Movie Review ~ The Nowhere Inn  

The Facts:

Synopsis: When St. Vincent sets out to make a documentary about her music, the goal is to both reveal and revel in the unadorned truth behind her on-stage persona. But when she hires a close friend to direct, notions of reality, identity, and authenticity grow increasingly distorted and bizarre.

Stars: St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Ezra Buzzington, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquilino, Drew Connick

Director: Bill Benz

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  It’s always an interesting exercise to approach a project featuring a performer with a devoted following that I’m not all-too familiar with.  In the case of The Nowhere Inn, there’s two of them, starting with Carrie Brownstein, who appeared for seven seasons in the cult hit comedy series Portlandia.  Disclosure time: I’ve never seen the show (one can only take on so much) but have heard tell of its brilliance and of Brownstein’s ability in particular to shift, chameleon-like, between characters, genders, styles, etc. Also a talented musician, Brownstein’s feature-film work has been limited with roles in films like 2015’s Carol and 2018’s Tag being small but memorable.  

Am I a dyed-in-the-wool fan of St. Vincent (the stage name of multi-hyphenate artist Annie Clark)? Not exactly.  However, anytime I’d seen her perform on television or heard her music there was something undeniably captivating about the way she was able to draw an audience in with her enigmatic presence.  A bit of an all-around mystery and perfectly willing to change up her look so completely that if you hadn’t seen her in a few years, you may think you’ve bought a ticket to the wrong show, St. Vincent has amassed a legion of fans waiting to see what happens next.  They’re in for a treat as the musician moves into film (after appearing as her off-stage alter-ego in Brownstein’s television show) and works with Brownstein to write a most unusual, but ultimately mesmerizing, bit of meta moviemaking.

A stretch limo speeds through a desert carrying St. Vincent to her next gig.  The limo driver doesn’t know who she is, has never heard of her. He calls his son. He’s never heard of her either.  They ask if she’d sing one of her songs.  She does.  It doesn’t have the memory-jogging effect any of them hoped.  So begins The Nowhere Inn (“Where nothing and no one wins.” according to the lyrics of the haunting title track), a documentary (sort of) crossed with a mockumentary (kinda) alternately filtered through a experimental horror lens…with concert footage interspersed throughout.  It’s a lot more accessible and interested in the way people tick than the trailer or I have made it seem, so you just have to trust me that where the movie begins is quite different than the way it ends.  And when I say ends, I mean you have to stay until the last note of the film has been struck even after the credits have completed.

As she embarks on a concert tour, St. Vincent hires her friend Carrie Brownstein to make a documentary of life on the road.  Ready to capture the good, the bad, and the ugly of the tour route, Brownstein signs up, even with reservations about leaving her sick father and wondering in the back of her mind how this will test the close personal relationship she has with her friend, now employer.  While the shoot progresses and Brownstein realizes she’s not getting the footage she needs, she encourages in her subject opportunities to come off less like the easy-going off-stage persona (Annie) and more like the adopted identity she formed as St. Vincent. As the line between the performer and the person blur, it throws an increasingly biting wrench into not just the success of the film but in the future of the long-standing friendship.

Using St. Vincent’s music, at one point a family of homestead musicians do a rollicking rendition of 2011’s “Year of the Tiger”, director Bill Benz keeps the action propelling forward and it all stays on track right up until the end when it can’t help but fall into David Lynch territory.  That’s a bummer and though Lynch himself would I think love the movie, even he’d likely admit there were better ways to check out of The Nowhere Inn.  Until then, Brownstein and St. Vincent (as aggressively impressive in the film acting department as she is onstage performing) have kept upping the stakes with one another, seeming to dare the other to take different risks with each passing scene.  Even a few random appearances by Dakota Johnson (Our Friend) can’t derail the tense and increasingly perilous kinship between the musician and the friend she’s hired to document the reality she now actively is rebelling against.

Movies such as The Nowhere Inn with their clever wink-wink to the audience can only work if the filmmakers are willing to embrace the audience and involve them in the cleverness they construct.  That’s why so many similar genre fare fails, because little attention is paid to the people out there in the dark that will be watching and digesting what’s being put on their plate.  What Brownstein and St. Vincent have whipped up is a soufflé that’s light as air but richly filling the deeper you dig in.  At the center is the breakdown of a friendship and unveiling that even when something is shown to be real you can’t always trust that reality.  That’s nothing we haven’t seen harvested before, right?  It’s the way the screenwriters have added their own voice and vocabulary to the set-up that you find yourself tethered to their emotions almost as much as they are, eventually getting to the point where you are hanging on each word and every visual framed by Benz and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl. To conclude my fancy Yelp review: checking in and checking out The Nowhere Inn is a must-do when you have the chance.

Movie Review ~ The Starling

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman adjusting to life after a loss contends with a feisty bird that’s taken over her garden — and a husband who’s struggling to find a way forward.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn

Director: Theodore Melfi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After settling into watching the new Netflix dramedy The Starling the other day, I had a pretty good idea why the initial buzz I had heard after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was fairly lukewarm.  This is one of those movies that film snobs hungry to feast on spoiled leftovers just hate with a red-hot passion because it doesn’t wind up tasting all that bad.  It’s SpaghettiOs® in a season where fine Italian pasta in a rich, velvety sauce is sought and before you say that I’m knocking that canned bit of gold, I consider it a fine meal any day of the week.  Without a carcass to gnaw on, it could be easy to simply dismiss the emotions brought forth as overly sentimental TV-movie of the week junk, but in doing so you’d miss the bittersweet lead performances playing grieving parents still processing a profound loss.

Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy, Thunder Force) and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd, The Sapphires) have big plans for their newborn, plans they discuss in the film’s opening moments as they paint her nursery with an elaborate mural of a tree with inviting branches.  Flash forward to a time in the future after their daughter has died when Lilly is a zoned-out worker at a small-town grocery superstore and Jack is spending time at a mental health facility an hour away.  She makes the trip once a week for a visit that doesn’t seem to help either one of them deal with a pain they can’t share with each other.  Resentment from both parties is strong; she doesn’t understand why he has to work through this life altering event alone and away from her, he believes she’s moving on too quickly and can’t forgive himself for the loss of their child.

On the suggestion of Jack’s group leader, Lilly seeks out the town vet, Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline, Beauty and the Beast).  A former respected therapist, he gave up working with people and devotes his time to animals because they talk back less.  Resisting the unorthodox set-up, it’s the appearance of a persistently territorial starling in her garden that brings her back to Dr. Larry after the bird dive bombs her and draws blood.  As Lilly begins to open up, she exposes a wound she’d done a good job of bandaging up and in doing so it makes her more emotionally available to her husband as well as her new avian neighbor.  As Jack’s depression worsens, Lilly faces her anguish head on.  The stages of grief are accelerated after being pent up for so long and eventually the relationship between the husband and wife is put to a huge test.

Reteaming with her St. Vincent director Theodore Melfi, McCarthy demonstrates again why it’s so important for her to make films apart from her husband.  The married duo have made a string of movies together that they have collaborated on and produced and while they occasionally find a winner (The Boss actually improves with age) they also have their share of stinkers (remember Tammy?  Better yet, don’t.).  It’s clearly demonstrated that when she’s working with other directors and screenwriters, see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Spy if you don’t believe me, she really has a chance to shine. 

The lack of chemistry between McCarthy and O’Dowd is mostly attributed to the separation of their characters for a large part of the movie.  I never totally bought them as a couple so deep in love that they were being completely tested by this tragedy, but it’s not for McCarthy’s lack of try to instill some warmth O’Dowd’s way.  I liked O’Dowd as well, but he seemed to get too lost in the sadness and/or anger of his character and the shifts were jarring instead of understandable.  The real head scratcher is why Melfi cast so many familiar faces and then gave them nothing to do.  Timothy Olyphant (Mother’s Day) has two or three scenes total and they’re so insignificant it could have been played by anyone.  Same for Daveed Diggs (Soul), Loretta Devine (wasted even more here than in Queen Bees earlier this year), and Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who gets a high billing but may not even have any lines in the film if I’m remembering correctly.

A few years back I was in NYC and saw Kevin Kline’s soon-to-be Tony Award winning performance onstage in Present Laughter.  It was then I remembered how much I enjoyed watching him watching other actors.  He’s always listening and providing the kind of reaction that helps create a full character without having to say much.  It’s often wonderful to see him and he’s impressive here as a guy that resists getting too attached to his new patient, even though he has a hunch he can find a way to unlock what’s been holding her back.

Speaking of that, what’s difficult about the movie is what it holds back and that’s a lot of key details.  It’s never expressly stated how Lilly and Jack’s daughter died or how old she was.  I suppose it’s doesn’t really matter in the long run because the loss is the loss but it’s these finer points that help to round out the character arcs being put forth.  The starling also is a bit of a red herring because it doesn’t come into play much until the end of the film after making several stealth appearances (with some iffy CGI) in earlier scenes.  I understand that writer Matt Harris is trying to fast-track the narrative, but it can’t come at the cost of the finer points.

It’s interesting to see Netflix rolling out The Starling for a week in theaters before it arrives on the streaming service for the majority of its customers.  I don’t find the film strong enough for an awards run (though if the Golden Globes were a thing McCarthy would probably be a likely nominee for Best Actress) but perhaps they’re going for Kline…they’ll certainly want to push for any number of songs that were contributed by Brandi Carlile , The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, and Nate Ruess.  I think it’s best to just keep The Starling handy for a day/night when you require a little comfort food film, some warmth from the overstuffed and stodgy succession of movies that are coming down the pike.

Movie Review ~ Lady of the Manor

The Facts:

Synopsis: An aimless ne’er-do-well becomes a tour guide in a historic estate and winds up befriending the manor’s resident ghost.

Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Justin Long, Luis Guzmán, Ryan Phillippe, Patrick Duffy

Director: Justin Long and Christian Long

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  This last month has been awfully good for ghosts…and it’s not even October yet.  You may recall that just a few short posts ago I gave a marginal thumbs up to the rather decent Afterlife of the Party, a Netflix film starring Victoria Justice that was pleasant in a goopy, Clorox-wiped clean sort of way.  I also broke the news that I’m a closet fan of these types of films where a ghost haunts a living human and either works with them or against them to right a wrong so they can rest in peace.  I’m sticking by that statement, even after being truly haunted by the presence of Lady of the Manor, another movie with some similar themes.  If you asked me two weeks ago which of these ghost movies I’d be less impressed with, I’d surely have said Afterlife of the Party based on who was involved with Lady of the Manor…sadly, this one is a D.O.A. P.O.S.

Remember when Justin Long dated Drew Barrymore and it was weird?  And weird only in the sense that Barrymore has always seemed like such an adult and Long has felt like a forever teenager so the pairing felt like a May-December romance that even though it was more like a May 12 and June 18 one?  Long clearly remembers it too because he’s cast the talented Melanie Lynskey in a role I have a hunch Barrymore would have played if they were still together (and possibly written with her in mind) and then asked her to emulate the kewpie doll mannerisms of the star so easy to imitate to seal the deal.  Even at a subconscious level, it’s impossible not to watch the movie without having Barrymore firmly in your mind and, not to take anything away from Lynskey, wonder if she’d have brought a tad more sparkle to the role.

Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays Hannah, described in the press notes as a “ne’er-do-well” which is fancy talk for the lay about freeloader she is, occasionally delivering drugs via bike but too dim to even do that right.  When she’s mistaken for a sexual predator (cue an uncomfortable sequence involving pedophile jokes) she’s hauled off to prison where she’s dumped by her boyfriend and kicked to the curb.  As she drowns her sorrow at the local watering hole, she attracts the attention of spoiled lothario Tanner Wadsworth (an extremely puffy in the face Ryan Phillippe, Wish Upon) heir to the Wadsworth estate and recently tasked with its operations.  He’s in need of a new tour guide to dress like the former, you got it, lady of the manor and decides Hannah is the best one for the job.  Mostly, he just wants to sleep with her.

Before she knows it, Hannah has a new job that comes with a free place to live.  The only trouble is that the estate already has a permanent live-in guest (Judy Greer, Halloween) and she isn’t happy with the new arrival that’s loud, obnoxious, and brings with her a large supply of rubber bedroom toys named after famous movie stars.  Dead for a number of years, Lady Wadsworth still holds some values close to her heart and is horrified to see Hannah exhibit the type of extreme unladylike behavior that can only be found in a movie written and directed by men.  Where else can you see a childless female ghost murder victim from colonial times and a rudderless loser men use as little more than a sexual object discuss breaking wind and the best way to excuse yourself from the room when you have to let one rip?

When the validity of Lady Wadsworth’s will is questioned, Hannah will have to step up and help out her phantom friend (spoiler alert?  I mean, c’mon…you have to know they start to get along eventually) prove what her original intentions for her estate were before it falls into the wrong hands for good.  At the same time, Hannah balances a physical relationship with Tanner and something a bit sweeter with a local historian (Long, Tusk) who initially went on one of her disastrous tours.  I feel like I should at least mention Luis Guzmán (Guilty as Sin) seeing that he appears so high up in the credits but has little to do as a nameless bartender other than dry a few glasses and wipe down a counter or two while the main actors get sloppy drunk in front of him.  Surely there was more to this role…or was Guzmán visiting his friends on the set and they needed a last minute replacement?

There’s been a lot of fingers pointing lately toward movies that are deemed “more like TV movies” and the plot for Lady of the Manor is torn directly from the listings on Hallmark or Lifetime.  At its heart, it’s your typical ghost meets girl story and uncovering a not that interesting mystery is a way to spend the time while you reorganize your sock drawer.  Long not only stars in this but wrote and directed it with his brother Christian and it’s as if they took that vanilla plot and wiped their noses with it.  It’s such a snotty booger of a movie and takes every chance to go low with the cheapest possible jokes always seemingly the first choice.  Even blessed with someone comedically talented like Greer, the script favors gross-out humor and dialogue laced with trash talk – there’s little trust shown in the actors or the audience to find the comedy.

What’s most disappointing is that Long has been at this for so long now that you’d think for this first time up to bat he’d have something a bit more to offer, something better to represent him (and his family) on his debut.  Even if Barrymore had taken the lead from Lynskey (and, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with what Lynskey is doing, she deserves some sort of medal for surviving this train wreck) it wouldn’t have saved things because Lady of the Manor is just rotten, a few laughs along the way notwithstanding.

Movie Review ~ Prisoners of the Ghostland

The Facts:

Synopsis: A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes, Yuzuka Nakaya, Lorena Kotô, Canon Nawata, Charles Glover, Cici Zhou, Louis Kurihara

Director: Sion Sono

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Here’s what we all need to realize about Nicolas Cage – he knows exactly what he’s doing.  Anytime a GIF or a meme is passed around with one of Cage’s signature crazy eye looks or classic freak out faces, it’s the result of a carefully calculated plan on the part of the actor to dig into whatever character he’s playing.  It gives the director something to work with, something to drive his fellow actors crazy, and it makes audiences nervously anticipate his next move/movie because you truly don’t know how he’ll pivot. 

Once a mainstay on the Hollywood A-List, after Cage won his Oscar in 1995 he toiled about in various blockbusters until his star waned after one too many fails at the box office.  That’s when Cage started thinking in volume, not quality, and the sheer number of films he was in rose dramatically.  While lazy actors like Bruce Willis have taken over the mantle of this business model, Cage was king of making these random films that were almost indistinguishable from one another.  I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but I noticed Cage began to stretch again in 2018 with the release of Mandy, a well-received horror film that was often a nightmare to watch which genre fans went ape over.  Coming back a year later with Color Out of Space, an even more impressive blend of Cage-iness mixed with a trippy H.P. Lovecraft vibe, it was obvious the actor was finding his groove with projects and directors that spoke to him.

Continuing to star in the occasional quickie, Cage set the film community ablaze already twice this year with two different projects, the bizarre Willy’s Wonderland and one of his best performances to date, Pig.  Now, I’m still willing to work for Cage’s team to help them mount a campaign for him to get in the Best Actor race for his work in that excellent film but I’m thinking he won’t need much help getting there on his own.  The end of the year may be getting crowded but what he did with that film is still so fresh in my mind that I can imagine voters that saw it will be feeling the same way.  Perhaps it’s best to keep certain voters away from Cage’s latest movie, though.  It might undo some of that goodwill Pig served up.

Let me state for the record before we gain entry to Prisoners of the Ghostland that I found the first English-language film from director Sion Sono to be almost operatic in nature and often just as frustrating to sit through.  It has moments that are wildly creative, sucking you into its energy field with an enticing mythology and fringe characters that have you craning your neck to see more.  On the other hand, Sono displays his typical taste for excess and winds up almost choking the life out of the picture before anyone has a chance to get much of anything done.  The extreme director is a good match for Cage, and both know it, so it’s just a question of who wants to go bigger before going home. 

Set in a world undone by a nuclear catastrophe where scattered cultures have created a mishmash of design and community, Prisoners of the Ghostland drops us into Samurai Town, a brothel run by the smarmy Governor (Bill Moseley, Texas Chainsaw) who has lost something near and dear to him.  His adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella, Climax) has vanished, and the Governor needs a professional to travel to the dangerous Ghostland to find her.  The man for the job is, naturally, named Hero (Cage, Valley Girl) and to incentivize him to keep his cool in all matters he’s wired with explosives at particular points of his body. Think about hitting a woman?  Bye-bye arm.  The bombs on his nether regions are self-explanatory…there will be no unauthorized breeding in Ghostland.  Fail to find her, and that bomb around his neck will efficiently end his life.

With only a few short days to find Bernice and bring her back, he’ll have to work fast because while finding Bernice turns out to be easy, returning her isn’t a walk in the park.  As Hero learns more about the horrific conditions in Ghostland and its inhabitants, he plans a revenge plot to secure his freedom and the liberty of others.  Yet a memory from the past still plagues him, a memory that turns out to have a major impact on his current mission, throwing a significant wrench in the outcome of the plot to overthrow the powerful Governor and those that follow him. 

The screenplay from Aaron Hendry & Reza Sixo Safai is surprisingly original and not based off any previous work and both writers have given the dynamics of Ghostland some intriguing wrinkles.  In Sono’s visionary hand, the world creation is complete and so you have something that is marvelous to look at, if just a tad vacant overall.  It’s like those walls of a community theater production that look so impressive from the 12th row but once you get up close you see that it’s just a two-inch flimsy piece of painted plywood…but for a while, you were fooled.  This ruse is helped along by, no surprise here, Cage’s fully immersed performance that never comprises or belies any doubt in the material.  That’s the special sauce which keeps Cage operating so reliably at 120% from film to film.  Like him or loathe him, he believes in what he’s doing and that in turn creates an atmosphere where everything is possible, and anything can happen. 

In previous films, not everyone has been as game as Cage but Sono has surrounded his star with a roster of like-minded actors that go for broke and don’t care who’s watching.  Boutella is, in many ways, an actress after Cage’s heart that’s more than willing to go toe-to-toe for control of scenes.  Lithe in body and able to tap into relatable and raw emotions, she’s an interesting counterpart to Cage’s deep well of regret…both are individuals in pain that need saving and perhaps this journey will wind up benefitting both.  Moseley and a scary Nick Cassavetes (The Other Woman) as Cage’s former partner now mysterious rival, pop off the screen with appropriate villainy but watch out for Tak Sakaguchi silently stealing the movie as a cunning assassin who gets some ferociously fun fight sequences.  While the film is filled with several memorable performances for the right reasons, there’s a central character that’s so atrociously annoying it begins to cast the rest of the actors in a bad light.  I’m going to refrain from passing that name along but once you see the movie, you’ll know who she is.

Along with Mandy and Color of Space, Prisoner of the Ghostland feels like it’s completing a trilogy of interesting reaches by Cage into foreign territory.  Not only are they gambles that have by and large paid off for him creatively, but critically and commercially they’ve done well for his credibility…far more than his direct to video feed-trough junk he had been making.  Couple that with a quieter and more reflective role in Pig and you begin to see an actor coming into another stage of their career where box office isn’t key, but fulfillment of mind, body, and soul is.  Lucky for us, that desire also comes with an entertainment value as well.

Movie Review ~ Shelter in Place

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A honeymooning couple gets stranded at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and learns that there is more to fear than just cabin fever.

Stars: Brendan Hines, Tatjana Marjanovic, Kevin Daniels, Ola Kaminska, Jey Reynolds

Director: Chris Beyrooty and Connor Martin

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  While it’s likely a bit too soon to look for any polished silver lining in the dark rain cloud that has been the ongoing pandemic hanging over the globe for over a year and a half, there have been a few glints of good fortune where indie filmmaking is concerned.  Previously, movies made on a small scale with a handful of actors and a tiny budget were either celebrated for their economy in production or shunned for lack of higher-end techniques.  Now, it’s that very sparse nature that is becoming a significant benefit to a number of genre films from the wanderlust drama (Ride the Eagle) to horror films such as Shelter in Place, a haunted hotel new release coming to your at-home VOD this week.

Occasionally, I’ll take a bird’s eye view of a movie like Shelter in Place and wonder if I’d have reviewed it any differently if the climate we were in had been different.  If this were a regular early fall time for movies, could an above average bit of terror like Shelter in Place rise over the noise to gain any traction over louder titles with deeper pockets for marketing?  Probably not…however that’s not to say the movie written and directed by Chris Beyrooty and Connor Martin is one to lose track of entirely.  As October is drawing near and the potential for more isolation of the winter months approaches, you may find yourself looking for exactly the kind of nerve-jangling frights Beyrooty and Martin have concocted.

With shelter in place orders being passed just as newly married couple John and Sara Burke arrived in the famous Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, there isn’t much for the honeymooners to do but wait it out until they can get home.  Thankfully, aside from a front desk clerk/concierge (Kevin Daniels, managing to never reveal all his cards at the same time – keeping you on your toes as to whose side he’s on) and a housekeeper/cook (Ola Kaminska, riding a nice wave of benevolent and malevolent) they appear to have the place all to themselves. As long as they are in their room by the time the mandatory lights out in the early evening, they can roam as they please.  So while influencer Sara (the adroit Tatjana Marjanovic, Great White, who gets more chance to impress here) works on her social media game, currently unemployed John (Brendan Hines, who walks, talks, looks, and acts like a schmuck but is relatable all the same, go figure) wiles away the day doing a whole lot of nothing hoping his new bride will strike it big and make enough for both of them to live off of.

Are they really alone though?  Poking around the front desk register one day, Sara finds their check-in information as well as that of another guest…even though they were led to believe no one else was staying there.  Convinced it was a misunderstanding by the concierge, Sara writes it off as an error of the pandemic but when the maid begins to display odd behavior and she starts seeing ghostly figures hiding in the shadows, she starts to believe rumors of the hotel’s hauntings might be less fictional than she originally imagined.  The more Sara learns, the further John pulls away right when they should be working together to find out who (or what) might be lurking within the not-quite-empty rooms of the hotel.

There’s a lot of standard-issue developments that happen in Shelter in Place, yet the film winds up quite entertaining due to the strength of the performances and the restraint shown by the writers/directors.  While we’re often tipped off to what’s happening and are able to piece things together long before Sara or John do, it strangely doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of watching the couple get put through the psychological wringer as distorted visions blur the lines of reality in such a way that they can’t tell what is authentic and what is fake.  It’s not perfect, far from it, but considering the resources and how bargain basement it could have gone, it’s worth making time for an evening to Shelter in Place.

The horror film SHELTER IN PLACE will be available on VOD and Digital September 14, 2021.

Pre-order Link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/shelter-in-place/id1580216980

 

Movie Review ~ What She Said

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Sam decides to drop the charges against her rapist, her friends and siblings gather to stage a Thanksgiving intervention.

Stars: Jenny Lester, Juliana Jurenas, Britt Michael Gordon, Peter Evangelista, Paige Berkovitz, Jarielle Whitney, Christopher Mychael Watson, Lucas Calzada, Vaishnavi Sharma

Director: Amy Northup

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Being inundated with procedural television and slickly written courtroom dramas, we’re used to seeing someone traumatized by violence have their day in court.  They meet their victimizer face to face, say the right thing, feel empowered, and march out of the courtroom just like they came in: with their head held high and their dignity intact.  That’s one way to portray this journey for audiences that demand resolution and happy endings…but it’s almost always never entirely accurate.  The process of prosecuting a person accused of a crime against another is a scary proposition, made even more terrifying when you have to relive a moment of trauma over and over again.  It’s one of the central themes of the new film What She Said, available on streaming and VOD.

It’s understandable why Sam (Jenny Lester) is having second thoughts about testifying against the man that raped her and is considering dropping the charges against him.  That way, she would avoid having to face him in court and be subject to the ridicule and questioning that usually comes with rape victims by defense attorneys and those unwilling to believe someone could commit that kind of heinous crime against another.  With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, she’s decided to drop out of the family gatherings and Friendsgiving plans, opting instead for a weekend alone with her thoughts at a remote cabin.

That’s where Sam’s brother Eli (Britt Michael Gordon) shows up unannounced at the beginning of What She Said, confronting her about the decision and asking her to reconsider.  Why not take the weekend to think it over because if she doesn’t do something about it, what about the next person it happens to?  The next day, Sam is surprised to see Eli has invited a few more of their friends and their significant others up to celebrate the holiday and offer additional support.  This pseudo-intervention doesn’t go well at first, giving Sam more of a reason to withdraw, but she’s eventually coaxed into spending time with her friends and brother over the next few days, time that’s spent discovering and rediscovering bonds that have held strong over time.  As could be expected, newcomers to the group find it hard to relate to the old friends, and Sam’s contentious relationship with her sister-in-law Harper, (Juliana Jurenas), reaches a boiling point before the wishbone on the turkey has time to dry completely. 

Written by star Lester and directed by Amy Northup, the film feels like it’s broken up into three acts.  The first two acts take place over the weekend at the cabin and the shorter third act plays almost like an epilogue.  For spoilers’ sake I won’t reveal what it is but it has some powerful, unsentimental, examples of speechifying that actually, for once, work without coming across as preachy.  As a writer, Lester shows a talent for creating realistic dialogue that pushes narrative forward and as an actress she convincingly conveys the emotions of her words without letting it get too melodramatic.  The film is dotted with a handful of fine supporting performances as well.  Jurenas and Gordon are standouts as Sam’s main foe and brother, two people that think they are supporting her more than they actually are.  Both are tricky roles to achieve in their goals without coming off as antagonists…but Lester takes care of them at the outset with dialogue, and they fill in the rest with considerate acting.

It’s become a bit of a mission of mine to round up holiday movies that aren’t totally “holiday movies” and I have to say that over time I’ve found Thanksgiving is a tough nut to crack.  Being so close to Christmas, the films often share a number of themes so the crossover potential is high – that’s why finding a title like What She Said can be a pleasant surprise and for reasons that far exceed it’s thematic nature.  It may delve into an overly talky middle section that starts to feel like scenes from an uninspired ‘90s indie feature (and thankfully pulls back from an ill-advised romantic coupling that feels out of place), but it quickly shakes off those dreary exchanges for some enlightening back and forth about right and wrong, should and shouldn’ts, men and women, and why we need to listen more when people are telling us what they are feeling.

Movie Review ~ Afterlife of the Party

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A social butterfly who dies during her birthday week is given a second chance to right her wrongs on Earth.

Stars: Victoria Justice, Midori Francis, Robyn Scott, Adam Garcia, Timothy Renouf, Gloria García, Spencer Sutherland

Director: Stephen Herek

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  OK – we’ve always dealt with honest truths here and I see no reason to stop now.  You know my love of movies set in space.  You are well aware that I’ll never shy away from a shark movie.  You certainly should be ready to supply me with an underwater adventure I’ve never seen before because I think by this point, I’ve seen them all.  However.  Do you know what other genre of movie that I just can’t ever say no to no matter how hard I try? If your answer was: silly comedies where dead people come back to mess with the living, then you would be correct. (And please, get out of my brain.)  I tell ya, there is absolutely nothing more comfort food-y than a good, old-fashioned ghost that no one else can see save for one person that gets driven totally batty until they adjust to this new spirit and eventually learn to live with the specter who needs their living friend to help them finish something so they can move on.  (See High Spirits, All of Me, Hello Again, Heart Condition, The Frighteners, the list goes on…)

That’s why I sought out Afterlife of the Party on Netflix to review and no, it’s not because I’m a huge Victoria Justice fan (full disclosure, I had to look her up to see what she was famous for).  This airy little bauble is a Sunday morning wake yourself up movie.  The kind you flip on as the coffee percolates and your eyes adjust while yawning to life on the couch.  There’s nothing at all wrong with the film per se, but there’s not a whole lot of substance to it either.  It’s calorie-free but you’ll be hungry for something more almost immediately when the credits roll.

Party girl Cassie (Justice, Fun Size) thinks that life should be lived to the fullest and that you can worry about your troubles tomorrow – a philosophy her roommate Lisa (Midori Francis, Oceans Eight) doesn’t completely agree with.  More of a realist than her more gregarious bestie, Lisa is focused on her career in science but doesn’t have the nerve to ask for what she deserves at her job.  Lisa’s hopelessly stunted encounters with a handsome next-door neighbor (Timothy Renouf) are also awkwardly awful, something Cassie notes as a thing they’ll need to work on…but after they go out for a night of celebration with friends.  When the overserved Cassie wakes up hungover the next day she stumbles to the bathroom, accidentally trips, and dies after hitting her head.

Ah…but that’s not the end my friend.  She’s brought to a fancy powder room where she meets Val (Robyn Scott) her guide between the Above and Below who tells her she has unfinished business to achieve that she has to wrap up before the week is out. It’s been a whole year since she died though, so Cassie will have to find a way to reach out to her loved ones (including both of her estranged divorced parents that she doesn’t speak to and Lisa, whom she fought with the night before she died) and get her affairs in order before the final decision is made where she’ll end up. If she can get things square (and make a few wrongs right) it might mean extra credit for the decision-makers that are currently holding her eternal fate in their heavenly hands.

Directed by Stephen Herek, who has amassed an assortment of notable ‘80s and ‘90s titles on his credit list from Critters to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, The Mighty Ducks, and Mr. Holland’s Opus, the script from Hallmark alum Carrie Freedle is a solid 20 minutes too long.  Far too much time is spent rehashing the same closure conversations, just with different people but not in any different ways.  Cassie’s attempt to connect with her sad-sack dad (Adam Garcia, Murder on the Orient Express) through health and wellness is an interesting way into the connection between mind, body, and spirit but the eventual meeting with her mom (Gloria Garcia, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, no relation to Adam) takes forever to get through. 

Where the film is at its snappiest is when Justice and Francis are working together.  Demonstrating that same crackle she did in last year’s Dash & Lily series for Netflix, Francis helps Justice loosen up and find more of the comedy in Freedle’s script.  It’s actually Francis that winds up with the more emotional journey and that’s only because we wind up wanting to spend more time with her character as it blossoms into someone in a far different place than where they began.  I can always use more ghost shenanigans and while Scott’s sorta-angel character is fun to have around, she isn’t as playful as I wanted her (or the movie) to get.

I don’t think audiences are coming to this one to be moved one way or the other, just for a pleasant diversion and Afterlife of the Party meets that challenge fully.  Production values are slightly lower than your usual Netflix film and fall in pace with a quickie seasonal movie you might find on Lifetime or Hallmark (hence why Freedle feels at home with introducing a number of late breaking non-challenging roadblocks for Cassie to face) but overall, this is one that floats into your life easily and drifts away after the credits roll just as smoothly.

Movie Review ~ It Takes Three

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When the coolest guy in school discovers that the new girl sees through his popularity and good looks, he enlists the class nerd to take over his social media accounts to add substance to his style.

Stars: Jared Gilman, David Gridley, Aurora Perrineau, Mikey Madison, Monk Serrell Freed, Anya Marina

Director: Scott Coffey

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Honestly, when presented with the opportunity to get a look at It Takes Three, an umpteenth revisal of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, the idea of it wasn’t as interesting to me as the person sitting in the director’s seat.  Growing up in the halcyon days of ‘90s cable television, I had my channel tuned to HBO whenever I was lounging around the house and often caught the high school dramas and comedies that played ad nauseum.  So the name Scott Coffey leaped out at me like a red blinking light. 

Of course I knew who Scott Coffey was!  C’mon!  SpaceCamp and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in 1986?  Ok…how about Zombie High and the forever underrated Some Kind of Wonderful from 1987?  Satisfaction (early Julia Roberts Alert!!) and Shag (a personal favorite) from 1988?  You’ve of course seen the John Travolta rebel classic Shout from 1991…right?  I can’t ever forget Coffey’s unfortunate accident in 1993’s The Temp…well, you get the picture.

The point is this, I was curious to see what an actor who grew up around films of this type would be able to bring to the proceedings and was surprised to see how much heart he was able to instill into Logan Burdick and Blair Mastbaum’s script.  Yes, it’s another take on the story of an outcast that’s good with words, here a boy named Cy (Jared Gilman, Moonrise Kingdom) who helps a handsome devil that’s empty inside (David Gridley as classmate Chris) woo new student Roxy (Aurora Perrineau, Jem and the Holograms) who is way out of his league.  As Cy’s friend Kat (Mikey Madison, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) watches her bestie get sucked into a strange love triangle, she eventually realizes she’s got more of a stake in the game than she cares to admit.  Can Cy get over his own hang-ups long enough to see who the one that’s right for him actually is?

Ditching the nose that has defined Cyrano since the beginning, the screenwriters instead just make Cy someone uncomfortable in his own skin and it’s a strange wire to walk on.  On the one hand, it begins to address some questions on body dysmorphia in men (a topic not often discussed, at least not in any kind of film, mainstream or otherwise) but on the other it makes it the subject of jokes and casual devaluation.  Gilman’s own appearance is seemingly unaltered so…are we just saying that he hates how he looks and that’s that?  It’s an odd argument to witness. 

It’s good, then, that Coffey and his cast have a gainful spirit about them that propels the film forward into positive energy territory.  You always know the film is headed toward the kind of resolution that is expected but likely not the way you think it will go.  Knowing you’re in safe hands allows you to relax more for those 90 minutes and that’s where It Takes Three finds it’s sweet spot, bolstered by Gilman’s geeky charm and Perrineau’s earthy ease.  Coffey also dots the supporting players with some brilliant comedic players, from Anya Marina as the school principal that moonlights in a band to Lori Alan and Nicole Sullivan as Cy’s moms.  Small movies like this can have the tendency to slip through your fingers but get discovered at a later time when you’re deep browsing – keep your eye out for It Takes Three because it plays well, moves fast, and acts as a nice showcase for a crop of strong talent in front of and behind the camera.

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern movie musical take on the classic fairytale of the orphaned girl with an evil stepmother. Our ambitious heroine has big dreams and with the help of her Fab Godmother, she perseveres to make them come true.

Stars: Camila Cabello, Nicholas Galitzine, Billy Porter, Idina Menzel, Pierce Brosnan, Maddie Baillio, Charlotte Spencer, Minnie Driver, James Acaster, James Corden

Director: Kay Cannon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  Back in the pre-pandemic days, when a film by-passed theaters and went straight to the home video market (‘straight-to-video’, if you will) that was the sure sign it was a turkey. It was the equivalent of a high-profile movie not screening for critics.  Either the studio was trying to cut their losses and cash in on consumers having to buy their product in order to see it or they simply didn’t find the financing the justify paying the marketing costs to open the film in theaters across the country and foreign territories.  Nowadays however, you can never really tell what a movie skipping a theatrical run could mean so it’s never wise to assume anything.  I’ve seen just as many great films (and not unexpectedly great, either) that didn’t bother to go to theaters because they know that during this uncertain time they’d net more viewers/receipts if the film was released on a streaming/subscription service.

That’s why I didn’t give much thought when I read that Pitch Perfect writer (and writer of #2 and #3) Kay Cannon’s new version of Cinderella that was set to be released by Sony got snapped up by Amazon after its original studio dropped it.  I mean, you can hardly go wrong with Cinderella, one of the all-time-most-loved fairy tales from French writer Charles Perrault that has been made countless times and used as the basis for any number of modern storylines.  Disney made it an animated classic in 1950 and then worked its magic again with a breathtaking live-action remake in 2015.  I’m not entirely precious about the piece so I say, go for it if you think you can put your own spin on it.  Add in some appealing performers and a few modern tunes while you’re at it and you can call it a Cinderella of your own.

Why then, is this Cinderella, such a giant pile of, well, cinders?  I’ll go back to what all of the judges say on every singing competition on television: song choice.  It’s all about the song choice and that’s the first mistake. Cannon’s version of the fairy tale makes a critical error, causing it to run right off the track, never finding its way back.  Opening with a group of well-dressed peasants recruited from the local Orange Theory furiously “and-a-5-6-7ing” their way through Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” (begging the question, why are they a part of the Rhythm Nation?), it’s our introduction to Cannon’s reimagined world where our Cinderella (Camila Cabello) doesn’t want to marry a prince so much as open up her own dress shop.  If only her horrible “Material Girl” stepmother (Idina Menzel, Frozen) and stepsisters (Maddie Baillio & Charlotte Spencer) would let up on her and treat her like an equal.  Also feeling misunderstood is Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine, The Craft: Legacy) who is being forced by his father (Pierce Brosnan, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) to not only marry but stand firmly in the line of succession, much to the chagrin of his ready and willing younger sister (Tallulah Greive) who is denied that right because of her gender.  The long-suffering Queen (Minnie Driver, GoldenEye) can only look on with silent disapproval…mostly because she doesn’t get a song until so close to the end I was honestly worried Driver was going to be denied the chance to sing.

Instead of the King throwing a ball to find a bride for the Prince, this time around it’s the heir’s idea for the big dance in hopes that he’ll find the mystery woman who so enchanted him when he snuck out of the palace for a day to walk among the common folk.  I can only assume Cannon got an adaptation of Aladdin mixed up with her Cinderella script because this “day with the rabble” development is strangely similar to that film but at least it puts more autonomy in the youngsters of the film and gets us back to Cinderella needing all the furnishings for her big night.  She gets decked out by her Fabulous Godmother (Billy Porter, Like a Boss, in the film so little you’ll be shocked considering how much he shows up in the advertising) and is sent to the ball in a glam gown, glass shoes, and accompanied by three mice turned men, including executive producer James Corden, Into the Woods, who inexplicably shows up for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  I think you know the rest…home before midnight, if the shoe fits you must marry it, etc., etc.

Amongst all the familiar beats are placed a truly bizarre selection of familiar songs (and two new ones) that feel either on the nose or shoehorned in…like the filmmakers took what they were given and asked no questions.  I almost choked on my drink when Queen’s “Somebody to Love” began…how many more times can this be used in a movie for this same purpose?  Is this the honest best they could come up with for a song to use to show that the prince longs for something more?  While Menzel sings the heck out of “Material Girl”, it’s such an obvious number for the Stepmother/sisters that the creativity seems to be countered by a feeling of laziness.  The best part of the movie are the proclamations from the Town Crier (Doc Brown) written by Cannon and composer Keith Harrison Dworkin – fast talking wordplay that has the energy the rest of the film sorely lacks. 

All of this might have worked a tad better with more convincing leads.  I’m not sure if this was meant as some launching pad for Cabello to transition into acting but this is not the type of showcase that bodes well for future projects.  The singing is also underwhelming, with Cabello either slightly under pitch or with a voice so throaty you expect a legion of frogs to be following her around.  I’ve liked her music quite a lot in the past but if this was the first time I heard her I wouldn’t want to investigate further.  As the romantically tortured Prince, Galitzine might make sense as a TV royal but for film he comes up short. Let’s not even go too far into the total lack of chemistry between the lovebirds.  To the great shock of no one, it’s Menzel and Porter who look the most comfortable both selling their songs and interpreting them, but Porter is also given a bit of stinker song to roll with.  At least the gorgeous gown he was given by Ellen Mirojnick (The Greatest Showman) looks stunning.

I wish everyone involved with this had the ambition to be more fun with turning this into a full-on jukebox musical.  If they were going to go for it, just go for it and don’t hold back.  Unwilling to commit to a certain type of sound or mood, the choices are all over the map and that leaves this Cinderella dancing totally on its own and without any partner to come calling.  If you’re looking for a musical update to a chestnut that works like gangbusters, I implore you to check out 2020’s Valley Girl – here’s a film that understood the assignment and went all the way across the finish line with its selection of hits.  This Cinderella can’t scrap together a decent playlist.

Movie Review ~ Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Inspired by true events and adapted from the award-winning hit musical from London’s West End. While his classmates plan their livelihoods after they leave school, Jamie New, a teenager from Sheffield, contemplates revealing his secret career ambition to become a fierce and proud drag queen.

Stars: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Shobna Gulati, Richard E. Grant, Sharon Horgan, Ralph Ineson, Samuel Bottomley

Director: Jonathan Butterell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Two things a number of audiences have been missing over the past year were movies and musicals and are they ever in for a make-up session in 2021 with the release of no less than five movie musicals to hit both of their passions at once.  Despite June’s surprisingly dismal reaction to the highly promoted big screen adaptation of the Tony-winning In the Heights, perhaps something a little more under the radar for American audiences has a chance to build some word of mouth.  At least that’s what the producers of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie are hoping for, I’d imagine, and they certainly are being smart with releasing the film first for a limited run in theaters before making it more widely available on Amazon Prime a week later. 

Born in the West End in late 2017, the musical is the true-life story of Jamie Campbell, a County Durham teenager profiled in the documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.  Though I haven’t seen the documentary, the musical written by Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells evidently hews close to Campbell’s and there’s a particular simplicity to the writing which implies no one needed to craft in dramatic peaks and valleys to shape it into a traditional three act structure.  Some stories are meant for the stage, others are destined to be musicalized…Campbell’s tale of growing up gay and fabulous in a small North England village was certain to be dazzling.

It’s Jamie New’s 16th birthday and what he really wants is a pair of sparkly red high heel shoes he’s saving up for.  He’s been earning money for them slowly with an early morning paper route but his hard-working mum (Sarah Lancashire, Yesterday) might have a surprise or two to unwrap when he gets home from school.  First, Jamie (Max Harwood) has to get through a day where his classmates don’t get him because he’s gay, his teacher (Sharon Horgan, Together) doesn’t see a future for him as a performer, and his only close friend is Pritti (Lauren Patel), “a Muslim girl with a Hindu first name”, is also the target for teasing.  As his mom shields him from a father (Ralph Ineson, Gunpowder Milkshake) that doesn’t want to know him, Jamie takes a few cautious steps forward into the world of drag, but without a clue of how to dip his toe in the water he’ll need some assistance before diving full-on in.

He finds a willing teacher in Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), the proprietor of a vintage clothing shop which caters to Jamie’s particular needs.  Still appearing occasionally as Loco Chanelle at an amateur nightclub, Hugo encourages Jamie to come fully out of his shell and embrace a full alter ego yet to be named but once released can Jamie balance both personas?  With prom coming up, there are rules to be broken, lessons to be learned, and truths to be revealed – all set to a lively set of up-tempo tunes and ballads that run the gamut from toe-tapping mild earworms to run-of-the-mill “I Want” songs. 

The film is ruled by Harwood’s lighting in a bottle performance as the charming Jamie New – you can see why he’s a bit of a mystery to the kids in his class but also someone you feel nearly pulled toward to be friends with.  A solid triple threat, Harwood takes command of the movie and never relinquishes control for a second…not that he’s selfish with his scene partners because he’s sharing the screen with a number of talented performers in their own right.  As his fellow outcast with the same noble spirit, Patel is another scene-stealer and even if her role is severely underwritten, she’s smart enough to lean away from the obvious choices and make Pritti an interesting person to watch even when she’s in the background.  The mother character in these films is either the tyrant or the tear-jerker and Lancashire falls into the latter category but doesn’t oversell it so it’s sappy.  She’s got a knockout 11 o’clock number and then follows it up with a scene where she just gets absorbs an highly emotional moment which is maybe even more moving.  Right there you have a trio of great performances…and that’s not even mentioning Grant’s lovely turn as an aging drag performer (his song sneaks up on you in devastating ways) and Horgan’s pleasant voice which shows why her role is easy to stunt cast on stage.

There’s entirely too much goodwill pulsating through Everybody’s Talking About Jamie from frame one to dissect it too much, a truth which I’m sure has kept the ticket sales flowing not just in the West End but in international productions currently popping up around the world.  A US version is set to debut in Los Angeles in early 2022 and a Broadway production might not be far behind.  I’m not totally sold that the music itself is all that memorable, if I’m being honest, but I also would want to experience the show live in person to get a feel for what that Jamie New energy could be like.  This is one of those shows that lives or dies on the actor playing Jamie so it’s entirely dependent on that star quality.  Thankfully, the film version nails the casting (and then some) with Harwood and finds a few pleasant surprises in the supporting players as well.  You may not be humming the tunes as you leave the film behind but you’ll remember the story.  If this one isn’t for you just wait, Dear Evan Hansen is out in a few weeks, tick, tick…Boom! releases on November 19, and the long-awaited remake of West Side Story arrives on December 10.