Movie Review ~ Ticket to Paradise

The Facts:

Synopsis: A divorced couple travels to Bali to stop their daughter from making the same mistake they think they made 25 years ago.
Stars: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Maxime Bouttier, Lucas Bravo
Director: Ol Parker
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: School may have started in early September, but Oscar winners George Clooney and Julia Roberts are about to give audiences of all ages a massive chemistry lesson when Ticket to Paradise opens in theaters this October. It’s as easy as that. The two movie stars (if ever there was a definitive epitome of one, they would share the title) are massively successful in their own right and longtime friends, having starred in two popular Oceans 11 films together. Both are in constant demand to star in high-profile projects, yet here they are in a commercial vehicle that isn’t a stretch for either and plays directly to their strengths.

While this rom-com may appear to be a warmed-over retread of a familiar formula, don’t let Ticket to Paradise fool you. There’s more going on in director Ol Parker’s sunny Bali-set comedy than you’d expect. Heck, I thought I knew each beat the movie would take after a preview that appears to give away nearly everything that happened. Admittedly, this isn’t Shakespeare, but Parker and co-screenwriter Daniel Pipski have done their homework and know what made these breezy comedies blockbusters back in the day. Put your charming stars front and center, give them material to work with that isn’t beneath their talent, and then let the professionals do their job.

Long divorced, architect David Cotton (Clooney, The Monuments Men) and his ex Georgia (Roberts, Ben is Back) can only agree on one positive that emerged from their brief union: their daughter, Lily (Kaitlyn Dever, Rosaline). When the film opens, Lily is negotiating a truce between her oft-bickering parents over their seating at her upcoming graduation. Though she promises they’ll be sitting far apart, when the day arrives, they’re shoulder to shoulder, vying to be seen as the most supportive parent to their child. As they send Lily off to Bali with friend Wren (Billie Lourd, Booksmart) for a mini-vacation before she begins her career in law, David and Georgia know this is the last time they’ll have to see one another in quite some time.

A month later, Lily has met and fallen in love with Balinese seaweed farmer Gede (Maxime Bouttier) and informs her parents that plans have changed for the career for which they’d all planned. Furthermore, she intends to marry Gede within a week. United in their belief Lily is making the wrong choice, David and Georgia travel to Bali under the guise of supporting their daughter when they’ve truly come to work to sabotage the wedding. Throughout the weeklong ceremonies leading up to the marriage, the entire group will learn about the bonds of family, forgiveness, embracing change, and jumping in feet first to love’s most excellent adventure.

Ticket to Paradise is the kind of film they made back in the day before you could reserve your ticket online or over the phone. When you had to wait in line at the box office where maybe you got almost to the front when a voice over the loudspeaker announced your showing was sold out, but you could buy a ticket for the next one. The tension! Those were the days. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated in a beautiful sort of way. It wouldn’t be long before romantic comedies had to have an “edge” to them. That could be a sinister evil new boy/girlfriend, a scheming inlaw/boss that threatens to screw up the Big Event more than our leads could, or added raunch to goose the demand for a new type of comedy.

You also have to appreciate the way Parker and Pipski write the ex-Cottons. If the two bicker too bitterly, the audience will turn against them because they are insufferable; take away their bite, and you lose the comedy. The Clooney/Roberts pairing, coupled with some easy-handed direction from Parker, keeps them likable and hard to hold any grudges against. Parker also includes scenes between Gede and his parents, showing viewers both sides of parental relationships.

Whether it’s Clooney’s crinkly-eyed smile or Roberts’s mega-watt grin followed by that infectious loud whoop of a laugh, both actors trot out their secret weapons whenever the mood suits them. And it suits us just fine, too. You hardly ever want to be apart from this pairing, and when you do, the film shifts into a lower gear to no one else’s fault. That means Lourd and Lucas Bravo (Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris), as Georgia’s pilot boyfriend, feel underdeveloped as characters and not the mere sounding boards they wind up hanging around as.

To discredit the effort put in here, even if the finale writes itself from the start, is not to recognize the role of the movie star in Hollywood. Some movies are based on existing properties studios develop and hope to become a franchise they can repeat ad nauseam via a pre-programmed formula. Then there are the movies like Ticket to Paradise, original works that are constructed around the personalities and working relationships of its two most profitable (and likable) stars. I’d take more Tickets to Paradise than any five hoped-for franchise starters any day.

Movie Review ~ The School for Good and Evil

The Facts:

Synopsis: Best friends Sophie and Agatha find themselves on opposing sides of an epic battle when they’re swept away into an enchanted school where aspiring heroes and villains are trained to protect the balance between Good and Evil.
Stars: Sophia Anne Caruso, Sofia Wylie, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Flatters, Kit Young, Peter Serafinowicz, Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron
Director: Paul Feig
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 148 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As the story goes, author Soman Chainani grew up watching Disney movies on the small TV his family owned. All that he knew of fairytale lore and legend, he learned from watching these celebrated (but often, uh, Disney-fied) retellings of classic stories passed down throughout time. When Chainani was in college, he was exposed to the origins of his favorite fairy tales as he read the works of authors like The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen. Dark and twisted messages regarding morality and conscience permeated these tomes, surprising Chainani, who was used to seeing the characters refracted through a much more sanitized lens.

Eventually, Chainani would pen the 2013 novel The School for Good and Evil blending his childhood memories and college learnings. A worldwide bestseller, The School for Good and Evil spawned five sequels, each earning praise from critics and readers for their creative narrative and world-building. All present to the bookworm as hefty reading assignments, with the first novel coming in around 550 paperback pages. It’s no wonder that at two hours and twenty-eight minutes, director Paul Feig’s new Netflix film based on that novel is epically long and respectably ambitious.

A sprawling chronicle of the School for Good and Evil, we’d be here forever if I were to attempt the kind of plot analysis I usually do. Hence, skimming the surface for the essential highlights of the episodic fantasy is helpful. Twin brothers Rhian & Rafal (Kit Young) represent the Good and Evil that exist in the world. Locked in constant brotherly battle, one cannot live without the other, and Good always seems to triumph over its more enterprising counterpart. When Evil makes a play for control, it creates a schism that sets the two factions at odds, and their School is truly divided between the Evil (aka the Nevers, who don’t get a happy ending) and the Good (or the Evers, who we all know live happily ever after).

Sometime later, in the village of Gavaldon, two best friends, Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso, Broadway’s Beetlejuice) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie), are intelligent teens seen as outcasts for their desire to want something more than their poor provincial lives. Sophie sees herself living in the pages of the dreamy fantasies she picks up from her local bookstore, while Agatha has the gift for mixing potions and other witchy business. It’s Sophie’s dream to go to the School for Good and Evil, and when a wish cast into a special tree comes true, she winds up bringing Agatha along. However, things don’t go as planned, and when it’s time to be placed in schools, Sophie gets dropped into the Evil School and Agatha the Good.

The bulk of the film follows the young ladies as they try to prove to the headmaster (Laurence Fishburne, The Mule) and Deans in both schools, Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron, Bombshell) and Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington, Django Unchained), that they need to be switched back. Yet the more they stick around, meet their fellow students, and explore the powers they come to harness, the more they see that perhaps the selection process wasn’t so flawed after all. When a handsome prince (Jamie Flatters) comes between them, friendship is tested, as is loyalty to the true spirit of goodness that exists in us all.

Starting with Bridesmaids in 2011, director Feig has consistently created movies centered around women who feel inclusive of everyone. He’s directed big-budget entertainment before, but nothing approaches the level seen in The School for Good and Evil. Visually, the movie is dazzling with special effects that seem to spring out from the screen with vibrant colors and a shimmer. It’s restrained enough not to feel like the actors are living in a cartoon but fantastical in composition to place you in a world far removed from anything you’ve seen before. The clothing may be a bit costume party at times but complemented with interesting make-up (one startling transformation at the end is mighty impressive), it tends to work with cohesion. A lesser director could let all of these technical elements get in the way of the story, but Feig knows how to achieve a measured balance.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some heavy hitters like Theron, Washington, and Fishburne to rely on, either. While the stars are legitimate supporting players in contrast to Caruso and Wylie’s leading roles, each leaves a distinct impression while onscreen. Despite giving off mega Wicked vibes throughout (try to put that musical out of your brain until that arrives in 2024), the two competing magic-makers are matched well and should each find a nice fanbase out of their work. Caruso was a powerhouse onstage when I saw her in Beetlejuice, but it can come off a bit too knowing here. Wylie’s character is designed to be likable, and it’s not hard for the actress to come out on top either.

With more books to adapt, I’m hoping this isn’t the last visit to the School for anyone involved. Being so episodic, I’m curious why this wasn’t made into a straight series for Netflix because four episodes would have allowed the story to move along at a slightly less breathless pace. I’m guessing the star salaries worked out better for a longer film, but there were more nooks and crannies of School I would have liked to explore. As presented, attending The School for Good and Evil is an excellent elective homework assignment.

Movie Review ~ TÁR

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the international world of Western classical music, an exceptionally detailed portrait of a Promethean artist eventually hoisted on her own petard
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong
Director: Todd Field
Rated: R
Running Length: 158 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: The power is in the approach. Knowing Tár was created by writer/director Todd Field for Cate Blanchett helps to clear away all of the discussions going in and analysis after the fact centered around phrases that begin “If Tár were told from a male perspective,” or “Had Tár been played as a male.” Homing in on Field’s intent to tell and expressly communicate this perspective gives weight to his film, making it unique among his contemporaries. Further, it elevates the work Blanchett and her costars are doing.

It’s essential to keep this in mind when considering a viewing of Tár because it’s not one to be taken lightly. A commitment to focus on the words, sounds, and textures brought forth by the production will produce the maximum return for the viewer. I can understand why there’s been such a concerted effort to get critics into theaters to see it on the most iant screen possible, too. Like the top blockbuster, this is Cinema (yes, that’s with a capital “C”) but one that throws you for a loop in different ways than you could imagine.

The moment we enter the world of the film, it’s very good to be Lydia Tár. The first-ever female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, she’s an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony-winning composer (one of the select few living EGOTs), author, teacher, shrewd businesswoman, and connoisseur of the finer things in life. She’s also an ego-driven narcissist who indulges in affairs with younger women while her partner looks the other way back home in Germany. Stringing along a devoted protégé with promises of a shot at becoming her assistant conductor, she’s not-so-secretly unwilling to let other women down the path she blazed.

As she prepares the Berlin musicians to record a final piece by Mahler during a period of heightened stress, her personal and professional life collides and begins to crumble. Accusations of impropriety, forever embedded in the public consciousness after the #MeToo movement, begin to follow her and eat away at the glass castle she’s formed around an empire that hasn’t come without tremendous sacrifice. Genius turns to obsession, and control becomes an unwieldy creature she can’t tame or keep time with.

If I’m being sincere, I found Tár to be hard to access for much of its first hour, and I started to worry that all of the good notices I’d heard had been the result of group festival fever. I’ll love Blanchett in whatever she does, but there’s a robotic emptiness to Lydia Tár at the beginning caught me off guard. Field runs the closing credits at the start of the film, purposely highlighting the art and artists involved first. That’s close to four minutes of blackness followed by an exposition of Lydia’s career backstory, delivered via an onstage interview with Adam Gopnick (the real one) from the New Yorker. Feeling more recitative than performative, Blanchett’s Tár was going to be a tough nut to crack.

After sitting with the movie long after it ended, you realize how intentional all of this is, how Lydia has given these same answers countless times, been asked about similar sources of inspiration, or her career trajectory. Reserving her personal life as her own, she saves the warmth and varied intonation of her speaking for those she deems worthy. As viewers, we know this because we see it over the next two hours. It’s in her tender moments with Sharon (Nina Hoss, The Contractor) and their daughter (Mila Bogojevic). It’s the small kindness she offers as a reward to assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), and it’s in the flirtatious edge she imparts toward a new cellist (Sophie Kauer) that becomes a distraction and consequence on every other relationship she’s juggling.

Unsurprisingly, Blanchett (Nightmare Alley) is magnificent, and the role is another feather she can add to a cap ready to take flight by this point. The film reaches its peak slightly before she does, so we’re left to enjoy the afterburn of her work almost as an extended epilogue. Few actresses could hold onto an audience in this way, and it’s a credit to Blanchett that she does. As towering as Blanchett is, Hoss contributes mesmerizing work as her better half. It’s a quiet performance that’s scant on dialogue, but Hoss does so much with her silent expressions that an entire conversation often happens between the two actresses absent of speech.

At close to three hours, Tár is a bundle-up and hunker-down experience that is rewarding for more than just the art house crowd or those with a subscription to the symphony. It’s for anyone that has followed the political landscape of the last five years and is invested in future change. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot several visual cues Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (Antlers) have included. Tiny slivers of fractions of glances that let you inside Lydia’s mind. I’ll see the film again for that alone to catch what I missed.

31 Days to Scare ~ He’s Out There

The Facts:

Synopsis: On vacation at a remote lake house, a mother and her two young daughters must fight for survival after falling into a terrifying and bizarre nightmare conceived by a psychopath.
Stars: Yvonne Strahovski, Anna Pniowsky, Abigail Pniowsky, Ryan McDonald, Justin Bruening
Director: Dennis Iliadis
Rated: R
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When we first signed up for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Paramount+, etc., who would have thought that they’d know you better than you would know yourself? By now, my multiple streaming services “get” me, and the algorithm used to suggest movies based on my watch history is often right on target. At first, I tried to resist the seemingly random titles that would pop up, but after taking a chance on several, I ultimately gave myself over to the formula. Now, I will follow where the little internal programmer leads.

He’s Out There was one of those movies that existed in the days before I became a believer. It always lingered in the top five of my suggestions, and I tried for the longest time to get it out of the way so other films could take its place. This family in peril horror film felt like sloppy seconds (or turdy thirds) of material I had seen before and enjoyed less and less with each new iteration. Then, as the story goes, one dark and stormy night, I got a little desperate for something scary, and there He’s Out There was. Again. On another streaming service being suggested to me. So, I bit. And what a treat I had been missing out on!

First things first. He’s Out There is like many movies you’ve also seen pop up in your queue and skip over. It isn’t, however, one you should ignore for as long as I did because it shows up ready for business almost from the word go. Directed by Dennis Iliadis (who was also at the head of the table for the 2008 remake of The Last House on the Left) from a script by first-time screenwriter Mike Scannell, it may have the size and shape of a host of interchangeable dreck, but it packs on the frights with glee. Add in a killer hidden under a freaky mask and an array of creepy dolls, and you’ve got the assured promise of a good time.

Heading out of town for their annual summer trip to the cabin with their young daughters Kayla and Maddie, Laura (Yvonne Strahovski, The Tomorrow War) and Shawn (Justin Bruening) are looking forward to relaxing away from work. As they are about to leave, Shawn learns he has to stay behind for a few hours and address an issue at his job. He encourages Laura and the girls to go on ahead of him. Nothing seems amiss when they arrive, and as Laura sets up the cabin, Kayla and Maddie head off to the nearby woods to play. Someone is watching them, though, and he’s set a trap into which the young girls can’t help but walk.

As afternoon turns to night, Shawn still hasn’t arrived when one of the girls becomes ill. Discovering she may have ingested something purposely meant to harm her, Laura decides to leave and wait for Shawn in town. Venturing out into the night is exactly what the unseen maniac wants, and unbeknownst to Laura or her girls, the nightmare is just beginning for their family. A nightmare that won’t end even when the sun comes up.

Originally meant to be released in theaters, I’m not entirely surprised He’s Out There was ditched for a direct-to-streaming release. It’s made well enough to have received a theatrical run and, marketed correctly, could have done healthy business in its first few weeks. The studio producers balked and condemned it to a small platform, and it’s done a disservice to what is often a highly effective horror film. Iliadis had experience putting families in compromised situations and sending them through the wringer. Thankfully, He’s Out There isn’t as extreme as his previous film, but it retains the intensity.

Iliadis also scored with Strahovski as a compelling lead and a resourceful mother who is determined to fight until the end for her children. A performance like this went a long way in selling the material. Were it not for Strahovski’s high-caliber effort, the dynamic between mother and daughters wouldn’t have felt so immediate. As her daughters, real-life sisters Abigail & Anna Pniowsky, may veer toward the annoying at the outset but pivot well during the film’s more challenging sequences. Credit Ryan McDonald (Becky) for his hulking yet nimble work as the masked killer.

The movie that got me to trust my algorithm, I’m also glad I saw He’s Out There so I could finally clear it out of my suggested list. Now it’s my turn to pass it on to you as a strong selection for an October watch. Fire it up on a weekend night, and turn off all the lights when you do. It’s an efficient 90 minutes that will hit all the right buttons.

Movie Review ~ Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family reunion at a remote mansion takes a lethal turn when they are trapped inside and forced to play a deadly survival game where only one will make it out alive.
Stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Will Sasso, Jon Voight, Laura Mennell, Megan Charpentier, Kaya Coleman, Skyler Shaye, Dylan Playfair, Bradley Stryker
Director: Sean McNamara
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  Each critic has their standards for evaluating a movie. Some keep (like me) keep it broad, which makes it easier to treat each film with a certain amount of fairness. This is why I can post a review of a classic such as In the Heat of the Night and newer work like Heathers: The Musical and give them nearly the same score but not necessarily equate them as the same kind of “good” movie. The one criterion I have is universal, no matter what: the taste level. I think every movie, even the bad ones, can eek out a fraction of good taste, and those that can’t manage to instantly have to start at the bottom and work their way up on my scoresheet.

Barely twenty minutes have passed in Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders before someone sent a small cat down a garbage disposal, an act that has zero bearing on anything else that happens in the film. The act may illustrate a character trait that comes into play later, but it’s so vile (with poorly executed VFX, I might add) that I briefly considered skipping the rest of the film altogether. That the film doubles down and shows us the aftermath is even more alarming. It’s not as if I believed the unmistakable stuffed animal with its limbs shredded and covered in red sauce was real. Still, that director Sean McNamara (The King’s Daughter) kept it in makes you wonder who drove the ship for this ill-advised mystery thriller.

The kitty disposal bit is sadly not the first of many questionable choices that happen within this film, a lame Knives Out knockoff that doesn’t have the star power or the creative writing to get in the hemisphere of the ingenuity that 2019 movie crafted. Instead, we have Jonathan Rhys Meyers (WifeLike) and Will Sasso (The Three Stooges) as brothers gathering to celebrate the 80th birthday of their much-hated patriarch, Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Anaconda). With their significant others and children in tow, the clan travels to Voight’s secluded island, where his stately mansion becomes a death trap, and a peculiar game arrives that, when played, reveals family secrets that should have stayed buried.

Often, you find yourself with a movie that starts with a strong set-up or working from a place of promise only to go downhill, dragged into the depths by its unrealized potential. That’s not the case with Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders. It starts badly, with a prologue that drops you right into confusing action, and ends worse. Nearly every character is morally bankrupt and reprehensible, and the one that potentially has a kind bone in their body gets dealt the most unbelievably gruesome demise imaginable. We’re talking organ-removing while still alive territory, ala the board game Operation.

With Voight objectively terrible performing an oddly specific impression of a good friend of his who shall remain nameless (let’s call him Ronald Grump), Sasso grossly overeating the scenery, and Rhys Meyers outrageously miscast based on his age, I’m almost wondering if this was meant to be a comedy and I just missed the memo. Or maybe the actors missed it. Or perhaps everyone involved was just collectively making their own movie and didn’t discuss it with one another. That’s how it honestly feels as you’re watching it. Nothing makes a lick of sense in Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders, and for a mystery dependent on the pieces fitting together, that’s a problem.