Movie Review ~ 80 for Brady

The Facts:

Synopsis: Four old female friends travel to Houston to watch their hero Tom Brady and the New England Patriots play in Super Bowl LI
Stars: Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, Sally Field, Tom Brady, Billy Porter, Rob Corddry, Alex Moffat, Guy Fieri, Harry Hamlin, Bob Balaban, Glynn Turman, Sara Gilbert, Jimmy O. Yang, Ron Funches, Matt Lauria
Director: Kyle Marvin
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: The moment I got into my car after the 80 for Brady screening, I sent my mom this text:

“You are going to LOVE 80 for Brady.”

She replied:

“Glud to his it.” (which I know translates to “Glad to hear it!”)

When it came time to sit down and write this review, I had a sinking realization. I didn’t love 80 for Brady. But I want my mom and her friends to see it because I know they will. This is another one of those movies that must be taken with a certain grain of salt and an understanding that perhaps when the filmmakers of this good-natured comedy got together to create this project, they didn’t have my demographic in mind. And that’s OK.  In my book, it didn’t need to be a touchdown to be a home run for someone else (see what a did there?).

I could say that I wish the talents of the celebrated stars (three Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee) had been used in a tighter script and a production that didn’t feel so inexpensive and tacky. One that didn’t rest on jokes about retirement homes, broken bones, senility, and getting randy after 70+ years. I long for a movie about older people that won’t use terminal illness as a Sword of Damocles-ish way to get them out of their houses and live their lives. And I really could do with less of the lusty single octogenarians who have been divorced multiple times but still somehow need to be shamed about their late-in-life romantic foibles.

80 for Brady has all of that, which was a bummer for me and why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. I’m grading it for what it could have been because that’s my job here. If we look at it from the view of people excited by the prospect of seeing the likes of Lily Tomlin (Grandma), Jane Fonda (Book Club), Rita Moreno (West Side Story), and Sally Field (Spoiler Alert) hitting the road for comic shenanigans as they try to get into the 2017 Super Bowl, the outlook is far sunnier.

Fans of these pros will undoubtedly be swept away (as was the audience I saw it with) by the story, inspired by a true tale of four women so enamored with their love of football and one particular team/player that they trekked to Houston to see the big game. Elements of the story have been changed for the movie, and screenwriters Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern crafted more personal backstories for each.

Tomlin’s Lou is a cancer survivor and de facto leader of the group, bringing them all together in football during her treatment. Trish (Fonda) loves a wig and falls head over hairpiece for any handsome man that comes her way. Still adjusting to being a widow, Maura (Moreno) can’t give up her apartment or the room in the senior living center she’s been keeping at the ready. Then there’s Betty (Field), an empty nest-er that finds herself having to play mother to her needy husband (Bob Balaban, Fading Gigolo). 

All the women are ready for this road trip, and while the details of how they get on the road are sketchy (don’t even get me started on how three of them “break” Maura out of her elder care), arriving in Houston poses another set of problems. An admittedly funny romp at a mansion where all four unknowingly get stoned adds some zip at the midway point. Still, aside from a brief bit of zing from the appearance of Billy Porter (Like a Boss) as a choreographer with connections, unnecessary drama threatens to derail what, up until then, had been a mild and cheery outing. 

Director Kyle Marvin makes his feature film directing debut, and it shows. While the sets don’t look nearly as sound stagey as they did on Tomlin and Fonda’s Netflix series Grace & Frankie, most of them appear like the paint is still wet or a strong gust of wind could knock them over. Continuity is a problem, as is general logic throughout. Technical nitpicks are largely thrown out the door when you are being stared down by any of the imposing stars. All four exude such bright light that it makes 80 for Brady almost impossible to dismiss entirely. One thing is for sure. If you can’t get in touch with your mom/grandmother this weekend – check your local listing for the showing of 80 for Brady closest to them, and you’ll know where they are.

Movie Review ~ Knock at the Cabin

The Facts:

Synopsis: While vacationing at a remote cabin, a family of three is suddenly held hostage by four strangers who demand they sacrifice one of their own to avert the apocalypse.
Stars: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: R
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  There comes the point in every film from director M. Night Shyamalan where the director has laid his proverbial cards out on the table, and the audience has to choose. Do they forge ahead on the path laid out by Shyamalan (sometimes inelegantly), or do they reject it outright and spend the remainder wishing they’d opted for the rom-com in the next theater? With the once-hot director staging an intriguing comeback since 2015’s The Visit, more often than not, the viewer is more interested to see how things will turn out. (As opposed to a film like 2008’s The Happening when no one minded who wound up breathing by the time the credits rolled.)

After tripping a bit with 2019’s Glass and then literally wading into full-on silly waters with 2021’s Old, Shyamalan has taken a page from his successful Apple TV+ show Servant and delivered a compelling, tension-filled, one-setting thriller to kick off 2023. Adapted from Paul Tremblay’s frightening 2018 bestseller ‘The Cabin at the End of the World,’ Shyamalan has wisely retitled the film Knock at the Cabin (once you see it, you’ll know why) and tweaked the original screenplay drafted by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman which had bounced around unproduced for several years. The effect is 100 minutes of entertainment that reminds you how well Shyamalan can fiddle with our nerves using more than mere visual cues.

Wasting little time diving into the action, audiences find themselves in the woods near a remote cabin watching Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui in a knockout performance) collect grasshoppers. At the same time, her two dads relax on the back porch. The tranquility of her playtime is interrupted by Leonard (Dave Bautista, My Spy), a hulking figure emerging from nowhere that strikes up a conversation with the young girl. Our red alert is going off hardcore that Leonard is no good, but his easy-going charm works on Wen…for a while. When his three companions arrive with crudely assembled “tools,” the idle chatter turns ominous.

It’s here when things get a little dicey to talk about. If you’ve seen the preview or read any synopsis, it’s no spoiler to share that Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Persuasion), Adriane (Abby Quinn, Torn Hearts), and Redmond (Rupert Grint, Thunderpants) hold the family captive. Eric (Jonathan Groff, Frozen) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert) are then told they have to make an impossible decision for the rest of the world to continue. I won’t talk about the potential consequences of their unwillingness to participate as requested or if what the four outsiders are preaching is gospel. 

Interjected throughout are bits of the couple’s backstory before and after they adopted Wen, glimpses into their life that helps inform the second half of the film. The inclusion of these scenes may seem inconsequential at the time, but it’s another way Shyamalan uses his talents of emotional connection to round out his characters. Few writers/directors know how to do this as well, and in the midst of Shyamalan’s weird spinning out in his post-Signs era, audiences and critics alike failed to remember this overall strength.

One of Shyamalan’s best-cast films in ages, Knock at the Cabin, made me believe in the power of Bautista again after briefly being derailed by his shenanigans with the Guardians of the Galaxy films. His lead character has complexities that add unexpected dramatic weight. Also strong are Amuka-Bird and Quinn as ordinary people doing what they believe to be right and willing to take extreme action (in every sense of the word) to ensure what needs to happen happens. Groff makes inward gains in his work on creating three-dimensional characters that resemble real people, an area he’s struggled with. He’s helped along the way by Aldridge, who has to juggle more of the skeptical side of the coin, which is never easy. The weakest showing is Grint, the one member of the Harry Potter trio who can’t seem to find his niche outside of Hogwarts.

While intelligent for the most part, Knock at the Cabin isn’t above asking its characters to make a few head-shaking, eye-rolling maneuvers, i.e., why don’t people just shoot their attacker immediately? Thankfully, with a spooky score from Herdís Stefánsdóttir and moody camera work from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Northman), Knock at the Cabin can maintain its tone right up until its finale. It’s one of the few Shyamalan films with a perfect ending, too. With its high-stakes, high-tension set-up, I don’t think I could revisit this Cabin soon, but this initial watch was worth the dark trip.

The Art of the Tease(rs) ~ Flashdance (1983)

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

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

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

Flashdance (1983)

As a kid, I had free range of most movies in the musical section of the video store. Nestled next to the kid’s area, titles like The Sound of Music and West Side Story sat nicely next to cartoons, Disney fare, and Faerie Tale Theatre. There was always one movie with a VHS cover that fascinated me, which I was constantly turned down from renting, though. That film was Flashdance, and, I mean, how could you not be intrigued by the striking image of Jennifer Beals in the now iconic off-the-shoulder sweatshirt look? The 1983 Oscar-winning film’s classification as a musical stretches it (it’s a drama, let’s be honest), but the movie’s lasting impact is felt even today. I wasn’t even aware of this teaser before 2023! With Irene Cara (who won an Oscar for the legendary song that plays over the thrilling finale) sadly passing away recently as it approached its 40th Anniversary, I knew it was a sign to showcase it here.

I love it because it does everything I want one of these small bites to do: give nothing of the plot away but feature images that stick in the brain instantly. If I’d seen this in early 1983, my pulse would have quickened just like it did when I watched the clip below for the first time. What a feeling, indeed! Enjoy!

For more teasers, check out my posts on Strange Days, Fire in the Sky, The Fifth Element, The Addams Family, Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch

Movie Review ~ Shotgun Wedding

The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple’s extravagant destination wedding is hijacked by criminals. In saving their families, they rediscover why they fell in love in the first place.
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Josh Duhamel, Sônia Braga, Jennifer Coolidge, Lenny Kravitz, Cheech Marin, Callie Hernandez
Director:  Jason Moore
Rated: R
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: I can safely say that my days as a +1-wedding guest are over. Most of our friends are either married or “set in their ways,” so my anxiety about meeting an entirely new wedding party and making small talk is, thankfully, over. (If you’re reading this and I came to your wedding: I loved it, I had a great time, and the main course was delicious.)  You all know what I’m talking about, though, right? It’s awkward to dive into a situation where you have limited time to get up to speed with your surroundings and might be joining intense (or tense) drama already in motion.

Perhaps that’s why the opening of Shotgun Wedding was such a struggle for me. This new film starring Jennifer Lopez (Marry Me) and Josh Duhamel (Love, Simon) is advertised as an action rom-com set in the paradise of the Dominican Republic, but you wouldn’t know it based on the first twenty minutes. Here, writer Mark Hammer and director Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) ask the viewer to hit the ground running while looking backward for clues about where we came from. 

The night before their wedding, bride Darcy (Lopez) is hoping that her “groomzilla” Tom (Duhamel) will stop obsessing over the nitpicky details of their nuptials and relax. At least he can help ease her stress dealing with her divorced parents (Cheech Marin and Sônia Braga), who continue to trade barbs or run interference with his overly bubbly mother (Jennifer Coolidge, Single All the Way). Her sister (Callie Hernandez, Jethica) is no help because she’s looking for a one-night stand, failing to remember she’s on a private island populated with men she’ll have to face the rest of the weekend. It gets really awkward when Darcy’s ex (Lenny Kravitz, The Hunger Games) makes a grand entrance via helicopter, spiking Tom’s alpha male jealousy.

Family drama is the least of their worries the following day when a band of pirates overtakes the luxury resort where the wedding ceremony is held, demanding Darcy’s father transfer millions of dollars for her safe return. However, the guests don’t know the pirates have failed to secure the bridal couple, leaving the bickering pair to make their way around the island, often clumsily evading capture. Dodging bullets and being stuck with a live grenade or two, they’ll need to warm up their cold feet and iron out any differences if they hope to save their wedding, their guests, and their lives.

Sitting through the film’s opening stretch is a bit of a head-scratcher, mainly because you wonder if you’ve accidentally sat on your remote and fast-forwarded through a pivotal introduction. Much of Hammer’s dialogue has characters carrying on conversations they’ve already begun or picking up where they left off as if we’ve already been privy to these discussions. Tom has supposedly been a dreadful “groomzilla,”…and we know this because? He’s seen at the beginning decorating the honeymoon getaway boat. What a nightmare! Darcy and Tom have a misalignment of understanding of the roles in their relationship, and it’s gotten so bad that when Darcy brings a small point up, it creates the type of havoc usually reserved for the final twenty minutes of a bedroom farce. Basically, the film opens in Act 2 of a three-act play.

Admittedly, Shotgun Wedding finds its groove on the wedding day and becomes a fair bit of fun. While it teeters on the side of too gruesome if you consider the violence (stabbings, burnings, shootings, etc.), it thankfully doesn’t play its macabre hand for goofy laughs either. Lopez is the most committed person on screen (as usual), throwing herself handily into the role with the movie star charm she’s perfected. If Duhamel can’t quite match her, perhaps it’s because he was a last-minute replacement for Armie Hammer, who dropped out for obvious reasons. (That also explains away why Coolidge is playing Duhamel’s mother, though they were born 11 years apart.)  I have to say that I got a big kick out of Braga (Kiss of the Spider Woman), who takes the typically thinly written spurned-wife role and manages to make a complete meal out of it.

For fans of the stars (and of the ever-popular Coolidge, who gets a few good zingers), Shotgun Wedding should be a moderately filling slice of cake. It won’t leave you with much of a hangover…or the desire to revisit it later. That’s going to be troublesome to its studio hoping to gain traction with fans of its mega-watt superstar lead because that re-watch factor has made the previous films Lopez has scored with such gigantic hits. 

Watch Shotgun Wedding on Amazon Prime today!
Watch Shotgun Wedding | Prime Video (amazon.com)

Oscar Nominations 2023

Good morning to all! Here we go, accepting no substitutes and waiting for The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to wake us up early and announce the nominees for the 95th Oscars! Announced by Oscar winner Riz Ahmed and star of the current hit movie M3GAN, Allison Williams, this is an interesting mix of the expected, curveball game changers and welcome surprises.

Take note of Andrea Riseborough’s nomination for To Leslie. A movie I saw back at SXSW and noted then the strength of the performance received a limited release without much push from its studio. Undeterred, the actress mounted her grassroots campaign and enlisted a bevy of the top (top!) Hollywood talent to host screenings of it and be vocal with their support …and it got her the Best Actress nomination. This shows that it is possible for actors to drive their campaigns, especially if they feel prestige critics aren’t pushing the film as much as they can. (And let’s be real, the critics for headlining magazines and other outlets rarely look past the end of their noses.)

Most of these categories are, I think, wrapped up, and I have a number of these left to see before they are handed out on March 12 — but what fun it will be to check them off my list as we go.

Here are the nominations in the top categories. A full list can be found here.

BEST PICTURE 
All Quiet on the Western Front
Avatar: The Way of Water
The Banshees of Inisherin
Elvis
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans
Tár
Top Gun: Maverick
Triangle of Sadness
Women Talking

BEST DIRECTOR 
Ruben Ostlund, Triangle of Sadness
Todd Field, Tár
Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin
Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans

BEST ACTOR
Austin Butler, Elvis
Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin
Brendan Fraser, The Whale
Paul Mescal, Aftersun
Bill Nighy, Living

BEST ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett, Tár
Ana de Armas, Blonde
Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie
Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans
Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR 
Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin  
Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway
Judd Hirsch, The Fabelmans
Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin
Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS 
Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Hong Chau, The Whale
Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin
Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once

The full list is here.

Movie Review ~ Christmas Bloody Christmas

The Facts:

Synopsis: It’s Christmas Eve and Tori just wants to get drunk and party, but when a robotic Santa Clause at a nearby toy store goes haywire and begins a rampant killing spree through her small town, she’s forced into a battle for survival.
Stars: Riley Dandy, Sam Delich, Jonah Ray Rodrigues, Dora Madison, Jeremy Gardner, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Abraham Benrubi
Director: Joe Begos
Rated: NR
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  This may get me an extra lump of coal in my stocking, but I’ve come to enjoy a more subversive Christmas movie morsel to counteract the saccharine sweetness that can feel overwhelming right around Thanksgiving. Don’t get it peppermint-twisted; I’m one of the first people to scan Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas list once it is released and will note any film starring Lacey Chabert or plots involving amnesiac grumpy corporate executives getting a dose of their figgy pudding. Still, it’s more than a bit of fun to see what creative filmmakers can do with a satanic Santa on the loose or elves running amok causing mayhem.

I had high hopes for Christmas Bloody Christmas because the general plot summary seemed like such a slam dunk. It’s one of those loglines that gets scribbled down on a paper napkin at a bar late one night and feels like a good idea at the time, but once it comes time to write the thing and make it, well… that’s where the problems start. Unfortunately, Christmas Bloody Christmas is a fruitcake of a meal, sticky and filled with indigestible bits that don’t go down well.    

Director Joe Begos has gained a sizable cult following with his previous two films, Bliss and VFW but can’t capture the same goofy horror charms here, despite a winning performance from Riley Dandy. Dandy plays Tori, a record store owner unexpectedly fighting off a robotic Santa Claus (Abraham Benrubi, Strange World) that’s gone haywire in her small town, viciously murdering anyone that gets in his way. For what seems like an eternity, Begos follows Tori all over the tiny hamlet evading ‘ole St. Nick in what amounts to an extended version of the finale from The Terminator

That may sound like a welcome wild ride, but the low-budget thrills and exceptionally crude dialogue take Christmas Bloody Christmas down the crummy chimney with zero care for any sophisticated skill. It squanders any leg up it gets on similar shoddy Christmas fare with more gross shenanigans or foul-mouthed back-and-forth between characters. A movie so short should not drag on so long. By the end, I wished for them to dash away all.

Movie Review ~ The Apology

The Facts:

Synopsis: Twenty years after the disappearance of her daughter, recovering alcoholic Darlene Hagen is preparing to host her family’s Christmas celebration when her estranged ex-brother-in-law arrives unannounced, bearing nostalgic gifts and a heavy secret.
Stars: Anna Gunn, Linus Roache, Janeane Garofalo
Director: Alison Star Locke
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  For me, the biggest test of a mystery or high-tension thriller is how well it holds up once it starts to reveal its secrets.  If it’s a corker, it can keep going on the built-up strength of the steel trap it set for its audience, refusing to let go.  The weaker ones only show they were merely treading water from the beginning and quickly find they can’t keep their head above the waves they created, eventually drowning under the weight of a back half they can’t support.    

Written and directed by Alison Star Locke, The Apology might be one of the most disappointing thrillers I’ve seen lately, primarily because there is so much promise in the premise.  Here we have an isolated home on a snowy night before Christmas when evil tidings from the past come to haunt a woman (Anna Gunn, Sully) continuing to grieve her daughter’s disappearance two decades before.  Her long-absent brother-in-law (Linus Roache, Non-Stop) unexpectedly turns up bearing wrapped gifts and offering a present for her, a present involving information she’s been waiting years to receive.

I’ll let you guess what he might have to share, but I bet you can discern that it sets into motion a battle of wills between the two that occupies much of the 91-minute run time.  Unfortunately, while Locke was lucky to nab the underappreciated Gunn for the lead, she’s paired her with the less intriguing Roache for an overly talky two-hander that goes nowhere fast.  Despite having a best friend played by an oddly muted Janeane Garofalo (The God Committee), a hop, skip, and a jump away, most of The Apology is just Gunn and Roache trading power positions.  And it’s sadly weak.

Letting the cat out of the bag so early damages what little goodwill The Apology had going for it.  Despite the ideal locale and major potential for something special, this is a present you’ll want to re-wrap and pass along to someone else.

Movie Review ~ Hunt (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a high-ranking North Korean official requests asylum, KCIA Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho and Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do are tasked with uncovering a North Korean spy deeply embedded within their agency. When the spy begins leaking top secret intel that could jeopardize national security, the two units are each assigned to investigate each other.
Stars: Lee Jung Jae, Jeon Hye Jin, Heo Sung Tae, Go Youn Jung, Kim Jong Soo, Jung Man Sik, Jung Woo-Sung
Director: Lee Jung Jae
Rated: R
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
ReviewHunt is a complex spy thriller that runs over two hours but took me almost twice as long to finish. Why? I had to go back and watch long stretches of it more than once because the screenplay by director/star Lee Jung-Jae is a tricky knot to unravel. Usually, this would be a ball of string I would happily follow up with and stick with until I’d untangled it. However, at a certain point in Hunt, I realized it was making no effort to engage with the viewer. That’s when it all felt like a pointless exercise in running behind a locomotive that sold me a ticket but never intended to let me ride.

A long-gestating project for Lee, it’s the age-old tale of two men competing to ferret out a mole within their institution. Of course, they both suspect the other, and we spend much of the film flip-flopping our allegiance between them. If Hunt were simply this story, it might have been seen as another standard entry into the espionage genre…but it would have maintained a biting crackle that gets snuffed out the moment historical Korean politics gets layered in. 

For American audiences unfamiliar with the history of the military dictatorship that existed in Korea during the 1980s, Hunt will likely be a frustrating journey through a truncated timeline only partially explained.   This is due to the balancing of the thriller element, and because, after the rough showing the film had in Cannes, the filmmakers returned and re-edited the film to make it easier to understand. The result of that tinkering weakens everything because now the focus is quite prominently on a chronicling of events for our education instead of our entertainment.    

Rising to international acclaim with his role in overnight sensation Squid Game, Lee was already an established star in South Korea, but Hunt serves as his feature film debut for most of the audiences that took to him on the popular Netflix show. Admittedly, I haven’t made my way to that streaming phenomenon, but I have witnessed the acclaim lauded on the actor. While his passion for the material is evident from a filmmaking perspective, his performance is stiff and unconvincing. 

Between Hunt and Decision to Leave, my ordinarily strong feelings toward South Korean cinema took a significant hit in 2022. I appreciate what Lee was going for and recognize compromises were made to bring this movie to U.S. shores, but sometimes you have to let a film stand on its own and allow the viewers to embrace it or not. When you cast the net wide so clumsily, there’s nothing to grab onto.

Movie Review ~ Wildcat

The Facts:

Synopsis: Back from the war in Afghanistan, a young British soldier struggling with depression and PTSD finds a second chance in the Amazon rainforest when he meets an American scientist, and together they foster an orphaned baby ocelot.
Stars: Harry Turner, Samantha Zwicker
Director: Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:   Far from simply joining an endless list of documentaries charting the long-term effects of PTSD and the ripples it sends through the lives of men and women in the military, Wildcat offers a fascinating way inside the story. It’s still a raw examination of trauma and how war can damage emotions irrevocably. Nevertheless, directors Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost don’t leave the possibility of hope to die on the battlefield.

Lesh and Frost juggle several relationships that are central to the plot. The first is between graduate student/preservationist Samathna Zwicker and discharged solider Harry Turner. They’ve both come to the Peruvian Amazon to make a difference and what starts for her as a noble effort to give animals impacted by rainforest deforestation and poaching a fighting chance ends with his attachment issues with an ocelot named Keanu they raised from infancy. Of course, it’s about far more than Harry’s ties to the cat; he’s channeled a lot of his anger about being helpless to the horrors of war in Afghanistan into Keanu’s recovery and release. 

As Zwicker feels the pull to continue her studies away from the rainforest, it isolates her boyfriend again, further complicating the matter. This is when the soldier looking for answers, like the wildcat he’s tending to, needs socialization. The eventual downfall of the romance and project is documented with unbiased but unflinching honesty. 

More intriguing than you may think and filled with real-life curveballs only a true story could lob without blinking an eye, Wildcat was expected to make the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary but didn’t show up when that roster was announced. That’s unfortunate because, for all the standard documentaries about war and the internal wounds it leaves, this film clearly shows the toll in a tangible, relatable way.

Movie Review ~ Darby and the Dead

The Facts:

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

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

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

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