Movie Review ~ Boston Strangler

The Facts:

Synopsis: Loretta McLaughlin was the reporter who first connected the murders and broke the story of the Boston Strangler. She and Jean Cole challenged the sexism of the early 1960s to report on the city’s most notorious serial killer.
Stars: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola, David Dastmalchian, Morgan Spector, Bill Camp, Chris Cooper
Director: Matt Ruskin
Rated: R
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  It will always be a mystery why 2007’s Zodiac didn’t get more recognition the year it came out. Directed by David Fincher, it was a frightening look at the killing spree between 1968 and 1985 in San Francisco from the perspective of civilian reporters and police. Epic in design and solid performance, it received no significant awards but has gone on to be a blueprint for many procedural detective shows. Its aesthetic look was copied for numerous true crime dramas.

I mention Zodiac so thoroughly in my review of 20th Century Studios Boston Strangler (premiering exclusively on Hulu), not just because it skillfully focuses on reporters/police tracking a well-known serial killer throughout the ’60s but because it’s impossible not to compare the two films. It’s not disparaging writer/director Matt Ruskin’s new endeavor, produced by Ridley Scott, to say that one could imagine this being part of the “Zodiac Universe” because both movies are a systematic, even-keeled approach to the subject. And both present the violence of the crimes from an emotionally removed place. This is what happened; it was ugly, and a human committed it; you can look away if you want, but it won’t change the fact that it happened.

After two women are murdered in short succession, reporter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley, Silent Night) asks her boss (Chris Cooper, Little Women) to be assigned to look into the deaths and see if there is a connection. Unhappy with her job writing fluff pieces and wanting more serious work, Loretta considers this an opportunity to level up and prove her worth. It takes some convincing, but she can finally dig around to see what she can find. Eventually, paired with the more experienced (but still often just as undermined) Jean Cole (Carrie Coon, Gone Girl), Loretta pieces together the pattern of a serial killer that won’t be stopped.

Facing opposition from the police and politicians who don’t want to be seen as foolish, Loretta and Jean are often forced to go the extra mile, putting their lives and reputations at risk, to prove their theory is correct before the Boston Strangler strikes again. Facing pressure from the public, who grow increasingly terrified as bodies of innocent women are routinely found viciously murdered, the reporters follow their leads and instincts to go beyond the headlines and newsprint to help take down a deadly predator.

I deliberately didn’t do my homework before watching Boston Strangler, purposely not reading up on the case’s history and passing on the chance to watch director Richard Fleischer’s 1968 film version of The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis. I wanted to let Ruskin’s film tell the story to me, and for the most part, it was an informative retelling of the events with the apparent glossing over of the finer particulars to bring the movie in under two hours. That gives the film a swift pace and little time to linger anywhere for very long, which is where we get the trade-off.

When you have a movie like Boston Strangler with enough details to keep you thinking and a nice gait to ensure you stay engaged, you only realize later that you didn’t learn much about the people milling about the movie. We know Loretta and Jean as crackerjack reporters. Still, their personal lives are paper thin, aside from Loretta’s husband (Nanny‘s Morgan Spector, who, ironically, plays Coon’s husband on HBO’s The Gilded Age) going from supporting his wife to a “You’re never home to make dinner!” kinda guy pretty quickly.

Nevertheless, this is a slick film made with evident skill and care. I can understand why it is better suited for a streaming debut than making a go of it in theaters; it just plays better on a smaller screen for at-home digestion. That allows for the frightening details of the case to creep their way into your brain as well. Boston Strangler is crafted nicely for a weekend watch or stormy night viewing. Don’t be shocked if you leave a light on at bedtime…and please, always check the peephole before opening the door!


31 Days to Scare ~ Matriarch

The Facts:

Synopsis: Afflicted with a mysterious disease after surviving an overdose, a woman returns to her childhood home to confront her demons but discovers a real one instead.
Stars: Jemima Rooper, Kate Dickie, Sarah Paul, Franc Ashman, Keith David Bartlett
Director: Ben Steiner
Rated: NR
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  In horror films, sometimes it’s best to keep things as simple as possible. The more complicated things get, the harder your brain must work to decipher the pathways a wayward plot is traveling. If the way forward is straight ahead, you’re free to let all sorts of spooky things jump out at you while thinking less about how you’re getting to your destination. There’s a place for elevated horror, and then there are times when movies like Hulu’s Matriarch will do just fine. While writer/director Ben Steiner’s spin on a throwback folk horror is far from basic, its small cast, isolated setting, and short-run time keep it mighty focused and unburdened by outside forces.

With an organized life, professional wardrobe, and healthy appearance, advertising exec Laura (Jemima Rooper, What If) puts on a good show for her boss and the on-again, off-again relationship to which she is on the precipice of fully committing. In reality, she uses cocaine to keep up with the work, has a short temper with the tendency to lash out when cornered/challenged, and hides her bulimia from everyone. It all catches up with her after a tough stretch, and she dies from an overdose in her apartment. At least, that’s what it looks like to us. 

With Laura lying on the floor of her bathroom unresponsive, a black substance appears from the next room and slowly creeps toward her…and inside her. Suddenly, she’s back, not different per se, but she recognizes a shift within. This revival coincides with her estranged mother, Celia (Kate Dickie, Prometheus), reaching out after two decades, urging her to return home. Laura hasn’t been back to the tiny country town since she fled its bad memories, but considering the current state of her life, she feels compelled to depart for this long-time coming reunion. 

Upon her arrival, she finds the town as she remembers it; only the villagers don’t seem to have aged. Neither has her mother. The mother and daughter’s strained relationship is evident when Celia opens the door. While Celia appears willing to accommodate her daughter and accept her role in their past arguments, Laura doesn’t trust the woman standing before her, looking considerably younger than she should. What is happening in the town to her mother and the townspeople? And why does a familiar black substance ooze up from the ground…and out of others?

Developed through a partnership with 20th Digital Studio, which produces the Bite Size Halloween series for Hulu, Matriarch is the second film in October to be released via this teaming. The first, Grimcutty, felt like a cheap effort, but Matriarch’s higher quality makes it far easier to recommend. It’s ultimately precisely the story you think it is, but the film is helped along by Rooper and Dickie’s performances, both of which are very good. Dickie is entertaining to watch as a placating mum to Rooper’s petulant adult child, and while Steiner can’t maintain a grip on the narrative during the third act, his co-leads keep the film from coasting. 

A word of caution, there are some disturbing images around eating disorders in Matriarch. While there is a message about support resources at the end of the film (after all the credits have run), it would be nice if Hulu put these messages earlier on. It’s telling that in a movie with graphic scenes of perverse nudity, the most hard-to-watch sequences are the starkly realistic ones surrounding body image issues.

31 Days to Scare ~ Grimcutty

The Facts:

Synopsis: A suburban teen girl and her little brother must stop a terrifying internet meme brought to life by the hysteria of their parents.
Stars: Sara Wolfkind, Shannyn Sossamon, Usman Aly, Callan Farris, Brenda Schmid, Alona Tal, Kayden Alexander Koshelev, Tate Moore
Director: John Ross
Rated: NR
Running Length:
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Watching Hulu’s new original film Grimcutty, I kept being reminded of those almost deliberately funny movies within movies you find in horror that a babysitter is watching, half paying attention to as people around her are getting picked off one by one.  It has the appropriately scary visuals to get in a few good jolts when a crescendo of fear is needed (and to edit a trailer designed to entice viewers in successfully). Still, the filler in between is just hot air blowing around between the actors.  I’ll admit to jumping on the movie when it was available to screen because I longed for an old-fashioned monster thriller—poor me. I paid for my desperation dearly with an experience that didn’t deliver the goods.

A film that’s about as 2022 as you can get, Grimcutty derives its thrills from the sum of issues parents and their children face daily.  Struggling to establish healthy lines of communication by breaking through the new ‘head-down’ way of speaking while texting, parents are losing the ability to successfully monitor what their kids are up to when they aren’t around.  The internet grants so much access that it’s impossible to police it all and exposure to violent and explicit content is shared quickly and starts early.  Internet challenges are rising in popularity, and the more extreme the task, the great the social reward.

Out of these concerns from parents and free-range roaming from their children springs Grimcutty, a towering creature with long limbs, red eyes, and a sharp-toothed smile that will haunt your nightmares.  Supposedly when Grimcutty appears, he makes children and teens do terrible things to themselves and, eventually, others.  Rumors of kids under the influence of him slashing away at their parents have made their way to the home of Amir and Leah Chaudhry.  Amir (Usman Ally, Superintelligence, overacting so much I was afraid he’d burn a hole in my television) is already concerned about the amount of time his kids spend on the internet and advocates for nights out with his wife (Shannyn Sossamon, The Holiday), daughter Asha (Sara Wolfkind) and son Kamran (Callan Farris, C’mon C’mon) without their phones.

Asha has learned of Grimcutty, too, in time for him to appear and begin wreaking havoc on her family.  As is often the case, no one believes Asha that Grimcutty is real, viewing the cuts on her body to be self-inflicted and not the result of several terrifying encounters with the creature who prowls around her home at all hours.  Working with another friend who believes the Grimcutty lore, Asha tracks the origin to another local family, unknowingly unleashing more potential peril on those unprepared to deal with the pain he inflicts.

Grimcutty is one of those movies with an appetizing central core and a bounty of potential, but absolutely everything around it is maddeningly bland.  Admittedly, writer/director John Ross is on to something by using the film, and some of its ethos, to make a statement about the country’s growing disdain toward the inherent selfishness of a generation raised on the internet.  The characters (all of them, even the adults) are so unlikable to the point of distraction you start to consider rooting for Grimcutty early in the program.  Just watch when a teen is literally having a tug of war with their parent over their phone and in hysterics over losing it.  If these are the attitudes that created Grimcutty…maybe a creature like that IS needed to scare sense into people.  It doesn’t help matters that the acting is either less than committed or ferociously overbaked.

The scariest thing to me is the overuse of ASMR (auto sensory meridian response) throughout the movie.  Asha makes ASMR videos and uploads them to YouTube (hence why she needs her phone to check the view count) and views other similar videos as a way of unwinding.  There seems to be a focus by the filmmakers to include a number of these sensory audio cues throughout, perhaps as another way to get in deep with their target audience. Who can honestly know what was going on with some of the decisions made as the film progresses? All I know is that I was watching Grimcutty through noise-canceling headphones late at night on my television and the ASMR sequences gave me the heebie-jeebies far more than any appearance of Grimcutty. 

You can easily tell Grimcutty was made quickly and on the cheap – but that’s not an immediate sign it will be an internet fail.  Plenty of great movies have been shot with little resources but a lot of ingenuity and spirit.  I think where Grimcutty is tripped up is by its length.  At 100 minutes, there’s barely enough material to cover ¼ of that time.  Why this is a feature-length movie and not a 30-35 minute short as part of an anthology is beyond me.  Expanding it to this run time only hurt the premise, the performances, and the lasting reputation of what could have been a good message about cutting the cord…or at least unplugging it for a few hours.

31 Days to Scare ~ Hellraiser (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman struggling with addiction comes into possession of an ancient puzzle box, unaware that its purpose is to summon the Cenobites.
Stars: Odessa A’zion, Jamie Clayton, Brandon Flynn, Goran Višnjić, Drew Starkey, Adam Faison, Aoife Hinds, Selina Lo, Hiam Abbass
Director: David Bruckner
Rated: R
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  I faced a slight dilemma as the release date of Hulu’s remake of Hellraiser drew near. It had been some time (think decades) since I had seen director Clive Barker’s 1987 adaptation of his novel, ‘The Hellbound Heart’. As someone who likes to do their brush-up homework and do it well, did I want to revisit this cult favorite, which spawned an enduring horror icon in its freaky breakout character Pinhead and a legion of sequels? I couldn’t even begin to attempt to climb that mountain of sequels (nine of them!), and in the end, I decided to take the same approach as the filmmakers by resisting the urge to look back too much.

Fuzzy memories or not, I do know that Barker’s original film has rightfully earned its place in the horror classic canon. With eye-popping special effects and creative make-up that turn actors into walking nightmares, the movie tends to stick with you and leave a mark. The same is true for David Bruckner’s take on Barker’s novel, which, contrary to advance rumor, is vastly different from the source material from which the original movie was drawn. Instead, a new story from David S. Goyer (Man of Steel) along with Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Brucker’s collaborators in 2021’s The Night House) is presented, helping further to establish the 2022 film as its own entity.

A prologue introduces us to a sought-after puzzle box that mysterious billionaire Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is willing to do anything and sacrifice anyone, to solve. It’s clear early on the box has its agenda with deadly rules, but the game plan is doled out slowly over the next two hours. Jumping ahead six years after we witness a gruesome demise courtesy of the creatures the box calls forth, the focus shifts to Riley (Odessa A’zion), an addict trying to stay clean despite temptations all around her.

Living with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and his partner (Adam Faison) in the apartment they share with Nora (Aoife Hinds, The Commuter) makes for tight quarters, and the hot-wired Riley is feeling the pressure. Exploring a new relationship with Trevor (Drew Starkey, Love, Simon), another addict in recovery, is helping her find focus, but Matt is worried she’s playing with fire. His suspicions might not be too far off after Trevor floats the possibility of Riley earning quick money helping him break into an abandoned storage container at work. Long story short…they do, and guess what? The only item that’s waiting for them is the box.

Once in Riley’s possession, the box begins a terrifying cycle of configurations, each needing a sacrifice to move forward. Unable to find answers or help from the authorities, Riley and her friends must follow the history of the box, tracing its origin back to the last owner to find out what became of him. Staying several steps ahead of creatures from another world, including The Priest (Jamie Clayton, The Snowman), proves difficult as Riley finds herself marked for death and faced with decisions impacting the people she loves most, trusting her to make the right choice. 

An incredibly satisfying watch from beginning to end, I’m shocked the 2022 Hellraiser wasn’t released to theaters because the quality is much higher than your standard streaming-only release. The film’s production values (made in Belgrade, Serbia) are top-notch. From the costume design, which incorporates skin from the wearer into the garment, to the special effects make-up, the creativity was unbridled here. At the same time, it’s not over-the-top to betray the mood or Barker’s original tale. The first film tended to go a little wild, which fit the tone set by its director, but here Brucker keeps the movie as dark as can be.

That darkness gives Bruckner’s remake a sinister menace that is often genuinely frightening. It’s a gory movie but not gratuitous in its bloodletting. What’s there is enough to make you wince in pain, though. Thankfully, Bruckner is a sophisticated enough director not to wallow in that misery for too long. The point of The Priest and disciples is to revel in pain, and Clayton works well on the attack or at rest. Speaking of Clayton, it can’t have been easy to take over for a character as familiar as Doug Bradley’s instantly recognizable Pinhead (the name Pinhead is never mentioned here). Still, Clayton makes the character their own by letting the performance be cumulative of acting and make-up.

The rest of the cast is also strong, finding A’zion as an encouraging lead despite the character’s often insufferable urge toward self-destruction. I wasn’t familiar with A’zion before recently. This week alone, she’s the star of this and another horror film based on a familiar story, the Lizzie Borden possession thriller, The Inhabitant. She’s good in both, but, given a choice, stick with Hellraiser for the more polished production. Flynn, Faison, Starkey, and Hinds are pleasant victims, I mean, friends of A’zion’s character and Višnjić might be going for a modified Javier Bardem performance in terms of zeal, but it works for this character.

Fans of the series waiting for years for the next installment (the last was 2018) will hopefully be pleased with this remake. Barker is listed as a producer, and while Bradley couldn’t make his requested cameo, he has signed off his approval of Clayton’s version of a role to which he’s forever linked. Could this be the start of another string of Hellraiser trips should the movie succeed as well as Hulu hopes? After the success of the Predator prequel Prey earlier this summer, I think Hulu will have another sizable hit with Hellraiser, and we can expect more nightmare creations sooner rather than later. We can only hope that future sequels are handled with as much creative comprehension as this was.

31 Days to Scare ~ Hulu’s Bite Size Halloween 2022

The Facts:

Synopsis: Shot in seven different countries, the third season of 20th Digital Studio’s Bite Size Halloween series of spooky shorts on Hulu takes on topical issues such as racism, gender, parenthood, sexuality, and identity.
Stars: Tatiana Maslany, Brendan Hines, Misha Osherovich, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Lin Shaye, David Costabile, Rebekka Johnson, Kate Nash
Director: Nuhash Humayun, Sam Max, Michelle Krusiec, Zoey Martinson, Michael Schwartz, Conscian Morgan, Brandon Espy, Samantha Aldana, Jon K Jones, Nikki Taylor-Roberts, Carlo Ledesma, Robin Takao, Minsun Park, Coral Amiga, Nicole Hartley, Luka Wilson, Natalie Metzger, Rebekka Johnson, Kate Nash
Rated: NR
Running Length: Between 2 and 15 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  I know you know this feeling. You’re flipping through your queue looking for something scary to watch on a weekend night leading up to Halloween and you can’t manage to commit to anything. You’ve either seen everything or can’t bring yourself to watch another film with zombies created by a deadly virus that has decimated most of the planet. Hulu must have heard enough grumblings about this within their employees’ families each holiday season because they started producing a series of short films for their Huluween celebration a few years back.

Dubbed Bite Size Horror, the programming provides opportunities for directors from underrepresented groups (women, racial & ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities) to submit their horror-themed shorts for a run leading up to Halloween. More popular shorts in past years have been considered for feature-length films, and two upcoming Hulu Original Movies, Grimcutty (out 10/10) and Matriarch (out 10/21) began their life in this programming block. Easy to digest with lengths running anywhere from 2 minutes to 15, these 20 spooky shorts for 2022 aren’t all winners but even the least successful of the bunch has a decidedly creative point of view.

Lauren Mei in NIAN

Despite the presence of current She-Hulk star Tatiana Maslany and her husband Brendan Hines, Lin Shaye, and musician Kate Nash, most actors participating in these shorts aren’t familiar faces. This approach gives the Bite Size Halloween shorts room to breathe, living or dying on their moxie and not on how well-received their recognized cast members are. Speaking of Maslany and Hines, Hulu’s featuring their short SNATCHED quite a lot in their advertising, specifically Maslany’s blazing blue eyes. I found this short to be on the lower end of the pile, with its message of acceptance/tolerance only being possible if aliens invaded our planet to be unintentionally regressive.

Things start fun with NIAN, following a Chinese American girl’s show and tell day that takes a deadly turn when the ancient mask of a mythological creature goes on the offense toward her high school tormentor. The acting gets iffy, but the premise is solid. Though bloody with scary make-up effects, as a short TICKS didn’t work for me at all, and neither did BUG, which finds a woman losing her annoying daughter in the woods but getting something nasty back when she returns.

Yvonne Campbell in NZU

Entries that stood out early on were NZU, making great use of its short time frame to turn a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?-ish awkward family first meeting into an exploration of past transgression stretching back generations. Director Conscian Morgan has something unique here, and if Hulu is looking for something to throw money at to develop further, this is a good one to keep an eye on. I’d also like to see INCOMPLETE fill out more. Featuring Marchant Davis as a man terrorized by his breathalyzer machine (it’s more menacing than it sounds), director Zoey Martinson gets a lot of mileage out of a simple premise. Then there’s FOREIGNERS ONLY, a disturbing trip to Bangladesh where we learn just how far a local man will go to usurp the country’s notorious welcoming of tourists while rejecting the needs of their people. This short was frightening, so take my advice and watch this in the daytime.

REMOTE is almost near the bottom of the list, bungling its sci-fi story with lugubrious editing, a barely coherent screenplay, and effects that feel more like a first-run experiment. This feels like true amateur filmmaking compared to other shorts playing alongside it. 

Titles like LIVE BAIT, MR. CROCKET, ANGELS, FRACTURE, GO TO BED RAYMOND, SLEEP STUDY, ALONE WITH HIM, TRESPASSERS, and RIDE OR DIE are serviceable but forgettable entries that were neither here nor there for this viewer. Do yourself a favor and watch THE HERITAGE on an empty stomach. I’m not one to gag when watching obvious special effects, but this one is so disgusting that I watched almost everything with my eyes closed. Maybe that means it was a success in the eyes of the filmmakers, but it’s pretty revolting if I do say so myself.

Lin Shaye in REMOTE

Though it is by far my least favorite of all the shorts by a large margin, I feel BAD RABBIT will be one people will be interested in because singer/songwriter Kate Nash shared the writing and directing duties with her GLOW co-star Rebekka Johnson. Both also star in this, a mean-spirited and super tacky look at a nasty invalid mother and her brow-beaten daughter (Nash). She finally cracks and follows the advice of her bunny (Johnson – in the lamest rabbit outfit ever) to mow her down. Literally.  This short is terrible. You’ve been dutifully warned.

I’ll mention the last two titles (like NZU and INCOMPLETE) that Hulu could lengthen into a feature film. DISPOSAL isn’t a horror movie in the traditional sense. A Brooklyn family gathers for a celebration, giving a young husband pause to consider that his wife might be having an affair. I get the impression writer/director Luka Wilson has more to talk about with this family and what happens in this episodic short is just one piece of a larger puzzle. The acting and filmmaking are top-notch here; I hope this gets its due. 

The final short to look out for is THE KAPRE from writer/director Carlo Ledesma. On a stormy night in a Philippine forest, an American couple camping at the base of a tree supposedly protected by a mythical creature finds out that some legends are real…and gigantic. There’s a nice dose of comedy here that doesn’t go over the top and effects, which suggest Ledesma would be able to provide the goods if given more time and budget. 

Marchant Davis in INCOMPLETE

None of these are so much of a commitment you must skip entirely. If you need to pass over some, I can tell you my preferences. I wouldn’t want to revisit REMOTE or BAD RABBIT, and you can also keep TICKS and BUGS off my list. Do seek out NZU, INCOMPLETE, THE KAPRE, and DISPOSAL. If you are feeling brave, I think FOREIGNERS ONLY is twisted fun. Especially nice if you want something akin to an adult bedtime story, throw one of these on your phone or the TV before hitting the hay, and then try to fall asleep with a few of these freaky images floating through your mind. 

Movie Review ~ Prey

The Facts:

Synopsis: A skilled female warrior on the Great Plans fights to protect her tribe against one of the first highly-evolved Predators to land on Earth.
Stars: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Stormee Kipp, Michelle Thrush, Julian Black Antelope, Dane DiLiegro
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Rated: R
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  The release of the first Predator in 1987 came at the first surge in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as one of the number one action stars of the 20th century. Already established as The Terminator, he’d built a following as a dependable force at the box office who chose projects that capitalized on his brawn first and an indefatigable charisma second. While no tremendous thespian, it was always clear that Schwarzenegger took his job seriously, and that kept audiences coming back to see what new adventure he’d take them on. Teaming with soon-to-be hitmaker director John McTiernan on the jungle sci-fi thriller, Predator became a summer blockbuster and remained a stone-cold classic.

Efforts to replicate that success have yielded mixed results in the years following. A just-fine 1990 sequel took the deadly alien hunter out of the tropics and into the wilds of Los Angeles but didn’t have Schwarzenegger for balance. Interesting ideas were introduced in 2010’s Predators and, to a lesser (and maybe more disappointing) extent, in 2018’s The Predator, which brought back original screenwriter Shane Black to the director’s chair. Still, nothing could get back that initial success. Even pairing the franchise with Alien for two disheartening attempts didn’t catch on.

Continuing a recent trend of renewing a popular franchise by uncovering a “lost” early chapter in its history, 20th Century Studios and Hulu are releasing Prey, and it turns out that Arnie wasn’t the first to go one-on-one with an alien beast. Most of the subsequent entries have abided by the law of sequels that demand bigger (read: more) Predators for your buck, and while that can work for some franchises (Aliens being a great example), it didn’t work as well for this. By restoring the premise to its roots and casting a single enemy as the creature featured, writers Patrick Aison and Dan Trachtenberg (who also directed) allow for a collective unity onscreen and off. They’ve made the best and by far the most exciting sequel to the original, making it an essential part of the Predator universe.

Set on the Great Plains in 1719 among the Comanche people, the film opens with familiarity. Naru, a young woman, struggling to prove her worth in a tribe of elders and male dominance, wants to impress upon those within her family that she is ready for more responsibility. While her brother Taabe hunts and provides for the tribe, she is looked down upon even as she demonstrates more than once that she has learned over time and exceeded expectations at every turn. Accompanied by her dog, much time is spent in the neighboring woods, perfecting her skill with weapons and tracking.

While in the woods, she catches sight of something in the sky that is unexpected and unable to be explained. Though she doesn’t have words for it, we know it’s an alien ship that has landed close by with a passenger who begins to stir up trouble for the wildlife and, soon, Naru’s people. As the Predator (Dane DiLiegro) uses his advanced technical weaponry against the primitive tools of the Comanche people, they appear to be defenseless. That is until a warrior unwilling to let the beast decimate her community decides to take a stand against it.

Having directed the sparse and tense 10 Cloverfield Lane, Trachtenberg knows how to create a lot from a little. The expanse of the location setting (the film was shot in Alberta, Canada) gives the director and crew a broader space to play. Prey nevertheless feels breathless and immediate for much of its 99 minutes. Mostly, it’s due to a script that doesn’t waste much time in getting to the action, spending enough time on early essential character development to orient us with the area and people. Like the original Predator, we learn more about the characters as the movie progresses, when their strengths and weaknesses are truly revealed.

While she’s not making her debut onscreen, it might as well be our introduction of Amber Midthunder as Naru because the actress makes such a smashing showing as the heroine and all-around badass of the picture. Onscreen for most of the film, she’s quite a commanding presence throughout. While I would argue that most of the cast has a uniquely Hollywood look (flawless hair, flawless teeth, flawless skin), that’s not to downplay the overall importance of the representation on display here. Though it wasn’t available on my screener, I would have welcomed the opportunity to view Prey in Comanche, an available option for streaming customers. As it is, the movie nicely indicates the transition from the indigenous language of the Comanche people to the English dialogue spoken for most of the film.

Produced primarily in secret until a studio executive spilled the beans in advance, I think it would have been grand to see Prey arrive without any advance knowledge. We no longer exist in that age where surprises can still happen. We live in a time when a movie experience can be a real revelation, and Prey indeed is just that. The violence is severe and brutal, sure to please gore fans craving creative kills, and it’s coupled with action sequences that are intelligently staged so that you aren’t five steps ahead of the actors. File those nails down because you’ll bite them a few times.   If all franchise renewals can be this innovative and inspired, I’m all for it.

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.