Movie Review ~ The Mother (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: While fleeing from dangerous assailants, an assassin comes out of hiding to protect her daughter she left earlier in life.
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Joseph Fiennes, Omari Hardwick, Paul Raci, Lucy Paez, Gael García Bernal
Director: Niki Caro
Rated: R
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Like picking your favorite holiday or ABBA song, we all have our favorite ways to J.Lo at the Movies, right?  Some want their Jennifer Lopez experience to be a straight rom-com, and they’ll go right to the bona fide classics: The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, Marry Me.  Then some like a more serious Lopez and will pull Out of Sight, Parker, Hustlers, or Bordertown down from the shelf.  Lopez defenders will be waving around Angel Eyes, U Turn, and The Cell begging you to watch them (and you should).  As for me, please and thank you, give me the J.Lo that knows a pulpy audience-pleasing hit when she sees it: Anaconda, The Boy Next Door, and Enough.

Honestly, I’ve been waiting for Lopez to give us a movie in the same vein as Enough for years now, one that would show off her talent for serious drama while also delivering a blistering bit of action to juice the joints.  It took over twenty years (wow…), but she found the right team for the right project, and The Mother, streaming on Netflix and in select theaters, is blazingly good work from nearly all involved.  It’s unabashedly made for the most commercially minded viewer but makes good on every promised expectation and then some. 

At an FBI Safe House, a woman (Lopez, Second Act) is being interviewed by agents about her involvement with two nefarious arms dealers she had been romantically linked to.  Pregnant, afraid for her safety, and knowing the government agency won’t be able to protect her for long, she’s there not so much for shelter but to see how close her exes are to finding her.  As it turns out, closer than she ever thought.  A frightening attack on the house and an up-close run-in with Adrian (Joseph Fiennes, Hercules) prove that she will always be hunted for her involvement, even after she gives birth to her daughter.

Coerced into giving the girl up for adoption and vanishing for both of their protection, Mother (we never know her real name) retreats to a small town in Alaska where her only connection to the outside world is a local shop owner (Sound of Metal’s Oscar-nominee Paul Raci) and the FBI Agent (Omari Hardwick, Army of the Dead) she’s asked to keep her posted if her daughter is ever in any danger.  For twelve years, there has been silence.  Only messages with pictures give her an idea of how her daughter is faring with her foster parents.  The silence is broken when Hector (Gael García Bernal, Werewolf by Night) locates her daughter, forcing Mother out of hiding to shield the child she never knew from an onslaught of violence coming their way.

The slick screenplay by Misha Green, Andrea Berloff, and Peter Craig feels like it has a higher edge of sophistication to it (both Berloff and Craig have Oscar nominations within the last decade), and perhaps that’s why The Mother, in general, comes across like an above average action thriller.  Had it starred someone without the screen presence of Lopez, it might have been a simple streaming title easy to pass over, but anytime you add the multi-hyphenate artist to the mix, you can expect something special to come from it.  It’s good to see Lopez try this haunted persona on and find it fits so well.  There’s a raw chill to her, and it’s unwavering, even when confronted by Zoe (Lucy Paez), who is desperate to know more about the mother that left her when she was days old. 

Lopez is far and away the best performance in The Mother, but it’s a strong production overall.  While the script winds up casting her as a series of child cliches by the end, until that time, Paez is working on giving us a complicated kid that seeks answers and is seriously affected by not getting them.  It’s an approach I don’t feel like we’ve seen before, and I liked watching it develop.  Without giving too much away, something happens early on that makes Fiennes feel like more of a Bond villain than a ruthless assassin, but he is appropriately menacing when called upon.  Hardwick and Raci offer strong support as the men in Mother’s life, helping her get through each day.

The action sequences staged by director Niki Caro are often uniquely thrilling, demonstrating that Caro is a filmmaker with a rich visual language and is comfortable working in multiple genres.  More women need to be directing action films like this because if they are half as good as the films Caro and others like Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) and Gina Prince-Brythwood (The Woman King) are making, viewers are in for an upheaval in the same tired old boys club in the action thriller genre.

It’s almost impossible not to watch these streaming titles and wish you were viewing them in a theater.  As good as many theatrical features I’ve seen lately, The Mother is a strong Netflix title that could have been a good litmus test for them if they want to try a wide-release strategy for their titles before debuting them on their service.   Standing in uncertainty at the cliff of Summer 2023 with blockbusters on the horizon that may or may not pan out, it’s at least calming to know that The Mother has arrived and delivered.

Movie Review ~ Fool’s Paradise

The Facts:

Synopsis: A down-on-his-luck publicist discovers a recently released mental health patient who looks just like a misbehaving movie star. The publicist subs him into a film, creating a new star. But fame and fortune are not all they are cracked up to be.
Stars: Charlie Day, Ken Jeong, Kate Beckinsale, Adrien Brody, Ray Liotta, Jason Sudeikis, Edie Falco, John Malkovich, Common, Jillian Bell
Director: Charlie Day
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Full disclosure: I’ve never seen one episode of the long-running series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I know it’s where the world first took a shine to Charlie Day. Yes, I’ve seen him in a few movies over the past decade and even found him likable in 2022’s I Want You Back, but I chalked that up to Jenny Slate making everyone look a little better because of her presence. It’s that FX show, about to enter its 16th season, that I always hear is so representative of his appeal, though. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me a while to come around to the squeaky-voiced actor because, until Fool’s Paradise, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around his appeal. 

Wait! Wait!

Before you Day-ums close this window, never to return to this blog; give me another chance, will you? Because I have had a (small) change of heart with the release of Day’s new film, a project he wrote, directed, and stars in. A sporadically funny satire of Hollywood that occasionally gets into a groove with such zip and zazz that you hope it will never take a wrong step, when Fool’s Paradise inevitably does trip, it’s a bruising fall. What keeps the entire project together is some expert physical comedy from Day. You can always look at the actor whenever you need to recenter if the film or its strange supporting cast begins to flop around and flail for attention.

Day plays The Fool, a mute mental patient dropped off in the middle of Los Angeles by a healthcare system that cannot afford to keep him housed any longer. (One of the first big jokes is Day’s doctor listing all his afflictions and his blunt treatment proposal) Easily suggestible, The Fool wanders around the city doing what anyone tells him to until he’s spotted by a producer (Ray Liotta, Muppets Most Wanted, in one of his final performances) in a desperate situation. The producer is working on a film about Billy the Kid, and his star (also played by Day) is refusing to work. Since The Fool looks like the star, perhaps he could stand in for him for the day?

The stand-in job requires The Fool to act in a scene with other film stars, Chad (Adrien Brody, Clean) and Christiana (Kate Beckinsale, Total Recall), and surprisingly, after a bit of adjustment, they finish the work and get the shot. While on set, The Fool meets hustling publicist Lenny (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians), an energy-drinking fast-talker that quickly renames his new client Latte Pronto and somehow finagles him into a movie deal, a house, a marriage, and other lifestyles of the rich and famous. Of course, no one bats an eye that Latte Pronto hasn’t spoken a word and doesn’t seem to be playing the Hollywood Game. As Latte’s star goes up, the fortunes of others shift, and it’s only a matter of time before there’s another changing of the guard, and Latte is the one grasping for help on his descent.

Make no mistake, Fool’s Paradise is an odd duck of a film, and it won’t be for everyone. Perhaps it’s because I like movies about Hollywood and making films (namely The Player & The Stunt Man which this reminded me of at times) that I responded positively to this one.  Maybe it was also because I drew energy from Day appearing to channel Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Peter Sellars in Being There in creating The Fool. He’s not copying their work but clearly used those three men as templates when building this role and the film around it. Without dialogue, Day is free to be physical and use his expressions to convey what words can’t – and it works most of the time.

What doesn’t work, not even a little bit, is Jeong in another attempt at madcap-ery. As much effort as Jeong puts into the role, you’d think it would yield something more creatively constructed than the umpteenth version of the whiny wimpy dope he’s playing yet again. Anytime Jeong is present, sadly a lot, Fool’s Paradise feels like it’s sinking to a lower level. Brody is all over the map in movies and television these days, and that’s where he operates for much of this film too. Decked out in an Andy Gibb wig, he’s fully immersed in the role but the self-indulgent acting gets to be more of a distraction than creating forward momentum for The Fool’s journey through the Hollywood machine. Late appearances from Common (Suicide Squad) and, shudder, John Malkovich (Jennifer 8) come when Day’s firmer control from early on has lost its grip, and the movie has slipped entirely out of his hands. Best not to say much more about these two. 

Already represented in theaters with The Super Mario Bros. Movie, you could drop the kids off at that and see this one while you wait. In one film, you hear Day but don’t see him, and the results are acceptable if unremarkable. In Fool’s Paradise, you see him, but he doesn’t speak, but you have an opportunity to watch an actor give you something you may not have expected in a decidedly hit-or-miss movie. It’s a toss-up, but I know which option I would choose. No games…choose Paradise.

Movie Review ~ Carmen (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Carmen travels from the deserts of Mexico to Los Angeles in search of freedom.
Stars: Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal, Rossy de Palma, Elsa Pataky, Corey London, Nicole da Silva, Tara Morice, Benedict Hardie, Kaan Guldur, Nico Cortez, Pip Edwards, Kevin MacIsaac
Director: Benjamin Millepied
Rated: R
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: You may not have seen a production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, his French four-act opera written in 1875, but you’ve likely heard part of it over time. Maybe it was while you were on hold with your insurance company, taking an elevator up a few flights to see a new dentist, or even walking around Kohl’s mid-day on a Tuesday when you needed to find a pair of khaki pants at the last minute. The music lends itself well to replication in these easy-listening settings, even if the opera is dangerous, romantic, lusty, and ultimately heartbreaking. 

I was reminded recently that it had been twenty-two years since MTV premiered Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Beyoncé Knowles and Mekhi Phifer. Shortly after watching this new version of Carmen, I went back and skimmed a few clips from that 2002 production and was shocked at a) how Beyoncé hasn’t aged a day since it aired and b) how genuinely terrible the adaptation was, rending it nearly impossible to watch more than a few seconds at a time. This isn’t the Carmen I wanted people to experience, nor is this new version exactly the lasting impression I’d wish for people to walk away remembering either. All that being said, what’s happening in director/choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s reimagining of Carmen is uniquely cinematic, visually arresting, at times intensely flawed, and worth at least one watch.

Millepied (husband of Natalie Portman, whom he met when he choreographed her Oscar-nominated performance in Black Swan) drafts his Carmen as the story of the love between two disparate people that find each other at the peak of their emotional arcs. Carmen (Melissa Barrera, Scream VI) has just buried her mother in the Chihuahuan Desert after being murdered by members of a drug cartel that had been looking for her daughter. Without a home or family, she hears her mother’s voice in dreams urging her to cross the border into the U.S. and find Masilda (Rossy de Palma, Parallel Mothers), a childhood friend of her mom’s who owns a popular nightclub. Smuggled into the U.S. at the Texas border, Carmen’s caravan is stopped by two volunteer border agents, Mike (Benedict Hardie, The Invisible Man) and Aidan (Paul Mescal, The Lost Daughter).

Aidan is forced to make a split-second decision that sends him on the run with Carmen, fleeing into the growing daylight and over miles as they become fugitives equally in trouble with the law for different reasons. They bond as they inch closer to Masilda’s club, understanding that she can offer both of them protection from the harsh certainties of the outside world. Once arrived, the passion that has developed between them leads to a desire to build a life together, even as reality begins to creep in slowly and threatens to rip them apart. Can they shut out the world long enough to find solid ground, or will the intoxicating swirl of their surroundings lead them to disaster?

From the start, it’s clear where Millepied’s strength lies, and it’s in the visual storytelling of the piece. Aside from the dancing (we’ll get there in a second), the look of Carmen is striking and often transporting in its composition. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer (A Hidden Life) has worked closely with Millepied to catch every inch of his choreography while never losing our place in the space of the world he’s created. Along with a musical score from Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk) that builds tension with each key change, a whole picture is created that sometimes hits the eyes and ears like a freight train. This results in some dynamic moments that would look incredible on the big screen, like a pas de deux between Carmen and Aidan in the dusty desert and one of Masilda’s slinky club numbers.

If only the script were as strong as the visuals. Millepied’s concept of modernizing the story is admirable. It makes sense in context, but the execution with his co-writers Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Loïc Barrère leaves far too many holes in the story and motivations, which cripples the drama of the piece. It’s good that Barrera, Mescal, and de Palma are on board to do what they can to fill those holes, but even they can’t salvage a second half that dips significantly in energy as it drags its feet toward the climax. Any excitement I had to see the film at the beginning had vanished by the time the credits came. The biggest spark in the movie is an eye-popping number from rapper Tracy “The DOC” Curry, which hits the hardest sonically and visually.

Veering close to an experimental art film, Millepied’s Carmen sometimes skirts into pretension. This isn’t even including the trailers that announce “Benjamin Millepied’s first feature.” Honestly, how many viewers are even going to know that name? It just all feels like the announcement of a significant talent that’s good but hasn’t proven his worth yet. Carmen isn’t going to be his calling card, though it will have several sequences to feature on his highlight reel.

Movie Review ~ Book Club: The Next Chapter


The Facts:

Synopsis: Four elderly best friends take their book club to Italy for the fun girls’ trip they never had. When things go off the rails, and secrets are revealed, their relaxing vacation turns into a once-in-a-lifetime cross-country adventure.
Stars: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Craig T. Nelson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hugh Quarshie, Vincent Riotta
Director: Bill Holderman
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: While it’s true that many of the screenings we critics attend are usually just a handful of us sitting solo in a dark theater furiously scribbling in our little notebooks and then trying to decipher later what we wrote (I gave this up long ago when my notes for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms made even less sense than the movie itself, if that was possible), we do often get a +1 to bring along to keep us company. On special occasions, I’ve pressed my luck and asked to bring a +2, and that’s how I wound up taking my mother and my partner to see 2018’s Book Club as a special pre-Mother’s Day treat.

This was the first time my mom had ever been to one of these events, and the fanfare for this release was deluxe, with a photo booth (with props!) and first-class seating being offered. It’s too bad the movie was such a complete dud, with my usually MN-nice Lutheran mother’s only comment being, “I thought that was going to be a lot better than that.” Me too, Mom, me too. When I told her that I was headed to a screening of a sequel now five years later (surprisingly being announced after original distributor Paramount Pictures sold the rights to Focus Features) and asked if she wanted to join me, she demurred, remembering what a gobbling turkey the original was.

I guess I get my quick rush to judgment from her (along with a sparkling smile!) because Book Club: The Next Chapter is a follow-up that exceeds its predecessor in nearly every way. Though written and directed by the same team, it feels like it was handled by a fresh set of creatives who took notes on what audiences didn’t respond to the first time, tailoring their sequel to the talents of the stars. They’ve returned with no classic but a pleasantly matinee-priced tour through Italy with a group we are more than willing to travel with.

Separated due to the pandemic, four members of a long-running book club are finally able to meet in person, and that’s when Vivian (Jane Fonda, Moving On) drops a bombshell on Diane (Diane Keaton, And So It Goes), Sharon (Candice Bergen, Let Them All Talk), and Carol (Mary Steenburgen, Nightmare Alley). She’s marrying her longtime boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson, Django Unchained). With her man-hungry days behind her, Vivian has found happiness while her friends are going through romantic ups and downs. Diane is living with Mitchell (Andy Garcia, Jennifer 8) but isn’t quite over her deceased husband, and Carol has spent much of the lockdown caring for her husband (Craig T. Nelson, Troop Beverly Hills) after his heart attack. Sharon is the one member that remains single, and while she’s occasionally up to mingle, she’s more focused on settling into a semi-retirement.

With Vivian’s nuptials yet to be formalized, reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Carol’s diaries from her youth stirs dreams of travel for the women. So, when the travel ban is lifted, they decide to throw their friend an epic overseas bachelorette party (as only retired wealthy white women can) where all the hotels are five-star and even the jail cells are pushing three and a half. As they traverse cities rich in fashion, luxury, and rugged men exactly their type, they’ll bond over unfulfilled dreams and make good on promises to keep pushing themselves to try new experiences. 

As was the case with the first film, co-writers Erin Simms and Bill Holderman (who also directs) aren’t overly concerned with logistics or doing much with conflict, so it’s best to crack open Book Club: The Next Chapter with expectations firmly in check. A glass of white wine might help as well. The most considerable improvement is that while the first movie focused on the women discovering Fifty Shades of Grey and implementing that into their love lives to groan-worthy results, the sequel allows more pure personality to come through. That’s good news for fans of any of the four leads, each receiving ample time to shine.

I’ll repeat it now (just like I did in the review of 80 for Brady in January), but I’m not a fan of Fonda playing these vampy characters in so many movies. She’s such a strong actress, and why she continues to play women that depend on men for validation is mystifying. It’s a bit easier to stomach here because the character evolves some, but she’s still involved with the storyline you’ll least want to follow. Steenburgen is a treat as ever, and Bergen is finding a new renaissance in her career with brilliant deadpan line readings. It feels like Keaton is given more of a leading role this time, or maybe it’s because she gets decked out in one of the most Diane Keaton dresses ever. I swear, they convinced her to do the movie just by showing her the black and white dress and matching hat she gets to wear twice in the film.

Right at the cusp of the summer season, Book Club: The Next Chapter is arriving at a perfect time to combat a wave of films geared toward a younger audience. I’m wagering, and crossing my fingers, that its target audience comes out for it because this group needs more well-made movies in theaters directed to them as viable customers. Time will tell if a third chapter will be written for the members of this book club, but based on this sequel, it’s one I would be likely to pick up. 

Movie Review ~ Crater

The Facts:

Synopsis: After the death of his father, a boy growing up on a lunar mining colony takes a trip to explore a legendary crater, along with his four best friends, before being permanently relocated to another planet.
Stars: Isaiah Russell-Bailey, Mckenna Grace, Billy Barratt, Orson Hong, Thomas Boyce, Scott Mescudi
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Rated: PG
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Here’s an interesting piece of moon-rock streaming fare for you and your tween to take on if they are too young for the animated offerings on Disney+ but aren’t yet ready to graduate to being given free rein of the Netflix remote. An often limited-appeal YA offering that rides a rail-thin line of appropriateness at times, the target kid for this movie will be pretty specific. Still, there’s something about Crater that gives the adult viewer a small taste of that old-school Wonderful World of Disney charm, and that might keep them sticking around longer than their younger companions will to see how it all pans out.

Life on their lunar colony is all Caleb (Isaiah Russell-Bailey), Dylan (Billy Barratt), Borney (Orson Hong), and Marcus (Thomas Boyce) have ever known. It’s 2257, and all are children of miners from Earth that have come to the moon looking for the promise of a new life on Omega, a Utopian colony that can only be reached through a 75-year journey in cryostasis. Complicated contractual details for the miners turn their service into decades of hard labor, delaying their departures with the possibility of never making it off the moon and committing their children to a life in limbo.

When Caleb’s father is killed on the job, leaving him orphaned, he is automatically granted passage to Omega, but he must leave all his friends behind. Before he does, he enlists their help in following up on a task his father couldn’t complete: traveling to the mysterious crater they are forbidden to enter and see what is inside. (Has there ever been a more Disney-riffic single goal plot?) With the help of Addison (Mckenna Grace, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), a new transplant from Earth, the team quickly gets in over their heads as they venture into unfamiliar territory rife with danger and unexpected turns.

I had heard nothing about this movie (never a good sign) before it landed in my inbox, but doing some homework after, I was amazed to see that the pitch that kicked off Crater’s completed script was featured on that infamous Black List in 2015. You’ve likely read about that list on here several times over the past few months because a few movies from the various incarnations of the Black List have been showing up in theaters/streaming to various degrees of success. Initially bought by 20th Century Fox, when Disney acquired the studio, it became a natural fit to help grow original film content for their streaming service…for 53 million dollars. 

Looking at the finished film, I can almost see where that money was spent, and while director Kyle Patrick Alvarez coaxes distinguished performances from his young stars, Crater can’t help but come off as a second-tier Disney+ product. Whereas the recent Peter Pan & Wendy felt like it was filmed for the big screen, Crater appears at home, well, in your home. For a film about space and space travel, it’s too grounded and never grows big enough to take up the kind of astronomical size it should. Chiefly about loss and moving on, Griffin’s script naturally tends to be slightly introverted. While the emotional core is well developed, it’s surrounded by bursts of action elements that don’t always align with that tender heart. 

Watch Crater with a child that’s too young, and you’ll end up answering many questions that you may not be ready to talk over yet. That’s all I’ll say about the direction the film heads. Still, on the flip side there some some that will find it a refreshingly mature path for a company that sometimes can pull its punches in the emotional satisfaction category. I’m not sure that all of Crater works in its overall attempt at significant depth in an unwieldy package, and it’s a bit too simplistic to be a race-to-watch feature, yet it’s been crafted with care and sensitivity.