Movie Review ~ No Exit (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: During a blizzard and stranded at an isolated highway rest stop in the mountains, a college student discovers a kidnapped child hidden in a car belonging to one of the people inside.
Stars: Havana Rose Liu, Dale Dickey, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl, Mila Harris, Dennis Haysbert
Director: Damien Power
Rated: R
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  A few short weeks ago, Oscar-nominated director Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) took us on his second Agatha Christie excursion with the decently received remake of Death on the Nile. I’d read the book and seen previous adaptations, so the developments didn’t shock me much, but it did make me crave for another film that offered up a game of “guess the psycho” where I could participate. It turns out I didn’t have to wait long for my turn because 20th Century Studios and Hulu are releasing No Exit, an adaptation of Taylor Adams’s popular 2018 novel. I’d gotten about halfway through the trailer for this snowbound film but had to turn it off, so I didn’t have anything spoiled too much, but what I did see promised a tight thriller.

Thankfully, this is a case of getting what you expected because No Exit is one of those films you remember from back in the day. The kind you’d see with friends on a Friday night at your local theater, enjoy, but almost totally forget all the details of by the time Monday rolled around. That’s not a knock against director Damien Power’s well-directed suspense yarn, and it’s high praise from me because these are the kinds of films I’m downright starving for right about now. Studios and streaming services seem opposed to making this popcorn entertainment, but it’s how the best kind of loyal audiences was fed and nurtured twenty years ago. They kept the box office going during the doldrum months between peak movie season, which is when many of these genre films were often dumped into theaters and quickly turned into hits the production companies desperately needed. The rise of at-home entertainment and focus on franchise meant these mid-budget thrillers got sent packing, but lately I’m seeing a nice resurgence of these, along with audience support.  

I’m going to walk back slightly what I just said in that earlier paragraph about No Exit coming off like a film you’d expect because I didn’t want to imply it’s predictable in the least. Sure, there are moments in the story of Darby, a troubled young woman at an isolated, locked-down recovery center that feel like you know what will happen next. More often than not, however, there’s a hairpin turn in the adaptation from Ant-Man and the Wasp screenwriters Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari you didn’t see coming because you were already distracted by another dangerous twist on your other side. When Darby (Havana Rose Liu, The Sky Is Everywhere) receives a phone call that her mother has suffered a trauma and might not survive, she breaks out of the facility, steals a car, and hits the road hoping to make it to the hospital before it’s too late. She wasn’t counting on a winter storm to consume her route, though.

Re-directed by a highway patrol officer to a rest stop in the woods off the highway, Darby is the fifth person arriving to wait out the storm until the roads are cleared. Traveling married couple Sandi (Dale Dickey, Palm Springs) and Ed (Dennis Haysbert, Far From Heaven) have some parental instinct to make sure she’s ok but mostly keep to themselves while the strange Lars (David Rysdahl, Nine Days) busies himself with a deck of playing cards. Ash (Danny Ramirez, Valley Girl) is asleep on the bench, and there is no Wi-Fi connection inside the building that is undergoing renovations. When Darby steps out in the bitter cold to try and snag a signal, she finds a kidnapping victim in one of the vehicles…but doesn’t know who owns which car. 

The Christie vibe existing in No Exit kicks in right about here as Darby now has four suspects to size up, three of which could be allies and one of whom is a kidnapper biding their time so they can be on their way. Don’t be discouraged if it’s revealed earlier than you might expect who owns the van because it’s the tip of an iceberg that goes deeper than you’ll know. It’s compact fun watching the events unfold, almost as if in real-time and nearly all through the eyes of the ever-present and always captivating Liu. Rarely off-screen for long, Liu has a lot of the movie to carry on her own without much dialogue. Still, she powers through it with a ferocity that’s intriguing to develop over 90 minutes. I also always enjoy seeing Dickey show up anywhere because her choice of roles tends toward the unexpected, and Haysbert continues to be a dependable force onscreen. As the two young men holed up in the visitor’s center, Ramirez and Rysdahl might be the perfect red herrings, or maybe they’re demented killers, but neither actor shows their cards, even during a breathless get-to-know-you card game.

One thing that did take me off guard, and at times out of No Exit completely, was the high amount of shocking violence. It’s far more viscerally gory and cruel than I was expecting, and Power doesn’t hold back with a handful of scenes that get hard to watch because of their brutality. I pegged this one to be a bit more of the sleepover-friendly variety, but it’s been pitched for adult-oriented members of the genre fandom. Think of it as a lark that the new breed of Scream community activists might enjoy. Thankfully, while it isn’t an outright excuse, the violence does have a point and nicely ties into the final act’s arc. Not every movie in this type of niche can say the same.

Movie Review ~ Death on the Nile (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short.
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 127 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  It’s probably a good idea to let you in on a little secret now, lest I be caught in a dramatic reveal later. In many ways, the original 1978 Death on the Nile, a sequel to the 1974 Oscar-winning Murder on the Orient Express, exceeds its predecessor. It’s got stunning visuals, a tight script with multiple zingers flying around when murder isn’t taking center stage, and delightful Oscar-winning costumes. If the cast doesn’t match the original as equally for all-out star wattage, they are absolutely enough heavy hitters to cover any shortage of incandescence. Of all the outings Peter Ustinov took on Agatha Christie’s famous Inspector Hercule Poirot (1982’s Evil Under the Sun, 1988’s Appointment with Death, and several made for television films), this is by far the most deluxe.

That’s why for as much as I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s first excursion as Poirot in his 2017 remake of Murder on the Orient Express, I felt my heart flutter at the end when it was strongly implied the authorities needed Poirot in Egypt next. While it made no sense in terms of the plot of Death of the Nile, for fans hoping the Belgian detective could have a new mainstream life, this was a promising sign of confidence. Mere weeks after Murder on the Orient Express arrived in theaters around the globe, 20th Century Fox let it slip that indeed they were already planning to remake Death on the Nile and they hoped to release it by Christmas of 2019. 

With Branagh (Belfast)  back on board and another starry cast assembled, the film went through some rough waters during production and wasn’t even complete until the final days of 2019, eventually moved to an October 2020 release date. First the team had to battle back lousy press brought on by one of its leading men (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) and the eyebrow-raising allegations against him. Then with the pandemic remaining in full force, 20th Century Studios (now owned by Disney, so the Fox was dropped) had no choice but to continue to delay the release until early 2022. Death on the Nile is now dropping anchor in theaters a full two years after principal photography had completed and over a year since its original release date – and it sounds like moviegoers still aren’t sure if they want. It’s hard to wrap your mind around a movie filled with so many stars that began production with such promise could wind up arriving with such indecision.

All of this information we’ve gone over in the past three paragraphs would be sad news to report if Branagh’s sequel were a strong showing for him and his cast. Yet there’s an oddity to much of Death of the Nile which hangs over it like a gaseous cloud, often paralyzing the critical external parts of the story in favor of more internal moments that don’t work as well Branagh thinks that they do. I know that Branagh’s Poirot shouldn’t be expected to perform just like Ustinov, Albert Finney, or the incomparable David Suchet. He still should be consistent from scene to scene, though. While a prologue giving clues to Poirot’s origins (at least his mustache) is appreciated from a filmmaking standpoint, it perhaps tells us too much about a man that is in large part designed to be the aloof observer.

Always in the right place at the right time, Poirot is in a club to hear famous blues guitarist Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, Hellboy) sing and catches the moment Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot, Red Notice) first meets Simon Doyle (Hammer) and they fall in love. Of course, Simon’s been introduced to Linnet by her friend and his girlfriend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), and Jackie doesn’t take the rejection very well, eventually showing up at Linnet and Simon’s wedding celebration in Egypt, where Poirot happens to be vacationing. Attempting to get away from Jackie showing up when they least expect it, Linnet and Simon charter a steamer boat for their wedding party to spend a few days on. Of course, Hercule is invited…and of course, Jackie finds her way aboard the ship eventually as well.

Up until this point, screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) has gone ahead and given Christie’s 1937 novel a nice knuckle twist, removing characters or changing their professions to better fit into the narrative that chooses to focus on the romance of the situation more than the mystery. Pairing people off is usually the kiss of death in these thrillers because they could be going away with a murderer. Still, Branagh appears content to get people alone with one another, only to express their innermost thoughts. The vulnerability he begins to show as Poirot to Okonedo’s character gets off-putting; you don’t want to see Poirot this thrown off his game. Adding in Annette Bening (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) as the side-eye glancing mother of Tom Bateman’s (Snatched) returning character Bouc is a coup of casting, but because the characters weren’t in the original novel, it’s no wonder the lauded actress can often feel like an afterthought.

However, someone has to get killed for a case to get opened at a certain point. While I won’t reveal who that is (and, good for those editors, the trailers have done a great job concealing the person(s?) that don’t make it back to shore with their blood still circulating), at least when the mystery does take over Green doesn’t change the precision in which Christie plotted out the crime. I don’t think Branagh has a tight grasp on this one as he did Orient Express. However, the film is still an entertaining watch because of performances like Gadot (proving she can play something other than Wonder Woman) and especially Okonedo, who steals each scene she’s in. Okonedo understands the assignment and while I missed the character being a tipsy romance novelist, recasting her as a Sister Rosetta Tharpe-style performer is a good touch.

The bad news is that the filmmakers still had to deal with Hammer, and no amount of new camera angles or clever editing can fix that. You don’t see Hammer’s face full-on for a good ten minutes…and that’s weird when everyone else has had an establishing shot. I also feel there were other scenes he was in that were trimmed or cut out because he vanishes for significant stretches. The most unenviable task falls on comedy duo Jennifer Saunders (Isn’t It Romantic) and Dawn French playing a socialite and her nurse/companion, Bette Davis and Maggie Smith’s exact roles in the original. Davis and Smith were so riotously funny that anyone who follows could never match up, even with a storyline smoothed out to be less vague in one particular aspect.

As with most Christie yarns, even when the mystery is solved, it doesn’t mean that the suffering is over, and Branagh chooses to learn into that notion hard during Death on the Nile. That leaves the viewer in a cold spot as the film reaches the end of its voyage, in a place with far less hope than where we began or where we left off at the end of Orient Express. I’m not so sure we’ll see Branagh’s Poirot again. I hope we do because I want to see what he could handle next. I wish they’d resist the urge to change Poirot to fit a modern ideal, though. This Belgian operates in a specific time and place. 

Movie Review ~ The King’s Man

The Facts:  

Synopsis: As a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds gather to plot a war to wipe out millions, one man must race against time to stop them. 

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Stanley Tucci, Valerie Pachner 

Director: Matthew Vaughn 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here 

TMMM Score: (7.5/10) 

Review:  Back in 2014, Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of the real delights of the year.  An out-of-left field adaptation of a comic book by Mark Millar, director Matthew Vaughn turned it into a high-octane thrill ride and firmly introduced Taron Egerton to audiences in the process.  The 2017 sequel, subtitled The Golden Circle, promised way more than it delivered (i.e. we got far less of the American sector of the spy ring, including Channing Tatum than we were originally thought) and even I was surprised a third entry, a prequel, was greenlit by the studio.  Then the 20th Century Fox merger with Disney happened and, once complete, the pandemic lockdown hit…so it’s been a whole five years since our audiences last travelled to the Saville row shop which acts as home base for this ring of crime fighters.

With all these delays and having to introduce series fans to an entirely new cast of players, how surprising, then, to find that after two raucous films, The King’s Man is often more of a historic war drama in a similar vein to 1917 with a revisionist edge. Chock-a-block with cameos and not above a major rug pull impossible to predict, an already intriguing universe expands…and quite nicely.  If the previous films were more party than hearty, this one prefers to take its time and arrive fashionably late to the festivities.  It may be later than series fans want, but I found the wait to be worth it.

After an opening prologue in turn of the century South Africa that sets up some of the lasting relationship issues between aristocrat Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes, No Time to Die) and his son Conrad (played as an adult by Harris Dickinson, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), we jump ahead to the early days of World War I.  Due to his status, Conrad wouldn’t have to sign up to fight but it’s what he desperately wants.  Orlando, on the other hand, isn’t willing to let his son be served up for sacrifice because of a war started (as we are led to believe thanks to Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek’s loose screenplay) by a three-way tantrum between royal cousins manipulated by an unseen enemy pulling the strings from a mountaintop lair. It falls to the men to stop the ring of spys preventing the U.S. from entering the war with Europe if there is to be any hope of the U.K. surviving.

Aside from dealings with King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas (all played by Tom Hollander, Bohemian Rhapsody), Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner, A Hidden Life), Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, and another historical figure revealed so close to the end that I’d classify it as a spoiler, the films somewhat centerpiece revolves around a meeting with the infamous Rasputin.  Played with typical over-the-top delight by Rhys Ifans (Spider-Man: No Way Home), the character is marvelous in its design to be crass and creepy while still working within the context of the movie.  Your eyes will definitely bug out at one point during his meeting with the Oxford men – especially in one particular moment of craziness that’s become typical of any Vaughn film.

Overall, The King’s Man is playful, if violently wild with its tonal tidal shifts. Throw out whatever adherence to history you may come in with because the movie isn’t interested in accuracy in the least and its breezy way of tearing up the textbook approach becomes more fun if you just go with the flow. Best to report is the positioning of Fiennes as a quite appealing hero, proving again he’s always game for subversive fun. Same goes for Djimon Hounsou (A Quiet Place II), an eternally underrated supporting player. I’d re-up for another adventure with these two, but you can leave Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) off the roster.  While I always appreciate having a female perspective in the boy’s club, there wasn’t much happening with this character or Arterton’s performance that made much of an impression. Capping off the threequel is a dandy song sung by FKAtwigs that would have been perfect had it been accompanied by a creative end credit sequence. If you liked the first two entries in the Kingsman franchise and are prepared for measured change, this one should suit you nicely

Movie Review ~ The Last Duel

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1386, Marguerite de Carrouges claims to have been raped by her husband’s best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris. Her husband, knight Jean de Carrouges, challenges him to trial by combat, the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history.

Stars: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathaniel Parker, Michael McElhatton, Alex Lawther

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the big summer effects bonanzas being on hold for an entire year and the prestigious costume dramas pushed out for better positioning at award chances to later in 2021 or even 2022, audiences have been lacking in the area of the grand epic for going on two years.  Sure, we’ve had the occasional Marvel film here and there to satiate some sense of wonder but I’m talking about those films that make you feel like you’re back in Hollywood’s heyday when everything was made on a studio lot and extras numbered in the thousands.  As recently as a decade ago we were still getting these movies, but they’ve taken a backseat to films that are easier to produce with limited involvement from humans that are added in post-production.  The sets aren’t real, and the overall ambiance feels phony…making the stakes not feel quite as high for historical epics involving swords, sandals, arrows, chainmail, etc.

One director out there hasn’t shied away from continuing on the legacy of the epic and that’s Ridley Scott, a filmmaker often taken a bit for granted in the business for his tendency to lean into fare of the sheer entertainment variety.  Though primarily an action director, he was also behind Thelma & Louise, Matchstick Men, and A Good Year so he is known to stretch when the mood suits him.  That lighter touch helps a bit in Scott’s newest film, The Last Duel, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 non-fiction novel “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat” which details the final legally recognized duel that was fought in France.  One man is accused by another of the most heinous act of violation against his wife, a charge that leads them to the highest court in the country where they leave it in God’s hands to decide who is telling the truth.  If the defendant dies during the duel, it will prove the woman was telling the truth.  If the accused comes out of the duel alive and kills his accuser, well then, he is telling the truth and the man’s wife will be burned alive for her lie.  Not the soundest execution of justice and back in 2019 when the film was first announced, not the most promising of a plot description for a town just settling into the first wave of post #MeToo productions.

Adapted by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (yes, they did win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting), the two were wise to ask Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to join them in their journey in bringing Jager’s novel to the screen.  This not only brought some needed balance to the screenplay and gave a stronger voice overall to the script but allowed for the central female character to not be written from just one point of view.  The result is a surprisingly swift feature broken into three chapters that tell the same story, just from the perspectives of different characters.  Employing a Rashomon-style technique in storytelling isn’t anything revelatory but in the hands of pros like Scott and his cast, the small similarities and even smaller subtle differences unique to each version of events keeps this one in a gripping space where the edge of your seat moments extend far beyond what happens during the titular duel.

Audiences are wise to buckle up and pay attention for the first thirty minutes which sets the stage for the friendship and eventual rivalry between knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon, The Martian) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Annette).  Though Carrouges has the more noble name and throws himself into harm’s way for the honor of his king, he’s unliked by most that know and fight alongside him because of his selfishness and constant need for recognition.  That’s the opposite of Le Gris who, at least at first, is content to just be welcomed in by people in a higher status and be a trusted confidant.  Over time, this skill with ingratiating himself to nobility pushes Le Gris ahead of Carrouges, a sleight that causes a rift in the friendship that cannot be mended.

While the men are sorting out their business, widower Carrouges meets and marries his second wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) and moves her in with his cruel mother (wickedly nasty Harriet Walter, Herself) who picks away at her while he is away in battle.  Unable to conceive a child during their years together, the two are at odds when he takes a trip to the city the same day his mother decides to leave Marguerite alone for the day.  Of course this is the same day Le Gris, who has been obsessed with Marguerite ever since meeting her when Carrouges decided to bury the hatchet, pays a visit. 

Some version of these events plays out three times until this point and it mostly is the same story with tiny tweaks to attitudes depending on who is telling the tale.  In Carrouges version, Marguerite is much more docile, to hear Le Gris tell it, Marguerite was flirting with him and encouraged his visit, but in Marguerite’s retelling, or ‘The Truth’ as the words linger longer on the screen insinuate, neither man read the signs correctly. Watching different iterations also means audiences have to witness a brutal rape twice so here’s your warning this unpleasant encounter is on display and though absent of nudity or gore, is more gruesome than anything that plays out later in the vicious battle royale between Carrouges and Le Gris.  Can a scene like this be shot with any kind of sensitivity?  I doubt it, but Comer bravely gives it her all and Scott allows her room to breathe.

Speaking of Comer, with the amount of male energy flying around and the dueling taking up such a major piece of the action, it’s saying something the actress is far and away the winner of the evening when the credits roll.  Making a splash on television even before her award-winning run in the acclaimed spy series Killing Eve, Comer graduates to the A-list with a star making (and surely Oscar nominated) turn as a woman unwilling to back down or be intimidated from anyone or anything, even a horrific threat of death.  Already victimized once, she refuses to go through it again via her husband or even the highest court in the land…and believe me, the court sure tries. 

Backing Comer up in the acting department are Damon and Driver who dial back their oft-tendency to grandstand with Driver in particular making a strong case for himself as capable of even more than his most loyal fans have thought.  True, he’s playing a pretty despicable guy but for a while he’s almost endearing and definitely more tolerable than Damon’s character.  I mean, the hair alone on Carrouges is enough to drive you crazy.  In past films, Damon tends to gnaw at the scenery when he gets worked up but anytime Affleck (Live by Night) is onscreen in The Last Duel there’s nothing left to consume because he’s swallowed up the entire caravan of costumes by Janty Yates (Prometheus) and the sumptuous set decorations courtesy of Judy Farr (Rocketman).  Of all the people that were bound to overact, I wasn’t expecting it to be Affleck but with his blond hair and a blond goatee that looks like a tennis ball was just cut in half and stuck on his pointy chin, it’s a performance that treks into high camp.  And he doesn’t even go all the way with it.  There are several scenes where his lothario character is meant to be scampering around chasing after women and they’re all naked and he’s fully clothed – we all know this character would be naked as a jaybird without a care in the world.  It’s a small detail but became a major one in my mind considering what the movie puts the Comer character through.

I initially thought I’d find long jags of the film slow but with Scott at the helm it moves like a locomotive, peppered here and there with his trademark flair for a well-staged battle scene.  With the R-rating firmly in place he’s able to make these incredibly violent and in your face, leading up to and including the final duel between the two men.  It all makes for an experience that has a solid impact with parallels to victim-blaming that resonate even today.  The Last Duel might be about the final official battle over honor in France, but it leaves audiences with the recognition that the war was just beginning.

Movie Review ~ Vacation Friends

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple meets up with another couple while on vacation in Mexico, but their friendship takes an awkward turn when they get back home.

Stars: John Cena, Lil Rel Howery, Meredith Hagner, Yvonne Orji, Robert Wisdom, Andrew Bachelor, Lynn Whitfield

Director: Clay Tarver

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’ve a sneaking suspicion that had Vacation Friends arrived on schedule before production was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that I might not have been as keen to it as I wound up being.  Let’s be clear, this is one of those Jumbo Margarita drinks of a film. The kind with sugar on the rim instead of salt.  It’s meant to melt your troubles away as a carefully designed frothy concoction of the easiest parts of a comedy (slapstick, foul language, embarrassing situations) that’s served up in a sweet package to go down easier than it ever really should.  Toss in a game quartet of leads and a director smart enough to let his actors do most of the work in helping move the dial toward success and you have a perfect blend for a sunny summer comedy that aims to please.

Marcus (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and his girlfriend Emily (Yvonne Orji, Night School) have arrived at their luxury Mexican resort to a less than amazing reception.  Their room is flooded thanks to the couple above them leaving the water running in their massive jacuzzi. This not only leaves Marcus and Emily without a place to stay but it seriously messes up the planned proposal Marcus had organized for Emily.  Just as Marcus is about to lose his cool, the other couple shows up and hearing about the newly engaged arrivals insists that the room-less duo stay with them…at least for the evening.  Ron (John Cena, Dolittle) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner, Brightburn) like to party and after loosening up their new guests with a little adult beverage and perhaps an illegal substance or two, the four spend the next days on adventures before their final night when things get a little too out of control.

Seven months later it’s time for wedding bells to ring for Emily and Marcus, but at their Atlanta welcome reception who should show up but their friends from Mexico, shocked to not receive an invite to the nuptials.  Now it’s Marcus and Emily’s turn to host Ron and Kyla for the week, during which time they’ll learn more about the brazen pair they barely knew for a few days in Mexico and also find out how Kyla got pregnant…even though Ron had previously told them he couldn’t have children.  Could something have happened that last night in Mexico that no one can remember?  As the wedding date draws near and tensions rise between Marcus and Emily’s father (Robert Wisdom, The Dark Knight Rises), revelations come to light that might alter the “I Do’s” to “I Don’ts”.

What’s nice to see is that the trailer for Vacation Friends leaves out a large chunk of the movie that takes place in Mexico…and that’s a decent amount of laughs audiences have yet to discover.  Though written by five screenwriters (oy, five?), the script doesn’t seem as choppy as the writing staff would suggest, not even when the film gets to a third act that could quite easily have gotten messy with a number of plot points to juggle.  Director Clay Tarver mostly turns the film over to the likes of Howery and Cena and gives them mostly free reign to have fun with both their roles and the script – smart move.  While we know Howery could make magic out of mice droppings, Cena’s timing is spot-on throughout and in his third movie of the summer (F9: The Fast Saga in June, The Suicide Squad in early August) he finally strikes at the golden role he’s been working toward.  The tightly wound Howery’s immeasurable charm certainly helps keep things movie as well.  Let’s not forget the contributions of Orji or Hagner either, both women hold their own alongside their partners and often outshine them in their own individual scenes. And hey, it was nice to see them being given these scenes in the first place when all the screenwriters are men!

I’d dock Vacation Friends a few points for failing to utilize a talented supporting cast of veteran actors like Chuck Cooper, Lynn Whitfield, and Anna Maria Horsford more thoroughly and also because it tends to lose all of its steam in several big huffs along the way to the altar, which starts to tire you out near the end.  It has to work with some efficiency to get back into its groove, and it eventually does, but moments like a strange drug trip in the forest come off like a bad idea that no one had the nerve to shoot down.  Not for nothing, but I was never less than completely amused and engaged for the entire length of the feature. Perhaps it was just the right movie for my mood at that particular moment, or maybe Vacation Friends is just a solid chunk of entertainment that isn’t (and doesn’t have to) unseat anything at the box office.

Movie Review ~ The Woman in the Window (2021)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An agoraphobic woman living alone in New York begins spying on her new neighbors only to witness a disturbing act of violence.

Stars: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Once upon a time, the big screen adaptation of a best-selling suspense novel would have been cause for some semblance of celebration.  Bringing to life characters readers had only imagined and finding the right way to recreate the puzzle the author had designed might be a challenge but when everything lined up perfectly the result was a surefire blockbuster that left fans of the novel happy and movie studios flush with cash.  Saturation of the market over the past decade has led to novels being written like adaptations of movie scripts…almost like the writers were already imagining the hefty checks they’d receive for selling the rights to the film versions.  So, while we’d get the rare winner like David Fincher’s sleek take on Gillian Flynn’s unstoppable hit Gone Girl and, to a lesser extent, an effectively serviceable read on Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train two years later, the number of page to screen adaptations was on the decline.

While it wasn’t ever going to change the dial significantly on this downward trend, 20th Century Fox’s release of A.J. Finn’s megahit novel The Woman in the Window at least represented a rarefied bit of sophistication in a genre that wasn’t always known for its refinement.  Helmed by Joe Wright, a director with a fine track record for telling visually appealing films that had a deeply rooted emotional core and adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (who also appears in the film), no stranger himself to adapting work for other mediums, the film seemed like it had prestige in its very building blocks.  Add in a coveted cast with a combined total of 14 Oscar nominations between them and you can see why initial buzz had this, like Gone Girl, on many an early shortlist as potential awards candy upon its release. 

Then the problems began.

First, and this was going on even before the film got off the ground, author A.J. Finn was revealed to be a pseudonym for Dan Mallory, an executive editor at publisher William Morrow and Company who published the novel.  Mallory’s shady past came to light in a earth scorching article published in the New Yorker which detailed how he very likely lied, cheated, and schemed his way through his educational upbringing and career to date.  That this was reignited during the film’s production did no favors for it’s promotional promises.  Then early test screenings received poor scores leading to reshoots and rewrites, which isn’t uncommon, but the poisonous word spread fast that the movie was in trouble. 

Caught in the crosshairs of the Fox/Disney merger, the finished film languished in limbo until Disney sold it off to Netflix who adios-ed a theatrical release because of the pandemic and is now releasing it a full year after its originally announced date.  Adding unspoken insult to injury, the cast and production team are doing no press for the film…making it look like no one has any confidence in it.   Really, who can blame them?  The past year the film has been made a mockery of by gossip hungry columnists, bloggers, and podcasters and the punchline of many jokes at its expense.  The movie and its actors have been set-up to fail, and I’d say that many of those reviewing the film are going in prepared to dislike it and ravage it just because it’s an easy target. 

I’m happy to spoil their fun and report that The Woman in the Window isn’t anywhere as bad as we’ve been led to believe nor is it even a minor misstep compared to some of the dreck major studios still put out and screen a number of times before opening wide.  A film lost in the shuffle of studios in flux and the victim of negative press because of its author, the tumble it has taken shouldn’t be a signifier of the quality of the effort of those involved.  It may take a while for the cord to be pulled tight for viewers, but once Wright (Anna Karenina) and Letts (Lady Bird) stop trying to find a way to emulate Finn’s inner monologue narrative of the leading lady and start bringing their own strengths to their responsibilities, the movie truly takes off with a bang.

Agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, American Hustle) doesn’t have much to do but wander around her spacious NY brownstone in between getting blackout drunk on glasses of wine and watching film noir.  Separated from her husband and her child because of a trauma that slowly comes into focus, her fear of leaving the house has gotten so bad she can’t even take one step out of her front door without passing out from anxiety.  One of her comforts is keeping track of the goings-on in the neighborhood and its her luck the house across the street has a new family that will soon become a major part of her life. 

She first meets Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger, News of the World) when he comes to drop off a housewarming gift and shortly thereafter meets his mother (Julianne Moore, Still Alice).  When Alastair Russell (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour) pays her a visit, his greeting is chillier which might explain why Anna sees the family fighting later and then a scream in the night followed by what looks like Ethan’s mother covered in blood.  Calling the police (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) to investigate turns up nothing suspicious in the house but a different woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) claiming to be Alastair’s wife.  Convinced of what she saw and determined to prove the Russell’s are hiding something, Anna does what she can from the confines of her house to find out what happened to the woman she met days earlier.  However, with her new neighbors on to her snooping, a basement tenant (Wyatt Russell, Overlord) with a violent past, and secrets of her own that may implicate more than we’re aware of initially, is there any one person we can honestly trust?

Fans of the book will be pleased with the way Letts brought Finn’s book to life, tightening up some of the crinkly edges of his storytelling and removing complexities that made an already hard to swallow situation that much more far-fetched.  It’s still achingly reminiscent of third-rate Hitchcock (take a shot every time you think of Vertigo or Rear Window…and for that matter drink a whole whiskey highball for the film’s outright duplication of 1995’s excellent CopyCat) but considering how chintzy it could have been in less assured hands, this comes off as far classier than it has any right to be. 

Speaking of (W)right, credit goes to the director for elevating the film with his eye for detail and willingness to take chances on some striking visuals that leave an impression.  No spoilers but at one point Anna sees something inside the brownstone that shouldn’t be there, and it’s so beautifully shot that you forget for a moment you’re watching a thriller.  In the same breath, I’ll say there’s also an icky bit of cheek-y gruesomeness that was so shocking I gasped…and not one of those quick whisps of air kind of gasps but the type you hear when you’ve been underwater for three minutes and just reached the surface.

Did anyone come out of Hillbilly Elegy looking as bad as Adams?  Say what you will about the source material, some of director Ron Howard’s choices, and a few of the supporting performances, but for an established actress like Adams to turn in such a tacky routine was incredibly disappointing.  In all honesty, The Woman in the Window doesn’t start out great for her either and I began to wonder if Adams hadn’t lost a little of that luster that made her so appealing when she burst onto the scene.  I don’t know if it was because later in the film is where the reshoots happened or what, but the latter half of the movie is when Adams appears to not be taking the role to the mat like it’s her Oscar bid for the year.  This is not an awards type of film and by the time they got to reshoots I think she knew it…so she’s much more game to lean into the Olivia de Havilland/Barbara Stanwyck type of character this is modeled after.  Having the most fun of everyone is Moore, kicking up her heels and really enjoying the free spirit of her character – it’s the most relaxed the actress has been in a long while and it was fun to watch.  Not having any fun?  Oldman, white-haired, crazy-eyed, and wild-voiced, his performance looks cobbled together from all of his bad takes.

Is The Woman in the Window in the same league as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, two other novels turned films with leading characters that are unreliable in their narration and unlikable at times?  For my money, I’d put this on the level of The Girl on the Train as an adaptation that has come to the screen with promise that is mostly fulfilled.  It’s a better adaptation than The Girl on the Train was, that’s for sure, and to equate the movie with the failings of its author is wrongheaded.  The mystery at its core is kept decently secure until the finale and while you won’t be biting your nails with suspense throughout, it builds to a proper climax that proved satisfying.  Released as part of Netflix’s summer movie season, it’s a solid selection for a weekend viewing – especially considering many would have paid more than the price of a monthly subscription to the service to see it in theaters anyway.

The Silver Bullet ~ West Side Story (2021) 

Directed by Academy Award® winner Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Tony Kushner,
“West Side Story” tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City.

Synopsis: An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. 

Release Date:  December 10, 2021 

Thoughts: While Oscar night was abuzz with much anticipation over who would win, when the news leaked the teaser trailer for Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated remake of the 10-time Oscar-winning musical West Side Story would premiere sometime during the ceremony, movie fans and Broadway nerds alike were dancing on their respective fire escapes. Delayed a full year due to the pandemic and the director’s desire for audiences to experience the film in a theater, up until our first look the jury was still out as to how much the world needed a remake of what many considered a treasured classic. True, looking back at the 1962 film there were some odds and ends that don’t sit quite right when viewed through a lens of racially sensitive casting and a number of the leading actors were dubbed when they began to sing. Still, it’s hard to argue that the legendary dances and indelible images were burnt into many cinema-lovers memories.
While a radically revisionist Broadway revival that barely got a chance to open before the health crisis shuttered theaters is likely to return sometime in 2021 (I was lucky enough to see it and it was goosebump-stunning excellent), Spielberg’s version appears to keep to the original and I think that’s wise. With just a little tease of singing (from Rita Moreno, an Oscar-winner for playing Anita in the original film, an executive producer of this version and appearing in a newly created role by screenwriter Tony Kushner), it’s a mostly visual preview and it achieves exactly what it should in the short span of a preview. If anything, I’m fairly certain it was able to create the kind of excitement that shows audiences who loved the movie that this isn’t straying far while at the same time hinting at a more visceral take on the musical update of Romeo and Juliet. I know I’m more comfortable with it all after seeing this…are you?

The Silver Bullet ~ Death on the Nile (2020)

Synopsis: Detective Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young heiress aboard a cruise ship on the Nile River.

Release Date:  October 23, 2020

Thoughts:  Only a few years back in the late summer of 2017 I was expressing my doubts that director Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella) was going to be able to remake Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and improve upon the sterling 1974 film.  Released in November of that year, it did solid business with audiences but left many critics feeling they had hopped on a slower ride than expected.  I quite enjoyed the update, actually, finding Branagh’s fussy Hercule Poirot cucumber cool fun and the rest of the starry cast more than up for the devious twists and turns Christie plotted out.  It was perfect winter weather viewing, the kind of film that deep armchairs and warm blankets were made for.  As viewers were already aware, that film ended with Poirot being called to Egypt to investigate a “death on the Nile” and come October the promise of a sequel is finally arriving.

Itself a remake of the 1978 follow-up the blockbuster smash of Orient Express, Death on the Nile is another opportunity for Branagh to gather an impressive crew of suspects and victims that board a cruise ship headed for doom.  With the sort of jaw-dropping but still believable plot machinations that only Christie truly perfected in her lifetime, some prefer the original sequel to its predecessor so I’ll be interested if Branagh can win over his original naysayers on this second round of whodunit.  This downright beautiful first look certainly bodes well for it being another tantalizing mix of A-list stars (Wonder Woman 1984’s Gal Gadot, Call Me by Your Names Armie Hammer, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’s Annette Bening) and up and comers (Emma Mackey of Netflix’s Sex Education, Letitia Wright from Black Panther, and Furious 7’s Ali Fazal) that come under suspicion when murder drops anchor.  I’m expecting another classy affair from Branagh and company…and who knows if by the end we won’t get a tease of where Poirot might be headed next.  The possibilities are endless…