Movie Review ~ The Quiet Girl

The Facts:

Synopsis: Rural Ireland 1981. A quiet, neglected girl is sent away from her dysfunctional family to live with foster parents for the summer. She blossoms in their care, but in this house where there are meant to be no secrets, she discovers one.
Stars: Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Michael Patric, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Carolyn Bracken, Joan Sheehy
Director: Colm Bairéad
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Each year, when the Oscar nominations are announced, it’s a given that most audiences will scramble to see whatever has been nominated in the Best Picture category. These are, after all, the films that are easy to access, usually the “popular” and most “mainstream” choices. I’m the Oscar nerd that scans down the list and looks immediately for what has been selected as the five nominees in the Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Film) category. 

Of particular note this year was the Irish entry The Quiet Girl from writer/director Colm Bairéad.  Adapted from Claire Keegan’s short story, ‘Foster’, it’s the first entry from Ireland ever to be nominated in this category in the history of the Academy Awards. That’s a reasonably big deal. Of course, I was most intrigued to see what pushed this ahead of several other imposing titles on the Oscar shortlist, several of which were anticipated to snag a nomination but wound up empty-handed on nomination morning.

It turns out the Academy made a delightful choice nominating this sweet, sincere, beautifully special film. It’s a small picure that’s so delicate you don’t want to hold it too close for fear it might break, but mighty in its themes of family and how simple acts of kindness can effect major change. That it’s nominated against louder films involving war, dictatorial conflict, intense relationships, and a world seen through the eyes of a burdened animal makes it all the more remarkable in its strong voice.

Young Cáit (Catherine Clinch, fantastic and bright) is a shy and withdrawn girl who is too much to handle for her pregnant mother and troubled family. Desperate for some reprieve, her mother reaches out to distant cousins hundreds of miles away, hoping they’d be willing to take her for the summer. They agree, and soon Cáit is off without warning to a new home with unfamiliar adults that offer her a house of stability and acceptance she is unaccustomed to. More than that, it is a home where shame has no place, and no sacrifice is required for daily happiness. It is a good home with good people, but how long can it last?

You watch movies long enough, and they can stop casting a spell on you. Then a film like The Quiet Girl walks up alongside you, overtaking you with you ever realizing it. Bairéad doesn’t wallow in any negativity that could be explored here. I was thankfully turned around to something more intriguing whenever I feared we were going in the wrong direction. That’s partly because of the wise guidance of its director but primarily due to the performances from Clinch and Carrie Crowley as her wise relative. Crowley is impressive throughout, and I’d imagine that, like me, wanting another film exploring her character is something most audiences will be hoping for.

It’s assumed that All Quiet on the Western Front will take home the Oscar in the Best International Feature category, and with its impressive filmmaking, it wouldn’t be a bad win. How nice would it be to reward this Irish offering, though? A first-time nominee and a beautifully crafted one, at that. The performances are winning, the delivery confident…it’s a full package.

Movie Review ~ We Have a Ghost

The Facts:

Synopsis: Finding a ghost named Ernest haunting their new home turns Kevin’s family into overnight social media sensations. But when Kevin and Ernest investigate the mystery of Ernest’s past, they become a target of the CIA.
Stars: David Harbour, Jahi Winston, Tig Notaro, Erica Ash, Jennifer Coolidge, Anthony Mackie, Faith Ford, Niles Fitch, Isabella Russo, Steve Coulter
Director: Christopher Landon
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 126 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Growing up, there were “movie theater” movies and “mall” movies. Movie theater movies were the ones that had a parking lot you had to hunt for a space for, bundle up (this was MN remember?) to and from your car, and sometimes have to wait outside in line to get your ticket. You would go to Mall movies sometimes on a whim between shopping at Spencer Gifts and likely after you gobbled down a calzone from Sbarro. When you left a Mall movie, you’d get swept right back up into the buzz of the shoppers, often easily forgetting what you just saw. Not necessarily the movie’s fault, but that’s why you chose a silly comedy or goofy horror film to see because it wouldn’t matter much by the time 90 minutes were over.

We Have a Ghost is a big-time Mall movie. It aims a bullseye at the heart of the nostalgia fans still clutching onto their Goonies T-shirts and Ghostbusters cartoon sleeping bags and doesn’t apologize. Though it doesn’t ever rise to the level of those classics, it makes a decent play for your attention over its too-long-running time by employing a lot of bells and whistles to keep your focus squarely on what it deems most important. Logic isn’t often welcome at this good-natured table, but then again, when has that stopped us from enjoying a harmless distraction in the doldrums of a February winter?

The Presley Family doesn’t know much about the rickety house they have purchased, only that they got a sweet deal on it, and they need it to start over again after dad Frank (Anthony Mackie, The Woman in the Window) lost their money in a pyramid scheme. Of course, we know from the opening shot that the previous tenants were sent running out in the middle of the night, screaming their heads off, running from some unseen entity that proceeded to shut the front door and turn the upstairs light off. It doesn’t take long for this apparition (David Harbour, Hellboy) to make himself similarly visible to sensitive youngest son Kevin (Jahi Winston, The Dead Don’t Die). Still, he’s seen enough not to let the transparent visage of a balding man in a bowling shirt scare him. 

The ghost, Ernest, can’t speak but can reach out and touch anyone he wishes, a power he uses sparingly but effectively. It’s eventually how the rest of the family comes to know him as well, with Frank attempting to monetize the haunted nature of their house, attracting the attention of ghost hunters, shoddy psychics (Jennifer Coolidge, Shotgun Wedding, in a glorified cameo), and a disgraced former CIA agent (Tig Notaro, Your Place or Mine) still desperate to prove the existence of spiritual entities. Of course, the real story is how Ernest became a ghost in the first place, and that’s when the adventure begins.

We Have a Ghost has that same awkward structure of those YA films we all grew up with in the 80s and early 90s in that it introduces one story but, around the halfway mark, morphs into something different. I won’t say precisely how it does this, but it feels like two markedly different features spliced into one. I liked them both in their respective halves, but I am not entirely sure they are successful as one completed film. In doing this, director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) essentially short-shrifts the big picture of both tales, sidelining most supporting players. It’s good that Winston and Harbour play so well together, with Harbour again showing impressive range with a predominantly silent character.

Running over two hours, the film drags during the middle portion, where it should be accelerating. The Coolidge section, while always welcome to see the actress, doesn’t add anything to the action but curdles like the filler it is. The character is there for another storyline to advance, but more efficient writing could have gotten that plot point where it needed to be without taking up more time. That Coolidge never returns is disappointing because if you’re going to use the actress, get your money’s worth at least.

Like most Mall movies, We Have a Ghost is bound to vanish from your mind in the same amount of time it would have taken you to push through the crowds on the escalator down to the first floor, past the pet store (oh cute, look at that dog!), across the promenade from Suncoast Pictures (dig that blue VHS of The Firm!) and out to the Camel Parking Lot (CameLot for newbies)…wait…what were we talking about?

Movie Review ~ My Happy Ending

The Facts:

Synopsis: A famous actor goes incognito to seek treatment for a medical issue. While at the hospital, she meets three unique and remarkable women — an aging rocker, a young mother, and a forever single retired schoolteacher. Together, they help her face adversity with humor and camaraderie while coaching her for the most challenging role she has ever played…herself.
Stars: Andie MacDowell, Miriam Margolyes, Sally Phillips, Rakhee Thakrar, Tom Cullen, Michell Greenidge, Tamsin Greig, David Walliams
Directors: Tal Granit & Sharon Maymon
Rated: R
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Like some foods, movie stars are an acquired taste. There are a few choice names I grew up loving who I have little tolerance for now, while others I now fully embrace. Andie MacDowell is one of those celebrities I needed some time to warm up to, and looking back, I can’t understand why. Maybe I was unfairly influenced by media dismissing the model-turned-actress as a few rungs down from the A-list, even though she routinely starred alongside top-tier talent in blockbuster films. MacDowell has an impressive list of credits throughout the 80s and 90s. While the roles turned to the more supportive motherly type at the turn of the century, she’s made a nice pivot recently with interesting projects that are often tailor-made for her.

Take My Happy Ending, for instance. This adaptation of a stage play by Anat Gov isn’t the most exciting selection for audiences, but there’s a reward there for those who take a chance. Sure, it’s slight and saccharine, with step-by-step instructions on approaching terminal illness and a persistent need to color within the lines at all costs. However, its core thesis statement is a rare, refreshing honesty that sets it apart from your standard Crying over Cancer five-hanky weepie. 

MacDowell (Ready or Not) is brittle, faded film star Julia Roth, diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and about to begin her first round of chemotherapy at a small UK clinic far away from the prying eyes of the media. Shocked that she doesn’t have a private room, Roth is placed with three other women rowing the same boat she’s just hopped into. There’s the earthy Mikey (Sally Phillips, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), cantankerous but sage Judy (Miriam Margolyes, Early Man), and young mother, Imaan (Rakhee Thakrar), and all three act as information totems throughout the day giving Julia a view of what the future holds in store. Popping in throughout the session are Julia’s close friend/manager Nancy (Tamsin Greig, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and the resident doctor (Tom Cullen, Barbarians), who may have charmed the current patients but has met his match with the demanding Julia. 

Rona Tamir has adapted Gov’s play, but the primarily one-setting piece hasn’t lost much of its staginess, save for several “holidays” the women take to combat the pain of their treatment. The more you know about Gov’s original work, the less the film version may appeal to you, considering the late Israeli author had the play set with an all-Israeli cast in Israel. Moving it to this English setting with this (albeit impressive) roster of stars dampens the initial message Gov was conveying. Yet, the themes are so universal you can forgive Tamir and directors Tal Granit & Sharon Maymon (an Oscar winner for the short Skin) for trying to make this all feel cohesive.

This is a movie with little middle ground. Most decisions are either heavy-handed or lightly swept under the rug, yet it strangely worked for me. Perhaps it’s because, like many, I’ve had loved ones face similar diagnoses and appreciate a different perspective presented than we usually are given. Yes, it’s frustrating, it frustrated me, but then again, the options offered in My Happy Ending aren’t about us or what we’d prefer. It’s the patient looking for their happy ending.   Peel away some of the chintzy frill of the writing, and MacDowell has found a complex character here; it could have been explored more, but I’m glad it was explored in the first place.

The Art of the Tease(rs) ~ Batman (1989)

Occasionally, I’ll revive one of my old “special” columns from my early days. Formerly titled In Praise of Teasers, I’ve rebranded my look at coming attractions The Art of the Tease(rs) and brought it back for a short run over the next few weeks. 

Starting in 2013, I used these peeks at past previews to highlight the fun (and short!) creatively mounted campaigns that generated buzz from audiences who caught them in front of movies back in the day. Some of these I remember seeing myself, and some I never had the pleasure of watching. More than anything, it makes me long for studios and advertising agencies to go back to showing less in modern trailers because the amount of spoiler-heavy material shared now is ghastly. Today, where all aspects of a movie are pretty well known before an inch of footage is seen, the subtlety of a well-crafted “teaser” trailer is gone.

Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there but pay attention to how each of these teasers works uniquely to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Batman (1989)

Tim Burton’s big screen treatment of Batman had many eyes on it as it went into production leading up to its debut. Star Michael Keaton was thought to be physically wrong for the role, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was rumored to not be as comically desirably as the producer’s original choice, Robin Williams, and an injury sidelined starlet Sean Young from appearing as love interest Vicki Vale leading Kim Basinger to be called in at the last minute. Sometimes, everything happens for a reason, and it all comes together like it should because we all know that Burton’s blockbuster was a high-water mark achievement for the Caped Crusader and for striking a new visual tone in superhero films of that era. Visually stunning and featuring a mixture of practical and digital effects that hold up nicely, Batman sits on an earned high throne.

This early teaser is fantastic, too. While not incredibly inventive from a production standpoint, it’s just a creatively edited jumble of clips from the nearly finished film, and it’s giving the audience enough of the promised thrills to ensure they’ll line up opening weekend. Plot details are nicely kept under wraps, and while the Joker is perhaps featured a bit too much and spoils some surprise, the marketing department for toys and tie-ins had likely already sealed the deal to not keep many secrets in the way of what anyone looked like. My favorite thing about this? It’s so confident that audiences know exactly what they are watching that they don’t even bother listing the title.

For more teasers, check out my posts on The Golden Child, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Flashdance, Mortal Kombat, Strange Days, Fire in the Sky, The Fifth Element, The Addams Family, Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch, Psycho (1998), The Game, In the Line of Fire

Movie Review ~ Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania


The Facts:

Synopsis: Scott Lang and Hope van Dyne, along with Hope’s parents, Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne, and Lang’s daughter, Cassie, go on a new adventure exploring the Quantum Realm that pushes their limits and pits them against Kang the Conqueror
Stars: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Kathryn Newton, David Dastmalchian, William Jackson Harper, Katy O’Brian, Bill Murray
Director: Peyton Reed
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Here we go. It’s finally time to begin Phase Five of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the 31st film released in this series is Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The hype around this kinetic kickstart is high because everyone is wondering what the future holds for their favorite characters, who are starting to get phased out in favor of new storylines. As the Marvel Multiverse expands, more energetic avenues to explore are needed to keep viewers engaged. With many of these blockbusters intertwined, avoiding the superhero burnout that set in at the midway point a decade ago is critical. Marvel has rather consistently steered clear of alienating their base too much, but Thor: Love and Thunder felt far askew of their usual solid performance, and the popularity of their Disney+ shows waning, now is a critical juncture for the massively profitable studio.

Before sitting down for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, I would have told you that Paul Rudd’s (Wanderlust) sly but certainly mighty superhero standalone series sounded like a strange choice to take the lead on Phase Five. I’ve always found the Ant-Man films (the first in 2015 and the follow-up in 2018) less serious than their fellow MCU friends. Though not as cracked as Thor, which, even after four films and under director Taiki Waititi, couldn’t settle on a suitable tone, Rudd’s Scott Lang is so Everyman that it often feels like we’re just watching Rudd’s home movies. The stakes haven’t felt as high for these adventures as they have in other Marvel films, so to have Scott and his extended family be involved in this hugely pivotal film was a risk.

Thankfully, the gamble has paid off because the third time is the charm. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is one of the most enjoyable MCU films in some time, and not because it’s the overall best representation of what Marvel Studios has to offer to curious audiences. Instead, it’s successful because it felt like it went back to a motto of creatively fueled storytelling first, impressive uses of make-up/design to create a host of eye-popping creatures second, and excessive reliance on CGI last. That allows all the essential pieces that make this type of entertainment feel polished and stand out even more.

As with most MCU films at this point, it doesn’t quite matter if you haven’t gone back and rewatched the last few movies in the series because they always find a way to bring you gently up to speed. Subtle reminders key us into Scott Lang’s rise from a mild-mannered blue-collar worker to a superhero who can shrink or expand in a specialized suit designed by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, And So It Goes). His daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) fights next to Lang, taking up the guise of The Wasp from her mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer, Murder on the Orient Express), who has only recently returned to Earth after vanishing into the Quantum Realm for three decades.

The best thing to do for the first twenty minutes of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is to tune out most of the gibberish details included in the screenplay by Jeff Loveness. There’s much talk about the Quantum Realm and hints of Janet’s time there, where she met a marooned man (Jonathan Majors, The Harder They Fall) with a deadly secret. Scott’s daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu) has learned much from her elders, finding a way to communicate with the Quantum Realm, a poor decision because a message sent will most likely receive a response. That response sucks Scott, Hope, Cassise, Hank, and Janet back into the Quantum Realm, where many mysteries are revealed, and a new enemy is introduced that brings a doomsday message which will stretch far outside the confines of this film.

Another thing I like about these three films is that they all have been directed by Peyton Reed (Down With Love). It shows you that consistency in tone and style goes a long way in ensuring dedicated cohesiveness (the Tom Holland Spider-Man films are another example). This onscreen team works well together, and while Newton is the newbie to the group (she replaces Emma Fuhrmann, who played the role in Avengers: Endgame but was not asked to star here, likely because Cassie’s role was beefed up significantly.) When the family enters the Quantum Realm and is split up, things settle, and an excellent rhythm emerges. While one group runs into an old friend (a spoiler I won’t share), another goes on a different journey, and it’s this one, led by Pfeiffer, that becomes a real treat to follow. It’s easy to see that Reed and Loveness lept at the opportunity to give Pfeiffer more of a story arc (and hence, more screen time) here, and the actress feels like the star of the film more than Rudd and Lilly. That’s fine by me because, as a longtime Pfeiffer Pfan, it’s nice to see the star in action and moved front and center. 

The one drawback to the film, and it’s a problem all Marvel movies have, is that by the time you get to the end of the second post-credit sequence (both of which are doozies, btw), you start to realize that everything you just watched was sort of pointless. There’s little permanence in a world where time is flexible, and universes are changeable. I know that I’m a fan of films with a game plan (an endgame?), and it’s evident that Marvel wants to keep each chapter as open-ended as possible. It’s fun in the moment, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is indeed a gratifying reason to shell out money at the movies, but on the way home, that nagging feeling of “what’s it all about?” comes back to sting.

Movie Review ~ Your Place or Mine

The Facts:

Synopsis:  Two long-distance best friends change each other’s lives when she decides to pursue a lifelong dream and he volunteers to keep an eye on her teenage son.
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Ashton Kutcher, Wesley Kimmel, Jesse Williams, Zoë Chao, Steve Zahn, Tig Notaro, Griffin Matthews, Rachel Bloom, Shiri Appleby, Vella Lovell
Director: Aline Brosh McKenna
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  Be honest. When you hear that Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher are starring in a romantic comedy together, you squinted your eyes a bit and thought, “Really? Those two?”  This is no knock on the talent of either Hollywood A-lister because both have demonstrated their talent throughout their decades in the industry. She’s an Oscar-winner and multi-hyphenate producer/mogul that is as good at finding material for others as she is for herself. He’s now known as much for his philanthropy as he is for his acting and less for the personal relationships that were the stuff of tabloid fodder.

Paired in a Netflix rom-com, though? It’s weird, right? Some stars you can picture teaming up and watching sparks fly, while others you could imagine joining forces to bring down a smarmy water company with expert legalese. In their new film, Your Place or Mine, premiering on Netflix on February 10, I regret to inform you that Witherspoon and Kutcher share some of the most awkward screen chemistry I’ve seen in some time.   With the same breath, I’m going to say that they are together so little in what is otherwise a delightful film that it hardly matters. The charm quotient boasted by both stars is through the roof, more than making up for the lack of heat, which winds up being beside the point.

Sharing a one-night stand twenty years ago helped Debbie (Witherspoon, Home Again) and Peter (Kutcher, Vengeance) realize they are better off as friends. Through stints in rehab, divorce, death, single-parenthood, jobs, etc., they have always been there for one another. Now living on separate costs, California-based Debbie is a helicopter mom to son Jack (Wesley Kimmel, yes, Jimmy’s nephew) and has long since put her dreams of becoming an editor on hold. A successful corporate fixer in NYC, Peter has little responsibility or accountability in his life, making it easier for him to fly out to CA and watch Jack while Debbie stays at his luxe condo to complete a necessary certification for her job.

Of course, swapping homes necessitates a somewhat swapping of lives, so Peter gets a taste of what it means to be a parent (in the general, Hollywood one-week, low-impact sort of way), and Debbie sees only the best parts of NYC where there is not a single item of garbage on the street. She’s quickly taken under the wing of Peter’s ex, Minka (a droll Zoë Chao, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), who introduces her not only to sophisticated Big Apple nightlife but a handsome editor (Jesse Williams, The Cabin in the Woods) she makes an instant connection with. As Debbie gets closer to her editor, Peter realizes his feelings for Debbie have always been more than he’s willing to admit, but he’s been afraid to lose his friend. Is it too late to make up for the last two decades?

Having been the screenwriter for works like 27 Dresses, The Devil Wears Prada, Laws of Attraction, and Morning Glory, writer/director Aline Brosh McKenna knows her way around the rules and regulations of Romantic Comedy 101 and, thankfully, steers clear of the pitfalls that can trip up lesser efforts. For one, gender roles are handily swapped but without any significant pains in the process. Instead of the woman being the one to bend over backward to help her male friend, the male is the one making the most sacrifices and starts his emotional journey first. There’s little of the loud shenanigans that turn a rom-com into a headache. McKenna doesn’t need to fill the film with laugh-out-loud moments to find the funny. Even a potential annoyance (Debbie’s Zen neighbor named, uh, Zen, played by Steven Zahn, 8-Bit Christmas) is handled gently.

That brings us back to that whole chemistry thing we were talking about. It’s not a spoiler to say that Witherspoon and Kutcher have little screen time together. It’s the nature of the film. Both have a good command of their segments, and I liked each of their confidants (Chao for Witherspoon, Tig Notaro, Together Together for Kutcher). Still, I was less enamored anytime the focus drifted to Kutcher’s character attempting to father this child he knew little about. That there is little resolution on this makes it even more phony feeling. 

Above all else, Your Place or Mine brings out the best in both stars, and, let me repeat it, they are so undeniably charming that you are willing to forgive anything that might otherwise be missing between them. It’s a harmless, uncomplicated evening’s worth of entertainment with the right amount of laughs and heart not to overstay its welcome.

Movie Review ~ The Outwaters

The Facts:

Synopsis: Four travelers experience a mind-bending trip through terror while camping in a remote stretch of the Mojave Desert.
Stars: Robert Banfitch, Angela Basolis, Michelle May, Scott Schamell, Leslie Ann Banfitch
Director: Robert Banfitch
Rated: NR
Running Length: 110 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  It’s been nearly 25 years since The Blair Witch Project arrived in theaters and not only scared the pants off audiences but ushered in a wave of copycat projects in the found-footage genre.  While The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the pinnacle of achievement in this area, it set the bar high for those that followed in its wake, with only a select few ever rising to the same chilling heights.  As most popular products go, demand was so high that eventually the output became shoddy and dull.  All viewers were left with were the uninspired, rehashed embers of what was once a blazingly good moment in time. 

With the release of The Outwaters, found-footage entertainment gets resurrected for a new generation with intriguing results.  I carefully approach reviewing this one because I have to classify it as a YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) type of experience.  This will not be a movie that everyone will get something out of; it’s too gruesome and idle for mainstream audiences to embrace fully.  However, genre fans that understand the importance of calculated layering in horror should note what writer/director Robert Banfitch has prepared for them.

A spine-chilling 911 call opens the film, previewing to viewers the mayhem to come after we get acquainted with the four twenty-somethings that venture out into the Mojave Desert to film a music video.  Title cards identify them all as missing for years, but three recently discovered memory cards have been pieced together as evidence of what happened during their weekend.  Director/cameraman Robbie Zagorac (Banfitch) remains unseen primarily, shooting the material for Michelle’s (Michelle May) first music video.  Coming along for additional support are Robbie’s brother Scott (Scott Schamell) and friend Ange (Angela Casolis), who will work behind the scenes.

Usually, these introductions can be severe time wasters and not integral to the plot, but Banfitch and his actors manage to create a quartet that feels like they have a history together in a short amount of time.  It goes a long way in making the film’s final act’s impact much more shocking.  In this opening stretch, you notice The Outwaters is far more professionally made than similar features in the past.  Either bare-bones filmmaking has come up a level, or Banfitch has cracked the code to elevate low-budget horror into something uniquely auteur.  As the film progresses, you understand it’s Banfitch making all the right choices.

Where the film will lose viewers is the exact point that it diverges from the norm.  I can’t tell you exactly when that is because it will be too much of a spoiler but know that Banfitch is taking you on an extraordinary journey that will play with all your senses simultaneously.  I watched this at home, and specific film tricks made it an uncomfortable watch.  I can only imagine that a screening inside a theater, when you add in a more extensive sound system and an audience going through it all with you, would make it even more frenzied.  It culminates in some of the grislier images I’ve seen in horror lately, documenting the production’s willingness to follow through on its mission to scare and shock.

I can see The Outwaters become a low-grade sleeper hit, a midnight title that gains a following for its final act of madness.  It’s well-made and performed nicely by the cast, who are insanely committed to anything Banfitch throws their way.  As a side note, it also has some pleasant music and a final credit sequence worth sitting through if you need to catch your breath.  YMMV with The Outwaters, but it’s more than worth the gas.

Movie Review ~ Consecration

The Facts:

Synopsis: After the alleged suicide of her priest brother, Grace travels to the remote Scottish convent where he fell to his death. Distrusting the Church’s account, she uncovers murder, sacrilege, and a disturbing truth about herself.
Stars: Jena Malone, Danny Huston, Dame Janet Suzman, Thoren Ferguson
Director: Christopher Smith
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  Religion and horror always seem to make good bedfellows, preying on the fear many viewers have of the church and its servants. I’ve always been a little wary of the movies that feature priests or nuns so prominently as figures either of good battling evil or the representation of evil itself, something that needs to be exorcised by an outside force.  In recent years, there have been interesting attempts through horror to make more sophisticated scares through films like Agnes and, most successfully, Saint Maud. Still, I find myself wincing anytime I see marketing materials featuring a blood-stained habit.

The latest holy terror outing is Consecration, and what attracted me to this one is its trio of stars who don’t often attach themselves to run-of-the-mill dreck.  If anything, they seek projects that tip the scales toward challenging work rather than easy-to-digest consumer-grade nonsense.  If they dipped their toe in this potential lake of fire, it must have been for a good reason.  So…back into the church pew I went.

London ophthalmologist Grace (Jena Malone, The Neon Demon) is shocked to hear of the death of her estranged brother, a priest.  Though they had recently lost touch, they shared a bond forged through their hard upbringing.  The formal report of his death is that he committed suicide by jumping off a cliff by sacred ruins near a convent in Scotland, but Grace knows deep down he would never have engaged in such an unpardonable sin.  Traveling to Scotland, she meets with the local detective assigned to the case (Thoren Ferguson) and requests to visit the convent where her brother lept to his death. 

Viewing her brother’s badly beaten body only confirms something amiss with the death, and a cool stonewall from the Mother Superior (Janet Suzman, Nuns on the Run) at the convent only drives Grace’s need to know more. There’s something else, too. Since she arrived, Grace has been overcome with visions from her past and hallucinations she can’t decipher.  Unable to turn to the presiding Father (Danny Huston, Angel Has Fallen) or the suspicious Sisters who seem to be keeping a dark secret, Grace will confront her past to unlock the mystery.

There’s a good movie milling about somewhere in the bones of Consecration; I wish it weren’t covered up by so much extraneous and clunky material. Grace’s reason for hanging around the convent (and dressing like a nun) is a screenwriting device that makes little sense and is quickly ignored because it has nothing to do with furthering the story.  And yet it does play a part in our going along with why a headstrong woman like Grace would allow herself to be subjected to highly questionable treatment.  Malone is too intelligent an actress to play a character that dumbs herself down quite quickly. It’s perplexing.

Speaking of Malone, she remains a real force in any film she’s a part of, and as weak as Consecration gets at times, she remains a strong pillar throughout.  The end game of the piece (co-scripted by director Christopher Smith) is a bit murky when all is said and done, but it manages to untangle most of its knots before the credits roll.  Even if it relies on one of the cheapest gags in the book for a “gotcha” finale, it can’t be said the Consecration hasn’t tried up until this point to rise above the usual fire and brimstone seediness of less crafty films in its genre category.

Movie Review ~ Seriously Red

The Facts:

Synopsis: Red lost her job as a real estate agent, but there’s something no one can take away from her: her dream of becoming the world’s greatest Dolly Parton impersonator!  When Red’s life as an imitator starts to feel false, she discovers true happiness comes when you’re the best version of yourself.
Stars: Krew Boylan, Daniel Webber, Rose Byrne, Thomas Campbell, Bobby Cannavale, Celeste Barber
Director: Gracie Otto
Rated: NR
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review:  For a while, it wasn’t considered cool to like Dolly Parton because when you heard her name, the first thing wasn’t her incredibly successful music career…it was two other things.  However, a tide has changed over the past decade, allowing the country-music artist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, etc., to carve out a path in the mainstream.  As a lifelong Dolly fan, it’s nice to see the longtime devotees get their day in the sun and to see a new generation weaned on trivial music with no heart come to know her talent.  I’ll never turn down an opportunity to see her live (as close as possible, thank you) or visit Dollywood (I cried) or watch one of her cheesy movies (Christmas on the Square, not great but how can you ding Dolly?) made with love.

That goes for Dolly-adjacent movies like Seriously Red, a film I’d been seriously looking forward to after missing my viewing window back at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.  It was one of my most anticipated films going into the festival, and being unable to get to it in the short allotment we were offered bummed me to no end.  With it finally arriving at a limited theatrical run and available for streaming, I was excited to see this Australian-made film which was marketed as a feel-good look at one woman’s quest to better her life by adding a dose of Dolly.

Finding herself nearly comatose working at a real estate financing job, Red (Krew Boylan) has a stroke of good luck from an awkward situation.  She misunderstands the dress code at her company party and arrives dressed to the hilt as Dolly Parton instead of simply showing up in her finest attire.  She catches the eye of the entertainment hired for the evening, an Elvis impersonator (a genderless Rose Byrne, Spy, Boylan’s real-life bestie), and the two make sweet music together later that night.  The positive affirmation she receives from Elvis and his manager (and getting fired the next day for her drunken behavior) inspires Red to pursue life as a Dolly impersonator, using her ambition to go straight to the top.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, or I assumed Seriously Red would follow the trend of other Australian features that came to our shores two decades ago.  These were the movies like Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – films that practically bounced off the screen with color, wise focus, and a vibrant spirit.  Seriously Red has the same skewed view these earlier ocean-crossing pics had but is missing several key ingredients to keep it afloat and engaging.  Despite a high-wire leading performance by its writer/star, it’s an often sad and melancholy tale that falls flat.

I often wondered if the entire film was a big joke the audience wasn’t quite in on.  Red spends a significant amount of time in a club for impersonators, and the performances here were either spot-on or far off the mark.  Red’s eventual teaming with a Kenny Rogers impersonator (Daniel Webber, Escape from Pretoria) has a sweet heart. Still, Webber’s phony facial hair and lousy wig leave the viewer wondering when he would rip all that fuzz off.  No one ever seems to be taking anything as seriously as the film wants us to believe, so when we get to a moment of raw emotion where Red is laid quite literally bare, it’s not the striking beat of clarity it likely should be.

Punctuated by interludes featuring some of the most overused Dolly quotes, director Gracie Otto’s film has a rough-and-tumble feel.  That almost fits in nicely with Dolly’s love of imperfection, but even she knows how to put some razzle dazzle on something cheap.  There’s little flash to Seriously Red, and while Boylan has a charming quality to her approach to the material, the only time the movie feels like it achieves its full potential is when Bobby Cannavale’s (Annie) Neil Diamond impersonator goes into a short dream sequence.  In this glitter glam section, we glimpse the places Seriously Red could have flown if it had only dared to commit more.

Movie Review ~ Somebody I Used to Know

The Facts:

Synopsis: On a trip to her hometown, workaholic Ally reunites with her ex-boyfriend Sean, which makes her question her life choices. This feeling is exacerbated when she meets Cassidy, a younger woman who reminds her of the person she used to be
Stars: Alison Brie, Jay Ellis, Kiersey Clemons, Julie Hagerty, Haley Joel Osment, Amy Sedaris, Danny Pudi, Zoë Chao, Evan Jonigkeit, Olga Merediz, Ayden Mayeri, Kelvin Yu
Director: Dave Franco
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  There are inevitable drawbacks to making a modern romantic comedy, no matter how you approach it. Audiences have seen countless tales of singles mingling with the lover they think is the right one for them, only to realize what we already know: they should be barking up another tree. Writers, directors, and actors can take any route they want to get from point A to point B, but we’ll cross that finish line eventually. A viewer wants a creative journey as we pass through, and that’s where a horse of a different color, like Somebody I Used to Know, might come in handy.

Written by husband-and-wife celebrities Dave Franco (who also directs) and Alison Brie (who also stars), Somebody I Used to Know has the structure of My Best Friend’s Wedding. Still, the cinematic innards are decidedly tailored to Brie’s fondness for high-stakes dark comedy. It’s not a warm and fuzzy flick to cuddle up to but rather a frank look at relationships from multiple angles. Here you get perspective from those on the inside and the onlookers peeking around the corner hoping for a sample.

After her cheeky reality show is canceled, Ally (Brie, Spin Me Round) takes the advice of her agent (Amy Sedaris, in a too-brief cameo) and heads home to Leavenworth, WA, for some downtime with her mother (Julie Hagerty, Marriage Story). Finding her mother otherwise engaged (with her former high school teacher), Ally ventures into town and has a chance encounter reconnecting with her ex, Sean (Jay Ellis, Top Gun: Maverick). Prosperous and stable, Sean presents a picture of normalcy in Ally’s abnormal Hollywood life. And he’s getting married in a few days to Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons, Scoob!)

Of course, Sean neglects to tell Ally this until she knocks on his door the next day, just in time for a pre-wedding meal with the assembled guests. Sensing that Sean isn’t over her, Ally jumps at the chance to stick around as the videographer, delighting his mother (Olga Merediz, In the Heights) and free-spirited brother (Haley Joel Osment, The Devil Has a Name). As the weekend progresses, Ally brazenly targets the apparent weaknesses in the couple’s relationship to win Sean back. The pursuit of lost love becomes more complex, though, as Ally’s friendship with Cassidy grows and, through her, sees echoes of herself and the life she’s chosen.

I’ve always been a little on the fence with Brie, and Somebody I Used to Know hasn’t thrown me off my perch either way. It has reinforced my admiration for Brie’s boldness in pursuing roles rarely depicted onscreen. She can quickly humanize characters that are not simply flawed but have off-kilter personalities and help the viewer relate to them. Turn Ally’s pursuit of Sean up a notch, and she becomes evil, dial her back, and you lose the tension that forms between her and Cassidy. It’s a fine line, and the fact that she wrote it makes it easier for her to play it well. 

That ease has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the cast. Ellis and Clemons complete the love triangle with sharp, confident edges, and Ellis especially finds new layers in what typically is the least exciting side to form the emotional shape. I fully believed Hagerty and Brie could be mother/daughter and only wish we had a few more scenes of them together. Danny Pudi (The Guilt Trip) makes the most out of the head-shaking best friend that is powerless to stop Ally’s madcap train of meddling, and Osment is entertaining as Sean’s brother, always up for a laugh.

Filmed in a picturesque locale, Somebody I Used to Know is a solid sophomore outing as a director for Franco. Back in 2020, he was behind the camera for the surprisingly effective thriller The Rental (also starring Brie), and he’s pivoted genres nicely with this pleasant, if at times, heavy-handed romantic drama. The first half of the film has a nice flow to it, but once we get into the more serious second act, a cold vibe seeps in and drowns out any lightheartedness we were able to draw early on. When the film takes itself and its characters too seriously, it loses our attention, but as it finds the balance between characterization and tone, it hums nicely.