortally wounded on the other side. In her dying breath she asks James to take her son to a relative in Chicago and offers him all of the money in the bag as payment. Before long James is reluctantly driving the young orphaned Miguel from Arizona to the Windy City.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from action movies, it’s that you don’t kill the brother of the main bad guy. It always makes them meaner, madder, and more dogged in their pursuit. That apparent thirst for vengeance is all we get with Mauricio. He’s basically a one-note villain who’s stuck in one gear for the majority of the film. Lorenz tries to open him up a little bit at the end, but it’s not enough to give the meanie any real weight.


Image Courtesy of Open Road Films

The relationship between James and young Miguel is handled better but still has rough spots of its own. There’s almost a natural attraction to the whole ‘sweet young boy bonds with a surly grizzled misanthrope’ storyline. It’s been done countless times and still we find ourselves drawn to it’s inherent charms. It works here in large part because Neeson makes James sympathetic enough that we root for him to rediscover the warmth and inner joy of human attachment. And there’s the unshakable connection as both are grieving souls who find themselves all alone after losing the persons closest to them.

But it’s how their relationship plays out that’s lacking. For example we’re teased with a compelling conflict after Miguel blames James for the death of his mother. It’s a weighty, emotionally-driven charge and there is a lot the movie could have done with it. Instead that animosity just up and vanishes after a few miles and a couple of hamburgers, never to be discussed or touched on again. Their relationship ends up going a much more routine route which actually sums up “The Marksman” as a whole. There’s enough to keep you involved but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. It leaves you wanting to see it through even though you know how things are going to turn out. In other words, it’s pretty standard, middle-of-the-road fare. “The Marksman” is now showing in theaters.



REVIEW: “Monster Hunter” (2020)


Writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson and actress Milla Jovovich are no strangers to movies based on video games. The husband and wife first met in 2002 on the set of “Resident Evil”, an action-horror flick based on Capcom’s popular video game franchise. Since then the two have collaborated in some way on five sequels. And while I would never be so bold as to call those films “great”, they are very honest and self-aware and are made with a very particular audience in mind.

Their latest video game-to-big screen venture is “Monster Hunter”, yet another popular Capcom franchise but one lacking the movie genre allure of something like “Resident Evil”. Still it caters to the same audience and will likely live or die based on how that group turns out for it. That’s because there’s simply not much there for those with no connections to the games or for anyone in need of the slightest bit of depth. “Monster Hunter” is far more interested in cranking up a new franchise than creating relatable well-conceived characters and giving them a good story to tell.


Photo Courtesy of Screen Gems

Jovovich stars as Captain Natalie Artemis, a US Army Ranger and head of a United Nations joint task force. She leads a team of interesting faces but dull and forgettable personalities who sport macho military handles like Axe, Link, Dealer, and Dash. And if you’re interested in learning more about them, don’t be. “Monster Hunter” certainly isn’t. Instead all we get is some laughably bad soldier banter. Nothing of substance. Even Jovovich’s Artemis, the clear star of the movie, is paper-thin and woefully underwritten. All we’re allowed to learn about her is that she’s tough, she can fight, and she can adapt. That’s it.

Stationed in some unidentified desert country, Artemis and her unit are sent out to find Bravo Team who never reported back following their last patrol. During their search they encounter a sandstorm that’s actually hiding a mysterious portal. In a snap the team is sucked in and transported to another dimension. One with a considerably vaster desert and one massive creature who doesn’t like trespassers. The outmatched soldiers quickly learn they don’t have the firepower to fight such a beast so they hightail it towards a lone rocky island in the ocean of sand with the mammoth monster nipping at their heels.

As they tend to do in movies like this, the team members are picked off one by one. Meanwhile on the rocky refuge (yea right) is Tony Jaa playing a character simply called the Hunter. He spends the first half of the movie jumping from boulder to boulder watching Artemis and her team in various states of peril and shooting the occasional exploding arrow at a monster. When Artemis is the only one left, the Hunter (who has been stranded there for who knows how long) reveals himself, not with a handshake and a “help me get off this rock.” Instead his first impulse is to attack her which leads to a pointless series of fight scenes that just delay their inevitable come-together moment. That’s the only way to kill the sand monster and to find a way home. Oh, and there’s that ominous tower in the distance that’s sure to have some part in all of this, right?

Sarcasm and snark aside, “Monster Hunter” actually delivers exactly what it promises and criticizing it for not delivering more seems a little unfair. It’s silly, bombastic, get-away entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. Anderson and his effects team put together some really impressive set pieces and visually there are a lot of interesting things going on. And later the film opens up some intriguing new environments. Also Anderson seems to have a real reverence for his source material. His film drips with fan service from the sets, the monsters, the weapons, the attire. And can we take a quick second to appreciate Ron Perlman who shows up later with the most hilariously dreadful wig I’ve ever seen in a movie (and yes, I’m counting that as a plus).


Photo Courtesy of Screen Gems

But I also can’t begrudge anyone who wants interesting characters or some semblance of a coherent story. There are a few decent moments between Jovovich and Jaa when the film briefly turns into a buddy survival adventure. But otherwise the story leaves nothing worth talking about. And you can bet its eye-rolling non-ending will leave some feeling annoyed and unsatisfied. And while the creature effects and bigger set pieces range from good to great, some of the more up-close action must have been hacked to pieces in the editing room. The frantic quick-cuts make the scenes borderline indecipherable.

While I am an unapologetic player and appreciator of video games, they don’t exactly have a glowing track record when it comes to big screen adaptations. I don’t think “Monster Hunter” will do much to change that. But honestly I don’t think Anderson and company care. They’ve set out to make a certain kind of movie for a certain kind of moviegoer. If nothing else, some people will enjoy it just for the non-stop action and CGI spectacle. But that doesn’t hide the glaring lack of story and character development. Or the frustrating non-ending that seems much more interested in teasing a future movie rather than finishing this one. “Monster Hunter” is now showing in theaters.



REVIEW: “The Midnight Sky” (2020)


No one can doubt George Clooney’s celebrity status nor can they reasonably throw dirt at his work in front of the camera. A quick scan of the Oscar winner’s acting credits shows a career many would envy. It’s when you mention his directing that things get a little shaky. He has hit his mark a few times namely with “Good Night and Good Luck” and “The Monuments Men” (that’s right, I’m an actual defender of that movie. Nice to meet you.). But his misfires have been pretty pronounced with “Leatherheads” and the abysmal “Suburbicon” instantly coming to mind.

His latest film “The Midnight Sky” sees Clooney as both lead actor and director, his first dual-duty role since 2014. The story is adapted by screenwriter Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 debut novel “Good Morning, Midnight”. It’s an interesting choice for director Clooney, bigger in scale and more ambitious than anything he has helmed before. Here he has made a movie that wears its inspirations on its sleeve which may push away demanding viewers hungry for something completely original. But “The Midnight Sky” is no stale uninspired rehash and reducing it to such ignores the film’s more personal aims.

This moody dystopian drama is set in 2049, three weeks after an unspecified global catastrophe (referred to only as “the event”) caused deadly levels of radiation to begin spreading across the earth’s surface. Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a renowned astrophysicist and the last remaining soul at the Barbeau Observatory deep in the Arctic Circle. His colleagues and their families have evacuated, heading south to hole up in underground safehouses. But Augustine stayed behind, unconvinced that leaving was the best course of action and content to live his last days alone with his terminal illness.


Image Courtesy of Netflix

Augustine passes his time monitoring the radiation’s rapid spread and attempting to establish communication with the rest of the world. The thick-bearded, gravelly-voiced Clooney gives one of the best performances of his career portraying a somber tormented soul wrestling with feelings of deep-rooted regret (three short but well-handled flashbacks reveal a squandered relationship, the source of his melancholy). He’s the embodiment of loneliness, a man self-condemned and resigned to his fate. But then two unexpected twists change his course.

First he notices the crew of the planet’s last active space mission Operation Aether are returning to earth following a survey mission to a potentially habitable moon. If Augustine doesn’t re-establish contact with the unaware space station and warn them of the earth’s status the five-person crew will be arriving to their own deaths. Second he discovers a little girl named Iris (bright-eyed newcomer Caoilinn Springall) left behind during the evacuation. It sets up the well-worn father-figure/daughter-figure dynamic that actually works thanks to Clooney’s wounded sincerity and Springall’s quiet and unadorned presence.

Meanwhile aboard the Aether the crew carries on their daily duties despite growing concerns about losing contact with earth. The diverse and talented group of Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, and Tiffany Boone make up the team of home-sick scientists, some more fleshed out than others but each believable in their role. The visual effects pop off the screen from the imaginative ship design to the simple but foreboding way the movie contrasts the darkness of space with the blinding white of the Arctic tundra. And then there’s the film’s biggest set piece, a stunning spacewalk to repair a communications array that clearly borrows from “Gravity” but packs its own quiet white-knuckled intensity. There is a musical number to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” that I could have done without but be that as it may.


Image Courtesy of Netflix

The story jumps back-and-forth between the Aether‘s crew pushing through unforeseen dangers and Augustine setting out with Iris across the frozen wasteland to a remote weather station with a stronger antenna. It sounds action-packed, something akin to summer blockbuster material. But while it has its genre moments, this is a much different film. At its core “The Midnight Sky” is reflective and tragic, even poetic; a bleak meditation on humanity’s last days. Some are sure to push back on Clooney’s unrushed approach, but it’s exactly what this type of story needs. Even DP Martin Ruhe’s extraordinary cinematography and Alexander Desplat’s elegant yet aching score support the film’s contemplative framing.

One of the biggest mistakes you could make with a movie like “The Midnight Sky” is falling into the comparison trap. Sure, if you look for it you can see a few story beats from “Interstellar”, a set piece inspired by “Gravity”, and the occasional ruminative rhythm of “Ad Astra”. At times you may be reminded of “The Martian”, “Moon”, “2001”, and “Arrival”. In other words it does what so many sci-fi movies do at this stage in the genre’s history – it embraces its inspirations. But it also has its own story to tell about loss, love and the yearning for what we leave behind.

“The Midnight Sky” is destined to be a divisive movie. For some it will be emotionally cathartic and fitting for a year like 2020. Others will find it to be shallow, derivative and lacking its own identity. For me its issues are considerably smaller. It splits so much time between earth and space that some of its characters get shortchanged. And as a result some of the big emotional moments don’t quite have the punch they should. But thankfully “The Midnight Sky” doesn’t hinge on a scene or two. And I like the fact that George Clooney, both the actor and director, sticks to his vision while tipping his hat to many of his important influences. “The Midnight Sky” is now showing in select theaters and will premiere on Netflix December 23rd.