Movie Review ~ Leo

The Facts:

Synopsis: A 74-year-old lizard named Leo and his turtle friend decide to escape from the terrarium of a Florida school classroom where they have been living for decades.
Stars: Adam Sandler, Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Sadie Sandler, Sunny Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jo Koy, Jackie Sandler, Heidi Gardner, Robert Smigel, Nick Swardson, Stephanie Hsu, Nicholas Turturro
Director: Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim
Rated: PG
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: As someone fortunate to have several terrific young children in my life (and one awful one…just kidding), I’m a bit torn on how to talk about Leo. My pure critic side has the itch to wholly recommend it for being the tenderly genuine, endlessly cute, and unabashedly charming surprise I found it to be. Tuneful and clever, this musical animated film is aimed at children right on the precipice of turning double digits, a fuzzy target audience that doesn’t often get programming directed toward them. 

Then, the other part of me slowly creeps back into my mind. The one that knows the parents of the kids that may be watching this and wishes that the movie, which begins with an opening number equal parts hilarious and heartwarming, had stayed on that path rather than veering off into the odd, off-color realms it sometimes ventures into. I could be reading the room wrong, but these more mature moments push the boundaries of what kids need to know rather than what they should know at their age. You can argue all day that “they’ll learn it eventually,” but remember the joy of not knowing all you know now?

An original story that has been in development since 2016, Leo comes equipped with a screenplay by SNL veterans Robert Smigel (Hotel Transylvania 2) and Adam Sandler and recent Sandler collaborator Paul Sado. Set mainly in the fifth-grade classroom of a Florida elementary school over a school year, the film follows the students and their various quirks and anxieties as they prepare to leave the nest of lower school and enter the next level of their education, both socially and academically. Watching this all happen are the class pets, Squirtle the Turtle (voiced by Bill Burr, Dog), and Leo the Lizard (Sandler, Murder Mystery 2).

When their beloved teacher goes out on maternity leave and is replaced by a gruff harridan (Cecily Strong, The Boss), the students take home one of the class pets every weekend to learn responsibility. Having just discovered the lifespan of a lizard is 75 years and realizing he’s pushing 74, Leo is only too happy to be allowed to attempt to break free every weekend…until he begins to talk with the children and becomes a much-needed confidant and sounding board for them. Through their talks with Leo, the students begin to harness their emotions, work through their hang-ups, and develop the confidence they’d been lacking. 

This couldn’t be a better set-up for a family film, especially with a release date close to the holidays. The music in Leo is bright and bouncy, often in a nice contrast with Smigel’s lyrics, which are observant, stinging, and superbly humane. Despite Sandler’s best efforts to terrorize us with another dreadfully obnoxious bit of voice acting, he can’t suppress the wonderful comfort Leo gives or his indomitable spirit. What I’m not so sure about is Leo’s duplicity in lying to the children by saying he’s only their “special” friend and not to tell anyone about their “secret.” This is where it gets muddy.

Not only is Leo teaching the kids to keep secrets from their parents, but there are moments when he or Squirtle gives them false information on life to appease them. It may be funny and play into the comedy that will lure adult fans of Sandler, Burr, and other voice actors present, but don’t be fooled that the kids listening in won’t pick up on the themes/threads as well. I was watching the film alone, and I was even embarrassed when one of the children asked Squirtle how babies are made, and he told them, in graphic detail…how turtle babies are made. (It’s not any better.)

Yet despite this and other bizarre shifts that might make you question who the audience for Leo is, you can’t brush aside the fact that it has irrepressible energy, which becomes the infectious driving force of the film by the finale. It’s about fifteen minutes too long (no animated movie for children should ever be more than 90 minutes – there, I said it), and there’s a song for one of the parents that is entirely superfluous, but this is leagues better than Sandler’s last attempt at producing an animated film, 2002’s Eight Crazy Nights. Sandler has found his most tremendous success in animated features (his Hotel Transylvania movies are the highest-grossing in his career), and you can add Leo to his golden mantle, even if it is an odd fit.

Movie Review ~ What Happens Later

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two ex-lovers get snowed in at a regional airport overnight. Indefinitely delayed, Willa, a magical thinker, and Bill, a catastrophic one, find themselves just as attracted to and annoyed by one another as they did decades earlier.
Stars: Meg Ryan & David Duchovny
Director: Meg Ryan
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: With all the love and respect I can offer to Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, the undisputed queen of the romantic comedy in the ‘90s was Meg Ryan. Through a run of rewatchable hits that started with 1989’s When Harry Met Sally through 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, Ryan was a guaranteed good time at the movies. Unfortunately, her silver streak hit the skids when her personal life crisscrossed with her professional persona on the set of the 2000 stinker Proof of Life. While she had a few near misses in the years since (2001’s Kate & Leopold and an underappreciated remake of The Women in 2008), her career has gone mostly silent.

Ryan stepped behind the camera in 2015, making a modest debut with the period-set drama Ithaca. Surrounding herself with the comfort of longtime costar Tom Hanks and son Jack Quaid, Ryan took a small role but immersed herself in the technical side of the process, and her years in the industry helped her turn in a respectable, if flawed, debut. Eight years later, Ryan returns to her dual roles in front of and behind the camera with What Happens Later. It shows both the growth of an artist stretching in new directions and the sparkle of the charming actress who has been a frequent sick/rainy/snow day companion on-screen to audiences around the world.

Based on Steven Dietz’s 2008 play Shooting Star, Ryan helps adapt the two-hander, opening it up (slightly) to take up more space as it follows a former couple reunited by fate in an airport during a snowstorm. At first, I was nervous that Ryan had worked with Dietz and co-adapter Kirk Lynn and took things too far into fantasy. Changing the names of the characters from Elena and Reed to Willa (Ryan, Joe Versus the Volcano) and Bill (David Duchovny, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines), who cross paths as they are trying to board planes going to the same destinations the other has just come from felt too on the nose. The viewer is already working to decipher if this is straight-up fantasy or a genuine coincidence, but the opening stretch leans hard into wanting you to think it’s operating in some alternate reality where exes with similar-sounding names can meet and hash out their unresolved issues.

Even if I wasn’t aware this was based on a play, the presentational banter and monologuing contained in the script for What Happens Later is a dead giveaway. Still, Ryan and editor Jason Gourson edit the scenes together in a way that breaks up what could be a monotonous conversation that stretches into the echoing darkness of a never-ending night. Filming in an actual airport, cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek has his work cut over for him, especially when it appears there is a mixture of paid background extras and real passengers trying to catch their flight. Look closely in the background (which at times is crudely blurred), and you’ll see people staring directly at Ryan and Duchovny as they walk by or, in one strange instance, filming them on their Smartphones. 

For her part, Ryan slips easily into the carefree Willa. You can see what attracted her to the role in What Happens Later, though, because Willa carries an emotional burden she wasn’t expecting to hold on to for longer than a quick plane ride across the country. The effervescent aura that made Ryan so dang charismatic twenty years ago is still present, and she’s matched nicely with Duchovny, who is operating in a far more relaxed mode than he has in years. The two have a natural chemistry, and if the script gives them a few clunkers to spit out, they’re talented enough to massage them into something meaningful. There’s a third character thrown in the mix, an omnipresent voice of the airline terminal announcer. The credits attribute the voice to Hal Ligget, but let’s say that Ryan hasn’t come to her second movie as a director without bringing a close friend with her.

More than anything, What Happens Later further indicates that Ryan is comfortable returning to her rom-com roots but able to blend the more dramatic flourishes she sought before taking a break from Hollywood. Is the movie destined to be an enduring classic? Hardly, it’s too woo-woo in tone and trips over some production and editing flaws that reveal Ryan’s still gaining her footing in the directing arena. We want her to stick around, so tossing support her way now means we will hopefully see more of her later. 

31 Days to Scare ~ The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Three single women in a picturesque village have their wishes granted, at a cost, when a mysterious and flamboyant man arrives in their lives.
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Veronica Cartwright, Richard Jenkins, Keith Jochim, Carel Struycken
Director: George Miller
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: In 1988, renting a movie was quite different than it is now. Back then, before the huge corporate video chains, due to the expense of just one tape, small stores would only be able to get one or two copies of a VHS, and demand was sky-high for the latest release. In most locations, you put your name on the reserve list and waited in line. Sometimes, you’d luck out, and your name would come up on a Friday or Saturday night, and you’d be set for the hottest title, or you could be stuck trying to plead with your parents to let you bike over to pick up your reserve on a school night.

My eight-year-old brain only needed to see Michelle Pfeiffer (my love of Grease 2 was at peak fervor), and I got my name on the reservation list for The Witches of Eastwick quickly. I then spent the next three weeks calling daily to ask where I was on the list and, wouldn’t you know it, I got the call on a Saturday evening. Perfection. That meant I had Saturday night and most of Sunday to take in this supernatural comedy with plenty of adult material that went straight over my head. It remained a favorite of mine to watch on cable over time, and as I got older, I could focus on the non-Pfeiffer parts, appreciating the sly mix of horror and fantasy, not to mention the delicious performances of a divine cast.

Adapting the 1984 novel by John Updike, screenwriter Michael Cristofer took a looser approach to Updike’s more straightforward story of three women in a small New England town who come under the spell of a devilish newcomer who meets their every wish in a romantic partner. All three women have different desires and unfilled needs that are suddenly, surprisingly, met. As their relationship with the man deepens, an awakening occurs that surprises and scares them. When they realize they may have fallen for the devil himself, and he’s using them to create mayhem with even more wicked tumult planned, they bond together and use their newfound powers to send him packing.

Updike’s novel was considerably more pro-feminist than his previous works. However, it was seen in some circles as stereotyping women as literal witches who depend on a man for satisfaction. By making a few tweaks, Cristofer (The Night Clerk) establishes the women at the outset as independent entities that happen to be enriched (or, in some cases, enhanced) when they meet the man of their collective dreams. It also helps that director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, Babe) worked with four fantastic talents, an enviable quartet that certainly made the film a box-office smash and has kept it a popular title for nearly forty years since it was released.

Though Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment) gets top billing (and as the biggest box office star at the time, deservedly so) as the mysterious Daryl Van Horne, it’s Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Pfeiffer that positively make the movie a treat to revisit at any time of year. Even though her acting career had initially been tentative, Cher knew how to pick projects. Oscar-nominated for 1983’s Silkwood and unjustly passed over for a nom in 1985 for Mask, 1987 was the year that Cher came on with a vengeance. The Witches of Eastwick arrived in June, murder-mystery Suspect came out in October, and her Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck would be seen in December. She’s perfect as Alex, a headstrong sculptress who finds a refreshing way of letting go of control with Daryl.

Initially arriving on set thinking she had Cher’s part (can you imagine this happening today?), Sarandon (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) was the most experienced actress of the three. She easily slipped into the role of Jane, the mousy music teacher who gets her strings exquisitely plucked by Daryl. Pfeiffer’s single mother is admittedly the least sketched out, and I get the feeling the character was written to be a little daffier, but tonally, it didn’t work, so this was refined to be more “free-spirited.”  Her seduction by Nicholson (with whom she would reteam in 1994’s Wolf) is believable and, ultimately, frightening.

With the help of the Oscar-nominated score by John Williams (one of his best!), the first hour or so of The Witches of Eastwick is light and airy, with Miller embracing the vibe of the tiny East Coast town and some of its oddball inhabitants. As the women become friendlier with Daryl, things grow darker, and we see the effect it has on the buttoned-up Felicia (Veronica Cartwright, Alien), who gets on the wrong side of Daryl by targeting his women. The closer they get, the more Felicia spirals off the deep end, almost possessed by a niggling rage she can’t control or understand. In another year, Cartwright might have been mentioned as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for her go-for-broke performance that gets weirder and more terrifying as the film continues.

Audiences helped make The Witches of Eastwick one of the top-grossing movies of 1987, and when it was released on VHS in 1988, it continued to do strong business as a rental. If critics embraced the performances and Miller’s filmmaking, they had issues with the effects-heavy finale that may seem like it comes out of nowhere, but it’s the only place the film can go to close the loop on what it has nicely set up. (I love it and can’t wait for it to arrive.) In fact, there are several fun visual effects sequences, from a tennis game that goes awry to an impromptu flying session, that show that creative usage of technology can gently bolster what is already a well-made film. The final shot is a tad lackluster, but it’s forgivable because the other 117 minutes are a complete delight.

In the years since, the legacy of the novel and the movie have inspired several attempts to revive the story as a television series and one musical that has a decent score but couldn’t survive outside of London, where it is most often revived. I always wonder if they’ll ever try to turn this into a limited series for Netflix or Amazon — in the right hands, it may be worth another look, but Miller and co. did such a fine job with this cozy 1987 film that I wouldn’t want it to be diminished in any way. It makes for a nice Halloween watch if you are going for light scares, but any time of year is fine to visit The Witches of Eastwick.

Movie Review ~ Dicks: The Musical

The Facts:

Synopsis: A pair of business rivals discover that they’re identical twins and decide to swap places to trick their divorced parents into getting back together.
Stars: Aaron Jackson, Josh Sharp, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, Megan Thee Stallion, D’Arcy Carden, Nick Offerman, Tom Kenny, Bowen Yang
Director: Larry Charles
Rated: R
Running Length: 86 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Throughout the Toronto Film Festival, all I’d heard about was the epic first screening of Dicks: The Musical. While the reviews of the movie itself were very mixed from the crowd, A24 had sent a live choir into the audience, throwing beach balls and other organ-shaped inflatables into the crowd. No screening could match that burst of energy, but being at the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award screening, the last screening at TIFF23, was a blast. And you know what?   The movie from Borat director Larry Charles (The Dictator) is a rip-roaring riot. Yes, it’s offensive, explicit, raunchy, wrong, cheap-looking, and tacky. It’s also bright, sharp, self-aware, and committed, with songs that have no right to be as tuneful and comedically well-rounded as they are. 

Adapted from F—ing Identical Twins, an off-Broadway stage show by Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp (who also star), you’ll have to close your eyes and take a leap of faith with this. It’s not going to be for everyone (that’s putting it extremely mildly), but the cast is so game (like the astounding Megan Mullally and show-stopping Megan Thee Stallion) that if you go in with an open mind and open heart, you’ll likely wind up having as much fun, and laugh as loudly, as I did. And see it with a huge crowd… several jaw-dropping scenes deserve to be experienced with a group.

In the fantasy world imagined by Jackson/Sharp, the two star as Craig (Sharp) and Trevor (Jackson), “identical” “twins” that happen to live next door to one another and work at the same company run by Gloria (Megan Thee Stallion). It’s their first day in the new office, and when they run into each other, it’s like looking into a mirror (we’ll take their word for it), and though they begin the day as rivals, they end it as copasetic chums that figure out they were twins separated at birth. Craig was raised by his invalid mother, Evelyn (Mullally, Summering), who lost an important appendage she now keeps safe in her purse. Things are also weird with Trevor’s dad, Harris (Nathan Lane, Beau is Afraid), a gay man who keeps two foundling sewer creatures in a cage and can only feed them one way. You’ll have to see for yourself.

Through a plot ripped right out of The Parent Trap, Craig and Trevor decide to switch places (they are identical, after all) to meet the parents they never knew and see if they can get them back together again. Once they do, however, fate turns things sideways, as perhaps a different couple would be better off living happily ever after. A trip to the sewer and some divine intervention from a go-go dancer glam God (Bowen Yang, Bros) should eliminate confusion so everyone can have a gay old time living in harmony.

There’s something to offend everyone in Dicks: The Musical, and if you don’t leave thinking about at least one joke Sharp and Jackson should have cut, I’m not sure if the movie has done its job. Like The Book of Mormon (which, like Dicks: The Musical, has surprisingly excellent music) or South Park, the point in offending everyone and not just one group is to illustrate that everyone can be a target, and there is equal opportunity to laugh at obvious jokes that are meant not to be taken seriously. To ensure they reach the cheap seats, Jackson and Sharp stage a horrifically wrong finale that, if you hadn’t been hanging your head up until that point, you’d surely slump a bit in your seat. Remember, though, it’s all fun and games, and there’s a blooper reel waiting right after the big finish. Be brave. See this in the theaters. Get the joke. Don’t be the joke.

Movie Review ~ Shortcomings

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Ben Tanaka, a confused, obsessive Japanese American male in his late twenties, and his cross-country search for contentment (or at least the perfect girl).
Stars: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon, Timothy Simons
Director: Randall Park
Rated: R
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I love a good coming-of-age movie as much as the next critic that grew up in the hazy glow of the ‘80s, but I think it’s often a mistake to assume they can only focus on the younger generation.  Yes, there’s an instant relatability for adult filmgoers who like to look back with movies that can capture a specific time and place with a particular patina; it’s what has led to this nostalgia boom of late that I’ve fully embraced.  However, there are a growing number of films geared toward a different type of maturing that happens long after we’ve said goodbye to high school and college and are ready to take the next step toward what might be waiting on the other side of unexpectedness.

That’s my biggest takeaway from Shortcomings, Randall Park’s film version of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel originally published as a series of serialized stories between 2004 and 2007.  At the start of the film, most of Tomine’s characters are at a standstill in their young adulthood, tapping their toes as they wait for the next Big Thing to happen in life.  Without realizing it, they neglect that these prime days of pre-adulthood are the perfect time to make the big mistakes they fear and take the risks they appear to be opposed to.

Maybe that’s why Ben (Justin H. Min, After Yang) is so unhappy at the film’s start.  Living in Berkeley, CA, and going through the motions as a manager of an art-house theater that’s seen better days, he feels stuck in his current situation at work and home.  His girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki, Home Sweet Home Alone) is far more ambitious than her partner in the long-term goals department, and that divide is creating an obvious wedge between the two.  With Ben and Miko also disagreeing on what their Asian-American culture means to them and how representation is manifested, it sets into motion a separation that intends to give the two convenient bi-coastal space to reconsider their relationship but winds up creating a disastrous downward spiral for Ben.

After Miko accepts a career opportunity in NYC and leaves for several months, the breathing room he thought he needed turns into second-guessing jealousy…and this is after he has affairs with two vibrant women (Tavi Gevinson, Enough Said and Debby Ryan, Night Teeth) in short order.  Convinced he needs to either win Miko back or get to the bottom of why they can’t work, Ben ventures to NYC for a visit with longtime friend Alice (Sherry Cola, Turning Red) and some detective work.  While Alice and her girlfriend Meredith offer a safe space to contemplate his recent choices before confronting Miko, Ben cannot fully see the scale of his actions until it is too late.

In bringing these characters to life on the big screen, first-time director Park (Valley Girl) and Tomine have taken flat images already leaping off the page and transitioned them into the flawed three-dimensional figures they were begging to become.  Tomine’s characters are emotional and quirky but richly human and get stuck in the same life complications that many will be able to relate with.  In turn, Park was able to take that detailed outline and successfully piece together a cast that could run with the material. 

Min is appropriately aggravating when it counts but doesn’t lose the leading man charm that makes you want to root for him ultimately coming out on top.  You also want to cheer for Maki, even if her character is often just as much in the wrong as Min’s.  After July’s Joy Ride, Cola is fizzing (har har) and proving not only to be an excellent comic sidekick but also to have impressive chops in the non-comedic arena.  Though I understand it’s not her story or Tomine’s perspective, I would have loved to see more of her side of things get fleshed out.  Maybe a spin-off?

Shortcomings starts strong and maintains a zippy energy for the first half but begins to dip as it nears the sixty-minute mark.  Coincidentally, it’s when the story goes into more dramatic territory, and our characters show a bit of their darker side.  Naturally, Park pumps the brakes a bit.  While it can’t regain that same spring in its step from its opening stretch, it never fully stumbles out of favor.  Well-etched performances and a creatively infused screenplay go a long way in keeping Shortcomings headed in the right direction.

Movie Review ~ Theater Camp

The Facts:

Synopsis: The eccentric staff of a rundown theater camp in upstate New York must band with the beloved founder’s bro-y son to keep the camp afloat.
Stars: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris
Directors: Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: The last time I was scheduled to go to summer camp, I ran into the bathroom of the YMCA we were departing from and locked myself in, refusing to come out until the buses were forced to leave without me. My parents were, understandably, apoplectic, and looking back on it now, I don’t know why I wouldn’t have leaped at the chance to get out of the city and enjoy the time away. I mean, I understand why I flipped out at the time. I’d already gone the previous summer and hated it. Picture it: I was an only child, a theater nerd, “sensitive,” hadn’t had my first sleepover, and generally wasn’t used to being around so much uncontained testosterone in one deodorant-free cabin.

In the following years, my obsession with camp blossomed as if I were the poster child for the sleepaway experience. I sought out each TV show, movie, book, article, you name it because though it never turned out to be part of my adolescence, I lived vicariously through these fictional characters that lived (and in the case of the Friday the 13th’s, died) in this tranquil setting. Now, if I knew I would be in an environment like the one depicted in Theater Camp, I might have sucked it up, found my light, and made sure not to upstage my big moment. 

Walking the fine line between razor-sharp comedy and overly winking send-up is tough, but Theater Camp, written by Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, and Nick Lieberman, gets it so terrifically right that you’ll be absolutely howling throughout. My inner theater kid was literally screaming with laughter at some of the perfectly crafted one-liners and expertly timed bits. Best of all, it is not so insider Broadway that it excludes but instead is filled with the kind of “if you know, you know” references that only enhance enjoyment.

A much-loved theater camp in upstate New York, Camp AdirondACTS, faces a crisis as summer approaches. Its founder and camp director, Joan (Amy Sedaris, Somebody I Used to Know), suffers a stroke while attending a performance of Bye, Bye, Birdie! and it falls to her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro, 22 Jump Street) to keep the (stage) lights on and the staff employed, fending off ruthless real estate investors and his dopey inexperience to survive. Meanwhile, Amos (Platt, Dear Evan Hansen) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon, Love the Coopers), popular teachers (and former campers) who have jointly agreed to put their own performing careers on hold, run into their first conflict as they write and direct their annual original musical.

There’s so much good to go around in Theater Camp that one watch on the big screen won’t be enough for many. This is one of those surefire cast party/sleepover movies destined to be rewound, rehearsed, and rehashed in the years to come. It’s been made mainly for theater people expressly by theater people, but its theme of wanting to be the best version of yourself at every level of achievement is universal. That’s why you may find yourself unexpectedly emotional at the end, when a song about nothing suddenly becomes linked to everything important to the characters and, somewhat magically, to us.

I can try to resist Platt all I want, and while I found him the least effective of the leads in Theater Camp, he’s cast himself in a terrific, if unchallenging, role as a narcissistic nerd who has gotten used to being a big fish in a pond that’s always stocked with little fish. He’s acting alongside longtime friend Gordon, and that relationship gives credence to the tension their characters experience as the movie tools along. Gordon (who also directs with Lieberman) is a bona fide star (if you couldn’t tell after watching season two of FX’s The Bear) and walks away with the movie, even if she gives the best lines away to Platt and Tatro. Platt’s fiancée Galvin (Booksmart) has a sweet stagehand role hiding talent bigger than he may know. 

Sure, I may have rethought some of Ayo Edebiri’s role as a last-minute hire by Tatro’s character for multiple positions he needs, though she isn’t adept at any, but even Edebiri gets a few moments to shine. It’s also a pleasure to see actors like Nathan Lee Graham (Zoolander 2) and Owen Thiele step up for some uproarious moments as teachers who don’t hold back their cutting opinions on their young students. An impressive cast of young talent singing and dancing throughout is the bow on the glittery fun of Theater Camp. It’s the perfect length for this type of comedy and never stays in a bit longer than it must. This is one camp I think about revisiting soon, if only that YMCA one I hid from all those years ago could say the same thing!

Movie Review ~ Haunted Mansion (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A single mother and her son move into a New Orleans mansion, only to find that it isn’t quite as empty as expected. To combat the spirits, they hire a grieving widower who works as a ghost tour guide, a psychic, a priest, and a local historian to exorcise the spirits from the Haunted Mansion.
Stars: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, Dan Levy, Winona Ryder, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto
Director: Justin Simien
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Spend enough time at one of the Disney theme parks worldwide, and you’ll hear the words “rope drop” murmured around your resort hotel by experienced guests who know the drill.   Rope drop is the time of day when the park opens, the free for all moment that separates the runners from the walkers, the Space Mountain rocketeers from the Jungle Cruise captains. If you want to go on the Peter Pan ride and not wait hours, you better make a beeline for the queue, or good luck standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a noisy family from Kentucky. 

Everyone has their favorite rope drop ride (often the most in-demand attraction), but if I manage to drag myself out of those comfy Disney beds early enough, I know which ride at Walt Disney World will always be my first choice of the day: The Haunted Mansion. A classic Disney “dark” ride that is a fantastic blend of skilled animatronics, Imagineering magic, and good old-fashioned bold design, I’ve traveled through the attraction dozens and dozens of times (sometimes on the same trip) and always found something new to enjoy.

That’s why Disney’s first stab at making a Haunted Mansion movie in 2003 was a bummer. Starring Eddie Murphy in one of his phoned-in, for-cash-only performances, it had a silly plot, goofy effects, and ultimately failed to capitalize on the same inspired spirit which made Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl a gigantic hit a few months prior. Despite rumors that Guillermo del Toro was interested in re-opening the franchise a decade ago, the property toiled around in limbo until it was revived shortly after the pandemic restrictions lifted.

Directed by Justin Simien (Hulu’s Bad Hair) and written by Katie Dippold (The Heat and 2016’s Ghostbusters), I had hoped a rebuilt Haunted Mansion would repair the shoddy work done by the original, but alas, it’s still creaky and moldy in all the wrong places. Not quite the wild ride I’d imagined, Disney’s 2023 take on Haunted Mansion is a weird misfire that has the right actors for the job but can never decide if it wants to be a mellow and melancholy tale of lost love and moving on or the effects-heavy romp of ghoulish delights it only doles out in small doses over two hours (yes, two hours).

There’s a sense the film is off track from the start, with visits to New Orleans locales playing more like an ad for Louisiana tourism than a mood-setting introduction. Keeping things at a forward narrative standstill as we wait for the titles to appear, we witness photographer Ben (LaKeith Stanfield, Knives Out) meet Alyssa (Charity Jordan, Respect) and learn she gives ghost tours before jumping ahead a handful of years to find Ben a grieving widower that has taken over his wife’s business. Rather than being an inviting way into the story, it’s an awkward, roundabout way of establishing our leading man and how he comes to the attention of Father Kent (Owen Wilson, Paint).

Hired by single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson, The Water Man), who is having trouble with the new home she purchased for her and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon, The Harder They Fall), Kent is desperate for an extra set of hands to identify what forces are disturbing the peace of the single mother and child. He’s heard that Ben may be an expert on the supernatural and uses a hefty cash donation as an enticement to take a look at the place. The only problem is that once you enter the Haunted Mansion, you can’t shake the ghosts that inhabit it. Therefore, it greatly behooves Ben, Kent, mystic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip), and a local historian (Danny DeVito, Dumbo), who join forces to unlock the secrets of the manor and find out what evil is controlling the grim-grinning ghosts that have come out to wreak havoc.

The 2003 release of Haunted Mansion was rated PG and accessible for families and youngsters that didn’t mind the light spookiness. Twenty years later, however, we find the reboot netting a PG-13 and often deserving it. It’s more than a little scary and not for little ones. I’d argue they’ll be more inclined to wriggle in their seats of boredom more than it will freak them out, and at over two hours, the studio has seriously miscalculated how much movie they needed to produce. Dippold’s script can never commit to being geared toward a more adult drama with gothic overtones or maintain the fun zip of the ride that I’m pretty sure most fans wanted. There’s fan service paid, and it’s chiefly in Jared Leto’s (House of Gucci) #1 bad guy, the infamous Hat-Box Ghost, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s Leto under the (well-done) CGI created ghoul because he’s barely seen in human form. 

What kept tripping me up was how odd it was that so many good actors were in a movie that was consistently mediocre and off the mark. Take Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween Ends), playing the famous psychic Madame Leota. Curtis is decked out in fab costumes in flashbacks, but Madame Leota is most known for being an all-knowing head in a crystal ball, and she’s rendered via arguably terrible CGI in her globe. Couple that with a questionable accent (and even more questionably applied CGI lipstick), and Curtis’ first post-Oscar work is a big dud. The ray of light is Stanfield, terrific throughout and almost able to salvage the film when it gets lost in one of its oddly maudlin tangents. 

Punched up at times through a score by Kris Bowers (The United States vs. Billie Holliday), what’s missing are the raucous effects sequences that would have kept the film’s energy up longer. Some astounding effects scenes work nicely, and Jeffrey Waldron’s cinematography (You Hurt My Feelings) is often tonally on the right track, but you have to wait for long stretches before you get any reward in the light frights department. By that point, the payoff seems less worth it. When you finally check out of the Haunted Mansion, I’m guessing you’ll have more thoughts about the unanswered questions it leaves you with than you did about the secrets it held before going in. I hope Disney can renovate again with a new team more committed to keeping it old-school and resisting the urge to build it modern.

Movie Review ~ Barbie


The Facts:

Synopsis: Barbie suffers a crisis that leads her to question her world and her existence.
Stars: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell, Hari Nef, Emma Mackey, Dua Lipa, Simu Liu, Scott Evans, John Cena, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Helen Mirren, Michael Cera, Emerald Fennell
Director: Greta Gerwig
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 114 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Ask around, and you’ll find that everyone has their special Barbie origin story. Some had their personal Barbie (or Barbies) that provided hours of imaginative play; other Barbie-less wraiths like me looked forward to spending time with their cousins who routinely piled their tiny-waisted dolls naked in a trunk when they were bored with them. I would find them, redress them, and treat them like the treasures they were before hurriedly putting them back when I heard footsteps on the stairs. When I finally managed to get my own Barbie (Day-to-Night, and she was fabulous, thank you!) I ensured she was always in perfect condition and, like her name implied, always dressed for the occasion.

All these years later, I’ve been thinking a lot about my early experience with Barbie (and cursing the fact I misplaced Day-to-Night) as the release of the new big-budget Warner Brothers movie based on the timeless toy inched closer to release. Carefully guided by parent company Mattel, Barbie is arriving with high expectations and significant buzz, facing off against another much-anticipated feature (Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer) not so much as counterprogramming to but as a powerhouse duel with. At least that’s how the media positions it…another way that the arguably female-skewing Barbie brand is again in direct competition with a more masculine form of industry.  

It’s hard not to watch co-writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and not hold it to a higher standard than other summer fare after the many months of hyperbolic enthusiasm drummed up by the studio marketing department. With a dazzling cast (there’s barely a breath taken down to the most minor role that’s not from the lungs of a recognizable celebrity), eye-popping production design, and a script co-scribed by Gerwig’s partner Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), Barbie is occasionally a lot of movie to unwrap, but it’s also one with a clear point of view. Maybe best of all, aside from a few lapses in logic, for a film centered around a fantasy dreamland of living dolls and their hunky plastic boyfriends, it’s remarkably more lifelike with its emotions than many similar movies set in the real world.

Every day is the “best day” for Barbie (Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad) and her friends (also all different variations of Barbies). Living in her Dream House that she literally floats out of with a smile, she spends her time in Barbieland attending the female-led functions that keep things running smoothly. President Barbie (Issa Rae, The Lovebirds) makes sure the laws are in place with the all-female Supreme Court, while Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney, Dumbo), Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef, Bad Things), Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey, Death on the Nile) and Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp, tick, tick…BOOM!) spread their wealth of knowledge when they aren’t accepting awards or hanging at the beach with Robbie’s “Stereotypical” Barbie. It’s always fun, and each day ends with Girl’s Night. Yay!

Not so yay for Ken (Ryan Gosling, The Gray Man), though. Only truly happy when Robbie’s Barbie gives him the time of day, he’s constantly vying for her attention while working his one job: “beach.” Fending off the charms of the other Kens: (Simu Liu, One True Loves), Kingsley Ben Adir (One Night in Miami…), and Scott Evans (Midnight Kiss) and establishing his place as #1 Ken keeps him in a consistent state of agony and his existential crisis is starting to tear him apart. Little does he know that Barbie is also having strange feelings of her own, feelings that don’t align with the never-ending party of Barbieland.  What is her purpose? What is death? Simply asking the question sets her on a strange journey of discovery, taking her past the borders of Barbieland into the Real World. She may find the answers she seeks…but will the trouble she brings back in the process be worth it?

While I’ve never doubted the talent, I’ve struggled with Robbie’s output over the past few years, wondering when she would get out of a frustrating rut of playing characters with familiar arcs. The early electricity she showed and that would occasionally pop was becoming hard to catch, but the Oscar-nominee has recaptured it here. It’s Robbie’s strongest work in years, striking a touching balance of emotions and (like all of the characters) never playing the “dolls” as silly. Gosling is rip-roaringly tubular as a desperately needy, hopelessly devoted Ken. If you ever wanted to see the full range of what Gosling can do, this is the total package. Comedy, drama, music, action, stunts, and yes, the abs are of steel. It’s terrifically realized and a performance to stand back and admire. The supporting cast is strong throughout, with Kate McKinnon (Bombshell) as a “Weird” Barbie (she was “played with too hard”), Michael Cera (Gloria Bell) as random male doll Allan, and America Ferrera (How to Train Your Dragon 2) standouts among high-class stars.

It took years to get a Barbie movie off the ground, with Mattel not wanting to rush production on such a key property. Luckily, this Barbie movie represents the interests of the company and its target audience quite well, with Gerwig’s ga-ga-ga-gorgeously designed film turning out to be an enlightening two hours. Maybe not as consistently LOL as you might think, it lures you in with its fun and flash dance party vibe but eventually reveals itself to be a deep examination of who we are and why we exist. (Bask in the glory of the beautifully somber Billie Eilish song that plays during the movie and again over the credits) Unsurprisingly, the script is filled with the offhandedly profound dialogue that made Gerwig (Little Women) and Baumbach an excellent team to breathe life into this doll. 

Aside from leaning further into the outlandishness of the comedy, I wish a little more time was spent connecting the logic dots that were placed by the writers (hey, they placed them!), and it’s an absolute CRIME Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’ wasn’t used in its entirety. Even without the song (used as part of a remix over the credits), you’ll still want to go party with this Barbie.

The Art of the Tease(rs) ~ The Golden Child (1986)

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

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

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

The Golden Child (1986)

Looking for a movie to watch one night recently, I suggested The Golden Child because it had been some time since I had seen this 1986 Eddie Murphy action comedy. I remembered it being a minor speed bump in Murphy’s hot streak between the first two Beverly Hills Cop films but forgot how abysmal a slog it was. While not an outright bomb because of its Christmas release and audience devotion to what Murphy was selling back then, its reputation as a disaster has followed it like a curse, and very rightfully so. For an action movie, its pace is deadly, and as a comedy, it only comes alive when Murphy is let loose to work his magic. That the comedy frequently has little to do with the plot only shows you how disinterested everyone involved was with the finished product, something that makes sense when you hear how the film was massively changed during post-production. Originally intended as a more serious new direction for Murphy, poor test screenings scared studio execs into reshoots that scrapped a supposedly intelligent plot in favor of the incoherent mess it winds up as. It’s also got one of the worst scores ever, quickly composed dreck that replaced a more classical theme from John Barry.

On the flip side, the teaser trailer for The Golden Child, a rare find on YouTube, is exceptional. Filmed exclusively for this coming attraction, it uses a voiceover to lay out the plot and tacks on Murphy at the end to goose the audience with laughs. It’s no wonder they turned out in droves to see it. How disappointing that The Golden Child would be so leaden.

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

Movie Review ~ Bachelorette

The Facts:

Synopsis: Three friends are asked to be bridesmaids at a wedding of a woman they used to ridicule back in high school.

Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Rebel Wilson, Kyle Bornheimer

Director: Leslye Headland

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:   Oh Bridesmaids, what hath you wrought?  The 2011 mega hit made a big buzz because it was a film written by women, starring women, not just for women, and exceedingly funny.  First shrugged off as a female answer to the rowdy popularity of The Hangover, it quickly separated itself from the pack of imitators by matching that film laugh for laugh (often beating it).  Being released the same summer as the inferior The Hangover: Part II, Bridesmaids was one of the most talked about films of the year…deservedly so.

A year later comes another movie that draws obvious comparisons to Bridesmaids in tone, structure, and even casting (Wilson appears in both films but in different roles).  Bachelorette was written and directed by Headland who adapted it from her stage play and it’s not hard to see why the material would have worked well as a live performance.  Ribald humor, male strippers, and catty asides probably provided some nice laughs but having not seen the piece I can’t say how many characters/situations were added/embellished for the big screen treatment.

Providing a few nice laughs, Bachelorette unfortunately gets sunk in its multiple excesses of girls behaving badly.  None of the three leads are crafted as particularly likable characters so it’s tough to get invested in their shenanigans as they prove to be awful bridesmaids and lousy friends.  Without many/any redeemable qualities the women become exhausting cartoons and that creates a rift with the viewer.

It takes a rare performer to make an unlikable character involving and sadly Dunst is far from up to the task.  As the head honcho bridesmaid, it’s never clear why she’s friends with the bride (Wilson, operating in a far less quirky vibe than she has in Bridesmaids, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and the upcoming Pitch Perfect) or why she’s so dang angry.  Dunst just doesn’t have the timing, skill, or commitment for comedy and she’s in way over her head before the film is even half over.

Caplan and Fisher have demonstrated a knack for comedy in the past but here they are each playing such stereotypical roles that you know where they’re going to end up long before they do.  I’ve a feeling that Caplan will regret playing such a snidely clueless doormat and Fisher will wish she hadn’t played yet another total idiot but both actresses at least roll up their sleeves and dig into their parts which is more than Dunst can say. 

Like Bridesmaids, the men operate merely as pawns for the women to chew their scenery with.  It’s too bad that the talented guys aren’t called on to do more than move the show along without much functionality but Scott, Marsden, and especially Bornheimer do the best with what they have.

Headlund makes her directing debut here and perhaps a more experienced director could have taken her paper-thin script and made something of it.  As it stands, there’s not much style on display and the cinematography by Doug Emmett leaves much to be desired.  It’s nearly a point and shoot affair and one wonders if Headlund couldn’t envision her script outside of a confined stage-like setting.

It’s clear from the get-go that this movie got made simply because of the plot description in the hopes of another success with female audiences.  It’s not a total wash of a film, let’s be clear.  It’s just a glossy copycat film that is trying to capitalize on the success of a hit film without having to really acknowledge that fact.

Having been released On Demand before debuting in the theaters Bachelorette has been a surprise hit, moving to the top of the charts…becoming the first film to do so without first being released in theaters.  That may bode well for the film down the road when it’s released in early September…or it may signify that it’s destined to be a Ladies Night In experience.