Movie Review ~ Creed III

The Facts:

Synopsis: Adonis Creed is thriving in his boxing career and family life. When a childhood friend and former boxing prodigy resurfaces after serving a long sentence in prison, he is eager to prove he deserves his shot in the ring.
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Florian Munteanu, Mila Davis-Kent, Phylicia Rashad, Selenis Leyva
Director: Michael B. Jordan
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  In 2015, director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) pulled off a bit of a miracle, resurrecting the Rocky franchise by reshaping it as a spin-off for the son of the famed fighter’s most noteworthy opponent. Creed was a gamble, testing the waters for longtime fans of the series and seeing how well modern audiences would take to picking up a sequel mid-franchise. Coogler’s story was solid, and the performances from Michael B. Jordan and especially original star Sylvester Stallone were so spot-on terrific that it bolstered the film to be a box-office titan over the Thanksgiving holiday. It also created a reason to keep going with further chapters. 

With Stallone nearly winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work (damn you, Mark Rylance!), he was back alongside Jordan and much of the cast for Creed II, which, while entertaining, was more in the spirit of a classic Rocky sequel than drawing from the same bold inspiration that fueled its predecessor. He’s missing from this third chapter, now directed by Jordan, and that absence is deeply felt. Stallone chose not to return for this, and behind-the-scenes buzz had him in disagreement with the direction of the series, a rumor backed up by Jordan’s comments that many of the newer fans “don’t know who Rocky is”…ouch.   Perhaps that’s why the “R” word is mentioned only once in this efficient if ultimately low-stakes and ineffective episode.

Jordan (That Awkward Moment) stuffs a lot into a prologue, including showing a young Adonis (Thaddeus J. Mixon) following an older childhood friend Damian “Dame” Anderson (Spence Moore II), for a fateful night out and the older Creed fighting his last match in Cape Town 15 years later. Flashing to the present, Adonis is retired and living a comfortable life with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Passing), daughter Amara (Mia Davis-Kent) with the occasional visit to mom Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad, Black Box), who has recently recovered from a stroke. His gym has grown so much that it has relocated across town and upgraded, preparing the new reigning world champion for a much-publicized fight.

It’s in this peaceful life that Creed’s old friend Damian (Jonathan Majors, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantunmania) crashes back into. Recently released from prison after eighteen years, the former Golden Gloves winner has stayed in shape and makes it clear he wants to regain the lost time by going for glory in the ring as soon as possible. Of course, Adonis can see something brewing below the surface that gives him pause, but without a guiding mentor, he fails to listen to his gut instinct and winds up blowing his world apart. Now, with a past he has locked away and run from circling back to pounce, the choice between secrets and truth will lead him to the one place he thought he was done with—the ring.

While they had their ups and downs, the ongoing presence of characters throughout kept the Rocky films consistent. Random important figures wouldn’t just suddenly drop back in and make themselves known, asking the viewer to recognize their importance. That’s a modern screenwriter’s trope based on star power and popularity, and it’s why Creed III is flimsy and flaps around more than the previous two films. A significant incident that impacted the trajectory of Adonis’s life is only revealed now. It isn’t a genuine discovery but a necessary corner to sweep. 

The script is often quite cornball in its development, with clunker clues dropped along the way that telegraphs what will happen in the second and third acts of the film. (Let’s put it this way, if someone says, “Careful, we don’t want you to eat that, you may choke.” In a half hour, that person will eat it and choke.)  The result is a feeling of low/no stakes for characters originally created to have dreams and ambitions riding a sharp edge of not coming true. That’s why we rooted for them initially and invested time. Now, it’s handled with such routine ho-hum-ness it can help but build to nothing.

Unfortunately, that also means the actors are at sea as well. Jordan is in a strange position wearing two hats. Stallone did the same, starting with Rocky II, but by that time, he had already directed himself in another film, so he knew how to find that balance. It’s not as easy for Jordan to transition, so he’s often only half there, failing to show what we know is an immense talent. That leaves Majors to carry to the mass of the dramatics, and as committed as the actor is to work, the villain he puts forth is so harsh that any redemption arc the film wants to give him doesn’t feel justified. Thompson shares the one rare moment of believable emotion Creed III has to offer; when husband and wife have the kind of heart-to-heart conversation, I’d be willing to bet Coogler (who provided the story) had a hand in writing.

The film is most potent in its hard-hitting fight scenes, and that’s what many audiences will come for. Jordan thinks outside of the box (er, ring) for these extended sequences. Along with cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (Spirited), the two create a visually rich vocabulary with which to speak when all the screenplay has the actors doing is boxing. Joseph Shirley’s (Jackass Forever) rote score doesn’t match the rousing orchestrations provided by Ludwig Göransson (Turning Red) for the prior films. Still, Jordan is often a fan of dropping out the music all together for a dramatic impact.

Signs point to more Creed down the road, and I can guess where things may head if/when it happens. I’d hope Jordan is more open to allowing Stallone back into the ring with him because there was undeniable synergy in their original outings. Creed III is the most commercial and time-wasting of the Rocky Extended Universe so far, but this character needs to clear his head before taking on any new opponents.

Movie Review ~ Unseen

The Facts:

Synopsis: Gas station clerk Sam receives a call from Emily, a nearly blind woman running from her murderous ex in the woods. Using a video call, Emily must survive the ordeal with Sam being her eyes from afar.
Stars: Midori Francis, Jolene Purdy, Missi Pyle, Michael Patrick Lane
Director: Yoko Okumura
Rated: NR
Running Length: 76 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review:   I dunno, folks. Someone is missing the boat on creating a solid thriller anthology series right now because I’ve been seeing a growing number of movies boasting 45 minutes of juicy content that would go over like gangbusters if put into the right package. The trouble is that these 45 minutes are in the middle of longer films, sometimes twice that length, draining the electric energy generated by a creative idea. 

Take the new film Unseen, premiering On Demand in March before moving to MGM+ in May. One of the films produced under the Blumhouse Television banner exclusively for streaming, this has a fantastic concept that is ab-so-lut-ly perfect for the company known for sending audiences out of theaters (or into their bedrooms) appropriately terrified.

A young woman (Midori Francis, Ocean’s Eight) has been kidnapped and drugged by her crazy ex (Michael Patrick Lane, Tully) and taken to a remote cabin in the woods. Visually impaired without corrective eyewear, she manages to escape into the forest with her phone but breaks her glasses in the process. In another state (FL), depressed convenience store attendant Sam (Jolene Purdy, WandaVision) has shown up late again for her mundane shift and is about to fix the broken slush machine when she gets a call from an unknown number. It’s Emily, the girl in the woods whom Sam had conveniently misdialed earlier that morning. Unable to see her phone clearly, Emily called the number back, hoping that Sam could use her Facetime video to direct her out of the woods…and steer her clear of her psychotic boyfriend, that is desperately trying to hunt her down. While Sam battles her self-doubt and eventually a raging Karen-esque customer (a deranged Missi Pyle, Ma), she keeps Emily on the line and out of sight. As Sam’s battery decreases and Emily’s options become limited, both women must think quickly to work together to escape this dangerous situation.

If Unseen had clocked in at a cool 42 minutes, I could see myself taking a substantial breather at the end from the delightful stress of it all. This would have required director Yoko Okumura to tighten the pacing significantly, removing much of the inconsequential background info on both women provided as Emily strolls through the woods. While the film gets off to a banger of a start, eventually, there comes the point where Emily is working harder to pump up Sam’s crippling insecurity than finding a way out of her predicament. This is a life-or-death situation, and too often, the script from Salvatore Cardoni and Brian Rawlins has the women stopping to discuss plans for college and what they want to do with their lives. 

At 76 minutes, Unseen is one of the shorter offerings, yet it still feels too long. A glitch in my screener turned this one off at the 60-minute mark, and before restarting it I honestly couldn’t believe there were fifteen minutes left. It all leads to a bizarro conclusion (only in Florida, I tell you!) and a last-minute MacGuffin that couldn’t possibly still be in play. If you’re looking for a (very) similar film released in the last several years, check out See for Me, which finds someone with a visual impairment needing to be guided away from danger by outside assistance. That script has far more to explore with its characters and offers intriguing twists to characters you won’t expect. 

UNSEEN is on Digital and On Demand on March 7, 2023 and on MGM+ on May 2023. 

Movie Review ~ The Quiet Girl

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ We Have a Ghost

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ My Happy Ending

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman (1989)

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania


The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Your Place or Mine

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ The Outwaters

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Consecration

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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