Movie Review ~ Judy Blume Forever

The Facts:

Synopsis: Judy Blume and the generations of readers who have sparked to her work. It will examine her impact on pop culture and the occasional controversies over her frankness about puberty and sex.
Stars: Judy Blume, Lena Dunham, Molly Ringwald, Anna Konkle, Samantha Bee, Mary H.K. Choi, Jacqueline Woodson
Directors: Davina Pardo & Leah Wolchok
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: God bless Judy Blume. Seriously.  Where would many of us be without her books to help us through one of the many unknown, awkward, and traumatic events we experienced growing up? Through her fiction, we could make sense of our reality, even if we didn’t match up with the characters in her book completely. Slivers of everyone could be found in the worlds she created; if it wasn’t us we saw, it was our family or friends. The eyes and hearts she opened expanded minds and introduced millions of children and young adults to reading, exploring, questioning, and finding their autonomy over the years. What a gift.

The new documentary Judy Blume Forever, debuting on Prime Video on April 21, covers the career of Blume from her beginning as a housewife and mother, drafting picture books and short novels from an outside perspective. Told she could pursue this career as long as it didn’t interfere with her responsibilities in the home, Blume realized her strongest writing was when she was taking a point of view from a younger character and not looking inward. By telling the story from the inside out, she was able to get at the emotional core of her characters as few niche authors could, and her books became hot commodities for kids and hot topics for parents and the media looking for easy targets.

Tackling subjects once thought to be too mature for teens (menstruation, masturbation, sex, bullying, disabilities, etc.), Blume could speak without sugar-coating but still make it easy to access emotionally. Directors Davina Pardo & Leah Wolchok use historic interviews with Blume and new discussions with the author today to get to the heart of her approach and how her early childhood influenced the sensitive writer she became. Losing her devoted father early and being raised by a mother who doled out her sentiments sparingly, Blume grew up learning key details about her body and the world outside of her home. Blume’s recollections of these events are (like her entire interview) relayed with remarkable candor, her eyes sparkling, sometimes misty.

When the time came to write books like ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’, ‘Deenie’, ‘Blubber’, ‘Forever’, and ‘Tiger Eyes’, she drew not just on the gaps she experienced as a teen but through the issues she was learning about from her growing children. Now, teens could find relatable characters sharing the same concerns on the shelf of their local (or school) libraries. That is, if the protests from parents and personnel that didn’t understand how helpful the novels were didn’t get them banned first. I was always shocked that no one had the tiniest bit of trouble when the infamous toddler Fudge swallowed a turtle in the 1972 classic ‘Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing’. (Anyone else think they were the Fudge in their family? As an only child, I was him by default.)

Interviewing dozens of celebrities, authors, grown adults who wrote to Blume as children, and other figures involved in publishing novels for teens, Pardo and Wolchok sketch out the authority Blume became in their adolescence and the literary world. I’ve seen enough celebrity talking head docs already that those didn’t move me as much as meeting the individuals that have corresponded to Blume for decades. Hearing them read their letters out loud (and seeing Blume read the originals from the archives she donated to Yale University) is the film’s highlight. Well, that and seeing Blume in full bloom biking around her current home city of Key West and tending to her bookstore. It’s enough to make you want to plan a visit and, as we witnessed with other fans many times during Judy Blume Forever, see her in person and thank her for all she’s done to help us like ourselves more.

Movie Review ~ Air

The Facts:

Synopsis: Sonny Vaccaro, a shoe salesman at Nike, works to sign rookie Michael Jordan to a deal to wear their shoes.
Stars: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Julius Tennon, Matthew Maher, Viola Davis
Director: Ben Affleck
Rated: R
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  As someone that watched all ten episodes of the exhaustive (but excellent) Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance, I approached Air wondering if the world truly needed another movie to tell us how great (and wealthy) an athlete Michael Jordan is. Even those unfamiliar with the documentary should have some base understanding of Jordan’s phenomenal talent. With his hands in multiple businesses and media, he’s more of a household name than some global political leaders. Hearing about the upcoming release of Air, I was scratching my head as to what could be so very special about it to attract such A-level talent for what seemed to be a rehash of a small chapter of a longer novel.

The script for Air was quite a hot commodity in 2021, showing up on the famous Hollywood Black List (the annual tally of the most popular screenplays not yet produced). While it didn’t languish there as long as some have, Alex Convery had to have been thrilled to see it get pounced on by Amazon Studios. If director Ben Affleck stuck close to the original script, and with the fast turnaround for casting/filming I have every reason to believe he has, you could see why it held appeal as a slick, showy approach to the history of the creation of a landmark partnership that changed the face of the retail market, and the way corporations were challenged to compensate their athletic collaborators.

In 1984, Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, Gone Girl) was considering possibly laying off his entire basketball shoe division. The running shoe company couldn’t compete with popular brands like Adidas or Converse without a signed major athlete. Sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, Downsizing) was striking out in scouting high school players and unhappy with the limitations being put on him by his boss. As the season draws near, the options look grim except for one name none of them (especially Jason Bateman’s character, executive Rob Strasser) think they can get: Michael Jordan. 

Jordan (through his representation) had stated publicly that he wasn’t interested in Nike, so it appeared the game was already lost. Sonny wasn’t deterred, though, seeing something in the player and his family that sparked him to make a series of bold moves that put his team and company in a precarious position, all in the hope of making a deal. Bypassing Jordan’s cantankerous, foul-mouthed agent (Chris Messina, She Dies Tomorrow) and appealing directly to the family’s decision-maker, Jordan’s mother (Viola Davis, The Woman King), Sonny had limited time to work with designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher, Live by Night) and resources from Knight to take a shot that will save them all.

Is it too early to talk about Best Actor hopefuls for 2024? I know, the thought weirds me out, too, but Damon’s doing something damn special in Air. It’s the daddyiest of all dad films, but take those scenes away, and you have Damon getting passionate about little things that, in turn, make us care about the outcome we all know is inevitable. A rah-rah speech Damon delivers near the end to Jordan is so confident and inspiring that I thought I could play basketball for the Bulls after.   Also…the boldest move ever would be to recognize Messina for his foam-mouthed agent from hell. Talk about an unforgettable supporting performance that resonates throughout the rest of the film! 

Affleck (or the script) makes the interesting move never to show Jordan’s face during the film, opting for archival footage in intervals to flash forward to the superstar athlete the young man with his back to the camera will become. Instead, we deal primarily with Deloris Jordan (it’s said that Michael Jordan’s only request to Affleck was that Davis plays his mother) with her husband James (Davis’ real-life husband, Julius Tennon) sitting close by watching her work. Allowing this aspect of Jordan’s deal with Nike to be fleshed out was fascinating, and while this public knowledge wasn’t a big reveal, Davis and Damon play these final scenes with a hint of suspense that keeps us creeping to the edge of our seats.

That’s what shocked me about the Air experience in general: how much of the film I felt like I was holding my breath as to what would happen next. When I already knew what would happen next. That’s the sign of a filmmaker (Affleck) and screenwriter (Convery) with a confident grip on the audience. Playing with an almost documentary-like feel, Air flies high with skilled performances (and ample ’80s needle drops) and demonstrates again that Affleck is a director never to be counted out.

Movie Review ~ Somebody I Used to Know

The Facts:

Synopsis: On a trip to her hometown, workaholic Ally reunites with her ex-boyfriend Sean, which makes her question her life choices. This feeling is exacerbated when she meets Cassidy, a younger woman who reminds her of the person she used to be
Stars: Alison Brie, Jay Ellis, Kiersey Clemons, Julie Hagerty, Haley Joel Osment, Amy Sedaris, Danny Pudi, Zoë Chao, Evan Jonigkeit, Olga Merediz, Ayden Mayeri, Kelvin Yu
Director: Dave Franco
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  There are inevitable drawbacks to making a modern romantic comedy, no matter how you approach it. Audiences have seen countless tales of singles mingling with the lover they think is the right one for them, only to realize what we already know: they should be barking up another tree. Writers, directors, and actors can take any route they want to get from point A to point B, but we’ll cross that finish line eventually. A viewer wants a creative journey as we pass through, and that’s where a horse of a different color, like Somebody I Used to Know, might come in handy.

Written by husband-and-wife celebrities Dave Franco (who also directs) and Alison Brie (who also stars), Somebody I Used to Know has the structure of My Best Friend’s Wedding. Still, the cinematic innards are decidedly tailored to Brie’s fondness for high-stakes dark comedy. It’s not a warm and fuzzy flick to cuddle up to but rather a frank look at relationships from multiple angles. Here you get perspective from those on the inside and the onlookers peeking around the corner hoping for a sample.

After her cheeky reality show is canceled, Ally (Brie, Spin Me Round) takes the advice of her agent (Amy Sedaris, in a too-brief cameo) and heads home to Leavenworth, WA, for some downtime with her mother (Julie Hagerty, Marriage Story). Finding her mother otherwise engaged (with her former high school teacher), Ally ventures into town and has a chance encounter reconnecting with her ex, Sean (Jay Ellis, Top Gun: Maverick). Prosperous and stable, Sean presents a picture of normalcy in Ally’s abnormal Hollywood life. And he’s getting married in a few days to Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons, Scoob!)

Of course, Sean neglects to tell Ally this until she knocks on his door the next day, just in time for a pre-wedding meal with the assembled guests. Sensing that Sean isn’t over her, Ally jumps at the chance to stick around as the videographer, delighting his mother (Olga Merediz, In the Heights) and free-spirited brother (Haley Joel Osment, The Devil Has a Name). As the weekend progresses, Ally brazenly targets the apparent weaknesses in the couple’s relationship to win Sean back. The pursuit of lost love becomes more complex, though, as Ally’s friendship with Cassidy grows and, through her, sees echoes of herself and the life she’s chosen.

I’ve always been a little on the fence with Brie, and Somebody I Used to Know hasn’t thrown me off my perch either way. It has reinforced my admiration for Brie’s boldness in pursuing roles rarely depicted onscreen. She can quickly humanize characters that are not simply flawed but have off-kilter personalities and help the viewer relate to them. Turn Ally’s pursuit of Sean up a notch, and she becomes evil, dial her back, and you lose the tension that forms between her and Cassidy. It’s a fine line, and the fact that she wrote it makes it easier for her to play it well. 

That ease has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the cast. Ellis and Clemons complete the love triangle with sharp, confident edges, and Ellis especially finds new layers in what typically is the least exciting side to form the emotional shape. I fully believed Hagerty and Brie could be mother/daughter and only wish we had a few more scenes of them together. Danny Pudi (The Guilt Trip) makes the most out of the head-shaking best friend that is powerless to stop Ally’s madcap train of meddling, and Osment is entertaining as Sean’s brother, always up for a laugh.

Filmed in a picturesque locale, Somebody I Used to Know is a solid sophomore outing as a director for Franco. Back in 2020, he was behind the camera for the surprisingly effective thriller The Rental (also starring Brie), and he’s pivoted genres nicely with this pleasant, if at times, heavy-handed romantic drama. The first half of the film has a nice flow to it, but once we get into the more serious second act, a cold vibe seeps in and drowns out any lightheartedness we were able to draw early on. When the film takes itself and its characters too seriously, it loses our attention, but as it finds the balance between characterization and tone, it hums nicely.

Movie Review ~ Shotgun Wedding

The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple’s extravagant destination wedding is hijacked by criminals. In saving their families, they rediscover why they fell in love in the first place.
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Josh Duhamel, Sônia Braga, Jennifer Coolidge, Lenny Kravitz, Cheech Marin, Callie Hernandez
Director:  Jason Moore
Rated: R
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: I can safely say that my days as a +1-wedding guest are over. Most of our friends are either married or “set in their ways,” so my anxiety about meeting an entirely new wedding party and making small talk is, thankfully, over. (If you’re reading this and I came to your wedding: I loved it, I had a great time, and the main course was delicious.)  You all know what I’m talking about, though, right? It’s awkward to dive into a situation where you have limited time to get up to speed with your surroundings and might be joining intense (or tense) drama already in motion.

Perhaps that’s why the opening of Shotgun Wedding was such a struggle for me. This new film starring Jennifer Lopez (Marry Me) and Josh Duhamel (Love, Simon) is advertised as an action rom-com set in the paradise of the Dominican Republic, but you wouldn’t know it based on the first twenty minutes. Here, writer Mark Hammer and director Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) ask the viewer to hit the ground running while looking backward for clues about where we came from. 

The night before their wedding, bride Darcy (Lopez) is hoping that her “groomzilla” Tom (Duhamel) will stop obsessing over the nitpicky details of their nuptials and relax. At least he can help ease her stress dealing with her divorced parents (Cheech Marin and Sônia Braga), who continue to trade barbs or run interference with his overly bubbly mother (Jennifer Coolidge, Single All the Way). Her sister (Callie Hernandez, Jethica) is no help because she’s looking for a one-night stand, failing to remember she’s on a private island populated with men she’ll have to face the rest of the weekend. It gets really awkward when Darcy’s ex (Lenny Kravitz, The Hunger Games) makes a grand entrance via helicopter, spiking Tom’s alpha male jealousy.

Family drama is the least of their worries the following day when a band of pirates overtakes the luxury resort where the wedding ceremony is held, demanding Darcy’s father transfer millions of dollars for her safe return. However, the guests don’t know the pirates have failed to secure the bridal couple, leaving the bickering pair to make their way around the island, often clumsily evading capture. Dodging bullets and being stuck with a live grenade or two, they’ll need to warm up their cold feet and iron out any differences if they hope to save their wedding, their guests, and their lives.

Sitting through the film’s opening stretch is a bit of a head-scratcher, mainly because you wonder if you’ve accidentally sat on your remote and fast-forwarded through a pivotal introduction. Much of Hammer’s dialogue has characters carrying on conversations they’ve already begun or picking up where they left off as if we’ve already been privy to these discussions. Tom has supposedly been a dreadful “groomzilla,”…and we know this because? He’s seen at the beginning decorating the honeymoon getaway boat. What a nightmare! Darcy and Tom have a misalignment of understanding of the roles in their relationship, and it’s gotten so bad that when Darcy brings a small point up, it creates the type of havoc usually reserved for the final twenty minutes of a bedroom farce. Basically, the film opens in Act 2 of a three-act play.

Admittedly, Shotgun Wedding finds its groove on the wedding day and becomes a fair bit of fun. While it teeters on the side of too gruesome if you consider the violence (stabbings, burnings, shootings, etc.), it thankfully doesn’t play its macabre hand for goofy laughs either. Lopez is the most committed person on screen (as usual), throwing herself handily into the role with the movie star charm she’s perfected. If Duhamel can’t quite match her, perhaps it’s because he was a last-minute replacement for Armie Hammer, who dropped out for obvious reasons. (That also explains away why Coolidge is playing Duhamel’s mother, though they were born 11 years apart.)  I have to say that I got a big kick out of Braga (Kiss of the Spider Woman), who takes the typically thinly written spurned-wife role and manages to make a complete meal out of it.

For fans of the stars (and of the ever-popular Coolidge, who gets a few good zingers), Shotgun Wedding should be a moderately filling slice of cake. It won’t leave you with much of a hangover…or the desire to revisit it later. That’s going to be troublesome to its studio hoping to gain traction with fans of its mega-watt superstar lead because that re-watch factor has made the previous films Lopez has scored with such gigantic hits. 

Watch Shotgun Wedding on Amazon Prime today!
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Movie Review ~ Wildcat

The Facts:

Synopsis: Back from the war in Afghanistan, a young British soldier struggling with depression and PTSD finds a second chance in the Amazon rainforest when he meets an American scientist, and together they foster an orphaned baby ocelot.
Stars: Harry Turner, Samantha Zwicker
Director: Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:   Far from simply joining an endless list of documentaries charting the long-term effects of PTSD and the ripples it sends through the lives of men and women in the military, Wildcat offers a fascinating way inside the story. It’s still a raw examination of trauma and how war can damage emotions irrevocably. Nevertheless, directors Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost don’t leave the possibility of hope to die on the battlefield.

Lesh and Frost juggle several relationships that are central to the plot. The first is between graduate student/preservationist Samathna Zwicker and discharged solider Harry Turner. They’ve both come to the Peruvian Amazon to make a difference and what starts for her as a noble effort to give animals impacted by rainforest deforestation and poaching a fighting chance ends with his attachment issues with an ocelot named Keanu they raised from infancy. Of course, it’s about far more than Harry’s ties to the cat; he’s channeled a lot of his anger about being helpless to the horrors of war in Afghanistan into Keanu’s recovery and release. 

As Zwicker feels the pull to continue her studies away from the rainforest, it isolates her boyfriend again, further complicating the matter. This is when the soldier looking for answers, like the wildcat he’s tending to, needs socialization. The eventual downfall of the romance and project is documented with unbiased but unflinching honesty. 

More intriguing than you may think and filled with real-life curveballs only a true story could lob without blinking an eye, Wildcat was expected to make the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary but didn’t show up when that roster was announced. That’s unfortunate because, for all the standard documentaries about war and the internal wounds it leaves, this film clearly shows the toll in a tangible, relatable way.

Movie Review ~ Nanny

The Facts:

Synopsis: Immigrant nanny Aisha, piecing together a new life in New York City while caring for the child of an Upper East Side family, is forced to confront a concealed truth that threatens to shatter her precarious American Dream.
Stars: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams
Director: Nikyatu Jusu
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  On the surface, Nikyatu Jusu’s thriller Nanny feels like it could be a tight twist on the mid-late ‘90s cycle of yuppie thrillers that put families in a particular income bracket in peril a la The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.  Aligning it with those agreeable (and quite entertaining, if I do say so) popcorn chompers would be selling Jusu’s film short, though, because Nanny is more emotionally complex and resonant.  Leaving you alarmingly chilled rather than terrifically thrilled, there’s a more important lesson to be learned from this modern metropolitan horror tale.

Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop, Us) is just starting work for Amy (Michelle Monaghan, Pixels) and Adam (Morgan Spector, With/in) as a nanny for Rose (Rose Decker) in their nicely appointed Upper East Side apartment as the film opens.  As is often the case, Adam is the more hands-off parent, while Amy is the helicopter mom who confuses the smothering of her daughter with genuine love and care.  Amy’s more concerned with how her family looks to the outside world, the appearance of perfection is the ultimate goal.  Aisha picks up on that and does what she can to stay within the boundaries of her employer’s strict rules.  However, she’s also a mother with a son back home.  Most of her wages go toward a ticket to bring the two back together.

As the work demands increase, so does the stress of the job.  Though a new romantic relationship is prosperous, it re-introduces her to traditions and age-old spiritual tales that begin to haunt her.  This leads Aisha down a path of nightmares involving her son that start crossing into reality.  The hallucinations become outright fear when she loses contact with her child and cannot find out where he is.  Where is her son, and how does Rose appear to know him and pin Aisha’s increasingly strange behavior on him?

Nanny belongs to star Diop, a commanding presence that keeps you hooked on each development and left turn the film takes.  While you may begin to suspect where Jusu is guiding the thriller and arrive at the final destination long before Aisha does, Diop’s strong performance rises above Nanny’s sub-par structure, fortifying it into something more nuanced and intriguing.  Monaghan and Spector are solid too, and it helps that the script doesn’t pander to making them the expected NYC snobs we expect.  They’re snobs alright, but their angle has a tweaked edge to it.

31 Days to Scare ~ Run Sweetheart Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: Initially apprehensive when her boss insists she meets with one of his most important clients, s single mother is relieved and excited when the influential businessman defies expectations and sweeps her off her feet. But at the end of the night, when the two are alone together, he reveals his true, violent nature. Battered and terrified, she flees for her life, beginning a relentless cat-and-mouse game with a bloodthirsty assailant hell-bent on her utter destruction.
Stars: Ella Balinska, Pilou Asbæk, Clark Gregg, Dayo Okeniyi, Betsy Brandt, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ava Grey
Director: Shana Feste
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Tracking the new film Run Sweetheart Run over the past two years reminded me of what it was like to follow a movie before the internet became this unruly beast. Back 20-25 years ago, there were a few sites online where you could find information about upcoming movies that updated more frequently than your weekly/monthly subscription magazines. Through these sites, often maintained by zealous fans and consisting of gossip tidbits, you could catch wind of a movie that sounded up your alley and then track it through production, marketing, and, finally, release. I can recall following along for the releases The Relic (charting the many delays to its 1997 arrival in theaters) and, the biggest one of all, the modern shark classic Deep Blue Sea in 1999.

Run Sweetheart Run had barely time to make it onto my radar after its debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival before its distribution into theaters was canceled when the lockdown closed movie houses and turned Hollywood into a ghost town. While many similar genre titles eventually found their way into viewers’ homes via streaming or minor theatrical releases once theaters began opening up, Run Sweetheart Run had seemingly vanished from existence. Though it had been sold off to Amazon quickly in May 2020, the streaming service and original producer Blumhouse sat on the film for over two years, a strange stretch to let such an innocuous title languish on a next-to-empty shelf. 

Movies that gather dust on a shelf start to gain a reputation, not a good one. I never quite understood why Blumhouse and Amazon would let the horror title, directed by Shana Feste (Country Strong) and written by Feste along with Keith Josef Adkins and Kellee Terrell, remain unreleased when they put out other titles that might have benefitted from later rollouts. I’d keep checking the IMDb page and news sources for information on the film (mind you, all I had to go on was the synopsis, the cast list, and a few random press photos, the original buzzed-about trailer was never even released online) but came up with nothing. Then…October 2022 rolled around, and it was time for Run Sweetheart Run to get its due.

I’ve followed many films that turned out to be duds, but I was so happy to find that Feste’s film was tremendous fun, the kind of bolt-for-your-life horror that moves so fast you don’t have time to clock how out of joint the logic is at times. The film feeds off the energy put forth by its appealing leads, Ella Balinska and Pilou Asbæk, and a pulsating-synth music score that turns Los Angeles into a neon-tinged town of menace for one woman desperate to survive a night of horrors and the man that is the cause of it all.

Single mother Cherie (Balinska, 2019’s Charlie’s Angels) is studying to get her law degree and working at a high-profile law firm with a boss (Clark Gregg, Moxie) that benefits from her hard work. She double-booked him tonight for an anniversary date with his wife and dinner with a client in town for the evening. Practically guilting her into going, a reluctant Cherie agrees to go out with the client, but when she meets Ethan (Asbæk, Overlord), she’s grateful for her supposed error. A handsome, successful man, Ethan seems interested in Cherie too and has said enough right things by the end of the night that he convinced her to cancel her ride home and come inside with him. As they enter the house, Ethan turns back and stares into the camera, stopping it from following the two of them indoors. What is about to happen is…private.

We don’t see what happens inside, but we hear it, one of several acts of violence toward women that Feste does not show. That may seem like it gives the audience a break from another movie depicting violence against women. Still, there’s something sinister in how characters break the fourth wall and physically move the camera so the audience can’t see what’s about to happen. Cherie is different, though, and is unwilling to go down gently. So begins a night where Cherie is pursued by an evil that won’t stop no matter who is standing in his way. Involving family and friends won’t help Cherie either because Ethan has more than worldly powers at his disposal.

There’s more than a nugget of good ideas and a ton of metaphor, but, almost blessedly, Feste doesn’t lean into this too much. Instead, Feste lets you take the analogy to heart and come up with your interpretation of who Ethan is and what he ultimately has been tasked to do. Feste imbues the story early on with some cheeky fun, but that melts away the further into the night the story gets. That’s also when Balinksa entirely takes control of the movie, and while she may share the lead responsibilities with Asbæk, she’s unquestionably the show’s star.

You can poke holes all around the story and screenplay, but it defeats the bloody-ied fun of the experience. It’s a shame the film got lost in the shuffle because it’s well done and comes across as a confident change of gears for many involved. I could have done with a little more time in the second act with a new character introduced in the final 1/3, but that would add additional time that I don’t think the simple set-up could have supported. Available on streaming, you won’t have to sprint to Run Sweetheart Run, but do walk quickly to add it to your list for a perfect weekend option leading up to Halloween.

Movie Review ~ Catherine Called Birdy

The Facts:

Synopsis: A 14-year-old girl in medieval England navigates through life, avoiding potential suitors her father has in mind.
Stars: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ralph Ineson, Russell Brand, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Kaye, Lesley Sharpe
Director: Lena Dunham
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With the phenomenal success and healthy run of HBO’s Girls, writer/director/creator/star Lena Dunham burst onto a scene that was often ill-prepared for her painfully honest responses to what the world was throwing at her. Some saw that honesty as a detriment even as they found it wholly refreshing to hear a voice that cuts through a lot of same-speak. So, even if you didn’t relate to Dunham’s generation or outlook on relationships, work, and family, a (sometimes begrudging) respect developed throughout that show. While I was happy to see Dunham recognized for her directing and writing, it wasn’t very reassuring to see awards bodies claiming to be progressive never go that extra mile and hand her the award along with the nomination. 


This isn’t a review to relitigate the rise of Lena Dunham and the fact that I think she never got her full due. No, this is to celebrate that Dunham has taken time after Girls to recalibrate, find love, and determine the next steps she wants to take in her career. To hear her tell it, the only thing she wanted to focus on after Girls was adapting ‘Catherine Called Birdy’, Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel Dunham sparked to as a kid. Never one to leave a goal behind, Dunham has gone ahead and done it. The result is this spirited period comedy arriving on Prime Video after being afforded a longer-than-usual theatrical window in key markets.

The time is 13th century England but to hear Catherine (Bella Ramsey, Judy) speak is to know that she is thoroughly modern. Catherine, called Birdy due to her collection of pet birds, is anything but prim and proper, the only daughter amongst a stable of boys. To the manor born, her father (Andrew Scott, Victor Frankenstein) is a proto-typical male who spends beyond his means and feels that women are to be married off. At the same time, her mother (Billie Piper) encourages her young daughter’s spunky nature but ultimately acquiesces to her husband. This pluck becomes an issue when she reaches womanhood (a harrowing passage that exposes a side of life in the Middle Ages we likely haven’t thought of in detail), and her father decides it’s time for her to marry.

Who would she marry, though? She can’t wed her best friend Perkin because he’s beneath her position and can’t offer the monetary advances her father requires of her suitor. While there are a few hints she harbors a crush on her hunky uncle (Joe Alwyn, Harriet) she can’t quite verbalize, even she knows that is off limits. Catherine then sets about sending each candidate off as quickly as possible in a montage of misbehavior until she meets her match in a greasy elder nicknamed Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye, Dracula Untold), who isn’t deterred so easily. As her time ticks away, can Birdy fly away from her imminent destiny into a future of her choosing?

Dunham has mentioned in interviews that she altered the book’s ending. While I haven’t read the source material, I did sneak a peek at the original conclusion, and what the writer/director has cooked up feels like a better finale for this character in this iteration. On paper, the ending Cushman wrote likely works, but the character Dunham has brought to life couldn’t have existed and satisfied an audience the same way. That’s because Ramsey is charmingly realistic in the role; you’re enamored within seconds of meeting her. You can almost see some of Dunham’s younger self in Birdy, and I’d imagine that’s what drew her to the book and, eventually, this movie. I haven’t even the space to discuss how much I enjoyed the supporting turns of Sophie Okonedo (Death on the Nile) as an eccentric woman that plays a part in Birdy’s understanding of female independence and Lesley Sharp as her nurse that doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

Announced before the pandemic and then delayed because of the lockdown, it’s taken a while for Catherine Called Birdy to take wing, but the results are lovely. It can be overly cutesy at times, and in all honesty, it’s not a film that’s made explicitly for me anyway, so I’m not going to be the best litmus test for it. The real goal will be to have children around the age of Birdy (boys and girls) watch the film and then talk with them about it after. Adults could have good conversations with youngsters about traditional roles and how they’ve changed since Birdy’s time. In that way, Dunham articulates how far we’ve traveled without learning vital lessons.

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.