Movie Review ~ The Dead Don’t Die


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

Movie Review ~ Shaft (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: John Shaft Jr., a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, enlists his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death.

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Method Man, Richard Roundtree

Director: Tim Story

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I usually keep a good ear to the ground for movies that are in the pipeline but I was surprised to see a preview and poster for another Shaft film pop up earlier this year.  What started in 1971 as a blaxploitation classic gave way to two sequels, a handful of television movies, and a modern-day follow-up twenty seven years later.  Now, 19 years after the last Shaft film played to middling reviews and a decent box-office, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema are trying to reignite the franchise by taking a different approach to the material.  While the first films had a darker edge to them (the 2000 version was an all-out thriller) this one would combine those crime elements with comedy in the hopes of attracting a new audience.

After narrowly avoiding the bullets of a drive-by shooting, Maya (Regina Hall, Vacation) walks out on her private eye husband John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight) and takes their baby boy with him.  Aside from the occasional birthday and Christmas present, J.J. (Jessie T. Usher, Independence Day: Resurgence) grows up not knowing his father and doesn’t care to seek him out.  Graduating from MIT and joining the FBI as a data analyst, J.J. has managed to stay out of the same trouble his dad got into but finds himself plunged into a crime he can’t solve when his war veteran friend turns up dead.  Blocked by his work in investigating the death, he asks his dad for help in finding out what happened to his best friend, finding that the crime may be tied to a figure from his father’s past.

Working through numerous Avengers films over the last decade, I haven’t felt like we’ve gotten a real true “Samuel L. Jackson” performance in quite a while.  I finally saw some of that energy he originally brought to his roles spark back to life with his uncensored performance.  He’s foul-mouthed, un-PC (points off for the script’s strange fixation on gay jokes), quick to action, and stubborn and that all works in the films favor.  Whenever Jackson is left to his own devices, he positively commandeers the movie.  He’s got some competition from Hall as his no-nonsense ex-wife who isn’t afraid to call her husband on his crap and keep her son on the straight and narrow.  Usher is a mixed bag as the third generation Shaft.  Not quite nerdy but not quite leading man, he feels like an authentic MIT grad but isn’t always convincing when he has to slip into action mode.  As J.J.’s love interest, Alexandra Shipp (Dark Phoenix) begins the film as a strong female only to disappointingly turn into the damsel in distress standing in awe of the men in action later on.

Those unfamiliar with the Shaft films don’t have to worry about catching up before seeing this because director Tim Story (Ride Along) works in scenes from the 2000 film into the credits, yet strangely totally ignoring the earliest films that gave this franchise its genesis.  At least we get original John Shaft Richard Roundtree (What Men Want) showing up as J.J.’s grandfather, finally clearing up a strange twist introduced in the previous movie.  If only he had more to do and a more interesting storyline to be involved with.  When the three generations team up and go after a drug king-pin, the movie should be hitting its apex but by that time it has plateaued.

The set-up of the new Shaft is nothing you can’t piece together from any mid-range run-of-the mill crime thriller and most of the time that’s exactly how the film plays.  Writers Kenya Barris (Girls Trip) and Alex Barnow have largely written for television and their hammy dialogue that is pure exposition just barely gets us from one scene to the next.  While the film is arguably entertaining and even fitfully funny at times, it’s a disappointing and flawed finished product.  The 2019 Shaft feels like a good try by all involved, and a sign that the producers might be headed in the right direction.  If there’s another Shaft to be had, a tighter script and stronger performances are a must.  Just let Samuel L. Jackson do his thing, though.

Movie Review ~ Late Night


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A late-night talk-show host suspects that she may soon lose her long-running show.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, Denis O’Hare, John Early, Max Casella

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you want to start your Oscar season early, it’s always a good idea to keep track of the film festivals that start to roll out in the first half of the year.  Though the more prestige films usually premiere at the international festivals in the fall, a few notable movies often will first see the light of day at South by Southwest in Austin and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.  This year, South by Southwest held the first screenings of Us and Booksmart while Sundance had, among others, The Mustang, Apollo 11, and Late NightLate Night turned out to be the big news coming out of Sundance, namely because it was purchased for distribution by Amazon Studios for an eye-popping $13 million dollars.

Quickly positioning the movie as a breezy summer comedy antidote to the ear-shattering blockbusters playing in the theater next door, Amazon has wisely learned from the mistakes of Booksmart’s too wide/too fast release and is releasing Late Night in waves.  This is helping to generate good buzz for the movie, bolstered further on the positive word of mouth it has received from audiences and critics.  Drawing justified comparisons to Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada, Late Night is a mostly entertaining film that plays off its formulaic skeleton well but also succumbs to the trappings of the genre more often than it should.

After nearly three decades as the only female host of a late-night television show, Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson, Beauty and the Beast) is seeing a steep drop in her ratings.  The new network head honcho (Amy Ryan, Beautiful Boy) has given her word her contact won’t be renewed and attributed it not just to the ratings but to how out of touch Katherine is with the rest of the world and the changing face of media.  Accused of not being an ally to other women, Katherine makes a last-ditch effort to save her show by hiring Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, A Wrinkle in Time) to come onboard as the first female writer on the all-male writing team.

Coming from working at a chemical plant as an efficiency expert, Molly has no experience in television, let alone a writers room.  Using her background to assess the shows weakness and strengths, she passes that along to Katherine and her fellow writers who don’t take kindly to the outsider telling them how to run their show.  As with all of these workplace comedies, there’s the typical hazing at the outset followed by gradual appreciation for Molly’s talent, and eventual acceptance as their equal.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it’s in the delivery that sets it apart from the rest.

Much of this credit goes to Kaling’s script which is sharp, insightful, funny, and obviously gleaned from her years as the only female writer on NBC’s The Office.  The relationship she creates between Katherine and Molly is genuinely interesting to watch and goes beyond the expected pathway of the dragon lady boss tormenting her meek staff member (though we do get a little of that in the beginning) and forms something more solid.  The movie really crackles when Thompson and Kaling share the screen, be it in arguing over a joke at the writers table or Katherine entering Molly’s territory to see what the lives are like for her staff when they go home.

It’s when the movie branches out to other characters that it gets a little unwieldy.  Kaling has a good track record with hiring her friends and it seems like she wrote parts for a lot of them in this movie.  This creates an overload of people, many of them serving the same purpose.  Though Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya), John Early (The Disaster Artist), and Max Casella (Jackie) make nice contributions here, I can easily imagine their roles being absorbed into other characters to help the movie not feel so weighed down with white guys angling for one-liners.

Though it’s positioned as a two-hander, the more I think about Late Night the more I feel this is really Thompson’s movie with Kaling as a supporting role.  To that end, Thompson is excellent as a woman of a certain age who was a trailblazer before becoming complacent.  We never do know why Katherine started to turn her back on her show (though, from what I could tell, it wasn’t that funny to begin with) but Thompson gives us an inside perspective into her initial shock at realizing she is being replaced and figuring out a way to move forward and reclaiming what is rightfully hers.  Kaling is a supportive co-star and, as always, abdicates the spotlight whenever possible to allow her fellow actors to shine.  While she has a great many funny lines, she doesn’t keep all the zingers to herself or Thompson but spreads them around the room generously.  More than anything, I was annoyed that Kaling felt the need to insert a love story into the mix of all of this because it’s so shoe-horned in.  I’m glad she was able to get Reid Scott (Venom) and Hugh Dancy (Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return) into the creative mix here but they feel like distractions from the story the movie is really wanting to tell which is the relationship between Katherine and Molly.  That the script continues to weave in other people becomes frustrating as the film progresses.

On a podcast I was listening to after seeing this someone wondered if this wouldn’t have worked a little better as a multi episode series on some streaming service and I couldn’t help but agree.  Too much of the movie felt compacted into the trim running time, leaving out key ingredients such as more of a backstory for Molly (a random cousin pops up for two scenes and is never heard from again) or more time to get to know the home life of Katherine and her husband (John Lithgow, Pitch Perfect 3).  Even with these nitpicks aside, this is a movie worth your time for Thompson’s performance alone.

Movie Review ~ Men in Black: International


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson

Director: F. Gary Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: There are some movies you can’t wait to review. Once they are over you run home to your computer or laptop and hit the keys.  If the movie is good, the copy practically writes itself because you’ve been thinking about the specific points to make and how you want to let your readers know this is a film to keep your eye out for.  For bad movies, it’s often easier to pull your thoughts together on what to say but harder to pen a review that’s more than just a tear down of the production.  Then there are movies like Men in Black: International which is so instantly forgettable I had to prioritize its review for fear I would forget the movie entirely.

Arriving seven years after Men in Black III seemingly wrapped up the big screen adventures of the special agents tasked with protecting Earth from alien threats, Men in Black: International was originally intended to be a crossover with the gang from 21 Jump Street.  When that plan failed to materialize, the film went ahead as its own entity, spun-off from the original trilogy and, though retaining a few characters/creatures, largely telling its own story.  The result is a tedious time-waster by even the most generous of summer standards, with no one stepping up to make the case this was a franchise that needed to be rebooted.

Ever since she was a child,  Molly (Tessa Thompson, Avengers: Endgame) has been trying to identify the secret government agency that visited her house as a child and used a neuralyzer on her parents, wiping their memory clean regarding an alien encounter but forgetting to clear her as well.  She knows she saw a small furry blue creature and, though everyone tells her she’s crazy in the years that follow, is intent on finding out where the agency is located and joining their ranks.  By lucky happenstance (this is a 105 minute movie, after all), Molly is in the right place at the right time and finds what she’s looking for, eventually convincing Agent O (Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks) to take her on as a probationary agent.  The film races past any potential interest we have in how the agency trains its field agents, opting instead to just show Molly (now Agent M) suited up and ready to go, her boot camp days long behind her.

For her first mission, she’s dispatched to the London branch of the Men in Black, led by High T (Liam Neeson, The Grey) and her plucky curiosity gets her paired with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation) on a routine protection detail that turns into a fight to save the Earth from an evil force known as The Hive.  To make matters worse, aside from a nosey co-worker (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) with a grudge against Agent H, there’s a mole in the London branch so H and M have to stay one step ahead of a traitor on the inside who is following their every move.  The set-up gives way to a plodding second act where the agents sorta make good on the “international” promise of the title but largely go up against CGI villans that are rarely menacing, let along convincingly real.

Though paired together well in Thor: Ragnarok, Hemsworth and Thompson have awkward onscreen chemistry that goes above and beyond the characters initial dislike/distrust of each other.  Hemsworth in particular looks like he’s coasting on fumes for much of the picture and all that positive support he built up in his Avengers run evaporates with his listless performance.  The usually interesting Tessa Thompson also strikes out too, but she’s mostly undone by a script that doesn’t provide any depth to her character.  It’s like she never existed prior to the opening of the film and while that makes for a great MIB agent, it makes for a fairly hollow character we’re supposedly going to be rooting for.  You get the feeling Emma Thompson and Neeson recognized how sloppy this whole thing was and slowly started to back away from the movie because they dissolve into the background whenever possible.  Normally I’m all for a Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) appearance but her cameo as a zebra-wigged arms dealer that’s all arms is absolutely the time those with small bladders can get up and go to the bathroom.

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) along with Iron Man screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum either never saw the original Men in Black films or did and just didn’t care about maintaining the quirky charm of the preceding films.  Especially in the debut film, there was a B-movie feel to the proceedings that helped make it’s shlockier alien creature elements a little easier to swallow.  The new film is straight-forward filmmaking 101 with little creative pride taken in anything from action sequences to creature design to 11th hour plot twists.  They say some movies are taken for the paycheck and this is one where everyone must have needed a new pool in their backyard.

Movie Review ~ Dark Phoenix


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Having never been someone that has done a deep dive into the comic book realm, I can’t speak to fan reactions when a franchise plays fast and loose with characters and story arcs. There are some that can’t look past a studio wanting to continue their cash cows by making financially motivated choices to keep their films alive and there are others (like myself) who don’t mind sitting back and taking in the movie for what it is – entertainment. It’s not for lack of interest or ambivalence on my part, it’s stepping back and seeing the big picture. Of all the superhero tentpole films, it seems the X-Men movies take the biggest beating from critics and fans that revolt at the slightest stray from where they want to see the action go and I find that so strangely fascinating.

I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that by and large I’ve enjoyed most all of the X-Men films and their numerous spin-offs. True, some have been problematic and less winning than others but they’ve been more consistent than most long-running series and have evolved from the silly seriousness of the original film (you know it’s true!) to something bold and musclar like 2016’s brilliant Logan. A new era of the X-Men began in 2011 with X-Men: First Class and I was not moved either way by that semi-reboot until X-Men: Days of Future Past arrived in 2014. That film was a grand return to form and while The Wolverine didn’t connect with some I appreciated what it was doing in advancing Hugh Jackman’s character toward Logan. Knives were unfairly out for X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, even though I found it a weirdly fun film.

Arriving amidst an ominous cloud of bad buzz is the next film in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix, and I imagine it will take the same beating from former fans and critics eager for an easy target. Delayed several times by 20th Century Fox due to highly publicized reshoots not to mention its pending purchase by Disney studios which had its own Marvel superhero movie to attend to earlier this summer, I’m not sure this ever would have had a fair shot when it was released. Honestly? The film has some major flaws and often feels like it’s held together by packing tape that’s long since lost its ability to keep things in place but when it works it works like a charm. For all the negative things I’d heard about it going in, maybe the bar was set low enough that my opinion couldn’t be worse than what people were saying.

When we last left our world-saving mutants, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had unleashed the full force of her powers to destroy Apocalypse. After a brief prologue shows us the tragic beginnings of how Jean came to stay with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) at his school for teens with extraordinary talents we are thrown right into action set in 1992. The team, comprised of Jean, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, mother!), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Love, Simon), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect), is dispatched to save the crew of a space shuttle in the path of a solar storm. This is no ordinary space mission, though, and Jean is exposed to an energy source at the center of the storm.

Now possessing remarkable power that begins to consume her, Jean goes rogue to seek out answers from her past to help her decide what to do with her new gifts. At the same time, she’s pursed not only by Professor X, the X-Men, and a revenge-seeking Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), but by alien huntress Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) who has arrived on Earth with a large number of her own warriors aiming to harvest the lifeforce within Jean that has the power to create new worlds…and destroy Earth in the process. It leads to a showdown that begins with Jean’s allegiance and ends with the lives of many hanging in the balance.

It’s clear this movie has been through many an edit and it shows not only in the hastily reshot footage but in the tonal shifts throughout. Looking at the success of grittier fare like Deadpool and its sequel, you can see where writer/director Simon Kinberg (Murder on the Orient Express) wanted to push the boundaries a bit by making this one more intense but without being able to go all the way with the blood, language, or violence it comes off as too tentative and neutered. There’s also a strange reliance on scenes with characters gulping down booze whenever they can’t cope with pressure or wanting to tamp down their own emotions. Normally good actors paint with broader strokes here, perhaps knowing this was their final time at bat they are really swinging for high camp. Chastain, Hoult, and McAvoy in particular seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can be the most ostentatious…until Fassbender shows up and puts them all to shame.

Yet somehow the movie checked off enough of the right boxes on my score sheet to emerge a winner and that’s mostly due to a fantastic finale set aboard a train. Usually a reshot ending can be one big eye roll since it often is an afterthought that rarely gels with the rest of the film but this one felt like it came after the filmmakers had some distance from the work and came back refreshed. There are some crowd-pleasing moments to be had here and it provided the requisite thrills some other parts of the movie lacked. Also, it showed once again that Shipp’s Storm (and just the character of Storm in general) needs her own movie, like, yesterday.  I still long for the filmmakers to spend more time at the school so we can see more of the youngsters and their burgeoning abilities — anytime we’re in the school and we see hints at the comic-books fringe characters people recognize you can tell people want more.  Now that 20th Century Fox is owned by Disney, perhaps Disney will get a series together for their streaming Disney+ service that’s all about the school?  Might be a good idea.

I’m still grappling with these recent X-Men movies not totally lining up with the original three X-Men films that started off this whole series of films. Don’t think too hard that the first X-Men movie is set a mere eight years after this one is to take place…or wonder what happens to Fassbender and McAvoy in those eight years to turn them into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Instead, take these movies as the prequels they were always meant to be and for what they are, casual entertainment. Perhaps if you go in with the lowered expectations like I did you’ll set yourself up to get something more out of this than others who went in prepared to hate it. Give it a chance.  I’m not totally sure where the series goes from here.  There’s absolutely room for more sequels but based on the struggle this one had to get to theaters and the boos and hisses already coming from the Twitter-verse, a reset might be in order to restore some faith in this franchise.  Clearly, I’m easier to please than most and found the fun in this Phoenix…but I’m also not a hardcore fan that had a great investment in it either.

Movie Review ~ Ma


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lonely woman befriends a group of teenagers and decides to let them party at her house. Just when the kids think their luck couldn’t get any better, things start happening that make them question the intention of their host.

Stars: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Luke Evans, Juliette Lewis, Missi Pyle, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis

Director: Tate Taylor

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Since it was founded in 2000, Blumhouse Productions has made a name for themselves in producing low-budget films that make a killing at the box office. Often making double, triple, or quadruple their budgets back in opening weekend monies alone, these movies don’t need to survive on word of mouth to turn a profit and are seemingly content to burn fast and bright before slipping into your streaming queue. Firmly arriving in 2009 with Paranormal Activity and following that success with its numerous sequels, it was 2012’s Sinister and 2013’s The Purge that truly made other studios sit up and take note. Knowing Hollywood, it was likely due to the millions shelled out by movie-goers for these horror flicks but having an established star such as Ethan Hawke as the lead in both must have also piqued their curiosity.

These past years the company continued to establish ties throughout the film business by teaming up with other production houses to nab similar big stars like Jennifer Lopez (The Boy Next Door) and James McAvoy (Split & Glass), delve into serious Oscar-y fare (BlacKkKlansman), and even tried to get into the animation to live action craze (Jem and the Holograms). The low-budget horror is still their bread and butter, though, and titles like The Gallows, Happy Death Day, Insidious: The Last Key, and Happy Death Day 2 U will keep their coffers full and make sure they have financing to explore other genres.

The latest get rich quick flick released to theaters is Ma. Made for around $5 million dollars (and grossing four times that opening weekend), it’s one of the more prestigious projects to emerge from Blumhouse and not just because it boats three actress Oscar has recognized (two with wins, one with a nomination) but because it’s not exactly the movie it’s purports to be. Since the advertising has already shamefully spoiled several key scenes for you, you likely know what a visit to Ma’s house will be like…but the journey to get there has some unexpected turns in the road.

Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) is adjusting to living in a small town and trying to blend in at her school after being uprooted from her city life by her mother (Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear) who needed a change. Returning to her hometown, Erica hopes to start fresh and a job slinging drinks at a local casino isn’t going to change the world but it’s a place to start. While she figures her life out, Maggie is befriended by The Breakfast Clu, or more accurately, a quartet of stock high school characters screenwriter Scotty Landes has vaguely sketched out. As most teens do, they spend their free time driving around looking for ways to get into adult mischief and that brings them face to face with the seemingly harmless Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water) when they ask her to buy them alcohol.

Befriending the teens and becoming their regular supplier, Sue Ann eventually not only makes time for them in her day but makes a space for them in the basement of her remote homestead. Turning it into underage party central, Sue Ann serves as pseduo den mother to the town kids looking to drink and do drugs without getting caught…but her focus always comes back to the original five who first caught her eye. Eventually (and far too late for everyone else in the audience) Sue Ann starts to give the gang the creeps and they ghost her, bringing to the surface old wounds from her own high school experience she’s been hiding. Speaking of hiding…what secrets is Sue Ann keeping in the upstairs area no one is allowed in?

Director Tate Taylor (The Help, The Girl and the Train) manages to make use of the first hour or so of Ma to create a rather compelling portrait of a fractured woman who manipulates others as a justified defensive mechanism. She strikes first before they can injure her and that’s what makes her so unpredictable – you never know what will set her off. The more we learn about Sue Ann’s backstory and why she becomes so invested in the lives of these high schoolers the more we can form the slightest sliver of sympathy. It’s nothing new and not anything that hasn’t been done before and better in revenge tales but credit is due to Spencer for taking what could have been a cookie-cutter psycho killer and giving her some modicum of realized rationale.

The problem comes when Ma has to eventually get down to its horror business and converts from a psychological thriller to a gory horror film. The change is startling and workmanlike, performed with little heart or conviction. Formerly reasonably intelligent people turn into idiots and nothing lines up with the groundwork that had been laid for the last sixty minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me the entire cast and crew had been replaced with pod people – the shift is that noticeable. The bloodletting isn’t creative and aside from Spencer’s brief flirtation with castration (prosthetic genitals in hand and all) there’s little suspense to be had in the outcome.

Spencer, frustrated she wasn’t getting leading roles, signed on to Ma without reading the script because her long-time friend Taylor told her it might be a good project for them to reteam on. Although she helped craft the backstory which turns out to be one of the more successful elements of the movie, my guess is she’ll do her homework next time and read the material because she’s too good for the movie this turns into. Same goes for Lewis who has aged nicely into the mom role after playing the rebellious teen for so many years. Eternally underrated (like Spencer), Lewis is completely convincing as a cool mom with limits – if only the script had been more about her and Spencer. Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) and Missi Pyle (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) are two more adults that unwisely enter Ma’s orbit, along with another recent Oscar winner who appears unbilled in a fun cameo…so I’ll keep their name a secret here too.  As for the kids, only Silvers makes much of an impression…much like she did in the recently released Booksmart.

I went into Ma thinking I knew how it would all turn out based on the previews and one poster that literally gives away one of the final scenes of the film. So I was surprised to find the first 2/3 of the film a fairly well-structured schlocky psychological thriller but ultimately disappointed that it devolved into what I expected it to be all along. My advice is to visit Ma’s…but leave early.

Movie Review ~ Rocketman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Elton John’s life, from his years as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music through his influential and enduring musical partnership with Bernie Taupin.

Stars: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Fair is fair and I have to say right off the bat I was really rooting for Rocketman leading up to its release date. It’s not just because I’m a fan of Elton John or star Taron Egerton or that I was craving something with a different kind of movie magic than we’ve had so far in a strong 2019. Deep down, I wanted it to be better than Bohemian Rhapsody. There. I said it. I wanted it to best the 2018 biopic that was kinda about Freddie Mercury and kinda about Queen but ultimately not really about either because it couldn’t be fully honest about anything. That it went on to make so much money wasn’t a huge surprise considering the lasting impacting of Queen but it’s staying power in the cultural conversation was truly something to stand in awe of. I still haven’t fully come to terms that Rami Malek walked away with a Best Actor Oscar for his hammy, bug-eyed portrayal of Mercury. It’s a performance that almost instantly aged poorly and after seeing how right Egerton gets it as Elton John I think you’ll agree.

So yes…this was one I wanted to like but was more than ready to pounce on if it went down the same rose-colored glasses wearing path tread by Malek and company last year. Thankfully, every tear that wasn’t shed and thrill I didn’t feel in Bohemian Rhapsody were felt doubly in Rocketman. Here’s the right approach to find your way to the heart of a biopic: take a life story and tailor the film to the colorful character at its center. A film biography of Elton John would never have fit within your standard “and then he became a star” formulaic movie and screenwriter Lee Hall wisely knows that. Working with director Dexter Fletcher (who, in an weird twist of fate, took over directing duties for the last three weeks of Bohemian Rhapsody), Hall tells of John’s genesis in a sometimes surreal, often fantastical, always musical fashion and it’s a yellow brick winner.

Growing up in affluent Middlesex, Reginald Kenneth Dwight showed a knack for playing the piano just by ear at an early age. Though clearly a prodigy, he found little support from a selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, Pete’s Dragon) and emotionally cold father (Steven Mackintosh, Kick-Ass 2) until his grandmother (Gemma Jones, Bridget Jones’s Baby) offered to take him to lessons with the Royal Academy of Music. An awkward adolescence led to his early adulthood as a pianist for visiting soul and R&B acts. Answering an ad for songwriters, the newly renamed Elton John came to Liberty Records, a fortuitous job inquiry as this is where he’d be paired with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) who would become his collaborator for the next fifty years (and counting!).

With hit songs garnering acclaim in the UK and sending them on a tour to America and the famed Troubadour nightclub, Elton and Bernie experienced celebrity at a time of extreme excess. Any kind of fantasy you want is yours. Any drug you desire is within your reach. No dream is too small if you have the money to pay for it. The more cash they bring in and the higher Elton’s star rises, the greater the divide between the close friends becomes…driven further apart by John’s substance abuse and his tortured relationship with his business (and romantic) partner John Reid (Richard Madden, Cinderella).

This true story of the meteoric rise of Elton’s early career, troubled mid-life, and eventual redemption is told using the soundtrack of the music he created with Taupin. It’s not wall-to-wall music and at 121 minutes it’s perhaps ten minutes shorter than it had to be but Fletcher takes that trim running length to keep things moving at high velocity like it’s central character. The songs are used creatively and not always in the order they were written and it’s nice to hear nearly all the main actors get the chance to use their voices at some point.  While it’s not a comprehensive documentation of the Elton/Bernie catalog, the film finds clever ways of getting brief bits of songs in at various points throughout.  Keep your ears open…especially for instrumental tracks.

The bulk of the singing and almost the entirety of the movie, rests on Egerton’s capable shoulders and he more than stands up to the challenge. Looking back at the wild looks Elton has worn onstage over the years gives you one part of the puzzle that is the singer and it’s up to Egerton to show us the side we haven’t had the opportunity to see yet. Thankfully, Elton appears to have given the filmmakers carte blanche to include what they wanted.  While the film doesn’t shy away from his dependence on drugs, alcohol, and other vices it doesn’t portray him as an unwilling participant either. This is no pity party for a man who took a very active role in his drug abuse.

Egerton commits 150% to the role and anything less would have been phoning it in.  He takes every costume piece and accessory to the max and he dances and sings like a dream.  By the actor finding his groove with such verve, it allows us to buy what Egerton is selling…like when Elton describes himself as fat.  Though they try to bulk him up by putting him in any number of wide corduroy jackets and neckerchiefs, there’s no way Egerton has extra poundage to emulate the roly poly musician when he was a youth.  He does better in Elton’s later years when he’s losing his hair and the ravages of drugs and alcohol are beginning to take their toll.

Supporting Egerton nicely are Bell as talented lyricist Taupin.  It’s always strange (or, a little bit funny?)  to see Bell so grown-up all these years after Billy Elliot and I’m surprised we didn’t see him dancing at some point in the movie.  Madden and Egerton take on ‘Honkey Cat’ for a laugh and while Madden won’t be recording a CD anytime soon he acquits himself nicely.  Howard and Mackintosh have difficult roles as the enduring villains of the film but they don’t cut their characters any slack, making the final moments of the film that much more impactful.  For a full on camp performance, look no further than Tate Donovan (Argo) as outlandish Troubadour owner Doug Weston…I like Donovan but boy did I wince every time he nearly flew away onscreen.  I also thought a brief appearance by Dutch stage star Celinde Schoenmaker as Elton’s wife (!) was interesting and wanted more time with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon, Mary Poppins Returns)…but who doesn’t?

Fletcher has a nice eye for keeping things visually interesting and not just in the costume department. Small scenes give way to large choreographed numbers that burst with energy and a few of these key moments create goosebump shivers up your spine. A transition from young Elton to Egerton’s Elton in the middle of ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ comes at the same moment when highly physical dancing is kicked up a notch. Then there’s the quiet scene on an ordinary day when Bernie gives Elton the lyrics to ‘Your Song’ and the entire house stops what they’re doing to listen to Elton find his way through the notes to the melody that is so instantly familiar – it’s truly a magic moment.

What Hall and Fletcher miss on are opportunities to go a little deeper with the material or finish their thoughts in scenes that are building to an emotional climax. On more than one occasion I felt a scene was heading toward a resolution only to have it interrupted by a musical number. I know you can only get so much of a life into a two hour movie and you’re never going to get the whole story but key characters get touched on so little you wonder why they were included at all. Elton’s brief marriage of convenience is one example. I know why it’s there but it’s not given any true emotional weight, nor is there some finality with a few of the characters that deserve some rounding of the rough edges we’re left with.

Yet even with these examples of the movie skimming the surface instead of taking a deep dive, it has great emotional resonance. Elton’s sexuality is spoken about with casual frankness…as are opinions of those who don’t accept him for who is. I applaud everyone involved (including the studio) for keeping in the moments that show two men together and don’t treat it as lascivious or wrong or something for anyone to be ashamed of. Even if it makes the film overall more of a tough sell to some audiences, it’s dealing in honesty first and that’s commendable.  I wasn’t expecting the movie to choke me up as much as it did but on several occasions I was greatly moved by what was happening onscreen.

I was lucky enough to see Elton John in concert earlier this year on his final tour and it dovetailed nicely into seeing this biopic. Though his range is smaller than it used to be and he rarely came out from behind his piano, he held a sold out crowd completely captive for two and a half hours based almost solely on the strength of his music. That is the true sign of an artist. I’d have loved to see Rocketman arrive in theaters a year earlier because then Bohemian Rhapsody would have arrived in its shadow and been held under some scrutiny for the facts it fudges and it’s almost pathological need to please instead of tell the truth. This music-filled life-story of Elton John isn’t afraid to be a warts-and-all look into his world and still have the audience on his side when the credits roll.

Movie Review ~ Godzilla: King of the Monsters


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The crypto-zoological agency Monarch faces off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Charles Dance, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aisha Hinds, Zhang Ziyi

Director: Michael Dougherty

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I guess I never knew quite how popular Godzilla was until I started doing my homework in prep for seeing his latest Hollywood endeavor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. While this film is only his third movie to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, it’s the 35th overall to feature the big green lizard/dragon/sea beast that smashes big cities with a mere flick of his craggy tail. That’s pretty impressive for a mega-monster originally conceived in 1954 as a cautionary tale on nuclear technology. As the world changed, so did Godzilla’s alliances, though his popularity waxed and waned over the ensuing decades, getting revived very few years to keep him in the public consciousness.

After a disastrous attempt at bringing him to life for American audiences via a 1998 soggy blockbuster, in 2014 director Gareth Edwards found a formula that worked with the impressive, popcorn-chomping, good-time fun of Godzilla. Always hungry for the next big franchise, Warner Brothers was already in the works on a sequel to their hit film when they decided that 2017’s Kong: Skull Island would be a tie-in experience that was slightly retro-fitted to expand upon their “monster-verse”. With two titans now in their corner and plenty of foes from the subsequent canon of sequels (official and cheapie otherwise), the studio went all in with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The resulting product is one that doubles down on the monster mayhem but misses the mark on the human element that its predecessor made time for.

Five years have passed since Godzilla went head to head with two massive creatures that left much of San Francisco destroyed. Returning to the depths of the ocean, Godzilla hasn’t been seen since, nor have any more ghastly beasties risen from the ground to wreak havoc. Still, crypto-zoological organization Monarch has been continuing their covert work on the titan project that began years earlier. The discovery of Skull Island helped them pinpoint other locations around the globe where sleeping beasts may lie and outposts have been set-up in these areas to study these creatures and protect the outside world from disturbing their slumber.

Paleobiologist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown, Stranger Things) live on one of the Monarch outposts and as the film opens they are present for the birth of Mothra, a giant caterpillar creature that Emma has developed a way to communicate with. No sooner has contact been established when an eco-terrorist (Charles Dance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, playing his umpteenth villain) bursts in, abducts mother and daughter, and makes off with the device that not only can communicate with the titans but can also rouse them from their rest and send them on a rampage.

As the titans are let loose, including Rodan and the alpha-est alpha of them all, the three dragon-headed beast King Ghidorah, it calls forth Godzilla from the fathoms and he doesn’t seem too happy about cutting his watery rest short. Audiences should be pleased, however, that Godzilla gets far more screen time in the sequel and actually gets to be the bona-fide star of his own film. He definitely gets more screen time than some of the top-billed stars, many of whom seem to have signed up only to stand with their mouth agape on the bridge of a ship/aircraft carrier/submarine and occasionally throw out bits of trivia (I’m looking at you Zhang Ziyi, The Grandmaster). At least lead player Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now) is a marked improvement over the teeth-gnashing overacting of Bryan Cranston in the first film…but the scenery is still chewed to the bone by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) who manages to not only play the same irksome character in each movie but wear the same athleisure wardrobe as well. The only two notable actors reprising their roles are Ken Watanabe (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) as Monarch scientists and both seem to be squeezing each others hand for moral support for much of the picture.

Cutting his teeth successfully on smaller films like Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, director Michael Dougherty graduates to the big time in a big way. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an overwhelming film and at times it feels like you’re getting swept away into a vortex along with everyone else in the movie. Surprisingly iffy special effects at times go hand in hand with stunningly rendered creature feature work – when Godzilla and King Ghidorah charge each other (seen in the previews but even more exciting in context) there a definite electric charge that ran through the audience.  Dougherty is best when the action is pulled back on a massive scale to see the creatures in their full glory — it’s only when we get up close and personal that you begin to see the seams…the man in the rubber suit as it were.

If only that pesky plot-stuff didn’t pop up to get in the way of all of the chaos from these colossuses, right? While the crux of the plot has the whiff of something audiences already explored in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, Dougherty penned the script along with returning screenwriter Max Borenstein and franchise newbie Zach Shields.  The film feels like a hodgepodge of ideas and necessary exposition to get us caught up to where we need to be before the next film, Godzilla vs. Kong, arrives in March 2020.   There’s a whole lot going on here and not a lot of time for anything to sink in. Major plot points are glossed over — don’t blink or you’ll miss that a character has a twin who appears in one scene while two major characters perish in separate parts of the movie and we barely notice because it’s so hard visually to see what happened.  As is the case with many sequels, there’s more mythology to explain and some of it (such as where Godzilla goes when he isn’t in battle mode) is quite interesting but we’re yanked away so fast it begins to feel like Daughtery is contractually obligated to get to the next big clash.

This is one of those pure entertainment films that doesn’t ask much of you outside of 2 ½ hours of your time and the price of a ticket. It’s escapist stuff that’s big, loud, silly, but ultimately a fun watch. If you’re spending time thinking about why the actors are doing what they’re doing then you’re missing the point of it all – just wait a few minutes and Godzilla will be back to show you why he’s king of the monsters. Bow down.

Movie Review ~ All is True


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the final days in the life of renown playwright William Shakespeare.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Jack Colgrave Hirst

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: We’ve all seen Shakespeare when he was in love but what about when Shakespeare was in despair? That’s what seems to be on the mind of producer, director, and star Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton when they decided to film All is True without much fanfare. If anything, All is True is a nice reminder that it’s possible to make a movie with three quite respected stars and not have anyone know about it until it’s ready to be released. It wasn’t until 2018 was nearly finished that people were aware this even existed and there was even a very brief discussion that Branagh would be a late addition to the Best Actor Oscar pool. Then people started seeing Branagh’s Bard picture and the buzz cooled considerably…and I can see why.

Look, I’m a Shakespeare fan but not a Shakespeare snob so I’m ok with filmmakers playing a little fast and loose with the Bard. I get a chuckle anytime a play or musical adds him as a character that can poke fun at his persona and I think the man himself would get a huge kick out of the many ways his works have been re-envisioned over the hundreds of years his plays have been in the lexicon. I’m wondering, though, how he’d feel about certain elements of his personal life being examined onscreen and conclusions being drawn from pure conjecture. Would he still be laughing at particular truths being leveled toward him and his family?

Branagh is clearly a fan of the man as well, having starred in and directed countless Shakespeare works over the years. He’s one of the foremost experts on the playwright and based on the performance he gives he’s well suited for playing Shakespeare and for directing the film. Yet there’s something to be said about being too reverential to your subject and getting too close to the work. You run the risk of becoming myopic to what constitutes engaging entertainment and what others would want to see. Before you know it, you’ve produced a chamber piece that has limited appeal – and that’s what winds up happening with the respectable but stodgy All is True.

William Shakespeare (Branagh, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) has returned to his home in Stratford after his Globe Theatre burns down in 1613. Frequently absent after the death of his only son in 1596, his arrival isn’t exactly met with excitement from his wife Anne Hathaway (Dench, Skyfall) or his daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson, About Time) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder, Murder on the Orient Express). Still consumed with unresolved grief from the loss of his son, Shakespeare spends his days building a garden in honor of his only boy, stopping only to quote verse, converse with his family, or speak with an array of visitors that seek some form of council.

The film feels like a series of brief one acts involving Shakespeare and his family being involved with events around town. Instead of Elton’s script just focusing on Shakespeare working through his heartache with the help of his family, we get introduced to several Puritan members of the church and townspeople that pass through their lives. One daughter is accused of infidelity, another must overcome her own sense of self-loathing in order to move on in her blossoming relationship with the town lothario, then Shakesapre’s own sexuality comes into question when the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen, Beauty and the Beast) comes to visit. The only family member that seems to get the short end of the stick is Anne, though Dench, always true to form, makes the most of every frame she’s in and every line she’s given.

The whole movie plays out with some truly lovely cinematography from Zac Nicholson (Les Misérables) that’s often filmed in one long take or on stationary cameras. People sit and deliver most of their lines with very little movement necessary, creating the effect you’re watching a play instead of a movie. Using candle-light in the evenings and natural light during the day, Nicholson captures the realistic world that Shakespeare would have lived in during that time…and also the mundanity of it as well.  Much like a Sunday matinee, don’t be shocked if you find yourself resisting the urge to nod off on several occasions.

I can’t say All is True is an entertaining picture or even one that I enjoyed when all was said and done. Though admirably performed (Dench, in particular, is grand) there’s just a casual sameness to the film after a while. Much of the running time follows people in highly distressed, unhappy stages of their lives and it’s only when some inkling of happiness is introduced the film finds a lightness and snaps out of its dirge-like funereal march toward the end credits. It’s brief…but it’s welcome.

Movie Review ~ Booksmart


The Facts
:

Synopsis: On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night

Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Mike O’Brien, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga

Director: Olivia Wilde

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: We’re right at the crest of the wave where the end of the school year is about to crash into full blown summer and there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like Booksmart to arrive in theaters.  True, being released in the midst of a bevy of bombastic blockbusters might make its chances of doing big business opening weekend a tad slim but this has sleeper hit/future cult classic/definite midnight screening written all over it.  It’s a movie meant to be discovered and then shared, not one you necessarily make an appointment to see.

I’d heard about the film for a while after it received a positive reception at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX and deliberately avoided watching the trailer or reading anything more about it until I saw it. This is one I wanted to come to on my own without any ideas on what it should be, or pre-conceived notions on what to expect.  The way we are inundated with information on content it’s hard to go in blind to something but thankfully, I was able to come to Booksmart with a blank slate.

So now, after all that talk of going into the movie with little knowledge, of course I’m going to ask you to read a review of what I think about it – makes total sense, right? Really, I won’t be offended if you stop now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.  Seriously – it’s AOK.  But come back!  Promise?

You’re back? Great!  Wasn’t it good?  I know, right?

It’s the last day of school and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) is ending the school year on top.  She’s class president and set to go to an Ivy League school in the fall.  By keeping her nose to the grindstone and focusing on her studies she has achieved all of the goals she’s set and has her future planned out not only for her but for her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy).  We all either knew a Molly in high school or were a Molly so it isn’t hard to completely get this character – and the way she looks down on those that didn’t put the same effort forward in school, or at least the effort she’s deemed worthy.

When Molly finds out that several key people she originally had written off as destined to be losers for life are also moving on to luxe post-high school careers, she realizes she could have had fun all four years of high school and still made it big. Thus begins a quest for Molly and Amy to get their party on by any means necessary, leading them through a seemingly endless night of encounters with oddball characters and a journey of self-discovery before their graduation ceremony the next morning.

Much of Booksmart follows a typical trajectory of high school comedy that feels safe and familiar but the movie is as unpredictable as they come.  You have your stock characters that flow through (jock, tramp, brain, etc) but all are given a neat little bounce by screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic), and Susanna Fogel.  No one is quite who you expect them to be…and no one ends the film in quite the same way they start out.  Actress Olivia Wilde (The Lazarus Effect) makes her feature directing debut and shows a real knack for establishing a tone and a rhythm for Molly, Amy, and the strange people they find themselves hanging out with over the course of the evening.

Aside from introducing us to a host of interesting characters (and fresh-faced actors), the film is routinely laugh-out-loud funny as the girls find themselves in increasingly bizarre situations. These moments spring forth naturally and the comedy never feels forced, while there is a lot of physical humor there’s quite a bit of verbal banter that elicits laughs.  Audiences are used to being shown what’s funny but it’s rare for a movie to ask them to listen – you’d almost need to see it twice to get all the humor that is thrown in, though I don’t think it would be a hard sell to get people to screen this one a second time.

The movie wouldn’t work at all if the two leads hadn’t had the kind of chemistry they do. As much as romantic chemistry plays a part in convincing viewers that people are in love, chemistry between friends is almost harder to generate because it requires an intimacy that isn’t always physically shown but more emotionally present.  You buy that Feldstein and Dever would be friends in the movie and in real life and while Molly is the more alpha of the two, Amy is no shrinking violet at the end of the day.  We know from the start that Amy is a lesbian and the film wisely starts with the whole “coming out” story long since told – now she’s just finding her way and I appreciated that she was treated like everyone else in the movie looking for love and just as confused as the rest of them.

With so many memorable performances in the movie, from Billie Lourd’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) scene-stealing party girl to Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a try-hard looking to impress Molly, it seems wrong to single out just one actor but Feldstein is the true breakout star of Booksmart.  Ably holding her own against Bette Midler on the Broadway stage in Hello, Dolly! two years ago and proving a good foil for Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird (a role quite similar to Molly) in 2017, Feldstein finally steps fully into the spotlight and earns her place in the sun.  As much as Molly deserves to be taken down a notch or suffer through an embarrassing situation…if it weren’t for Feldstein’s irrepressible charm you’d be ready to push her off a cliff but instead you completely get where she’s coming from.

If we must talk negatives, I can drudge up a few. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the soundtrack to this (sorry/not sorry) or an unnecessary subplot involving a teacher-student relationship and that’s what ultimately keeps the movie from being in the true upper echelon of high school comedies. Even that being said, Booksmart almost instantly earns a right to walk the hallowed halls of high school fame.  It’s fun, it’s riotously funny, and I enjoyed having absolutely no clue how it would end — that’s saying a lot for a genre comedy that’s been done many times before.