Movie Review ~ Darby and the Dead

The Facts:

Synopsis: After suffering a near-death experience as a child, Darby Harper is granted the ability to see ghosts. To combat the existential boredom of high school, she runs a side business counseling local spirits in her spare time. When an unexpected occurrence happens between Darby and Capri, the most popular girl at school, Darby reluctantly agrees to help her and, in the process, learns how to fit in with the living world again.
Stars: Riele Downs, Auli’i Cravalho, Chosen Jacobs, Asher Angel, Wayne Knight, Derek Luke, Tony Danza
Director: Silas Howard
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Here’s why a movie like Darby and the Dead should have attracted more attention when it was released in early December. It was one of a select few films released aimed at the teen crowd which didn’t originate from a YA novel, comic book, or other existing IP. That may not sound like a huge event, but with the lack of new content coming out of Hollywood, finding a movie made from an original script by a major studio in 2022 was something we should have celebrated much more.

Of course, as lovely as that is to report, that’s not to say Darby and the Dead is the most original teen afterlife comedy you’ll ever see. It’s almost astonishing how it references countless other films that have come before it. Whether intentionally or subconsciously, there are bits sprinkled throughout Wenonah Wilms and Becca Greene’s script that reference supernatural comedies from Topper to Ghost to even the Reese Witherspoon comedy Just Like Heaven. It’s all in lighthearted fun, and while I fully recognize I’m not the target audience for the film (and have thus fairly reviewed it keeping that in mind), it gives me hope that screenwriters are looking to the past to spur ideas for the future.

A typical high-school set-up (mean popular girl vs. shy special girl) is turned on its head when the popular girl (Auli’i Cravalho, Ralph Breaks the Internet) dies and finds out that shy girl (Riele Downs) has a talent for talking to the dead, helping the recently deceased finalize any unfinished business. It turns out the popular girl had a birthday coming up, and throwing one last bash might be the closure she needs to walk into the light. Of course, alive or dead, it’s not as simple as that, and when the shy girl gets a taste of the cool side of the lunch table, our dead girl makes plans to reclaim her throne.

The latest addition to the slumber party fare that parents don’t have to fret over, Darby and the Dead has some flash in filmmaking (director Silas Howard helmed many terrific episodes of Dickinson on AppleTV+) and above-average performances from all. It’s bound to go in one ear and out the other for adults, but I feel that teens will latch onto a few life lessons learned here about embracing individuality and living for today. 

Movie Review ~ Nanny

The Facts:

Synopsis: Immigrant nanny Aisha, piecing together a new life in New York City while caring for the child of an Upper East Side family, is forced to confront a concealed truth that threatens to shatter her precarious American Dream.
Stars: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams
Director: Nikyatu Jusu
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  On the surface, Nikyatu Jusu’s thriller Nanny feels like it could be a tight twist on the mid-late ‘90s cycle of yuppie thrillers that put families in a particular income bracket in peril a la The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.  Aligning it with those agreeable (and quite entertaining, if I do say so) popcorn chompers would be selling Jusu’s film short, though, because Nanny is more emotionally complex and resonant.  Leaving you alarmingly chilled rather than terrifically thrilled, there’s a more important lesson to be learned from this modern metropolitan horror tale.

Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop, Us) is just starting work for Amy (Michelle Monaghan, Pixels) and Adam (Morgan Spector, With/in) as a nanny for Rose (Rose Decker) in their nicely appointed Upper East Side apartment as the film opens.  As is often the case, Adam is the more hands-off parent, while Amy is the helicopter mom who confuses the smothering of her daughter with genuine love and care.  Amy’s more concerned with how her family looks to the outside world, the appearance of perfection is the ultimate goal.  Aisha picks up on that and does what she can to stay within the boundaries of her employer’s strict rules.  However, she’s also a mother with a son back home.  Most of her wages go toward a ticket to bring the two back together.

As the work demands increase, so does the stress of the job.  Though a new romantic relationship is prosperous, it re-introduces her to traditions and age-old spiritual tales that begin to haunt her.  This leads Aisha down a path of nightmares involving her son that start crossing into reality.  The hallucinations become outright fear when she loses contact with her child and cannot find out where he is.  Where is her son, and how does Rose appear to know him and pin Aisha’s increasingly strange behavior on him?

Nanny belongs to star Diop, a commanding presence that keeps you hooked on each development and left turn the film takes.  While you may begin to suspect where Jusu is guiding the thriller and arrive at the final destination long before Aisha does, Diop’s strong performance rises above Nanny’s sub-par structure, fortifying it into something more nuanced and intriguing.  Monaghan and Spector are solid too, and it helps that the script doesn’t pander to making them the expected NYC snobs we expect.  They’re snobs alright, but their angle has a tweaked edge to it.

Movie Review ~ Spoiler Alert

The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on Michael Ausiello’s best-selling memoir, the film is a heartwarming, funny, and life-affirming story of how Michael and Kit’s relationship is transformed and deepened when one of them falls ill.
Stars: Jim Parsons, Ben Aldridge, Sally Field, Bill Irwin
Director: Michael Showalter
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Aside from ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ back in grade school, I can’t remember when I sobbed while reading a book before ‘Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies.’  Michael Ausiello’s 2017 memoir about his life with husband Kit Cowan, from their initial meeting until his death from neuroendocrine cancer in 2015, was a harrowing, unvarnished look at one couple and their relationship’s ups and downs.  It documented not only how being with someone can be wildly romantic and wonderful but that the bad times can be a struggle and make you feel like the effort can be for naught.  Ultimately, the love shared between them was what made the loss so devastating, and that was beautifully conveyed to the reader.

I didn’t know how that would be captured on film.

The movie adaptation, shortened to Spoiler Alert, has been brought to life by screenwriters Dan Savage (yes, that Dan Savage) and actor David Marshall Grant (who has a small role), and they’ve taken Ausiello’s book and presented it to viewers as a real gift.  That same emotional beauty is still there, and how they’ve structured the piece pays tribute to Michael and Kit’s bond but also tips its hat in numerous ways to the kind of romantic comedies and tear-jerkers many of us grew up with.

Admittedly, I can’t say that I’m a fan of Jim Parsons (The Boys in the Band), so his casting as Michael gave me doubts.  I still find him a bit too gangly for the role and slightly too old, but he carries the film with the appropriate weight and sincerity it needs.  Ben Aldridge (Knock at the Cabin) is the winner between the two, deftly showing the range of feelings from Kit and likely having less real-world access to draw from in doing so.  Then there’s Sally Field (Lincoln), who knows her way around a five-hanky weepie or two, correctly netting more laughs than tears as Kit’s triathlete mom.  The great Bill Irwin (Interstellar) is also on hand for the grounded performance only an actor with his gravitas could offer.

Director Michael Showalter is undoubtedly on a roll with finding projects that draw out beautiful performances from his stars.  On the big screen, he’s been at the helm of The Eyes of Tammy Faye and The Big Sick, and on the small screen, his work has been represented in The Dropout, and I Love That For You. You’ll notice how many of these have been rightfully rewarded/awarded by voting bodies – that has to say something about his contributions from his perch in the director’s seat. 

Note: Due to timing, I missed Spoiler Alert in theaters, and that’s a good and a bad thing. It’s good because, like reading the book, I cried so hard I needed an entire roll of paper towel to squeegee off my face.  Bad because the film had an unfairly short theatrical run and disappointingly small box office take.  These are the kind of impactful, human stories that audiences crave, and I’m more than a little surprised it didn’t take off more. Here’s hoping a far greater audience discovers this at home.