Movie Review ~ Afterlife of the Party

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A social butterfly who dies during her birthday week is given a second chance to right her wrongs on Earth.

Stars: Victoria Justice, Midori Francis, Robyn Scott, Adam Garcia, Timothy Renouf, Gloria García, Spencer Sutherland

Director: Stephen Herek

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  OK – we’ve always dealt with honest truths here and I see no reason to stop now.  You know my love of movies set in space.  You are well aware that I’ll never shy away from a shark movie.  You certainly should be ready to supply me with an underwater adventure I’ve never seen before because I think by this point, I’ve seen them all.  However.  Do you know what other genre of movie that I just can’t ever say no to no matter how hard I try? If your answer was: silly comedies where dead people come back to mess with the living, then you would be correct. (And please, get out of my brain.)  I tell ya, there is absolutely nothing more comfort food-y than a good, old-fashioned ghost that no one else can see save for one person that gets driven totally batty until they adjust to this new spirit and eventually learn to live with the specter who needs their living friend to help them finish something so they can move on.  (See High Spirits, All of Me, Hello Again, Heart Condition, The Frighteners, the list goes on…)

That’s why I sought out Afterlife of the Party on Netflix to review and no, it’s not because I’m a huge Victoria Justice fan (full disclosure, I had to look her up to see what she was famous for).  This airy little bauble is a Sunday morning wake yourself up movie.  The kind you flip on as the coffee percolates and your eyes adjust while yawning to life on the couch.  There’s nothing at all wrong with the film per se, but there’s not a whole lot of substance to it either.  It’s calorie-free but you’ll be hungry for something more almost immediately when the credits roll.

Party girl Cassie (Justice, Fun Size) thinks that life should be lived to the fullest and that you can worry about your troubles tomorrow – a philosophy her roommate Lisa (Midori Francis, Oceans Eight) doesn’t completely agree with.  More of a realist than her more gregarious bestie, Lisa is focused on her career in science but doesn’t have the nerve to ask for what she deserves at her job.  Lisa’s hopelessly stunted encounters with a handsome next-door neighbor (Timothy Renouf) are also awkwardly awful, something Cassie notes as a thing they’ll need to work on…but after they go out for a night of celebration with friends.  When the overserved Cassie wakes up hungover the next day she stumbles to the bathroom, accidentally trips, and dies after hitting her head.

Ah…but that’s not the end my friend.  She’s brought to a fancy powder room where she meets Val (Robyn Scott) her guide between the Above and Below who tells her she has unfinished business to achieve that she has to wrap up before the week is out. It’s been a whole year since she died though, so Cassie will have to find a way to reach out to her loved ones (including both of her estranged divorced parents that she doesn’t speak to and Lisa, whom she fought with the night before she died) and get her affairs in order before the final decision is made where she’ll end up. If she can get things square (and make a few wrongs right) it might mean extra credit for the decision-makers that are currently holding her eternal fate in their heavenly hands.

Directed by Stephen Herek, who has amassed an assortment of notable ‘80s and ‘90s titles on his credit list from Critters to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, The Mighty Ducks, and Mr. Holland’s Opus, the script from Hallmark alum Carrie Freedle is a solid 20 minutes too long.  Far too much time is spent rehashing the same closure conversations, just with different people but not in any different ways.  Cassie’s attempt to connect with her sad-sack dad (Adam Garcia, Murder on the Orient Express) through health and wellness is an interesting way into the connection between mind, body, and spirit but the eventual meeting with her mom (Gloria Garcia, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, no relation to Adam) takes forever to get through. 

Where the film is at its snappiest is when Justice and Francis are working together.  Demonstrating that same crackle she did in last year’s Dash & Lily series for Netflix, Francis helps Justice loosen up and find more of the comedy in Freedle’s script.  It’s actually Francis that winds up with the more emotional journey and that’s only because we wind up wanting to spend more time with her character as it blossoms into someone in a far different place than where they began.  I can always use more ghost shenanigans and while Scott’s sorta-angel character is fun to have around, she isn’t as playful as I wanted her (or the movie) to get.

I don’t think audiences are coming to this one to be moved one way or the other, just for a pleasant diversion and Afterlife of the Party meets that challenge fully.  Production values are slightly lower than your usual Netflix film and fall in pace with a quickie seasonal movie you might find on Lifetime or Hallmark (hence why Freedle feels at home with introducing a number of late breaking non-challenging roadblocks for Cassie to face) but overall, this is one that floats into your life easily and drifts away after the credits roll just as smoothly.

Movie Review ~ It Takes Three

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When the coolest guy in school discovers that the new girl sees through his popularity and good looks, he enlists the class nerd to take over his social media accounts to add substance to his style.

Stars: Jared Gilman, David Gridley, Aurora Perrineau, Mikey Madison, Monk Serrell Freed, Anya Marina

Director: Scott Coffey

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Honestly, when presented with the opportunity to get a look at It Takes Three, an umpteenth revisal of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, the idea of it wasn’t as interesting to me as the person sitting in the director’s seat.  Growing up in the halcyon days of ‘90s cable television, I had my channel tuned to HBO whenever I was lounging around the house and often caught the high school dramas and comedies that played ad nauseum.  So the name Scott Coffey leaped out at me like a red blinking light. 

Of course I knew who Scott Coffey was!  C’mon!  SpaceCamp and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in 1986?  Ok…how about Zombie High and the forever underrated Some Kind of Wonderful from 1987?  Satisfaction (early Julia Roberts Alert!!) and Shag (a personal favorite) from 1988?  You’ve of course seen the John Travolta rebel classic Shout from 1991…right?  I can’t ever forget Coffey’s unfortunate accident in 1993’s The Temp…well, you get the picture.

The point is this, I was curious to see what an actor who grew up around films of this type would be able to bring to the proceedings and was surprised to see how much heart he was able to instill into Logan Burdick and Blair Mastbaum’s script.  Yes, it’s another take on the story of an outcast that’s good with words, here a boy named Cy (Jared Gilman, Moonrise Kingdom) who helps a handsome devil that’s empty inside (David Gridley as classmate Chris) woo new student Roxy (Aurora Perrineau, Jem and the Holograms) who is way out of his league.  As Cy’s friend Kat (Mikey Madison, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) watches her bestie get sucked into a strange love triangle, she eventually realizes she’s got more of a stake in the game than she cares to admit.  Can Cy get over his own hang-ups long enough to see who the one that’s right for him actually is?

Ditching the nose that has defined Cyrano since the beginning, the screenwriters instead just make Cy someone uncomfortable in his own skin and it’s a strange wire to walk on.  On the one hand, it begins to address some questions on body dysmorphia in men (a topic not often discussed, at least not in any kind of film, mainstream or otherwise) but on the other it makes it the subject of jokes and casual devaluation.  Gilman’s own appearance is seemingly unaltered so…are we just saying that he hates how he looks and that’s that?  It’s an odd argument to witness. 

It’s good, then, that Coffey and his cast have a gainful spirit about them that propels the film forward into positive energy territory.  You always know the film is headed toward the kind of resolution that is expected but likely not the way you think it will go.  Knowing you’re in safe hands allows you to relax more for those 90 minutes and that’s where It Takes Three finds it’s sweet spot, bolstered by Gilman’s geeky charm and Perrineau’s earthy ease.  Coffey also dots the supporting players with some brilliant comedic players, from Anya Marina as the school principal that moonlights in a band to Lori Alan and Nicole Sullivan as Cy’s moms.  Small movies like this can have the tendency to slip through your fingers but get discovered at a later time when you’re deep browsing – keep your eye out for It Takes Three because it plays well, moves fast, and acts as a nice showcase for a crop of strong talent in front of and behind the camera.

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern movie musical take on the classic fairytale of the orphaned girl with an evil stepmother. Our ambitious heroine has big dreams and with the help of her Fab Godmother, she perseveres to make them come true.

Stars: Camila Cabello, Nicholas Galitzine, Billy Porter, Idina Menzel, Pierce Brosnan, Maddie Baillio, Charlotte Spencer, Minnie Driver, James Acaster, James Corden

Director: Kay Cannon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  Back in the pre-pandemic days, when a film by-passed theaters and went straight to the home video market (‘straight-to-video’, if you will) that was the sure sign it was a turkey. It was the equivalent of a high-profile movie not screening for critics.  Either the studio was trying to cut their losses and cash in on consumers having to buy their product in order to see it or they simply didn’t find the financing the justify paying the marketing costs to open the film in theaters across the country and foreign territories.  Nowadays however, you can never really tell what a movie skipping a theatrical run could mean so it’s never wise to assume anything.  I’ve seen just as many great films (and not unexpectedly great, either) that didn’t bother to go to theaters because they know that during this uncertain time they’d net more viewers/receipts if the film was released on a streaming/subscription service.

That’s why I didn’t give much thought when I read that Pitch Perfect writer (and writer of #2 and #3) Kay Cannon’s new version of Cinderella that was set to be released by Sony got snapped up by Amazon after its original studio dropped it.  I mean, you can hardly go wrong with Cinderella, one of the all-time-most-loved fairy tales from French writer Charles Perrault that has been made countless times and used as the basis for any number of modern storylines.  Disney made it an animated classic in 1950 and then worked its magic again with a breathtaking live-action remake in 2015.  I’m not entirely precious about the piece so I say, go for it if you think you can put your own spin on it.  Add in some appealing performers and a few modern tunes while you’re at it and you can call it a Cinderella of your own.

Why then, is this Cinderella, such a giant pile of, well, cinders?  I’ll go back to what all of the judges say on every singing competition on television: song choice.  It’s all about the song choice and that’s the first mistake. Cannon’s version of the fairy tale makes a critical error, causing it to run right off the track, never finding its way back.  Opening with a group of well-dressed peasants recruited from the local Orange Theory furiously “and-a-5-6-7ing” their way through Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” (begging the question, why are they a part of the Rhythm Nation?), it’s our introduction to Cannon’s reimagined world where our Cinderella (Camila Cabello) doesn’t want to marry a prince so much as open up her own dress shop.  If only her horrible “Material Girl” stepmother (Idina Menzel, Frozen) and stepsisters (Maddie Baillio & Charlotte Spencer) would let up on her and treat her like an equal.  Also feeling misunderstood is Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine, The Craft: Legacy) who is being forced by his father (Pierce Brosnan, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) to not only marry but stand firmly in the line of succession, much to the chagrin of his ready and willing younger sister (Tallulah Greive) who is denied that right because of her gender.  The long-suffering Queen (Minnie Driver, GoldenEye) can only look on with silent disapproval…mostly because she doesn’t get a song until so close to the end I was honestly worried Driver was going to be denied the chance to sing.

Instead of the King throwing a ball to find a bride for the Prince, this time around it’s the heir’s idea for the big dance in hopes that he’ll find the mystery woman who so enchanted him when he snuck out of the palace for a day to walk among the common folk.  I can only assume Cannon got an adaptation of Aladdin mixed up with her Cinderella script because this “day with the rabble” development is strangely similar to that film but at least it puts more autonomy in the youngsters of the film and gets us back to Cinderella needing all the furnishings for her big night.  She gets decked out by her Fabulous Godmother (Billy Porter, Like a Boss, in the film so little you’ll be shocked considering how much he shows up in the advertising) and is sent to the ball in a glam gown, glass shoes, and accompanied by three mice turned men, including executive producer James Corden, Into the Woods, who inexplicably shows up for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  I think you know the rest…home before midnight, if the shoe fits you must marry it, etc., etc.

Amongst all the familiar beats are placed a truly bizarre selection of familiar songs (and two new ones) that feel either on the nose or shoehorned in…like the filmmakers took what they were given and asked no questions.  I almost choked on my drink when Queen’s “Somebody to Love” began…how many more times can this be used in a movie for this same purpose?  Is this the honest best they could come up with for a song to use to show that the prince longs for something more?  While Menzel sings the heck out of “Material Girl”, it’s such an obvious number for the Stepmother/sisters that the creativity seems to be countered by a feeling of laziness.  The best part of the movie are the proclamations from the Town Crier (Doc Brown) written by Cannon and composer Keith Harrison Dworkin – fast talking wordplay that has the energy the rest of the film sorely lacks. 

All of this might have worked a tad better with more convincing leads.  I’m not sure if this was meant as some launching pad for Cabello to transition into acting but this is not the type of showcase that bodes well for future projects.  The singing is also underwhelming, with Cabello either slightly under pitch or with a voice so throaty you expect a legion of frogs to be following her around.  I’ve liked her music quite a lot in the past but if this was the first time I heard her I wouldn’t want to investigate further.  As the romantically tortured Prince, Galitzine might make sense as a TV royal but for film he comes up short. Let’s not even go too far into the total lack of chemistry between the lovebirds.  To the great shock of no one, it’s Menzel and Porter who look the most comfortable both selling their songs and interpreting them, but Porter is also given a bit of stinker song to roll with.  At least the gorgeous gown he was given by Ellen Mirojnick (The Greatest Showman) looks stunning.

I wish everyone involved with this had the ambition to be more fun with turning this into a full-on jukebox musical.  If they were going to go for it, just go for it and don’t hold back.  Unwilling to commit to a certain type of sound or mood, the choices are all over the map and that leaves this Cinderella dancing totally on its own and without any partner to come calling.  If you’re looking for a musical update to a chestnut that works like gangbusters, I implore you to check out 2020’s Valley Girl – here’s a film that understood the assignment and went all the way across the finish line with its selection of hits.  This Cinderella can’t scrap together a decent playlist.

Movie Review ~ Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Inspired by true events and adapted from the award-winning hit musical from London’s West End. While his classmates plan their livelihoods after they leave school, Jamie New, a teenager from Sheffield, contemplates revealing his secret career ambition to become a fierce and proud drag queen.

Stars: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Shobna Gulati, Richard E. Grant, Sharon Horgan, Ralph Ineson, Samuel Bottomley

Director: Jonathan Butterell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Two things a number of audiences have been missing over the past year were movies and musicals and are they ever in for a make-up session in 2021 with the release of no less than five movie musicals to hit both of their passions at once.  Despite June’s surprisingly dismal reaction to the highly promoted big screen adaptation of the Tony-winning In the Heights, perhaps something a little more under the radar for American audiences has a chance to build some word of mouth.  At least that’s what the producers of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie are hoping for, I’d imagine, and they certainly are being smart with releasing the film first for a limited run in theaters before making it more widely available on Amazon Prime a week later. 

Born in the West End in late 2017, the musical is the true-life story of Jamie Campbell, a County Durham teenager profiled in the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.  Though I haven’t seen the documentary, the musical written by Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells evidently hews close to Campbell’s and there’s a particular simplicity to the writing which implies no one needed to craft in dramatic peaks and valleys to shape it into a traditional three act structure.  Some stories are meant for the stage, others are destined to be musicalized…Campbell’s tale of growing up gay and fabulous in a small North England village was certain to be dazzling.

It’s Jamie New’s 16th birthday and what he really wants is a pair of sparkly red high heel shoes he’s saving up for.  He’s been earning money for them slowly with an early morning paper route but his hard-working mum (Sarah Lancashire, Yesterday) might have a surprise or two to unwrap when he gets home from school.  First, Jamie (Max Harwood) has to get through a day where his classmates don’t get him because he’s gay, his teacher (Sharon Horgan, Together) doesn’t see a future for him as a performer, and his only close friend is Pritti (Lauren Patel), “a Muslim girl with a Hindu first name”, is also the target for teasing.  As his mom shields him from a father (Ralph Ineson, Gunpowder Milkshake) that doesn’t want to know him, Jamie takes a few cautious steps forward into the world of drag, but without a clue of how to dip his toe in the water he’ll need some assistance before diving full-on in.

He finds a willing teacher in Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), the proprietor of a vintage clothing shop which caters to Jamie’s particular needs.  Still appearing occasionally as Loco Chanelle at an amateur nightclub, Hugo encourages Jamie to come fully out of his shell and embrace a full alter ego yet to be named but once released can Jamie balance both personas?  With prom coming up, there are rules to be broken, lessons to be learned, and truths to be revealed – all set to a lively set of up-tempo tunes and ballads that run the gamut from toe-tapping mild earworms to run-of-the-mill “I Want” songs. 

The film is ruled by Harwood’s lighting in a bottle performance as the charming Jamie New – you can see why he’s a bit of a mystery to the kids in his class but also someone you feel nearly pulled toward to be friends with.  A solid triple threat, Harwood takes command of the movie and never relinquishes control for a second…not that he’s selfish with his scene partners because he’s sharing the screen with a number of talented performers in their own right.  As his fellow outcast with the same noble spirit, Patel is another scene-stealer and even if her role is severely underwritten, she’s smart enough to lean away from the obvious choices and make Pritti an interesting person to watch even when she’s in the background.  The mother character in these films is either the tyrant or the tear-jerker and Lancashire falls into the latter category but doesn’t oversell it so it’s sappy.  She’s got a knockout 11 o’clock number and then follows it up with a scene where she just gets absorbs an highly emotional moment which is maybe even more moving.  Right there you have a trio of great performances…and that’s not even mentioning Grant’s lovely turn as an aging drag performer (his song sneaks up on you in devastating ways) and Horgan’s pleasant voice which shows why her role is easy to stunt cast on stage.

There’s entirely too much goodwill pulsating through Everybody’s Talking About Jamie from frame one to dissect it too much, a truth which I’m sure has kept the ticket sales flowing not just in the West End but in international productions currently popping up around the world.  A US version is set to debut in Los Angeles in early 2022 and a Broadway production might not be far behind.  I’m not totally sold that the music itself is all that memorable, if I’m being honest, but I also would want to experience the show live in person to get a feel for what that Jamie New energy could be like.  This is one of those shows that lives or dies on the actor playing Jamie so it’s entirely dependent on that star quality.  Thankfully, the film version nails the casting (and then some) with Harwood and finds a few pleasant surprises in the supporting players as well.  You may not be humming the tunes as you leave the film behind but you’ll remember the story.  If this one isn’t for you just wait, Dear Evan Hansen is out in a few weeks, tick, tick…Boom! releases on November 19, and the long-awaited remake of West Side Story arrives on December 10.