Movie Review ~ Orphan: First Kill

The Facts:

Synopsis: After orchestrating a brilliant escape from an Estonian psychiatric facility, Esther travels to America by impersonating the missing daughter of a wealthy family.
Stars: Julia Stiles, Isabelle Fuhrmann, Hiro Kanagawa, Rossif Sutherland, Matthew Finlan, Gwendolyn Collins
Director: William Brent Bell
Rated: R
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
ReviewA note about this review. While it won’t contain spoilers about Orphan: First Kill, it is necessary to discuss the events of its predecessor, 2009’s Orphan. If you haven’t seen that film yet, even though this is a prequel, you will want to watch that film before seeing this all-new sequel.

Last year was a good one for 24-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman. She appeared in three films; for one of them, The Novice, she won the Best Actress Award at Tribeca and was nominated as Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards. Her work on that film was brilliant and, in a perfect world, would have landed her at the Academy Awards, but larger award bodies aren’t quite there yet with recognizing those kinds of challenging female roles.

Fuhrman has worked consistently since her star-making turn in 2009’s Orphan. Then 12, Fuhrman more than capably convinced audiences she was a 9-year-old Russian girl, Esther, who came to live with a couple and their two children. Throughout that film (and on the poster), we’re told that ‘something is wrong with Esther,’ but it’s only at the end after she’s killed several people and torn her adoptive family apart, that we find out this young lady isn’t as young as she looks. She’s a 33-year-old woman with a disorder that stunted her growth; the twist was a massive rug pull for audiences that could hardly predict a surprise of that magnitude. 

A solid mid-summer hit when it was released, Orphan has gone on to find an excellent reputation with the horror community and continued to grow in popularity. With Esther not surviving the first film, a sequel was out of the question, but would a prequel work? Prequels continue to be a massive trend in the film industry, and why not elaborate on the backstory only hinted at in David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman) and Alex Mace’s (Séance) initial treatment? The most significant answer needed was this: Could it work without Fuhrman, who was so integral to the creation of Esther? After 13 years, the original writers returned and miraculously brought Fuhrman back with them.

Debuting on the streaming service Paramount+, you could have heard my eyes roll in Iceland when Orphan: First Kill was initially announced with Fuhrman to star. While the actress still looks young, she doesn’t have that same sinister glare, even in her most demanding roles. Early trailers showing Fuhrman’s head looking too big for a tiny body didn’t improve my mood, but by the time the release day was approaching, my curiosity couldn’t take not knowing how this would turn out. Directed by William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside, The Boy and Brahms: The Boy II) with a screenplay from Dave Coggeshall, Orphan: First Kill is an example of why we shouldn’t always dismiss these prequels immediately. 

Before Esther went to live with her final family, she was a patient in a psych ward at a hospital in Estonia. A new doctor (Gwendolyn Collins) has arrived at the facility to treat Esther specifically, though their first meeting doesn’t get off to a good start. I’ll spare you the secrets of how Esther manages to escape, but before long, she’s posing as the long-lost daughter of the Albrights, a prominent American couple (Julia Stiles & Rossif Sutherland) who are shocked at first, then delighted to have their youngest child back. Their son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan, Brazen) and a curious detective (Hiro Kanagawa, Needle in a Timestack) that had been working on the original disappearance are also interested in the new girl that has returned to the house.

I’ll be honest and say that the first half hour of Orphan: First Kill isn’t promising. It’s a pile of cliches that work to varying degrees, some more effective than others. Filmed with a heavy haze in the lens, it’s often hard to make out the finer details on people/places/things (all the better to de-age you, Isabelle!) and the ‘How did that happen?’ question list of conveniences gets long fast. Knowing Esther’s secret robs the film of its element of surprise, so we’re left with a Bad Seed-esque entry in the horror genre that is more about Esther preventing others from knowing her business than maintaining any level of surprise.

Ah, but wait, Orphan: First Kill has a devious little trick up its sleeve that I didn’t see coming (I don’t know how you could), which ultimately takes the film in a new direction. It’s here, right around the halfway point, when you realize that the screenwriters spent more time constructing the plot and arranging its deceptive pieces than you initially thought. While you’d been paying attention to figuring out how they made Fuhrman so tiny, the writers (and actors) laid out a gameplan they execute with cunning precision. Don’t think you’ll get a single hint from me about what it is, either.

Quickly falling back into Esther’s wicked little shoes, Fuhrman is fun to watch as she navigates the tricks and effects used to make her look as small as she was all those years ago. It’s easy to tell when Bell used child doubles, but a few times, the film pulls a switcheroo in the middle of a single take, often seamlessly. Fuhrman is working alongside less-powerhouse performers than she did previously; it’s natural she stands out, but even so, there’s an art to playing a villain you almost start to root for at times. Knowing where her story ends doesn’t hamper the enjoyment, either.  

If Fuhrman expectedly delivers in her track, the revelation here is Stiles. A frequent star of teen films during the new millennium, I never felt Stiles (Hustlers) got her fair shakes for being a pretty good actress and more advanced for the roles she was playing. Here, as the grieving mother of a kidnapped girl, she brings a new dimension to her work that demonstrates another push forward. She comes at it from a surprising angle when she must defend her family from the intruder. 

For horror or suspense movies I’m not reviewing, if it doesn’t grab me in the first ten or fifteen minutes, I’m often guilty of tossing in the towel and looking for something else. Orphan: First Kill is a reminder of why that can be a limiting practice. While it has its stumbles in the first half hour, it more than redeems itself when its whopper of a pivot is introduced and quickly becomes an engaging nail-biter. A successful flick like Orphan: First Kill is what can happen when filmmakers carefully consider returning to a popular title; you get a prequel with purpose.

Movie Review ~ Spin Me Round

The Facts:

Synopsis: When an American chain restaurant manager is selected to attend a special training program in Italy, her head swims with the dreams of European glamour and romance. But the trip turns out to be much different – possibly more dangerous – than the exotic getaway she imagines.
Stars: Alison Brie, Alessandro Nivola, Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, Zach Woods, Ayden Mayeri, Ben Sinclair, Tim Heidecker, Debby Ryan, Fred Armisen
Director: Jeff Baena
Rated: R
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  In my previous career, I filmed several commercials and print ads involving food; one thing was always the same. If it was hot food, to make it look good on camera, it had to be cold and vice versa. Think about that next time you see someone chomp down on a juicy burger because it’s likely ice cold. On paper, Spin Me Round looks hot. Great cast, a beautiful location, a broad comic set-up that could go in many different directions, and a score by the legendary Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Blow Out, etc.). So how does it wind up being a frustratingly chilly and uneven non-starter that persistently leads the viewer toward a joke that never pays off?

After 2020’s Horse Girl, star Alison Brie and director Jeff Baena team up again. Their peculiar script sends Brie’s restaurant leader at a popular chain (think Olive Garden) off to Italy for a manager’s training at the posh villa of the company’s founder (Alessandro Nivola, Jurassic Park III). She fantasizes about finding love but instead winds up in a rundown hotel on the property with a handful of other eccentric regional representatives, including one played by Molly Shannon (Promising Young Woman), dependably using her schtick to deliver energy to some very dry sections. When Brie’s character is romanced by both the head of the company and his mysterious, alluring assistant (a, well, mysteriously alluring Aubrey Plaza), it lights a fuse for an explosive conclusion to an otherwise humdrum week.

Baena stacks the film with names that usually carry full supporting comedic roles on their shoulders, but when asked to spread that wealth around, no one seems to know how to be specific with their minor screen time. Married to Baena in real life, Plaza’s appearance feels more like a favor to her groom than anything else. After her recent electric turn in Emily the Criminal (get that one on your list right away), I want to see a Plaza performance that pushes back against what we already know she can do. Her role as an aloof assistant is a coasting performance, which is fine if you want the paycheck, but it’s more the fault of underdeveloped writing than anything.

The film works best when Brie and Zach Woods (as another manager) team up to figure out the true motive behind the company gathering of the managers, but it’s so far into this strange voyage that I already had my bags packed and ready to depart. I’ve come around to Brie after solid showings on the Netflix series GLOW and in The Rental, written and directed by her husband, Dave Franco. While her work with Baena tends toward the off-kilter quirk, it never finds a consistently humorous note to hit, much less a funny bone to poke. Spin Me Round needed another trip around the rewrite table.

Reviewed initially at SXSW.

Movie Review ~ Get Away If You Can


The Facts:

Synopsis: Hopeful that an open-ocean sail might relight the spark of their passion, a troubled married couple hits a breaking point when one’s refusal to explore a foreboding deserted island sends them on a deep internal journey that will require drastic decisions to survive.
Stars: Terrence Martin, Dominique Braun, Ed Harris, Riley Smith, Martina Gusman
Directors: Terrence Martin & Dominique Braun
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: There’s been a good news/bad news situation concerning the movie industry and the pandemic that took over filmmaking for the last two years. The good news is that it forced many directors, producers, writers, and actors to think outside the box and develop smaller-scale features that could be made with the smallest crew possible. This approach limited exposure and the chance for those involved to catch the coronavirus. More good news is that it elevated independent features and production crews already used to this all-hands-on-deck style from niche status to an elite one. Now, big-time Hollywood studios were taking notes on how to make a movie in two weeks from directors with the experience of having done it.

The flip side is that the market was flooded with novice filmmakers pushing their projects forward once they had the financing. The resulting films, like Get Away if You Can, can come off as rough sits, glorified vanity projects that do less to showcase the talents of anyone onscreen but instead shine a glaring spotlight on the inexperience. Add a multiple Oscar nominee to your cast like Ed Harris’s small cameo, and you’re only asking for another layer of scrutiny to be applied. I don’t often give a final opinion this early into a review but Get Away if You Can says it all right in the title.

Told in a dizzying mishmash of timelines that likely only made sense to writers/directors/stars Dominique Braun & Terrence Martin, Get Away if You Can concerns a married couple attempting to reconcile their marriage on their sailing vessel, only to find troubled waters. An argument divides them and further slices the narrative into smaller pieces, with Braun flashing back to a time before she met her husband up until their first encounter and Martin flipping between conversations with his father (Harris, The Abyss) and brother (Riley Smith). 

It’s not that the story cooked up by Braun and Martin isn’t intriguing or that the marital woes played out in the beauty of nature aren’t a wonder of contradictory ideas. The issue is that all the characters are wretchedly unlikeable people, save for Martina Gusman as Braun’s caring sister. Braun is vacant and uninteresting, opting to appear nude more often than necessary and let Martin’s camera linger over her slightly longer than an audience needs. Then there’s Martin, suffering over a performance that comes across as foolishly hammy thanks to the dialogue he constructed from either Braun’s name (shortened to ‘Domi’) or expletives. Neither comes off as severely as Harris or Smith, playing unreserved misogyny like champs.

Culminating in what will either be considered the most laughable or saddest excuses for gratuitous nudity in a film this year, Get Away if You Can isn’t poorly made or constructed. It’s just pointless. Martin and Braun are married in real life, and there’s a feeling this movie exists so they have a document of their union and a completed film as a calling card. Finding marital bliss should be enough for them because outside of their circle, I can’t imagine anyone being happy with taking this voyage to nowhere.

Cool poster, though.

Movie Review ~ E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – 40th Anniversary IMAX Release

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lonely ten-year-old boy summons the courage to help a gentle alien stranded on Earth return to his home planet.
Stars: Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: P.G.
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: What more is there to say about Steven Spielberg’s 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that hasn’t already been covered in countless reviews since its release 40 years ago? Deservedly firmly ensconced on numerous “All-Time Best” lists, the four-time Oscar-winning film (three technical awards and one for John Williams’s unforgettable score) has seen several re-releases throughout the past four decades. A controversial “special edition” was released to theaters for the 20th Anniversary with additional scenes and digitally altered/enhanced effects to please the director more than anyone. While it wasn’t the worst director tinkering post-release until that point (George Lucas held that distinction), Spielberg realized his error quickly, and this edition where walkie-talkies replaced guns is now considered out of circulation.

For the 40th Anniversary, a Spielberg-approved IMAX release of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in its original version is out, and I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to see this Best Picture nominated treasure in the theaters again. I try to make my rounds with Spielberg’s canon every five years, and it was the perfect time to revisit his sensitive exploration of a relationship between a suburban California boy and a friendly alien marooned nearby. I’ve always had a strong emotional pull toward the film because it’s one of the first movies I remember seeing in a theater and then owning on VHS. It’s also a movie that brings back vivid memories of connecting the sentimental feelings a character is experiencing with how I was receiving them. As I grew older, the poignancy of the movie only intensified.

Perhaps it’s the gorgeous IMAX presentation that brings stunning new clarity to Allen Daviau’s cinematography and that glorious Williams music, but I found this showing of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to be overwhelmingly affective (and, I suppose, effective). It’s stirring the way screenwriter Melissa Mathison highlights separation immediately after E.T. is left behind by his alien family as they flee from government agents tracking their visit. By chance, he wanders into Elliott’s garden shed in a nearby suburban development, where he’s discovered but treated with kindness by the boy (Henry Thomas, Doctor Sleep), that understands the need to be comforted. Still reeling from the recent separation of his parents, the youngster is too old to play with his younger sister but too young to fit in with the friends his older brother hangs out with. The mismatched pair find each other by fate but perhaps it was meant to be. Their symbiotic relationship goes more profound, and I appreciate their invisible link more with each viewing.

Instead of Mathison and Spielberg wasting time on fish-out-of-water antics, the focus remains singularly on Elliott. He takes it upon himself to help E.T. back to his family and make him whole again with the help of his brother Michael (Robert McNaughton) and sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore, Blended). Aside from a brief diversion to a school-day biology class that takes a stand against frog dissection, the movie never leaves the small world that Elliott knows. It also rarely shows the faces of any adult other than his mother, Mary (Dee Wallace, The Frighteners), keeping the movie’s perspective at a child’s level. When you’re a kid watching the movie, you don’t notice these subtle ways the filmmakers have engineered the film to speak to children by, in a way, taking a knee and looking them in the eye.

As an adult critic reviewing E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, I can only give this the highest of marks. The movie is truly a gift, and that it has held up for forty years with its lovely emotions intact, without ever feeling sappy or sentimental, is a testament to the care Spielberg and co. made it. The performances, especially the kids, mostly Barrymore, and unequivocally Thomas, are outstanding, and knowing that the Academy could have given out a special Oscar to Thomas for his work and didn’t is a real shame. Had this been released today, the kind of realistically heart-tugging acting Thomas is doing would have almost certainly landed him in the Best Actor conversation.

Reviewing this as a long-time fan, I urge you to make the time to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in IMAX and bring your family and friends as well. It’s a tough movie for kids, I’m not going to lie, and I remember being emotionally distraught when I saw it originally. However, my parents used it as a way to talk to me about my feelings and encouraged me not to be afraid to show them. Waiting “until your kids are ready” is the choice of every parent, but this is one exceptional film your children will remember forever. After listening to and understanding their point of view, talking about it with them is imperative to open dialogue moving forward.

Movie Review ~ Emily the Criminal

The Facts:

Synopsis: Down on her luck and saddled with debt, Emily gets involved in a credit card scam that pulls her into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, ultimately leading to deadly consequences.
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon
Director: John Patton Ford
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Actors can frustrate you after a while when you see them toiling away in roles and projects that aren’t taking full advantage of their talent. Some of that is due to getting comfortable in that well-paying pigeonhole, but it takes real guts stepping away from what is reliable and leap into the unknown. Make the wrong choice, and you could become a joke for being perceived as reaching too far out of range. Choose correctly, and you’ve demonstrated a versatility that will keep you working forever.

While Aubrey Plaza has been in a wide variety of films since she began in the business almost two decades ago, she’s traded on a particular comedic approach to her roles that hasn’t always worked for me. It’s started to grate on me after a time, so much so that I went from wanting to see her mix it up to not knowing if I wanted to see more. Recently, she’s been slowly trying the dramatic side of her acting on for size, and she jumps into the deep end with Emily the Criminal. The result is an absolute revelation, not just of Plaza doing a galvanizing complete 180 turn but realizing there’s potential for her to go even further.

With a felony charge on her permanent record, it’s next to impossible for Emily (Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) to get a well-paying job to help her pay off the mountain of debt she’s facing. Maxed out credit cards and student loans spell living paycheck to paycheck in her shared Los Angeles apartment. Working at a catering delivery service to pay the bills has put any plans for the future on hold. Hopes for a better job have her waiting for her childhood friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Late Night) to get her an interview at her competitive ad agency. Emily might be called a struggling artist if she had any energy left to pursue her former dream.

Desperate for money, a co-worker passes along info for an under-the-table gig run by Youcef (Theo Rossi, Army of the Dead). This opportunity will take Emily into an unfamiliar world of criminal dealings for which she isn’t prepared. Initially tentative about getting involved, she is gradually enticed by the prospect of making money quickly and finds that she’s better at it than anyone might have guessed. Impressing her new boss and finding a mutual attraction is growing, Emily begins to focus solely on her side gig until a series of bad decisions catch up with them all.

First-time filmmaker John Patton Ford directs from his script and gives Emily the Criminal a breathless pace without making it ultra-flashy or breakneck. It’s surprisingly tense, and more than once, I found that I was holding my breath as Emily landed in another troublesome situation. Ford’s script avoids falling into the despair of most films about felons, keeping the politicizing to a minimum and instead aiming to make the most entertaining movie possible. Yes, there may be a plot hole here and there, but they’re tiny compared to the enormous amount of running time that successfully hits the bullseye. 

The supporting players are a solid bunch. I liked Echikunwoke as Emily’s friend, who may be trying to give her a leg up if it doesn’t hold her back. While both are from New Jersey, Echikunwoke’s character has better adapted to the phony detachment Los Angeles airs, something Emily has little time for or skill with. A brief scene with Gina Gershon (With/In: Volume 2) is fun but too short. An enormous amount of chemistry (not just the romantic) fuels Rossi’s performance as Emily’s entry into the criminal world. Rossi’s another good actor in the game for a while who feels like he’s continually poised to make a move to the next level. 

Plaza’s the star attraction here, and rightfully so. As Emily moves from visitor to the underworld of crime to active participation, we watch her adjust her view of the world. You’d think the changes would initially be subtle, giving way to Emily emerging as a full-time fraudster, but Plaza instead rallies against that. Emily’s shift from debt-laden and soul-crushed to seeing a glimmer of hope is quick and grasping, hungry for the opportunity to get her head above water. When she reaches a precipice and stands on the edge, things get more tentative, and she must make hard decisions. Plaza handles these tonal shifts believably and with an intensity that has you rooting her on even as you know she’s on the wrong side of the law.

In films like Emily the Criminal, as in life, not everyone gets a happy ending, and you’ll have to see for yourself how the chips fall for Emily and Youcef. Each participant is active and engaged with the movie they’re making, which goes far in keeping the audience on the edge of their seat and off balance. The film is getting a release that’s perhaps too small and niche to get the kind of notice Ford and especially Plaza deserves for their work, but it would be a shame to miss out on a thriller made with such confidence.

Movie Review ~ Bodies Bodies Bodies

The Facts:

Synopsis: A party game leads to murder when young and wealthy friends gather at a remote family mansion during a hurricane.
Stars: Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Myha’la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders, Rachel Sennott, Lee Pace, Pete Davidson
Director: Halina Reijn
Rated: R
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review:  While I’m trying to enjoy these last weeks of Summer proper and the cool-ish weather they are bringing us up here in MN, I can’t help but look ahead to the fall. It’s my favorite season, and it also means the arrival of 31 Days to Scare, my yearly dive into familiar and unknown titles, designed to give you some alternate options as Halloween draws near. I thought about some of the movies I’d looked at in the past because A24’s new hip horror film Bodies Bodies Bodies would have fit in nicely into that mix. Strip all its modern cultural analysis, timely references, and forgive me, jokey wokeness, and you have the makings of a slumber party-ready scare flick you could have rented on VHS back in the day.   

Making her English-language debut, celebrated Dutch director & actress Halina Reijn brings bold confidence to Bodies Bodies Bodies from the start, opening the film with an intimate moment between Sophie (Amandla Stenberg, Dear Evan Hansen) and Bee (Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm). It’s a bracing image but important in setting a mood for the journey we’re about to take. Recently out of rehab, Sophie is taking her new girlfriend to a weekend party at the secluded home of her childhood friend, David (Pete Davidson, The Suicide Squad). With a hurricane planned to pass over the mansion, the guests are stocked up and prepared for a crazy party, but none of them will expect what happens when the lights go out later that evening.

The fun in Bodies Bodies Bodies is not merely in playing “Guess the Murderer” as it is in many of these stalk and slash films that populated many a drive-in, video store, and, more recently, streaming service. While the eventual mayhem that ensues is enticing and keeps you guessing until the end (good luck trying to put it together), the entertainment Reijn and screenwriter Sarah DeLappe provide is through careful understanding of the temperament of its audience. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a genre title pivot so well with an audience, almost like it was reading the room for the specific screening I was attending.

This near-second-sight talent allows the film to often be wildly funny through its performances and its brutal shakedown of the elite types the actors are playing. While Stenberg and Bakalova continue to demonstrate significant signs their stars are about to go supernova, Reijn surrounds them with others that may join their ranks. Standouts include Myha’la Herrold (Premature) as Jordan, one of the few friends in attendance not outright happy to see Sophie that suspects trouble from the new girl she’s brought along with her. Herrold’s playing the ‘mean girl’ trope at the outset but peels back new layers each time the film takes a twisted turn. Expect much talk about Rachel Sennott’s (Shiva Baby) Alice, a new breed of WASP who gives some of DeLappe’s best lines the most extraordinary readings.

As much as he bothered me on Saturday Night Live, when Davidson is contained in an acting role, he manages to be consistently impressive, and that’s true here as well. A brief fight with his girlfriend (Chase Sui Wonders, On the Rocks) is an intense scene for both. Like many, I’ve loved Lee Pace (Captain Marvel) for some time and wish he’d land that role to kick him up a notch in Hollywood. He’s well-used here in a small but pivotal part but always feels off a, ahem, pace from the others.   Though obviously made on a budget, the film has a nice look to it, with production designer April Lasky (The Greatest Showman) providing a house that’s easy to get turned around in, Jasper Wolf (carried over from Reijn’s first film, Instinct) working wonders helping us see in a house supposedly without electricity and composer Disasterpeace (It Follows) adding to the tension with a score that only intrudes when Reijn shifts things into a higher gear.

Running an absolute perfect length, Bodies Bodies Bodies is a tightly packed film that wisely doesn’t aim to cover a ton of ground outside of its claustrophobic setting. With the hurricane in full swing outside, the guests are trapped in the house with a dwindling number of people they can trust. As friendships are tested and secrets revealed, it becomes harder to believe even your closest bestie, and no one is safe before long.   I kept waiting for the film to cheat us or pull the rug to yank us in a direction we didn’t need to go, but blessedly the filmmakers stayed the course and stuck the ending beautifully. Grab a friend, hunker down, and get ready to play.

Movie Review ~ Wifelike

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the fight to end AI exploitation, an underground resistance attempts to infiltrate a grieving detective by sabotaging the programming of the artificial human assigned as his companion to behave like his late wife.
Stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Elena Kampouris, Doron Bell, Agam Darshi, Sara Sampaio, Alix Villaret, Fletcher Donovan, CJ Perry, Stephen Lobo
Director: James Bird
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Here’s some trivia for you.  Often in movies, when actors are in a scene at a club where music is playing, and the background extras are dancing around and gyrating, they are usually doing it to no music.  All of that is edited in later to save on any additional sound being picked up by microphones.  (Same goes for clapping – watch the extras next time and spot the ones not making complete contact with their applause…)  I’ve been on sets for these ‘silent’ dance parties, and it’s weird to watch.  Now imagine you are watching a film where this is happening, but all the extras are in lingerie. 

Perhaps someone forgot to put the music back into WifeLike.  There are a lot of scenes where scantily clad women are in the background of scenes randomly doing the same step-step-hip-hip-shoulder-shoulder sway while running their hands up their sides to no music.  It may go along somewhat with the futuristic film about the proliferation of beautiful “Companions” being manufactured and sold. Still, it doesn’t always explain why these glorified Fembots are always rarin’ to dance like nobody’s watching…or turned the music to defiant jazz.

It’s clear WifeLike was made by a specific team for a particular audience, though I thought Twitter canceled all of them over the past few years.  Despite the appearance of it being a sci-fi mystery concerning a Blade Runner-esque hunter (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Albert Nobbs) tracking down a criminal who has been making off with expensive Companions to ‘free’ them, the abundance of sex, nudity, and a general seediness makes the film more like a 1 am Skinamax offering with a slightly larger budget.  The production values are high, and director James Bird introduces a few good ideas along the way, but it’s all so misogynistic and male gaze-y that it begins to feel exploitative within the first ten minutes.

That’s how long it takes for Rhys Meyers to get Elena Kampouris (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) out of her dress and into bed for the first of several aggressively uncomfortable rolls in the hay.  The two actors are beautiful in and out of clothes, but the way the camera is choreographed and the intimacy of the scene comes across as overly intrusive and stops the movie dead in its tracks before it can even get started.  Thankfully, Bird gets that crud out of the way within the first hour of his too-long film and gradually moves the action from the dirty to the dark.

Through the WifeLike process, a human being can be reprogrammed as a Companion even after passing on.  It’s how Meredith (Kampouris) was programmed to behave like William’s (Rhys-Meyers) late wife.  She needs time to adjust to being Meredith again, which involves learning Meredith’s hobbies and dreams and going through several tutorials.  She gets one out of the way the first night (naturally) and moves on to cooking, knitting, and cleaning the toilet.  (That last one is fake, but you get the picture.)  Her dreams have been infiltrated, though, and she begins to receive messages from a mysterious figure urging her to ‘remember.’  Soon, there’s real-life danger as the perfect life Meredith thinks she was living starts to crumble around her, and her expiration date might arrive sooner than expected.

Filmed in British Columbia, there’s an oddly sterile look to WifeLike, not just in that futuristic sanitized way.  Maybe it’s the costumes that seem to be accentuated strangely to reshape Kampouris, or perhaps the sets that are so crisp and defined you can see what’s CGI and what’s particle board.  Divert your eyes from the computer screens, which often show the same information no matter where you are.  As seems to be typical, there are more glass windows in the future, keeping privacy to a minimum…get ready for all of you that like to vacuum in the nude!

I feel the film and its supporters will attempt to defend itself from its clear misogynistic underpinnings by pointing to the way Kampouris gradually becomes the heroine of the piece, but that doesn’t account for the entire conceit of WifeLike in the first place.  An alarming number of women appear in their underwear to do nothing but stand there without autonomy.  If that’s the way this business is run, so be it.  How much more interesting would it have been if the company was run by a woman and not some greased-haired sleazeball?  If the filmmakers had thought through the optics of their piece instead of how everything looked, they might have found ways to upgrade a low-end sci-fi thriller.

Movie Review ~ Summering

The Facts

Synopsis: As their last summer before middle school comes to a close, four best friends face the uncertainties of growing up and embark on their biggest adventure.
Stars: Lia Barnett, Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield, Sanai Victoria, Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe, Megan Mullally
Director: James Ponsoldt
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  On one of my social media accounts last week, I saw a friend posting pictures of their kids in full school attire with the caption, “First day of school!”. I checked the early August date and blinked a little in shock. August? What happened to kids having June, July, and August to…be kids? No more pencils, no more books, and all that jazz?   It just seemed too early for me, and I can only imagine what those kids must be feeling (or their parents!), and it made me remember my childhood. I thought about what it was like in those final weeks of summer and getting ready to say goodbye to the friends you made and/or got closer to as you had many adventures around your neighborhood.

Your enjoyment of Summering may rise or fall on how precious you hold your memories about that time in your life. Likely, your tolerance over its shortcomings will also play a factor. That’s the struggle with a movie as earnest and ready to do good as Summering. Some aspects of the film written by Benjamin Percy and James Ponsoldt (who also directs) are substantial, but too often, there’s a shapeless maudlin gauziness that overtakes it and can make it an unbearable film to get through. The film runs 85 minutes, but it might as well have been 185 minutes for how slow it creeps by when it should be soaring.

There’s early promise in the opening act when Ponsoldt and Percy introduce us to the four young girls enjoying a typical end-of-summer day. They’ve done almost everything there is to do around town (twice) and have made many ceremonial trips to their “Terabithia,” a tree where they place favored objects found on their escapades. On their latest Terabithia trek, Daisy (Lia Barnett) finds something else nearby…the body of a man that has likely fallen from the bridge several stories up. The corpse doesn’t scare the girls as much as it makes them curious to find out who the man was. With no wallet and few clues found on his person, they set out to find his identity but wind-up learning more about their individual differences that continue to develop.

What ultimately scuttles the movie is that these four intelligent girls (one with police officer Lake Bell as their mother) wouldn’t report this right away to the authorities. Examining the body, moving it, taking pictures of it, showing these pictures to people and asking if they know the man in the picture seems so out of touch with the sensitive and sensible kids we meet at the outset. True, Mari (Eden Grace Redfield, Home Again) was hesitant and even had the most trouble keeping it from her mom (Megan Mullally, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), but Dina (Madalen Mills, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) and Lola (Sanai Victoria) aren’t putting up a fight when Daisy sets them out on this quest.

Obvious comparisons to Stand by Me are unavoidable, and you have to wonder why the screenwriters would even position their film in the vicinity of that beloved classic. Four friends finding a body during the summer and exploring how it affects their lives is the thinnest of plot descriptions for both Summering and that 1986 Rob Reiner film. I spent far too much time trying to figure out if this was a reimagining of the original Stephen King novella or truly an original story. Aside from an extra layer of having the mothers featured as prominent characters, there’s little to suggest a viewing of Summering should replace Stand by Me.

Ponsoldt gained great acclaim directing 2013’s The Spectacular Now, which contained lovely performances and sincerity, but Summering is rarely spectacular ever. It’s hard to knock a movie aimed at pre-teen girls because so few movies (or studios, or directors) show interest in them, to begin with. Admirable though it is for Percy and Ponsoldt to spotlight four young actresses and surround them with a cast of conservatively familiar faces (Mullally does best, amiably pitching her role without feeling phony), I wish they had found a more powerful story to support them. 

Movie Review ~ Fall

The Facts:

Synopsis: Fear reaches new heights as two best friends find themselves at the top of a 2,000-foot radio tower
Stars: Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner, Mason Gooding, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Director: Scott Mann
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  Why is it that when we’re young and don’t know any better, we dash headfirst into adrenaline-rich experiences and seek out high-up views, but once we reach a certain age, a hesitant develops? Some never get that momentary pause of caution that tells them to look before they leap or take a breath before they ascend. A swirling rollercoaster is a welcome challenge, and a sheer glass surface on a double-digit floor of skyscrapers in the clouds is a great place to stand and stare down. I used to be a person who could handle all that and wasn’t bothered by those thrills. Over time I’ve found it more difficult to step to the edge of a balcony, queue up for a speeding cyclone amusement park ride, or, lately, even watch movies that center on those walking the razor’s edge of extreme sports.

The set-up of Fall is marvelous. I’m sure when the director and co-writer Scott Mann pitched the movie to Lionsgate alongside fellow screenwriter Jonathan Frank, he barely had to finish the first sentence before a deal was on the table. Filmed during the pandemic with a minuscule cast from the producer of the (very) similar 47 Meters Down, Lionsgate invested in a ringer. Amid a moderate rise in the popularity of free climbing (no doubt due to the Oscar-winning doc Free Solo), the film would ostensibly put two women on top of an abandoned radio tower and then let them find their way down. 

I could describe the plot of Fall almost entirely by throwing out titles of other films instead. That might spoil it for you, but it illustrates how much it manages to lift directly from other movies. A quickie opening establishes the trauma that leaves Becky (Grace Caroline Currey, Annabelle: Creation), a young widow, and her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner, 2018’s Halloween) dealing with her pain by publicly pushing herself to often-dangerous physical limits. Unable to be comforted by her father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Rampage, filming his scenes with a double for Fulton), Becky spends 51 weeks (yes, the movie makes it that specific) wallowing in grief before Hunter arrives to snap her out of it.

What better way to exorcise her past demons than by literally and figuratively climbing out of her despair? Hunter has challenged herself and extends an invite to Becky to scale a decommissioned TV tower in the California desert. The structure stands 2,000 feet in the air and is well-worn but has held together, and Hunter wants Becky to conquer it with her to prove to herself that this pain will pass and life will go on. Reluctantly, Becky agrees, and before you know it, the two have made the tense ascent up to the top and selfied themselves at the pinnacle. The climb has loosened the rusty ladder from its screws, though, and one wrong step sets off a chain of catastrophic events that trap the women on their sky-high perch. With their route down impossible, it eventually becomes a life-or-death struggle for survival where they’ll have to innovate to survive the elements and make it back to solid ground.

While Mann and Frank’s conception of Fall is a gleeful doozy of high-stakes survival, the execution hits some rough patches. Anyone who saw the almost entirely CGI-generated original teaser trailer can attest that if you ask the audience to sit on the edge of their seats, they must believe what they see—at least a little bit. The best actors and screenplay aren’t going to save lousy everything else. What tends to weigh the Fall production down more than anything are computer-generated backgrounds that look like off-brand Windows 95 screensavers. An opening scene on a large rock face features many distance drone shots circling the mass, but you can barely spot the actors on it because they either a) weren’t there to begin with or b) are on a smaller mountain, and the effects team filled the rest of the rock in later. The scene played strangely on my large screen at home; I can’t imagine how it would look in a theater – maybe better?

Budgetary and filming restrictions necessitated the filmmakers to get inventive in how they shot the actors, and kudos to them for coming up with ways to rely on the CGI as little as possible. These unobstructed shots come off the best and give you those beads of brow sweat the rest of the film is missing. Often in movies like this, viewers can become active participants by shouting at the characters making unwise choices. Still, for Fall, the screenplay doesn’t play Becky and Hunter as foolish, aside from climbing up a structure they shouldn’t and not telling anyone where they were going. Once they are stuck, the women show themselves to be quick thinking and resourceful, not blanking on the best idea we all know they should be undertaking until the final act. I do wish a late-in-the-game plot twist wasn’t outright stolen from a similar film, though. Viewers with a keen eye (well, ear) will catch on quickly if they miss any earlier clues. 

Like that CGI teaser and frequent use of computer-generated backgrounds, Fall feels like a film engineered for an audience rather than made. Even the dialogue has been changed after the movie was shot, with over 30 expletives replaced with PG-13 friendly words by AI company Flawless and the TrueSync technology. Wouldn’t you know that the director is the co-CEO of that company? That’s why you’ll hear heavy use of the word “freaking” throughout. It’s all part of the algorithm the film fits into, which makes it feel less like an organic bit of energetic entertainment and more like a calculated effort to hit as many target audiences as possible in one swoop.

Here’s the truth, though. While parts of Fall are hokey and could be refined or outright tossed, it delivers on its mission. For all my talks about engineering to target audiences, it accomplished that with this viewer. I absolutely found myself covering my eyes as one or both women were hanging by their fingernails under the blazing Mojave sun. Whether avoiding menacing vultures that smell blood or risking a deadly drop to access necessary supplies, I was on the edge of my seat while in the moment. I can nitpick all I want after, but that’s not fair to the overall movie experience or the filmmakers that did their job. Once we get past some iffy opening drama and bypass the unnecessary strife between the ladies later on when the focus is survival, Fall rises to the occasion.

Movie Review ~ They/Them

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a group of queer campers is welcomed to a gay conversion camp, they are promised a week of programming meant to “help them find a new sense of freedom.” As Whistler Camp’s methods become increasingly more psychologically unsettling, the campers must work together to protect themselves.
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Carrie Preston, Theo Germaine, Quei Tann, Austin Crute, Monique Kim, Anna Lore, Cooper Koch,  Darwin Del Fabro
Director: John Logan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: I’m nothing if not a creature of habit, and if there’s one genre I just can’t quit, it’s Summer Camp Slash ’Em Up. Almost as shameless as my addiction to hopping in the water with any ‘ole shark movie that swims my way, I will gleefully ride the bus through the woods to a shabby group of cabins for s’mores and s’more scares. I may have seen them all at this point, including some of the deep cuts that rarely see the light of day. We’ve gone so far that I’m starting to circle back and watch them again. I’m always on the lookout for something new to add to the mix, and hearing Blumhouse was partnering up with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan for They/Them, I grabbed my sleeping bag for a fun party in the woods.

Debuting in early August on streaming service Peacock, They/Them attracted attention when the project was announced in a teaser trailer when details emerged about its plot concerning the location of where Logan had set it. The campers for this modern horror film would be attending a week of gay conversion camp, so it was natural the knee-jerk reaction for many was one of recoil. In a genre known to target the marginalized (often first), was there an actual need to further the horror by having the potential victims already placed in a frightening and vulnerable situation? I must admit that I was intrigued not just by the premise but by the participation of LGBTQIA+ friendly actors such as executive producer and star Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Carrie Preston, and Theo Germaine. (Confirming a senior consultant with GLAAD was involved from the start, giving input on the script and on set for the production was also comforting.)

In operation for years, Camp Whistler presents itself as a welcome and safe space for its attendees to “find themselves” away from the noise of daily life. Not rooted in Christianity as many traditional conversion camps are, owner Owen (Bacon, Tremors) and his wife Cora (Preston, Bag of Hammers) prefer to let the teens make their way alone through their time at Whistler. Instead, there would only be a few group sessions and individual meetings with Cora to discuss their emotions. New Nurse Molly (Chlumsky, The End of the Tour) is on hand for any medical needs, and a pair of former campers, now married, preside over the “Boys Cabin” and the “Girls Cabin.” 

Jordan (Germaine, Night’s End) hasn’t decided where they fit yet. A trans, non-binary person that has come to Whistler, like many of their fellow campers, to appease their parents, Jordan is initially suspicious of Owen’s laid-back approach but eventually lets their guard down based on the positive intent of their initial meeting. Alexandra (Quei Tann), Toby (Austin Crute), Gabriel (Darwin Del Fabro), and Stu (Cooper Kock) join Jordan in sharing their stories of coming to terms with their sexuality, with most at different stages of their journeys. 

They/Them is an admirable, if perhaps too tiny, exploration of the emotional toll attending a place like Whistler Camp would have on an individual being sent to “change.” The bad news is that writer/director Logan often forgets that a slasher movie is supposedly being made. You’d also be forgiven if you didn’t remember either, due to the long stretches between brief appearances of the masked, cloaked figure that likes to watch instead of participating. Despite a spooky opening that promises a fun night ahead, Logan and his crew never manage to get back to that same level of tension, even though the film is well made overall.

The performances are the brightest spot in the film by far. Bacon is well cast as a benign (yeah, right) leader in charge of teens cast out by their parents and society and letting them call the shots for a change. True, the goal might be skewed in a specific direction (spoiler: it is), but there’s autonomy on the surface that catches all off guard. I loved Preston’s skill in demonstrating how a frozen smile can be scarier than any bloody butcher knife. All the campers have nice moments, and Germaine is a star on the rise, having a significant opportunity gifted to them. Here’s to many more to come.

It’s disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t strike a balance in They/Them. The story being told here is valid and vital, but maybe in action, everyone started to realize that this was two disparate films unsuccessfully being mashed into one. At times, Logan (an Oscar nominee for writing the screenplays for Hugo, The Aviator, and Gladiator, not to mention penning Skyfall) gets things to fit together. Then an awkward misalignment becomes evident, and you’ve found yourself stuck in a weird place again. Any genre fan can spot the maniac instantly, so there’s not even a good mystery to solve while we wait. As a curious entry in the genre, They/Them is often more interested in spending time with the living than chasing down the doomed. The performances and above-average production make it worth the look but keep your expectations at a decent level.