Synopsis: When Van Helsing’s mysterious invention, the “Monsterfication Ray,” goes haywire, Drac and his monster pals are all transformed into humans, and Johnny becomes a monster.
Stars: Brian Hull, Jim Gaffigan, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, Fran Drescher, Brad Abrell, Asher Blinkoff
Director: Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Now that we’re in the second decade of this site, I find that I’ve had more opportunities to go back and revisit some of the reviews I did in that first year and aside from noticing that my love for run-on sentences hasn’t changed, I’ve also seen that my taste in specific genres has. Maybe it was the younger me that wasn’t quite as hard to entertain but back then I derived a lot more thrill from an upcoming animated release, especially one that spoke to my style of dark humor. That’s why I developed such a fondness for darker kids fare like Coraline and ParaNorman (still do) and also why each time a new Hotel Transylvania film was released I was eager to book a stay. If anything was going to resurrect nostalgia that had been buried up to its neck by dreck, this was the franchise to do it.
The first Hotel Transylvania in 2012 was a dynamic, if not overly inspired, PG comedy that brought together a number of famous monster characters and made them family friendly. Dracula was now a single-dad running a hotel catering only to creature clientele with his friends Frankenstein, the Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi, The Dead Don’t Die), the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland), and the Invisible Man (David Spade, Tommy Boy) also pitching in. When Dracula’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez, Dolittle) falls in love with human Johnny (Andy Samberg, Palm Springs), who waltzes in not knowing that his kind is not so much catered to as served by the caterer, it forces Dracula to reevaluate his protection of his daughter. The 2015 sequel branched out the story nicely by including the in-laws, Johnny’s parents and Dracula’s dad, both of whom come into play after the birth of Dracula’s first grandson. I didn’t do a formal review of the last film from 2018 but the colorful vacation cruise storyline gave Dracula his own love interest in the form of a Van Helsing relative.
For the opening of the fourth chapter, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, the Hotel has gone through some renovations and like the Holiday Inn near my grandparent’s house that removed the jacuzzi between our Thanksgiving and Christmas stay in 1991, it hasn’t been for the better. Gone are original voices of Dracula and Frankenstein, Adam Sandler and Kevin James, replaced with Brian Hull and Brad Abrell (only Hull makes an attempt to recreate Sandler’s sound) and Genndy Tartakovsky, the director who spearheaded the previous three entries is only credited with the story on this stay. New directors Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska come from the land of SpongeBob SquarePants, a factoid I read up on after the movie concluded but which makes total sense when you consider how the story develops and the strangely bright tone it takes. Not only is it the weakest entry, wisely skipping a theatrical release and heading straight for a debut on Amazon Prime, it feels far removed from the trilogy it is following. If this is the direction the Hotel Transylvania industry is headed, I think I’ll look for a different place to visit in the future.
On the eve of Hotel Transylvania’s 125th birthday, Dracula is planning to retire with wife Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn, Bad Moms), leaving the business to his daughter and her husband. During a conversation with the free-spirited Johnny, Dracula balks after hearing his planned ‘improvements’ to the hotel and instead tells him it’s impossible to give the hotel to a non-monster, causing a despondent Johnny to turn to wacky Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan, Them That Follow) for help. It just so happens the mad scientist has a tool that can change humans into monsters…and vice versa. Using the “Monsterfication Ray”, the goofy Johnny is transformed into an equally goofy dragon. When Dracula finds out what he innocently misled Johnny to do and then accidently changes himself into an ordinary human, breaking the ray in the process, the two will need to work together and travel across the globe for a solution…before their wives find out.
Generally, unless you’re working with an exemplary example of skilled writing and creative storytelling, an animated film can start to feel stale after it’s introduced the characters and settled into finding the way toward a happy ending. Almost from the start, Transformania gets gummy and can’t shake some sense of exhaustion. It doesn’t help that taking Dracula and Johnny out of their environment and putting them into a South American one feels more like it’s a comfort to its directors than the core audience and fans of the series. The most exciting scenes remain those featuring the darker, more spooky creations of the computer animation wizards at Sony Animation Studios and there are some nice comic bits after Dracula’s friends turn themselves into humans. Who knew Frankenstein was such a hunk?
If you or your kids are fans of the series, by all means fire Hotel Transylvania: Transformania up on Amazon Prime and continue your adventures with the gang. It’s worth the watch more for the B plot involving the side characters reacting to their transformation than anything going on in the A plot. There’s just nothing new to the father/son-in-law bonding story audiences (yes, even kids) haven’t been exposed to and better through other films. I’m sure this is a franchise that could go on longer, yet there is a sweet finality to the movie where it could end here and it would feel right. Money will always win out…but here’s hoping the keys get turned in and the lights shut off soon.
Synopsis: After a lonely tech millionaire encounters a charming and sexy woman, passion grows between them – and when he’s injured, she quickly steps in as his nurse. But her odd behavior makes him suspect she has more sinister intentions, especially when her roommate is found dead from mysterious causes.
Stars: Cameron Monaghan, Lilly Krug, John Malkovich, Sasha Luss, Frank Grillo
Director: Luis Prieto
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (1/10)
Review: All we heard in the latter half of 2021 and now into 2022 was how movies were returning to normal. It took a while for theaters to get back up to speed and while there is still a long way to go to get people to venture out to films that aren’t proven franchises (RIP West Side Story…you shoulda been a blockbuster…), the tide is turning slowly. The at-home market feels like it’s regaining its footing at a more rapid pace. It surely is welcoming its fair share of stink-bombs at around the same volume it was before the pandemic hit.
The latest must-miss is Shattered, another Lionsgate effort and oh, how it pains me to say it. This is the studio that had such a great run with the Saw franchise and launched a trove of worthy indie titles back in the day (Gods and Monsters! Eve’s Bayou!). Yet recently I’ve seen a good amount of less than impressive titles coming out through their banner. I know they can do better, and they can certainly do far better than the dreadful Shattered which I watched on a day off over the Christmas holiday and felt like I got a lump of coal for my efforts. Directed with some attempt at style by Luis Prieto and working from David Loughery slimy script, I actually think Shattered had the potential to be something better than it was. It’s just that the cast assembled is so unfathomably bad.
Describing the plot of Shattered is sort of like looking at a whole shelf of mystery thrillers in the video store, starting at the top left and then randomly assembling the synopsis using snippets from each film. There’s little originality to the set-up featuring a wealthy divorcee (Cameron Monaghan, Vampire Academy) living in a secluded home who meets a random woman (Lilly Krug, Every Breath You Take) at the grocery store, detects she may be in trouble in her current living situation, offers to take her away for the evening to avoid a strung out roommate and skeevy landlord (John Malkovich, Jennifer 8), sleeps with her, falls for her, meets up with her again, then spends the rest of the movie suffering the consequences when she turns out to be a lunatic. Loughery (who also wrote the campy 2009 thriller Obsessed starring Beyoncé, Passenger 57 featuring Wesley Snipes, and the 2020 Hilary Swank vehicle Fatale) tries to differentiate his screenplay by giving the mystery woman a backstory which comes back to haunt her (and us), but if you don’t have actors that can sell it convincingly, then what’s the point? That leaves us to spend the next hour or so with bad actors attempting to play dramatics far beyond their reach.
It pained me to do it, but at the end of Shattered I went back and took a look at the IMDb page for John Malkovich. It’s here if you want to look for yourself. There was a time when that name called forth a certain image, at least to me, of elevated acting and a commitment to the craft which meant that when his name popped up in the credits you should take note of his involvement. Now, when I see Malkovich listed, I have to decide if I even want to bother to read the plot description or watch the trailer. Making movies that are so far removed from titles like 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, 1999’s Being John Malkovich, or his Oscar-nominated roles in 1984’s Places in the Heart or 1993’s In the Line of Fire, it almost feels like the actor has been taken hostage and is being forced to make bottom of the barrel scuzz.
The barrel gets scraped down to the rivets with Shattered, truly the most embarrassing role of Malkovich’s celebrated career which finds the actor playing a minor role as a majorly disgusting motel owner that gets mixed up with a femme fatale and her latest target. If you can believe it, Malkovich isn’t even the worst performance in the movie, or the second. Those two key positions are held by stars Monaghan and Krug, as charmless a duo as you could ever want in a psycho-sexual thriller built around a seduction that turns dangerous and eventually deadly. Monaghan is a whiny wimp that somehow has a beautiful ex-wife (Sasha Luss) and child and now has nabbed Krug’s crazeballs chick that turns the tables on him in short order. How or why Frank Grillo (Boss Level) shows up is almost beside the point, by the time the usually dependable supporting player appears when there’s a little more than thirty minutes left, viewers will either have turned the TV off or checked out to the point where they won’t even recognize another character has entered the action.
Even though Shattered is assuredly bad, I wound up giving it a pass for my Worst of 2021 list because it could have technically shown up there…and ranked high in the process. Being a rule follower, I also couldn’t put it on my Worst of 2022 list because I didn’t actually see it this year. So Shattered will slip through my grasp as a call-out after this review concludes…and should slip from your mind just as quickly.
Synopsis: While vacationing in Mexico, a couple discovers their son’s disappearance is tied to a supernatural curse.
Stars: Autumn Reeser, Antonio Cupo, Zamia Fandiño, Danny Trejo, Angélica Lara, Edgar Wuotto, Nicolas Madrazo
Director: Patricia Harris Seeley
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (1/10)
Review: When a film comes out that’s as bad as The Legend of La Llorona (and let’s not beat around the mulberry bush, this is very, very, bad), I try to look for one positive takeaway that will make the experience seem like not a complete wash. It helps in the overall reflection when looking back at a later date and also assists in the writing of the subsequent review. The honest truth is that I almost made it to the end of this extremely cheap horror cash-in without finding that small sliver of silver lining I could bring back to you but, thanks to Danny “I Never Say No” Trejo, I nabbed it pretty close to the end. Are you ready? Here it is: When in doubt, you can shoot a ghost with a shotgun. I didn’t say it was logical…just a takeaway I wasn’t aware of before the film began.
Apparently filmed in Canada as well as Mexico City where the action takes place, The Legend of La Llorona often looks like the actors are running around a botanical garden that needs a good watering instead of the dark brush where a local legend is said to be hungry for children. An opening prologue (which oddly lists the production company credits twice) finds a brother and sister being separated from their mother in said botanical garden as they attempt to escape Mexico to the United States but are thwarted by a ghostly apparition of La Llorona, appearing first as extremely questionable CGI vapor and then as a white bedsheet dragged through a shallow body of water. The bedsheet is pretty tangled up and dirty and from a laundry perspective, that’s terrifying.
Jumping over to numb American couple Carly and Andrew Candlewood (the name is at least one of the more creative decisions in the film) arriving in town to escape their continued grief over the recent loss of their child, they have their other son Danny in tow. Poor young actor Nicolas Madrazo spends this opening introduction with his head halfway in a barf bag as taxi driver Trejo (Anaconda) cluelessly rambles off a list of stomach-churning local delicacies while the carsick boy upchucks loudly in the backseat. Not that his parents are paying much attention. Carly (Autumn Reeser, Sully) can only think about the child she lost while Andrew (Antonio Cupo) just wants to know when Carly will be ready to make another baby. Clearly, this couple needs a vacation to mend what is broken in their relationship, but they’ve chosen the wrong destination to start that process. (Once Madrazo starts acting for real you realize maybe sticking to the vomit pouch is better for him.)
Arriving at a gargantuan estate tended to by Veronica (Angélica Lara, acting circles around the rest of the cast), no one even unpacks before Danny has been lured into the back pond by the ghost of a woman that lived there long ago. There’s a story to go along with her tragic end but why spoil Lara’s pivotal scene, the only believably conveyed dramatics in the entire picture? Before long, Danny is missing, having been taken by La Llorona and Carly has to find the strength to take on the lady ghost if she wants her son back. There’s several unnecessary side plots involving thugs and gangs roaming around which interfere with the core action, only padding what is already too long and too recycled a storyline.
What The Legend of La Llorona struggles with the most is an overall sense of clumsiness and an impression that no one involved, least of all director Patricia Harris Seeley, really believed in the horror film they were making. Reeser and Cupo are veterans of Canadian-produced holiday films for Hallmark and similarly themed pictures, and it shows in the scenes where they are called to do anything other than cast misty-eyed looks at one another. Some of the Mexican characters are painted with a broad brush, leaving Trejo to get locked and loaded with shifting allegiances that lead to his aforementioned target practice with La Llorona. This scene is fairly hysterical because it just looks like we’re watching Trejo play a video game, every time he “hits” the “ghost” the specter gives a ghoulish grimace and disappears. I kept expecting to see +100 appear in the sky somewhere.
Ever since the success of The Conjuring spin-off The Curse of La Llorona and then the 2019 film La Llorona from Guatemala which very nearly landed an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature, cheap-o productions featuring the figure from Latin American folklore have been popping left and right. All are aiming for the easy scare with nothing to back them up from an emotional storytelling point of view and The Legend of La Llorona is no different. Brandishing the kind of fake-out marketing which will most likely trick a number of viewers into a watch, it’s a shame this one didn’t have more performances like Lara as the housekeeper. It’s not a perfectly formed creation but it’s filled out with the right amount of paranoia that would accompany a town haunted by a legend that couldn’t be real…or could it?
Synopsis: A prominent mystery writer and crime expert hurries back to her family home when her sister is killed and her double life as a webcam performer is revealed, ignoring the warnings of cool-headed detective and getting involved in the case.
Stars: Alyssa Milano, Sam Page, Malachi Weir, Emilie Ullerup, Matthew Finlan, Colleen Wheeler, Lossen Chambers
Director: Monika Mitchell
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: We’re ever so slightly into January but I can’t quite shake the cozy comfort of one of my favorite seasons of the year…and it’s not Christmas. No, it’s the cycle of holiday movies produced en masse for television by a growing number of networks and streaming services, aiming to pummel their target audiences with enough easy to digest 90-minute treats to fill a Santa-size stocking. Like a greedy kid in a small-town candy store about to go under but saved at the last minute by a hard-working single gal from the big city, I always go a little overboard in gathering my selections each year, finding that my time is more limited than I would like to get through them all. So, it’s around now when I start to gradually remove myself from these holiday affairs and get back to the reality of films where icicles can be used as weapons, not decorations.
Luckily, every now and then a movie like Brazen comes along and it’s a nice blending of both worlds that helps me ease my way back into the swing of things. There’s a feeling of familiar efficiency to suggest this adaptation of a popular Nora Roberts mystery novel from 1988 was produced quickly, with experienced director Monika Mitchell (The Knight Before Christmas) casting dependable actors well-versed in the one take turnaround to guarantee deadlines are met. It also hits the right notes in being just scandalous enough to make a younger viewer wish it went further but keep watching to see if it does and an older viewer to think it goes as far as necessary but secretly wanting just a small flash of flesh.
Celebrated mystery writer Grace Miller is riding high on the success of her latest novel when her estranged sister (Emilie Ullerup) calls, asking that she visit. Dropping everything and expecting to find her sister in serious trouble, she instead finds her younger sibling holding down a job as a schoolteacher at a prominent school and attempting to get her son back from her well-connected and wealthy ex. Within days, however, her sister is found slain and her double life as a webcam model is exposed, sending Grace into a tailspin as she works with the detective living next door (Sam Page) to find the killer…a killer that continues to strike.
I was surprised to find that the novel Brazen is based off of was nearly 34 years old because it’s made it to the screen without much alteration if I’m reading the synopsis correctly. Yes, it often comes off as a lengthier and better produced episode of a crime drama you’d see on network TV, but at the same time that’s selling short the work that Milano and Page are doing with the material. It’s standard-fare mystery-solving, with a number of red herrings and the typical fingers pointed at the most obvious (read: slovenly or repulsively creepy) characters, but the two leads believe in the material enough that you can’t help but take them as seriously as they are taking it. How Grace manages to make her way into the investigation is a stretch by any tinkering of plot mechanics, but the way Milano pitches it, I might have been convinced to let her take over the case as well.
For a film that largely has to do with webcam modeling, it’s quite chaste…like so many movies that take place at strip clubs where all the dancers are wearing bras and underwear. It’s just another way the film simply wants to remain neutral. Not aiming to upset anyone (save for the more conservative Roberts fans that bristled at the casting of the dependably outspoken Milano in a leading role), Brazen is a harmless 96-minute weeknight watch that leaves the door open for a sequel. While I can’t find any info that Roberts herself continued this character in future novels, I’d imagine the team of writers who brought Brazen to Netflix could come up with another case to solve that would check the same boxes. There’s a real lack of this kind of entertainment on the streaming site and if they were all made with such awareness of who they are all showing up for, why not throw some money at them and make a few more?
Synopsis: Twenty-five years after a streak of brutal murders shocked the quiet town of Woodsboro, a new killer has donned the Ghostface mask and begins targeting a group of teenagers to resurrect secrets from the town’s deadly past.
Stars: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jack Quaid, Mikey Madison, Dylan Minnette, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Sonia Ammar, Marley Shelton, Kyle Gallner, Reggie Conquest, Chester Tam, Roger L. Jackson
Review: “What’s your favorite scary movie?” may now be a cultural touchstone phrase forever related to the classic film Scream, but it’s always been a litmus test to see where the person being asked falls on the scale of horror fandom. If the answer is a deep cut, something from the Italian Giallo master Dario Argento or French cult vampire director Jean Rollin, you know you’re dealing with someone that has ventured further than the confines of their neighborhood video store. Answering with a more commercially minded offering like a Friday the 13th or a Halloween tells you you’re in the presence of a person that doesn’t mind some blood, gore, and jump scares. Get a response from a Frankenstein fraidy-cat and you may want to reconsider suggesting anything stronger than a black and white Universal classic.
For many, the answer to the question posed by the killer to Drew Barrymore’s doomed character in 1996 is, in fact, the very movie that asked it to begin with. Scream opened to soft business in Christmas only to grow into a word-of-mouth hit, so much so that by the time the enjoyable sequel was released in 1997 both films had the distinction of being 1997’s top earners. Fans of the franchise are legion, and after two more sequels (one in 2000 and the last one in 2011) it has amassed a devoted base that can and have spent much time arguing over the official order of quality, though you’d be hard pressed to find a list that doesn’t put the one that started it all in the prime spot. For the record, I’m a 1, 2, 4, 3.
Though the title lived on in television under the guise of an MTV scripted series with no ties to the original cast or setting, the first two seasons attempted to tell a continuing tale before killing off much of its YA cast. I didn’t even bother with the third, standalone season, and from what I’ve heard that was for the best. After the success of the continuation of Halloween in 2018, it still was a surprise when it was announced in March 2020 that Radio Silence, a filmmaking collective which found success in indie horror before making a snazzy showing in 2019]’s impressive Ready or Not, would direct and executive produce a fifth Scream movie incorporating original cast members with a new group of teens stalked by a vengeance-seeking killer. As a dedicated fan of the films and the franchise in general (not to mention a number of the previous films Radio Silence has produced), I was thrilled for another gathering of my favorite cast members and a return to the whodunit slasher film that I have a true fondness for.
Needless to say, as we move forward into the meat of the movie, this is a spoiler-free zone. Aside from watching the first trailer for the movie the day it was released, I haven’t watched any other marketing for the film so can’t say what may be in the previews that could be a potential spoiler…but I won’t be giving away anything that could ruin your experience.
Well…maybe one thing. And that’s my feeling toward the finished movie. Surprising myself, I left the theater after my screening of Scream (which, it should be strongly stated, is Scream 5, no matter how the filmmakers and studio try to spin it) sort of aghast at how much against it I felt. The more I heard how many people did like it, the more I was wondering if I just saw something different or my tastes had changed…but this was almost directly after gleefully binge-watching the previous four films. Delivering on the “goods” if you will (read: killings, blood, and guts) but shortchanging fans that know their Woodsboro ins and outs with a number of discrepancies and head scratching choices, the screenplay from James Vanderbilt (White House Down) and Guy Busick attempts to make connections to the past at the outset but abandons its own efforts by the messy end. Worse, the film suffers from a strong case of the unlikeables, characters and cast members that either don’t appear long enough to create much of an impression before they’re sliced or grate on the nerves to the point where you feel like paging Ghostface stat to get on with the show.
It’s been twenty-five years since the original murder spree changed the sleepy town of Woodsboro forever. The survivors of the attack a generation ago have encountered several copycat slayings over the subsequent years but for the last decade there has been a peaceful silence which has allowed lives to be led without much fear. Then Tara (Jenna Ortega, Insidious: Chapter 2) gets a phone call while alone in her house and hears a voice familiar to us but unfamiliar to her. Remember, Stab (the movie within Scream 2 based off of the events in Scream 1) came out over two decades before and its sequels have long since fizzled out. Poor Tara should have stayed up to date on her old-school horror trivia because things don’t go well for her when quizzed on her knowledge of Stab and Woodsboro’s sordid history.
Hearing the news about her sister from a town far outside of Woodsboro, Sam (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights) returns with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, Rampage) just as secrets from her family’s past and a clever killer targeting those with ties to the 1996 murder spree emerge from the shadows. Teaming up with Tara’s friends, among them Amber (Mikey Madison, It Takes Three), twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sound of Violence) and Chad (Mason Gooding, Booksmart) and Wes (Dylan Minnette, Prisoners), Sam and Richie eventually realize they’ll need the help of the remaining few who’ve experienced this before if they have any hope of surviving the game plan of a killer (or killers?) always several steps ahead of them. Enter Dewey, Gale, and Sidney.
To say the film feels lighter the moment even one of the legacy cast members is on screen is an understatement. Originally meant to be killed off in the first film and then set to die in the sequel, original director of the first four films Wes Craven and his producing partners had such a strong reaction to David Arquette’s (You Cannot Kill David Arquette) portrayal of Deputy Dewey Riley (not to mention his popularity with fans) that they made sure to shoot endings where he lived. And you’ll be especially glad he did because his presence in this entry is so useful, bringing not only that trademark goofiness to the role but an emotional sweetness that has always defined the role and made it unmistakably his. Noticeably absent for much of the film are Courtney Cox (Masters of the Universe) and Neve Campbell (Skyscraper), but they’re like that time Madonna made all of us at her concert wait two hours after the opening act before she went on. By the time she showed up, we were more than antsy but when she did…it was completely worth it. Same goes here and not only do Cox and Campbell fit right back into their characters like no time has passed, they highlight the biggest problem with the movie for me. The acting.
I’m not sure what’s up with this cast but I think each and every one of them I’ve seen and liked far better in other projects. Here, it’s like no one was acting in the same movie or playing off of one another to any winning effect. It’s never more evident than with Barrera who has some of the strangest line readings, coming off as emotionless when the scene calls for drama and often absent as strong support for those she is acting opposite. I felt for Ortega who is acting her face off, performing the role like it’s the last thing she’ll ever do. I wish the performance (which, to be clear, is solid) was in a different movie she was headlining. Brown is another standout, finding herself a nice match for the dialogue which has some hints at original scribe Kevin Williamson’s quick meta banter but never reaches that same smirking bar which made Williamson’s screenplays, for lack of a better word, iconic.
Which brings me to another low-ish point. Vanderbilt and Busick don’t have Williamson’s knack for snappy phrasing, relying much more on accessing the characters F-Bomb portal than having them volley back-and-forth. While Brown gets those nice moments to explain the rules surrounding a ‘requel’, too many references are made to fifth entries not living up to their potential, being ill-advised, not being titled correctly, etc…. basically heading off all the naysayers at the pass and beating the critics to their punches. In that way, the script starts to feel like it’s apologizing for itself instead of creating its own playing field. A few missed opportunities along the way exist, making you wonder if there wasn’t more to the story that was left on the cutting room floor or if the screenwriters are saving something for potential sequel routes.
Perhaps you can tie some of it back to that Wes Craven touch which guided those first four films. Dying of brain cancer in 2015, Craven was never going to be a part of this new film and while no one is claiming the previous sequels to be flawless (let’s face it, as fun as Scream 3 was, it was also silly and falling apart at the seams) or that Craven was a can’t miss director, he set the look and feel of the franchise from the start…down to Marco Beltrami’s score which I was also sad to see wasn’t back. Yet…you just can’t divest yourself from feeling that if directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett were attempting to honor Craven they would have displayed some of his knack for spotting acting talent on the cusp of greatness. Going into more details is definitely tipping the scale toward spoilers…but we can chat after you’ve seen it and I can explain more.
I’m disappointed for myself that I didn’t like the movie a little more than I did. This isn’t about living in any kind of past because onward we must travel, especially if we want the things we hold dear to continue to thrive. Personally, I hope this Scream makes huge bucks (all signs point to a big YES in that department) and more films in a similar vein are made. I would ask, please, that the same kind of focus is put on the key pieces that elevate a movie to classic status though. The original cast and script of 1996’s Scream simply can’t be beat, even all these years later. I can’t say the same for this continuation…but trust me, I wanted to.
Synopsis: When a top-secret weapon falls into mercenary hands, a wild card CIA agent joins forces with three international agents on a lethal mission to retrieve it, while staying a step ahead of a mysterious woman who’s tracking their every move.
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramírez
Director: Simon Kinberg
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: Back in those free-wheeling pre-pandemic days, it was a lot easier to track the ebb and flow of a movie season. Coming into the new year, all the studios had put their might behind the films they hoped could snag an award or two so January was a common “dumping ground” for their less than desirables, a wasteland of also-rans where they could offload a turkey that was beginning to mold or take something off the shelf which had been gathering conspicuous dust. Now, however, when films have been delayed due to multiple release date shifts, it’s getting harder to know what is truly a movie in trouble or one just caught in the crosshairs of a global health crisis affecting the entertainment industry.
When marketing for the spy thriller The 355 kicked back up again recently, I vaguely remember seeing early trailers for it well over a year ago and having my interest pinged because of the international cast assembled by Universal Studios. No dummies to foreign distribution and marketing, the film boasted top talent (if not exactly mega-watt superstars who guaranteed blockbuster opening weekends) that held smart appeal teaming up for an ensemble adventure which felt like Jason Bourne meets Oceans Eight in execution. Swallowed up by a number of moves on its way to opening, it’s only now being released nearly a year after originally scheduled and while I would love to report it’s one of those good movies with bad timing, it’s a cringe-y outing for a number of likable actresses attempting to act smart through a pretty dumb film.
A deadly device has been created that, when activated, can tap into the electronics of any system in the world and take control. Whole cities can be shut-down, airplanes can be crashed, you name it. Obviously, it’s a weapon every bad guy or gal would want to get their hands on and luckily there’s only one of them in the world and conveniently there’s only one person who knows how to make it. The opening finds DNI agent Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez, Point Break) locating the mechanism and its creator before it can fall into the wrong hands but not before the CIA is alerted to his location. Sending their two best agents Mace Brown (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastain Stan, I, Tonya) to broker a deal with Rojas in Paris, the plan goes haywire thanks to German agent Marie (Diane Kruger, Welcome to Marwen) intervening, sending a number of standard plot mechanics into motion across a global playing field.
I won’t spoil the details of just how Oscar-winning stars Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther) and Penélope Cruz (Pain & Glory) enter the picture, but both feel miscast in roles that don’t quite suit them. Take Nyong’o, as a former MI6 agent who tells one character that she is a top computer specialist who is the best in the world as what she does when listing her achievements and then within minutes is telling the same person she can’t crack the code on a locked iPhone. Cruz may have it a little worse, spending most of the movie either whimpering that she “doesn’t want to be here” (join the club) or wearing one of The 355’s 355 questionable wigs. Both actresses are better than this and by the time the movie realizes it is underserving the Academy Award winning stars, it’s too late to fix it. (And it does it in a shamefully gross way involving the type of violence only a studio forced rewrite could have asked for.)
Born from a desire Oscar-nominated star Chastian (Lawless) had to create a female-driven spy franchise to rival the likes of James Bond or a modern-day Mission: Impossible, The 355 (a reference to the codename of an unidentified female spy who fought for the Patriots during the American Revolution) was written by playwright Theresa Rebeck who’s previous known-for was the TV series Smash. The musical TV series Smash. Now listen, I’m not saying Rebeck is perhaps a bit underqualified for the type of dynamic writing a film in this genre requires but the entire endeavor pretends like the audience has never seen a film involving espionage before. Double crosses are introduced as if we can’t see them coming from a mile away and romantic or familial entanglements are awkwardly asked to take center stage at inopportune times. Truthfully, it plays like a bad pilot episode of a show for television…and with a PG-13 rating that prevents much bloodletting or violence it’s not even cable television but something from the NBC Wednesday Night line-up.
Directed by Simon Kinberg who was also behind the fantastically reviled X-Men: Dark Phoenix (which I will still stand-by as not nearly as bad as people said it was), the action sequences are so goofy looking at times it feels like it was created by the studio photo editor based on what would look good in a promo shot. There’s nothing special about any of the heavily choreographed fights and early on they start to blend together. Even the more strident stunt sequences don’t appear ground-breaking, they just look painful. Keep your eyes open for Chastain jumping from a crane to a shipping crate. She (or, rather, her stunt double) hits the side of the crate so hard all I could think about for the rest of the movie were how many ribs were totally shattered as a result. It almost feels like this is the fifth film in a franchise because so little effort has been put into making The 355 stand out in any way from others in its field. I think it’s admirable Chastain talks the talk and walks the walk in work she has faith in (her performance in The Eyes of Tammy Faye in 2021 was really incredible, another project that came about based on her interest) but if the end result is something as lackluster as this, it tends to diminish the original intention.
As quickly as 2021 began, it feels like I was gearing up to write another year-end recap – time truly does fly. It was a busy year, though! In addition to a renewed stream of movies released in theaters, there continued to be a nice supply of indie features and hidden gems that appeared in my inbox – an ongoing bounty from the pandemic that I am eternally grateful for. While some studios that were so wonderful (and, frankly desperate) for support during those hard times sadly turned their backs on smaller reviewers – from the bottom of my screening soul I thank those that didn’t forget us when things began opening up again.
I also want to give a shout out to all of those studios that kept offering options to see films either at home or in theaters. Some movies are just meant to see on the big screen while most are arguably able to get by with an at home link. Having the option, especially in an environment that continues to be in flux, shows signs of an industry that puts health and safety first.
Again, I saw far more movies at home than in theaters, but I tried to make the big screen showings count as much as possible. I also found that I watched a number of movies more than once this year – something I rarely do in such short order. Continuing on with reviews and screenings of smaller titles helps me stay grounded/rounded and even with a few setbacks that knocked me off my game for a few weeks (who needs a gallbladder anyway, right?) I kept on giving you more than just your regular blockbuster or reviews that paid lip service to popular entertainment. I hope you continue to check out these titles that may be further off the radar than you are used to.
Festivals! How could I forget! A goal this year was to increase attendance at film festivals and wow did I luck out with invites to several key events that opened my eyes to a completely new side of the business. Attending these (virtually) not only allowed me to widen my movie vocabulary exponentially but it helped me hone my writing as well, something I’m always looking to tweak. It raised my numbers of overall movies watched and wound up giving me the excuse to add another category to my year end wrap up below…a Best of the Fest. Check these out for movies to watch for in 2022 (or later!)
In closing, I’ll return to the challenge I give my fellow critics every year…“I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release.” I’m going to triple down on this again in 2022 because I think more of you can take this on. Keep seeking out these smaller films and give indie filmmakers some exposure. At the same time, acknowledge your fellow critics as well who do good work, tip you off to certain films, and support you throughout the year. Off the top of my head, I’m always looking to Brian Orndorf, Tim Lammers, and Jared Huzinga to see what they’ve been watching and The Minnesota Film Critics Alliance is worth a peek as well for another roster of critics doing their thing. This year, I’m adding Peggy at the Movies and Guy at the Movies to my list of can’t stop/won’t stop reviewers that are dedicated to writing reviews almost daily and regularly stay flexible to seeing a wide range of film genres. Give credit where credit is due!
This is the 10th year of this blog (wow!) and it goes without saying that I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence over time. Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot. The number of readers and subscribers grow, the followers increase, the likes go up — it’s great to see!
Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!
~Joe (The MN Movie Man)
5. The Night House – I’ll be honest, I was a little surprised myself to select this one for top tier status, but The Night House is a film that’s stuck with me longer than most movies I saw in 2021. It’s also a quality example of a screener I watched twice at home in the already short viewing window…which should only highlight how impactful this creepy tale of a wife coping with the sudden death of her husband at their lakeside home is. That it’s about something more than what you think it is makes it that much more fun to dissect on a second viewing, recognizing the intricate ways director David Bruckner, screenwriters Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski, and most especially star Rebecca Hall have built this fragile house. Come for the scares but stay for the message that comes with them.
4. tick, tick…BOOM! – This die-hard RENT-head was way skeptical a film version of the late playwright Jonathan Larson’s lesser known work could make it as a Netflix musical under the direction of Lin-Manuel Miranda but sheesh, was I ever wrong! Cleverly re-orchestrated to tie the off-Broadway musical’s storyline even closer to Larson’s own life story, star Andrew Garfield delivered the single best film performance of the year in a role that should earn him an Oscar. The emotions this one raised were through the roof and while it had numerous surprises throughout (that diner scene!) the biggest one was how timeless the music feels even today.
3. The Green Knight – I came so close to missing the boat on this one and I’m so glad I got it in under the buzzer because I surely would have had to add it to my best of the year list whenever I did get around to seeing director David Lowery’s gorgeous take on the Arthurian tale of Sir Gaiwan and his encounter with The Green Knight, conjured by his own mother as a test of bravery. I was so taken with the way the story developed episodically yet maintained a smooth flow of energy throughout. Performances were solid and from a technical standpoint few movies came even close to achieving the same caliber of execution in production design and costume. It’s one of several movies from 2021 I would classify as not to be missed under any circumstances.
2. C’mon C’mon – Admittedly, while I found Joaquin Phoenix’s actual performance in 2019’s Joker to be worthy of the Best Actor that he won, the film itself left a terrible taste in my mouth I wasn’t sure I’d ever be rid of. Following up that dark journey with this tender movie by Mike Mills, Phoenix delivers an even better showcase of what he is capable of doing. I wish we were living in a time when more people were venturing out to the movies because I think a film as simple and heartfelt as C’mon C’mon would speak to a lot of viewers out there that feel overwhelmed at life, underwhelmed at how they are valued, and anyone seeking to matter to someone else in a small way. Featuring a fabulous turn by former child star Gaby Hoffman as mother to the brilliant newcomer Woody Norman, I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this film unchanged.
1. West Side Story – You only need to do a quick search of the films I saw in the theater to get an idea of why this might have topped my list. I don’t even remember the last time I saw a movie four times in its initial run but Steven Spielberg’s remake of the Best Picture from 1961 is about as fantastic a reason as any…and I’d see it more if I could. The big screen is honestly what this version calls for, with Tony Kushner’s carefully rethought screenplay giving more voice to the minority characters and fleshing out what had been in the past perhaps less obvious or too thin. It doesn’t alter anything drastically, nor does it set out to. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s music soars through the theater and hits the right nerves, while Spielberg and cinematographer Januz Kaminski provide extraordinary visuals, the likes of which musicals haven’t been afforded in years. It blew me away as much the fourth time as it did the first time. Many tears have been shed by me watching it and I expect it to be that way each time I watch it in the future. It’s not just my favorite movie of 2021, it’s a new all-time favorite that I would count among one of the highest accomplishments in the careers of all involved. Yes, it’s a remake, but it’s so stupendously entertaining that by the end it won’t matter what came before or after. This is singular.
5. Red Notice/SAS: Red Notice – With movies as bland and forgettable as these two, having them boast similar titles made combining them for recognition as worst of the year that much easier. Maybe Red Notice is the worse of the two because it has three A-list stars, charming by all accounts, barely awake through a routine heist thriller which isn’t ever compelled to color outside the lines. Or perhaps it’s SAS: Red Notice, a badly made and overly long chunk of cheese with mediocre stars that shows occasional signs of life but ultimately can’t drum up enough interest for anyone, least of all viewers, to care. Either way, early on in both movies I was ready to wave the white flag.
4. Cinderella (2021) / Dear Evan Hansen – In large part, musicals did well this past year (see the Best of above) but when they hit the wrong notes, oh were they ever sour! Take these two ill-advised ones from the class of 2021, both earning more laughs than applause. If you didn’t know Camila Cabello could sing before watching her as the title character in Cinderella, you might be wondering what the big deal was because the pop star is all over the vocal map warbling out a number of oddly chosen contemporary songs roughly shoehorned into the plot. Highly advertised Billy Porter as the Fabulous Godmother is barely in the film while there’s too much of people we don’t want to hear sing, like Pierce Brosnan and James Corden. If there’s one thing positive to say about Dear Evan Hansen, it’s that there are more decent singers in it, but the core plot is so flawed to begin with that it was always going to face an uphill climb. While star Ben Platt has already been skewered enough by commentators far better than I (like this brilliant and fair deconstruction), it must be said that the total cluelessness of the actor and filmmakers to how ridiculous the performance would be is a sign that no one was tending the shop. At least Julianne Moore’s speak-singing works better than it could have.
3. Midnight in the Switchgrass – With an astounding NINE movies released in 2021, several critics have filled almost their entire “Worst of” list with Bruce Willis movies this year but thankfully I only endured one of them…and it easily made my list. Willis barely registers as alert in this dreadful serial killer “thriller” that also features Megan Fox (who otherwise had a nice year flying solo in Till Death). Several odious storylines are brought together in director Randall Emmett’s bargain-basement production and if you wondered what it would be like to see Fox and Machine Gun Kelly in a sleazy hotel room together, look no further. Notable for Willis being sedentary for most of his scenes and for one big ‘ole slice of turd pie where he and Fox sit across from each other in a diner and trade F-bombs for several minutes. David Mamet, this ain’t.
2. Home Sweet Home Alone – it’s one thing to have the cojones to use the tagline “Holiday classics were meant to be broken” because you’re drawing a line in the sand which I respect even though I hate it at the same time. At least the screenwriters got the finished film somewhere in the ballpark because this, I don’t even know what you’d call it, “reboquel?”, is a broken-down pile of reindeer droppings masquerading as holiday entertainment. More about the married dunderheads trying to break into the mansion where a young boy has been left behind by his family, it’s like everyone involved forgot what made the original Home Alone so charming. No one wants to watch a movie about the burglars. Especially one that’s so very badly made as this one. It’s total rubbish.
1. Vanquish – As bad as all of the movies I’ve mentioned above and as moderately disappointing as the Dis(Honorable) Mentions below, nothing came close to how bad Vanquish was. Defying belief, I may have seen “worse” movies over the course of this past year but considering the studio that released this trash and the fact that it had a modicum of talented individuals involved…it turning out so insufferably stupid is almost a miracle in a way. Morgan Freeman (THE Morgan Freeman) is the Chief Stink-a-roo in this mess, followed by Ruby Rose as a woman dragged back into a life of violence in order to save her daughter. It’s morally vacuous, technically banal, and the minutes you spend watching it are ones you’ll never EVER get back…just remember that I warned you.
6. Hit the Road / Great Freedom (57th Chicago International Film Festival) – My first festival from 2020, it was fun to return to the CIFF in 2021 and catch another round of well-curated selections. My favorites were this family road dramedy and a film about a man serving time in a German prison over a number of years for being gay. Hit the Road was from Iran and featured a terrific multi-generational cast that was alternately hysterical and moving as they headed toward a destination that will change all of their lives forever. Great Freedom is one I think we’ll hear more about as the Oscars come up. It’s hard to watch (as most movies depicting violent prison life are) and has genuinely transformative performance from Franz Rogowski.
5. Porcupine (Nashville Film Festival 2021) – I’ve sort of grown up watching Jena Malone and felt that she never truly got her due as a lead in movies. Don’t get me wrong, she routinely knocks it out of the park any time she shows up and any film she’s in is the better for it…but I wanted to see her get the recognition of a lead. That comes with Porcupine, a bittersweet film about a woman without ties who seeks out a family she can be a part of. It’s a film that is as surprising as Malone’s sensitive performance.
4. The Daphne Project (2021 Bentonville Film Festival) – As a lifelong theater nerd and semi-retired stage actor, I know people like the character Zora Iman Crews is playing in The Daphne Project. Styled like a mockumentary around a self-obsessed actress as she takes over a very off-Broadway production of a Greek tragedy, Crews and her co-director/co-writer Alec Tibaldi sustain the laughs long enough to make you want to see more Daphne adventures in the future. True laugh-out-loud moments were hard to come by in 2021 but Crews and Tibaldi gave lucky festival views a huge supply.
3. Nr. 10 / She Will / The Execution (Fantastic Fest 2021) – Three excellent films that I can barely talk about because the more you know going in, the less surprises you’ll get to experience on your own. Just know that with Nr. 10, you’ll never in a million years (maybe a billion) guess where the film is headed based on how it begins. That it’s so entertaining on both ends says something about the writing and directing. Alice Krige has been a long-time favorite of mine and she gets a dandy lead in She Will as an actress recovering from cancer-surgery at a secluded retreat. While there, she begins to experience a strange new power in her dreams, a power that gives her control over those that have wronged her. Already vengeful in nature while awake, what will she do with this new power in her sleep? The Execution may be slightly overlong, but it takes its time with its story of a police detective tracking a serial killer in multiple timelines. It’s one you have to pay attention to visually, made slightly more cumbersome with the subtitles, because the pieces fit together perfectly…but miss one and it may become a head-scratcher.
2. All the Moons / Hellbender (2021 Fantasia International Film Festival) – Two beautifully made films about young women coming into their gifts. All the Moons is just a dandy treat and one that will definitely get a red-carpet rollout befitting this vampire tale set in the 19th century. Often more concerned with human emotion instead of violence and death, it doesn’t skimp on the scares either. Made by an entire family of talented filmmakers, Hellbender finds a mother-daughter duo living off the grid and sustained by the forest who run into trouble after the daughter taps into her primal instincts after getting a taste for meat. Not the first film from the Adams family but certainly a new high bar, especially from Toby Poser as the “cool mom” harboring a dark secret.
1. The Novice / Catch the Fair One (Tribeca Film Festival) – Either one of these movies could have been on my Top 5 of the year list and it’s largely because of that I had to create this special category. Both certainly have the two best female performances of the year and if there were any justice, Isabelle Fuhrman would land and Oscar nomination for her Black Swan-ish work in The Novice as a college rowing student obsessed with being the best at all costs. Her acting, along with Lauren Hadaway’s skilled direction, are unforgettable. Champion boxer Kali Reis makes a lighting strike debut providing the story for Josef Kubota Wladyka’s dangerous thriller Catch the Fair One, finding Reis seeking out her missing sister and punishing anyone along the way that has had a hand in her disappearance. Both roles are soul-bearing spectacles, delivered with sincerity…and in films that back them up wonderfully.
Most Misunderstood: Last Night in Soho – director Edgar Wright’s trippy horror film found its way onto a surprising amount of Top 10 lists, especially considering how many reviewers commented at how slack the third act was. This barely missed the cutoff for my favorite films as well but thought it worked better here, only because I was shocked at the hate directed toward it for something so trivial as a commercially minded dénouement that made perfect sense within the world Wright created. It looked great, was spooky, and has decent replay value. I have a feeling this is one that will gain in popularity over the years and even those that picked it apart will come around to its accomplished creative energy. Honorable Mention: Prisoners of the Ghostland– For star Nicolas Cage to call this this “The wildest movie I’ve ever made” has to say something about this post-apocalyptic fantasy that’s ultra-violent and campy (with several performances that are legit terrible) but which works far more than it fails. It only gains steam as it chugs along and builds to a climax that it earns. Not for the faint of heart or spirit but fully in line with Cage and his fan club.
Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2021 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Pig – The number of ways this could have gone wrong…I just can’t even tell you. Yet Pig was an example of why it’s so good to go into a movie with as little knowledge and expectation as possible. Even those thinking they knew what would develop halfway through the film would be surprised at how it turns out and who would have predicted the performance Nicolas Cage would give? When it was released, I was convinced Cage was on his way back to the Academy Awards to surely pick up his prize. Unless a miracle happens, that won’t be the case but it doesn’t diminish the phenomenal work being done here or the overall impact of the movie, which sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. Honorable Mention: Wrong Turn (2021) – updates/remakes/reboots are just so hit or miss, I had no reason to believe that Mike P. Nelson’s fresh take on the long-running Wrong Turn franchise would be anything but a dry rehash of the numerous sequels that had diluted the mythology. Well, turns out Nelson had a solid film ready to go with its own set of rules that effectively added energy back to title that was gasping for life. Pay attention to this director and what’s coming next.
Two Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should: Golden ArmandThe Empty Man– The two movies I’m mentioning here couldn’t be more different but I am cheating here so I can talk about them both briefly. Golden Arm is a female buddy movie about arm wrestling that got the briefest of releases and is bound to (hopefully) be discovered on streaming services down the line as the hidden gem we all slept on. I didn’t – I knew it was a winner when I first saw it! When the thriller The Empty Man debuted in theaters, no one was interested in seeing an overlong horror film that asked people to think as well as scream…but they missed the opportunity for a severely scary tale that manages to be a rare example of a fright flick that gets more terrifying as it goes on. Great cinematography and a solid lead performance from James Badge Dale only gives greater street cred to this one that’s routinely buried deep in the horror queues of your favorite service.
Others to Consider: Some of these are titles released in 2021, some are films I saw for the first time in 2021, some are titles I revisited in 2021 — all are worth a look but didn’t quite fit into any other category above!
All that Jazz Broadway Danny Rose Class of 1984 Dead of Night (1945) Doc Hollywood Dog Day Afternoon Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead Dragonslayer Green Card Imitation of Life (1959) Knight Moves Magnificent Obsession (1954) Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Mystic Pizza On Golden Pond Ordinary People Pollyanna (1955) Pride & Prejudice (2005) Razorback Rolling Thunder Room for One More The American President The Family Stone The Father (2021) The Joy Luck Club The Mole Agent
Click HEREfor a full listing of films seen in 2021 Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 29 Total Movies Seen at Home: 627 Grand Total for 2021 (not counting films seen multiple times): 656 Where I Saw the Most Movies – At home!
Synopsis: Finding himself down and out in Los Angeles, ex porn star Mikey Saber decides to crawl back to his hometown of Texas City, Texas, where his estranged wife and mother-in-law are living.
Stars: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, Brittany Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone, Marlon Lambert
Director: Sean Baker
Running Length: 130 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Of all the former MTV VJs that would be thought of to get a big comeback story, I never would have considered Simon Rex would be the name that would be on the top of the list for many. I mean, I’m someone that would be interested in seeing a late career revamp for the likes of Daisy Fuentes, Karen Duffy, Mark Goodman, Ananda Lewis, or my personal favorite…Julie Brown (not the Downtown one). Yet here we are, talking once again about Rex almost 25 years after his stint on MTV came to an end and a number of years after his short stint in feature films fizzled out. Though Rex was never a top tier talent, he skated by largely on his good looks and that extreme likability factor which made him such a prime choice for the music video channel that even then was sparking onto profiting off of the engagement to specific demographics.
Of course, what many people instantly think of (at least from the generation that were teenagers/young adults around 1996/1997 and paid attention) when they hear the name Simon Rex is the infamy he achieved when it was discovered that before he landed the MTV gig he had a brief fling in the adult film industry. Appearing in a handful of solo videos, Rex was one of the first “celebrity” adult videos that could be found on the new World Wide Web and believe me, it didn’t matter what your orientation was, at some point you encountered it. (Don’t deny it!) Miraculously, it didn’t derail his career like it certainly would have years earlier. Oddly, Rex perhaps got a bit of a boost from it, albeit briefly, and if it had happened ten years later he might have been able to pivot it into some kind of business deal if he had wanted to. Instead, he’s largely been showing up in low-budget junk films (Halloweed, anyone?) and, shudder, performing as the rapper Dirt Nasty with the rap group he formed, Dyslexic Speedreaders.
Thank goodness for Sean Baker, the ultra-indie writer/director of 2015’s breakthrough, filmed on an iPhone, Tangerine and 2017’s Oscar-lauded The Florida Project. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch thought of Rex when drafting Red Rocket, their new film about a washed-up porn star that high tails it out of Los Angeles and heads home to a small town in Texas. It’s not based on Rex’s life (this isn’t a Magic Mike-ish story like Channing Tatum), but it feels tailor-made to one Rex could have easily had if he hadn’t found his way to sets that didn’t require him to take his clothes off. Typical of Baker is a gleaming essence of small-town life, the feeling of an endless parade of days with the same schedule and no plans for anything but more of the same. Pair that unflinching honesty with Rex’s central performance as one of the unlikeliest leading men in all of 2021 and Red Rocket becomes a fascinating, if not entirely endorse-able watch.
Mikey Saber (Rex) hops off the bus from Los Angeles with a bruised face, body, and ego. Charming his way back into the tiny home of his mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss) and a wife (Bree Elrod) he’s been separated from for years, he convinces them to let him crash on the couch while he finds work and helps with their rent. Unable to find a job in the dying town (Texas City, TX) due to his adult entertainment past, he turns to the local pot dealer (Judy Hill) and her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez) to sell for them on the side. His ability to market ice to a penguin makes him a perfect candidate to move their product and it’s not long before he’s bringing in decent money through sales to strippers in neighboring towns and construction workers that frequent the donut shop he hangs out at.
Also at the donut shop is seventeen year old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a beautiful redhead that catches Mikey’s eye. While the two grow closer and his estrangement with his chain-smoking wife disintegrates further, he strikes up a friendship with the oddball next door who has an weird habit of being arrested for stolen valor (look it up) and being heavily influenced by peer pressure. Convinced Strawberry could be the next big thing in the business and sensing an opportunity to start life again and revitalize his career, Mikey makes plans to once again leave Texas behind…but the town that initially didn’t want him may not let him leave quite so easily.
What I continue to admire about Baker’s work is that it’s in your face cinema without feeling like it’s shoving things down your throat. Sure, Red Rocket is tremendously raunchy and contains numerous sex scenes featuring Rex and either Elrod and Son humping like jack rabbits and leaving little to the imagination but so much work has been done leading up to these scenes to instill a sense of realism to these people that they come across like humans and not just tools being moved around for the pleasure of the audience. It’s not “sexy” but it’s not NOT sexy. Does that make sense? To that end, if you’ve yet to see Rex’s famous appendage, you’ll get your chance several times during the 130-minute film, which is long and could be trimmed slightly (the movie, I mean.)
Where Red Rocket tended to lose me was the nearly 50-year-old Mikey seducing 17-year-old Strawberry and, let’s just say it, grooming her for a life in the adult industry in a way that felt manipulative and sleazy. Yes, I know that’s part of the intent in Baker and Bergoch’s screenplay, but the lines aren’t as clearly drawn as they could have been to truly make Mikey culpable for whatever damage is incurred to those around him. There’s another incident (that I won’t spoil) which occurs in relation to Mikey and it’s a fairly horrific event offscreen and we are asked to piece it together through newsclips and offhand conversations. Why alienate us further to a character already on the edge with us? It’s like Baker is daring us to judge someone more and more without giving him the ‘ole heave-ho…but at some point, you have to kick him to the curb.
It’s easier not to kick Mikey when he’s down (or even when he’s up) because Rex manages to keep us on Mikey’s side longer than we might have otherwise if someone else had taken the role. Sure, you can spot the con he’s spouting and the line he’s selling, most of those he comes in contact with can, but they let him get away with it because ultimately, he is only doing damage to himself. It’s when the damage spills over to others when battle lines are drawn and the film strays into darker territories. The small-town flavor of some of the other cast results in decidedly uneven performances but it makes not a lick of difference. Line deliveries are beyond questionable from some (one sounds like they are being fed their lines from off camera) but it only adds to their overall charm.
By and large, Red Rocket is an enjoyable endeavor and a real showcase for Rex to stage a comeback in a unique way. There’s a central joke to the movie and also to Rex which shows that both have a sense of humor and that’s just the beginning of the way in which Baker works with changing our perception of Rex as a one-dimension personality into considering him as a serious actor. It works more often than not and while I still didn’t care for much of the action in the final 1/3 of the film, that first seventy minutes or so is rip-roaringly good.
Synopsis: A professor’s seaside vacation takes a dark turn when her obsession with a young mother forces her to confront secrets from her past.
Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Running Length: 122 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: There’s something to be said for investing in a two-hour movie with a central character that’s hard to like. We’ve had to root for anti-heroes in a number of films in theaters and television over the years and it takes a certain type of character (and actor) to be able to pull of that fine tight-rope act of leaning into the unlikability of a persona but not overstep so far that you lose the audience. It’s the ultimate trust-fall test to bet the house that viewers will turn up to be attentive to (and even eventually root for) an individual that we might otherwise recoil from. Oscar-winner Olivia Colman has played brittle before and her success as Queen Elizabeth on The Crown has largely come from her ability to “staunch” like the best of them…so we already know she can win us over. What do you do when the movie as a whole is hard to like, though?
While I haven’t read the source novel on which The Lost Daughter was adapted from, it’s not very hard to see the literary bones and stumbling blocks in the structure of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s version. The actress, making her feature film directing debut as well as logging her first screenplay, takes Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel (which was translated from its original 2006 Italian version) and brings the psychological drama off the page with a fine cast of actors who struggle through a serpentine plot that gets more turned around on itself the longer it plays. Each time you feel momentum is gaining on plot or performance, a new element is introduced to distract and take you out of the energy the film was building. It creates a strong discord over time, eventually alienating the viewer almost entirely, giving a full pardon to us to let our minds wander. It’s a pity too, because the movie is chock full of dynamic actors dutifully delivering in their assigned roles.
Gyllenhaal (Batman Begins) opens The Lost Daughter with one of my least favorite plot devices: the flash forward/backward. (Ugh!) We see a brief glimpse of a time other than when most of the action takes place. Maybe it’s before, maybe it’s after but we’re soon with Leda (Colman, The Mitchells vs. The Machines) as she arrives at a Greek seaside village for a quiet holiday on her own. Single and with two adult children, she’s free to do as she pleases and at first it looks like that will be keeping her own schedule on the tranquil beach and flirting (badly) with the sea-salty landlord (Ed Harris, The Abyss) she meets on her first night.
The serenity doesn’t last long. Another family joins her at the beach, a large group that boisterously descends, or rather invades, the space and overtakes the area. Determined to keep her holiday on her terms and able to tune them out for the most part, it’s only when she refuses to relinquish her space to them that their orbits truly collide. It’s also when she notices Nina (Dakota Johnson, Our Friend), a young mother of a toddler that never gives her a moment of peace. Seeing this woman struggle to find some second to gather her thoughts acts as a trigger for Leda, drudging up memories of her own past when she was young (played by Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) and hoping to balance motherhood and her own dreams of status in the educated world.
It’s here that Gyllenhaal creates a fork in the road for viewers as well as a gap that continues to widen for the rest of the film. On the left is the older Leda who is there when Nina’s young daughter disappears briefly only to discover something else has been taken when she returns. A greater mystery is then uncovered, creating a creeping sense of dread that Leda’s safety is at risk from Nina, her shady husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Bly Manor), and their extended family…or is it the other way around and does Leda harbor a dark side that’s ready to swallow all of them up?
The second and, sadly, far less interesting fork is the one we’re continually pulled back to…that of the younger Leda’s life with her children who need their mother but are so clingy they begin to drive her away. Her need for attention turns into desire for validation and, not finding that at home, she looks to a more mature colleague (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) who provides that outlet for her. This section is meant to show why the older Leda acts the way she does but never fleshes out the history enough for us to have that full picture etched for us, or even halfway shaded in. Brief conversations in both timelines hint at Leda’s mother playing a part in her feeling unwanted and that transference easily passing through her to her children. Gyllenhaal never explores that, and it feels like a missed opportunity…for us and for the actresses who are more than capable of taking on those tricky corners of the heart.
While a beautiful name, those with knowledge of Greek mythology will pick up on the scholarly burden that comes with the name Leda who was the wife of a King when a most famous God took a liking to her. An unwilling bedmate (i.e. by force) to Zeus who masqueraded as a swan, the story goes that she wound up laying two eggs that hatched into children. It’s a thinly veiled metaphor for what the older Leda goes through, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find she gave herself that name – she often acts like such a martyr it would feel in line with the character.
Of course, it’s not Colman’s doing that she’s tasked with a most difficult through line to play and if anything works best about the movie, it’s her. Displaying her usual bravado in making risky choices that pay off, she isn’t afraid to go to awkward places in her acting or let uncomfortable silences linger longer than they have to. The scenes with Colman and Johnson are first rate, as is one scene early on between Colman and Dagmara Domińczyk (The Assistant), Nina’s cousin who has the initial run-in with Leda and attempts to make peace.
There’s a lot of buzz around Gyllenhaal’s screenplay and it’s a bit of a puzzlement for me. Any juggling of timelines is always looked on with favor but aside from a few admittedly knock-out scenes that appear to be building to something but amount to little more than a puff of smoke, there isn’t anything remarkable about the assemblage of The Lost Daughter. It’s the performances that stand out far more than the script or the direction, both of which are serviceable. This includes everything right up to the ending which could have been punctuated better to close out Gyllenhaal’s debut by finally finding its footing. Instead, it literally trips and falls without much fanfare.
Synopsis: Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men.
Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Ralph Ineson
Director: David Lowery
Running Length: 130 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: I grew up watching the 1963 Disney film The Sword and the Stone almost on a loop but have oddly kept much of Arthurian legend at a distance for most of my adult life. I’m not sure why I’ve avoided the sword and sorcery films to date, perhaps it’s the medieval setting and just seeing too much torture and carnage in cheap action/horror films over the years. Yet when I come across one of these films, I find that I’m definitely up for a nice battle between knights and a good (bad) witch or two and the bigger the production the better. That’s why I was so surprised that I let The Green Knight slip through my fingers in its initial release in July 2021 where it received a round of enthusiastic reviews.
Recently re-released into theaters timed to the Christmas holiday, I decided to give a blind-bought 4K UHD BluRay a spin to go with the spirit of the season and putting the disc into the player felt a bit like cracking open a gold-leafed copy of a well-told tale. Gorgeously conceived, tremendously performed, and beautifully told, The Green Knight is one of those films you stumble upon and then stumble out of, shaking your head in disbelief at just how wonderful it actually is. Often when I hear of these types of indie endeavors and how instantly cult-status-approved they become, I’m wary about giving them too much consideration. However, in this case all the ballyhoo and flag waving was well-earned – this is lighting in a bottle good stuff and as intricate in its design narratively as the costumes are in their fine details.
Take this as a litmus test. If you don’t get a little tingle anywhere in your body watching the first minute of the movie, a spooky, moody introducing of the tale of Sir Gawain, then perhaps you aren’t quite in the headspace for it that day. Only go forward once you feel the tingle. That way you can be prepped for the story of the impetuous Gaiwan (Dev Patel, The Personal History of David Copperfield) the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris, Macbeth) who has lived his life unimpeded until the day his mother (Sarita Choudhury, Evil Eye) conjures the titular character. When the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, The Tragedy of Macbeth) arrives in Camelot and challenges the Knights of the Round Table to a daunting task of bravery, it is Gaiwan who steps up and faces the magical Knight. Tasked with reuniting with the Green Knight in a years’ time on his home turf, Gaiwan spends the next year partying with his commoner love (Alicia Vikander, Tomb Raider) and not thinking too much about the fate that stands before him.
When the year is up, Gaiwan is set to keep his promise and treks forward through a perilous journey that will present adventure, deception, and distraction leading up to his second encounter with the Green Knight. Through various episodes with a mourning ghost (Erin Kellyman, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier), a rascally fox, a rogue scavenger (Barry Keoghan, Eternals), and a Lord (Joel Edgerton, Boy Erased) and Lady (Vikander, again), Gaiwan will be tested not just on his strength of spirit but on his willingness to stay the course in the face of a certain fate that was foretold to him.
For those following his career, director David Lowery is keeping his fans always surprised. Scoring an indie hit with 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints before turning course with the lovely 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, he followed that up with 2017’s A Ghost Story and then the quiet but bold Robert Redford caper comedy The Old Man & the Gun. Now he’s taking on this project, which is completely different than anything he’s done, and he’s presented a completely realized take on Arthurian legend…and it feels so clear and concise that you’d think he’d been planning it for decades.
Though not an obvious candidate from the outside, Patel is the right choice for Gaiwan, getting to the heart of the boy as he becomes a man through his journey of self-discovery. The transition isn’t easily achieved and not without a great deal of fear, all nicely conveyed through work by Patel and Lowery in conjunction with a crackerjack production team. The cast member with the longest association to the piece was Vikander and using her in multiple capacities was a good call; it plays with the magic surrounding the world that’s been created and also allows for Vikander to get a first-rate monologue in the second half of the film. Like me, you likely won’t realize you’ve been holding your breath until she’s done speaking.
Clocking in at the perfect length and never lingering on any shot or sequence longer than it has to, The Green Knight is proof positive that Lowery continues on a winning streak and remains a director that must be tracked. His attention to the production side is exquisite but how he pairs that with the emotional way into the story is also worth taking note of. We need more of these kinds of directors that can work to meld both disciplines, the physical and emotional, together. The Green Knight is an example of it being done to perfection.