Movie Review ~ Hocus Pocus 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: It’s been 29 years since someone lit the Black Flame Candle and resurrected the 17th-century sisters, and they are looking for revenge. Now it is up to three high-school students to stop the greedy witches from wreaking a new kind of havoc on Salem before dawn on All Hallow’s Eve.
Stars: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Doug Jones, Whitney Peak, Lilia Buckingham, Belissa Escobedo, Hannah Waddingham, Tony Hale, Sam Richardson
Director: Anne Fletcher
Rated: PG
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  I was in theaters 29 years ago to see Hocus Pocus during its original run, not in October of 1993 when it should have come out but balmy mid-July when the theater was a graveyard. Why Walt Disney Studios, usually so good at timing their releases to coincide with holidays or other marketable events, would choose to release this Halloween-themed film when autumn weather was far from everyone’s minds is still a puzzle I can’t figure out, and releasing it on the same weekend as Free Willy was also the kiss of death. The movie tanked, not just at the box office but with critics as well. Yet there I was, with my friends having a grand time and wondering why more people weren’t getting in on the camp fun of it all.

As with most witches’ brews, Hocus Pocus needed a little more time to simmer before it was ready for mass consumption. The movie finally found its audience through airings on the Disney Channel and becoming a permanent fixture on ABC Family’s 13 Nights of Halloween (oh, how I loved that yearly line-up!), and they grew into the ardent fanbase Disney sought out all those years earlier. Suddenly, a hunger for more Hocus Pocus grew. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, the film’s stars playing the witchy Sanderson Sisters, always spoke highly of their time making the movie, expressed being open to a sequel, and Midler would delight audiences when she would don her movie look at concerts and public appearances. Walt Disney theme parks even added the Sanderson Sisters and a live stage show to their annual Halloween themed extravaganzas (I saw it, it was terrific)…but what about that sequel?

After 29 years and many rumored starts, Disney finally conjured up Hocus Pocus 2, and it’s due in no small part to the audiences that have come to embrace the original movie over time. It’s not like the first movie had a message of great value or importance to strike a nerve that would pass through generations. It was simply a film that didn’t get its fair shot the first time, but when evaluated through a less fractured lens, it was seen as a quality Halloween family outing. Could a sequel recapture that same magic and please fans while bringing another new generation into the circle?

Time was the key, I think. While Hocus Pocus 2 isn’t groundbreaking, it’s a welcome follow-up that nods to its predecessor but doesn’t bow at its feet. Director Anne Fletcher (taking over for original helmer Kenny Ortega) keeps the film light and airy, maintaining an almost episodic feel to the proceedings when the Sanderson Sisters are called back from the beyond under similar circumstances. First, though, a prologue has to fill in some blanks that trace the origin of the sisters as children in Salem back in the 17th century as they meet up with Mother Witch (Hannah Waddingham, The Hustle) after they are ostracized from their community. This sequence is here to play up the visual gag of young Winnifred (a droll Taylor Paige Henderson), who looks, talks, and acts like a young Midler, buck teeth and all. As a longtime fan of all things Hocus Pocus, I enjoyed this look back, and Henderson is a total scream nailing each Winnifred mannerism down to every shady side-eye.

The main story concerns Becca (Whitney Peak, Molly’s Game) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), best friends in modern-day Salem, celebrating Becca’s 16th birthday with their usual ritual of pseudo-witchcraft in the local woods. This year, they’re doing it without Cassie (Lila Buckingham), their third pal who has chosen her boyfriend over them this year. Armed with a candle given to them by Gilbert (Sam Richardson, Werewolves Within), the owner of a Magic Shoppe which occupies the old Sanderson Sister home, they begin their conjuring and find that this candle is…special. 

Before you can say ‘In comma-coriyama’, Winnifred (Midler, The Glorias), Mary (Najimy, Single All The Way), and Sarah (Parker, I Don’t Know How She Does It) have exhumed themselves from the ground and launched into one of several Vegas-y numbers featured throughout the film. Determined to get her magic book back and stick around longer than a Halloween evening like last time, Winnifred forces the mortal girls to help the three resurrected witches gather the ingredients for an all-powerful spell. As Becca learns more about the powers she may harbor, she and Izzy spend the rest of the night attempting to battle back the witches without losing a most important friendship.

The stakes in Hocus Pocus 2 are a bit all over the map. Whereas in the first film, there’s a focused goal the Sanderson Sisters are after, for the sequel, Fletcher (Hot Pursuit) screenwriter Jen D’Angelo juggles several different storylines that don’t always work on the same level. Anything with the original stars is great fun, with Midler shining brightest as always with the best material. Najimy and Parker have a bit more to do here, but they are often relegated to the back for Midler to take center stage. Midler’s performance is the most delicious fun, so why not let her have as much screen time as possible?

As for the others involved, it’s hit or miss. I liked the relationship created between Peak and Escobedo, but oof, I’m sorry to say that Buckingham is a real dud. After a while, you realize that the two girls are better off without their absent friend, and so are we because Buckingham’s lackluster performance sucks the energy out of every scene. Richardson spends most of his time with Doug Jones (The Shape of Water) returning as zombie Billy Butcherson, creating a strange buddy comedy. I would have liked more of Waddingham, but who knows what the future might bring…you may want to stay until the final credit has run.

Filmed on soundstages as opposed to actual locations (though we do go outdoors every once in a while), Hocus Pocus 2 doesn’t have the same polish as the first movie. Still, it does come off as feeling like Disney spent the appropriate amount of money on it to give the fans what they have been craving. You can tell the film had its ending reshot because of some iffy digital work near the conclusion, but aside from that, the effects are handled smoothly too. If this is the sequel we waited 29 years for, it was worth the wait – it doesn’t cheap out or cheat us on what we liked so much back in 1993.

Movie Review ~ My Best Friend’s Exorcism

The Facts:

Synopsis: The year is 1988. High school sophomores Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fourth grade. But after an evening of skinny-dipping goes disastrously wrong, Gretchen begins to act…different.
Stars: Elsie Fisher, Amiah Miller, Cathy Ang, Rachel Ogechi Kan, Christopher Lowell
Director: Damon Thomas
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: If you grew up devouring YA novels from Christopher Pike, Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, or R.L. Stine, you might have graduated to an writer like Grady Hendrix. An author with an ear for cultural artifacts and a mesmerizing way of triggering nostalgia in the reader, Hendrix knows his stuff. Over the last decade, Hendrix has become popular with a run of books that celebrate, emulate, and spring out of the paperback novels and multiplex mainstays that most of this generation of parentals will recognize. His 2021 novel, ‘The Final Girl Support Group’, was a fantastic slasher/thriller chock full of references to classic and modern horror films. You can get lost in his 2017 non-fiction ‘Paperbacks from Hell’, which traces the evolution of horror softcovers of the ’70s and ’80s. 

Another popular title in his bibliography was ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’, written in 2016. The hefty tome is over 300 pages and is a fun, if slightly ponderous, high school adolescent horror regarding besties and the demonic possession that comes between them. The book’s cover drew me in, and while I struggled to finish it, I was more than happy to see it getting a film version because it already read like a movie as I was blazing through the final pages. Released by Amazon Studios a month before Halloween during a resurgence in well-received fright flicks (Smile, The Black Phone, Barbarian, House of Darkness), My Best Friend’s Exorcism should have been an easy add to that growing list of next-gen terror titles.

Sadly, this film from director Damon Thomas and adapted by Jenna Lamia is a huge, almost shockingly pedestrian, letdown. Set in 1988 with a production design that seems to have used the B-52’s ‘Love Shack’ video for inspiration, it’s an ugly-looking movie with the acting coming up short too. There were moments early on when I thought Thomas and Lamia had worked with Hendrix to fashion the film into more of a parody than outright horror, attempting to take broad strokes of comedy to mix in with the paranormal elements. My suspicions were proved wrong time and time again by a charmless cast that didn’t seem to get the joke being told and a film that didn’t serve any real purpose.

Best friends Abby (Elsie Fisher, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller, The Water Man) have been close since childhood. Both know the deepest secrets of the other, their tiniest insecurities, and continue to lift one another through the tough times at school. Abby struggles with the onset of embarrassing acne and a secret crush for one of the teachers at their Catholic high school. Gretchen is from a goody-two-shoes family but longs to be a little wild. They hang out with Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kan) and Glee (Cathy Ang, Over the Moon), who seem to be their friends, but more like their frenemies at times.

Margaret’s been spending more time with her bo-hunk boyfriend Wallace, annoying the other three (and Glee, who harbors a crush on her best friend), but the upcoming weekend at Margaret’s cabin is all about them. Then Wallace shows up with LSD, and the slightly tripping Abby and Gretchen stumble into the abandoned building near Margaret’s house that’s said to be haunted. There, the girls are separated, and Gretchen is overtaken by something evil. When she returns, she’s not the same Gretchen. At first, she’s withdrawn and lashes out at her best friend in hurtful ways. After a pivotal transformation, she emerges as something much more problematic: A seemingly well-adjusted high schooler with an innocent face that no one would believe could commit the kinds of terrible acts about to take place. And only a best friend like Abby could stop her.

I know there’s a good movie here. It could have and should have been made. Something was lost in the translation from the page to the screen, and it’s so disappointing to witness. Starting with that gaudy production design that takes every ugly late ’80s design choice and trots it out like it’s runway ready or set to appear in Architectural Digest.   The neon colors, pastels, oversize sweaters, and scrunchies can look good when done correctly, but in My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it feels like the actors were thrown into a pile of clothes, and whatever they came out wearing is what they were in for the day.

Then there’s the acting which, to put it kindly, is not terrible but shouldn’t be this bad for a movie at this level. Abby and Gretchen are supposed to be lifelong best friends. However, there is no chemistry or camaraderie present between Fisher and Miller, with Fisher especially looking like she’s never met Miller each time they’re in a scene together. Miller tries to pull things together, later emerging the victor out of her costars, but that’s not saying much. I was most sorry for everyone because they wore such awful clothes. 

On top of everything, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is frequently unnecessarily mean, even where high school movies are concerned. Digs at skin problems, eating disorders, and lesbianism, come off as cheap low blows without any creative energy behind them. I haven’t even mentioned the scene with the 11-foot tapeworm, have I? Just wait until you see how that one resolves itself. Perhaps coming out in the middle of all these other scary films aimed at the same target audience will send this one to the graveyard fast. No exorcism required. A really wasted opportunity in my mind.

Movie Review ~ Smile (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. As an overwhelming terror begins taking over her life, Rose must confront her troubling past to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.
Stars: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan, Robin Weigert, Judy Reyes
Director: Parker Finn
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  While I’m happy that movie theaters have gotten back into full swing and we’re able to experience films made for the big screen in the larger-than-life projection as they were initially intended, there’s a cold truth that must be said. It’s still annoying to deal with audiences that simply don’t care about preserving the art of movie-going with the same magic it used to have before technology, bad manners, and entitlement took over. The texting remains as bad as ever, loud talking with disregard for other patrons is still there, and general apathy toward the personal space of the people around you is firmly in place. Don’t believe me? Tell it to the gentleman and his date I had to sit a few rows behind the other day who used their shiny phones to brightly correspond with friends while putting their feet up on top of the (occupied!) seats in front of them.  

For all these bad apple audiences, when you find yourself in one that not only plays by the rules but adds their bit of fun, you remember again why a communal spirit is an integral part of the shared movie-going experience. Watching the nerve-rattling new horror film Smile, the audience (for once, a nice mix of ages and races that represents a broad spectrum of ticket-buyer) came to get their bones rattled. You could feel the energy building the scarier the film got and the more reactions from row to row. Even a rogue talker providing color commentary, usually a source of ire for me, successfully landed some well-timed zingers that didn’t impede the mood.

I’ve been in audiences like this when a movie is terrible (like the time a thirtysomething man was laughing so hard at the 2007 Lindsay Lohan debacle I Know Who Killed Me he literally fell out of his seat and rolled down the aisle) but with a movie like Smile, which is far better than average, you know early on how forgiving an audience will be. Because Smile is pretty silly if you dwindle on any significant part of the plot, not that writer/director Parker Finn stays in one place for too long in his film that’s, coincidentally, too long. From a prologue that sets a tone of uneasiness that continues throughout to a dedicated embrace of all the tricks in the genre playbook, Smile is aggressively coming for your screams and won’t stop until it gets it. It got me; it will get you.

Hospital emergency ward therapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is dedicated to her work and helping patients through traumatic events. In the few brief character-building moments we have with her as the film opens, we get the impression her passion for care often outweighs what she can reasonably offer from a medical or emotional standpoint. She’s supposed to be headed home for a well-earned rest when she takes one last admit, a tormented patient (Caitlin Stasey) that speaks of a presence stalking her that only she can see. Before Rose can learn more, the patient commits a crazed act of self-harm that serves as the starting point for Rose’s descent into her paranoia of supernatural menace.

Unable to do her job effectively, her boss (Kal Penn) puts her on leave, while her fiancé (Jesse T. Usher) doesn’t know what to do to stop a growing madness from taking over. A visit to Rose’s therapist (the excellent Robin Weigert, Bombshell) fills in some blanks into Rose’s childhood and the trauma endured that has followed her around ever since. Were these demons reawakened when she bore witness to the recent violence, or has a curse transferred to her, a curse now working as a doomsday clock counting down to a similar gory fate?

Drawing bits and pieces from films like The Ring, Drag Me to Hell, and a little bit of It Follows, Smile is set apart by a style and sophisticated production elements which give it a prominent studio sheen. Indeed, Paramount’s 17-million-dollar investment has been used wisely, with special effects from legendary masters of the craft Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr.  Spending your money where it counts provides the film with calling card frights. These nightmare-inducing images leap out from the dark at you, accompanied by a sting of dissonant music from Cristobal Tapia de Veer. 

Finn uses the score and sound effects to keep you on your toes. Sure, much of the screeching jolts feel like cheap ways to goose you into a reaction, and yet they work like walking through a haunted house when there’s an endless parade of scares while you traverse down a hallway. With frights jumping out at you from every angle, it’s natural that you will jump right when you are directed to because that is the point. The same is true here. The cheap scares are one thing, but the earned ones (and there are quite a few) are dandy. Consider getting a lid for your popcorn and a seat belt for your chair, so you don’t levitate right out of your seat.

We’re on a great run of horror films lately (The Black Phone, Barbarian, House of Darkness), and Smile continues that streak. I loved watching this one and how unrelenting it was in its mission to mine us for all the shrieks it could.   Even the short title design cast its particular mood on this viewer. Those unwilling to have that joy buzzer scare will likely emerge from Smile feeling used. Understanding what it’s purposely doing and how it aims for the extreme versions of overused motifs will give you something to flash your pearly whites for.

Movie Review ~ Bros


The Facts:

Synopsis: Two gay men with commitment problems are maybe, possibly, probably stumbling towards love. Maybe. They’re both very busy.
Stars: Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Dot-Marie Jones, Ts Madison, Miss Lawrence, Eve Lindley, Jim Rash, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Díaz, Debra Messing, Bowen Yang, Harvey Fierstein, Guy Branum, Amanda Bearse, Jai Rodriguez
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  To most people reading this review, it may not seem like a lot is riding on the release of Bros, but it’s another colossal watershed moment for Hollywood. While there have been “gay” romantic comedies over the years, few of them have had stars that identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community playing the lead roles. Often reduced to arch stereotypes that support the lead, LGBTQ+ actors have rarely had their moment in the spotlight, let alone starred in unironic films about their non-platonic love lives. Then along came Billy.

Billy Eichner that is. The 44-year-old comedian’s early career promise was evident with appearances on Conan O’Brien that led to his riotously funny show Billy on the Street. Originally airing on the hard-to-find truTV, it featured Eichner furiously running around NYC and stopping random strangers to ask them off-the-wall trivia questions, often for prizes. As it gained popularity, celebrities started to join Eichner for his irreverent guerilla game show, and the powers that be on bigger networks noticed the attention he was getting. Eventually, this led to Difficult People, a half-hour series he created with friend Julie Klausner running for three seasons on Hulu before being unceremoniously canceled in its prime. 

By then, Eichner was on his way to guest starring on TV shows and movies (he voiced Timon in Disney’s 2019 live-action remake of The Lion King) and booking appearances at events showcasing his wry wit and dry observances on all things affecting our modern society. This brings us to his deal with Universal Pictures to co-write and star in Bros, the first gay romantic comedy from a mainstream studio featuring an entirely LGBTQ+ principal cast. A lot to shoulder but if anyone was up to the task, Eichner was confidently the one to do it.

Directed by co-writer Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement) and co-starring Luke Macfarlane, on one hand Bros serves as a great example of when you amplify the right voices, you wind up telling everyone’s story. Eichner and MacFarlane are a modern, complex pairing moving through the ups & downs of romance, finding laughs while targeting the heart. On the flip side, as a member of the very community it is raising up, I will say that while I found much to appreciate from the story and breadth of characters it represents, a closer examination finds the film to be structurally shaky as it overreaches in its talking points, inclusive to the point where it feels like casting by checkbox and lacking in the kind of tight, snappy editing that was the secret ingredient to the best romantic comedies it strives to be mentioned with.

Here’s the deal. No matter who you love, I’m going to give an honest read of any movie that comes my way. At the beginning of Bros, I struggled to find a rhythm with the comedy because I couldn’t decide if it was a commentary on modern gay romance or a gay romantic comedy with side commentary. So, we see Bobby (Eichner), a popular podcaster turned museum curator, viewing the myriad relationships around him and enjoying his freedom while illustrating his shenanigans trying to find quick love only to be let down by the experience. (How very Stephen Sondheim’s Company of you…Bobby) Gay dating apps are presented as shallow end-of-the-line pick-up spots for the desperate, while accepting the love you feel you are worthy of is Bobby’s modus operandi.

That mood shifts when Aaron (Macfarlane, Single All The Way) catches Bobby’s eye at a club. The hunky beefcake is a hairless Greek god next to Bobby’s fuzzy but attractive frame, and the two couldn’t be more mismatched, but they both share a connection that keeps them coming back to one another for reasons they can’t explain. That’s what the movie tells us, at least. While Eichner and Macfarlane have an excellent rapport onscreen and friendly chemistry as people, their characters never feel like their bond burns so deep they will go through some of the misery the script puts them through. It’s not until nearly an hour has passed that either character relaxes enough to let the other in just a bit, but even that is fleeting.

It feels almost wrong to nitpick at something as rare as Bros, and while I wholly recommend it because of its unique place in the canon of romantic comedies, I find that my expectations went a bit unmet at times. Don’t get me wrong, Eichner and Stoller’s script has blazingly funny lines, and an Emmy-winning sitcom star has a two-scene cameo that’s an absolute scream. Still, there are stretches where it often feels like it’s floating just below the surface of great or missing out on its possible full potential. Maybe that’s because Stoller’s directing isn’t as pulled together as it usually is; it’s for sure not edited with the crisp touch for sharp comedy (or continuity) like previous films. There’s also a strange fixation on allowing characters to shout/scream their lines when an “inside voice” would do just fine. (And this is coming from someone who can be the loudest person in the room when he wants.)

Based on the reaction of my audience, I’m likely in the minority of opinion. The packed house roared throughout the film, and I sensed their engagement with nary a break in the spell that was cast over them by Eicher, Macfarlane, and an eclectic supporting cast. Then again, these screenings often attract a curated crowd. I also am curious to see how the aggressive marketing of the movie might backfire. As much as Eichner and the studio have been pushing Bros, the publicity has seemed more plea than promo in recent weeks. I’m crossing my fingers Bros can be the crossover hit it needs to be to encourage more studios to invest their resources in other films that can speak to the everyday lives of the LBGTQ+ community and continue to include them (well, us) as the main focus in future projects

Movie Review ~ Blonde (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a traumatic childhood, Norma Jeane Mortenson becomes an actress in Hollywood in the 1950s and early 1960s. She becomes world famous under the stage name “Marilyn Monroe,” but her on-screen appearances are in stark contrast to the love issues, exploitation, abuse of power, and drug addiction she faces in her private life.
Stars: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Fisher, Evan Williams, Toby Huss, David Warshofsky, Caspar Phillipson, Dan Butler, Sara Paxton, Rebecca Wisocky
Director: Andrew Dominik
Rated: NC-17
Running Length: 166 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  The more we tell the same story over time, the more it can grow and gradually change form. Fact becomes fiction, and fiction becomes the legend passed down like a campfire story from one generation to the next. Each culture has its lore, and even established social circles find it hard to rebound from its stars that burn bright and then fade. Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, is a glittering example of a celebrity that captured the attention of an adoring public for her beauty and has remained an elusive mystery in the decades since her untimely death from a barbiturate overdose at 36. Her marriages (and more famous affairs) have fueled books, movies, television, and even a stage show or two. Has anyone ever told the real story of Marilyn Monroe?

Those looking for ultimate truths aren’t going to find it in Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carole Oates’ 2000 novel Blonde. A bestseller and finalist for the Pulitzer prize, the author claims her work is pure fiction, and still, it’s hard not to read between the lines of the salacious details and align them with the meteoric rise of Monroe during the ’50s through to her demise. Already adapted in 2001 into a television mini-series, Blonde has been Dominik’s pet project for over a decade, with A-listers like Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain attached to star over that time. Ultimately, the film was made for Netflix, starring Ana de Armas (Knives Out), a surprising choice given her Cuban heritage. 

The de Armas casting aside, Blonde faced an uphill battle with viewers wanting a look after it was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating by the MPAA. Having a limited theatrical run to qualify it for awards consideration, the rating limits where it can play and who can see it while it plays in theaters. On Netflix, it’s fair game, and the rating doesn’t carry nearly the same stigma it did back when it was equitable to an X. It earns that rating through several hard-to-watch, graphic sexual acts of violence Monroe experienced and a few camera angles that are looking out from a, shall we say, nether region.

At 166 minutes, watching Dominik’s film is a commitment, but one that I think is essential in beginning your understanding of the Marilyn Monroe persona that Norma Jean took on to disassociate from her painful childhood. Later, we see that Norma Jean becomes the safe haven when “Marilyn” is taken advantage of by a series of perverse men, overwhelmed, or needs solace. When learned coping can satiate neither side any longer, Dominik starkly shows the destruction within an already fragile soul. That’s as hard to take in the first time we see a budding Monroe violated by a studio head when she thinks she’s auditioning as it is when she flies in to meet JFK only to be disgustingly objectified while others sit in the next room, doing nothing.

To deny the film is to disregard the exceptional work on display from de Armas. In Blonde, she’s giving the kind of haunted, go-the-distance, audience-challenging performance we ask for every year of a Best Actress and then are too scared to reward or acknowledge. And who cares if de Armas doesn’t “sound” totally like Marilyn Monroe? The voice is far better than the early reviews said, not to mention it’s eerie how much she resembles the real woman she’s playing. This film isn’t a Vegas revue being mounted, and the spirit inside the performance counts. Remember a few years back when Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Walk the Line while looking (and sounding) nothing like June Carter Cash? 

Identified as The Playwright (really Arthur Miller), Oscar-winner Adrian Brody (Clean) reminds us why he won that prize for The Pianist two decades ago. His scenes with de Armas are gold; quiet moments of a soft-spoken man and a woman used to people raising their voices at her are so touching and played with strength. I almost wanted the movie to be exclusively them chatting. Her marriage to The Ex-Athlete (Joe DiMaggio, played by Bobby Cannavale, Thunder Force) and complicated relationship with her mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County) are also examined, albeit with more of the histrionics that give the film more of a tabloid feel.

Flipping between black and white and color photography, as well as employing multiple aspect ratios, the small screen experience of Blonde can be more than a little dizzying. I’m betting the aspect ratio changing works better in theaters where the impact can be felt more, its point clearer. All these changes feel like gussied-up tricks instead of choices at home—distractions from the shiny object at the center that keeps us watching Blonde and de Armas. Recreating many of Monroe’s famous appearances but never going full-on into impression or parody, Dominik isn’t above jumping away into another scene right as we think we’re going to get a restaged musical number or see a familiar appearance. 

Though it’s already long (too long, some would argue), I was surprised at how much Dominik omits along the way. While mostly told chronologically, several leaps ahead can leave viewers unsure of where they are in the Monroe timeline. One moment, she’s a child being dropped off at an orphanage; the next, she’s posing for Playboy. What happened between that fateful day and her first appearance in the magazine that began to shape Norma Jean into the woman she’d become? Most of her relationships have no actual start and end. They just “are,” and that’s that. 

Bound to be an endurance test for some, a fascination for many, and potentially triggering to others, I found Blonde to be a powerful watch based solely on the performance de Armas was giving. It’s not hard to root for Monroe, but what the actress brings to it is a doomed vulnerability we don’t want just to protect but help her find the tools to do it on her own. Like most legendary tales in Hollywood, the details may be fuzzy, but the ending is always the same, and the final shot of Blonde is a telling reminder that even in death, some only saw the Marilyn Monroe they wanted.  

Movie Review ~ The Good House

The Facts:

Synopsis: A wry New England realtor’s compartmentalized life begins to unravel as she rekindles a romance with her old high-school flame and becomes dangerously entwined in one person’s reckless behavior.
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney
Director: Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review:  Sigourney Weaver is one of our great actresses and undoubtedly one that should have an Oscar on her mantle by now. For her blistering work in Aliens, the 1986 sequel to her 1979 career-changing breakout Alien, she received the first of her Best Actress nominations for taking her lone survivor part up another level, pairing a fully-realized dramatic role with an action heroine. Two years later, her next nomination for Gorillas in the Mist gave viewers the opportunity to get to know the work of a primatologist who wasn’t afraid to be disliked for conserving the mountain gorillas she felt compelled to protect. That same year, she easily could have walked away with Best Supporting Actress for her wicked turn as the boss from hell in Working Girl. She might have taken it if she had not been nominated for Best Actress. 

Throughout her career, Weaver has been a dependable presence and, more importantly, a game contributor to whatever project she signs onto. That’s allowed her to work in multiple genres with many directors that have used her well. She’s even at the point of making cameo appearances and receiving the rapturous reception that indicates the level of appreciation the movie-going public has for her. When the time is right, and the role is just so, you get the feeling that her awards run will be a swift victory.

I’m not sure how much The Good House was intended to be positioned to get Weaver into the race, but this will not get her over the finish line. Based on Ann Leary’s 2013 bestseller, the film was initially set up to star Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro. I remember this announcement well because I tracked down the book and had it on my bookshelf for a few years until Streep dropped out and the project fell silent. With Weaver recruited to star alongside her previous two-time co-star Kevin Kline, the New England seriocomedy fell into the hands of directors Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky, who had directed films separately before but never together.

That individuality of style becomes skittishly apparent after a breezy opening suggesting The Good House might be a charming bit of matinee fun, especially for fans of Weaver and Kline. The setting is picturesque, the script by Thomas Bezucha (Let Him Go) and the directors has a crackle to it, and the faint suggestion of the supernatural is enough to draw you in quickly. Weaver is Hildy Good, the top real estate agent in her little hamlet, providing for herself, often supporting her two adult children, and staying abreast of all the goings on (i.e., gossip) in town. If someone is moving out, she knows why and she has the scoop on any newcomers seeking the perfect place to call home.

Sharing office space with a therapist (Rob Delaney, Home Sweet Home Alone) who is considering switching gears to a busier metropolis, Hildy has a prospective new listing to focus on and a potential new friend in an unhappily married housewife (Morena Baccarin, Last Looks) who has only recently arrived. Then there’s Frank Getchell (Kline, The Starling), a jack-of-all-trades handyman and former flame who lives close by and might still hold the same brand of blazing torch Hildy has been secretly keeping for him. Plus, Hildy has a gift for mind-reading, a talent she’s happy to oblige when asked to bring out at dinner parties.

All of this presentation of normalcy is a glazed veneer for what’s underneath the surface of Hildy’s carefully structured life, and it’s peeking below this shell where audiences should find the good stuff in The Good House. Instead, it’s where the most significant weaknesses lie. That’s when we notice Weaver working furiously to drum up cohesion with the actors assigned to play her ex-husband and two daughters. There’s no interplay to suggest any of these people have ever met, let alone were married or were a parent to the actresses assigned as their children. 

This large discrepancy becomes key when more of the plot is revealed, including Hildy’s alcoholism. The film shifts from Hildy trying to keep her life in line to Hildy literally trying to say within the lines of the road. While Sigourney Weaver (Copycat) has perhaps one of the cinema’s most fantastic takes to the camera during an intervention that becomes more about the people intervening than anything, the shift in tone is so jarring and breaks the tranquil spell we were under that the movie never recovers. Not even with the sweet romance between Hildy and Frank and certainly not in the film’s latter half when infidelity, blackout drinking, and townspeople with moods that change on dime start to overwhelm Weaver’s strong performance.

Unfortunately, Forbes and Wolodarsky couldn’t tighten all this up more; there are about five extraneous characters for every one we want to invest time in. There’s genuinely something living in The Good House at the beginning I wanted to see more of. Weaver is always worth the effort, and it’s never a bad day at the movies when Kline is playing it free and easy. Their scenes together are by far the best, even though the script has Weaver hysterically (embarrassingly?) telling a pot-smoking Kline to “put down that jazz cabbage.” At least we won’t have to wait long for more Weaver; she’ll be seen soon in Avatar: The Way of Water and Call Jane.


Movie Review ~ Lou

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thinking she’d put her dangerous past behind her, Lou finds her quiet life interrupted when a desperate mother begs her to save her kidnapped daughter.
Stars: Allison Janney, Jurnee Smollett, Logan Marshall-Green, Ridley Asha Bateman, Matt Craven
Director: Anna Foerster
Rated: R
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  Right now, there are some excellent options if you’re looking for movies led by Oscar-winning actresses kicking ass and taking names. In theaters, you can witness Viola Davis charging forward (possibly to another nomination) in The Woman King, inspired by the true story of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit formed to protect the kingdom of Dahomey in 19th Century West Africa. It’s exciting entertainment that delivers what it promises and creates an atmosphere where packed houses can unite, cheering on Davis and her well-conditioned female army.

An at-home release of The Woman King is still a few weeks off, but until that arrives, you can enjoy 2017’s Best Supporting Actress winner Allison Janney in a new Netflix thriller, alongside Jurnee Smollett. Taking the same unabashedly commercial route as The Woman King (hey, every movie doesn’t have to have its eye on the Oscar prize; at least not at first), Lou is formulaic as all get-out, too long, and packs on the cliches six layers deep. That said, it’s such an engagingly alive piece of cinema that delivers on exactly what it sets out to that it’s hard to fault it for being anything but its authentic self. 

A loner living on a small peninsula in the Pacific Northwest during the Reagan ’80s, Lou (Janney, I, Tonya) is about to do something very bad at the film’s start. We’ve already watched her travel into the nearby woods with her faithful dog and dig up a box containing documents and film that she tosses into her fireplace after she returns home. Just as she’s moving to the next stage of her plan, the film jumps back a few hours to introduce us to Hannah (Smollett, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and her young daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman, Shattered) who rent a home on Lou’s property. Behind on the rent to a landlady that doesn’t do extensions, widowed Hannah promises payment soon; they all need to get through an oncoming storm threatening to wash out the area first.

The storm isn’t the only bad news coming to the peninsula tonight. Another harbinger of destruction has arrived and made off with Vee, sending Hannah into a panic and over to Lou’s, hoping to use her phone. Cut off from the authorities but knowing the specter can’t get far with a child in tow, Lou and Hannah set off to get the girl back before she can be taken from the island and lost forever. Using her retained skills as an ex-C.I.A. member, Lou hunts down a hunter (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus) that is always one step away from them and ahead of her in anticipating the next movie. Through unforgiving woods and weather, Lou and Hannah work together as an odd couple enacting a rescue operation with only the barest amount of tools at their disposal.

Writers Maggie Cohn & Jack Stanley construct Lou from traditional elements that wouldn’t seem out of place in an old-time Western starring John Wayne. With Janney taking the Wayne role, had Lou been cast as a man, I think it would have been far less interesting and not as necessary a movie to make. Giving Janney this opportunity expands her range even further than we know it to be, allowing her physicality to work in tandem with her acting chops. Director Anna Foerster, a former cinematographer for Roland Emmerich, knows how to stage tension and finds the angles and methods to ratchet up pressure nicely. 

A late weeknight watch for me, I had planned to get a few minutes in of Lou before giving myself over to sleep and finishing it the next day. What began as “just ten minutes” turned into twenty, then forty, then seventy, then finishing it all. It grabs you early and keeps you close until crossing the finish line. Sure, the end gets a little far-flung with convenience but with populist entertainment like this, what’s the harm in giving the audience what they need? Keep this one handy for a Friday or Saturday night when you want something you’ll watch all the way through without stopping.

Fantastic Fest – Review Round-Up #1

Fantastic Fest Review ~ Everyone Will Burn

Synopsis: A mysterious young girl interrupts María José’s suicide attempt, offering the power to take revenge on the villagers responsible for her son’s death.
Director: David Hebrero
Running Length: 114 minutes
Review: I’ll share with you one film festival edict I set early on that I try to abide by at all costs. Choose your first movie wisely. It can often set the tone for how the next several days will go, not just in your general mood but in the types of films you’ll gravitate toward. I thought director David Hebrero’s Everyone Will Burn might be a solid place to start, and I’m happy to report I was spot-on. This entry from Spain feels like a hearty meal for fans of supernatural revenge, finding a woman (a hot-wired Macarena Gómez) still mourning the loss of her son years earlier, unable to forgive her neighbors for turning a blind eye to the likely culprits. Outcast from her small village, she’s poised to end her life when Lucia (Sofía García) appears with the power to give her the sweet retribution she seeks in increasingly gruesome manners. Hebrero has firm control over the movie 2/3 of the time; it’s the final 1/3 when it spins off the tracks and gets disjointed, piling a half dozen endings on and losing its way in the editing room. Until then, Everyone Will Burn is hard to look away from and breathless in its wicked plot to avenge the dead.

Fantastic Fest Review ~ Unidentified Objects

Synopsis: An internet sex worker convinces her reclusive neighbor to road-trip across North America for a rendezvous with visitors from a distant galaxy.
Director: Juan Felipe Zuleta
Running Length: 100 minutes
Review: It’s hard to put my finger on it, but there’s a little magic in the first few minutes of dialogue in Juan Felipe Zuleta’s Unidentified Objects that compels you to keep watching. The conversation isn’t anything we haven’t heard before. One dreamy free spirit on the hood of a car is recounting the solar systems to a disinterested passenger on a clear evening. Yet it establishes chemistry between stars Sarah Hay and Matthew Jeffers we’ll come to rely on when the script by Zuleta and Leland Frankel begins to sag in the home stretch. Jeffers is terrific as a gay loner who agrees to rent his car out to Hay, a neighbor he’s never spoken to, as long as he can come along. She needs to get to Canada by a specific time for reasons we’ll find out later, and he uses the road trip opportunity to fulfill a promise he made to a friend. As far as road trip movies go, this covers all the bases but does it with sweet regard for humanity and respect for how real (Canadian) people behave. Often riotously funny, it steers clear of some obvious mean-spiritedness (Jeffers has a rare form of dwarfism), instead reserving its judgment at personality faults instead of physical limitations. An excellent, satisfying ending too.

Fantastic Fest Review ~ A Life On The Farm

Synopsis: An often-macabre deep dive into the inspiring legacy of the long-lost home movies of a filmmaking farmer’s life in rural Somerset, England. 
Director: Oscar Harding
Running Length: 75 minutes
Review:  All I can say is ‘thank goodness for YouTube’ because without that site, who knows if the world at large would ever have come to know eccentric amateur filmmaker Charles Carson. Living an otherwise unspectacular life on Coombes End Farm, his rough quality videos were initially made as gifts for neighbors and to document, well, his life on the family farm. Filmmaker Oscar Harding lived close to Carson and recalled his household receiving one of these videos around Christmas and how uneasy it made his parents. That memory stuck with him until adulthood. By the time he decided to revisit it, Carson’s library of VHS tapes had already found its way onto the web, attaining a cult following from found footage fans. While watching A Life On The Farm and witnessing Carson’s colorful behavior, you keep bracing yourself for the turn into something darker, but this is a documentary more complex than that. It’s got secrets up its sleeve and buckets of eyebrow-raising surprises, but there’s forward-thinking care to it (and for its subject) that keeps it from being a reductive glance backward.

Fantastic Fest Review ~ Deep Fear

Synopsis: Three friends are caught between a skinhead gang and an otherworldly enemy after discovering a forgotten secret in the depths of the Paris Catacombs.
Director: Grégory Beghin
Running Length: 80 minutes
Review: Do yourself a favor and skip reading too much about this French-Belgian production because the plot summary currently available on IMDb and its original title give away a critical twist that will spoil some of the enjoyment to be had. More commercially entertaining and thus less interested in logic and follow-through, Deep Fear is nonetheless a solid 80 minutes of cramped claustrophobic scares below the streets of Paris. Lifting atmosphere from films like The Descent and As Above, So Below, director Grégory Beghin gives the film a traditional three-act structure, allowing the audience to feel the tension grow the deeper three friends traverse into the rarely seen Catacombs. For the first 45 minutes, it’s pretty effective and helped along by an appealing cast that gives the characters valuable stakes. It becomes rocky once the situation strays from reality into something….different. For genre fans, it represents a well-done distraction that is good for a few thrills but won’t stick around in your mind once you’ve decamped into the fresh air. 

Fantastic Fest Review ~ Lynch/Oz

Synopsis: Documentary filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe dissects director David Lynch’s lifelong obsession with THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Running Length: 108 minutes
Review: I’ve seen my fair share of David Lynch films, but there are definite gaps waiting to be filled. Perhaps that’s why a large portion of this documentary by Alexandre O. Philippe felt like reading a novel in a foreign language I studied for three years in school. Picking up on bits and pieces, I could get the gist of what a handful of film experts/directors were talking about when discussing the ties Lynch has not just to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz but also how it relates to their work and experience with the medium. Though it starts with a chintzy ill-advised intro that should be rethought ASAP, the yellow-brick road journey is primarily pleasant, as we hear from film critic Amy Nicholson and directors Karyn Kusama, John Waters, and David Lowery, among others. It’s interesting to have a segment with director Rodney Ascher, considering his Room 237 had a somewhat similar theme of dissecting interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, often straining to make a connection. Lynch/Oz will likely be a feast for fans of the director but taste like a home-cooked meal at the house of a person you just met for everyone else.

Fantastic Fest Review ~ Give Me Pity!

Synopsis: Sissy St. Clair’s debut television special, a variety show evening of music and laughter, quickly curdles into a psychedelic nightmare.
Director: Amanda Kramer
Running Length: 80 minutes
Review: I’m not, repeat not, going to mention the legendary parent of the star of Give Me Pity! in this review. Sophie von Haselberg’s performance as entertainer Sissy St. Claire is wildly bold enough to stand on its own without having that famous name attached to it. However, the multi-hyphenate von Haselberg is absolutely channeling them in this avant-garde fever dream. (Just look at the picture above if you really want to know who I’m talking about.) Certainly not for everyone, Give Me Pity! is part musical and part sketch show, springing from the mind of writer/director Amanda Kramer. Kramer has a great collaboration with von Haselberg, who throws herself completely in and doesn’t compromise, even as the movie careens totally out of control. I wish the second half were as strong as the first; a modestly talented director can convey even a gradual breakdown of the psyche without resorting to alienation and what amounts to lackluster performance art. The willing supporting players feel like they are stymied into caricatures instead of making bold choices. Even von Haselberg’s fire, so blazing hot during the film’s first few earworm musical numbers, goes to soft embers in just over an hour. Give me more of Sissy/Sophie and less of the open hostility toward the viewer.

Fantastic Fest Review ~ The Antares Paradox

Synopsis: An astrophysicist working for the SETI project risks her career and family to verify an extraterrestrial radio signal before her access is cut off.
Director: Luis Tinoco Pineda
Running Length: 96 minutes
Review: Pay attention to the words’ astrophysicist’ and ‘SETI’ in the plot synopsis because it should tip you off that The Antares Paradox isn’t your usual little green men sci-fi thriller but one that requires a good deal of focus throughout. More like a Contact and Arrival than, say, Signs, this film (made during the COVID pandemic) pretty much uses one location and is shot in near real-time. Alex (Andrea Trepat) is a determined astronomer assigned to the night shift in Spain’s branch of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) who has endured years of pressure from her family and colleagues to find a job that consumes her life less. This night, a thunderous storm is threatening to wash out roads, and dangerous winds could damage the equipment she protects. There’s also the matter of her elderly father, who is in the hospital and declining rapidly. Catching a signal that has never been found before, which could prove the existence of life outside of Earth, she’s faced with the predicament of staying with her work and risking a final goodbye with her father or putting family first and missing a discovery that could change the world. Writer/director Luis Tinoco creates a believable situation for Alex. While it gets convenient as it goes along (Alex opens emails/videos exactly when the film needs a new narrative push), most of The Antares Paradox rings true. Trepat more than capably carries the movie on her shoulders; if she misread the character an inch or so in either direction, it could have changed how an audience would respond to her. As it is, she’s landed in the right spot, which is largely why we get so invested in her dilemma.       

Fantastic Fest Review ~ Attachment

Synopsis: Maja and Leah’s relationship is off to a great start, but they face two perilous threats: the whims of a Jewish demon and Leah’s overbearing mother.
Director: Gabriel Bier Gislason
Running Length: 105 minutes
Review: Meeting the parents is hard, no matter what the relationship. There are a few added wrinkles for the same-sex couple at the center of Attachment. While studying in Denmark, Londoner Leah (Ellie Kendrick) falls for Danish Maja (Josephine Park), and their whirlwind romance (and an injury) leads Maja to follow Leah back to London, where they meet Leah’s overprotective Orthodox Jewish mother Chana (Sofie Gråbøl) that lives in the same apartment flat.   Despite sharing Danish heritage and the language, mother and new girlfriend clash over Leah’s care, with Chana wanting to keep things according to tradition and Maja preferring a more modern approach. The young women are barely settled when strange events begin to occur in their house, all somehow related to Chana’s presence. Digging further into Jewish practice and folklore, Maja understands that Chana may not want her daughter to heal at all…but how do you separate a determined mother that will stop at nothing to keep ahold of her child? Writer/director Gabriel Bier Gislason’s movie is scary as hell and gradually builds to several quaking climaxes that feel like satisfying conclusions. The performances, especially Park and Gråbøl, are terrific. The piece’s overall mood makes it well positioned to be one of those films that could be a significant calling-card hit if marketed correctly.

Fantastic Fest Review ~ A Wounded Fawn

Synopsis: Bruce is erudite, handsome, and charming… but he’s also a psychotic serial killer urged to violence by the gigantic red owl that lives in his head.
Director: Travis Stevens
Running Length: 91 minutes
Review:  Always looking for a good (new) horror movie to watch, I got interested back in 2019 when there was all this buzz on Netflix around Girl on the Third Floor, directed by Travis Stevens. Highly popular and much discussed, I never jumped in to watch it (I think that will change this Halloween) because of some off-putting situations I had spoiled for me. While I caught his follow-up, 2021’s Jakob’s Wife, I was less enamored of that rather low-brow vampire outing but was intrigued to see him turn around so quickly with A Wounded Fawn. Directed and co-written by Stevens, this film is full of winking twists and a willingness to reject far-flung artsy-fartsy in favor of homespun originality. Josh Ruben (Werewolves Within) is perfectly cast as a good-looking guy who likes to romance women and murders them violently at his stunning home in the woods. He can’t help it; a huge owl told him to. This examination of a serial killer is probably the least interesting aspect of A Wounded Fawn because it’s the road most oft-traveled. It’s what happens after where Stevens gets major mileage. When the ‘wounded fawn’ doesn’t go down completely and begins a harrowing night of vengeance on Ruben’s character, which could all be in his mind, or may be very real. Aside from Ruben, Malin Barr and Sarah Lind offer unique takes on the woman in peril role, each getting the opportunity to take control where they previously had none. Your mileage may vary on how successful Stevens is with sticking the ending, but there’s enough good packed into the front of the film to allow any iffy business at the end not to sting as much.

Movie Review ~ Heathers: The Musical

The Facts:

Synopsis: Veronica Sawyer does her best to survive her senior year while navigating the beautiful but cruel Heathers, the new to school Jason “JD” Dean, and the constant pressure to fit in with everyone else.
Stars: Ailsa Davidson, Simon Gordon, Maddison Firth, Vivian Panka, Teleri Hughes, Mhairi Angus, Liam Doyle, Rory Phelan, Vicki Lee Taylor, Andy Brady, Oliver Brooks, Benjamin Karran, Chris Parkinson, Jermaine Woods, Eleanor Morrison-Halliday, Mary-Jean Caldwell, Hannah Lowther, May Tether
Director: Andy Fickman
Rated: NR
Running Length:
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Hollywood Movies had been adapted into musicals to varying degrees of success for decades before Hairspray came on the scene, but that 2002 Tony-winning musical was a rare bird. It was not just a good film that got great when producers brought it to the stage; it was a blockbuster success that had a long life on Broadway and around the world, with regional productions still popping up to this day. More than anything, the music was so infectiously excellent that it was hard for anyone to leave the theater without a giant smile. I saw an early Broadway preview, having paid top dollar to do so, and it was some of the best money I ever spent.

A little over a decade later, the theater had seen many shows that tried to recapture that Hairspray magic with unremarkable results. The bigger the swing, the larger the miss; it wasn’t getting any better. Starting in 2009, Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy began working on the music, lyrics, and book for Heathers: The Musical. Adapted from the cult film from 1988 written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehman, this was imagined as a period-set musical that maintained the darkly comic tone of the movie and aimed for a smaller off-Broadway house to call home.

Years of development followed, and after a sold-out run in Los Angeles created the kind of buzz that could carry a show into NYC, Heathers: The Musical made its official off-Broadway debut in March of 2014 and ran for just six months. Despite being featured on an episode of the hit show Riverdale, perhaps the movie’s cult following didn’t translate to the stage. Then the UK got a hold of the rights, and that’s where the show’s second life began. Again directed by Andy Fickman, the show received a few tweaks and new songs, making its off-West End debut in 2018. It has enjoyed consistent professional productions in and around the West End ever since. 

Now comes a professionally filmed movie of the latest off-West End production filmed in May of 2022 made up of stars of the recent UK tour of the show and the 2021 revival cast. This “best of” grouping allows director Fickman to select the best of the best, and it shows with each high-belting song and well-sung ballad. It may lose some of (well, let’s be honest, most of) the burnt edges that made the original film such an outrageous viewing experience, but there’s enough energy given off by the cast to fuel several neighboring West End shows.

By and large, the story of Heathers remains the same. Starting her senior year, average girl Veronica Sawyer (Alisa Davidson) knows her place on the food chain of Westerberg High. No one ranks higher than the Heathers, and the queen bee is Heather Chandler (Maddison Firth). Decked out in red and unafraid to literally push Heathers Duke (Vivian Panka) and McNamara (Teleri Hughes) out of the way so she can shine, Heather C. takes no prisoners in the high school game of winners and losers. In the stage version, Veronica isn’t friends with the tricky trio yet but ingratiates herself quickly, becoming a hanger-on and leaving behind loyal friend Martha Dunnstock (Mhairi Angus). (Sorry, Betty Finn from the movie, there wasn’t enough room for you, so your character combined with Martha, who has far more room to grow.)

New to school Jason “JD” Dean makes a huge first impression by putting jocks Kurt Kelley and Ram Sweeney in their place when their toxic masculinity gets the better of them. Finding the dangerous new boy appealing, Veronica makes a mental note to keep him at a distance but not keep him too distant. She gets to know him faster than she imagines when she finds herself on the outs with Heather C. and winds up mistakenly offering her a glass of drain cleaner, killing her instantly. Instead of being the good girl, Veronica follows JD’s lead and turns Heather C’s death into an example for their school, which has a ripple effect on all that get swept up in its wake.

Musicalizing Waters’s film that is ostensibly about suicide (JD and Veronica make this initial death and several others look like it was self-inflicted) is risky. A question of taste hangs over the entirety of the piece. Yet I was shocked at how fun the show was from beginning to end. I hadn’t heard the music in full until I saw the film because I’m not the kind of person that can easily listen to the cast recording of a show I haven’t seen. I find it too difficult to conceptualize the show without having the visuals to go with it. The score and lyrics are often quite hysterical, with rhymes that use slang from the 1989 era it is set and catchy melodies that drive the show like a locomotive.

Performing at a smaller venue can make the stage feel cramped for the smaller cast, but it doesn’t hold the choreography back from being impressively executed by a hard-working ensemble. From the opening number-on, it seems the supporting players are constantly moving around doing something (or playing a double role), and the multi-level set is utilized nicely. Fickman has been with the show long enough (and has directed enough films of his own) to understand how to stage this musical for the cameras, so this works particularly well for at-home viewing. It’s easy to track the action, and it’s shown fully when you want to see the choreography.

Tip-top performances send this over the edge, starting with Davidson and her vocal chords of steel. While everyone in the cast does a great job hiding their UK accents, Davidson tends to get a little gargley when speaking, but the singing is gorgeous whether she’s holding back or belting it out. If Simon Gordon’s JD is a little weaker in comparison, it’s only because he reads a good deal older than Davidson, so it feels like the Silverstone/Rudd relationship in Clueless (did that actually work?), but I did like his singing. As the ignored best friend, Angus spends most of the film in the background, only occasionally popping in as the voice of reason so you know she has a big song in Act II you should be ready for…and she delivers. Bless Fickman for casting studly Rory Phelan and Liam Doyle as football jocks that spend the second act in just their underwear.

Like Mean Girls (also influenced by Heathers, also turned into a successful musical), the trio of popular girls is the most fun to watch as they stalk the stage. Hughes is nicely fragile as always on edge Heather M while Panka lets it rip when Heather D. comes out of her shell. I was particularly fond of Firth’s take on Heather C, especially as the musical opens and we get our first look at her. There’s a lot of work to get you to dislike this character while still wanting to see as much of her as possible, and Firth easily accomplishes this. She’s ever so fun to watch, and the singing is excellent too.

I still think Heathers: The Musical needs a little more trimming before it can be considered complete. With teenage suicide still an issue that faces children today, it may continue to be a sensitive musical to present, even though there is a high school edition available, should an institution be so bold. Hot button topics are often reduced to broadly comic effect, but they were in the 1988 movie, so you can’t take too many points away from the musical either. If you’re taking it on a pure entertainment level (and you should), Heathers: The Musical is so very.

Have some “Big Fun” and catch Heathers: The Musical, exclusively premiering on The Roku Channel, starting today, September 16! I’ll be giving it a second watch this weekend myself!

Movie Review ~ Do Revenge

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a clandestine run-in, Drea (Alpha, fallen it girl) and Eleanor (beta, new alt girl) team up to go after each other’s tormentors, the scariest protagonists of all: teenage girls.
Stars: Camila Mendes, Maya Hawke, Austin Abrams, Rish Shah, Talia Ryder, Ava Capri, Jonathan Daviss, Maia Reficco, Paris Berelc, Alisha Boe, Sophie Turner
Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
Rated: NR
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  If you’re putting me in a locked room and asking me to scribble a list of my Top 3 favorite specialty movie genres on the wall, it would have to be these. 

1. The Shark Film 
2. The Creature in Space Film 
3. The Bitchy High School/College Film

So far this summer, I’ve had my fill of the shark film (see The Reef: Stalked and Maneater, or better yet, don’t and see JAWS if it’s still in IMAX near you), and I can watch Alien or its sequel anytime I want. I must admit that I’ve cycled through my favorite high school comedies more than a few times, knowing the beats and lines of the classics for most by heart. 

When I first heard about Do Revenge, I knew it was initially called Strangers. That could only mean one thing, like Amy Heckerling’s all-time hit Clueless, which derived inspiration from Jane Austen’s novel Emma, screenwriters Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and Celeste Ballard were borrowing from another master. The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Very loosely based on 1951 Strangers on a Train (even less than 1987’s Throw Momma From the Train was), this wicked little zinger is a breath of fresh air as we move into the hottest part of the summer.

It’s spring at Rose Hill prep school, and junior Drea Torres (Camila Mendes, Palm Springs) is sitting on top of the world. She has a great group of friends, the most popular boy in school is hers, she’s in a video for Teen Vogue, and her #1 pick for college (Yale) is interested. Not bad for a girl that attends school on a scholarship and is surrounded by classmates who don’t understand the sacrifices she’s made to get where she is today. She seems to have forgotten a little of that humility, but now she’s ready to party and enjoy the end of the school year. Then she makes a classic blunder…she trusts the wrong guy.

Boyfriend Max (Austin Abrams, Chemical Hearts) leaks a raunchy video she sent to him, ruining her reputation overnight, jeopardizing her collegiate future, and seriously impacting plans for a perfect senior year. Working at a tennis camp over the summer to hide from all the eyes that have seen her online video, she meets Eleanor (Maya Hawke, Fear Street: Part One – 1994), a tomboy she bonds with over swapped stories of broken trust. Eleanor is transferring to Rose Hill in the fall, and, surprise, her bully also attends. When fall rolls around, the two stay out of sight in public, but behind closed doors, the summer friendship turns into a plot to destroy the tyrants that ran their names through the mud. How far is too far when the future, and high emotions, are on the line?

Nicely harnessing an air of surreal reality, Do Revenge sits comfortably on the shelf with Heathers (a live musical version debuts on Roku this weekend) and Jawbreaker. The buttery pastel uniforms worn at school (seriously, you’ll believe anyone looks good in a whipped lavender capelet and matching beret) are in pleasant contrast with the outlandish fashion designs created by Alana Morshead. The supporting cast members all sport impressive duds, but Morshead saves the most distinctive styles for Mendes and Hawke, who show up in several jaw-dropping outfits during the film. Coupled with a slight fantasy-like school setting and outdoor locations that feel a little outside of the natural world, you have a movie set now that definitely takes place on a different planet.

Everything can look great but without a solid cast to support it, what’s the point? Directing her screenplay, Robinson (a writer for Thor: Love and Thunder) nails it across the board. Precious few adults are present (one major cameo Netflix has asked us not to spoil, even though they recently released an ad featuring them), so the film primarily rests on the shoulders of Mendes and Hawke. Each actress has individual moments to carry the movie, but I give the slight edge to Hawke for blowing me away with a character that gets more complex as the story develops. There are no spoilers, but Robinson and Ballard’s screenplay has more up its sleeve than meets the eye at the outset. Hawke looks and sounds so much like her mother, Uma Thurman, that it’s eerie.

Like another release this week, The Woman King, Do Revenge stumbles when it includes a romantic subplot that feels squeezed in rather than organically grown. It only adds to the long run time, and a wildly careening third act doesn’t help. Some may think a slight detour featuring Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) is dragging things, but Turner is so ferociously funny in just two scenes that I wouldn’t lose her presence for anything. Thankfully, I think Robinson has a noble end goal with Do Revenge that passes the right message on to the viewer, and it’s a message its target audience could hear more of now. With a soundtrack that has nothing but winning needle drops, eye candy clothes that don’t quit, and leading performances that hit their target like twin lighting bolts, this is worth skipping school to watch.