Movie Review ~ Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

The Facts:

Synopsis: Nancy Stokes, a 55-year-old widow, is yearning for adventure, human connection, and some sex–some good sex.
Stars: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack, Isabella Laughland
Director: Sophie Hyde
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  We talk a lot about a particular multiple Oscar-winning actress being the best of her generation and rave over every role she shows up in, but if only we could talk about someone equally lauded as Emma Thompson in the same breath as Meryl Streep. Thompson herself has two Oscars (one for Acting in 1992’s Howards End and another for adapting 1995’s Sense & Sensibility) and has taken many of the same eyebrow-raising risks Streep has had throughout her career. Thompson perhaps even has stepped further out of her comfort zone on occasion, never appearing to turn her nose up regarding genre or role. She definitely one-ups Streep for bravura in onscreen vulnerability in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande…but we’ll get to that later.

Now 63, Thompson (Cruella) collaborated with director Sophie Hyde for Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a frank (and funny) exploration of sex and maturity with a definitive lean toward the mature, now streaming on Hulu after premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Filmed almost entirely on one set with just Thompson and her costar Daryl McCormack (Pixie), with the two-handed nature of the dialogue and insular feeling of the mood, you’d swear this originated as a stage play. And who knows, it could be adapted as one in the future.

Nancy Stokes has rented an upscale hotel room for the afternoon so she can meet Leo Grande, a male escort. She’s never done anything like this before, and we can tell she’s nervous. Awkwardly chatting away, often saying the wrong thing (at least to our ears), Nancy is a widow that has only been with one man her entire life. With her two adult children out of the house, she is looking to explore her own sexuality now that she has the freedom to do so. She found Leo in her search, booked him, and now isn’t sure she can go through with it.

On the other hand, Leo is the epitome of cool, calm, and collected. He’s an experienced escort who is good at listening to his clients and lets Nancy feel her feelings, never judging. She’s paying, after all. Throughout four encounters, Nancy and Leo discuss various topics related to sexuality, with Nancy’s being the primary focus. Leo is more of an enigma by design, and their relationship changes when Nancy pushes for more

What’s so refreshing about Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, is how it makes good on its promise to treat its subject matter with responsible intelligence. This is an adult movie because it speaks frankly about sexual situations but doesn’t trivialize them or use them (generally) as a punchline. Nancy comes to Leo with severe issues with her body and being comfortable with herself. More than any doors Leo opens up on the physical front, he helps her adjust her understanding of what it means to love yourself unconditionally at any age. 

The film wouldn’t work if the actors weren’t fully interactive with the material, and that’s where Thompson and McCormack’s chemistry comes into the spotlight. The actors work so well together, and I’m not sure how much was filmed in sequence, but you can see Thompson get more comfortable with McCormack as the film progresses. There’s only one scene outside of the hotel room (the most comedic one, featuring Isabella Laughland as a memorably funny hotel lounge waitress), and so we have to believe the two characters would want to be spending all of that time together in a room and with Thompson and McCormack, we do.

You’ve likely heard the most prominent news about Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is Thompson’s fully nude scene, and I almost didn’t even want to mention it. First, it’s such a beautifully shot and crucial moment in the movie that I’m glad Thompson went for it…though I know it’s what she’ll be asked most about when promoting it and for years to come. The movie is so much more than that one moment, and to want to see it because of it (or avoid it for the same reason) would be to miss a rare honest take on promoting a healthy embrace of the message of self-love at any age.   

Movie Review ~ Deep Water

The Facts:

Synopsis: A well-to-do husband who allows his wife to have affairs to avoid a divorce becomes a prime suspect in the disappearance of her lovers.
Stars: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Dash Mihok, Lil Rel Howery, Jacob Elordi, Finn Wittrock, Kristen Connolly, Rachel Blanchard
Director: Adrian Lyne
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: The gossip-grabbing headlines that have followed Deep Water from its filming during the later months of 2019 through its numerous release delays have been the stuff that set the tongues wagging of both viewers and critics alike.  Audiences with their home screens set to Page Six are keen to know if the relationship between the stars of the film, Ben Affleck (The Last Duel) and Ana de Armas (Knives Out), equated to erotic chemistry in this adaptation of a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel.  On the flip side, critics were increasingly desperate to watch the return of director Adrian Lyne after what would turn out to be a twenty-year gap between films.  When the film was announced to debut on Hulu in March of 2022, Affleck was back with Jennifer Lopez, and de Armas is doing just fine on the cusp of A-list stardom.  On the other hand, Deep Water should have been submerged at the bottom of a shallow creek.

I actually went into Lyne’s first film since 2002’s Unfaithful with hope all the early lousy buzz was wrong, the result of too many eager beavers ready to tear the movie to shreds.  We’ve certainly had those films before.  Unfortunately, this is not one of those cases.  Highsmith’s novel is about a husband and wife in a loveless marriage stained with adultery who use the men the wife sleeps with as pawns in their psychological torment of one another.  When one of these games goes too far, it creates a fissure in their routine that changes the rules they’ve seemingly agreed to and ups the ante for unpredictable danger.  While Highsmith’s novel isn’t as overt as the screenplay from Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (Malcolm & Marie), its framework would have made for a sophisticated (and, sure, sexy) adult drama that Lyne could have molded to his style.  It’s absolutely in line with the films he has overseen before, like 9 ½ Weeks, Indecent Proposal, and Fatal Attraction

So why is Deep Water so shallow and dull?  Perhaps it’s because there’s no chemistry between the leads, a strange occurrence for the actors who found romance offscreen.  You don’t once buy for a second that de Armas would choose the lean and lanky boys she flounces around with over Affleck’s more mature and handsome frame.  Even if she’s trying to provoke him into what eventually happens, the character de Armas is playing is supposedly repulsed by the thought of being with her husband. It just doesn’t come across as believable.  In that same vein, Affleck is tasked with having to act like he’s above all of the flirting de Armas does in front of him and his friends (more on that later), but the most addled he gets is contorting his face as if he has a piece of rice stuck in a back molar. 

More than anything, Deep Water has no erotic edge to it.  Lush lust might have saved the film from its rather bland exchanges between husband and wife, and let’s face it, some of Lyne’s previous films were significantly assisted by the suggestive content.  Instead, we get several large dinner parties where the most exciting thing that occurs is de Armas playing the piano badly at one and de Armas asking her newest boy toy (Jacob Elordi) to tinkle the ivories at another.  At that particular party, when he starts playing, you would have thought Amadeus himself was playing Elvis Presley the way the guests begin to jive to the melody.  Also, Lyne films each of these gatherings so gauzy and dimly lit that I swear it felt like it would erupt into a key party at any moment. All of their friends seemed a little…too friendly.

If I told you there was a murder mystery at the core of Deep Water, would it excite you any more to see it?  It shouldn’t because it’s barely part of the plot, though previews might make you think otherwise.  No, most of the movie is focused on Affleck looking jealous of de Armas and de Armas apparently hating her life with Affleck and their young daughter.  It’s hard to feel much sympathy with anyone involved; even the people that are intended to be helpful are pretty abysmal.  Lyne also includes one of the most bizarre scenes to show over a closing credit in some time.  It’s almost entirely a miss, recommended only for the curious that don’t mind giving away two hours of their time to have nothing to show for it.

Movie Review ~ Fresh

The Facts:

Synopsis: The horrors of modern dating seen through one young woman’s defiant battle to survive her new boyfriend’s unusual appetites.
Stars: Sebastian Stan, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Jojo T. Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon, Andrea Bang, Dayo Okeniyi
Director: Mimi Cave
Rated: R
Running Length: 114 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Right away, the woman should be wary of the man she meets at a 24-hour supermarket. Yes, he’s good-looking and charming as all get out, but no one is ever that excited about Cotton Candy grapes. To me, that would be a big reg flag, but Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is just relieved Steve (Sebastian Stan, I, Tonya) isn’t as creepy as the last dozen or so men she’s been swiping through on her dating app. This initial miscalculation is a costly error the audience is aware of because we’ve signed on to stream Fresh through Hulu, but unfortunately, it takes Noa much longer than that to wise up and see this plastic surgeon with the winning smile for what he truly is.

What is Steve? Well, I’m not sure I want to tell you that. It would most surely kill some of the thrills of Lauryn Kahn’s screenplay, which takes the pains of dating in this fast-paced tech-heavy climate and gives it a sinister twist. Directed by Mimi Cave, the opening thirty minutes of the movie goes through the familiar motions of a woman wading through a lousy date, relaying her hopelessness to her friend, and eventually finding the mysterious Mr. Right, who whisks her away for a weekend retreat. Borrowing a page out of Oscar nominee Drive My Car, the half-hour mark is also when the opening credits run. It’s no coincidence this is when the director finally cracks a frustrating mold of wry rom-com sameness and unleashes a creative edge.

It’s hard to tiptoe around Fresh’s second and third act details without spoiling the main twist but let’s say the weekend stay for Noa at Steve’s impressive complex gets extended for an indeterminate amount of time. Without any family to wonder at her whereabouts, it’s up to ride-or-die best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs, in an inspired performance) to pick up on the clues her bestie is in danger and follow digitized breadcrumbs to locate the wolf that has taken Noa back to his lair. Meanwhile, as Mollie searches, Noa and Steve have more time to get to know one another. Kahn’s script allows an intriguing mix of the interplay between two strong-willing individuals grappling for the upper hand.

If it had to be so long, I’m glad we spent our time with this small core of actors. Stan is better than he’s been in any of the Marvel movies and is allowed to explore a side with more gears, giving him opportunities to make shifts into more exciting areas of his acting. After her star-making showing in Hulu’s incredibly intimate Normal People, this type of dark material must have felt like a welcome change of pace for Edgar-Jones. She fronts the cast quite nicely and creates believable friendship history with Gibbs, not to mention chemistry at the outset with Stan. As mentioned before, Gibbs is the real find here, and you’ll be glad they have more to do as the film progresses.

Eventually, Cave can’t quite justify such a long run time, and Fresh gives way to repetition that can’t be saved by any amount of shocking violence or gore. A severe finale that may satisfy some feels like an elevated overcorrection rather than the earth-bound landing point toward which the otherwise intelligent script had been leading. It’s not exactly a first date kind of movie, but if you and your significant other enjoy something that’s a little on the wild side aiming for achievement at a higher level, Fresh is pound for pound a steal of a deal.

 

Movie Review ~ No Exit (2022)

The Facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Vacation Friends

1

The Facts:

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

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

Director: Clay Tarver

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: During the same summer as Woodstock, over 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, celebrating African American music and culture, and promoting Black pride and unity. The footage from the festival sat in a basement, unseen for over 50 years, keeping this incredible event in America’s history lost—until now.

Stars: Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, Tony Lawrence, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Abbey Lincoln, Mavis Staples, Moms Mabley, Mahalia Jackson, David Ruffin, Sly Stone, Hugh Masekela, John V. Lindsay, Max Roach, Ray Barretto, Herbie Mann, Mongo Santamaria

Director: Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson)

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I wouldn’t normally say this, but the time it’s taking you to read this review is time you are wasting that could be watching Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a fantastic new documentary from Hulu, Onyx Collective and Searchlight Pictures.  If you’ve already seen the documentary, welcome.  If you haven’t, come back when you’re finished. 

OK…now that we’re all caught up…wasn’t that amazing?

I was a true lunatic and didn’t think I would be as enthralled with director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s filmmaking debut, a documentary on The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 that took place in Mount Morris Park.  While Woodstock wound up getting most of the attention as the music festival of that summer and though a man landed on the moon during while the world watched, the amount of legendary talent that found its way onto the stage over six weeks was simply unparalleled.  And, until now, it’s gone unseen.  In my mind, I was thinking Thompson’s film was going to be more a music documentary that focused on the festival itself, but he’s opened it up to be so very much more than that. 

Along with watching the footage from the concert that has been skillfully edited with interviews in the present with the people and performers that were there, audiences get a history lesson on Black culture and deeper insight into why this festival in Harlem was of such importance at the time.  This speaks not just to the time and tone of the happenings of that period of history, but it helps in our understanding of how unearthing it now for modern audiences to discover is that much more significant.  Cultural experts tie performers to history-making events or demonstrations, people from the crowd speak to what it was like seeing their favorite artist live in person, and several artists watch the footage and react live with their remembrances of their contributions to the festival.

Aside from the fact that the footage has been restored to crystalline glory and the sound is clear as a bell, the performances captured often represent these legends in either their peak prime or breakthrough best.  You have Stevie Wonder transitioning to a new and more adult kind of music, daring at the time but now instantly recognizable as his sound.  The Staples Singers appear, blowing the heavenly roof off the roofless space.  Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is there, sending the spirit out into the crowd.  David Ruffin, recently separated from The Temptations, crooning ‘My Girl’ as a solo act and still making it shine.  The Fifth Dimension, in gaudy costumes that former members Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo have no choice but to laugh at, appearing not just to represent their music but to prove something to themselves.  The striking Nina Simone gets an extended segment…and with good reason.  The list goes on…

Winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival bodes well for Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and you can bet that with it being widely available on Hulu its Oscar chances are high…and well deserved.  That it even exists is reason to celebrate and be grateful, hearing what happened to the film after all the footage was shot is frustrating but not unexpected considering the era in which it occurred.  It may have taken over fifty years for it to make its way to the public at large but the wait was absolutely worth it.  Essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in music.

Movie Review ~ kid 90

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: As a teenager in the ‘90s, Soleil Moon Frye carried a video camera everywhere she went. She documented hundreds of hours of footage and then locked it away for over 20 years.

Stars: Soleil Moon Frye, David Arquette, Stephen Dorff, Balthazar Getty, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Brian Austin Green, Tori Leonard, Heather McComb

Director: Soleil Moon Frye

Rated: NR

Running Length: 71 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Although I know now there was a lot going on the world I wasn’t aware of when I was a young child in the early ‘80s, it holds so many warm memories of growing up that I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to go back and relive that time of my life.  Yes, the fashion was “truly outrageous”, the hairstyles were ghastly (or was that just mine?), and taste in general leaned toward gaudy excess but…what fun it all was!  Moving into the ‘90s is when reality started to set in for my sphere of consciousness and more self-awareness led to less freedom of expression.  You can see the shift in movies, television, and music as well, especially as the early part of the decade gave way to the mid ‘90s. When I tell you that I love the ‘80s it’s only because my current relationship with the ‘90s is…complicated.

A documentary like Hulu’s Kid 90 is both a blessing and a curse for someone like me who devoured pop culture throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s because it allows me to marvel at the stars I used to think were the “cool kids” but also feel the sting seeing the flip side to what all that adoration can do to someone so young.  While we’ve read many a cautionary tale of brilliant artists that have been taken too soon, either by accident, by their own purposeful hand, or through the overindulgence in substances that led to their eventual demise, it was always different when it was an actor your own age because it was often your first reality check with mortality.

Directed by and largely framed within the context of the life and career of child star Soleil Moon Frye who broke big early on with her starring role on Punky Brewster, it begins with Frye recounting her trajectory to fame and interspersing interviews she conducted with her old Hollywood friends throughout.  While it may have been obnoxious to her friends and family back then, Frye carried her video camera with her everywhere and has hundreds of hours of footage of the people she hung out with, and many of them happen to be stars we were used to seeing on hit television shows and blockbuster movies.  Seen at their unfiltered best and most at-ease worst, Frye isn’t out to shame anyone for their actions from years ago (mostly, more on that later) but more to just document what life was like off set when the professional cameras weren’t rolling.

What struck me most was the lack of female friends Frye has throughout the years.  While we see several during the course of the movie, Frye mostly hung around with guys and a number of the films divergent themes cover her romances that either soured or faded.  In the final act, she bravely recounts for the first time on camera an act of sexual violence toward her at an early age and the impact that had on her relationships for the ensuing years.  There’s also closure to be found in brief passages with some exes and hoped for loves that doesn’t feel stagey or forced in any way. More often than not, it feels as if everyone is happy to be walking down memory lane with a friendly companion, one that knows the pitfalls and won’t let them be hurt or led onto dangerous ground.

Once Frye gets to the segment showing just how many of these teen and young adults she knew and captured in her video memories didn’t live to see their thirtieth birthday, the sweetness of the nostalgia turns to sadness. What a shame that for whatever reason they didn’t make it and it’s no good now relitigating who is to blame because decades have passed.  That seems to be Frye’s take on the situation as well and where she finds herself as Punky Brewster begins a revival on television.  In the end, Kid 90 feels like a brisk, tightly edited way to put a few of the demons that have been circling her to rest, giving her control of the narrative as is her right, while at the same time honoring a generation that grew up in the public eye.

Movie Review ~ Boss Level

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A retired special forces officer is trapped in a never-ending time loop on the day of his death.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rob Gronkowski

Director: Joe Carnahan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Quick!  Tell me the last time you were able to watch a Mel Gibson movie (any Mel Gibson movie) and not think about all the crazy way his career took a bizarre twist around 2006.  Clearly under the influence, Gibson was caught on tape ranting about all sorts of unfortunate things, not the least of which were anti-Semitic comments that cast the once sure-fire hit actor as an unhinged looney toon-a-tic.  For a while, it looked as if Gibson’s career was going to be another one undone by an actor’s inability to reconcile with their own internal demons.  Relegated to low-profile cameos in films by his friends or throwing himself into passion projects, Gibson’s been largely out of the public eye for almost fifteen years and only lately has started to turn up in higher profile endeavors where he’s not bearing the weight of the entire production on his shoulders.

That’s good news for Frank Grillo, star of the new Hulu action film Boss Level because had this film been made at the height of Gibson’s stardom, not only would Gibson’s villain role been moved to more of a central figure but it’s likely Gibson himself might have taken on Grillo’s leading man role himself.  It’s especially good news for us because both actors are perfectly cast where they are in a movie that looks like it would be just a hyperactive, bloodier version of the streaming service’s own small wonder hit Palm Springs but is actually just as creative and breathlessly fun and funny as that late summer romp.  More than anything, it’s exciting to see Grillo, who has paid his dues for years in Hollywood as a second or third banana in major studio fare or as the heavy in indie productions that aren’t at his level, finally get a significant chance to move up a pay grade.

Roy Pulver (Grillo, Homefront) has been having a bad morning for a few hundred days by the time we meet him.  Rudely woken up by a machete-wielding assassin, Roy has only moments to dispatch of him, dress and get out of the way of the helicopter hovering outside his windows with a gunman hanging off ready to take aim.  The first killers of the day seem like small potatoes compared to the deadly female sharpshooters, backwoods bumpkin with a crossbow, little person with a big bomb, self-name-checking swordswoman, and doppelgänger slayer (among others) that have been sent to off Roy in a variety of ways before he can make it to lunchtime.  Yet each time he gets shot, run over, blown up, decapitated, sliced and diced, or eviscerated he wakes up to the same machete-wielding assassin and has to go through it all again.

Why is this happening to Roy, a former special forces guy that can take a beating and keep on going in the best of circumstances but is getting tired of dying day in and day out?  Does it have anything to do with the visit he paid yesterday to his former flame Jemma (Naomi Watts, Luce) who has been working on a top-secret project for a mysterious industrial company run by Colonel Clive Ventor (Gibson, Mad Max).  Various clues in a prolonged flashback sequence point to yes but screenwriters Chris Borey, Eddie Borey, & Joe Carnahan (who also directed) don’t let all the secrets out too early on and that’s wise because Boss Level wouldn’t work as well as it does in keeping us engaged if we saw where things were headed.

Instead, Carnahan (The Grey) keeps giving us information the same time Roy gets it and that acts as definite amplifiers of energy right about the time the movie seems to be losing some steam.  The first jolt happens right about when Ken Jeong (Scoob!) appears and threatens to derail the zip of the opening with his staler than stale comedy but then Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) enters as a champion sword fighter and suddenly we’re back on track.  The bursts of energy continue from there and you may even think the movie is coming to a close and ending on a somber note, but check your watch because there’s more than enough time for Carnahan, Grillo, and co. to stage a satisfying finale.  With ample amounts of wink-wink comedy and a willingness to go a little broad (Selina Lo’s deadly Guan Yin never misses a chance to drop her catchphrase as a magically appearing wind blows through her hair), Boss Level parallels Palm Springs not just in the time loop set-up but in the sneaky way that it burrows into our good graces.

Grillo’s been working his way through the film industry for some time and always manages to acquit himself in even the dreariest of releases (see the droopy Body Brokers, released just a few weeks ago for proof) so it’s nice Boss Level has come his way.  He deserves a flashy movie like this that I think will be well received with good replay value.  If we’re being honest, Gibson’s role feels like a favor from Carnahan because he’s not required to do much, and I’d wager the actor completed his work in no more than three or four days.  A star’s a star though and Gibson, for all his troubles, can play both the hero and the villain.  It’s nice to see Watts in her second role in as many months where she’s not taking herself so seriously.  While Penguin Bloom for Netflix was a real-life drama about a woman learning to live as a paraplegic and befriending a magpie, it was a rare opportunity for Watts to be a little looser in her acting and a fresher performance emerged because of it.  Same goes for her work in Boss Level.  She’s tasked with some inane scientific dialogue around time travel that might sound totally implausible with another actress, but she’s got just enough gravitas to make it not sound totally beyond reason.  If there’s one person I would have urged Carnahan to rethink (aside from Jeong who really is long past his sell-by date), it’s not any of the diverse group of assassins but Will Sasso (Irresistible) as Gibson’s right-hand goon.  Either the writers completely lost interest in this character early in the writing process or Sasso didn’t sell it right but it’s such a bland role that could have been a lot more energized with some sort of gimmick that made it memorable.

The film is far too digitized to be called handsomely rendered yet the action sequences do have a gentle thrill to them.  I would have taken less of the showier large scale set pieces that were completely computer generated in favor of more one on one interactions.  It’s these scenes between Roy/Grillo and the other assassins/actors that are arguably more entertaining to watch, even from a visual standpoint.  Boss Level moves so fast and furious, though, that you hardly have time to catch your breath before you’re shot like a cannon into the next foe (or starting again from the beginning) so things are in constant motion.  I keep saying I’m over these time loop movies but if they keep getting done as well as Palm Springs and Boss Level, why stop now?

Movie Review ~ Happiest Season

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman with a plan to propose to her girlfriend while at her family’s annual holiday party discovers her partner hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen

Director: Clea DuVall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I wouldn’t say that I’ve been stuck on the same cycle of Christmas movies over the years but what I will admit is that I’ve attached myself to a select few holiday films that spoke to me as I grew older.  That’s because a number of Christmas films never really appealed to me as a person so I found it hard to relate to them, and it became more of a struggle as I got older.  I’m an only child and gay so watching movies with large family gatherings seeing everyone coming home with their husbands and wives started looking less like my life and more like a strange phony Christmas card.  So when it came to movies to watch over Christmas, I kept to the old standards and eschewed most of the newer ones, leaning toward any that focused on “different” families during the holidays.

Thankfully, as the world has evolved so have the entertainment options and that’s why a sizable shift has occurred in the offerings of the season.  Movies that show diverse families, gay couples, interracial relationships, the differently abled, autistic, etc. may not be there in droves but they are there and each year there are more of them.  Already this season we’ve had the fantastic Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey with its largely black cast appear and snuggle into the Netflix queues of many and now Hulu is presenting Happiest Season, a gay Christmas film from queer director/actress Clea DuVall (Argo).  Though originally targeted for a theatrical release, Hulu is debuting it on Thanksgiving and it should give audiences from all walks of life something to be grateful for in 2020.

Girlfriends Abby (Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate) have been living together for six months and Abby is ready to ask Harper to marry her.  Though not a fan of Christmas and without parents, she takes Harper’s last-minute invitation to her family’s home for the holidays as a sign that the time is right to make it official.  She has the ring and though her best friend John (Dan Levy, Admission) thinks marriage is archaic, wants to ask Harper’s dad for his blessing before popping the question in front of her family.  There’s just one tiny problem.  Harper hasn’t told her strait-laced family that she’s a lesbian and with her father about to start a run for mayor of their conservative town, she doesn’t think it wise to rock the boat during the holidays.

Against her better judgement and because Harper tells her this after they’re in the car and nearly there, Abby agrees to lie and pretend to just be Harper’s roommate for the duration of their stay.  Referred to as “the orphan” by Harper’s mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, Book Club), Abby is introduced to the rest of the family including dad Ted (Victor Garber, Sicario), and sisters Jane (Mary Holland, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, also a co-writer) and Sloane (Alison Brie, The Rental), each with their own secret or personal hang-up that will spill out over the next few days as they come together for festive gatherings.  As Abby watches Harper change when confronted with her judgmental family and their high standard expectations, she begins to question how much she actually knows the woman she fell in love with in the first place.  With Harper’s ex-boyfriend hanging around and a big family dinner approaching, can Abby still pop the question and will Harper be honest in front of her family and friends?

Fans of The Family Stone will find Happiest Season to be a not-so-distant relative in terms of style and tone and I half expected Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in that holiday film to show up in the final scene because she easily could have been a fourth sister in this tightly-wound family.  That film has its share of detractors (it took me several watches to truly appreciate it) but I don’t think Happiest Season will have trouble earning fans out of the gate.  DuVall and Holland have crafted a believable, tender, and often very funny film that applies just the right amount of emotion throughout.  It’s just serious enough to get a message on how each person’s coming out story is different and why support for that timeline is important and it’s humorous enough to land elevated comedy that isn’t your usual farce fare.

Still a rather new director, DuVall has an ease in her method that lends a grounded feel to the proceedings, helped immeasurably by a homerun cast.  I think we’ve all come to the agreement that Stewart is just bound to keep surprising audiences and she does it here again with the most relaxed, lived-in role I’ve seen her offer up in quite some time.  The naturalism is on such a different level that at times it feels like DuVall just happened to capture Stewart out and about, in her element.  If Davis comes off a little less successful, perhaps it’s only because she’s wearing several different masks throughout and we’re so on Abby’s side that every time Harper denies their relationship in public it pulls us further away from her.  Together, the two actresses create a believable picture of a couple in love and, even better, one that has settled into a flow with an ease about their interaction that comes across nicely.  That’s what makes the events while they’re at the house sting, because we can see how different Harper is acting in front of people that don’t know her for who she really is.

It’s always a gamble when a co-writer is also a significant supporting character and while Holland has given herself a character with some of the most outright funny bits in the film (and she’s quite funny, make no mistake), she knows when to point the spotlight away as well.  Garber’s role is a bit thankless, as is Brie’s, mostly because at the outset they are outwardly the most staid characters so it’s good news that Steenburgen’s chipper Tipper is such a joy no matter what she’s doing onscreen.  Both Levy and Aubrey Plaza (The To Do List) have smaller roles than are advertised and while Levy is basically doing an extension of the character he played on Schitt’s Creek (and gets the movie’s most genuine moment of clarity), Plaza blessedly is tasked with a more serious vibe that works nicely for the usually comically obtuse actress.  The only awkward moment in the movie is a very ill-advised sequence when Stewart is interrogated by two mall security officers played by Lauren Lapkus (Jurassic World) and Timothy Simons (The Hustle) – it’s totally unfunny and pointless, feeling like a favor DuVall did on behalf of two friends that needed a paycheck.

Some will skip Happiest Season because they don’t agree with what is represented within and that’s unfortunate.  Unfortunate they can’t see that love is love and unfortunate they are missing a well-constructed holiday film with strong performances and confident direction.  I can easily see this one making its way onto a rotation of Christmas films in my house and, paired with The Family Stone, a nice alternative to the overly maudlin cookie-cutter stereotypical products that are delivered yearly.  It’s time to think bigger and more inclusive and Happiest Season happily opens its arms wide to welcome all.

Movie Review ~ Run (2020)

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A home schooled teenager begins to suspect her mother is keeping a dark secret from her. They say you can never escape a mother’s love… but for Chloe, that’s not a comfort — it’s a threat.

Stars: Sarah Paulson, Kiera Allen, Pat Healy, Onalee Ames

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Back in 2013, Readers Digest made headlines for announcing their list of the 100 Most Trusted People in America and it included a number of celebrities and familiar names in the media.  Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks ranked as the most trusted man and I’d wager a bet he’d still hold the title if the list were refreshed again today.  I also would like to think Sarah Paulson would have made her way into the tally as well.  While not the blockbuster star that regularly nets the covers of magazines or headlines summer movies, Paulson has developed a massively consistent career over nearly thirty years in the business and that’s something to take serious note of, not to mention she’s someone that comes across as genuine, upfront, and who you can take at her word.  Another item to pay close attention to is that she’s rarely, if ever, turned in a bad performance and her knack for finding material that both suits and challenges her has proven her dexterity time and time again.

Paulson is one of the main reasons why Run, a conventional thriller at its core, becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Compact, tightly-wound, and from the director of 2018’s underrated Searching (Aneesh Chaganty), it wouldn’t feel out of place as one of those cookie-cutter original films you’d see dropped rather innocuously on a streaming service with the hope it will generate some buzz.  That’s the likely reason why Hulu snapped this up from Lionsgate after the studio decided to bypass a theatrical run when the ongoing pandemic put its original Mother’s Day release date into question.  It’s probably a small blessing, too, because it will find far more success as a guilty-pleasure watch.  Much like Paulson’s early 2020 Netflix series Ratched, this is compulsive watching at its most tart, lean, and digestible.

As the film opens, single-mother Diane Sherman (Paulson, 12 Years a Slave) has gone through a difficult labor that has left her newborn with a number of life-threatening medical concerns.  Flash forward eighteen years and Chloe (newcomer Kiera Allen) is a brilliant teen that has survived under the watchful care of her mother.  Home-schooled by Diane, the wheelchair-bound Chloe looks toward the future and plans for college, eagerly waiting for Diane to get the mail each day but ultimately disappointed when no acceptance letter arrives from the numerous applications she has submitted.  The relationship between mother and daughter is a close one, based on a shared understanding of Chloe’s various illnesses and familiarity with her daily needs.  While Chloe may long for a world outside of their isolated house off the beaten path and desire friends of her own because she has none, she’s torn between her own growing need for escapism and Diane’s devotion.

A sizable shift happens and a crack in this perfect veneer begins to form when Chloe accidentally sees a pill bottle with Diane’s name on it that later is relabeled as hers, a finding her mother later unconvincingly refutes.  Catching her mother in a lie for the first time, Chloe starts to wonder what else is being kept from her the more she learns other small untruths Diane has been telling.  Though Diane attempts to provide a passable excuse for all of these discrepancies, the tie that has been bound between the two women makes it easier to expose the other in a deception so when Chloe exposes another huge betrayal, it opens a trap door of deceit that she (and we) couldn’t have ever anticipated.  Secluded from outside help and limited in mobility, Chloe must arrange a precarious puzzle to get past a firewall of a long-buried mystery if she wants to survive.

Had Run been a tad more prestige-y, I could see Diane being played by more of a headline-grabbing A-lister like Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock and it working just fine.  Roberts especially would have had some fun playing a different kind of pseudo-villain (unlike the one she misguidedly played in Mirror Mirror) but both actresses have the necessary range to take on the layers the role requires.  It works so much better in Paulson’s carefully constructed façade because we’re constantly questioning almost up until the end just what is motivating Diane in her actions…or if she’s even doing what Chloe thinks in the first place.  Could the sheltered girl just be wrong about her mother, there’s definitely evidence to explain it all away. I won’t say either way but Paulson has truly perfected the art of playing with a duality that is often thrilling to watch.  She definitely has a dial, though, and isn’t afraid to go big and then go home – you’re never going to catch her not giving her all to even the smallest of supporting roles.

Along with Paulson, Run works quite well thanks to Allen as the resourceful Chloe who doesn’t let her maladies hold her back in the least.  Again, no spoilers for you, but there are several instances of narrow escape weaved into the script, including one where the teenager has to figure out not only how to get out of a locked room but make it downstairs…all without assistance or the use of her legs.  How she does it is masterfully thought out in Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian’s clever screenplay.  Allen might just have more screen time than Paulson and she’s just as critical to the film’s success as her counterpart.  Having to do most of her work in a limited capacity in terms of the use of her body, Allen gets the character through even in these tougher conditions.

Even if the screenplay falls into a feeling of run-of-the-mill happenstance as it rounds the bend toward a corker of a final scene (though all I’ll say about the make-up on both of the actors in this part is…questionable) it doesn’t dissuade me from giving Run a solid recommendation.  It’s nothing you haven’t seen before but it’s done better than previous attempts and that’s due to the two leads and a better than average conception of how the characters achieve their goals.  The tension gets palpable and your blood pressure will certainly rise at points – for a 90 minute film aimed as popcorn entertainment, isn’t that exactly what you’re looking for right about now?