Movie Review ~ Founders Day

The Facts:

Synopsis: A murder mystery surfaces in the midst of a heated mayoral election in a quaint New England town.
Stars: Naomi Grace, Olivia Nikkanen, Devin Druid, Emilia McCarthy, Amy Hargreaves, Catherine Curtin, William Russ, Erik Bloomquist, Tyler James White, Adam Weppler, Kate Edmonds, Jayce Bartok
Director: Erik Bloomquist
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Though they’ve been a bit uneven, the greatest gift the reboot of the Scream series has given us is the return of the whodunit slasher film. While they’ve never truly gone away, changing tastes, audience fatigue, and declining budgets have relegated the once thriving guilty pleasure genre to the periphery, with only a choice few breaking through in the past decade. That’s a far cry from the stretch in the early 2000s when you could expect at least one a month in theaters and double that coming direct to video.

A movie like Founders Day would likely have been a title that dropped into your mom-and-pop video shop with little fanfare but quickly became a hot commodity. When I worked at a video store, under-the-radar fun like this developed good word of mouth, often turning into a one-copy option we couldn’t keep on the shelf. While it won’t win any awards for pace, performance, or polish, there’s always something interesting around the corner in Founders Day.

It’s getting to the end of a contentious mayoral election in the sleepy town of Fairwood, and both candidates are neck and neck in the polls. On one side, current Mayor Blair Gladwell (Amy Hargreaves) is focused on winning at all costs while preparing for the annual Founders Day festivities. Conversely, challenger Harold Faulkner (Jayce Bartok) intends to present the picture-perfect family, even though his home life is anything but. When Faulkner’s daughter (Olivia Nikkanen) becomes the first victim of an efficient masked killer, everyone becomes a suspect as each murder uncovers new secrets in the once idyllic town. 

Written by brothers Erik (who also directs and has a small role as Gladwell’s aide) and Carson Bloomquist, it’s clear the siblings spent a lot of time growing up in the horror aisle of their video store. No trope is left un-trooped, and no cliché is left unclinched. It is almost a miracle how it manages to steer clear of being a spoof or overly self-aware. Yet, it takes itself seriously (maybe too seriously), making it consistently enjoyable if a bit labored in its execution. It’s hard to predict who will make it to the end credits and even more challenging to decide on exactly who might be behind it all – just when you’ve selected your suspect, they are brutally offed.

The film could lose about 15 minutes (along with several characters and their murders) and remain a fresh addition to the horror genre…but that’s just me wanting my slasher cake and eating it, too. There’s an enormous cast to contend with, so there is naturally some major slicing and dicing to be done, this gives us an opportunity to see some good character actors like Catherine Curtin (Werewolves Within), William Russ, and Devin Druid (The Pale Door) run for their lives. I can’t forget Naomi Grace, who makes for a dependable lead. Even as it begins to strain at the bonds of its runtime, the brothers Bloomquist have delivered a slasher throwback with Founders Day that will keep you guessing. 

Founders Day had its world premiere at Popcorn Frights Film Festival on August 18 and its international premiere at FrightFest on August 28. Look for its wide release soon!

Movie Review ~ The Dive


The Facts:

Synopsis: A deep-sea dive at one of the world’s most remote spots becomes a fight for survival for sisters Drew and May when a landslide sends rocks tumbling into the sea, trapping May in the depths. As their oxygen runs low, Drew must make life-and-death decisions with no outside help in sight…
Stars: Louisa Krause, Sophie Lowe
Director: Maximilian Erlenwein
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: A year ago, Lionsgate scored a low-boil hit with Fall, which found two unlucky female friends with a love of heights stranded on top of an abandoned radio tower. Battling brutal weather conditions and other frightening natural elements, not to mention the rusty dilapidated structure breaking apart beneath them, it was a high-wire thriller that played well with convention and sold a few tickets in its limited theatrical release.

Now we have Lionsgate taking The Dive, a remake of the 2020 Swedish thriller Breaking Surface, and you can see how the studio is trying to find similar success with a set formula, but this time with less buoyant results. While Fall found believable ways to stretch out its conceit, The Dive strains to get there. It rarely descended far enough with simple tension to eventually graduate into complete, breathless suspense. What begins as an exciting premise for survival quickly runs out of air long before our lead characters search for their source of oxygen.

It’s a tradition for sisters Drew (Sophie Low, Above Suspicion) and May (Louisa Krause, Young Adult) to take a yearly deep-sea dive together in an exotic locale. Though they may live in separate parts of the world and lead different lives, it’s an unspoken agreement that this is an event neither will miss. Though clearly harboring issues from growing up with a father tough on them both, the sister’s bond is evident, with May emerging early as the more dominant of the two. Of course, this means that when a rockslide interrupts their voyage underwater and traps one of the sisters, guess which one has to step, er, swim up to the plate, and take charge?

Had The Dive been filmed as a tight, taut, 45-minute race to the finish push to save May, it could have been a corker of a nail-biter. Instead, it’s 90 minutes long and reaches the first of its many climaxes around the fifty-minute mark, with director Maximilian Erlenwein’s adaptation of the original script forcing Drew out of the water numerous times. This could have been a cost-saving measure to avoid filming underwater, but it robs the movie of sustained pressure, and we leave poor May stranded on the ocean floor too often.

Eventually, the action picks up for a finale that fails to muster many surprises…at least not the same level of unconventional diversions that helped Fall set itself apart from other drama in real-life survival tales. Had The Dive stayed in the water longer and worried less about being on dry land, Lionsgate could have proven they had an intriguing genre to exploit.

Now Available On Demand

Movie Review ~ Bad Things

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of friends go to a hotel for a weekend getaway and soon discover that women do bad things here
Stars: Gayle Rankin, Hari Nef, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Rad Pereira, Molly Ringwald
Director: Stewart Thorndike
Rated: NR
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: I’ll start reviewing the new horror film Bad Things by doing a visual exercise. Imagine that you are dressed in your finest clothes to go out to eat. You are picked up in a fancy car and dropped off at a restaurant serving the cuisine you crave. The setting is exquisite as you get to your table; every detail has been considered, and the chair the maître d’ has pulled out for you is plush and luxurious. As the waiter emerges from the kitchen with a covered serving platter, gleaming from polish, your mouth starts to water at the food you are so hungry to eat. The plate is set down in front of you, and the cover is removed to reveal your dish: a plain hamburger on a soggy bun. Sure, you are hungry, dressed up, out to eat, and have made a night of it, so you’ll eat the hamburger…but it’s not what you wanted.

That’s exactly how I felt while watching writer/director Stewart Thorndike’s Bad Things, which has the ingredients to create a humdinger of a scare but isn’t assembled in a way that audiences will want to devour. Each chef (director) can create their dish, but if no one comes to eat…you can’t stay open. 

Ok…enough with the food talk. Let’s get down to it. Bad Things is not a great movie, but it has intriguing elements that kept me involved until the (very) bitter end. The good things are star Gayle Rankin (The Greatest Showman) as Ruthie, who has inherited a closed hotel she’s visiting for the weekend with her partner Cal (Hari Nef, Barbie) and their friends Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) and Maddie (Rad Pereira). Ruthie’s past fling with Fran has Cal’s trust issues on high alert, but they are reassured by Ruthie’s plans to re-open the hotel she grew up in as a child.

Of course, there’s history to this hotel, and over the weekend, the friends will be haunted by not just ghosts from the past but by their behavior. Is the hotel making them act out of sorts, or is the isolation freeing them to try out their worst instincts? These interesting questions should have yielded 87 minutes of creepy twists. However, Thorndike’s strange dialogue and diversions, not to mention some broadly unwieldy performances, keep Bad Things from growing beyond good ideas.

If I can say anything to get you to keep watching this and not give up (it’s far too easy to do this nowadays), stay for Molly Ringwald’s (Jem and the Holograms) slick third-act cameo. Sharing the screen with Rankin, it’s the kind of crackling scene Thorndike needed more of in Bad Things. Despite a few creepy moments, the Ringwald sequence is the one truly good thing in the picture.

Now Available On Shudder and AMC+

Movie Review ~ Dark Windows

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of teenagers take a trip to an isolated summerhouse in the countryside. What starts as a peaceful getaway turns into a horrific nightmare when a masked man begins to terrorize them in the most gruesome ways.
Stars: Anna Bullard, Annie Hamilton, Rory Alexander, Jóel Sæmundsson, Morten Holst
Director: Alex Herron
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  I tend to have a strong aversion to screenplays that double back on themselves, so generally, movies that start at the end raise an alert for me. Inevitably, what we’re shown at the start is a red herring to what occurs when we return to the action an hour or so later. I’ve never understood the purpose of this awkward framing device, primarily because it’s been used so often, and you wonder if the filmmakers think audiences aren’t aware a bait-and-switch is about to happen.

English-language Norwegian horror thriller Dark Windows begins at (or very near) the end when a survivor of a night’s worth of terror has been cornered and is seemingly ready to meet their maker. A quick jump takes us several days earlier to find Tilly (Anna Bullard) struggling to enter the wake of Ali, a friend recently killed in a car accident. Tilly, Monica (Annie Hamilton, Marriage Story), and Peter (Rory Alexander) were in the car, but all three made it out with barely a scrape. Feeling the pressure of a town’s worth of stares and questions about why they survived, and their friend didn’t, the three escape to Monica’s remote weekend home for a few days to relax and take stock of what’s next.

What’s next is being stalked by a killer intent on making them pay for their survival by ensuring they don’t see the light of day. Gradually, secrets from the night of Ali’s death are revealed, leading audiences to believe that maybe the killer knows what they did that summer night and is taking bloody steps in avenging a loved one…or is someone closer to them trying to eliminate loose ends?   

Director Alex Herron maintains a good air of suspense throughout, and despite some third act swerves into true brutality, the viscera found in Dark Windows is relatively tame. That leaves room for tension to rule above gore and fleshed-out performances (solid across the board) to emerge. It’s a fairly standard story, as written by Ulvrik Kraft, but getting it on its feet and handing it to the filmmaker and actors puts it in the “worth a peek” category.

Now Available On Demand

Movie Review ~ King On Screen

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1976, Brian de Palma directed Carrie, the first novel by Stephen King. Since then, more than 50 directors have adapted the master of horror’s books in more than 80 films and series, making him the most adapted author alive. What’s so fascinating about him that filmmakers cannot stop adapting his works?
Stars: Frank Darabont, Mick Garris, Mike Flanagan, Tom Holland, Vincenzo Natali, Greg Nicotero, Mark L. Lester
Director: Daphné Baiwir
Rated: NR
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Though the first movie adapted from a novel by Stephen King came out four years before I was born, I was thankfully alive, awake, and alert for the heyday of the author’s books being turned into movies and television series. One of the most recognized names in literature and film, King has been scaring the pants off consumers for over five decades and is still going strong. His reach and influence in pop culture are well known. While his repertoire has been touched on as part of documentaries covering the overall horror genre or specific films, there hasn’t been a significant examination that gathers all of his movies into one ghoulish delight.

Enter Belgian documentarist Daphné Baiwir, who has taken on this task and delivered King on Screen, a solid, if unspectacular, look into the various projects that have sprung from King’s novels back to the original Carrie from 1976. Through interviews with several dozen filmmakers (all male) that have been behind the camera, viewers are taken through an abbreviated timeline that leans heavily on the expected titles (Christine, Misery, IT, The Shining), barely mentions some (Firestarter, Needful Things, Salem’s Lot, Silver Bullet) and skips over others (The Lawnmower Man, Graveyard Shift, Apt Pupil, Dreamcatcher) altogether.

There’s no doubt that the content of King’s works could have filled two or three documentaries, and maybe this would have been an ideal project for a multi-episode arc on a streaming service instead, where time is of little issue. I mean, if you are going to cover King, cover King. Leaving out movies, even the lesser known/regarded ones, puts them in some naughty corner that can make fans of those entries feel somewhat alienated. Of course, we all love Stand by Me, Pet Sematary, and Dolores Claiborne, but do we have to leave out discussions of The Tommyknockers and The Langoliers as a trade-off? 

If Baiwir loses some points for content by the end of King on Screen, she’d already earned a hefty bonus off the bat with a positively delightful opening that is filled with so many King Easter Eggs that you’ll want to have your remote handy to pause/rewind to catch them all. Casting herself as a traveler bringing back a unique antique to a recognizable shop in a familiar (to King readers) town…scour every detail you see for callbacks to previous movies/books and pay attention to each of the townspeople you run into. They’re all linked to the King universe somehow. It’s an ingenious way to get the ball rolling, and while it has absolutely nothing to do with the interviews, playing more like a short fan-made King tribute, it’s a lot of fun.

Any King fan worth their salt will want to check out King on Screen. However, if you’re like me, who appreciates King’s full oeuvre, even the deep cuts, you’ll likely miss the titles that aren’t mentioned. Even so, hearing the various directors discuss their influences and how other filmmakers (some interviewed here) informed their approach to making a King adaptation is insightful. None of it is likely to be new information, but it makes for an easy watch that knows its target audience well.

In Theaters on August 11th
and available
On Demand and Blu-Ray on September 8th.

Movie Review ~ Jules

The Facts:

Synopsis: Milton lives a quiet life of routine in a small western Pennsylvania town but finds his day upended when a UFO and its extraterrestrial passenger crash land in his backyard.
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoë Winters, Jade Quon, Jane Curtin
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: In my old age, I’m finding that I need more and more time to consider my opinions regarding mass media. The snap judgments and immediate instinct that I’ve followed for years still give me good guidance, but my feelings can increasingly change if I take the time to gather my thoughts. Had I not had the benefit of some breathing room after watching Jules, I may have written it up (off?) as another odd-duck effort from Sir Ben Kingsley. Admittedly, the Oscar-winner is a bit all over the map when it comes to film roles, and fresh from an appearance as Salvador Dalí in the paint-by-numbers biopic Dalíland, Kingsley is trying on another wiggy role and questionable accent in this light-as-air drama with a dash of comedy for spice and a tinge of sci-fi to give it color. 

I did have that breathing room, though, and I found that in the days after watching Jules, my mind kept returning to it and the quiet way it respected its characters and, in turn, its audience. At a time when Hollywood and culture are doing all they can to snag a moment of your attention by any means necessary, it was pleasant to be in the presence of filmmakers that didn’t have to resort to big swooping statements or bombastic effects to tell a compelling story about humans and how we interact. Even a strange little nugget of a movie like this made for a pittance can exist longer in your consciousness than films with quadruple the budget and reach.

The weekly council meeting in Boonton, Pennsylvania, brings out the small town’s most eccentric residents and their standard requests. For Milton Robinson (Kingsley, Operation Finale), his persistent proposal involves changing the town motto, “A good place to call home,” into something ‘less confusing’ (i.e., it’s not an ideal place to “call” out from, and if you lived there already, why would you call home?). Most of the time, no one pays much attention, aside from Sandy (Harries Sansom Harris, Licorice Pizza) and Joyce (Jane Curtin, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), two single biddies that frequent the meetings, maybe to see what Milton is up to.

Then, one night, a spaceship inexplicably lands in the backyard of Milton’s somewhat secluded farmhouse, and eventually, a tiny alabaster-white-skinned alien (Jade Quon, Iron Man 3) emerges. Instead of having Milton react like the world is about to end, screenwriter Gavin Steckler has the elderly gentleman more troubled over his flora being crushed by the spacecraft. When the alien shows signs of being ill, Milton finds a way to coax it back to health, befriending it, feeding it, and introducing it to television. Though Milton is honest with anyone asking what’s new in his life, everyone from the town council to his frustrated daughter (Zoë Winters) thinks that the older man has finally left the deep end. 

It isn’t long before a concerned Sandy gets involved and meets the alien she names Jules, followed by nosy Joyce, who isn’t about to let Sandy and Milton replace her grumpy company with a less abrasive extraterrestrial. Through their experience with Jules and spending less time alone, each aging individual learns something about their current place in life and the benefit of a shared community. As they work together to help their tiny friend fix their shuttle so it may return home, they’ll realize how much use they can still be to themselves and those around them.

Kingsley is arguably the star of Jules and does his best to appear appropriately shlumpy. However, he is never quite convincing as a man on the brink of losing everything (his house, mind, family) that finds stability with his new core group. Kingsley has always done best when he has a dynamic cast surrounding him, and that’s why the performances of Harris and Curtin function more often than not as an elevation tool when Kingsley can’t quite get there. Both gifted comedians, Harris and Curtin dial the comedy back and explore a more somber side of their acting. The results are quite moving, with Harris nailing a critical scene that exposes some familial hurt and Curtin fully committing to a wild performance of Free Bird.

I don’t want to make it sound like Kingsley isn’t good in the film or that he detracts from the overall warm feeling Jules will leave you with. His scenes with Quon (who, even without dialogue, is smashing) are strong, and I think he fits in with the film’s solemnity. There’s just a particular rhythm that Kingsley operates on that is hard to groove with. The more I sat with the film, the more I appreciated how subtle director Marc Turtletaub was in portraying small-town life during a bizarre time. This will likely slip by the radar of most audiences during its initial run, but if you have the chance, get in on Jules early. If you’re like me, appreciating its charms will take some extra time…but it will come.

Movie Review ~ Red, White & Royal Blue

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the son of the American President and Britain’s prince public feud threatens to drive a wedge in U.S./British relations, the two are forced into a staged truce that sparks something deeper.
Stars: Taylor Zakhar Perez, Nicholas Galitzine, Uma Thurman, Stephen Fry, Sarah Shahi, Rachel Hilson, Ellie Bamber
Director: Matthew López
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: While I never got around to reading it, I do not doubt that Casey McQuiston’s gay romance Red, White & Royal Blue was a rollicking blast to devour when it was released in the early summer of 2019. The kind of book you’d want to keep flipping the pages of deep into the night…but not too far, lest you finish it and break its magic gauzy spell. Before it was even published, Amazon Studios had purchased the rights for the film adaptation, and with the novel continuing to be a strong seller, the inevitable movie went into production two years later.   

Produced by Greg Berlanti, the same man that had directed the sensitive 2018 LGBT modest hit Love, Simon, and directed by playwright Matthew López who recently won multiple accolades for his lauded work The Inheritance, chronicling the lives of modern gay men in a loose adaptation of Howards End, it seemed like a thoughtfully made match behind the camera. While gay romances have been on the rise, they are few and far between, and as last fall’s heavily hyped but big-time-belly flop Bros proved, even with the best intentions and a predominantly queer crew, it doesn’t spell success.

An international incident occurs at the Price of England’s wedding, instigated by the Prince’s younger brother, Henry (Nicholas Galitzine, Cinderella), and Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez), the visiting son of the U.S. President. Silent rivals for years stemming from a silly miscommunication, the hubbub that occurs forces Alex’s mother, President Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman, Final Analysis, sporting a Texan accent that evens out as the movie progresses), to demand her son hop back over the pond and go on an apology tour with the equally chastised Prince. Passive aggressive lobs between the young men become friendly banter, and a long-distance friendship develops.

While only one of them dares to act on it first, before either of them knows it, they have fallen in love. Of course, to go public with their romance would ruin not just their lives but the reputations of their very different families. Henry’s royal duties demand that he stays above the gossip and proceed with the life planned for him. With his mother’s reelection campaign in full swing, Alex is committed to helping her win a second term and wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize her position in critical red states that might not vote for a candidate with a son so publicly out of the closet. The closer they get, the further a future together seems to be. Can love conquer politics and royal decrees?

I would have loved to write that Red, White & Royal Blue hasn’t suffered the same fate as Bros and isn’t as treacly twee as the Hallmark movies it has borrowed most of its sets from (a 57 million budget doesn’t go far) but it sadly has. It’s not even about the cheap look or that first-time director López injects zero style into the filmmaking, robbing the tone of anything resembling creative energy. Like Bros, Red, White & Royal Blue is a movie that wants to be so “with” it that it can’t see how much it’s functioning without. It’s without two leads with convincing chemistry as anything other than friends. Both are, evidently, straight-presenting, and it shows. The friendship between the characters is ultra-bro-ish until the script dictates that it not be, and even then, it’s not like a rom-com where either of the leads has this lightening moment realization that yes, they have actually been head over heels for the other the entire time. If ever there was supporting evidence for gay men playing gay characters, look no further than the two leads of Red, White & Royal Blue

While Galitzine excels in the dramatic arc his character is given (too late in the film), Perez is miscast from the word go. I’ll give you that they look cute as a button on the poster, but a photograph doesn’t sustain a movie. It’s unfortunate that Perez is in considerably more of the movie, even scenes shared with supporting cast members are awkward and feel like attempts by more experienced actors to shake something loose in Perez that isn’t budging. Taken as fantasy, I guess it would explain the lack of paparazzi throughout the film. However, I wouldn’t know in what modern world two handsome young celebrity bachelors have ever been left alone by hungry photographers, never mind when they are frequently holed up together or out on the town. 

Even though it’s rated R, Red, White & Royal Blue is incredibly tame, and from what I gather, only received the restrictive rating for a lovemaking scene that shows no nudity and is mostly about hands with spindly fingers clasping and unclasping. You can draw your own conclusions about why the MPAA saw fit to give a gay romance with no vulgar language, blood, or violence a more severe rating than other films with buckets of gore, sex, and blue language. At nearly two hours, López and his co-adapter Ted Malawer can’t find the proper ending, making us sit through a handful of false climaxes. I’ll go out on a limb and say there will be many people endeared to these characters by the end and won’t mind spending these extra moments, but I was already Over It, Tired, and Royally Disappointed.

Movie Review ~ Heart of Stone

The Facts:

Synopsis: An intelligence operative for a shadowy global peacekeeping agency races to stop a hacker from stealing its most valuable and dangerous weapon.
Stars: Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, Alia Bhatt, Sophie Okonedo, Matthias Schweighöfer, Jing Lusi, Paul Ready, Archie Madekwe, Jon Kortajarena
Director: Tom Harper
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 122 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In the middle of the Barbenheimer mania, I went with friends to see Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One for a second time to see if that Tom Cruise big-screen blockbuster was as crazy action-packed as I remembered.  The first time was so enjoyably overwhelming that it became exhausting…so much so that I felt I needed to take it all in again, if only for that car chase scene alone.  That second viewing solidified how much I like catching these large-scale, full-throttle films on the most giant screen possible. 

While that film is strangely struggling to keep up with the movies about a doll and the creation of the atomic bomb (who would have thunk?), audiences wanting to stay in and stay cool have another option to explore from the comfort of their homes.  And it just so happens that it comes from the same production company that has handled multiple Mission: Impossible entries.  Although I would have loved to see Heart of Stone at the cinema (more than any recent Netflix original, it should have had a theatrical release), I was slightly surprised at how slick and entertaining this potential franchise kick-off was.  If this is the start of something new for Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), then the star has found a worthwhile new character to lay claim to.

Before its title sequence (have I mentioned how much I l-o-v-e a title sequence?), an extended prologue introduces us to MI:6 agent Rachel Stone (Gadot), a tech wiz teamed up with Bailey (Paul Ready), Yang (Jing Lusi, Crazy Rich Asians), and Parker (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) on an assignment high up in the Alps.  When their intended target gives them the slip, and they realize they’ve fallen into a trap set by mystery woman Keya (Alia Bhatt), the team scrambles to secure their asset before he makes it down the slope.  It’s an energetic way to open the film, and director Tom Harper (Wild Rose) demonstrates early on his ability to handle large-scale action sequences and blend them with doses of humor that don’t get moldy quickly.

Of course, there’s more to Rachel than a harmless tech wiz, but I’ll let the twists in the screenplay from Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder (Frozen II) reveal themselves while you watch.  It’s more fun that way because some of the curveballs thrown are nicely pitched and timed perfectly to catch you off guard.  In addition to the MI:6 crew, a faction of agents known as The Charter are finding ways into their version of the peacekeeping business via The Heart.  A new technology that connects all of the informational/media sources around the world, it can find anyone and even make future predictions on potential outcomes in brawls.  When Keya sets her sights on stealing The Heart, Rachel must protect and/or retrieve it before it falls into the wrong hands and is used against the people attempting to keep order.

One of those movies that is in a constant state of motion, Heart of Stone’s biggest asset is Gadot, who always feels like an excellent example of leading with authority.  Yes, Gadot has been in a stinker or two (how did Red Notice happen?  And how is it getting a sequel?), but she often has an instinct for what projects will be a good fit, and Rachel Stone is a character that is tailor-made for what she can bring to the table.  It shows off her dramatic side but highlights her physicality at the same time.  The action sequences may rely on stunt doubles (her double wears a shorter and stringier wig), but she’s incredibly active in many of the fight spectacles.  And it’s futile to deny her screen charisma.

Working with his longtime cinematographer George Steele (The Last Letter From Your Lover), Harper might not have the budget to stage Tom Cruise-level stunts, but he does fit in several impressively filmed scenes involving a car chase (this is the year of off-the-wall car chases!), two tense passages involving a parachute, motorcycle pursuits, and more than a few hand-to-hand combats and shootouts to keep you alert.  Most of the combatants are the nameless/faceless masses that filter through these action thrillers, but everyone gets their turn in the ring at some point.  Kudos to Gadot’s opening team (Ready, Lusi, and Dornan) for participating in the fun car chase scene through Lisbon!

Aside from Gadot, Dornan (Belfast) knows the assignment and isn’t afraid to go for extra credit, and Bhatt (RRR) keeps her cards close to her chest for as long as she can, it creates the appropriate amount of mystery and the tiniest dash of frustration we should feel for her character.  How can I forget to mention the likes of Sophie Okonedo (Catherine Called Birdy) & Matthias Schweighöfer (Army of the Dead) as members of The Charter who keep their eye on Rachel throughout?  Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo that almost made me do a spit-take.  The actor’s costume and wig are the campiest in the whole movie (two words: Prada linebacker), but their brief presence is eternally welcome.

This is enormous fun, and I appreciated that it doesn’t have a throwaway charm to give off the impression you have to check your brain at the door to get something out of it.  I wouldn’t even say you have to compromise with your own standards to like Heart of Stone, either.  Maybe I had set my bar too low initially, so all I could do was be impressed.  Then again, that doesn’t give the filmmakers and writers enough credit for crafting a spy thriller that consistently delivers surprises while promising the possibility of more to come.

Movie Review ~ Meg 2: The Trench

The Facts:

Synopsis: A research team encounters multiple threats while exploring the ocean’s depths, including a malevolent mining operation.
Stars: Jason Statham, Wu Jing, Shuya Sophia Cai, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Skyler Samuels, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Sienna Guillory, Melissanthi Mahut, Whoopie Van Raam, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Felix Mayr
Director: Ben Wheatley
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: For my opening of this review for Meg 2: The Trench, I’ll turn to Queen to set the stage:

I’ve paid my dues (Great White)
Time after time (The Reef: Stalked)
I’ve done my sentence (47 Meters Down)
But committed no crime (The Shallows)
And bad mistakes (Maneater)
I’ve made a few (The Black Demon)
I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face (The Reef)
But I’ve come through (Bait 3D)

Only a sampling of the “killer shark” films I’ve sampled over the past few years, but it’s safe to say that I’ve been around the block when it comes to the (mostly) poor films made about an ornery fish chomping down on (mostly) innocent swimmers.  When The Meg was released by Warner Brothers in 2018, it was a welcome relief for a few reasons.  The long-in-the-works film adapted from Steve Alten’s popular pulp novel published in 1997 had moved from multiple studios but had finally surfaced as a big-budget late summer release with a creative marketing campaign.  And it was a hit.  And it wasn’t half bad, either.

A sequel wasn’t guaranteed immediately, but when it was greenlit in late 2018, it gave some hope that Hollywood hadn’t abandoned the water-based monster movie that audiences proved willing to turn out for.  Five years later, after delays due to the pandemic and production shifts, Meg 2: The Trench is rising to fill a guilty pleasure gap at the box office during its massive Barbenheimer upswing.  For some, this may be a soggy sampling of CGI run amok with special effects taking precedence over logic and story, but this critic gobbled it all up hook, line, and sinker. 

Much has changed in the five years since we last saw rescue diver Jonas Taylor and the survivors of the first Megalodon attack on a research facility in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He’s now a single stepfather to Meiying (Sophia Cai) and focused on fighting eco-terrorism that continues to pollute the world’s oceans.  Jiuming Zhang (Wu Jing, Iron Man 3), Meiying’s uncle, has remained vigilant in researching the Mariana Trench his late father and sister had explored when the Megalodon broke through and caused the original chaos.  Now partnered with a slinky investor (Sienna Guillory, Love, Actually, who acts like someone is feeding her lines through an earpiece), Jiuming believes he has a connection with a young Megalodon in captivity that was caught several years prior.

Working with Jonas, Jiuming assembles a new team of technicians and enlists Mac (Cliff Curtis, Doctor Sleep) and DJ (Page Kennedy), who have a prior history of exploring the deepest abyss on earth.  With the original area of the trench surveyed and documented, the consensus is to return and travel further into the uncharted depths with the advanced technology at their costly disposal.  However, when the captive Megalodon escapes from her pen and follows the team to the Trench for reasons unknown, it sets off a chain reaction of events that puts the team of two submersibles in eminent peril, not just from multiple Megalodons hungry for a new snack, but from other sea creatures that have come to see what’s for dinner.

Initially, I had heard that new director Ben Wheatley (Kill List) was aiming for an R rating in his sequel, and I almost wish he was given the freedom to go for it.  You get the sense Wheatley is holding back his usual grim style, and that restraint becomes more evident as the film progresses, but the movie works fine with its tame PG-13.  Trust me; there’s still more than enough death and mayhem to go around without viscera wafting across the screen to prove it.  While the first 2/3 are occupied with what happens within the Trench, the major melee starts when we reach the surface, and the action moves from under the sea to the aptly named Fun Island.  Wheatley throws everything together in one big pot and lets the fins and teeth fly.  As mentioned before, there’s more than just sharks to worry about. While I always prefer a giant shark movie to be solely about a giant shark, I can’t deny that throwing in other sharp-toothed prehistoric creatures provides some distinct glee.  What doesn’t offer much joy is Sergio Peris-Mencheta’s overbaked human villain, proving that as far as these Meg movies are concerned, future films should stick with CGI baddies.

It’s nice to see all the returning cast members back (wow, has Cai grown up in five years!). If I had initial reservations about Statham (Fast X) playing a character I had imagined differently for decades when reading the book, I’m coming around to his brutish take on Taylor.  Though he rarely takes on roles that are huge stretches for him (and there’s always a shot of him working out or, more specifically, doing pull-ups), he never comes across like he’s phoning in his performance.  Wu is an enjoyable addition to the team, and though Melissanthi Mahut (Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) is serviceable as the lone tough-as-nails female taking action, I thought the script from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber was missing a distinct female lead (that wasn’t a preteen). 

This sequel (while silly and over the top) is more serious than its campy predecessor.  Coming out right as two powerhouse players are still doing insane business at the box office and on the same weekend that another popular family franchise (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem) is arriving, I’m curious to see how Meg 2: The Trench holds up.  For me, I thought it hit the mark, and then some with its decent CGI and booming sound design…and this is coming from the perspective of someone that didn’t have the movie screened in advance for them (what’s up, Warner Brothers? You need to keep us in the loop!)  Those hating on the film haven’t had to do their penance in the muck of lousy shark movies.  I have and can tell you this is so much more entertaining than it has any right to be.  Dive in.

Movie Review ~ Shortcomings

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Ben Tanaka, a confused, obsessive Japanese American male in his late twenties, and his cross-country search for contentment (or at least the perfect girl).
Stars: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon, Timothy Simons
Director: Randall Park
Rated: R
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I love a good coming-of-age movie as much as the next critic that grew up in the hazy glow of the ‘80s, but I think it’s often a mistake to assume they can only focus on the younger generation.  Yes, there’s an instant relatability for adult filmgoers who like to look back with movies that can capture a specific time and place with a particular patina; it’s what has led to this nostalgia boom of late that I’ve fully embraced.  However, there are a growing number of films geared toward a different type of maturing that happens long after we’ve said goodbye to high school and college and are ready to take the next step toward what might be waiting on the other side of unexpectedness.

That’s my biggest takeaway from Shortcomings, Randall Park’s film version of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel originally published as a series of serialized stories between 2004 and 2007.  At the start of the film, most of Tomine’s characters are at a standstill in their young adulthood, tapping their toes as they wait for the next Big Thing to happen in life.  Without realizing it, they neglect that these prime days of pre-adulthood are the perfect time to make the big mistakes they fear and take the risks they appear to be opposed to.

Maybe that’s why Ben (Justin H. Min, After Yang) is so unhappy at the film’s start.  Living in Berkeley, CA, and going through the motions as a manager of an art-house theater that’s seen better days, he feels stuck in his current situation at work and home.  His girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki, Home Sweet Home Alone) is far more ambitious than her partner in the long-term goals department, and that divide is creating an obvious wedge between the two.  With Ben and Miko also disagreeing on what their Asian-American culture means to them and how representation is manifested, it sets into motion a separation that intends to give the two convenient bi-coastal space to reconsider their relationship but winds up creating a disastrous downward spiral for Ben.

After Miko accepts a career opportunity in NYC and leaves for several months, the breathing room he thought he needed turns into second-guessing jealousy…and this is after he has affairs with two vibrant women (Tavi Gevinson, Enough Said and Debby Ryan, Night Teeth) in short order.  Convinced he needs to either win Miko back or get to the bottom of why they can’t work, Ben ventures to NYC for a visit with longtime friend Alice (Sherry Cola, Turning Red) and some detective work.  While Alice and her girlfriend Meredith offer a safe space to contemplate his recent choices before confronting Miko, Ben cannot fully see the scale of his actions until it is too late.

In bringing these characters to life on the big screen, first-time director Park (Valley Girl) and Tomine have taken flat images already leaping off the page and transitioned them into the flawed three-dimensional figures they were begging to become.  Tomine’s characters are emotional and quirky but richly human and get stuck in the same life complications that many will be able to relate with.  In turn, Park was able to take that detailed outline and successfully piece together a cast that could run with the material. 

Min is appropriately aggravating when it counts but doesn’t lose the leading man charm that makes you want to root for him ultimately coming out on top.  You also want to cheer for Maki, even if her character is often just as much in the wrong as Min’s.  After July’s Joy Ride, Cola is fizzing (har har) and proving not only to be an excellent comic sidekick but also to have impressive chops in the non-comedic arena.  Though I understand it’s not her story or Tomine’s perspective, I would have loved to see more of her side of things get fleshed out.  Maybe a spin-off?

Shortcomings starts strong and maintains a zippy energy for the first half but begins to dip as it nears the sixty-minute mark.  Coincidentally, it’s when the story goes into more dramatic territory, and our characters show a bit of their darker side.  Naturally, Park pumps the brakes a bit.  While it can’t regain that same spring in its step from its opening stretch, it never fully stumbles out of favor.  Well-etched performances and a creatively infused screenplay go a long way in keeping Shortcomings headed in the right direction.