Movie Review ~ Luckiest Girl Alive

The Facts:

Synopsis: A sharp-tongued New Yorker who appears to have it all is invited to tell her side of the shocking incident that occurred when she was a teenager at a prestigious prep school.
Stars: Mila Kunis, Finn Wittrock, Chiara Aurelia, Scoot McNairy, Thomas Barbusca, Justine Lupe, Dalmar Abuzeid, Alex Barone, Carson MacCormac, Jennifer Beals, Connie Britton
Director: Mike Barker
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  All of us are running from our past; at least, that’s what the narrator of Jessica Knoll’s 2015 bestseller ‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ tells the reader at the beginning of her story. It turns out that Ani has good reason to want to leave her former life behind, but it takes a few hundred pages and a narrative you don’t always trust to get the full details out into the open. It makes for good reading, and it’s easy to see why the movie rights for the book were snapped up quickly. Like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, other page-to-screen adaptations her novel was compared to, Knoll’s work reads like a screenplay already. Maybe that’s why the author was the most obvious choice to bring her work of fiction, based in small parts on her personal experiences, to life.

Carrying far more clout and sophistication than your average pulpy thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive benefits from Knoll maintaining control of her work and making the creative edits that helped the piece transition to Netflix. It also has found a perfect star in Mila Kunis (Bad Moms), an actress that has long circled the edge of the A-List with consistency, nearly flirting with an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Black Swan but has yet to find the film that opens that elusive door. I’m not sure this is the film to unlock that access, but it again shows an actress with edge and, more importantly, a range that compels you to keep watching.

Life is good, finally, for thirtysomething Ani Fanelli. Her wedding to Luke (Finn Wittrock, Deep Water) is coming up quickly, her years of dedication writing scintillating columns for LoLo Vincent’s (Jennifer Beals, The Bride) publication are paying off with a planned promotion, and a fractured relationship with her mother (Connie Britton, Breaking) is as mended as it’s been in years. However, there’s a small fissure that needs to be addressed before it becomes bigger. A filmmaker has asked Ani to participate in a documentary about the school shooting she survived over a decade earlier. 

Thinking about the tragedy brings up faces and situations she deliberately compartmentalizes for her well-being. At the time, questions arose if the young Ani (Chiara Aurelia, Fear Street Part Two: 1978) was somehow involved or knew about the shooter’s intentions in advance due to spoiler-territory circumstances I won’t reveal here. When a former classmate attempts to bait her into participating in the film by re-opening old wounds and suspicions, Ani must choose whether to confront a looming trauma of her past she’s moved on from and risk her future with Luke. To not speak up would mean she’d continue to repress what happened and stand falsely accused of a horrific crime. Or maybe there’s another reason why Ani doesn’t want others to dig too far into her past, where old skeletons tend not to want to stay buried forever.

To the credit of Kunis, Knoll, and director Mike Barker, the soapiness inherent in much of Luckiest Girl Alive doesn’t play as such in the finished product. Instead, it moves like a locomotive and keeps the viewer on their toes, so you aren’t ever entirely sure whom to trust. Maybe it’s because we’ve been conditioned to never take for full face value what a steely-voiced narrator is telling us, especially when there’s a scene where a teacher blatantly takes about the concept of the “unreliable narrator” and its effect on narrative writing. Kunis takes to the role nicely, enjoying playing the hard and soft side of the adult Ani while Aurelia navigates through challenging scenes of trauma that were hard to watch.

For most of the film, I kept wishing there was more of a spark between Kunis and Wittrock until I realized that may have been the point all along. Ani tells us early on that her goal was to trick him into the fact that she was a certain kind of girl. You believe she has feelings for him, but she’s also forgotten who she is along the way, so the emotions aren’t honest enough ever to be true. Perhaps that’s just a way of swatting away the lack of chemistry between the actors, but it winds up working well. Aside from a ghastly wig (why I ask you??), Britton is fantastic fun as Ani’s boozy mother who puts social status before maternal care. In minor roles, I enjoyed Scoot McNairy (Blonde) as a teacher young Ani warms to, and Beals is especially noteworthy as a tough-as-nails boss that still has a guard to let down for those she takes a liking to.

We’re at the point of this post-pandemic/lockdown where I’m starting to see movies arrive on streaming that I wish to be given full theatrical releases first. Luckiest Girl Alive had a brief run in some theaters but not the high-profile one that it likely deserved. It should play nicely on Netflix and be in the top watch group, but the work from Kunis and others is so good that it shouldn’t be a film that debuts and fades after a weekend. I’m also encouraged by the strong screenplay Knoll delivered on her first attempt and the confident direction from Mike Barker. This new release thriller is a solid watch with a great closing line delivered with razor-sharp precision by Kunis.

Movie Review ~ Catherine Called Birdy

The Facts:

Synopsis: A 14-year-old girl in medieval England navigates through life, avoiding potential suitors her father has in mind.
Stars: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ralph Ineson, Russell Brand, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Kaye, Lesley Sharpe
Director: Lena Dunham
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With the phenomenal success and healthy run of HBO’s Girls, writer/director/creator/star Lena Dunham burst onto a scene that was often ill-prepared for her painfully honest responses to what the world was throwing at her. Some saw that honesty as a detriment even as they found it wholly refreshing to hear a voice that cuts through a lot of same-speak. So, even if you didn’t relate to Dunham’s generation or outlook on relationships, work, and family, a (sometimes begrudging) respect developed throughout that show. While I was happy to see Dunham recognized for her directing and writing, it wasn’t very reassuring to see awards bodies claiming to be progressive never go that extra mile and hand her the award along with the nomination. 


This isn’t a review to relitigate the rise of Lena Dunham and the fact that I think she never got her full due. No, this is to celebrate that Dunham has taken time after Girls to recalibrate, find love, and determine the next steps she wants to take in her career. To hear her tell it, the only thing she wanted to focus on after Girls was adapting ‘Catherine Called Birdy’, Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel Dunham sparked to as a kid. Never one to leave a goal behind, Dunham has gone ahead and done it. The result is this spirited period comedy arriving on Prime Video after being afforded a longer-than-usual theatrical window in key markets.

The time is 13th century England but to hear Catherine (Bella Ramsey, Judy) speak is to know that she is thoroughly modern. Catherine, called Birdy due to her collection of pet birds, is anything but prim and proper, the only daughter amongst a stable of boys. To the manor born, her father (Andrew Scott, Victor Frankenstein) is a proto-typical male who spends beyond his means and feels that women are to be married off. At the same time, her mother (Billie Piper) encourages her young daughter’s spunky nature but ultimately acquiesces to her husband. This pluck becomes an issue when she reaches womanhood (a harrowing passage that exposes a side of life in the Middle Ages we likely haven’t thought of in detail), and her father decides it’s time for her to marry.

Who would she marry, though? She can’t wed her best friend Perkin because he’s beneath her position and can’t offer the monetary advances her father requires of her suitor. While there are a few hints she harbors a crush on her hunky uncle (Joe Alwyn, Harriet) she can’t quite verbalize, even she knows that is off limits. Catherine then sets about sending each candidate off as quickly as possible in a montage of misbehavior until she meets her match in a greasy elder nicknamed Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye, Dracula Untold), who isn’t deterred so easily. As her time ticks away, can Birdy fly away from her imminent destiny into a future of her choosing?

Dunham has mentioned in interviews that she altered the book’s ending. While I haven’t read the source material, I did sneak a peek at the original conclusion, and what the writer/director has cooked up feels like a better finale for this character in this iteration. On paper, the ending Cushman wrote likely works, but the character Dunham has brought to life couldn’t have existed and satisfied an audience the same way. That’s because Ramsey is charmingly realistic in the role; you’re enamored within seconds of meeting her. You can almost see some of Dunham’s younger self in Birdy, and I’d imagine that’s what drew her to the book and, eventually, this movie. I haven’t even the space to discuss how much I enjoyed the supporting turns of Sophie Okonedo (Death on the Nile) as an eccentric woman that plays a part in Birdy’s understanding of female independence and Lesley Sharp as her nurse that doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

Announced before the pandemic and then delayed because of the lockdown, it’s taken a while for Catherine Called Birdy to take wing, but the results are lovely. It can be overly cutesy at times, and in all honesty, it’s not a film that’s made explicitly for me anyway, so I’m not going to be the best litmus test for it. The real goal will be to have children around the age of Birdy (boys and girls) watch the film and then talk with them about it after. Adults could have good conversations with youngsters about traditional roles and how they’ve changed since Birdy’s time. In that way, Dunham articulates how far we’ve traveled without learning vital lessons.

Movie Review ~ The Visitor (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Robert and his wife Maia move to her childhood home, he discovers an old portrait of his likeness in the attic – a man referred to only as ‘The Visitor.’ Soon he finds himself descending a frightening rabbit hole in an attempt to discover the true identity of his mysterious doppelgänger, only to realize that every family has its terrifying secrets.
Stars: Finn Jones, Jessica McNamee, Dane Rhodes, Donna Biscoe
Director: Justin P. Lange
Rated: NR
Running Length: 86 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  For two Halloween seasons starting in 2020, I enjoyed the films that were part of Welcome to the Blumhouse, based on Blumhouse Productions’ partnership with Prime Video. With the release of four movies each year, the anthology series was more of a distribution platform for films Blumhouse was trying out, and you could tell they were seeing what would stick. Some of these films showed promise (Black Box was the best of 2020, while The Manor spooked me in 2021,) while others were primarily ho-hum. I kept looking for the third season to be announced, but I figured this house had shuttered once we were mid-year and no news had popped up.

I need to read my press releases better because early in 2021, Blumhouse Television and EPIX had already announced their new partnership to produce eight “elevated standalone horror/genre-thriller movies” and premiere them exclusively on EPIX. I’m such a space cadet that I hadn’t realized I’d already reviewed a few of these (Torn Hearts and Unhuman), but I’m back on track now that The Visitor has come to call this Halloween season. The latest collaboration between Blumhouse Television and EPIX takes a familiar storyline, and gender swaps it, a trick that works for a while but can’t sustain the movie’s weak points that weigh it down.

Her father’s death brings Maia (Jessica McNamee, The Meg) back to her hometown from London with her new husband, Robert (Finn Jones, Awake). They’re moving back into her childhood home, partly to set up their new life and partly because the house is the security they need to focus on starting a family again after a painful miscarriage. Upon returning, they are greeted by a town that remembers Maia but also seems to know Robert, even though he’s never been there. Strangers stop in the street and stare, cashiers express their gratitude for his return, and beaming faces peer out of public buildings on the tiny main street.

That’s not even the strangest thing. Exploring the new house, Robert finds a painting that’s been stowed away and covered that bears a striking resemblance to him. The man in the picture is referred to as The Visitor, and when he finds a different painting of the man and then another, he starts to suspect the townspeople of threatening unknown evil. As his allies begin to vanish or be disposed of in grisly manners, it becomes a race to discover the origin of The Visitor before approaching darkness overtakes him, Maia, and their hope for the future.

A screenplay by Songbird’s Adam Mason & Simon Boyes has a fresh feeling because typically, Robert’s role would be played by a new bride setting up the house while her husband whispers with the town elders behind closed doors. While she picks out wallpaper, he’s planning her ritual sacrifice. Instead, the script has Robert as the proverbial “damsel in distress” who must fight to survive a conspiracy that may or may not involve Maia but does involve trusting the right people. 

It all hinges on the kind of twist that is so icky I can understand why director Justin P. Lange attempts to skate by it quickly, but by that time, the film has played all of its good faith cards, and the viewer is ready to tap out. Partly, it’s because Jones shouldn’t have to work as hard as he does to create some electricity with his co-stars. Despite a scene with store owner Donna Biscoe that’s well acted and filled with the kind of reveals necessary at that point of the movie to keep you interested, there’s a frustrating lack of energy to make the film come alive.

Sorry to say it, but there’s little chemistry between McNamee and Jones, even on a friendly level. It makes you question how they met, fell in love, and decided to uproot their lives to move to this unidentified town (filmed in Louisiana). Also, I know the couple is getting a free house, but the script for The Visitor never details what they do for a living. These fine points are often crucial to crafting believable characters and allow you to relate more to them when they are faced with hostility.

Even at 86 minutes, The Visitor begins to overstay its welcome, too early for a project that should be far easier to digest. Jones is an appealing lead but can only shoulder the movie’s weight for so long. I kept waiting for a new character to arrive to balance the brunt better. Perhaps that would have helped with the ending, which goes over like a thin afterthought that doesn’t make much sense. It felt like there was either a scene cut that explained it better, or the script needed an extra scene written to establish the narrative wrap-up more succinctly. 

(Oh…I don’t often mention this, but the closing credit song was worth letting the film play out in its entirety. I couldn’t see in the crawl or the press notes who wrote/sang it, but when I do, I’ll add it here.)

31 Days to Scare ~ Werewolf by Night

The Facts:

Synopsis: On a dark and somber night, a secret cabal of monster hunters emerge from the shadows and are thrust into a mysterious and deadly competition for a powerful relic that will bring them face to face with a dangerous monster.
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Laura Donnelly, Harriet Sansom Harris, Al Hamacher, Eugenie Bondurant, Kirk Thatcher, Leonardo Nam, Daniel J. Watts
Director: Michael Giacchino
Rated: NR
Running Length: 52 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  I am behind on my Marvel TV. There, I said it. It feels good to say it, but it had to be said. There is simply not enough time and far too much Marvel to take on. First, you have the films, and then you have the television series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that are coming out on the streaming service Disney+ on a revolving door schedule. Once one series ends, another one is hot on its trail. I love content, don’t get me wrong, but there is just so much to take in. I’m overwhelmed. Aren’t you overwhelmed?

I will, however, make time in my schedule for the newest trick Marvel has up its sleeve.   Maybe I’m just being me, but I think the studio may have made Werewolf by Night just for fans like myself who would rather gobble up one fun meal that hits all the taste groups at once. Timed perfectly for a Halloween release and directed by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino (already represented in 2022 by 5 film scores, notably The Batman), this is the first of the new Marvel Studios Special Presentation series, which takes place within the established Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who can say if an Avenger or two will show up in these, but Werewolf by Night is firmly its own…beast.

Ulysses Bloodstone has died, and his fellow monster hunters have been summoned to Bloodstone Temple to mourn. As part of this ceremony, a new hunt will begin, and to the victor will go the powerful Bloodstone. First, they’ll have to find the monster released in the nearby maze with the artifact affixed to them. Take down the creature and claim your prize. Assembled are the best and most feared slayers, among them Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal, Old), as well as Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly, Tolkien), the prodigal daughter of Ulysses who has returned, much to the dismay of her evil Stepmother (Harriet Sansom Harris, Licorice Pizza). Yet there is another monster among them who is also interested in more than just Bloodstone, ready to rise before the night is out,

Filmed predominantly in black and white and shot to look like a production from one of those creaky movie studios like Hammer, you might imagine Werewolf by Night to have been directed by Frankenstein’s James Whale. It’s undoubtedly massive enough in scale (and performance) to be attributed to that legendary film director. Giacchino hints at the same type of promising career behind the camera as the one he already has had composing for it. The absence of color brings out the textures in the maze, made up of hedges and homes with plenty of places for man and monster to hide in wait.

It’s a strange beast, though, this Werewolf by Night. Being the first of its kind in the Marvel Special Presentation Field, it often struggles to find its tone. Does it want to be a warm nod to those Hammer/Universal Studios monster movies they made nearly 100 years ago, or is it going for a particular brand of retro-stalgia and wry humor that will send its fans into the galaxy? I couldn’t tell you if the short is packed with Easter Eggs from other Marvel characters or if it ties into different worlds, but as a stand-alone morsel, it’s a tasty bite but not always the delicious meal it could be with a little more thought behind it.

Without spoiling, I will say the ending is a nice bit of movie magic while bringing the film back fully back to its Marvel roots. In that sense, the spell cast by the filmmakers of Werewolf by Night until that point is broken, and I’m not sure how successful that makes it overall. Sansom Harris is having a ball gnashing at the scenery, and Bernal is a likable lead with several secrets up his sleeve. I’m not sold on Donnelly yet, though she has the pluck Marvel loves in its leading ladies.

A Halloween treat for fans, Marvel and Disney+ use Werewolf by Night as an opportunity to test the waters with something new, and it’s mostly good news. Anything that’s first is bound to find some stumbling blocks, but viewers will appreciate having something different to sink their teeth into this spooky season.