Movie Review ~ The 2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated


Taking a page from the Guillermo del Toro playbook, I’ll tell you the feeling that animation is just for children is archaic. One need only look at this diverse group of 2023 nominees for Best Animated Short to see the range of offerings, not just in the medium but in the voices of the creators and the audiences they are speaking to. Each short is a 180-degree shift from its predecessor, giving the viewer a kaleidoscope of colors and ideas to sift through. No, you’re not going to love all of these, but each brings its point of view to the forefront quickly with excellent ease.

An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It (Directed by Lachlan Pendragon)
Synopsis: When a mysterious talking ostrich confronts a young telemarketer, he learns that the universe is stop-motion animation. He must put aside his dwindling toaster sales and focus on convincing his colleagues of his terrifying discovery.
This stop-motion animation entry is a real treat.  Capturing the mundanity of the daily office grind with a meta-statement of the corporate work environment is quite on the money.  That it’s also funny with sharp wit is almost a bonus.  Visually a feast for the eyes (you’ll likely want to make yourself available to watch it twice to catch all of the nuances) and nicely molded into its short package, keep your eyes on this director for future work. 

Ice Merchants (Directed by João Gonzalez)
Every day, a father and his son jump with a parachute from their vertiginous cold house, attached to a cliff, to go to the village on the ground, far away, where they sell the ice they produce daily.
In past years, I’d read the descriptions of the shorts before I sat down to watch, but this year I opted to go in blind.  That helped in some cases and put me a little behind in others.  Ice Merchants is one title that takes a little bit to latch onto, but when you do, it becomes a momentously rewarding endeavor that’s coupled with pristine hand-drawn animation.  It’s also surprisingly suspenseful, leading me actually to gasp a few times.  By the end, I was consumed by a different emotion entirely.  This is an inventive, sensitive, wonderful short.

My Year of Dicks
(Directed by Sara Gunnarsdóttir)
An imaginative fifteen-year-old is stubbornly determined to lose her virginity despite the pathetic pickings in the outskirts of Houston in the early 90s. Created by Pamela Ribon from her critically-acclaimed memoir.
Chuckle chuckle chuckle, yes, the title makes everyone giggle, and it’s maybe funny enough for voters in your office pool to check off just because it’s the most obvious choice.  True, this short, based on Pamela Ribon’s memoir, is about her experience trying to lose her virginity and the men in her life that weren’t the best candidates for the job.  Told in five chapters employing distinct animation styles, it’s a pleasant watch and by far the most adult-oriented entry in this crop.  It has the most distinct voice of the nominees, and that could either be a stroke of good luck for voters setting out to reward clarified points of view or deter others unable to relate.  

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse
(Directed by Peter Baynton, Charlie Mackesy)
Based on the book of the same name; a story of kindness, courage, and hope in traditional hand-drawn animation, following the unlikely friendship of the title characters as they journey in search of the boy’s home.
I’d been watching a lot of content on AppleTV+ lately and therefore had fallen victim to early buzz for The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse.  I don’t want to say that I unfairly set the bar high for it, but it seemed like I already knew what I was about to see before this nicely made but totally inert short began.  Filled with so many anachronistic statements you’d think the writers raided a fortune cookie factory, it’s obviously a great title for parents to throw on for kids…and then leave the room because much of it is so overly sugar-soaked you may gag. 

The Flying Sailor (Directed by Amanda Forbis, Wendy Tilby)
Synopsis: In 1917, two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, causing the largest accidental explosion in history. Among the tragic stories of the disaster is the remarkable account of a sailor who, blown skyward from the docks, flew a distance of two kilometers before landing uphill, naked and unharmed. The Flying Sailor is a contemplation of his journey.
Review: Based on a true story, when The Flying Sailor began, I was briefly excited by the cheery animation (once again, each nominee this year represents a unique style) introducing a jolly sailor in a Halifax seaport.  Then…things got weird.  Like, naked weird.  No problems with nudity here, but there’s just a lot of dangling animated dong on display in the telling.  Surrealism is appreciated, but it quickly grows ponderous and repetitive.  Once a point is made, it doesn’t need to be restated repeatedly; once that happens, the audience starts to drift.

Final Thoughts
: If we’re going with my personal favorite, I’ll say that Ice Merchants is pretty and terrific (and pretty terrific).  Not only is it beautiful to look at, even with a limited color palette, but it’s structured and designed with the same type of big swing emotions and high stakes we miss in our studio blockbusters.  That you have to work a little harder at the beginning to worm your way into the story makes the finale all the more poignant.  Second place was An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake, and I Think I Believe It for pure ingenuity and charm, and then My Year of Dicks for being the most direct with its voice and on-target humor.  Speaking of the male organ, The Flying Sailor‘s animation is pleasing to the eye, even with the copious amounts of hand-drawn dingus.  The one I actively do not want to win, noble intentions aside, is The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse.  That kind of unrelenting emotional inwardness is fine for the written page where it came from, but the film is unbearably goopy.

Movie Review ~ The 2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action


This category often acts as a first-look testing ground for short films that will inspire full-length features. While I usually like warming up to the nominees that feel like a more singular, contained effort, my favorite Live Action Short Film of 2023 is the one I’d like to see expanded on. A few choices in this group could make an intriguing movie; uniformly, it’s one of the stronger years for the category.

An Irish Goodbye (Directed by Tom Berkeley, Ross White)
Synopsis: On a farm in rural Northern Ireland, estranged brothers Turlough and Lorcan are forced to reunite following their mother’s untimely death.
Clearly, An Irish Goodbye is one of those nominees destined for bigger (longer) things.  The directors have composed a short and sweet tale of two brothers spending time with one another after their mother passed away.  One brother has moved off of their tiny Irish farm and now lives in the big city, and the other, with a developmental delay, has stayed behind.  Life will change for both, and neither is ready for this shift.  Bound together by their mom’s bucket list, the big city brother has a major decision to make before they cross off the final task.  I could see where a viewer would find this overly saccharine and pandering, but it worked right in my comfort zone, and I’d heartily sign up for a full-length feature.

Ivalu (Directed by Anders Walter, Pipaluk K. Jørgensen)
Ivalu is gone.  Her little sister is desperate to find her.  Her father does not care.  The vast Greenlandic nature holds secrets.  Where is Ivalu?
Already an Oscar winner for his 2014 short Helium, director Anders Walter pairs with fellow Danish director Pipaluk K. Jørgensen for the dream-like Ivalu.  Following a sister’s quest to find her sister through a picturesque yet haunting Greenland backdrop, it boils down to an overly simple examination of the dangers lurking inside your home.  On the shorter end of the nominees, as beautiful as the film was visually, it’s as cold as the icy locales that are shot so elegantly. You’ll wish it all added up to something more.

Le Pupille
(Directed by Alice Rohrwacher)
From writer and director Alice Rohrwacher and Academy Award® winning producer Alfonso Cuarón, Le Pupille is a tale of innocence, greed, and fantasy.  This live-action short is about desires, pure and selfish, freedom and devotion, and the anarchy capable of flowering in girls’ minds within the confines of a strict religious boarding school at Christmas.
This is a strange one but delightful in its way.  Produced by Alfonso Cuarón and available now on Disney+, Le Pupille is the only nominee that felt like an actual “Short Film” in that it has a beginning, middle, and end.  I wouldn’t imagine we’d return to the small Catholic boarding school in Italy and the mischievous young girls there.  This Christmas tale is “clumsily adapted” from an actual letter received and is told through traditional narrative and a few songs here and there. It’s very much in line with the whimsy Cuarón brought to his adaptation of A Little Princess in 1995 but I can see even older, more mature children not knowing quite what to make of this oddball short.

Night Ride (Nattrikken)
(Directed by Eirik Tveiten)
It is a cold night in December.  As Ebba waits for the tram, an unexpected turn of events transforms the ride home into something she was not expecting.
Despite some unfortunate ugliness around the ¾ mark, Night Ride pulls into the station as a charming slice-of-life short film notable for its leading performance.  Sigrid Kandal Husjord plays a woman just wanting to get warm on the train home, but the driver has to take a scheduled break and won’t let her on for another half hour and leaves the tram unattended.  Undeterred, she decides to risk it, pry the doors open, and sit down, only to find they won’t shut.  Thinking she’s found the button to close them, she presses it…only to find the train pulling away from the station instead.  The magic of the movie rests in Husjord’s face as she a) realizes what she’s done and b) comes to understand her situation and rolls with it.  What happens next is a little dangerous, kinda funny, a bit cringe, but ultimately genuine.

The Red Suitcase (Directed by Cyrus Neshvad)
Synopsis: An Iranian girl decides to remove her Headscarf/Hijab in a life-changing situation.
Review: Here’s a nail-biter for you, even if it tends to trade in several conveniences that only exist in the movies.  A young woman arrives at the deserted Luxembourg airport late at night, and from text messages, we understand she’s there to meet the man who will become her husband through an arranged marriage.  A security door is the only thing between her and a life she hasn’t chosen.  A security check of her sole possession, a red suitcase, shows a young woman who dreams of freedom.  The subsequent events have the new arrival narrowly evading her intended groom while trying to exit the airport.  The central performance from Nawelle Ewad is fantastic; I only wish the screenplay didn’t always find a way for the cat-and-mouse game to become such a close match in the vast airport.

Final Thoughts: Of these unusually solid selections (past years have been hit or miss, with few standouts), I responded most to An Irish Goodbye, and it’s likely because it’s the most commercial (not a bad thing, mind you) and the only short that left me wanting to know more.  The Red Suitcase could also easily be filled out to 80-90 minutes, giving the director more of an opportunity to flesh out his intriguing characters.  I can see Academy voters finding a good amount of joy in Le Pupille or simply marking it down because it has Alfonso Cuarón’s name attached to it.  Night Ride has a leading character I’d welcome in a different story down the road, and Ivalu, while beautifully photographed, was ultimately too cold to the touch for me.

Movie Review ~ Scream VI

The Facts:

Synopsis: The survivors of the Ghostface killings leave Woodsboro behind and start a fresh chapter in New York City, only to again be plagued by a streak of murders by a new killer.
Stars: Melissa Barrera, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Jenna Ortega, Hayden Panettiere, Courteney Cox, Jack Champion, Henry Czerny, Liana Liberato, Dermot Mulroney, Devyn Nekoda, Tony Revolori, Josh Segarra, Samara Weaving
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Rated: R
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Despite winding up raking in a cool $140 million at the box office, the resurrection of the Scream franchise in January of 2022 was a regrettably sloppy affair. Although it was nice to see the return of OG cast members Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courteney Cox, the three were primarily relegated to the sidelines until they either needed to be killed (RIP Dewey) or kick butt (the film’s most significant thrills were derived from Campbell’s iconic character demonstrating her final girl moxie). That left the bulk of the fifth installment to be carried by weak leads and a mediocre script laced with the kind of juvenile dialogue you’d overhear the next booth over at an Applebee’s. 

That’s why I wasn’t hoping this sixth chapter would be anything better. Moved into production quickly and losing Campbell just as fast to a pay dispute, the newest round with Ghostface would find Cox the longest-surviving cast member. At the same time, fan-favorite Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby from Scream 4 would fill some of the nostalgia quotients Campbell vacated. Moving locations was another risk returning writers James Vanderbilt, and Guy Busick took, shifting coasts from the warm coast of Woodsboro, CA, to the shadowy streets of NYC. 

It turns out that a change of scenery was the magic touch needed to kick Scream VI into the high gear necessary for a more aggressively entertaining entry than its predecessor. Almost from the beginning, you can feel a greater focus on developing the characters past the surface, making it mean something when they are dispatched through grueling and gruesome methods. As is often the case with sequels (according to Randy’s “rules”), the body count is higher, the production is more extensive, and anyone is fair game not to make it to the final credits.

Have no fear – the remainder of this review is spoiler-free and will only speak to the essential plot elements. I will assume you’ve seen 2022’s Scream, though. I would caution you to avoid any/all trailers released so far for this new installment. I went in completely blind to Scream VI, and I’m glad I did. Watching the trailers after the fact made me realize how many of the film’s surprising moments or interesting reveals are spoiled in advance, thanks to the marketing materials. If only studios would have more faith in their audiences and keep something hidden for paying customers!

A year after the horrific events in Woodsboro, sisters Samantha and Tara Carpenter and twins Chad and Mindy Meeks live in New York City while the twins and Tara attend Blackmore College. As Sam (Melissa Barrera, Carmen) deals with the knowledge of her link to original killer Billy Loomis and subsequent internet rumors regarding her involvement with the slayings, she remains protective over Tara (Jenna Ortega, X), who is just trying to hold down a typical college experience. A shocking set of murders disturbs whatever peace they seek, though, and soon their friend group is dwindling as a cunning killer dropping clues from the past slices their way closer and closer. 

Clocking in as the longest Scream film to date gives directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (aka Radio Silence, responsible for the fun Ready or Not) more breathing room to let the movie’s first half build up the characters and interpersonal relationships more. That means when the violence does occur, it’s all the more shocking because it’s crashing through this continued healing the self-named Core Four are attempting to achieve. Thankfully, Sam and Tara’s new roommate Quinn (Liana Liberato, To the Stars) has an NYC cop (Dermot Mulroney, The Inhabitant) for a dad, and he teams up with FBI Agent and fellow Ghostface survivor Kirby Reed (Panettiere, Remember the Titans) to check out the potential killer. 

The list of suspects is long…at least at the beginning. No sooner does Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sound of Violence) start taking a hard look at the potential killers than the natural process of elimination gets real bloody real quick. Stopping by to help out is legacy survivor Gale Weathers (Cox, You Cannot Kill David Arquette), now based in NY and eager to get to the bottom of who has started up another cycle of killings she is all too familiar with. Vanderbilt and Busick have several nice twists at the ready, keeping the viewer second-guessing whodunit it right up until the reveal, and it’s to everyone’s credit that the film has more than enough steam to keep the suspense high as it builds to a satisfying finale.

More than the previous three entries, Scream VI feels like a sequel that has matured dramatically from one installment to the next. It’s quite like Scream 2 in that regard (in several ways, actually), and perhaps that’s why I think Scream fans will respond to this one so well. There’s more emphasis on suspense here than violence, with a return to the nail-biting terror that served the first two Wes Craven-directed entries so well. I’m well aware this isn’t the last we’ll see of Ghostface, or these characters, so let’s hope this trilogy builds on the strong note Scream VI has struck.

Movie Review ~ Creed III

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Unseen

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ The Quiet Girl

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ We Have a Ghost

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ My Happy Ending

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman (1989)

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania


The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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