REVIEW: “Mama Weed” (2021)

Tell me if this brief synopsis grabs you: Isabelle Huppert plays a meager police interpreter who seizes an opportunity that transforms her into one of the biggest dope suppliers in Paris. Sounds wacky, right? Yet that’s all I needed to be onboard with “Mama Weed”, an upcoming film with a title that really says it all. It’s such a peculiar match of actress and story. At the same time I don’t know how any fan of the ever reliable Huppert couldn’t be intrigued.

“Mama Weed” is an adaptation of Hannelore Cayre’s 2019 crime novel “The Godmother”. It’s directed by French filmmaker Jean-Paul Salomé who clearly understands what he has in Huppert. He leans on the veteran actress and wisely lets her carry the bulk of load. And as she usually does, the Oscar-nominated Huppert (one of most effortlessly natural actresses in the business) slides into her role and gives a thoroughly entertaining performance; one that manages to make this amusingly eccentric story believable.

Image Courtesy Music Box Films

Huppert plays Patience Portefeux, a French-Arabic translator who oversees phone surveillance for the Paris Police Department’s narcotics division. The demanding workload has her monitoring tapped phone lines both at the precinct and at home, yet she barely gets paid enough to scrap by. Patience already owes her steely landlord Colette (Nadja Nguyen) two months of back rent and the €3200 a month nursing home is ready to send her ailing mother (Liliane Rovère) to a cheaper facility if she doesn’t catch up on her payments.

While listening in on some Moroccan traffickers Patience learns that one of their drivers is the son of her mother’s favorite nurse Kadidja (Farida Ouchani). Instead of passing the intel to the cops, a sympathetic Patience tips off Kadidja who then warns her son just in time for him to ditch his truckload of hashish before the police bust him. It’s here that Salomé goes full “Breaking Bad” meets “Jackie Brown”. With the help of the police’s resources and her newly adopted drug-sniffing dog, Patience tracks down the hidden hash and secretly moves it to the storage room in her apartment building. She then decks out like Arab royalty, dupes two low-rung pushers (Rachid Guellaz and Mourad Boudaoud) into moving her product, and just like that she has her own lucrative trafficking network.

Now if Patience’s sudden turn to crime sounds a little abrupt and out-of-the-blue, the movie (mostly) has it covered. There is a passing mention of her late husband being involved in some kind of criminal racket. And when she was a child her parents did some things “that a cop wouldn’t have approved of” just to put food on the table. So you could say crime is in her blood. Are a few lines of dialogue enough to setup such a dramatic change in her character? Maybe not, yet the movie has a sly way of getting you to look past it.

Image Courtesy of Music Box Films

The funniest part of it all is how believable Huppert makes it. Middle-aged and unassuming – her character is hardly the person you would expect to become a drug kingpin. And she uses that to her advantage, along with her insider connections and her lukewarm ‘romance’ with the police chief Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot), to constantly stay one step ahead of the cops. She’s also a woman pushing back on the hand she’s been dealt, not quite as full of confidence as she leads on, but bold enough to literally risk everything for some degree of independence.

While undeniably catchy, the movie’s American title “Mama Weed” isn’t the most accurate (Patience is actually pushing hash, not weed and I learned there is a difference). It’s French title “La daronne”, translated “The Mom”, is much more fitting. It more directly speaks to the demure and unsuspecting presence that Patience utilizes to great effect. And Huppert is the perfect actress to pull it off. Mixed with Salomé’s light but engaging touch, she gives the movie a firm anchor and provides us with a character who is easy to latch onto. “Mama Weed” opens in select theaters this Friday (July 16th).

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Monster” (2021)

In the new Netflix movie “Monster” director Anthony Mandler uses a non-linear structure to tell the story of young black student wrongly charged in the murder of a bodega owner. The film premiered way back at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and was eventually acquired by Netflix. Based on a Walter Dean Myers novel of the same name, “Monster” maneuvers through its sometimes heavy-handed dialogue to deliver a well-meaning and often crushingly effective legal drama.

The film is told from the perspective of 17-year-old Steve Harmon (a terrific Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The film opens a few minutes after he has been arrested for playing a role in the robbery of a Harlem bodega that left its owner dead. As Steve narrates we watch the overwhelmed high school honor student and aspiring filmmaker as he is processed by police. Soon he’s sitting across from his state appointed public defender (Jennifer Ehle). These unsettling early moments set us up for the nearly 100 minutes of tension that comes baked into the material and directly from Mandler’s style of storytelling.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The story (written by Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer) bounces us back-and-forth across the timeline. We visit and revisit Steve’s time in prison, in the court room, at home with his loving parents and young brother, out with his neighborhood friends, and in his high school film class where his dedicated teacher Mr. Sawicki (Tim Blake Nelson) inspires him to follow his dreams. While some of the time-jumping seems unnecessary, it’s ably handled and it does keep the film from feeling like a conventional retread.

The film is driven by the richly layered lead performance from Harrison Jr. who has already established himself as a powerful young actor. Here he manages to channel innocence, ambition, youthful spirit, fear, frustration, hopelessness, and resolve all through a single densely conceived character. The movie also sports a rock-solid supporting cast in addition to Ehle and Nelson. Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson are really good as Steve’s loving parents. Just as good is Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Mayers who takes a fairly cookie-cutter bad egg part and makes it interesting. We even get John David Washington in a small but menacing role.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Clever touches from cinematographer David Devlin help convey the film’s frequently shifting mood. The harsh sterile grays of the courtroom, the glow of the sun beaming through the neighborhood trees, the warmth of home with his family, the cold isolation of prison. Devlin’s camera takes some of the load off of Harrison Jr. by helping the audience to see things the way Steve sees them.

“Monster” is a timely and thoughtful critique of America’s justice system told with startling clarity from the perspective of a young black man. While the movie landscape has been inundated with these kinds of social dramas, Mandler does enough with a well-worn genre and by-the-books premise to make the movie feel reasonably fresh. It doesn’t completely avoid the cringy on-the-nose dialogue (take the soulless white prosecutor eyeing Steven and coldly uttering “he looks the part to me“), but it tells a moving story and is worth watching for the strong performances alone. “Monster” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Man in the Hat” (2021)

It’s hard to watch “The Man in the Hat” and not think of the great Jacques Tati. The late French mime, actor, and filmmaker conceived some of my very favorite comedies, several of them centering around his bumbling yet good-natured Monsieur Hulot character. Tati’s films were known for their meticulously choreographed visual gags and their distinct lack of dialogue. The comedy element of “The Man in the Hat” isn’t as broad or pronounced as something like “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” or “Jour de fete”. But it taps into some of the same things that made those Tati films so special.

The wonderfully expressive Ciarán Hinds plays the titular protagonist in what is essentially a dialogue-free role. But the seasoned Irish actor is more than capable of conveying all the emotions we need through his gentle manner, tender smiles, and melancholy gaze. Other than that it’s a grunt here, a mumble there, and one barely audible “Merci”.

Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

We first meet the man sitting at a cafe in a cozy seaside town with nothing but a newspaper and a framed picture of a woman. Later, as the sun sets over the warmly lit harbor, he still sits at the same table, now munching on dinner. That’s when he observes a puttering Citroën Dyane pull up next to the water. Out of it pours five full-grown men who toss what appears to be a dead body into the sea. Realizing they’ve been seen, the five men approach the cafe which sends the man scurrying. He hops into his dark blue Fiat 500 and so begins this relaxed charm-soaked jaunt across the French countryside.

As the man travels the narrow country backroads of rural France, his hat on his head and the woman’s picture safely sitting next to him in the passenger’s seat, we’re treated to a delectable medley of music, food, and scenery. And just as captivating is the rich and unique assortment of people the man meets on his journey, many turning up again and again as he drives from town to town. Among them, a sad forlorn man in a soggy suit, a curious young couple with a tape measure, the five suspicious men in the Citroën Dyane, and perhaps most notably a beguiling women in a red dress on a bicycle (played by Sasha Hails).

In one sense the movie is a tasty roadtrip comedy, more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. There’s also a lightly-breaded mystery baked into the story that encourages us to wonder. Who is the woman in the picture? Where is the man going? What does it all mean? And then there are the more life-affirming elements that seem particularly welcomed in these divided times. Armed with a buoyant spirit and a steady observant rhythm throughout, the movie asks us to stop, sit down, and appreciate the simple things that are too often taken for granted.

All of this comes from the creative minds of John-Paul Davidson and Stephen Warbeck who serve as both co-writers and co-directors. Their predominantly wordless odyssey is as beautiful as it is easy-going, with DP Kaname Onoyama’s camera showing just as much affection for the characters as it does the lush rolling hills or the stunning scenic overlooks. And he shoots each little town in a way that somehow accentuates their character and charm. None of it is aggressively picturesque, but it’s a key component that’s grafted into the very fabric of the story.

Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Just as important is the music. “The Man in the Hat” marks Warbeck’s directorial debut but he’s no stranger to cinema. An accomplished composer, Warbeck won an Oscar for his “Shakespeare in Love” score. Here he uses an eclectic blend of strings, horns, accordion, and piano to create one of his film’s most essential languages. Together with a couple of well placed songs, the entire musical arrangement is a soothing blend of local sound and emotional resonance. It’s simple yet effective and it’s my favorite soundtrack of the year so far.

In case you can’t tell, I loved “The Man in the Hat”. Davidson and Warbeck have made a simple yet savory feast for the senses that feels plucked out of a bygone era of cinema history. The film is a tender and heartfelt reminder to appreciate the little things in life and to hold onto the special moments. It reminds us of how the smallest acts of kindness can effect someone’s life in a profound way. The man’s touching adventure is filled with people from all walks of life who are willing to lend a hand. Perhaps in a day where people cling to their differences and are quick to tear each other apart, these messages are more needed more than we realize. “The Man in the Hat” opens in select theaters and on VOD this Friday (May 14th).

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (2021)

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It seems I always feel the need to qualify any review I write for an animated feature. I’ve admitted countless times that I’m not an animated movie connoisseur. But when animated movies resonate with me they usually REALLY resonate. Such is the case with Netflix’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”, a wacky, high-energy, and at times surprisingly tender movie about an everyday family and the disconnect that sometimes takes place between parents and their children. What can I say…I loved it.

There is some really impressive talent behind “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”. It’s comes from Sony Pictures Animation (who sold the film to Netflix for around $100 million) and is produced by none other than Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, big names who had their hands in huge hits like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “The LEGO Movie” (full disclosure – I wasn’t as smitten with “Spider-Verse” as most but I loved “LEGO”). It’s directed by Mike Rianda (who also co-writes with Jeff Rowe) and it’s topped off by a really good cast.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

The Mitchells are a fairly ordinary family of four who love each other but find themselves in a rut. Over the years a chasm has grown between oldest child Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and her father Rick (Danny McBride). The two have a relationship littered with great memories of a doting father and a daddy’s girl. But lately the two seem on opposite ends of a widening generation gap and they can’t seem to connect or communicate the way they once did. Katie’s mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) tries her best to be peacemaker, but both father and daughter seem to have forgotten the bond that once bound them.

You could say Katie is a bit of an outsider. Her dinosaur-loving kid brother Aaron (voiced by Rianda) gets her, but no one else does either in school or at home. She finds refuge in her creative spirit, namely in making short films for her YouTube channel. A movie geek at heart, Katie aspires to be a director and her acceptance into film school in Los Angeles brings her closer to her dream. It also gets her far away from home which has become a top priority.

Rick’s skepticism of Katie’s career choice leads to yet another daddy/daughter spat on the night before she departs for California. In a well-meaning effort to patch things up, Rick cancels Katie’s flight to LA (gulp!) and decides to take the family on a cross-country trip for some needed together-time before dropping Katie off at school. Much to Katie’s chagrin, the Mitchells and their wild-eyed pug Monchi load up their burnt orange 1993 family station wagon and head out for the West Coast. Little do they know their greatest family challenge awaits – the machine apocalypse!

Now tell me if you’ve ever heard a better sales pitch than this – distinguished Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman leads a “Terminator”-like machine uprising to take over the world. I mean that’s something that sells itself! Coleman plays a Siri-like artificial intelligence holding a grudge after her Silicon Valley creator (Eric André) dumps her for his company’s hot new robot tech. So she takes control of his robots and everything else electronic in the world from toasters to an army of Furbies.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

All of that is hilarious on the surface but it’s also a key part of the film’s playful critique of today’s tech-dependent society. Several well-placed subtle jabs land throughout the movie but there are also the hysterical not-so-subtle shots. Take when an astonished Linda states with absolute sincerity, “Who would have thought a tech company wouldn’t have our best interest at heart?” Yet this isn’t all about an anti-technology message. In fact the film highlights its invaluable contributions to our ability to create and communicate. At the same time it reminds us that nothing beats intimate, heartfelt, face-to-face connection.

The film frames the Mitchells as being dysfunctional (or from Katie’s hyperbolic point-of-view “the Worst Family of All Time“) and a spotlight is put on their “weirdness” and inner friction. However their actual normality is one of the story’s most endearing qualities. They are a family full of relatable personalities and the daddy-daughter dynamic hit me right in my soft spot. Add in loads of laugh-out-load humor and a gorgeous mix of 2D and 3D animation and you have a movie that had me from its bright and colorful opening to its warm and heartfelt finish. “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” premieres this Friday (April 30th) on Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/title/81399614

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Mortal Kombat” (2021)

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Well this is a remake/reboot I never saw coming. I remember when “Mortal Kombat” took the early 1990s arcade scene by storm. From the very start the video game from developer Midway courted controversy for its graphic violence (aka Fatalities) which paved the way for the ESRB video game rating system. But “Mortal Kombat” also became a cultural phenomenon that spawned numerous sequels and since 1992 it has appeared on nearly forty different gaming platforms.

In 1995 during the height of the its popularity, “Mortal Kombat” did the unthinkable and came to the big screen. I vividly remember sitting in a jam packed theater on opening night. To this day it was one of the most excited and energetic crowds I’ve ever sat and watched a movie with. In all honesty, aside from a great score and some terrific fight choreography, it wasn’t a great film. But it remains a lot of fun. Sadly it was followed by a cringy and utterly abysmal 1997 sequel that seemed to kill the movie franchise in its tracks.

Yet here we are in 2021 getting a brand new film offering a completely different take on the franchise. Simon McQuoid makes his feature directorial debut in this entertaining and hyper-violent adaptation that tosses aside any and all PG-13 constraints. McQuoid along with screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham go all-in for the R-rating, giving fans of the video game series all the blood-drenched kombat and grisly fatalities they could ask for. The story is every bit as silly as it sounds, but it also makes for a good time if you know what to expect.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

The movie opens with a terrific introduction to two of the franchise’s most iconic characters. In 17th century Japan Hanzo Hasashi (played by the always terrific Hiroyuki Sanada) has set aside his old life and now happily lives in a quite village with his wife, young son, and newborn daughter. But his new life is interrupted by a team of assassins led by the cold-hearted (see what I did there) Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). The brilliantly conceived intro plants some narrative seeds and gives the audience a taste of what McQuoid and company have in mind.

Now jump ahead to current day where a lot of goofy exposition lays out the setting and backstory. In a nutshell the dark and ominous Outworld and our Earthrealm have been battling it out in an ancient to-the-death tournament called Mortal Kombat. The built-in rules state that the first realm to win ten tournaments will be granted the right to invade and overtake the other realm (don’t ask, just go with it). But when Outworld’s leader, the sinister sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han), gets wind of a prophecy that could thwart his victory, he decides to bend the rules. He sends his top warriors to kill Earthrealm’s upcoming batch of new champions each bearing the same dragon mark on their skin.

Despite the franchise’s wealth of great characters, the movie makes the interesting choice of introducing a new face as its lead. Lewis Tan plays Cole Young, a down-on-his-luck former MMA champion marked with the dragon symbol. Cole is thrust into the world of Mortal Kombat after Bi-Han (now known as Sub-Zero) attempts to kill him and his wife and daughter. Through no fault of Tan’s, Cole doesn’t make for the most compelling protagonist and he’s consistently overshadowed by the big names who fans are really itching to see.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

While Cole is considered ‘the lead’, the supporting cast of established franchise veterans get plenty of screen time and are the gas that keeps the engine running. Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and her special forces partner Jax (Mehcad Brooks) have been studying the dragon symbol and searching for those marked by it. Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) is responsible for gathering earth’s new batch of champions. The unsavory Kano (Josh Lawson) is a dragon-marked mercenary who can be both laugh-out-loud funny and aggressively obnoxious. Kano is essentially an attempt at comic relief, pumping out some genuinely funny one-liners while exhaustingly cramming as many f-bombs into each sentence as he can.

To this biased Sub-Zero player, not only is he the film’s coolest character (sorry, couldn’t resist) but he gets many of the best scenes including a showdown with a certain fiery nemesis. Other recognizable names get their moments to shine including Liu Kang, Mileena, King Lao, and a few other surprises. They all weave in and out of a story that mostly takes a back seat to the high-energy fight scenes.

The rest of the movie never quite matches its exhilarating opening 15 minutes and it’s surprising to see how little the actual Mortal Kombat tournament plays into the story. At the same time “Mortal Kombat” is very much a movie made for the fans. It takes a lot for granted and expects the audience to either already know the backstory or have a certain willingness to just go with it. That allows it more time to show off what it does best – offer thrilling, deliciously brutal, nostalgia-soaked kombat. And while it’s a far cry from a ‘flawless victory’, it’s an undeniable good time specifically for those who know the franchise well. “Mortal Kombat” today (April 23rd) in theaters and on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “My Octopus Teacher” (2020)

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The engaging and now Oscar-nominated documentary “My Octopus Teacher” is a beautiful, moving, and reflective experience. It’s also a little crazy and doesn’t do much to hide its aggressive tugs on your heartstrings. This Netflix Original from co-directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed has garnered a lot of praise since its September release on the streaming giant’s platform. It’s easy to see why.

The film is more or less a reflection of a middle-aged man named Craig Foster. He tells the story of his encounter and unlikely ‘friendship’ with a small octopus just off the coast in West Cape, South Africa. For over 325 straight days, Craig would visit a small underwater kelp forest in an area called “The Cape of Storms”. There lived a female common octopus (Octopus Vulgaris if you go by its funky binomial name). Over the course of his daily visits an unlikely yet amazing bond forms, one that genuinely transforms this man’s life.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

We don’t get much in terms of backstory, only that Craig grew up in the ocean but left as an adult to pursue documentary filmmaking. During a film shoot in the Central Kalahari Desert he meets some indigenous master trackers intimately in-tune with nature in a way he once was. 18 years pass and Craig sits at a crossroads, losing his faith in himself and watching his relationship with his family suffer. So he heads back to West Cape, to the place where he felt so connected to the bigger world as a boy.

Craig begins his dives into the cold waters with no wetsuit and no oxygen tank – just swim trunks, flippers, snorkel, and a camera. There he meets the octopus who slowly becomes comfortable with his presence. Before long the fear and apprehension vanishes and the documentary turns into a surreal underwater buddy movie of sorts. Some of the sweetest images emerge as the two grow closer and the octopus shows affection perhaps never seen from an animal known for being anti-social.

At the same time the waters are full of predators, namely swarming Pajama Sharks. Craig’s firm belief in the natural order keeps him from intervening once his octopus friend finds herself in peril. It’s an admirable position but one that raises some fascinating moral-ish questions, especially during the scenes where Craig sits back and films the octopus’ fight for survival. Would it hurt if a bigger human predator ran off the smaller predator? Does attracting the octopus with his presence contribute to the creature’s vulnerability? Does Craig owe it to his underwater friend to protect her if she’s out of her safe place to see him?

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that “My Octopus Teacher” features some truly exquisite ocean photography. The film is masterfully shot by DP Roger Horrocks, a nature doc veteran whose camera creates a vivid underwater tapestry of sea-life that encompasses so much more that just one man and a mollusc. Equally transporting is the elegant score by documentary composer Kevin Smuts. It’s hard not to be swept away by the look and sounds that really emphasize the subtle majesty of the setting and the emotional undercurrent to the story.

“My Octopus Teacher” clocks in at just a little over 80 minutes but it packs a lot of heart and goodwill into that short running time. As I said, the whole thing is a little crazy and it would be hard to believe if this weren’t a documented true story. Strangeness aside, there’s also a lot of sincerity and personal feeling behind Craig’s story. You genuinely believe this was a life-changing experience for this man and the film’s final scenes with Craig and his son really bring that truth home. “My Octopus Teacher” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars