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.

Movie Review ~ Prey


The Facts:

Synopsis: A skilled female warrior on the Great Plans fights to protect her tribe against one of the first highly-evolved Predators to land on Earth.
Stars: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Stormee Kipp, Michelle Thrush, Julian Black Antelope, Dane DiLiegro
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Rated: R
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  The release of the first Predator in 1987 came at the first surge in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as one of the number one action stars of the 20th century. Already established as The Terminator, he’d built a following as a dependable force at the box office who chose projects that capitalized on his brawn first and an indefatigable charisma second. While no tremendous thespian, it was always clear that Schwarzenegger took his job seriously, and that kept audiences coming back to see what new adventure he’d take them on. Teaming with soon-to-be hitmaker director John McTiernan on the jungle sci-fi thriller, Predator became a summer blockbuster and remained a stone-cold classic.

Efforts to replicate that success have yielded mixed results in the years following. A just-fine 1990 sequel took the deadly alien hunter out of the tropics and into the wilds of Los Angeles but didn’t have Schwarzenegger for balance. Interesting ideas were introduced in 2010’s Predators and, to a lesser (and maybe more disappointing) extent, in 2018’s The Predator, which brought back original screenwriter Shane Black to the director’s chair. Still, nothing could get back that initial success. Even pairing the franchise with Alien for two disheartening attempts didn’t catch on.

Continuing a recent trend of renewing a popular franchise by uncovering a “lost” early chapter in its history, 20th Century Studios and Hulu are releasing Prey, and it turns out that Arnie wasn’t the first to go one-on-one with an alien beast. Most of the subsequent entries have abided by the law of sequels that demand bigger (read: more) Predators for your buck, and while that can work for some franchises (Aliens being a great example), it didn’t work as well for this. By restoring the premise to its roots and casting a single enemy as the creature featured, writers Patrick Aison and Dan Trachtenberg (who also directed) allow for a collective unity onscreen and off. They’ve made the best and by far the most exciting sequel to the original, making it an essential part of the Predator universe.

Set on the Great Plains in 1719 among the Comanche people, the film opens with familiarity. Naru, a young woman, struggling to prove her worth in a tribe of elders and male dominance, wants to impress upon those within her family that she is ready for more responsibility. While her brother Taabe hunts and provides for the tribe, she is looked down upon even as she demonstrates more than once that she has learned over time and exceeded expectations at every turn. Accompanied by her dog, much time is spent in the neighboring woods, perfecting her skill with weapons and tracking.

While in the woods, she catches sight of something in the sky that is unexpected and unable to be explained. Though she doesn’t have words for it, we know it’s an alien ship that has landed close by with a passenger who begins to stir up trouble for the wildlife and, soon, Naru’s people. As the Predator (Dane DiLiegro) uses his advanced technical weaponry against the primitive tools of the Comanche people, they appear to be defenseless. That is until a warrior unwilling to let the beast decimate her community decides to take a stand against it.

Having directed the sparse and tense 10 Cloverfield Lane, Trachtenberg knows how to create a lot from a little. The expanse of the location setting (the film was shot in Alberta, Canada) gives the director and crew a broader space to play. Prey nevertheless feels breathless and immediate for much of its 99 minutes. Mostly, it’s due to a script that doesn’t waste much time in getting to the action, spending enough time on early essential character development to orient us with the area and people. Like the original Predator, we learn more about the characters as the movie progresses, when their strengths and weaknesses are truly revealed.

While she’s not making her debut onscreen, it might as well be our introduction of Amber Midthunder as Naru because the actress makes such a smashing showing as the heroine and all-around badass of the picture. Onscreen for most of the film, she’s quite a commanding presence throughout. While I would argue that most of the cast has a uniquely Hollywood look (flawless hair, flawless teeth, flawless skin), that’s not to downplay the overall importance of the representation on display here. Though it wasn’t available on my screener, I would have welcomed the opportunity to view Prey in Comanche, an available option for streaming customers. As it is, the movie nicely indicates the transition from the indigenous language of the Comanche people to the English dialogue spoken for most of the film.

Produced primarily in secret until a studio executive spilled the beans in advance, I think it would have been grand to see Prey arrive without any advance knowledge. We no longer exist in that age where surprises can still happen. We live in a time when a movie experience can be a real revelation, and Prey indeed is just that. The violence is severe and brutal, sure to please gore fans craving creative kills, and it’s coupled with action sequences that are intelligently staged so that you aren’t five steps ahead of the actors. File those nails down because you’ll bite them a few times.   If all franchise renewals can be this innovative and inspired, I’m all for it.

Movie Review ~ I Love My Dad

The Facts:

Synopsis: A hopelessly estranged father catfishes his son in an attempt to reconnect.
Stars: Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, Rachel Dratch, Claudia Sulewski, Ricky Velez, Lil Rel Howery, Amy Landecker
Director: James Morosini
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In my family, summer was always leading up to the road trip. Either up to our cabin or visiting family way out yonder, there was nothing but the open road to greet us and lots of activity books to keep me busy along the way. I miss those pre-technology days when you had to converse with your loved ones, and maybe that’s why I spark to films that feature one or more parents traveling with their adult children because it recaptures something we’ve lost in this modern age. Communication. Growing apart from your parents is a natural part of becoming an adult but reconnecting through maturity is another aspect of ‘adulting’ I find an interesting area to explore.

This summer, we’ve already had one emotionally resonant familial drama involving a parent and child making a cross-country trip. While Don’t Make Me Go threw some friendly chuckles our way, it wasn’t after our funny bone. While most have been downgraded through dopey slapstick and gross-out humor, I thought we’d seen the last of the dependably entertaining road trip comedies. It turns out we just needed to add a bit of father-son drama to the mix to resurrect the genre. That’s how a gem of a movie like I Love My Dad zooms in and parks itself on your must-watch list.

Writer/director/star James Morosini uses his own life as the basis for this whale of a tale that could have abused its absurdity with out-of-place humor but instead embraces it with winning compassion. A suicidal adult son alienated from his absentee father is coaxed out of his shell by an attractive girl he meets online, opening up to her and finding that he may have found his soulmate. The trouble is, the girl of his dreams is his father (the spectacular Patton Oswalt, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), under a fake profile in a last-ditch attempt to connect with his son, who has blocked all contact after a lifetime of disappointment.

The film handles the switcheroo nicely, with Claudia Sulewski as the imaginary girl blessedly standing in for conversations with Morosini, so we don’t have to read endless texts back and forth. I get a little cross-eyed in films that make us read the text bubbles onscreen while simultaneously watching the actor react to the same message. Likely a way to save on post-production effects, having this digital back and forth become IRL discussions adds a bit of magic to it all. It surely reduces the growing dread we have of what might happen next.

The catfish set-up is as awkward as it sounds, making the well of uncomfortable situations only grow as the film progresses as Morosini’s character decides he wants to meet his online girlfriend in person. In lesser hands, this could have turned into a raunchy yuck-o yuck fest, putting Morosini and Oswalt into situations I don’t even want to visualize. The movie resists that urge and lets the situation be the weirdest thing in the room, allowing the genuine spirit of Oswalt’s performance to come through. Often relegated to featured sidekicks, it’s terrific to see Oswalt’s talents used (and recognized) in this way; his scenes with Morosini have a great sincerity to them, while his work with Rachel Dratch is where he can turn the comic volume up. Avoiding the pitfalls of being the writer/director, Morosini feels unbiased in how he keeps things moving and genuine in his performance. 

I first saw I Love My Dad at the SXSW Film Festival in 2022 and felt then that it would be an audience pleaser. It went on to win not just the Audience Award (as predicted) but the Grand Jury Award. The sweet and sincere film well deserved the win(s), and I can tell it’s a title that will move around via word-of-mouth recommendation.