Movie Review ~ Jules

The Facts:

Synopsis: Milton lives a quiet life of routine in a small western Pennsylvania town but finds his day upended when a UFO and its extraterrestrial passenger crash land in his backyard.
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoë Winters, Jade Quon, Jane Curtin
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: In my old age, I’m finding that I need more and more time to consider my opinions regarding mass media. The snap judgments and immediate instinct that I’ve followed for years still give me good guidance, but my feelings can increasingly change if I take the time to gather my thoughts. Had I not had the benefit of some breathing room after watching Jules, I may have written it up (off?) as another odd-duck effort from Sir Ben Kingsley. Admittedly, the Oscar-winner is a bit all over the map when it comes to film roles, and fresh from an appearance as Salvador Dalí in the paint-by-numbers biopic Dalíland, Kingsley is trying on another wiggy role and questionable accent in this light-as-air drama with a dash of comedy for spice and a tinge of sci-fi to give it color. 

I did have that breathing room, though, and I found that in the days after watching Jules, my mind kept returning to it and the quiet way it respected its characters and, in turn, its audience. At a time when Hollywood and culture are doing all they can to snag a moment of your attention by any means necessary, it was pleasant to be in the presence of filmmakers that didn’t have to resort to big swooping statements or bombastic effects to tell a compelling story about humans and how we interact. Even a strange little nugget of a movie like this made for a pittance can exist longer in your consciousness than films with quadruple the budget and reach.

The weekly council meeting in Boonton, Pennsylvania, brings out the small town’s most eccentric residents and their standard requests. For Milton Robinson (Kingsley, Operation Finale), his persistent proposal involves changing the town motto, “A good place to call home,” into something ‘less confusing’ (i.e., it’s not an ideal place to “call” out from, and if you lived there already, why would you call home?). Most of the time, no one pays much attention, aside from Sandy (Harries Sansom Harris, Licorice Pizza) and Joyce (Jane Curtin, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), two single biddies that frequent the meetings, maybe to see what Milton is up to.

Then, one night, a spaceship inexplicably lands in the backyard of Milton’s somewhat secluded farmhouse, and eventually, a tiny alabaster-white-skinned alien (Jade Quon, Iron Man 3) emerges. Instead of having Milton react like the world is about to end, screenwriter Gavin Steckler has the elderly gentleman more troubled over his flora being crushed by the spacecraft. When the alien shows signs of being ill, Milton finds a way to coax it back to health, befriending it, feeding it, and introducing it to television. Though Milton is honest with anyone asking what’s new in his life, everyone from the town council to his frustrated daughter (Zoë Winters) thinks that the older man has finally left the deep end. 

It isn’t long before a concerned Sandy gets involved and meets the alien she names Jules, followed by nosy Joyce, who isn’t about to let Sandy and Milton replace her grumpy company with a less abrasive extraterrestrial. Through their experience with Jules and spending less time alone, each aging individual learns something about their current place in life and the benefit of a shared community. As they work together to help their tiny friend fix their shuttle so it may return home, they’ll realize how much use they can still be to themselves and those around them.

Kingsley is arguably the star of Jules and does his best to appear appropriately shlumpy. However, he is never quite convincing as a man on the brink of losing everything (his house, mind, family) that finds stability with his new core group. Kingsley has always done best when he has a dynamic cast surrounding him, and that’s why the performances of Harris and Curtin function more often than not as an elevation tool when Kingsley can’t quite get there. Both gifted comedians, Harris and Curtin dial the comedy back and explore a more somber side of their acting. The results are quite moving, with Harris nailing a critical scene that exposes some familial hurt and Curtin fully committing to a wild performance of Free Bird.

I don’t want to make it sound like Kingsley isn’t good in the film or that he detracts from the overall warm feeling Jules will leave you with. His scenes with Quon (who, even without dialogue, is smashing) are strong, and I think he fits in with the film’s solemnity. There’s just a particular rhythm that Kingsley operates on that is hard to groove with. The more I sat with the film, the more I appreciated how subtle director Marc Turtletaub was in portraying small-town life during a bizarre time. This will likely slip by the radar of most audiences during its initial run, but if you have the chance, get in on Jules early. If you’re like me, appreciating its charms will take some extra time…but it will come.

Movie Review ~ Red, White & Royal Blue

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the son of the American President and Britain’s prince public feud threatens to drive a wedge in U.S./British relations, the two are forced into a staged truce that sparks something deeper.
Stars: Taylor Zakhar Perez, Nicholas Galitzine, Uma Thurman, Stephen Fry, Sarah Shahi, Rachel Hilson, Ellie Bamber
Director: Matthew López
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: While I never got around to reading it, I do not doubt that Casey McQuiston’s gay romance Red, White & Royal Blue was a rollicking blast to devour when it was released in the early summer of 2019. The kind of book you’d want to keep flipping the pages of deep into the night…but not too far, lest you finish it and break its magic gauzy spell. Before it was even published, Amazon Studios had purchased the rights for the film adaptation, and with the novel continuing to be a strong seller, the inevitable movie went into production two years later.   

Produced by Greg Berlanti, the same man that had directed the sensitive 2018 LGBT modest hit Love, Simon, and directed by playwright Matthew López who recently won multiple accolades for his lauded work The Inheritance, chronicling the lives of modern gay men in a loose adaptation of Howards End, it seemed like a thoughtfully made match behind the camera. While gay romances have been on the rise, they are few and far between, and as last fall’s heavily hyped but big-time-belly flop Bros proved, even with the best intentions and a predominantly queer crew, it doesn’t spell success.

An international incident occurs at the Price of England’s wedding, instigated by the Prince’s younger brother, Henry (Nicholas Galitzine, Cinderella), and Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez), the visiting son of the U.S. President. Silent rivals for years stemming from a silly miscommunication, the hubbub that occurs forces Alex’s mother, President Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman, Final Analysis, sporting a Texan accent that evens out as the movie progresses), to demand her son hop back over the pond and go on an apology tour with the equally chastised Prince. Passive aggressive lobs between the young men become friendly banter, and a long-distance friendship develops.

While only one of them dares to act on it first, before either of them knows it, they have fallen in love. Of course, to go public with their romance would ruin not just their lives but the reputations of their very different families. Henry’s royal duties demand that he stays above the gossip and proceed with the life planned for him. With his mother’s reelection campaign in full swing, Alex is committed to helping her win a second term and wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize her position in critical red states that might not vote for a candidate with a son so publicly out of the closet. The closer they get, the further a future together seems to be. Can love conquer politics and royal decrees?

I would have loved to write that Red, White & Royal Blue hasn’t suffered the same fate as Bros and isn’t as treacly twee as the Hallmark movies it has borrowed most of its sets from (a 57 million budget doesn’t go far) but it sadly has. It’s not even about the cheap look or that first-time director López injects zero style into the filmmaking, robbing the tone of anything resembling creative energy. Like Bros, Red, White & Royal Blue is a movie that wants to be so “with” it that it can’t see how much it’s functioning without. It’s without two leads with convincing chemistry as anything other than friends. Both are, evidently, straight-presenting, and it shows. The friendship between the characters is ultra-bro-ish until the script dictates that it not be, and even then, it’s not like a rom-com where either of the leads has this lightening moment realization that yes, they have actually been head over heels for the other the entire time. If ever there was supporting evidence for gay men playing gay characters, look no further than the two leads of Red, White & Royal Blue

While Galitzine excels in the dramatic arc his character is given (too late in the film), Perez is miscast from the word go. I’ll give you that they look cute as a button on the poster, but a photograph doesn’t sustain a movie. It’s unfortunate that Perez is in considerably more of the movie, even scenes shared with supporting cast members are awkward and feel like attempts by more experienced actors to shake something loose in Perez that isn’t budging. Taken as fantasy, I guess it would explain the lack of paparazzi throughout the film. However, I wouldn’t know in what modern world two handsome young celebrity bachelors have ever been left alone by hungry photographers, never mind when they are frequently holed up together or out on the town. 

Even though it’s rated R, Red, White & Royal Blue is incredibly tame, and from what I gather, only received the restrictive rating for a lovemaking scene that shows no nudity and is mostly about hands with spindly fingers clasping and unclasping. You can draw your own conclusions about why the MPAA saw fit to give a gay romance with no vulgar language, blood, or violence a more severe rating than other films with buckets of gore, sex, and blue language. At nearly two hours, López and his co-adapter Ted Malawer can’t find the proper ending, making us sit through a handful of false climaxes. I’ll go out on a limb and say there will be many people endeared to these characters by the end and won’t mind spending these extra moments, but I was already Over It, Tired, and Royally Disappointed.

Movie Review ~ Heart of Stone

The Facts:

Synopsis: An intelligence operative for a shadowy global peacekeeping agency races to stop a hacker from stealing its most valuable and dangerous weapon.
Stars: Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, Alia Bhatt, Sophie Okonedo, Matthias Schweighöfer, Jing Lusi, Paul Ready, Archie Madekwe, Jon Kortajarena
Director: Tom Harper
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 122 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In the middle of the Barbenheimer mania, I went with friends to see Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One for a second time to see if that Tom Cruise big-screen blockbuster was as crazy action-packed as I remembered.  The first time was so enjoyably overwhelming that it became exhausting…so much so that I felt I needed to take it all in again, if only for that car chase scene alone.  That second viewing solidified how much I like catching these large-scale, full-throttle films on the most giant screen possible. 

While that film is strangely struggling to keep up with the movies about a doll and the creation of the atomic bomb (who would have thunk?), audiences wanting to stay in and stay cool have another option to explore from the comfort of their homes.  And it just so happens that it comes from the same production company that has handled multiple Mission: Impossible entries.  Although I would have loved to see Heart of Stone at the cinema (more than any recent Netflix original, it should have had a theatrical release), I was slightly surprised at how slick and entertaining this potential franchise kick-off was.  If this is the start of something new for Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), then the star has found a worthwhile new character to lay claim to.

Before its title sequence (have I mentioned how much I l-o-v-e a title sequence?), an extended prologue introduces us to MI:6 agent Rachel Stone (Gadot), a tech wiz teamed up with Bailey (Paul Ready), Yang (Jing Lusi, Crazy Rich Asians), and Parker (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) on an assignment high up in the Alps.  When their intended target gives them the slip, and they realize they’ve fallen into a trap set by mystery woman Keya (Alia Bhatt), the team scrambles to secure their asset before he makes it down the slope.  It’s an energetic way to open the film, and director Tom Harper (Wild Rose) demonstrates early on his ability to handle large-scale action sequences and blend them with doses of humor that don’t get moldy quickly.

Of course, there’s more to Rachel than a harmless tech wiz, but I’ll let the twists in the screenplay from Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder (Frozen II) reveal themselves while you watch.  It’s more fun that way because some of the curveballs thrown are nicely pitched and timed perfectly to catch you off guard.  In addition to the MI:6 crew, a faction of agents known as The Charter are finding ways into their version of the peacekeeping business via The Heart.  A new technology that connects all of the informational/media sources around the world, it can find anyone and even make future predictions on potential outcomes in brawls.  When Keya sets her sights on stealing The Heart, Rachel must protect and/or retrieve it before it falls into the wrong hands and is used against the people attempting to keep order.

One of those movies that is in a constant state of motion, Heart of Stone’s biggest asset is Gadot, who always feels like an excellent example of leading with authority.  Yes, Gadot has been in a stinker or two (how did Red Notice happen?  And how is it getting a sequel?), but she often has an instinct for what projects will be a good fit, and Rachel Stone is a character that is tailor-made for what she can bring to the table.  It shows off her dramatic side but highlights her physicality at the same time.  The action sequences may rely on stunt doubles (her double wears a shorter and stringier wig), but she’s incredibly active in many of the fight spectacles.  And it’s futile to deny her screen charisma.

Working with his longtime cinematographer George Steele (The Last Letter From Your Lover), Harper might not have the budget to stage Tom Cruise-level stunts, but he does fit in several impressively filmed scenes involving a car chase (this is the year of off-the-wall car chases!), two tense passages involving a parachute, motorcycle pursuits, and more than a few hand-to-hand combats and shootouts to keep you alert.  Most of the combatants are the nameless/faceless masses that filter through these action thrillers, but everyone gets their turn in the ring at some point.  Kudos to Gadot’s opening team (Ready, Lusi, and Dornan) for participating in the fun car chase scene through Lisbon!

Aside from Gadot, Dornan (Belfast) knows the assignment and isn’t afraid to go for extra credit, and Bhatt (RRR) keeps her cards close to her chest for as long as she can, it creates the appropriate amount of mystery and the tiniest dash of frustration we should feel for her character.  How can I forget to mention the likes of Sophie Okonedo (Catherine Called Birdy) & Matthias Schweighöfer (Army of the Dead) as members of The Charter who keep their eye on Rachel throughout?  Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo that almost made me do a spit-take.  The actor’s costume and wig are the campiest in the whole movie (two words: Prada linebacker), but their brief presence is eternally welcome.

This is enormous fun, and I appreciated that it doesn’t have a throwaway charm to give off the impression you have to check your brain at the door to get something out of it.  I wouldn’t even say you have to compromise with your own standards to like Heart of Stone, either.  Maybe I had set my bar too low initially, so all I could do was be impressed.  Then again, that doesn’t give the filmmakers and writers enough credit for crafting a spy thriller that consistently delivers surprises while promising the possibility of more to come.

Movie Review ~ Meg 2: The Trench

The Facts:

Synopsis: A research team encounters multiple threats while exploring the ocean’s depths, including a malevolent mining operation.
Stars: Jason Statham, Wu Jing, Shuya Sophia Cai, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Skyler Samuels, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Sienna Guillory, Melissanthi Mahut, Whoopie Van Raam, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Felix Mayr
Director: Ben Wheatley
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: For my opening of this review for Meg 2: The Trench, I’ll turn to Queen to set the stage:

I’ve paid my dues (Great White)
Time after time (The Reef: Stalked)
I’ve done my sentence (47 Meters Down)
But committed no crime (The Shallows)
And bad mistakes (Maneater)
I’ve made a few (The Black Demon)
I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face (The Reef)
But I’ve come through (Bait 3D)

Only a sampling of the “killer shark” films I’ve sampled over the past few years, but it’s safe to say that I’ve been around the block when it comes to the (mostly) poor films made about an ornery fish chomping down on (mostly) innocent swimmers.  When The Meg was released by Warner Brothers in 2018, it was a welcome relief for a few reasons.  The long-in-the-works film adapted from Steve Alten’s popular pulp novel published in 1997 had moved from multiple studios but had finally surfaced as a big-budget late summer release with a creative marketing campaign.  And it was a hit.  And it wasn’t half bad, either.

A sequel wasn’t guaranteed immediately, but when it was greenlit in late 2018, it gave some hope that Hollywood hadn’t abandoned the water-based monster movie that audiences proved willing to turn out for.  Five years later, after delays due to the pandemic and production shifts, Meg 2: The Trench is rising to fill a guilty pleasure gap at the box office during its massive Barbenheimer upswing.  For some, this may be a soggy sampling of CGI run amok with special effects taking precedence over logic and story, but this critic gobbled it all up hook, line, and sinker. 

Much has changed in the five years since we last saw rescue diver Jonas Taylor and the survivors of the first Megalodon attack on a research facility in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He’s now a single stepfather to Meiying (Sophia Cai) and focused on fighting eco-terrorism that continues to pollute the world’s oceans.  Jiuming Zhang (Wu Jing, Iron Man 3), Meiying’s uncle, has remained vigilant in researching the Mariana Trench his late father and sister had explored when the Megalodon broke through and caused the original chaos.  Now partnered with a slinky investor (Sienna Guillory, Love, Actually, who acts like someone is feeding her lines through an earpiece), Jiuming believes he has a connection with a young Megalodon in captivity that was caught several years prior.

Working with Jonas, Jiuming assembles a new team of technicians and enlists Mac (Cliff Curtis, Doctor Sleep) and DJ (Page Kennedy), who have a prior history of exploring the deepest abyss on earth.  With the original area of the trench surveyed and documented, the consensus is to return and travel further into the uncharted depths with the advanced technology at their costly disposal.  However, when the captive Megalodon escapes from her pen and follows the team to the Trench for reasons unknown, it sets off a chain reaction of events that puts the team of two submersibles in eminent peril, not just from multiple Megalodons hungry for a new snack, but from other sea creatures that have come to see what’s for dinner.

Initially, I had heard that new director Ben Wheatley (Kill List) was aiming for an R rating in his sequel, and I almost wish he was given the freedom to go for it.  You get the sense Wheatley is holding back his usual grim style, and that restraint becomes more evident as the film progresses, but the movie works fine with its tame PG-13.  Trust me; there’s still more than enough death and mayhem to go around without viscera wafting across the screen to prove it.  While the first 2/3 are occupied with what happens within the Trench, the major melee starts when we reach the surface, and the action moves from under the sea to the aptly named Fun Island.  Wheatley throws everything together in one big pot and lets the fins and teeth fly.  As mentioned before, there’s more than just sharks to worry about. While I always prefer a giant shark movie to be solely about a giant shark, I can’t deny that throwing in other sharp-toothed prehistoric creatures provides some distinct glee.  What doesn’t offer much joy is Sergio Peris-Mencheta’s overbaked human villain, proving that as far as these Meg movies are concerned, future films should stick with CGI baddies.

It’s nice to see all the returning cast members back (wow, has Cai grown up in five years!). If I had initial reservations about Statham (Fast X) playing a character I had imagined differently for decades when reading the book, I’m coming around to his brutish take on Taylor.  Though he rarely takes on roles that are huge stretches for him (and there’s always a shot of him working out or, more specifically, doing pull-ups), he never comes across like he’s phoning in his performance.  Wu is an enjoyable addition to the team, and though Melissanthi Mahut (Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) is serviceable as the lone tough-as-nails female taking action, I thought the script from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber was missing a distinct female lead (that wasn’t a preteen). 

This sequel (while silly and over the top) is more serious than its campy predecessor.  Coming out right as two powerhouse players are still doing insane business at the box office and on the same weekend that another popular family franchise (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem) is arriving, I’m curious to see how Meg 2: The Trench holds up.  For me, I thought it hit the mark, and then some with its decent CGI and booming sound design…and this is coming from the perspective of someone that didn’t have the movie screened in advance for them (what’s up, Warner Brothers? You need to keep us in the loop!)  Those hating on the film haven’t had to do their penance in the muck of lousy shark movies.  I have and can tell you this is so much more entertaining than it has any right to be.  Dive in.

Movie Review ~ Shortcomings

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Ben Tanaka, a confused, obsessive Japanese American male in his late twenties, and his cross-country search for contentment (or at least the perfect girl).
Stars: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon, Timothy Simons
Director: Randall Park
Rated: R
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I love a good coming-of-age movie as much as the next critic that grew up in the hazy glow of the ‘80s, but I think it’s often a mistake to assume they can only focus on the younger generation.  Yes, there’s an instant relatability for adult filmgoers who like to look back with movies that can capture a specific time and place with a particular patina; it’s what has led to this nostalgia boom of late that I’ve fully embraced.  However, there are a growing number of films geared toward a different type of maturing that happens long after we’ve said goodbye to high school and college and are ready to take the next step toward what might be waiting on the other side of unexpectedness.

That’s my biggest takeaway from Shortcomings, Randall Park’s film version of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel originally published as a series of serialized stories between 2004 and 2007.  At the start of the film, most of Tomine’s characters are at a standstill in their young adulthood, tapping their toes as they wait for the next Big Thing to happen in life.  Without realizing it, they neglect that these prime days of pre-adulthood are the perfect time to make the big mistakes they fear and take the risks they appear to be opposed to.

Maybe that’s why Ben (Justin H. Min, After Yang) is so unhappy at the film’s start.  Living in Berkeley, CA, and going through the motions as a manager of an art-house theater that’s seen better days, he feels stuck in his current situation at work and home.  His girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki, Home Sweet Home Alone) is far more ambitious than her partner in the long-term goals department, and that divide is creating an obvious wedge between the two.  With Ben and Miko also disagreeing on what their Asian-American culture means to them and how representation is manifested, it sets into motion a separation that intends to give the two convenient bi-coastal space to reconsider their relationship but winds up creating a disastrous downward spiral for Ben.

After Miko accepts a career opportunity in NYC and leaves for several months, the breathing room he thought he needed turns into second-guessing jealousy…and this is after he has affairs with two vibrant women (Tavi Gevinson, Enough Said and Debby Ryan, Night Teeth) in short order.  Convinced he needs to either win Miko back or get to the bottom of why they can’t work, Ben ventures to NYC for a visit with longtime friend Alice (Sherry Cola, Turning Red) and some detective work.  While Alice and her girlfriend Meredith offer a safe space to contemplate his recent choices before confronting Miko, Ben cannot fully see the scale of his actions until it is too late.

In bringing these characters to life on the big screen, first-time director Park (Valley Girl) and Tomine have taken flat images already leaping off the page and transitioned them into the flawed three-dimensional figures they were begging to become.  Tomine’s characters are emotional and quirky but richly human and get stuck in the same life complications that many will be able to relate with.  In turn, Park was able to take that detailed outline and successfully piece together a cast that could run with the material. 

Min is appropriately aggravating when it counts but doesn’t lose the leading man charm that makes you want to root for him ultimately coming out on top.  You also want to cheer for Maki, even if her character is often just as much in the wrong as Min’s.  After July’s Joy Ride, Cola is fizzing (har har) and proving not only to be an excellent comic sidekick but also to have impressive chops in the non-comedic arena.  Though I understand it’s not her story or Tomine’s perspective, I would have loved to see more of her side of things get fleshed out.  Maybe a spin-off?

Shortcomings starts strong and maintains a zippy energy for the first half but begins to dip as it nears the sixty-minute mark.  Coincidentally, it’s when the story goes into more dramatic territory, and our characters show a bit of their darker side.  Naturally, Park pumps the brakes a bit.  While it can’t regain that same spring in its step from its opening stretch, it never fully stumbles out of favor.  Well-etched performances and a creatively infused screenplay go a long way in keeping Shortcomings headed in the right direction.

Movie Review ~ The Passenger (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Randy is perfectly content fading into the background. But when his co-worker Benson goes on a sudden and violent rampage leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, Randy is forced to face his fears and confront his troubled past in order to survive.
Stars: Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold, Liza Weil, Billy Slaughter, Kanesha Washington
Director: Carter Smith
Rated: NR
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Here’s a perfect example of why watching a preview can ruin the natural discovery you get when watching a movie. While the trailer for The Passenger doesn’t tell you everything you can expect to find if you decide to hop on an intense road trip with two men from the same non-descript small town, it does reveal a vital pivot point that might have held a decent element of surprise at the end of the first act. Knowing what awaited me, I began the movie with a specific idea of certain characters without letting the film define them for me as it played out.

That may not seem like a big deal for most, and from what I gather when talking about this with friends and family, it hasn’t bothered them on the same level that it does for me. When I break it down for them and say, “But what if you went in not knowing this <insert any moment from the Scream VI trailer> was going to happen?” that’s when it clicks, and they realize how much was spoiled in advance. Now, The Passenger doesn’t hit Scream-level spoilers, but if you can’t tell, I’d urge you not to watch any preview in advance and go in as blind as possible. 

By all accounts, it looks like it will be another mundane day for Randy (Johnny Berchtold). We can tell by his room, house, car, and how he holds himself that he’s settled into a stagnancy that won’t change anytime soon. Small-town life doesn’t just suit him, it is him, and he’s blending into the scenery. Even showing up at his job, a roadside burger joint, barely receives any notice from his horny co-workers Jess (Jordan Sherley, Do Revenge) and Chris (Matthew Laureano), his boss (Billy Slaughter, The Magnificent Seven), or Benson (Kyle Gallner, Smile), another lone wolf like himself.

Today is not going to be like any other day, however. And it’s not because of the good news that his boss asked him if he’d be interested in a management position at a new (better) location nearby or because Chris humiliates him in front of the others as they prepare to open. After a shocking outburst of disgusting violence, Benson will take a vested interest in Randy’s future and bring him along for a ride that will push him past his limits. In a mad attempt to break Randy out of his cocoon, Benson goes to extreme lengths to force a change in the docile man, uncovering secrets from his past and using them twistedly to open his eyes to the world around them.

With its brief, but stomach-churning, eruptions of violence (some of which skids the line of bad taste), The Passenger arrives at its destination with most of its important pieces intact. That’s thanks partly to a tight script from Jack Stanley (Lou) and more focused direction from Carter Smith than he displayed in 2022’s Swallowed. Smith also draws more consistent performances here, with Bechtold and especially Gallner creating distinct, deeply flawed men with more issues to be worked out than can be handled in a 94-minute car ride.   There’s excellent supporting work from Liza Weil as a critical influence from Randy’s past and especially Kanesha Washington as a diner waitress who stands out in two pivotal scenes.

How much mileage you get out of The Passenger may be in your ability to look past the film’s tendency for overzealous violence and instead appreciate the way it attempts to be a character study of the trickle-down effect of the bully. Both men are bullies in their own ways, but digging into how they resolve those issues and their fractured histories is where the film fires on all cylinders.   

THE PASSENGER will be on Digital and On Demand on August 4, 2023
and coming to MGM+ later in 2023.

Movie Review ~ Til Death Do Us Part


The Facts:

Synopsis: After running away on her wedding day, a bride-to-be must fight for survival against her former fiancé and his seven deadly groomsmen.
Stars: Natalie Burn, Cam Gigandet, Ser’Darius Blain, D.Y. Sao, Neb Chupin, Sam Lee Herring, Orlando Jones, Alan Silva, Pancho Moler, Jason Patric, Nicole Arlyn
Director: Timothy Woodward Jr.
Rated: NR
Running Length:
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: The absolute worst part of this gig is when a bad movie comes knocking on your door. I was talking at a screening recently with another critic way more intelligent than I am (Brian Eggert – Deep Focus Review – check him out!), and we agreed that while they may be fun to write about, a stinker is ultimately no one’s idea of a good time. First off, it’s a chore to sit through, and secondly, it can be a rough go for a nice Midwestern guy like me that wants to find a least one kind thing to say. In that same conversation, I doomed myself by remarking how I was on a run of good movies…only to have that very screening I was at be canceled due to projection issues and then coming home to watch Til Death Do Us Part.

The nicest opening I can offer on this fiasco is that there’s a rip-roaring neon-drenched ’80s actioner buried deep in the muck of director Timothy Woodward Jr’s action-thriller. So deep, in fact, that the director and most of his cast cannot unearth it during a punishingly long run time played over what has to be one of the worst soundtracks I’ve heard in ages. What could have been a slick (and short) vehicle for star Natalie Burn (the only reason to consider a viewing) is a slack bore that doles out propulsive action in tiny doses, ham-sandwiching them in-between lumbering scenes of overacting.

It’s the wedding day for the Bride (Burn, Black Adam, a somewhat limited but still engaging actress) and Groom (Ser’Darius Blain, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). If the beginning feels like a forced send-up of a typical Hallmark romance, it’s the movie’s only attempt at creativity. Just as she’s about to walk down the aisle, the Bride doesn’t look so sure about that long journey to her mate, and that’s when the film makes its first of many jumps in time. Sometimes it goes forward to later in the evening when the Bride has high-tailed it out of the church and is being pursued by the Groomsmen (including, bizarrely, Orlando Jones), who are tasked with bringing her back to get nuptialitized. In other moments we hop backward to when the Bride and Groom meet a mysterious couple (The Lost Boys’ Jason Patric and Nicole Arlyn) while on a tropical vacation.

I’ll play nice and not reveal how and why the backstory plays into the current events, but let’s say that the Bride has a vested reason for wanting to live an independent life away from the Groom and his band of merry murderous men. Lucky for her, she’s skilled in hand-to-hand combat (Burn does most of her stunts) and can dispatch them without needing more than a few household tools. The trouble is Chad Law and Shane Dax Taylor’s script has so much preamble before these Mortal Kombat-esque duels that you’ll already be asking to tap out by the time fists fly.

Intentionally, I’ve held back on speaking about the Best Man (Cam Gigandet, Without Remorse) for as long as possible, but he must get his due. Gigandet’s otherworldly overacting alone would have sunk the film, but then you go and add his persistent cool cat dancing and finger snapping to a soundtrack featuring songs that only sound like Sinatra standards (rights issues much?), and you truly start to watch the movie through splayed fingers. Overall, there is plenty of bad acting in Til Death Do Us Part, but the level to which Gigandet munches on the scenery is massive.

Inevitable comparisons to 2019’s Ready or Not are likely, but aside from the movies sharing a bride being hunted down and forced to defend herself, they couldn’t be more different in tone. No one in Til Death Do Us Part got the memo that they were making a throwback survival thriller that would have done boffo business in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Everyone is operating in a different movie, often while sharing the same scene. So there is a misalignment with the film’s ultimate goal. While the production design by Markos Keyto is impressive (I loved the moody lighting with its striking colors and endless shadows), the film itself falls far short of its aspirations.

 Releases Exclusively in Theaters Nationwide on August 4

Movie Review ~ Talk to Me (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When friends discover how to conjure spirits using an embalmed hand, they become hooked on the new thrill until one of them goes too far and unleashes terrifying supernatural forces.
Stars: Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Miranda Otto, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio, Marcus Johnson, Alexandria Steffensen
Directors: Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou
Rated: R
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Though still early in the summer evening, the sky was beginning to turn an inky black when I was parking my car in the lot before the screening of A24’s new horror film Talk to Me.  Our up-and-down summer weather had gone from the swarm of heat to the threat of rain quickly, so I was happy to be headed indoors for the next few hours, and a possible thunderstorm felt like the perfect way to get in the mood for what was to come.  Sure enough, by the time I was walking inside, I could feel the raindrops start, and it had gotten so dark it looked hours later than it was.  Leave it to A24 to think of everything in promoting their films…even corralling the weather into a mean frenzy.

I don’t think you’ll need thunder and lightning, or even the lights entirely off, to get a good jolt out of the slick scares offered up in this original endeavor from brothers Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou.  Hailing from Australia, the twins became YouTube famous for their award-winning comedy horror channel RackaRacka.  I wasn’t familiar with their work going in, and without that previous knowledge had a low bar to scale or compare their feature film debut to.  If Talk to Me is any indication, they’ve amassed much skill from their YouTube days and experience working as crew members in 2014’s The Babadook.

A horrific incident at a noisy party opens the film, left unexplained, until it eventually crosses paths with Mia’s (Sophie Wilde) encounter with the embalmed hand of a medium who could speak with the dead.  Still fractured after the unexpected death of her mother and detached from her remaining parent, Mia experiences the appendage at a large gathering as part of a viral challenge within her extended friend group.  Her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) knows better than to tempt fate, but Mia, desperate to connect with someone and possibly make a play to impress cool clique master Hayley (Zoe Terakes), willingly offers herself up.

The experience of what happens when a person touches the hand is best left for you to find out at the theater, but it’s different for everyone in the film.  No one can hold on longer than 90 seconds, and the candle lit at the beginning of the game must be blown out, or the spirit that comes to speak might not leave so easily.  Guess what happens after a second night of hand chats, this time with a smaller group involving Mia, Jade, Hayley, and others including Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird)?  Note to self in any séance situation: always blow the candle out.

As with many horror films involving an object, the more we find out about the item, the less interesting it becomes.  Perhaps that’s why the brothers Philippou make Talk to Me less about the hand and more about its effect on Mia’s already fragile psyche.  It’s a smart move, and Wilde’s performance is first-rate, starting the film as a relatable and vulnerable innocent but slowly changing course to a more problematic lead being guided by the wrong agenda.  The script keeps the cast small and, aside from Miranda Otto’s (Annabelle: Creation) refreshingly no-nonsense effort as Jade and Riley’s mother, mostly adult free.  The kids are not all right, and no one is coming to save them.

Skidding on the side of derailment during its final minutes but ending with a proper shiver chill, a future installment of Talk to Me might satisfy those who like their horror with all the blanks on their Mad Lib card filled in by the end.  A sequel would likely delve into origin and further the mythology of the mysteriously powerful hand, plot points this film doesn’t have the patience (or, frankly, the time) to cover.  Instead, the Philippou brothers have trained their gaze on what they have a talent for and delivered it at a high level.

Movie Review ~ Afire

The Facts:

Synopsis: A seaside vacation takes an unexpected turn when Leon and Felix arrive at Felix’s family’s holiday home to discover Nadja, a mysterious woman, already there. As an ever-encroaching forest fire threatens their well-being, relationships are tested, and romances are kindled.
Stars: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt
Director: Christian Petzold
Rated: NR
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I’ve never been the kind of person that sneaks into a party late and tries to remain unnoticed, hoping the host hasn’t seen me doing a belly crawl in the side door and then pretending I’ve been there the whole time. What’s the point? When you’re late, kick the door in, announce your presence, thank the person who drove you there, and then enjoy the night. It’s the same way with discovering a cult movie, beloved actor, or director working for years in the business you may have only now found out about. Pretending you’ve been on the bandwagon won’t do you any favors, so live in the moment and enjoy catching up with all the fans that were once where you were. I’ve found they’ll enjoy retaking the journey with you.

I’ll be taking my journey soon with the works of director Christian Petzold. While I’ve seen a few of the German writer/director’s ten feature films, significant gaps must be filled, especially after enjoying his latest work Afire. Winning the Silver Bear (1st runner-up) at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival this past February, Petzold’s film is part of a planned continuing series based on the elements and following 2020’s water-inspired Undine. Set against the backdrop of an approaching forest fire, which also serves as the film’s emotional metaphor, Petzold’s film is the rare find that can engage and surprise with equal measure.

A summer at a German country home near the sea sounds like the perfect space for friends Felix (Langston Uibel, Unorthodox) and Leon (Thomas Schubert, Fog in August) to relax and focus on their work. Photographer Felix has a portfolio to assemble, and he needs inspiration to begin. However, he is easily distracted by the slightest occurrence, and the process is slow. Frustrated writer Leon knows his second book needs revision and hopes the quiet will allow him to turn things around before his editor (Matthias Brandt, Transit) arrives and throws down the hammer. 

Consumed with his assured failure but obsessed with his drive for success, Leon wants to write and rest. Yet there’s a problem. The house belongs to Felix’s family, and because they’ve arrived unannounced, it had already been rented out to a young woman, Nadja (Paula Beer, Never Look Away), working nearby for the summer.   Finding a way to make it work, Nadja and the two men share the home, and it appears Nadja and Felix are happy with the arrangement. Leon, however, continues to find ways to be dissatisfied and distant from the friendly and engaging female housemate. When Nadja’s sometime lover David (Enno Trebs, The White Ribbon) joins them, the foursome creates a strange dynamic that will change the course of the remaining summer days. 

At times idyllic, in other moments combative, Leon’s pent-up emotions can set off sparks between the two, yet the movie is never that interested in sexuality. The movie is very much about attraction (gay and straight), but it’s not a film about four people shacked up in a house for the summer. In Afire, Petzold is exploring what it’s like to be out of your element and discovering parts of yourself through the eyes of another. The view isn’t always what you want it to be, but it’s often more truthful than what you have been telling yourself. It’s these emotionally resonant passages that make the film such a standout.

The performances from the entire cast also push Afire into high-mark territory. Schubert and Beer are dynamite, with Schubert playing up the gauche snob when he thinks he has the upper hand, only to be taken down a peg by Beer in a series of surprising twists. That Beer can deliver these without seeming mean-spirited is a credit to the actor and the writing. Uibel and Trebs don’t always factor in fully, especially in the second half when the focus turns more to Leon and Nadja, but when it does get back to them in a pivotal way, they’ve earned their crucial moment. 

Backed by a dreamy soundtrack (the hypnotic “in my mind” by Wallners factors into the opening and closing credits) and buy-me-a-plane-ticket-and-book-the-VRBO-now cinematography from Hans Fromm, Afire (originally titled Roter Himmel/Red Sky) ends where you might least expect it. I certainly didn’t see the film rounding certain corners or Petzold taking the path toward his finale, and for that, I am grateful. Too many films now have endings you could write down before the credits have finished, so it’s pleasing to get to the halfway mark and have no idea what might happen. Afire contains many discoveries for our characters and a significant one for this critic. Don’t miss it – let’s go on this Petzold voyage together!

Movie Review ~ Theater Camp

The Facts:

Synopsis: The eccentric staff of a rundown theater camp in upstate New York must band with the beloved founder’s bro-y son to keep the camp afloat.
Stars: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris
Directors: Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: The last time I was scheduled to go to summer camp, I ran into the bathroom of the YMCA we were departing from and locked myself in, refusing to come out until the buses were forced to leave without me. My parents were, understandably, apoplectic, and looking back on it now, I don’t know why I wouldn’t have leaped at the chance to get out of the city and enjoy the time away. I mean, I understand why I flipped out at the time. I’d already gone the previous summer and hated it. Picture it: I was an only child, a theater nerd, “sensitive,” hadn’t had my first sleepover, and generally wasn’t used to being around so much uncontained testosterone in one deodorant-free cabin.

In the following years, my obsession with camp blossomed as if I were the poster child for the sleepaway experience. I sought out each TV show, movie, book, article, you name it because though it never turned out to be part of my adolescence, I lived vicariously through these fictional characters that lived (and in the case of the Friday the 13th’s, died) in this tranquil setting. Now, if I knew I would be in an environment like the one depicted in Theater Camp, I might have sucked it up, found my light, and made sure not to upstage my big moment. 

Walking the fine line between razor-sharp comedy and overly winking send-up is tough, but Theater Camp, written by Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, and Nick Lieberman, gets it so terrifically right that you’ll be absolutely howling throughout. My inner theater kid was literally screaming with laughter at some of the perfectly crafted one-liners and expertly timed bits. Best of all, it is not so insider Broadway that it excludes but instead is filled with the kind of “if you know, you know” references that only enhance enjoyment.

A much-loved theater camp in upstate New York, Camp AdirondACTS, faces a crisis as summer approaches. Its founder and camp director, Joan (Amy Sedaris, Somebody I Used to Know), suffers a stroke while attending a performance of Bye, Bye, Birdie! and it falls to her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro, 22 Jump Street) to keep the (stage) lights on and the staff employed, fending off ruthless real estate investors and his dopey inexperience to survive. Meanwhile, Amos (Platt, Dear Evan Hansen) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon, Love the Coopers), popular teachers (and former campers) who have jointly agreed to put their own performing careers on hold, run into their first conflict as they write and direct their annual original musical.

There’s so much good to go around in Theater Camp that one watch on the big screen won’t be enough for many. This is one of those surefire cast party/sleepover movies destined to be rewound, rehearsed, and rehashed in the years to come. It’s been made mainly for theater people expressly by theater people, but its theme of wanting to be the best version of yourself at every level of achievement is universal. That’s why you may find yourself unexpectedly emotional at the end, when a song about nothing suddenly becomes linked to everything important to the characters and, somewhat magically, to us.

I can try to resist Platt all I want, and while I found him the least effective of the leads in Theater Camp, he’s cast himself in a terrific, if unchallenging, role as a narcissistic nerd who has gotten used to being a big fish in a pond that’s always stocked with little fish. He’s acting alongside longtime friend Gordon, and that relationship gives credence to the tension their characters experience as the movie tools along. Gordon (who also directs with Lieberman) is a bona fide star (if you couldn’t tell after watching season two of FX’s The Bear) and walks away with the movie, even if she gives the best lines away to Platt and Tatro. Platt’s fiancée Galvin (Booksmart) has a sweet stagehand role hiding talent bigger than he may know. 

Sure, I may have rethought some of Ayo Edebiri’s role as a last-minute hire by Tatro’s character for multiple positions he needs, though she isn’t adept at any, but even Edebiri gets a few moments to shine. It’s also a pleasure to see actors like Nathan Lee Graham (Zoolander 2) and Owen Thiele step up for some uproarious moments as teachers who don’t hold back their cutting opinions on their young students. An impressive cast of young talent singing and dancing throughout is the bow on the glittery fun of Theater Camp. It’s the perfect length for this type of comedy and never stays in a bit longer than it must. This is one camp I think about revisiting soon, if only that YMCA one I hid from all those years ago could say the same thing!