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!
Watch Shotgun Wedding | Prime Video (amazon.com)

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. 

Anyway…

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.

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.