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.