Movie Review ~ My Best Friend’s Exorcism

The Facts:

Synopsis: The year is 1988. High school sophomores Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fourth grade. But after an evening of skinny-dipping goes disastrously wrong, Gretchen begins to act…different.
Stars: Elsie Fisher, Amiah Miller, Cathy Ang, Rachel Ogechi Kan, Christopher Lowell
Director: Damon Thomas
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: If you grew up devouring YA novels from Christopher Pike, Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, or R.L. Stine, you might have graduated to an writer like Grady Hendrix. An author with an ear for cultural artifacts and a mesmerizing way of triggering nostalgia in the reader, Hendrix knows his stuff. Over the last decade, Hendrix has become popular with a run of books that celebrate, emulate, and spring out of the paperback novels and multiplex mainstays that most of this generation of parentals will recognize. His 2021 novel, ‘The Final Girl Support Group’, was a fantastic slasher/thriller chock full of references to classic and modern horror films. You can get lost in his 2017 non-fiction ‘Paperbacks from Hell’, which traces the evolution of horror softcovers of the ’70s and ’80s. 

Another popular title in his bibliography was ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’, written in 2016. The hefty tome is over 300 pages and is a fun, if slightly ponderous, high school adolescent horror regarding besties and the demonic possession that comes between them. The book’s cover drew me in, and while I struggled to finish it, I was more than happy to see it getting a film version because it already read like a movie as I was blazing through the final pages. Released by Amazon Studios a month before Halloween during a resurgence in well-received fright flicks (Smile, The Black Phone, Barbarian, House of Darkness), My Best Friend’s Exorcism should have been an easy add to that growing list of next-gen terror titles.

Sadly, this film from director Damon Thomas and adapted by Jenna Lamia is a huge, almost shockingly pedestrian, letdown. Set in 1988 with a production design that seems to have used the B-52’s ‘Love Shack’ video for inspiration, it’s an ugly-looking movie with the acting coming up short too. There were moments early on when I thought Thomas and Lamia had worked with Hendrix to fashion the film into more of a parody than outright horror, attempting to take broad strokes of comedy to mix in with the paranormal elements. My suspicions were proved wrong time and time again by a charmless cast that didn’t seem to get the joke being told and a film that didn’t serve any real purpose.

Best friends Abby (Elsie Fisher, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller, The Water Man) have been close since childhood. Both know the deepest secrets of the other, their tiniest insecurities, and continue to lift one another through the tough times at school. Abby struggles with the onset of embarrassing acne and a secret crush for one of the teachers at their Catholic high school. Gretchen is from a goody-two-shoes family but longs to be a little wild. They hang out with Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kan) and Glee (Cathy Ang, Over the Moon), who seem to be their friends, but more like their frenemies at times.

Margaret’s been spending more time with her bo-hunk boyfriend Wallace, annoying the other three (and Glee, who harbors a crush on her best friend), but the upcoming weekend at Margaret’s cabin is all about them. Then Wallace shows up with LSD, and the slightly tripping Abby and Gretchen stumble into the abandoned building near Margaret’s house that’s said to be haunted. There, the girls are separated, and Gretchen is overtaken by something evil. When she returns, she’s not the same Gretchen. At first, she’s withdrawn and lashes out at her best friend in hurtful ways. After a pivotal transformation, she emerges as something much more problematic: A seemingly well-adjusted high schooler with an innocent face that no one would believe could commit the kinds of terrible acts about to take place. And only a best friend like Abby could stop her.

I know there’s a good movie here. It could have and should have been made. Something was lost in the translation from the page to the screen, and it’s so disappointing to witness. Starting with that gaudy production design that takes every ugly late ’80s design choice and trots it out like it’s runway ready or set to appear in Architectural Digest.   The neon colors, pastels, oversize sweaters, and scrunchies can look good when done correctly, but in My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it feels like the actors were thrown into a pile of clothes, and whatever they came out wearing is what they were in for the day.

Then there’s the acting which, to put it kindly, is not terrible but shouldn’t be this bad for a movie at this level. Abby and Gretchen are supposed to be lifelong best friends. However, there is no chemistry or camaraderie present between Fisher and Miller, with Fisher especially looking like she’s never met Miller each time they’re in a scene together. Miller tries to pull things together, later emerging the victor out of her costars, but that’s not saying much. I was most sorry for everyone because they wore such awful clothes. 

On top of everything, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is frequently unnecessarily mean, even where high school movies are concerned. Digs at skin problems, eating disorders, and lesbianism, come off as cheap low blows without any creative energy behind them. I haven’t even mentioned the scene with the 11-foot tapeworm, have I? Just wait until you see how that one resolves itself. Perhaps coming out in the middle of all these other scary films aimed at the same target audience will send this one to the graveyard fast. No exorcism required. A really wasted opportunity in my mind.

Movie Review ~ Goodnight Mommy (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Twin brothers arrive at their mother’s country home and discover her face covered in bandages — the result, she explains, of recent cosmetic surgery — and immediately sense something doesn’t add up. As her behavior grows increasingly bizarre and erratic, there’s a horrifying suspicion that the woman beneath the gauze isn’t their mother at all.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Peter Hermann, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Jeremy Bobb
Director: Matt Sobel
Rated: R
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review:  It had been a minute since I had seen 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, the German horror film that serves as the basis for this English-language remake being released by Amazon Studios. Impressive enough to be recognized by its country as the official submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, perhaps its gruesome final act turned off the nominating committee enough that they forgot how well things started. I remember looking forward to the scare flick from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala based on its freaky trailer but ultimately disappointed in how far they took things. There’s horror, and then there’s just plain gross, and directors stepped over that line too far.

Strangely, that’s the biggest problem with the remake starring Naomi Watts and a new pair of twins that doubt she’s their mother and tests her extensively in trying to prove it. It can see where the line is because it’s taken on the responsibilities of remaking a known property, but it never gets up the nerve to entirely go where it needs to meet the bloody footprints of its predecessor. That may sound a bit contradictory after what I said above but had new screenwriter Kyle Warren and director Matt Sobel found a way to improve upon the Franz/Fiala screenplay, I could excuse the wuss-out. They don’t, and so their remake feels underbaked.

Opening on a home video (well, a camera phone, this is the digital age, you know) footage of a mother singing a nighttime lullaby to twin boys, we notice the mother doesn’t like being on camera. We don’t even get a good look at her before we switch to the slightly older twins, Elias (Cameron Crovetti, The Gray Man) and Lucas (Nicholas Crovetti, Witch Hunt), arriving at a remote house smack dab in a beautiful stretch of open country. Deposited by their dad (Peter Hermann, Philomena), who doesn’t think he should accompany the boys inside, the twins eagerly await a reunion with their mother. Quickly, the excitement drains when they see Mother (Watts, Penguin Bloom) with her face covered with a bandage that looks like a ski mask, hiding most of her facial features.

A once famous actress that doesn’t work as much, Mother appears happy with this reunion but only just so. There’s trepidation in the welcome and nervous energy the boys pick up on. Moreover, she seems more closed off and unwilling to share the warmth she used to give freely. Lucas is the first to say out loud what both of them are thinking. “I don’t think that’s our mother.” From that planted seed grows a festering doubt in both, which sees them spy on the woman when she thinks she’s alone, dancing to “A Girl Like You” by Edwyn Collins in her underwear as she regards herself in a mirror and taking a bath with silicone pads over her face. 

The more they see, the more they doubt, and it all builds to a finale where multiple truths are revealed, and a final mask is removed. What’s going on will likely be easy to figure out for anyone that’s watched a thriller or two in their day, and while the 2014 film kept you guessing for a while, I think it’s even more evident from the start here. Warren has toned down a lot of the violence that arises in the third act, the violence I found unnecessary from the original but, as it turns out, when it is missing, was a critical piece that gave particular players more skin in the game. 

I liked everyone in the movie, even the twins, who are pretty good with increasingly tricky material, and I wish I could pick them up and put them all in a better movie. I’ve struggled with Watts lately because I’m unsure who is choosing the material for her or if she’s even interested in finding her way back to the A-List. She’s such a remarkable actress that you want to see her in a project capitalizing on her talents, and Goodnight Mommy comes closer than any recently. To convey the kind of emotion she does while covered almost head to toe in gauzy material or clothes is difficult, but she is always present. Even if she’s not who she says she is (I’m not telling), she’s an intense person to be around.

Bravery is the lesson to be learned from Goodnight Mommy for anyone considering a future remake. You must risk it all if you’re taking on this crucial task. Take the bull by the proverbial horns and take your shot at putting your stamp on the feature. Please don’t shy away from what made the movie famous in the first place but make it your own simultaneously. To water it down doesn’t serve anyone.

Movie Review ~ Anything’s Possible

The Facts:

Synopsis: Kelsa is a confident trans girl trying to get through senior year. When her classmate Khal gets a crush on her, he musters up the courage to ask her out, despite the drama he knows it could cause.
Stars: Eva Reign, Abubakr Ali, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Courtnee Carter, Kelly Lamor Wilson, Grant Reynolds
Director: Billy Porter
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Rolling things back to the old school days of riding your bike or driving your car to the video store and renting a movie, I remember when I started noticing a niche market of films marketed to the LGBTQ+ community. While most releases had several (or, if you were Blockbuster, dozens) of copies available, these would only have one lone copy, and good luck finding it in. You had to almost stalk the shelves until the title you were eyeing got re-shelved, and even then, you could be stuck with a stinker. Like many a curious youth, one of the first I remember getting was 1999’s now cult favorite Trick starring master thespian Tori Spelling.   While the production values were iffy and the romantic entanglements of the leading males terminally arch, it showed me that there was space being made for these stories to be told.

I wish we’d come a bit further in the years since, but significant progress has still been made. 2018’s Love, Simon moved the dial, and I think Anything’s Possible will continue turning up the volume. Directed by Tony-winning Broadway legend Billy Porter and set in his hometown of Pittsburgh, what we have here feels like a first, at least in my book. A high school romantic comedy between a trans girl and a male-identifying classmate might not seem quite the revolutionary breakthrough, but the shots at normalizing it are. Not attempting to alter the viewers’ perceptions at the outset, Porter’s film focuses on letting love bloom, only allowing that outside world in when necessary.

As she begins her senior year, Kelsa (Eva Reign) appears ready to face the world outside the high school bubble. With friends by her side and a protective, slightly overinvolved single mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry, Waves), always her biggest cheerleader, Kelsa has the kind of confidence many of her peers envy. Deep down, though, she has the same insecurities she keeps hidden because there’s already enough that’s out there for the world to dissect. Growing up as trans, her classmates have largely accepted her, but there’s still the fear of rejection, a feeling that has persisted since her father left the family.

This year will be different, though; it starts on day one with an art class that pairs her with Khal (Abubakr Ali), a boy from her class with his own set of hang-ups and societal norms with which to contend. The spark is there from the start between the two, and a flirtation develops, but the problem is that Kelsa’s best friend (Courtnee Carter) had eyes for Khal first and doesn’t take being passed over for Kelsa as a true friend would. As a cautious relationship between the new couple emerges, Kelsa sees her friendship replaced with being ostracized from her former friend group. The more she puts herself out there for the world to see, the greater her chance of getting hurt worse. Dreaming of a life far away from high school and recognizing Khal doesn’t share that same path is another roadblock on their journey to romance, but on this trip, as with any love worth pursuing, anything’s possible.

For Porter’s first directing gig, Anything’s Possible is as fresh as a daisy with an eclectic array of new faces assembled for the high schoolers. I wasn’t familiar with much of this cast, but for the first time in a long while, you feel like you’re seeing several future stars at the genesis of their long careers. There’s something to Porter’s magic touch that gives the film its emotional center without having to delve deep into overindulgent displays on the part of the actors. The only major moment of high drama acting comes between Goldsberry and Reign. It’s the kind of mother-daughter argument that works well because of the writing (though Ximena García Lecuona’s script is often quite clever) and because both actresses have lived their characters so thoroughly that it comes across as an uncomfortably honest moment of truth.

The chemistry between Reign and Ali is lovely, and while I have to wonder just how realistic it was to give Khal quite so many open-book/open-mind traits (his one flaw can’t be that he can’t NOT be a good person) when the two of them are together the movie clicks. Porter has a real find in Reign. There are times when you can see the shaky acting of a newcomer, but either those scenes were shot early on, or there was another reason we aren’t aware. Eventually, Reign warms up as the film goes along. You might think Tony Award winner Goldsberry has a little yawn-er of a role, but wait and see what a mother’s frustration can unleash in the wrong circumstances. It won’t be for this movie, but trust that Goldsberry is getting more major award recognition within the next five years.

I liked that Porter didn’t bite off more than he could chew with his freshman attempt at filmmaking in a studio setting. Despite a closing credit dance song that comes across as pretty silly (and, I think, under-rehearsed?), mainly because the actors appear to be a little embarrassed to be doing it, Anything’s Possible is more than a passable romantic teen comedy. There are admirable messages to be delivered and the kind of third act when everything gets twisted up and resolved…but don’t think you’ve figured out how it will end. These are times of change, impermanence, and maybe ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t equate to what it did all those years back. And that’s OK. Or perhaps it ends like every other rom-com we’ve seen before in the most expected way imaginable. It’s possible. 

Movie Review ~ Don’t Make Me Go

The Facts:

Synopsis: After learning he has a fatal brain tumor, a single father takes his teenage daughter on a road trip to find the mother who abandoned her years before and teaches her everything she might need over the rest of her life.
Stars: John Cho, Mia Isaac, Mitchell Hope, Jemaine Clement, Stefania LaVie Owen, Kaya Scodelario
Director: Hannah Marks
Rated: R
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Make sure to go and read that synopsis for Don’t Make Me Go again before approaching this road trip dramedy because you’ll want to ensure your seat belt is securely fastened and you have enough gas in your tank before you begin.  I say that not to deter you from going on this journey and in no way meaning to spoil anything that happens along the way but to do a solid pulse check.  Emotions are at play in this film premiering on Amazon Prime, and feeling your feels is what will happen whether you like it or not.  To deny the movie targets your tear ducts when it reaches a critical juncture is forgetting where it began.

You’re not going to like how this story ends.

Spoken by Wally (Mia Isaac), the teenage narrator, as the film opens, screenwriter Vera Herbert draws a line in the sand early with this declaration.  It’s not easy to walk back the statement or the sentiment contained within, not that anyone makes that effort.  Living with her single dad Max (John Cho), and attempting to make it through her formative high school years with her sanity intact, she faces the usual Gen Z problems.  Liking a boy (Otis Dhanji, Aquaman) who hasn’t yet figured out how to make love the center of his world is frustrating, and Max won’t give her the driving lessons she needs to feel as independent as her friends.

When Max’s headaches are diagnosed as a tricky brain tumor turned into bone cancer, he faces a dilemma.  Undergo a risky surgery with a 20% survival rate or take the time he has left to fit in an express course of life lessons with his daughter, reuniting her with the mother (Jen Van Epps, No Exit) that abandoned them years earlier.  A cross-country college reunion provides the perfect excuse to get away. Without Max telling his child of his diagnosis or ultimate intentions, the two set off on a trek that empowers both to reconnect.  As they travel, Max teaches his daughter how to drive, and Wally gives Max the time he needs to live life to, well, the max.  Of course, they also get sidelined at a nude beach (prepare for an eyeful), a traffic incident, and two very different types of reunions.

Cho has been an actor that started in silly teen comedies such as American Pie and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle before graduating to more sophisticated blockbuster efforts like Star Trek and the update of Total Recall.  While the track record hasn’t been all roses (oh boy, was that reboot of The Grudge in 2020 awful!), he does have a knack for turning up in films that are easy to recommend.  In 2018’s Searching, he played another dad that didn’t connect with his daughter until it was too late, but in Don’t Make Me Go, he has a significant arc and more than just Isaac off of which to work.  I wasn’t sure at first how much we needed Kaya Scodelario (Crawl) as his occasional bedfellow, but the purpose fixes into a point as the trip progresses.

July is set to be a good month for relative newcomer Isaac.  First, she has this release, and a few weeks later comes Not Okay, a dark comedy premiering on Hulu I can’t say much about yet.  I can say that between both of these movies, Isaac’s star is most definitely going to rise quickly in Hollywood.  Wally is a role that requires tricky climbing of emotional peaks, many of which come at unexpected places.  Director Hannah Marks (an actress appearing in Daniel Isn’t Real and Banana Split) helps Isaac and Cho navigate these potential hazardous points in Herbert’s script, especially Isaac, who has a lot of vulnerability in the latter half.

I can’t say much more about Don’t Let Me Go without ruining that final stretch.  It would be like walking up to Mount Rushmore for the first time and then me jumping up in front of you, holding a gigantic panoramic picture of the famous landmark.  My advice is also to steer clear of reviews that are doing just what I described, giving too much away when a lot of its importance hinges on the ending. Do yourself a favor and remember what Wally told you at the beginning, and you shouldn’t be too surprised.  Or, like me, you just might be.

Movie Review ~ All the Old Knives

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two CIA operatives, and former lovers, reunite at idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea to re-examine a mission six years ago in Vienna where a fellow agent might have been compromised.
Stars: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Ahd, Corey Johnson, David Dawson, Orli Shuka, Jonjo O’Neill
Director: Janus Metz
Rated: R
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Right now, on Broadway, ex-James Bond Daniel Craig and Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga have just started previews for their new production of Macbeth. Down the street, married couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick appear in a revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. These are just two examples of famous names in the industry that find themselves on the Great White Way in a play that’s often based mainly on scenes featuring just two people onstage, talking. That’s how some films start too, live on stage and then adapted into films. Some can easily break the bonds of being stage-bound, and others are enterally trapped in that theatrical flourish that can’t so handily be swept to the side.

In hindsight, I wasn’t surprised to learn All the Old Knives had been originally announced as a project for Chris Pine back in 2017. I was astonished to discover that the film wasn’t the product of a stage-to-screen adaptation but was instead written by Olen Steinhauer from his 2015 novel of the same name. So much of the movie involves characters (usually two) sitting across from one another talking that I could have imagined it being plucked from some short-lived Broadway run and expanded for the silver screen. Either way, All the Old Knives features several old tricks that will justifiably get the knives out for Steinhauer and a cast of likable, if bland, actors.

It’s been years since colleagues Harry Pelham (Pine, Wonder Woman 1984) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton, Solo: A Star Wars Story) have seen one another, not since she left him the day after their CIA office was involved with a mission that led to the deaths of hundreds of people on a hijacked aircraft. Recent intel has indicated a leak within their agency tipped off the hijackers, and Harry has been tasked by his boss (Laurence Fishburne, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) to suss out the mole. A phone call traced to one of the offices narrows it down to two people, so Harry pays them a visit. 

The nightmares of that day still plague Celia. Agreeing to meet Harry seems like a good way to close that chapter of her life. While their meeting at a coastal restaurant in wine country begins as benign reminiscing, it quickly evolves into a relitigating of the days leading up to the event and its immediate aftermath. As the evening stretches on and the bottles of wine keep coming, more truths are exposed between former flames who thought the other had been honest throughout their time together. By the end of the night, who is interrogating whom? 

Steinhauer keeps our heads spinning by having multiple people tell their version of the story, each with slightly different perspectives. I don’t think Steinhauer deliberately tries to confuse the audience or pull a fast one. Still, the effect of the repetition without consistency winds up creating a mind jumble anyway. Danish director Janus Metz teams with cinematographer (and fellow Dane) Charlotte Bruus Christensen (A Quiet Place) to give the past a steely blue hue and the present a shiny, almost waxy, glow. Also waxy, Pine in several bad wigs as we travel through distinct time periods. The worst is a longer one that gets more unruly as the film wears on, but Pine has competition from other cast members in the lousy wig department. Newton has several questionable fitted coifs as well.

There’s a problem with the film staring us straight in the face, and it’s a big one. The two stars have next to no chemistry. Now I know that Michelle Williams was initially set to star opposite Pine but dropped out when this was delayed, so maybe that combo would have worked better. Newton’s movie could have been better with a more exciting co-star, and Pine’s performance might have leveled off a bit sooner had he acted opposite someone who wasn’t so far ahead of him. Newtown is just too good of an actress to operate in the same hemisphere Pine (a pleasant actor that’s never going to win an Oscar) is living.

With a home stretch that drags out interminably long after providing a half-hearted attempt at a cop-out ending, any way you slice it, All the Old Knives is a bit of a lumbering mess. That being said, I would have paid a top price to see the same stars (yes, even Pine) on stage doing the same piece. I could readily see this operating as a slick piece of live theater that employs a small cast enjoying some juicy roles. It’s overstuffed as a film but sized right for the stage. Watch it (if you must) and see if you agree.

Movie Review ~ Master

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.
Stars: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray
Director: Mariama Diallo
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Working in the business for the last twenty-two years, I’d say it’s high time that a star like Regina Hall began to get her due. With a little over a week to go before she joins Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes as the host of the 94th Academy Awards, Hall is staying busy with the release of her new movie for Amazon Studios on Prime Video, Master. It’s the kind of role that several actresses could have played and done quite well with, but there’s something about how Hall approaches the character that helps her stand out from the crowd. It helps the movie too.

Full disclosure time. I had heard about Master after it premiered at Sundance to some enthusiasm and from naysayers that found problems with writer/director Mariama Diallo’s resolution to an otherwise entertaining blend of real-life horror based on the currently charged racial climate and standard genre tropes. I shrug off these festival notices as foul-moods from the un-showered and those waiting in endless lines only to watch one movie and then race to another. I watched Master at home and, without any pressure, absorbed the film, its timely observances on culture, privilege, and the way we masquerade our societal prejudice.

Hall plays Gail Bishop, recently promoted to new housemaster at the upstate NYC college where she teaches. With its primarily white student population, the college is attempting to be progressive but hides a dark past of systemic racism that’s never been appropriately dealt with. As Gail dives into her new role and feels its limitations, Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) begins her first year alongside a white roommate (Talia Ryder, West Side Story) and peer group. Informed on the first day she’s staying in the same room that one of the college’s first black students hung herself in years earlier, it isn’t long before Jasmine is having visions of something coming for her. First when she sleeps, then when she begins an old habit of sleepwalking, then while she’s awake.

As if dealing with ghostly business isn’t enough, Jasmine crosses paths with Gail when she files a complaint against a black teacher (Broadway star Amber Gray) she feels has graded her unfairly. This complaint coincides with the teacher’s evaluation for tenure, putting Gail in a difficult position having to choose between securing her friend’s future or siding with her colleagues who feel she’s not qualified. The college and its hallowed halls are full of many secrets, though. Eventually, Jasmine’s investigation into her nightmarish visitor and Gail’s escalating oddities around her own house will intensify into a series of reveals that will open their eyes to a more insidious evil they hadn’t prepared for.

I recently watched one of Diallo’s short films and can already tell she’s a director with a voice we will be hearing from for a long time. She possesses a way not only with composing beautifully shot scenes but in capturing a more profound emotion out of her actors. Hall, Renee, and Gray have such razor-sharp snap to their scenes, and while some can be attributed to the talent all three possess, much of that credit has to go to Diallo’s observant script. Any supernatural element introduced is accounted for somehow, driving home the message that sometimes the fear we manifest and spread is often very much of our creation.

A lot is going on in Master, and you almost wish the old days of AOL chat rooms were available or the Twitter feeds weren’t such a cesspool of dreck. Otherwise, you could get on these resources and engage with others who have a similar experience with the movie and have trouble articulating it to those who haven’t seen it. Yes, the ending might be too on the nose for some and could bite off more than its prepared to swallow. I found that it ended right about when it needed to, answering the right questions and asking even better ones.

Movie Review ~ Lucy and Desi

The Facts:

Synopsis: Explores the unlikely partnership and enduring legacy of one of the most prolific power couples in entertainment history.
Stars: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Laura LaPlaca, Eduardo Machado, Charo, Journey Gunderson, Gregg Oppenheimer, David Daniels, Norman Lear, Desi Arnaz Jr.
Director: Amy Poehler
Rated: PG
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: We’re a little less than a month away from the Academy Awards, and one of the big questions of the night is if Nicole Kidman will win her second Best Actress Oscar for playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.  Inspired by one pivotal week in the life of Ball and her husband, Cuban entertainer Desi Arnaz, on the set of their series I Love Lucy, Aaron Sorkin’s film has been met with various cheers and jeers by fans and casual filmgoers alike. Some think it focuses too much on the showbusiness side and not enough on the personal; others feel the Hawaii-born but Australian-raised Kidman had no business playing the American as apple pie redhead. Yet there’s that notable trend in Hollywood where awards are concerned…they love to pat themselves on the back, and if they have an award in their hand while doing it, all the better.

Whatever the current temperature on Kidman is (Javier Bardem & J.K. Simmons also snagged Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations), there’s a new documentary available on Amazon that might tip the scale one way or another in her direction. Lucy and Desi was directed by comedian Amy Poehler (Moxie) and has been given the blessing of the children of the legendary television stars, with their daughter Lucie playing a prominent role in the movie as a keeper of the keys historian of sorts for her parents. Gaining that advocacy says a lot for a piece that examines the turbulent relationship of the duo who began their careers as individual draws but eventually became synonymous with a picture of domestic life that cast a shadow on the rest of their careers.

With audio recordings made by Ball, who had put the stories and memories down (and then away) for later use, Poehler structures a standard format documentary which only occasionally springboards into tangents the general public may not have been aware of going in. What Lucy and Desi does wonderfully well is take its time focusing not on the wedges that drove the gifted artists apart but what drew them together in the first place and kept them in each other’s lives even after they had divorced. In this film, as in Being the Ricardos, Arnaz is shown to be a keen man of business who tirelessly worked to build a legacy for his family. Arriving from Cuba with nothing (after once being among the wealthiest families), he watched his mother struggle and spent most of his life attempting to recreate their prosperity and gain her approval.

Even if Kidman may not have looked exactly like Ball, the stories told by her daughter and the wealth of footage of public appearances and private home movies show just how well the actress captured Ball’s off-screen presence. The Ball we knew best was the bubbly television housewife always in a jam and involved in a bit of slapstick comedy. In reality, Ball was a force to be reckoned with that wasn’t a natural comic but was highly gifted at it all the same. She had to work and rehearse it, but when she got it, nobody was better because she understood there was an art form to making people laugh. That’s why the show she created with Arnaz has endured for decades.

The documentary loses a bit of its edge when it pulls into the station to talk about the dissolution of the marriage, implying it was more of a personality conflict than anything else. Sorkin’s movie and many reports suggest that Arnaz was a womanizer, but the documentary makes no mention of any extramarital affairs. It’s absolutely within the family’s right not to want to open that door because it is, after all, a private matter that wasn’t in their contract with the public. It does seem odd to not even make a passing reference to it because it is so well known.

Fast-moving and chock full of fun information on Hollywood throughout the decades, I thought Lucy and Desi ended rather abruptly on the heels of a moving passage surrounding the final months of Arnaz’s life. Brought together by their daughter before he passed away, she recounts that time spent together, and that’s when you arrive at seeing these celebrities as people, rather than gawkable movie stars. Punctuated with an emotional kicker you’ll have to see for yourself, before you know it the credits are rolling, and that’s all there is. I could have watched another hour of material but recognize the story Poehler was telling the viewer is about the couple together, not their individual lives apart. That’s another story to recount entirely.

Movie Review ~ I Want You Back

The Facts:

Synopsis: Newly dumped thirty-somethings Peter and Emma team up to sabotage their exes’ new relationships and win them back for good.
Stars: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez, Mason Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Jami Gertz, Isabel May, Luke David Blumm
Director: Jason Orley
Rated: R
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With Valentine’s Day racing toward us, many will be looking for that perfect movie to mark the day, one that matches with the mood they feel best fits the situation. Some may feel drawn to the weepy romance of true love lost, others prefer a madcap comedy that sends lovebirds on the run from a rogue they’ve crossed paths with, or maybe your kind of movie has nothing to do with Cupid’s biggest day of the year. February 14th might be the time you decide you finally need to check Lawrence of Arabia or Cujo off your list. Whatever your target is, libraries, theaters, and streaming services have you well covered. 

As is typical whenever a holiday is near, there’s even last-ditch effort fresh content making a play for your attention, and I Want You Back is one of those movies, and I think it’s one worth considering. Available for free to Amazon Prime Members, this Amazon Studios production features a familiar-sounding set-up that manages to rise above recognizable cliches based almost solely on the striking appeal of its two stars. While the new Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson film Marry Me is opening in theaters and PeacockTV, this easy-to-like production should find a sizable audience who spot it on the Prime Video homepage.

Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger get the awkward stuff out of the way first, with Emma (Jenny Slate, On the Rocks) and Peter (Charlie Day, Vacation) getting dumped by the respective partners, much to their total shock. Peter’s long-time girlfriend Anne (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire) is an elementary teacher longing to pursue her passion for acting but feeling like it’s Peter’s lack of ambition which is the main factor holding her back. Personal trainer Noah (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) has tired of his years pushing Emma to figure out what she wants to do with her life and has met someone new, a pastry chef (Clark Backo, No Running) who has her own bakery. Neither dumpee takes the split very well, and that’s how both find each other nursing their wounds in the stairwell of the generic office complex where both work generic 9-5 jobs.

Realizing quickly they are bonded when it comes to being broken up with most egregiously, Emma and Peter make a pact to support one another through this challenging time. It’s an arrangement that morphs into a plan to block their exes from being happy with their new partners. So, Peter will befriend Noah and, through that bro-ship, remind him what he gave up. Emma will, in turn, ingratiate herself with Anne’s drama teacher boyfriend (Manny Jacinto, Bad Times at the El Royale) by working on his production of Little Shop of Horrors and seduce him away. 

Going into the film, I didn’t think it would be possible to hold my interest for nearly two hours because these movies always tend to end in the same way. The question is always then how will the script keep the ones we know are meant to be together apart just long enough for them to conclude it’s not someone else they want but the person closest to them all along? That lack of suspense can make everything that happens between the first meeting and walk into the sunset feel like filler if you don’t have the right combination of actors, but director Jason Orley (The Intern) has found gold in Slate and Day. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been Day’s biggest fan so far in his film career. While I know he carries a dedicated fan base from his long run with TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Day’s raspy-voiced chirp hadn’t won me over quite yet. The opposite was true of Slate, who I came into the evening enjoying quite a lot. In a strange reversal, I found Day to be the stronger of the two and responsible for more of the heavy lifting and feeling more comfortable with it. We know that Emma has issues around being serious, but a little too much of that acidity can wear an audience down.   Day applies the right amount of bite to his feelings on their situation, making his journey as detailed but allowing audiences to continue to empathize with his broken heart. 

Helping everything along are a few inspired moments of comedy supplied by both stars. Even Day’s typical nervous uncomfortable banter comes across as well-tuned to the character he’s playing, and Slate takes that and plays off it nicely. Not to be outdone, Slate gets a surreal sequence when she finds herself stepping in at a last-minute technical rehearsal of the junior high musical she’s faked her way into working on. The hilarious image of her singing a duet with a boy half her height and not nearly old enough to drive is one that will stay with me (in a good way) for some time.

Where I Want You Back cuts some corners are the supporting players. It’s not an issue with the actors, but how the exes are written. It’s much easier to root for Emma and Peter to wise up and see they don’t need the people who dumped them if the characters are sour, and that’s mostly how Aptaker and Berger have sketched them. Anne lacks faith in Peter and projects her lack of drive on him, which then causes him to question his own goals. Did Emma need Noah to remind her she hasn’t done much with her life, or did she need a supportive partner that walked alongside her? It’s bad enough in movies when one character is blinded by a love that has long since burned out, but here we have two. At least Rodriguez and Eastwood soften some of those coarser edges. Eastwood has a strong showing here, and it’s one of his best screen roles so far in a career that hasn’t been as dependable as his famous father.

I know that not everyone embraces Valentine’s Day as the happiest of holidays, and maybe it is one of those days that’s been craftily promoted through the years by the greeting card companies. There is a way to take back the day, and that’s through making Valentine’s Day about you more than any commercial product. If you find yourself single, celebrate “you.” Those with significant others should have something up their sleeve. I’m not saying that surprising them with a movie night on the couch with I Want You Back wouldn’t earn major brownie points…but a brownie couldn’t hurt either.

I Want You Back will be available on Prime Video
Friday, February 11

Movie Review ~ A Hero

The Facts:

Synopsis: Rahim is in jail for a debt he can’t repay. When a plan to restore his reputation and family goes awry, he unexpectedly gains unwelcome notoriety through a misunderstanding that spirals out of control.

Stars: Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabande, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee, Sahar Goldoost, Maryam Shahdaie, Ali Reza Jahandideh, Ehsan Goodarzi, Sarina Farhadi, Farrokh Nourbakht

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Looking at the scope and scale of the nominees that compete for the Best International Feature Film Oscar each year, it’s a remarkable achievement to find yourself nominated. I mean, consider that compared to the relatively small number of films deemed eligible in the other categories, many from only English-speaking countries. To get enough voters not just to see your movie, be moved by it, vote it higher than dozens of others, and then narrow it all down to five nominees? Yeah, that’s a big deal. Now consider the directors who have films that have shown up in this category multiple times. Going further, think of those that have won…and more than once. It’s a smaller number than you might think, and Iranian-born filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is one of them.

Coming into 2011 with an almost sure thing with the universally loved A Separation (which was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay in addition to winning the, as it was then called, Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Farhadi was back at the ceremony in 2016 to win again with The Salesman. I liked both of those films but felt that all the early praise for them robbed me of my full enjoyment at the surprise of discovering them on my own. While Farhadi has been at the helm of several movies between his Oscar wins and last directed Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz back in 2018, it seems that it could be his time to return to the ceremony…and A Hero would justify the recognition by the Academy.

While it may not rise to the same level for some as the earlier films, which established Farhadi as a director of great esteem, A Hero does assert his talent for telling stories using complex characters in leading roles. Preferring to expose the flaws in us all, with A Hero Farhadi is documenting how good intentions can spiral out of control and wind up doing more harm than good. As Rahim Soltani (a shatteringly good Amir Jadidi) finds out, the more he embellishes a lie he’s designed with innocence, the further he paints himself into a corner from which he can’t get out of without damaging the intricate work he’s done on himself to impress others.

In jail for failing to pay back a debt, Rahim is released on his own recognizance for a small stretch to make arrangements to repay the debt.  While he’s out, the plan he had previously made with his love Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoost) to use the gold coins she’s found in an unclaimed handbag to pay his debtor backfires due to the cost of gold decreasing. Pivoting and attempting to avoid being questioned about the coins by his suspicious sister, Rahim tries to find the bag’s owner from within prison and hopes a reward may be offered. When the bag is picked up by the rightful owner (who promptly vanishes) and Rahim becomes a celebrity due to his purported selfless heroism for returning the coins and not stealing them, it becomes his literal get out of jail free card. 

Used as an example by the prison, his family, and a local charity as an example for reform, Rahim’s story is soon questioned. Those with a stake in his actions that got him to this place want answers. His debtor still wants to be paid, and the charity would like to find out more information about the woman who picked up the bag and, more importantly, learn more about how and when Rahim came into possession of the bag in the first place. With a learning-disabled son to provide for, a lover to protect, and his freedom on the line, Rahim charts a dangerous course ahead to solve a mystery of his creation before the clock runs out on the goodwill being bestowed on him.

Moral questions like these, deeply complex ones at that, are hard to come by in mainstream films, which is why Farhadi’s movie is so much appreciated. Not only does A Hero speak to the suspenseful lengths people are willing to go to get what they feel they are entitled to, but also how blindly others accept words as truth without any fact-checking before making up their minds. The film is abundant with questions that make for good post-discussion chatter with friends and posit what you would do in a similar situation. 

Movie Review ~ Hotel Transylvania: Transformania

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Van Helsing’s mysterious invention, the “Monsterfication Ray,” goes haywire, Drac and his monster pals are all transformed into humans, and Johnny becomes a monster.

Stars: Brian Hull, Jim Gaffigan, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, Fran Drescher, Brad Abrell, Asher Blinkoff

Director: Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska

Rated: PG

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Now that we’re in the second decade of this site, I find that I’ve had more opportunities to go back and revisit some of the reviews I did in that first year and aside from noticing that my love for run-on sentences hasn’t changed, I’ve also seen that my taste in specific genres has.  Maybe it was the younger me that wasn’t quite as hard to entertain but back then I derived a lot more thrill from an upcoming animated release, especially one that spoke to my style of dark humor.  That’s why I developed such a fondness for darker kids fare like Coraline and ParaNorman (still do) and also why each time a new Hotel Transylvania film was released I was eager to book a stay.  If anything was going to resurrect nostalgia that had been buried up to its neck by dreck, this was the franchise to do it.

The first Hotel Transylvania in 2012 was a dynamic, if not overly inspired, PG comedy that brought together a number of famous monster characters and made them family friendly.  Dracula was now a single-dad running a hotel catering only to creature clientele with his friends Frankenstein, the Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi, The Dead Don’t Die), the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland), and the Invisible Man (David Spade, Tommy Boy) also pitching in.  When Dracula’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez, Dolittle) falls in love with human Johnny (Andy Samberg, Palm Springs), who waltzes in not knowing that his kind is not so much catered to as served by the caterer, it forces Dracula to reevaluate his protection of his daughter.  The 2015 sequel branched out the story nicely by including the in-laws, Johnny’s parents and Dracula’s dad, both of whom come into play after the birth of Dracula’s first grandson.  I didn’t do a formal review of the last film from 2018 but the colorful vacation cruise storyline gave Dracula his own love interest in the form of a Van Helsing relative.

For the opening of the fourth chapter, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, the Hotel has gone through some renovations and like the Holiday Inn near my grandparent’s house that removed the jacuzzi between our Thanksgiving and Christmas stay in 1991, it hasn’t been for the better.  Gone are original voices of Dracula and Frankenstein, Adam Sandler and Kevin James, replaced with Brian Hull and Brad Abrell (only Hull makes an attempt to recreate Sandler’s sound) and Genndy Tartakovsky, the director who spearheaded the previous three entries is only credited with the story on this stay.  New directors Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska come from the land of SpongeBob SquarePants, a factoid I read up on after the movie concluded but which makes total sense when you consider how the story develops and the strangely bright tone it takes.  Not only is it the weakest entry, wisely skipping a theatrical release and heading straight for a debut on Amazon Prime, it feels far removed from the trilogy it is following.  If this is the direction the Hotel Transylvania industry is headed, I think I’ll look for a different place to visit in the future.

On the eve of Hotel Transylvania’s 125th birthday, Dracula is planning to retire with wife Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn, Bad Moms), leaving the business to his daughter and her husband.  During a conversation with the free-spirited Johnny, Dracula balks after hearing his planned ‘improvements’ to the hotel and instead tells him it’s impossible to give the hotel to a non-monster, causing a despondent Johnny to turn to wacky Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan, Them That Follow) for help.  It just so happens the mad scientist has a tool that can change humans into monsters…and vice versa.  Using the “Monsterfication Ray”, the goofy Johnny is transformed into an equally goofy dragon. When Dracula finds out what he innocently misled Johnny to do and then accidently changes himself into an ordinary human, breaking the ray in the process, the two will need to work together and travel across the globe for a solution…before their wives find out.

Generally, unless you’re working with an exemplary example of skilled writing and creative storytelling, an animated film can start to feel stale after it’s introduced the characters and settled into finding the way toward a happy ending.  Almost from the start, Transformania gets gummy and can’t shake some sense of exhaustion.  It doesn’t help that taking Dracula and Johnny out of their environment and putting them into a South American one feels more like it’s a comfort to its directors than the core audience and fans of the series.  The most exciting scenes remain those featuring the darker, more spooky creations of the computer animation wizards at Sony Animation Studios and there are some nice comic bits after Dracula’s friends turn themselves into humans.  Who knew Frankenstein was such a hunk? 

If you or your kids are fans of the series, by all means fire Hotel Transylvania: Transformania up on Amazon Prime and continue your adventures with the gang.  It’s worth the watch more for the B plot involving the side characters reacting to their transformation than anything going on in the A plot.  There’s just nothing new to the father/son-in-law bonding story audiences (yes, even kids) haven’t been exposed to and better through other films.  I’m sure this is a franchise that could go on longer, yet there is a sweet finality to the movie where it could end here and it would feel right.  Money will always win out…but here’s hoping the keys get turned in and the lights shut off soon.