Movie Review ~ Heathers: The Musical

The Facts:

Synopsis: Veronica Sawyer does her best to survive her senior year while navigating the beautiful but cruel Heathers, the new to school Jason “JD” Dean, and the constant pressure to fit in with everyone else.
Stars: Ailsa Davidson, Simon Gordon, Maddison Firth, Vivian Panka, Teleri Hughes, Mhairi Angus, Liam Doyle, Rory Phelan, Vicki Lee Taylor, Andy Brady, Oliver Brooks, Benjamin Karran, Chris Parkinson, Jermaine Woods, Eleanor Morrison-Halliday, Mary-Jean Caldwell, Hannah Lowther, May Tether
Director: Andy Fickman
Rated: NR
Running Length:
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Hollywood Movies had been adapted into musicals to varying degrees of success for decades before Hairspray came on the scene, but that 2002 Tony-winning musical was a rare bird. It was not just a good film that got great when producers brought it to the stage; it was a blockbuster success that had a long life on Broadway and around the world, with regional productions still popping up to this day. More than anything, the music was so infectiously excellent that it was hard for anyone to leave the theater without a giant smile. I saw an early Broadway preview, having paid top dollar to do so, and it was some of the best money I ever spent.

A little over a decade later, the theater had seen many shows that tried to recapture that Hairspray magic with unremarkable results. The bigger the swing, the larger the miss; it wasn’t getting any better. Starting in 2009, Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy began working on the music, lyrics, and book for Heathers: The Musical. Adapted from the cult film from 1988 written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehman, this was imagined as a period-set musical that maintained the darkly comic tone of the movie and aimed for a smaller off-Broadway house to call home.

Years of development followed, and after a sold-out run in Los Angeles created the kind of buzz that could carry a show into NYC, Heathers: The Musical made its official off-Broadway debut in March of 2014 and ran for just six months. Despite being featured on an episode of the hit show Riverdale, perhaps the movie’s cult following didn’t translate to the stage. Then the UK got a hold of the rights, and that’s where the show’s second life began. Again directed by Andy Fickman, the show received a few tweaks and new songs, making its off-West End debut in 2018. It has enjoyed consistent professional productions in and around the West End ever since. 

Now comes a professionally filmed movie of the latest off-West End production filmed in May of 2022 made up of stars of the recent UK tour of the show and the 2021 revival cast. This “best of” grouping allows director Fickman to select the best of the best, and it shows with each high-belting song and well-sung ballad. It may lose some of (well, let’s be honest, most of) the burnt edges that made the original film such an outrageous viewing experience, but there’s enough energy given off by the cast to fuel several neighboring West End shows.

By and large, the story of Heathers remains the same. Starting her senior year, average girl Veronica Sawyer (Alisa Davidson) knows her place on the food chain of Westerberg High. No one ranks higher than the Heathers, and the queen bee is Heather Chandler (Maddison Firth). Decked out in red and unafraid to literally push Heathers Duke (Vivian Panka) and McNamara (Teleri Hughes) out of the way so she can shine, Heather C. takes no prisoners in the high school game of winners and losers. In the stage version, Veronica isn’t friends with the tricky trio yet but ingratiates herself quickly, becoming a hanger-on and leaving behind loyal friend Martha Dunnstock (Mhairi Angus). (Sorry, Betty Finn from the movie, there wasn’t enough room for you, so your character combined with Martha, who has far more room to grow.)

New to school Jason “JD” Dean makes a huge first impression by putting jocks Kurt Kelley and Ram Sweeney in their place when their toxic masculinity gets the better of them. Finding the dangerous new boy appealing, Veronica makes a mental note to keep him at a distance but not keep him too distant. She gets to know him faster than she imagines when she finds herself on the outs with Heather C. and winds up mistakenly offering her a glass of drain cleaner, killing her instantly. Instead of being the good girl, Veronica follows JD’s lead and turns Heather C’s death into an example for their school, which has a ripple effect on all that get swept up in its wake.

Musicalizing Waters’s film that is ostensibly about suicide (JD and Veronica make this initial death and several others look like it was self-inflicted) is risky. A question of taste hangs over the entirety of the piece. Yet I was shocked at how fun the show was from beginning to end. I hadn’t heard the music in full until I saw the film because I’m not the kind of person that can easily listen to the cast recording of a show I haven’t seen. I find it too difficult to conceptualize the show without having the visuals to go with it. The score and lyrics are often quite hysterical, with rhymes that use slang from the 1989 era it is set and catchy melodies that drive the show like a locomotive.

Performing at a smaller venue can make the stage feel cramped for the smaller cast, but it doesn’t hold the choreography back from being impressively executed by a hard-working ensemble. From the opening number-on, it seems the supporting players are constantly moving around doing something (or playing a double role), and the multi-level set is utilized nicely. Fickman has been with the show long enough (and has directed enough films of his own) to understand how to stage this musical for the cameras, so this works particularly well for at-home viewing. It’s easy to track the action, and it’s shown fully when you want to see the choreography.

Tip-top performances send this over the edge, starting with Davidson and her vocal chords of steel. While everyone in the cast does a great job hiding their UK accents, Davidson tends to get a little gargley when speaking, but the singing is gorgeous whether she’s holding back or belting it out. If Simon Gordon’s JD is a little weaker in comparison, it’s only because he reads a good deal older than Davidson, so it feels like the Silverstone/Rudd relationship in Clueless (did that actually work?), but I did like his singing. As the ignored best friend, Angus spends most of the film in the background, only occasionally popping in as the voice of reason so you know she has a big song in Act II you should be ready for…and she delivers. Bless Fickman for casting studly Rory Phelan and Liam Doyle as football jocks that spend the second act in just their underwear.

Like Mean Girls (also influenced by Heathers, also turned into a successful musical), the trio of popular girls is the most fun to watch as they stalk the stage. Hughes is nicely fragile as always on edge Heather M while Panka lets it rip when Heather D. comes out of her shell. I was particularly fond of Firth’s take on Heather C, especially as the musical opens and we get our first look at her. There’s a lot of work to get you to dislike this character while still wanting to see as much of her as possible, and Firth easily accomplishes this. She’s ever so fun to watch, and the singing is excellent too.

I still think Heathers: The Musical needs a little more trimming before it can be considered complete. With teenage suicide still an issue that faces children today, it may continue to be a sensitive musical to present, even though there is a high school edition available, should an institution be so bold. Hot button topics are often reduced to broadly comic effect, but they were in the 1988 movie, so you can’t take too many points away from the musical either. If you’re taking it on a pure entertainment level (and you should), Heathers: The Musical is so very.

Have some “Big Fun” and catch Heathers: The Musical, exclusively premiering on The Roku Channel, starting today, September 16! I’ll be giving it a second watch this weekend myself!

Movie Review ~ Do Revenge

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a clandestine run-in, Drea (Alpha, fallen it girl) and Eleanor (beta, new alt girl) team up to go after each other’s tormentors, the scariest protagonists of all: teenage girls.
Stars: Camila Mendes, Maya Hawke, Austin Abrams, Rish Shah, Talia Ryder, Ava Capri, Jonathan Daviss, Maia Reficco, Paris Berelc, Alisha Boe, Sophie Turner
Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
Rated: NR
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  If you’re putting me in a locked room and asking me to scribble a list of my Top 3 favorite specialty movie genres on the wall, it would have to be these. 

1. The Shark Film 
2. The Creature in Space Film 
3. The Bitchy High School/College Film

So far this summer, I’ve had my fill of the shark film (see The Reef: Stalked and Maneater, or better yet, don’t and see JAWS if it’s still in IMAX near you), and I can watch Alien or its sequel anytime I want. I must admit that I’ve cycled through my favorite high school comedies more than a few times, knowing the beats and lines of the classics for most by heart. 

When I first heard about Do Revenge, I knew it was initially called Strangers. That could only mean one thing, like Amy Heckerling’s all-time hit Clueless, which derived inspiration from Jane Austen’s novel Emma, screenwriters Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and Celeste Ballard were borrowing from another master. The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Very loosely based on 1951 Strangers on a Train (even less than 1987’s Throw Momma From the Train was), this wicked little zinger is a breath of fresh air as we move into the hottest part of the summer.

It’s spring at Rose Hill prep school, and junior Drea Torres (Camila Mendes, Palm Springs) is sitting on top of the world. She has a great group of friends, the most popular boy in school is hers, she’s in a video for Teen Vogue, and her #1 pick for college (Yale) is interested. Not bad for a girl that attends school on a scholarship and is surrounded by classmates who don’t understand the sacrifices she’s made to get where she is today. She seems to have forgotten a little of that humility, but now she’s ready to party and enjoy the end of the school year. Then she makes a classic blunder…she trusts the wrong guy.

Boyfriend Max (Austin Abrams, Chemical Hearts) leaks a raunchy video she sent to him, ruining her reputation overnight, jeopardizing her collegiate future, and seriously impacting plans for a perfect senior year. Working at a tennis camp over the summer to hide from all the eyes that have seen her online video, she meets Eleanor (Maya Hawke, Fear Street: Part One – 1994), a tomboy she bonds with over swapped stories of broken trust. Eleanor is transferring to Rose Hill in the fall, and, surprise, her bully also attends. When fall rolls around, the two stay out of sight in public, but behind closed doors, the summer friendship turns into a plot to destroy the tyrants that ran their names through the mud. How far is too far when the future, and high emotions, are on the line?

Nicely harnessing an air of surreal reality, Do Revenge sits comfortably on the shelf with Heathers (a live musical version debuts on Roku this weekend) and Jawbreaker. The buttery pastel uniforms worn at school (seriously, you’ll believe anyone looks good in a whipped lavender capelet and matching beret) are in pleasant contrast with the outlandish fashion designs created by Alana Morshead. The supporting cast members all sport impressive duds, but Morshead saves the most distinctive styles for Mendes and Hawke, who show up in several jaw-dropping outfits during the film. Coupled with a slight fantasy-like school setting and outdoor locations that feel a little outside of the natural world, you have a movie set now that definitely takes place on a different planet.

Everything can look great but without a solid cast to support it, what’s the point? Directing her screenplay, Robinson (a writer for Thor: Love and Thunder) nails it across the board. Precious few adults are present (one major cameo Netflix has asked us not to spoil, even though they recently released an ad featuring them), so the film primarily rests on the shoulders of Mendes and Hawke. Each actress has individual moments to carry the movie, but I give the slight edge to Hawke for blowing me away with a character that gets more complex as the story develops. There are no spoilers, but Robinson and Ballard’s screenplay has more up its sleeve than meets the eye at the outset. Hawke looks and sounds so much like her mother, Uma Thurman, that it’s eerie.

Like another release this week, The Woman King, Do Revenge stumbles when it includes a romantic subplot that feels squeezed in rather than organically grown. It only adds to the long run time, and a wildly careening third act doesn’t help. Some may think a slight detour featuring Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) is dragging things, but Turner is so ferociously funny in just two scenes that I wouldn’t lose her presence for anything. Thankfully, I think Robinson has a noble end goal with Do Revenge that passes the right message on to the viewer, and it’s a message its target audience could hear more of now. With a soundtrack that has nothing but winning needle drops, eye candy clothes that don’t quit, and leading performances that hit their target like twin lighting bolts, this is worth skipping school to watch.

Movie Review ~ The Silent Twins

The Facts:

Synopsis: Feeling isolated from an unwelcoming community, June and Jennifer Gibbons turn inward and reject communication with everyone but each other, retreating into their fantasy world of artistic inspiration and adolescent desires
Stars: Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Jodhi May, Michael Smiley, Jack Bandeira, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Delcan Joyce, Tony Richardson, John Hyat
Director: Agnieszka Smoczyńska
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  As an only child, I often wished I had a sibling. Mostly it was so I wouldn’t constantly be outvoted for what to do/where to go on family outings. Honestly, do you think I chose to see The Last of the Mohicans over The Mighty Ducks in 1992? No, though I know better now. A small part of me wanted to have a brother whom I could have the kind of bond with that I had seen in movies or through friends at school. Hey, a twin would be even better! I’ve always been fascinated with twins and the phenomenon of their sometimes near-psychic connection to one another.

The unique link between twins can have drawbacks, though, and that’s one of the areas explored in The Silent Twins. Based on Marjorie Wallace’s bestselling 1986 novel of the same name, it recounts the troubled life of June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins from Wales, and their struggle for independence even they can’t fully define. I’d never heard of these women before, so the film was an eye-opening glance back at history filtered through the creative lens of talented Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, making her English-language debut.

Born in the early ’60s to parents that immigrated from Barbados,  June and Jennifer began communicating only with each other at an early age. Refusing to engage with family, teachers, or classmates, the girls lived in a world of their own and often spoke the language of their creation. They would mirror the movements of one another and become catatonic if separated, which was an early solution attempted by medical professionals to break their silence. 

Left to their own devices, the girls grew into young women who expressed themselves artistically through craft projects and, later, creative writing. Their inexperience with the outside world and lack of socializing led them to act out and make unwise choices, such as sharing first love with Wayne (Jack Bandeira, Gunpowder Milkshake), a popular boy from the neighborhood, a decision their jealous hearts would come to regret. Spurned on by changing emotions they couldn’t control, they found themselves in trouble with the law and in the first of several adult mental institutions that would define the next decade of their lives.

Smoczyńska’s film follows Andrea Seigel’s screenplay through the high points of the Gibbons twins, adding alluring flourishes along the way. There’s barely a creative stone that doesn’t get turned over here, from stop motion animation to choreographed musical numbers, cooing voiceovers, and then actual singing by Jennifer. It all makes the film a beautiful thing to soak in, even if much of it represents complicated developments in individuals that continually try the patience of all around them.

Having not read the source novel this is based on, I’m not sure how much the work wants us to sympathize with the twins or be exasperated by how they shut out the people trying to help them. Often in these movies of people struggling with mental illness, the patient is seen as needing something that’s missing. Still, the Gibbons twins have a supportive family that desperately wants to connect and see them succeed. We see the two make the conscious effort to shut everyone out. Why? 

In that regard, it’s hard to warm to either twin even though they’re performed brilliantly by a quartet of fine actresses. As the twins when they are younger, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds & Eva-Arianna Baxter are fantastic introductions to the world the girls have created. Their fantasy lives are sunny and soaring, while the reality they have for themselves is sullen and withdrawn. Their elder counterparts are played by Letitia Wright (The Commuter) and Tamara Lawrance (Kindred). They take over at the right moment when the twins begin to experience the first genuine cutting-off ties with close family that won’t stand for their silence.

Running nearly two hours, Smoczyńska lets The Silent Twins wander too much around the Wayne sequence. It’s not only the roughest in terms of content but filmmaking. I would have liked more time spent in the final third when the twins are older and dealing with life in the hospital. That might have involved making Marjorie Wallace (the author of the book) a more prominent character than she already is, but Jodhi May plays her with such compassion I don’t think anyone would have minded. It’s a tough watch because of your feelings toward the main characters, but the moments of beauty and central four performances are enough to encourage viewing.

Movie Review ~ Goodnight Mommy (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Twin brothers arrive at their mother’s country home and discover her face covered in bandages — the result, she explains, of recent cosmetic surgery — and immediately sense something doesn’t add up. As her behavior grows increasingly bizarre and erratic, there’s a horrifying suspicion that the woman beneath the gauze isn’t their mother at all.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Peter Hermann, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Jeremy Bobb
Director: Matt Sobel
Rated: R
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review:  It had been a minute since I had seen 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, the German horror film that serves as the basis for this English-language remake being released by Amazon Studios. Impressive enough to be recognized by its country as the official submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, perhaps its gruesome final act turned off the nominating committee enough that they forgot how well things started. I remember looking forward to the scare flick from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala based on its freaky trailer but ultimately disappointed in how far they took things. There’s horror, and then there’s just plain gross, and directors stepped over that line too far.

Strangely, that’s the biggest problem with the remake starring Naomi Watts and a new pair of twins that doubt she’s their mother and tests her extensively in trying to prove it. It can see where the line is because it’s taken on the responsibilities of remaking a known property, but it never gets up the nerve to entirely go where it needs to meet the bloody footprints of its predecessor. That may sound a bit contradictory after what I said above but had new screenwriter Kyle Warren and director Matt Sobel found a way to improve upon the Franz/Fiala screenplay, I could excuse the wuss-out. They don’t, and so their remake feels underbaked.

Opening on a home video (well, a camera phone, this is the digital age, you know) footage of a mother singing a nighttime lullaby to twin boys, we notice the mother doesn’t like being on camera. We don’t even get a good look at her before we switch to the slightly older twins, Elias (Cameron Crovetti, The Gray Man) and Lucas (Nicholas Crovetti, Witch Hunt), arriving at a remote house smack dab in a beautiful stretch of open country. Deposited by their dad (Peter Hermann, Philomena), who doesn’t think he should accompany the boys inside, the twins eagerly await a reunion with their mother. Quickly, the excitement drains when they see Mother (Watts, Penguin Bloom) with her face covered with a bandage that looks like a ski mask, hiding most of her facial features.

A once famous actress that doesn’t work as much, Mother appears happy with this reunion but only just so. There’s trepidation in the welcome and nervous energy the boys pick up on. Moreover, she seems more closed off and unwilling to share the warmth she used to give freely. Lucas is the first to say out loud what both of them are thinking. “I don’t think that’s our mother.” From that planted seed grows a festering doubt in both, which sees them spy on the woman when she thinks she’s alone, dancing to “A Girl Like You” by Edwyn Collins in her underwear as she regards herself in a mirror and taking a bath with silicone pads over her face. 

The more they see, the more they doubt, and it all builds to a finale where multiple truths are revealed, and a final mask is removed. What’s going on will likely be easy to figure out for anyone that’s watched a thriller or two in their day, and while the 2014 film kept you guessing for a while, I think it’s even more evident from the start here. Warren has toned down a lot of the violence that arises in the third act, the violence I found unnecessary from the original but, as it turns out, when it is missing, was a critical piece that gave particular players more skin in the game. 

I liked everyone in the movie, even the twins, who are pretty good with increasingly tricky material, and I wish I could pick them up and put them all in a better movie. I’ve struggled with Watts lately because I’m unsure who is choosing the material for her or if she’s even interested in finding her way back to the A-List. She’s such a remarkable actress that you want to see her in a project capitalizing on her talents, and Goodnight Mommy comes closer than any recently. To convey the kind of emotion she does while covered almost head to toe in gauzy material or clothes is difficult, but she is always present. Even if she’s not who she says she is (I’m not telling), she’s an intense person to be around.

Bravery is the lesson to be learned from Goodnight Mommy for anyone considering a future remake. You must risk it all if you’re taking on this crucial task. Take the bull by the proverbial horns and take your shot at putting your stamp on the feature. Please don’t shy away from what made the movie famous in the first place but make it your own simultaneously. To water it down doesn’t serve anyone.

Movie Review ~ Pearl

The Facts:

Synopsis: Lusting for a glamorous life like she’s seen in the movies, Pearl’s ambitions, temptations, and repressions collide in the stunning, technicolor-inspired origin story of X’s iconic villain.
Stars: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro
Director: Ti West
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  With social media being so prevalent and movies screening far in advance, it can be hard to keep a surprise under wraps for long in the movie business. If you don’t want information spoiled for something as simple as a TV show, you need to stop using your social media or race to watch it before no-goodniks can reveal the secrets. No one has much respect for spoilers anymore, even if you ask nicely. (So, you’re welcome for 10+ years of non-spoiler reviews!)

**DISCLAIMER: It’s impossible to talk about Pearl without revealing key plot points about X, released earlier this year. If you prefer not to know anything about that movie, read no further. Everyone else, let’s go!**

I tend to stay for all the credits at the end of a movie (hey, the one time I skipped it was for Don’t Look Up, and I regretted it!) because you never know if there will be any additional footage of note. When the credits were nearly over for Ti West’s gonzo horror film X, I began to trek out of the theater along with the handful of remaining audience members. As the screen went black, it seemed the movie was over. Then, suddenly, a preview for Pearl appeared. Wait, what? Yes, Pearl, the wicked old killer granny from the film we watched, was getting her origin story in just a few months. West had pulled off a rare feat in Hollywood, shooting two movies back-to-back when most thought only one was coming.

To hear West tell it (like I did at a recent Q & A), coming out of the pandemic and realizing his time filming X in New Zealand might be his only chance to film for some time, he figured why not use the resources already there and create two movies while on location. Devising inspiration from star Mia Goth, West collaborated with her on the screenplay for a prequel set in 1918 that would tell the story of Pearl’s early years on the farm. Greenlit before they even filmed X allowed West (The Innkeepers) and Goth (Suspiria) to let that movie inform what they’d do on Pearl, and it shows in this new movie, a horror film that goes deeper and darker into a twisted mind.

An origin story is maybe the wrong term to use for Pearl. Call it a snapshot of a turning point in her life when Pearl moved from one stage to another. A war bride living on a Texas farm with her German immigrant mother and invalid father, Pearl dreams of a life bigger than baling hay and milking cows. Looking down on her hard-working mother, who scoffs at her daughter’s dreams of fame, the two women are constantly at odds. Even more than doubting her child, Ruth (Tandi Wright, Jack the Giant Slayer) sees a darkness that frightens her. We see it too, understanding that Pearl isn’t a figure that is turned sour; she probably always was inclined toward murderous impulses that cause her to lash out.

A local dance competition gives hope of an opportunity to get out of town and tour, something Pearl sees as the start of her suitable career. Going to the movies in town (which happens to be in a panic about the Spanish “pandemic,” hence why everyone is wearing face masks), she meets a handsome projectionist (David Corenswet) who encourages her to go after what she wants without letting anyone stand in her way. He also shows her a ‘European’ film showing an act that is “legal to do, but not legal to shoot.” (One of several gentle nods to X.)  Pearl falls for the Projectionist despite being married, but it’s not without repercussions. Tensions at the home rise to a boiling point and quickly escalate, sending Pearl on a familiar rampage.

Like X, Pearl takes its time building each character, letting them come into clear focus before allowing any of the nasty stuff to happen to them. I’d say Pearl waits even longer, which keeps it all the more of an intriguing film. It’s ultimately more of a study of the downward spiral of dreams and the way a demented mind chooses to deal with this loss. You don’t want to root for Pearl, but, in a way, you do because you’ve had those same types of disappointments. The difference is we don’t take a pitchfork to the person that didn’t live up to our expectations. The violence and make-up effects in the movie will satiate the horror hounds in the audience (and they are indeed spectacular), but the performances will resonate and frighten the most.

You can see why West has focused on Goth as such an inspiration. A fierce commitment from the English actress compels you to keep watching. She doesn’t quite fit into the period like you think she would (maybe that’s the point?), yet you can’t imagine any other person playing the role. In X, she handled the double duty of playing Maxine and the older Pearl like a champ, even fooling me for much of the movie. Here, she’s only got one role but is featured in every scene. It’s all told from her perspective, so we experience it with her. There’s a sequence near the end (confirmed by Goth as her favorite in the film) where she and actress Emma Jenkins-Purro share a conversation at a dinner table that’s as mesmerizing to watch as any haughty awards-y drama you’ll see this year. Goth gives a one-take monologue for upwards of six minutes that’s jaw-dropping. If only the Oscars had the cojones to nominate a performance like this, you’d know they take every genre seriously.

I also thought Wright, as Pearl’s emotionally withholding mother, was brilliantly executed. At first, you think she’s just a typical parent that can’t let their kids have their own lives, but Wright reveals in bits and pieces why she’s built up this wall between her and her daughter. It’s a challenging portrait to paint, but it is nicely done. Kudos to Jenkins-Purro for sharing the film’s most crucial scene with Goth, holding her own, and then staying out of her way when Goth must go big. 

Not that this is a secret, seeing that it has been all over the news, but a third film has already been announced (but not filmed), and if you stick around to the end of Pearl, you can see the teaser. MaXXXine is set in 1985’s Los Angeles, and if it continues this winning streak of West/Goth, I can’t wait to see what horrors they find in Hollywood. Until then, while you don’t need to see X to enjoy Pearl, I’d make it a double feature and catch both 2022 entries for major fun.

Movie Review ~ The Woman King

The Facts:

Synopsis: The remarkable story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with skills and a fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen.
Stars: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Adrienne Warren, Jordan Bolger
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Rated: R
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review:  At some point, much lauded and well-seasoned actors that have paid their dues in the business get to pick whatever projects they want to without apology.  That’s my thinking, at least.  Giving their all to studio pictures and independent productions over time, these actors have been through the Hollywood wringer of press tours and galas, awards shows, and far-flung media events.  So, when an actress like Meryl Streep chose to do Mamma Mia! and people were aghast, I was thrilled because it felt like a project she wanted to do, rather than one she felt she had to. 

Initially, I felt like Streep’s co-star in Doubt, Viola Davis, was taking a page from that same playbook with The Woman King.  The movie had all the makings of a passion project that allowed Davis another prestige run at the Best Actress Oscar while telling an important piece of world history.  Surrounded by an array of up-and-coming talent and helmed by a director who has more than paid her dues in the industry, the entire package has the essence of pre-destination toward one goal.  That kind of turned me away from it.  Originally.

Once again, it shows you just how much of an impact marketing has on the viewer.  Far more commercial than expected, The Woman King is rousing entertainment that hits the ground running and barely takes a breath over the next 135 minutes.  Oscar-winner Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) disappears into the role, dedicating herself physically and emotionally to the work.  Featuring terrific supporting performances you can engage with, this could be a word-of-mouth sleeper hit if enough people get to it early on and keep it in the conversation. 

A quick history lesson at the top of the film gives audiences the backstory of the Kingdom of Dahomey and its conflicts with the neighboring Oyo Empire.  With the Kingdom guaranteeing their survival by organizing their economic income around the Atlantic slave trade with the Europeans, there was much strife as they quickly grew in power, wealth, and status.  Protecting these resources were the Dahomey Amazons, the Agojie, which grew in strength and number after the males of their population fell to wars with the Oyo.

General Nanisca (Davis) is the respected leader of the Agojie, rising to a high rank as a trusted confidant and advisor to the King (John Boyega), encouraging many successful decisions that kept them secure.  She has concerns over the increased reliance on the slave trade, hoping to redirect the King’s attention to exporting goods available on their land instead of the people with families that could harvest it.  The Agojie must maintain their numbers and have just accepted a new batch of recruits that will need to train and pass a series of tests.  Among them is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a girl turned out of her house for refusing a pre-arranged marriage. 

Headstrong and fearless, Nawi would make a perfect Agojie if she could turn off her emotions as quickly as the others.  The more Nanisca and her two most revered second-in-commands, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, No Time to Die) and Amenza (Sheila Atim, Bruised), push Nawi to break away from the spirit that guides her, the harder she fights to retain her individuality.  With tensions rising between visiting Europeans hoping to broker better deals between Dahomey for enslaved people and the Oyo who want to move in on this business, the Agojie will band together to ward off those threatening their land as well as their family.

Bound to draw comparisons to semi-similar works such as Braveheart and Gladiator, in the end, The Woman King sits capably on a throne of its creation.  Screenwriters Maria Bello (an Oscar-nominated actress most recently seen in The Water Man) and Dana Stevens (who penned 1993 thriller Blink) did their homework, making an effort before the movie was even off the ground to ensure the film had accuracy and a valid point of view from which to speak.  They’ve partnered nicely with their star, who takes the leading role and surprises us again with the mastery of her craft.  Another transformative part she can add to her lengthy list of incredible roles, Davis charts the cracks Nanisca shows and how it begins to eat away at her ability to be the same leader she was in the past. 

Amplifying her performance is Mbedu as the headstrong newbie of the group.  Whether it was intimidating going toe-to-toe with Davis or not, it’s no small feat to swipe scenes out from under the more experienced star.  Yet Mbedu is fascinating to watch each time she’s on screen, learning internal truths about herself through her training and time with her Agojie sisters and conveying them outwardly to us in small ways.  You’d be hard-pressed to choose an MVP in The Woman King between Lynch and Atim; both offer beautifully realized different sides to the same coin flipping back and forth between Davis and Mbedu.  

If there’s one area where The Woman King struggles, it’s the male characters.  Every man is presented as an obstacle to some woman trying to get the job done.  This plot device is well-worn, and while Boyega (Breaking) fares the best, the rest are as crudely drawn as the woman finely etched.  That’s especially evident in Jordan Bolger’s storyline with Mbedu, adding a romantic subplot that feels like a concession for the studio instead of a fully realized development.  The sparks aren’t there between the actors (more Bolger’s fault than anything), and anytime they’re together, the film drags significantly.  

Prince-Bythewood is comfortable staging the movie, whether it be a large-scale action sequence or a more intimate moment shared between the women when they let their guards down.  These human passages give the film its best heart and set the stage for the battles that get more involved as you understand the Agojie better.  Once you have a warrior to root for, you track their every move and hope no harm comes to them.  A new, more realistic hero for a young generation to look up to (it’s PG-13 and astonishingly gruesome), the Agojie and The Woman King are getting ready to reign.

Movie Review ~ See How They Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: When world-weary Inspector Stoppard and eager rookie Constable Stalker take on a case of murder in London’s West End, the two find themselves thrown into a puzzling whodunit within the glamorously sordid theater underground, investigating the mysterious homicide at their peril
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Director:  Tom George
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Never underestimate the power of a good puzzle. During the past two years, puzzle sales have increased dramatically, leveling off as more restrictions were lifted, and the world again gathered as groups. While we were all cooped up, there was fun to be had at the organization and completion of a tricky jigsaw. It certainly made the time fly by. I have a stack of puzzles in my closet that can attest to the popularity of this resurgent pastime. 

The same pull to find a solution to this game draws viewers into the mystery and thriller genre, which also was in declining output in recent years. This phenomenon is primarily due to the mid-range budgeting involved and fewer opportunities for studios to franchise future installments. It’s hard to sequel-ize a movie where the characters might not all make it to the final act. Then a film like Knives Out comes around along with streaming material like Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, and the genre feels revitalized. Before you know it remakes of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile are getting greenlit. Rather than blood, guts, and gore found in slasher films with an unknown killer, these more prestige releases represent the classic whodunit.

As audiences await the upcoming release of the third season of Hulu’s hit show and the upcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, 20th Century Studios’ See How They Run is sprinting to beat the rush, and the timing couldn’t be better. It’s a breath of fresh air, though it often plays like Only Knives Out in the Theater, just with less crisp creativity for twists in the plot. What you see is what you get in director Tom George’s period mystery that plays with real elements of history, but with a production that has a zest for the era and natty performances you want to see more of, it easily laps the lesser fare we’ve been just getting by on.

It’s 1953, and the hot ticket in London’s West End is Agatha Christie’s original play, The Mousetrap. As it celebrates its 100th performance, the film rights have recently been sold, and dodgy film director Leo Köpernick (Adrian Brody, Clean) has arrived from America to attend the festivities. While the reclusive authoress herself doesn’t make the party, plenty of the who’s who do, along with a killer that strikes before the night is over. 

The keen Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, Little Women) and the jaded Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell) are sent in to investigate. One brings an eagerness to solve the crime quickly, while the more seasoned detective knows not to trust everything you see. As they go down the list of suspects: a penny-pinching producer (Ruth Wilson, Saving Mr. Banks), a snooty screenwriter (David Oyelowo, The Water Man), and even the show’s star Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, Where the Crawdads Sing), they’ll find out there’s more to the murder (and the killer) that meets the eye. 

More than anything, See How They Run showcases Ronan’s ease doing droll comedy as the dutiful constable with a penchant for cringe-y one-liners. She makes a nice counterpart(ner) for Rockwell’s boozy Inspector. The two can efficiently work independently but strike the best chords playing off one another. A great cast is assembled in the ensemble, but it’s a shame Mark Chappell’s script doesn’t afford them more to do throughout. I was often left wondering why particular characters had greater pull than others. It helps to level the playing field as to who might be the next victim but when you have a company this game, let them play. If anything, See How They Run screams to be played out over several hour-long episodes instead of the brisk 98 minutes.

Due to the fact it is so straightforward, you may be tempted to concoct numerous solutions in your head before you get to the final reveal. I wouldn’t put too much time into working things out because the answer to the film’s riddle isn’t as complex as you think (hope?) it is. That doesn’t speak to lessen the quality of the film; it just goes to the plot’s inherent weakness for curveballs that could have been tweaked. It’s still marvelously witty at times and catty at others. I’d stroll to See How They Run in theaters if you’re dying for a drawing room-style murder mystery but do keep it high on your list to catch eventually. This talented team is too delicious to pass up.

Movie Review ~ Speak No Evil

The Facts:

Synopsis: A Danish family visits a Dutch family they met on holiday. What was supposed to be an idyllic weekend slowly starts unraveling as the Danes try to stay polite in the face of unpleasantness.
Stars: Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja Van Huêt, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, Marius Damslev
Director: Christian Tafdrup
Rated: NR
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  One of the benefits of watching foreign films is getting a glimpse into other cultures that represent a different experience than your own. It allows expanding your reach beyond the confines of your borders, be it state or country. In comparison, while not a full-scale explanation of the intricate machinations of society, even the slightest of international features lends a viewer the potential to journey as far as their interest will take them. That gives Speak No Evil an added intrigue at the outset, a viewpoint of commentary from one country (Denmark) on another (Netherlands), although it quickly spirals out of control and becomes an unfair fight. What starts as a provocative dialogue about cultural differences devolves into an analysis summed up with brutal cruelty.

On vacation in Tuscany with their young daughter, modest Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) cross paths with outgoing Dutch pair Patrick (Fedja Van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). The Dutch duo has their son with them, a silent boy impaired by a hereditary condition that left him unable to speak. Throughout their vacation, the families become friendly, with Bjørn finding Patrick a fascinating example of a man balancing his family obligations with his interests. There’s a clear feeling the Danish couple is more buttoned up and square while the Dutch pair have a more fly-by-the-seat of their pants lifestyle.

After returning home, Bjørn and Louise receive a postcard from their new friends inviting them for a weekend stay at their house. Louise is hesitant about visiting people they hardly know, but Bjørn pushes her to accept, driven by the need to suck up more of Patrick’s energy and hoping it will rub off on his family. After arriving at their destination, the Danish family are greeted warmly but awkwardly by their hosts. The weekend is kicked off by a series of strange events that put Louise’s antennae on red alert. She can sense that something is off about Patrick and Karin, but Bjørn downplays it as her not being accustomed to the Dutch way of living and her more structured schedule. 

Inconsistencies in the story their hosts told them in Tuscany further put an ominous cloud over the stay, leading to more misgivings and infighting. While most viewers would have hightailed it out of there long before the Danish couple gets wise, director and co-writer Christian Tafdrup manages to find ways to believably keep them in the company of these strange people until it’s impossible to change their minds. It’s here when Speak No Evil turns the temperature on its slow-boil from a simmer to scald, changing course in shocking ways. While I will speak no spoilers on what occurs, Tafdrup and his brother/co-screenwriter Mads Tafdrup concoct an evil third act that culminates in one of the vilest endings to a film I’ve seen in some time. 

Here’s the deal. After doing my homework a little before and a lot after, I get why the ending is there and the point the brothers Tafdrup are making in including it. I think what it is saying is an interesting message, but most of the viewers that watch it aren’t going to do that same follow-up to understand the reasoning. Most audiences will take the ending for the horror show that it is, and no true lesson will be ‘learned’ at the end. For that stomach-churning reason alone, despite the nobly committed performances of the cast, I can’t wholly recommend the movie in any way. The most engaging aspect of the film is the interplay between Bjørn and Patrick, a relationship that is never as fully explored as it could be, especially concerning how the movie ends.

If you ask me if Speak No Evil succeeds as a horror movie, I agree that it applies the right amount of suspense and spiky tension we expect from this type of film. Every film has a line that it comes to and must decide to cross or hold, which is the difference between good taste and bad taste. Speak No Evil goes over the line at a crucial point, and that’s where it lost me as an audience member. Any message it was trying to send is drowned out by the primal scream of its final mean-spirited, humiliating minutes.

Movie Review ~ House of Darkness

The Facts:

Synopsis: Driving home to her secluded estate after meeting at a local bar, a player out to score thinks his beautiful, mysterious date will be another casual hook-up. While getting acquainted, their flirtation turns playful, sexy, and sinister. Hoping to get lucky, his luck may have just run out.
Stars: Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Gia Crovatin, Lucy Walters
Director: Neil LaBute
Rated: R
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Playwright Neil LaBute had a healthy go in Hollywood for a time. Bursting onto the scene with the wicked workplace black comedy In the Company of Men in 1997, the director went on an intriguing spree of work that included everything from the 2000 comedy Nurse Betty to a misguided remake of The Wicker Man in 2006. Adapting his celebrated play into The Shape of Things in 2003 is still one of my favorites, as is the time capsule that is 1998’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Aside from the decidedly commercial Lakeview Terrace in 2008 and 2010’s Death at a Funeral, LaBute has mucked around in TV/streaming the past few years, having been cold-shouldered from the theater world.

I had to read the credits for House of Darkness a few times because it had been so long since I’d seen LaBute’s name attached to a project I had completely forgotten that I was missing his acerbic style. One watch of the creepy preview, though, and you could almost instantly spot the LaBute dialogue. There’s a rhythm to his work; a snap and a crackle between characters that is undeniably entertaining to sit back and enjoy. That the writer/director was again exploring the horror genre made it more intriguing.

An unexplained but unnerving opening image over the credits sends a shiver sliver up your spine before a title card reading “Once Upon a Time…” appears on the screen. It’s an excellent set-up for LaBute to drop the viewer right into the action, following a car down a dark road at the end of an evening out. Hap (Justin Long, Tusk) met Mina (Kate Bosworth, The Devil Has a Name) at a bar and offered to give her a ride home. Driving so far out of his way, he’s hoping for more than a handshake, and once they arrive at her impressively imposing castle of a home, he readily accepts her offer to come in for a drink.

Once inside, the two get to know one another better, which is when LaBute’s talent for verbal sparring comes in handy. Like him or hate him, LaBute is excellent with dialogue and treating his characters with the intelligence they deserve. Reading between the lines of passive-aggressive retorts or half-answered responses to questions, these characters hold one another accountable even when it’s against their better judgment to do so. In this way, House of Darkness feels like it could have been adapted from, or started as, a stage play because there are so many long stretches that are just Hap and Mina talking to one another without much else happening.

Of course, there are other things afoot in the house. As much as Mina says they are alone in the large manor, Hap catches glimpses of shadowy figures lurking down dark halls and other nooks but keeps shaking them off as figments of his tired imagination. To his credit, LaBute never tips his hand too far into letting the audience in on what’s happening, even though it’s not a giant leap to grasp where things are heading before the night is over. Still, there’s a hot-wire tension between the two that builds throughout, and the deeper Hap gets into it with Mina, the more we question who we should side with if things go south. 

Casting is pivotal for a small chamber piece like this, and LaBute was on target with Long and Bosworth. Long has the right chops to play an appealing if smug, proto-nice guy that still wants some physical compensation for his good deed. There’s a nastier way to play the role (see Barbarian, for example), and Long resists the urge to reveal all of those rough edges too early, giving Hap a fighting chance to stay in our good graces as long as possible. I thoroughly enjoyed Bosworth’s slinky role as a possible femme-fatale; her every move suggests someone who wants the hunt and plays with their prey before moving in for the final attack. It’s a performance that needs to build steadily, and Bosworth meters the clues out nicely. 

LaBute isn’t out to jump scare you, but there are a decent number of chilling moments in House of Darkness, enough to make you consider keeping a light on while watching it. It’s a surprisingly brisk watch, perfectly rounded out at 88 satisfying minutes. There are enough subtle touches by the actors and director sprinkled around that it might even be one you consider watching again to catch what you missed on your first trip. Maybe House of Darkness signals LaBute’s next wave is approaching, but for now, I’m content that this tour was so rewarding.

Movie Review ~ End of the Road

The Facts:

Synopsis: A cross-country road trip becomes a highway to hell for Brenda and her family. Alone in the New Mexico desert, they have to fight for their lives when they become the targets of a mysterious killer.
Stars: Queen Latifah, Ludacris, Beau Bridges, Mychala Faith Lee, Shaun Dixon, Frances Lee McCain
Director: Millicent Shelton
Rated: R
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Like many others reviewing movies today, I grew up watching the great Siskel & Ebert duke it out weekly on their eponymous television show. I learned a lot hearing the two critics debate the pros and cons of what they enjoyed and disliked about the various new releases that came out over the years, and while their opinions were obviously coming from one perspective (white, hetero, male), I appreciate even more now that the show taught me perspective. Especially Roger Ebert. I’m not in any minority when I say that I’ve liberally lifted from him the necessity to evaluate each movie on its merits, doing my best not to compare it to anything else that week or even outside of its genre. That’s not fair to the film or the reader.

Take a film like End of the Road. This new Netflix movie starring Queen Latifah is predictable fare with a clear skeleton of previous movies cobbled together, albeit with a highly likable cast and filmmaking far above in the creativity department. It’s not going to win any awards or be the most known for on the resume of anyone involved, yet it gets the job done in the best way possible. However, it’s being released right in the middle of festival season when many critics are reviewing the first crop of potential Oscar hopefuls, so it’s bound to get compared to those films in passing. It’s not in the same league as those, nor does it intend to be. For what it is and what it sets out to do, End of the Road plots out its course and takes audiences on a fast-moving thrill ride with few bumps along the way.

Recently widowed and faced with substantial medical bills, Brenda (Queen Latifah, Girls Trip) is forced to sell her home, uprooting her children to move back to Texas and in with her mother. Understandably her teenage daughter Kelly (Mychala Faith Lee) and young son Cam (Shaun Dixon) aren’t thrilled about losing their father, home, and friends in quick succession, but they’re all pitching in to help their mom. Also coming along on the trip from California is Brenda’s brother Reggie (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, F9: The Fast Saga), who struggles to be a dependable figure in the lives of his family.

The group isn’t too far into their trek when they run afoul of some racists in Arizona (note: the tourism board of AZ will be none too pleased with this one), the first encounter with broadly drawn characters that target Brenda’s family. Shaken, they find a hotel to stay at for the night only to find themselves next door to a man murdered later that evening. As they try to save him, Reggie notices a bag hidden in the bathroom filled with unmarked bills, a bag a local drug kingpin will do anything to get back. Once he figures out that Reggie has made off with the bag, it becomes a game of cat and mouse as Brenda has to find a way to get the money back to a shadowy figure who ups the ante by stealing something of hers in return.

Making her feature film debut, director Millicent Shelton works with production designer Lucio Seixas (Chemical Hearts) and cinematographer Ed Wu to create a hyper-neon-realism of the Arizona desert locations where the film takes place. It makes End of the Road feel like it’s taking place in an alternate dimension at times, which aligns with the entire situation being so foreign and strange for Brenda and her family. Colored with pinks, purples, and other neon glows, I thought it looked incredible and helped the viewer not to focus on some of the more traditional twists and turns the movie leans into. 

Screenwriters Christopher J. Moore and David Loughery concoct a standard wrong place/wrong time scenario and find a way to have Brenda, Reggie, and her kids get into all kinds of worsening situations throughout a harrowing night. Most of this is as believably executed as possible, sold nicely by Queen Latifah, who never gives less than 100% in any project she undertakes. There’s always natural ease to her acting, which helps the viewer acclimate to whatever character she’s trying on for size, and it’s refreshing to see the Oscar-nominated actress in a more physically active part. When she takes charge in the film’s second half and begins to steer the ship instead of letting it sail on its own, you wish you were in a movie theater to see how an audience would have reacted.

I also enjoyed Chris Bridges as Reggie and the strong scenes he shares with Queen Latifah, especially the two children. The uncle character gets a chance for redemption, and while none of the acting in End of the Road needed to be as strong as it was for it to be as enjoyable as it turns out to be, it’s appreciated that the cast took the movie as seriously as they do. In more minor roles, Beau Bridges (Hit & Run) looks good at 80, and his investigating sheriff stands out in the supporting players, along with Frances Lee McCain (Scream).

Running a smooth 89 minutes (shorter if you consider the very long credits), this is a film you can invest time in and not run out of gas. One of those movies you might have stood in line for a Friday night in 1993 and watched while devouring a bag of popcorn with a raucous audience, End of the Road delivers on its promise and doesn’t ask anything more of you. That’s the kind of movie that feels good at this time of the year, so zoom zoom over to Netflix and start ‘er up!