Movie Review ~ Vacation Friends

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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)

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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

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The Facts
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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

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The Facts
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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

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The Facts
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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)

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The Facts
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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?

31 Days to Scare ~ Bad Hair

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television circa 1989. However, her flourishing career comes at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own.

Stars: Elle Lorraine, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Judith Scott, James Van Der Beek, Usher Raymond IV, Blair Underwood,  Vanessa Williams

Director: Justin Simien

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  Not that I have much of it to speak of now, but there was a time when getting a haircut was a big deal.  When I started making my own hair decisions (meaning, my dad stopped taking me to his barber and telling him to “give me the usual”) it took a while to find the right person to give me the cut I wanted.  Looking through the men on both sides of my family I knew I was fighting a losing battle so was always prepared for the end.  Until that time, though, I was going to treat my hair with flair.  So I get the way that hair plays a huge part into the way we feel about ourselves and why a haircut during a difficult time in our lives is often the way we first signal a change is necessary.

In 1989, I think I had those horrible parallel gradient lines buzzed into my hair (all photo evidence has been destroyed or is in a safe location so don’t go looking for it) but for Bad Hair’s Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), her situation is far worse.  As a child she had a bad run in with a poorly applied relaxer and her scalp has never been the same, forcing her to keep her style largely natural to avoid any further irritation.  Normally, this would be something most of us could live with but Anna’s working in Los Angeles at one of the hottest music networks (think MTV but run by a James Van Der Beek type, played by James Van Der Beek) and dreams of becoming a host on their popular video program.

When her team undergoes a restructuring, she impresses her new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams, Miss Virginia) with her ideas but not her looks.  The ex-model suggests Anna start with her hair and offers the name of a stylist that had recently worked wonders on singer sensation Sandra (Kelly Rowland).  Determined, Anna heads to Virgie’s (Laverne Cox, Charlie’s Angels) where the cryptic woman helps her find the perfect weave.  Armed with a glam new look and a fresh aura of confidence, Anna is set on a path to success only to be derailed when her locks begin to display strange, life-like behavior and a fondness for blood.  Possessed by her hair, no one is safe from Anna’s tresses of terror.

Writer/director Justin Simien’s film has so many things going for it that it depresses me to no end to report that Bad Hair (streaming on Hulu starting 10/23) isn’t the fun bit of campy horror it sounds like it’s going to be.  True, there are moments of wit and some humor to be had from the observances from the time and the cultural norms of the day, most of it provided by Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim) as Anna’s co-worker who already hosts her own show.  The biggest problem going on here is the severely poor special effects that sink an already shaky ship.  Plenty of films can skate by with a small budget and decent special effects because they know how to work around them.  However, in Bad Hair, Simien relies so much on terribly rendered effects that its robs the actors and action of any credibility or suspense because the viewer is totally taken out of the moment thinking about the poor quality of what’s onscreen.

You can also add an unnecessarily long run-time to the list of thumbs-down factors because at 115 minutes, Bad Hair needs a good trim.  It’s simply too long and unruly to justify that length and the time it does use up it doesn’t dole out wisely.  Not enough effort is spent to set-up the acknowledgement that something awful is happening in the offices of the music network – people are vanishing left and right courtesy of the hungry hair yet there are hardly any establishing scenes showing anyone is discussing this.  Basically, it’s just a series of scenes of Anna’s weave acting wonky and then the next event happens.  There’s a mass slaughter of key players and all is well the previous day.  Did they not have the police working back then?  The first twenty minutes are so cleverly constructed that you wind up wondering where all that creative energy went in the final 90 minutes that seem to stretch on forever.

The best thing to come out of this experience is getting to know Elle Lorraine as the dynamite lead of the film.  Whatever I thought about the movie, its effects, or its pacing, there’s little denying that Lorraine is a bona fide star and will go on to better things after this.  She’s practically the only person other than Waithe and a great Judith Scott as Anna’s ousted boss, who feels like they realize they’re in a feature film.  Everyone else is strictly playing for a television audience, none more so than Vanessa Williams.  Oh dear.  Vanessa. Williams.  Playing her umpteenth ex-model witchy backstabbing narcissist, I simply don’t see the rationale for Simien using her for this role.  Bringing nothing new or interesting to the role and developing into exactly what we think she will, Simien lost a chance to go after someone unexpected not known for playing this type of maneater and non girls-girl to play a type of role Williams has got the market cornered on. What a flat, boring,  uninspired casting choice on a grand scale.

I almost feel like a broken record saying this but I get to thinking that Simien’s story started out as an episode for some anthology series or film that he then expanded to full-feature length.  It doesn’t have the substance to qualify for that expansion, even though a head-spinning ending created a twist so devious (and, yes, interesting) I wish the actor involved had been in two or three more scenes so their reappearance made more sense.  If you’re going to attempt a final zinger like Simien does, you have to set it up better and, like many things in Bad Hair, it isn’t fully realized.  I expected much more from this and had hoped it would have found the same Little (Hair)Shop of Horrors vibe it felt like it wanted to go after.  Instead, the effects weren’t even comically bad in an Ed Wood sort of way.  Very disappointing.

31 Days to Scare ~ Monsterland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Encounters with mermaids, fallen angels, and other strange beasts drive broken people to desperate acts in this eight-episode anthology series.

Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Jonathan Tucker, Charlie Tahan, Nicole Beharie, Hamish Linklater, Marquis Rodriguez, Bill Camp, Michael Hsu Rosen, Taylor Schilling, Roberta Colindrez, Adria Arjona, Trieu Tran, Kelly Marie Tran, Mike Colter, Adepero Oduye

Created by: Mary Laws

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Before this pandemic began the concept of binge watching was something that always sounded like a good idea to me and one that I only occasionally was able to participate in…but it had to be for the right show.  Even then, I would motor through a 10-episode season over a long weekend and then emerge from those three days a bit dazed and not exactly sure what I had taken in. Had I really invested the time to let the story, characters, and ideas enter my brain and take root or did it just fly by as quickly as I clicked into the next episode?  What’s worse is that by the time the next season of a show rolled around in a year, it had been so long since the last batch of episodes I blazed through that I barely remembered plot details.

Recently, I’ve found that I can do a sort of binge watch but stretch it out to make it like a long meal I am snacking on for a week or so.  This helps me process and, if the show is good, extends the pleasure of the piece even further.  So I have to say that getting the chance to see Hulu’s new horror anthology series Monsterland early was a treat but I wasn’t quite able to take my time with it like I was with other multi-episode shows that are released all on the same date.  Working on a deadline, I watched the eight episodes in two blocks and while it helped me get to them all, it wound up easily exposing what chapters stood out from the rest and the overall weakness of the show in general.

When Hulu announced they were working with creator Mary Laws who was a co-writer on the 2016 film The Neon Demon and produced the cult-favorite TV program Preacher for AMC on a show based off of Nathan Ballingrud’s short-story collection “North American Lake Monsters”, there was considerable interest in what that partnership would yield. Produced by Babak Anvari and Lucan Toh who had already worked with a Ballingrud adaptation in the past, this seemed like an interesting path for Hulu to take. While the title of the book and show implies a creature feature this is more of a “monster within us” sort of deal with a healthy dose of the supernatural and mythological thrown in to spice things up.

Each episode is named after a town and while some of these anthologies don’t need to be watched in order, I would say there are a few chapters that do include a tiny bit of overlap (I won’t say what or which ones) so would suggest you go in order.

Things get off to a promising start with Port Fourchon, Louisiana featuring Kaitlin Dever (Booksmart) as a single mom working as a waitress that encounters a drifter (Jonathan Tucker, Charlie’s Angels) at her oceanside dead-end diner.  We know he’s got a station wagon full of boxes labeled with the names of missing girls but what’s in them is…well, you’ll find out. Dever’s having a nice run of things lately and she makes this character a realistic entity struggling to make ends meet while dealing with her feral child that could be more dangerous than the stranger who takes a peculiar interest in her.  The second ep features a lonely teen taking care of his ailing mother in a familiar plot that honestly almost feels irresponsible being recycled in 2020.  I quite liked the third episode set in New Orleans, Louisiana that puts Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth) through a night of hell as a socialite who came from nothing dealing with her world crumbling around her.  It’s all predicated on the question of if she knew about a secret involving her family from years ago and looked the other way just so she wouldn’t lose out on a life of privilege that was within her grasp.

It’s back to ho-hum-edness for the New York setting in episode four with Bill Camp (Joker) as a Trump-ian business mogul that gets punished for his evil transgressions by literally being possessed by a god-like figure (kinda tacky, IMHO) as his family and business team watches on in a mixture of horror and glee.  This one is so obviously aiming its message at an audience of one that will never see this episode that it feels like you’re watching someone’s angry letter to the White House.  The one thing about this episode that I found fairly entertaining is Tina Benko as a deadly serious medium brought in to communicate with the spirit that has taken residence in the businessman.  Benko’s voice cements her being so hysterically committed to the role that I can’t tell if she was trying to be comical or if she really was attempting to be serious.  Either way, she’s the gold star highlight of this drab episode.

Episode five features Taylor Schilling (The Lucky One) and Roberta Colindrez as married lesbians dealing with Schilling’s bi-polar disorder that eventually leads to a dark place, leaving Colindrez to literally pick up the pieces of her wife.  Very strangely, when I checked just now this is the episode that has the highest rating from viewers so far even though I found it an oddly talky vamp on the zombie narrative.  Which, come to think of it, is probably why it’s so popular.  It’s the most straight-forward of all the tales in that deals with mental illness (a content warning precedes the episode) in a humanistic way…though it is essentially about learning to love your zombie wife.

After the first episode, Episode 6 and 7 are likely the star players of the lot.  Taking place in Palacios, Texas, episode 7 finds a disfigured fisherman (Trieu Tran) who finds an injured mermaid (Adria Arjona, Life of the Party) on the beach and brings her back to his double-wide where he attempts to nurse her back to health.  Trouble is, this is no fairy-tale mermaid and she has a craving for red meat and isn’t the friendliest fish in the sea.  In all of Monsterland, my favorite tale by far was from Iron River, Michigan and it finds Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) as Lauren, a sweet bride preparing for her wedding day but still haunted by the legend of the local woods where her friend disappeared when they were teenagers.  An opening prologue and flashbacks alter the storyline of the events of the vanishing, suggesting Lauren may have been more involved than originally thought.  What starts off seeming like it will be a standard “Did she do it” becomes a simmering Grimm’s Fairy Tale and it’s by far the best of all the episodes.  Which makes the bizarre (truly, bizarre) finale featuring Mike Colter (Girls Trip) and Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) as grieving parents of a missing girl given the opportunity to heal thanks to mysterious “angels” that have fallen from the sky, that much more of a letdown.  I was really put off by the ending, I have to be honest.

Wildly inconsistent from episode to episode with even the good ones having their own problems, Monsterland feels like an enormous missed opportunity.  The production has gathered an intriguing mix of casts and directors that create dynamic work but the scripts didn’t serve any of these players well.  Only a few of these episodes wound up being inspired by Ballingrud’s short stories and even then I know his work is more cerebral – so perhaps this was always the world Monsterland was going to create.  My main beef overall is that I would have liked to see the episodes tied together a bit more.  There is one connection that made sense to me but another that is of absolutely no consequence to anything else and that just felt strange.  It’s as if the actor was just passing by the set that day and they decided to let them in the scene without thinking anything through.  Linking these up in a more clever fashion would help give the overall breadth of the work a more finished feel.

Movie Review ~ Palm Springs


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated as they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other.

Stars: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, Dale Dickey, Tyler Hoechlin, J.K. Simmons, Camila Mendes

Director: Max Barbakow

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Most movies are written, produced, and edited months and months before their intended release date so it would be impossible for any film to truly predict where the world would be when the project is revealed for public consumption.  Occasionally there are times when a movie is released at an opportune time that just happens to coincide with a major event and it seems like the creators had a kind of crystal ball in predicting the future.  An example off the top of my head is when The China Syndrome was released in March of 1979, a mere twelve days before the nuclear incident at Twelve Mile Island which bore a striking resemblance to the events depicted in the movie.

So you have to imagine that aside from general feelings of concern for their family, friends, and loved ones the creators of the Sundance hit Palm Springs were just a little happy to see their movie expressed tracked from its original theatrical release by distributors Hulu and Neon and sent right to Hulu’s streaming platform in time for the fourth of July weekend.  After all, by this time countless potential viewers had been cooped up indoors since early March and had been living what felt like the same day over and over again.  What better way to reward them than by offering up relatable laughs in a smart, funny comedy about a guy and girl stuck in a similar situation?

Waking up on the morning of a friend’s wedding he doesn’t want to attend with a girlfriend he doesn’t like, Nyles (Andy Samberg, Hotel Transylvania 2) is already over it.  He goes through the motions of the day and barely makes an effort to stay present at the wedding or the reception after.  His interactions with the guests seems strident at times, gregarious at others…like that fun guy at the party who can turn on a dime if he has one drink over his limit.  He does wind up having too many and saves maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti, The Wolf of Wall Street) from making a speech she clearly doesn’t want to give.  Finding a kindred soul also having a terrible time, Sarah is intrigued by Nyles and follows him for the rest of the evening…eventually leading her to a cave in the desert with a special power.  She enters and then wakes up the next morning…which is the same morning as the one before.

Turns out the cave holds a portal in the time space continuum and Sarah has joined Nyles in a never-ending time loop where they have to relive the same day over and over again.  It doesn’t matter how far they drive or where they are when the day has ended, they’ll always wake up in exactly the same place they woke up the day they went into the cave.  Nyles has lost track of how many days he’s been the loop but Sarah is determined to find a way out, mostly because she’s harboring a secret of why this particular day is one she’s not eager to relieve for eternity.

Obviously, the easy comparison to make here is Groundhog Day and there are flashes of that classic Bill Murray film in some of the concepts found in Andy Siara’s screenplay.  There’s also a little Happy Death Day 2U with a brief diversion into death not being a way out of the loop.  Yet Palm Springs is very much its own individual film and that’s due in no small part to Siara balancing the humor with a few reality checks along the way.  That’s especially surprising giving the people involved behind the scenes who aren’t usually known for living with two feet on the ground.

As an actor, I’ve found Samberg to be mostly obnoxious in a number of his roles but was pleasantly surprised to witness his grounded and wry take on a man resigned to relive a crappy day forever.  We meet him long after he’s accepted his fate so he’s laid-back and carefree…and Samberg wisely avoids making the character such a one-note bonehead that we can’t imagine spending 24 hours with him, let alone infinity.  He’s more than well matched with Milioti, finding that rare thing called chemistry.  She’s got the harder role to navigate because everything is new to her and she’s the one reacting to the situation for the first time.  How she responds dictates how the audience will respond to her and thankfully the role feels fleshed out and is performed with a sharpness not always found in high-concept comedies like this.

In addition to capturing commendable performances from the stars, director Max Barbakow fills the supporting roster with a nice array of character actors that slip in from time to time.  As another looper with a grudge against Samberg, J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man: Far from Home) is used in a utilitarian fashion but the simplicity of the role makes a scene late in the movie land with more impact.  Dale Dickey (The Guilt Trip), Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!), June Squibb (Nebraska), and Peter Gallagher (A Bad Moms Christmas) also show up for little moments here and there, not reserving all the good stuff for Samberg and Milioti.  When a script has extra jokes for small supporting performers and is willing to share, you know it’s the sign of something above average.

The only downside to Palm Springs is I’m not sure it’s a film I’d put on my list to watch again.  It’s entertaining as all get-out and Siara’s script is so strong and on the mark it could easily get some awards recognition at the end of the year.  All the same…I just don’t know if it will hold up on repeat viewings.  That first time through was such a fun discovery, I feel like revisiting these characters wouldn’t capture the same magic.

Movie Review ~ Minding the Gap


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Three young men bond together to escape volatile families in their Rust-Belt hometown. As they face adult responsibilities, unexpected revelations threaten their decade-long friendship.

Stars: Kiere Johnson, Bing Liu, Zack Mulligan

Director: Bing Liu

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Part of the joy of a documentary film done right is getting an insider look into a world different from your own and gaining some knowledge into a unique human experience. Sometimes that world is on the other side of the globe and sometimes, like in Minding the Gap, that new understanding can be found just a few states over. The three men at the center of Minding the Gap feel like people I’ve known or could have grown up with; that is, Midwestern guys from blue collar families that don’t want to grow up to be like their parents. Finding solace and friendship in skateboarding culture, their lives may center around that thrill seeking rush of adrenaline but as they take on more adult roles not all make the transition to maturity with ease.

Filmmaker Bing Liu brings audiences into his life as well as the lives of his friends Kiere and Zack over several years as the three deal with personal struggles and set-backs. Each bring a different set of conflicts to the table. Liu’s childhood involves unresolved issues with his immigrant single mother that brought an abusive stepfather into his life, leaving lasting emotional scars that have never healed between parent and child. Losing his dad unexpectedly just as he is entering manhood, Kiere pushes down that pain as he tries to find a male role model to guide him through his formative years…and quickly realizes his core group of older friends aren’t much wiser than he is. Then there’s the charismatic Zack, raised in a tumultuous home by young parents who seems destined to repeat history with his own girlfriend and infant son.

When the film began, I sort of slumped in my seat because I was expecting it to go in a totally different direction. I assumed it would be more focused on the skateboarding and didn’t see the emotional heft of the movie that, looking back on it now, was hiding in plain sight. While there are terrifically filmed scenes of grit as various skateboarders bob and weave around downtown Rockford, IL like locomotives (creating enough tension that my palms started to sweat like they did in Free Solo),  the skateboarding becomes the bright spot of the film to break away from the more emotionally taxing moments.

As he continues to peel away layers, it’s clear that Liu begins to discover things about himself and his friends he never considered when he started making the film. That’s what sets Minding the Gap apart from so many similar documentaries and what keeps your eyes glued to the screen, you just never know what turns the film will take next. It helps that Liu isn’t afraid to turn the camera around and direct the tough questions he asks of others to himself. Even at only 93 minutes, the movie gave me hints of Boyhood in that it truly shows its subjects growing right before our eyes. Where these people end up is so far from where they begin – it’s a remarkable achievement in documentary filmmaking.