Movie Review ~ Cobweb

The Facts:

Synopsis: Eight-year-old Peter is plagued by a mysterious, constant tap, tap from inside his bedroom wall – a tapping his parents insist is all in his imagination. As Peter’s fear intensifies, he believes his parents could hide a terrible, dangerous secret.
Stars: Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman, Antony Starr
Director: Samuel Bodin
Rated: NR
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: In recent years, I’ve been good at avoiding major spoilers for upcoming releases by doing one simple thing: avoiding trailers. The studios have gotten terrible about giving away colossal plot points that may seem innocuous when viewing the preview, but once you’re watching the actual film, your brain begins to piece together the images you’ve already seen, and suddenly, you’re five steps ahead of the characters onscreen. It’s no fun and robs you of moments that would have been far more enjoyable to discover naturally. (Go back and watch the trailer for Scream VI for a recent example of exactly what I’m talking about.)

For full disclosure, I watched the preview for Cobweb before I saw the finished film, mostly because I didn’t think it appeared to be anything other than your standard creepy crawly horror flick. I thought that I’d get to it eventually and likely have forgotten any/all details, so it couldn’t hurt to check out the basic outline of this Lionsgate title, produced by comedian Seth Rogen and partner Evan Goldberg. While it felt more like a natural Halloween discovery than a mid-summer release, watching it late one unreasonably warm Minnesota evening, I couldn’t help but start to get a severe case of the shivers.

Talking about Cobweb is tricky because, like the trailer, to give away too much would mess with screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin’s (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) wicked tale, told with a few nifty surprises horror fans will get a pleasant tingle from. The preview is a bit deceptive in that it only gives away part of what the movie is about; the other half is decidedly more sinister, turns tables, and requires a judicious unpacking of after the fact. I’ll take that over a bland horror outing (like June’s The Boogeyman, a stale bore in comparison), which forgets to leave you with anything memorable.

Substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman, The Right One) worries about one of her students, Peter (Woody Norman, C’mon C’mon). New to the district and the small town, it would be easy to ignore the boy’s disturbing drawings that are clearly crying out for help. She’s intuitive enough to see that it’s not just the daily torment from a cruel classroom bully inspiring the art but something closer to home that has conjured up images of danger. Of course, we’ve already been inside Peter’s house and met his strange parents, Carol (Lizzy Caplan, Now You See Me 2, miscast but still a delight) and Mark (Antony Starr, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant), and have seen firsthand why Peter should be frightened.

Odd noises from within the walls of his creaky home are dismissed at first as figments of Peter’s imagination. Carol and Mark keep the boy at arm’s length, parenting at a distance and cautiously attending to his claims of things that go bump in the night. Unwilling to believe their son (or is it unwilling to help?), they do a bit of parental gaslighting as the nighttime noises get worse. When the disembodied voice of a young girl begins to talk to Peter, telling him a worrisome history involving his parents, paranoia sets in and leads them all, Miss Devine included, into a disturbing web of terror.  

It didn’t surprise me that Cobweb’s director Samuel Bodin was the writer/director of the alarmingly scary Netflix show Marianne. That French series, if you haven’t seen it, had some deliriously terrifying sequences and maintained its grip over eight episodes before it was unceremoniously canceled. Bodin brings that same mood to his English language debut, which was shot in Bulgaria in 2020 and shelved until now, through not just the script and shrieks but a unique production design (Peter’s backyard is filled with pumpkins in various stages of decay). It all sets the stage for a final act that couldn’t have been predicted from the start.  

Cobweb’s complete package might not warrant a full feature, too many horror films are stretched out further than their good idea plots allow as it is, but it has stayed in my mind ever since I saw it. That it has grown fonder in my memory is a testament to Bodin and Devlin’s work creating an atmosphere where old-fashioned haunted house scares can take root and flourish. The finale gets messy in commercial terms, but it’s easy to overlook a minor flaw when everything else has been polished up nicely.

Movie Review ~ The Blackening


The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven friends go away for the weekend, only to find themselves trapped in a cabin with a killer who has a vendetta. They must pit their street smarts and knowledge of horror movies against the murderer to stay alive.
Stars: Grace Byers, Jermaine Fowler, Melvin Gregg, X Mayo, Dewayne Perkins, Antoinette Robertson, Sinqua Walls, Jay Pharoah, Yvonne Orji
Director: Tim Story
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: As a moviegoer, is there anything more rewarding than sitting in a theater and being a part of an audience that is participating, really participating, in a film? Yes, I’m talking about laughing when it’s a comedy and screaming when it’s a horror film, but also actively listening during a drama and sniffling appropriately during a tearjerker. I’ve come to appreciate these moments and missed them when we didn’t have them during the pandemic. That shared experience is largely back in full force, and audiences are apt to get a dose of laughter and screaming with the release of The Blackening, and it’s the chief reason I would suggest seeking it out. 

Now, is The Blackening a good film? That’s another question I would have to qualify based on your expectations. In the grand scheme of all things horror related, The Blackening is a weaker entry in the larger horror canon. Its cheap production values and quickie filmmaking suggests a fast shoot and even quicker editing. On top of a severely miscalculated performance, the script from Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) and co-star Dewayne Perkins starts strong with several meta jokes that land with a bang but wimps out quickly with a series of lame diversions that aim to distract but merely mask an unwillingness to make bold moves. 

Morgan (Yvonne Orji, Vacation Friends) and Shawn (Jay Pharoah, The Mitchells vs. the Machines) have organized a weekend away for a handful of their college friends, most of whom haven’t seen each other for years. They’re all connected in various ways. Some are besties, some are frenemies, and some are rekindling romances that had gone south. There could also be a killer among them because once they arrive, a hidden room is revealed, one with a profoundly offensive board game that will test their knowledge of black history and pop culture. Get the answer right, and you advance toward safety. A wrong response yields deadly consequences.

The opening of The Blackening gets the film off to a neat little start, a nifty tip of the hat to several horror flicks from the late ‘90s without being a direct copy. There’s a fine line between parody/spoof, and the kind of comedy being employed shows that thankfully the screenwriters know the difference. The audience has room to breathe, get comfortable with the world Oliver and Perkins have created, and become familiar with the comedy-horror tone used throughout. These early scenes work because the cast is incredibly engaging, and that immense charisma helps to carry The Blackening through some of its third-act stumbles. 

Without revealing any spoilers, I’ll say each cast member gets their moment in the spotlight, for better or worse. The betters would include Antoinette Robertson as Lisa, the would-be Final Girl, if it wasn’t for Grace Byers as Allison, sticking by her side and evading the killer. Perkins plays Lisa’s gay best friend, who is shocked to learn she’s gotten back together with Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls, White Men Can’t Jump), a himbo that had previously broken her heart. It’s disheartening that Jermaine Fowler (Coming 2 America) goes so far over the top as Clifton. While everyone else is playing grounded (as grounded as one can be in this kind of niche film), his performance is so outlandish that it feels like he’s been entirely graphed in from another movie. It stands out for all the wrong reasons.

Director Tim Story (Shaft) is experienced with doing commercial projects, so The Blackening has a slick, professional look. It’s clear that the budget was limited for this one, and I would have loved to see what a little more time and money could have been spent to tweak it a bit more. Perhaps a sequel would provide more of that amped-up experience, burgeoned by the goodwill this initial outing built. If you can overlook the finale’s lack of creativity and energy that starts to deplete around the halfway mark (and how many horror movies have you seen that began with 0% of both?) The Blackening is one to investigate, especially in theaters with a packed audience.

Movie Review ~ Fool’s Paradise

The Facts:

Synopsis: A down-on-his-luck publicist discovers a recently released mental health patient who looks just like a misbehaving movie star. The publicist subs him into a film, creating a new star. But fame and fortune are not all they are cracked up to be.
Stars: Charlie Day, Ken Jeong, Kate Beckinsale, Adrien Brody, Ray Liotta, Jason Sudeikis, Edie Falco, John Malkovich, Common, Jillian Bell
Director: Charlie Day
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Full disclosure: I’ve never seen one episode of the long-running series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I know it’s where the world first took a shine to Charlie Day. Yes, I’ve seen him in a few movies over the past decade and even found him likable in 2022’s I Want You Back, but I chalked that up to Jenny Slate making everyone look a little better because of her presence. It’s that FX show, about to enter its 16th season, that I always hear is so representative of his appeal, though. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me a while to come around to the squeaky-voiced actor because, until Fool’s Paradise, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around his appeal. 

Wait! Wait!

Before you Day-ums close this window, never to return to this blog; give me another chance, will you? Because I have had a (small) change of heart with the release of Day’s new film, a project he wrote, directed, and stars in. A sporadically funny satire of Hollywood that occasionally gets into a groove with such zip and zazz that you hope it will never take a wrong step, when Fool’s Paradise inevitably does trip, it’s a bruising fall. What keeps the entire project together is some expert physical comedy from Day. You can always look at the actor whenever you need to recenter if the film or its strange supporting cast begins to flop around and flail for attention.

Day plays The Fool, a mute mental patient dropped off in the middle of Los Angeles by a healthcare system that cannot afford to keep him housed any longer. (One of the first big jokes is Day’s doctor listing all his afflictions and his blunt treatment proposal) Easily suggestible, The Fool wanders around the city doing what anyone tells him to until he’s spotted by a producer (Ray Liotta, Muppets Most Wanted, in one of his final performances) in a desperate situation. The producer is working on a film about Billy the Kid, and his star (also played by Day) is refusing to work. Since The Fool looks like the star, perhaps he could stand in for him for the day?

The stand-in job requires The Fool to act in a scene with other film stars, Chad (Adrien Brody, Clean) and Christiana (Kate Beckinsale, Total Recall), and surprisingly, after a bit of adjustment, they finish the work and get the shot. While on set, The Fool meets hustling publicist Lenny (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians), an energy-drinking fast-talker that quickly renames his new client Latte Pronto and somehow finagles him into a movie deal, a house, a marriage, and other lifestyles of the rich and famous. Of course, no one bats an eye that Latte Pronto hasn’t spoken a word and doesn’t seem to be playing the Hollywood Game. As Latte’s star goes up, the fortunes of others shift, and it’s only a matter of time before there’s another changing of the guard, and Latte is the one grasping for help on his descent.

Make no mistake, Fool’s Paradise is an odd duck of a film, and it won’t be for everyone. Perhaps it’s because I like movies about Hollywood and making films (namely The Player & The Stunt Man which this reminded me of at times) that I responded positively to this one.  Maybe it was also because I drew energy from Day appearing to channel Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Peter Sellars in Being There in creating The Fool. He’s not copying their work but clearly used those three men as templates when building this role and the film around it. Without dialogue, Day is free to be physical and use his expressions to convey what words can’t – and it works most of the time.

What doesn’t work, not even a little bit, is Jeong in another attempt at madcap-ery. As much effort as Jeong puts into the role, you’d think it would yield something more creatively constructed than the umpteenth version of the whiny wimpy dope he’s playing yet again. Anytime Jeong is present, sadly a lot, Fool’s Paradise feels like it’s sinking to a lower level. Brody is all over the map in movies and television these days, and that’s where he operates for much of this film too. Decked out in an Andy Gibb wig, he’s fully immersed in the role but the self-indulgent acting gets to be more of a distraction than creating forward momentum for The Fool’s journey through the Hollywood machine. Late appearances from Common (Suicide Squad) and, shudder, John Malkovich (Jennifer 8) come when Day’s firmer control from early on has lost its grip, and the movie has slipped entirely out of his hands. Best not to say much more about these two. 

Already represented in theaters with The Super Mario Bros. Movie, you could drop the kids off at that and see this one while you wait. In one film, you hear Day but don’t see him, and the results are acceptable if unremarkable. In Fool’s Paradise, you see him, but he doesn’t speak, but you have an opportunity to watch an actor give you something you may not have expected in a decidedly hit-or-miss movie. It’s a toss-up, but I know which option I would choose. No games…choose Paradise.

Movie Review ~ Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

The Facts:

Synopsis: When her family moves from the city to the suburbs, 11-year-old Margaret navigates new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.
Stars: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: In preparing for this review, I looked over the various covers of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, that have been released over the years, and marveling at how the front designs have changed with the times. A simple artist sketch in the first publication followed a more detailed illustration for the school paperback, giving way to a literal photographic interpretation of the central character on a recent reissue. Some designs are sparse, with only the title and a small flourish to make it pop or tie into a series of Blume YA novels. If you’ve read the book over the last five decades, you may spot a familiar scene depicted or any number of artist renderings of Margaret.

What hasn’t changed is what’s inside the front and back covers: the landmark story that Blume first published in 1970 and has remained a top-selling favorite among its target audience (growing young adults) as well as a hot-button issue for those that contest it being made available to that very population due to its mature subject matter. Countless books get their movie rights snapped up, often before they are even published, but Blume has always guarded her material closely and seldom grants requests to anyone for adaptation. With the book approaching its 50th anniversary, she put her trust in writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig and experienced producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) so that they could finally bring her gem of a novel to life for a new generation.

The summer before sixth grade has been good for sensitive Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson, Ant-Man and the Wasp). She’s spent it at sleepaway camp in upstate New York and made a host of new friends, and while she’s wistful to see it end, she’s excited to get back home to see her parents and grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell). The warm fuzzies don’t last long because before mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams, Game Night) and dad Herb (Benny Safdie, Licorice Pizza) can break it to her gently, Sylvia spills the beans that the three of them are moving to New Jersey. Leaving her friends, her spry grandmother, and the allure of the Big Apple behind is tragic to Margaret, but she’s assured this new beginning and a new job for her father will be the first step in accomplishing shared family goals.

It’s an adjustment for everyone. A former art teacher, the free-spirited Barbara is now a stay-at-home mother and throws herself into the suburban PTA domestic life while Margaret begins the school year with a leg up on the social circuit. She’s living close to Nancy Wheeler (Elle Green, She Said), a popular girl that wears a bra and expects all of her friends to wear one too, not that Margaret or Janie (Amari Alexis Price) or Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer, Widows) need one yet. That’s an embarrassing bridge to cross over with their mothers (definitely NOT their fathers) at a date yet to be determined, preferably in a neighboring town. 

The real issue weighing on Margaret isn’t the pressure from her friends about identifying each part of their changing bodies and highlighting who is growing faster and hitting milestones first, but in the tumult growing in her household. A child of interfaith parents, she realizes that with a Christian mother and Jewish father, their hands-off approach to religion and preference to let her make up her mind has left her even more confused about what she believes. So she begins to have (often nightly) conversations with God, probing discussions about her tiny corner of the world and its major impacts. As the school year goes on and adolescent hormones start to rear their raging head, Margaret and her friends experience the pains of growing up, the beauty of understanding yourself, and the joy of owning your path toward adulthood.

Blume’s wonderfully rich and insightful novel had been around for eleven years when director Kelly Fremon Craig was born, and Blume was wise to wait for her to grow up to adapt it for the big screen. A thread of confidence runs through the core of each film frame that gives it such power that it’s almost like electricity. Even if the performances weren’t so incredible, I think it would still have been a high achievement. Blessedly, the stars have aligned, and Fremon Craig landed the perfect actors to play these roles many of us had imagined over the years. 

Margaret Simon is a literary figure many young girls looked up to, and many boys had come to understand by reading Blume’s novel. Fortson embodies the character, all the emotional highs and lows, with marvelous grace – she understands Blume’s creation at its very center. The young actors from top to bottom are strong, from Margaret’s close friends to the well-cast members of her class (I was howling with delight at the one boy in class no one wants to be paired with), and Safdie continues to prove himself as interesting an actor as he is in the director’s chair. It’s a pleasure to see Bates all dolled up, looking like she just stepped out of Bergdorf Goodman and getting the chance to play a little broad comedy again. She needs to do more of it.

Though it’s Margaret’s movie, no question, I have to say that I was knocked out by what McAdams was doing in her supporting role. McAdams has always happily flown under the radar in Hollywood, content to do good work with strong directors and her fellow co-stars. She is attracted to roles that she can get passionate about no matter how high profile they are, and while I doubt she took this film thinking she’d get buckets of bouquets, I wouldn’t count her out for a strong Oscar push for Supporting Actress. Fremon Craig allows Barbara to grow in a different kind of awakening, and McAdams leaves us as wide-eyed as she is. 

The kind of tear-jerker that gets them out of you without resorting to cheap rug pulls or by going down the expected routes, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret represents the correct way to adapt a beloved novel. Patience is a virtue and key in ensuring you have found the right team to hand over something special. In my recent review of the document Judy Blume Forever, I expressed my eternal thanks to the author for providing us with rich characters and novels that helped us feel less lonely as we grew up. Now, there’s a movie that gives a similar feeling. 

Movie Review ~ Somewhere in Queens

The Facts:

Synopsis: Leo and Angela Russo live a simple life in Queens, surrounded by their overbearing Italian-American family. When their son ‘Sticks’ finds success on his high school basketball team, Leo tears the family apart trying to make it happen.
Stars: Ray Romano, Laurie Metcalf, Tony Lo Bianco, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jennifer Esposito, Jacob Ward, Sadie Stanley, Dierdre Friel, Jon Manfrellotti
Director: Ray Romano
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s one of the first principles of writing that every teacher will tell a student: write what you know. The best place to start is where you feel most familiar. The comfort zone is your friend, and from that place, you can step your toe out an inch at a time, testing the waters for what else could be out there for you to explore. Maybe the temperature is too hot, and you get roasted, so you retreat to the security of where you are comfortable. Or perhaps you find the environment welcoming and discovered a new area where you can be creatively authentic.

This deep dive was sponsored by Ray Romano’s new film, Somewhere in Queens. It’s a film that feels recognizable to fans of Romano’s successful TV sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond in that it depicts the warts and all lives of a close-knit family in NYC. That’s not to say Romano’s directorial debut is an R-rated retread of material he’s already covered before. This movie, co-written by Mark Stegemann, is deeper and more character-driven than the light-hearted and lovely Everybody Loves Raymond was even at its peak. (Don’t read that as a knock. I loved that CBS half-hour comedy and it was one of the few shows on network TV I watched every episode of.)

Romano appears to want to expand on what he started on his early television show and explore what happens to a family at a time when no one is on the same page, even though everyone is supposedly working toward the same shared goal. That goal is happiness, and at the beginning of Somewhere in Queens, a wedding reception, no one seems to be having the best time. And it’s only going to get more complex over the following months.

Leo (Romano, The Irishman) works with his brothers and father in the family home remodeling business. Often the sibling that takes the brunt of the pressure because of his unwillingness to fight back, he lets his family walk all over him with barely a whimper. His marriage to high-school sweetheart Angela (Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird) is solid but strained, still delicate with emotion after Angela’s recent brush with cancer. Their son Sticks (Jacob Ward) is a star basketball player but doesn’t have college plans, at least not until a college scout attending a game to see another student tells Leo and Angela how much potential he has.

Leo needs this encouragement to find a fire within himself to help his son take advantage of his skills and make the kind of big-dream lifestyle he never had. Sticks is ambivalent about college but sure about his girlfriend Dani, finding his motivation from her admiration. When things go south with her, and Leo realizes Dani makes all the difference, he forms a plan to get them back together, which might be a band-aid for the present. Still, he can’t hold back an inevitable future that will come crashing back with mighty consequences for everyone.

It’s evident from the quality of filmmaking that Romano has paid attention when on set throughout his career. Listening and observing gave him the tools he needed to deliver admirable work. Somewhere in Queens is not simply well-written and well-acted (I mean, anyone in a scene with the outstanding Metcalf is only bound to be better because of it) but looks excellent and has been assembled with a fine eye for detail and pace. It’s the exact length it should be and not a second longer. 

That’s enough time to demonstrate how solid Romano is as an actor, creating an endearing portrait of a father wanting success for his son and trying to give it to him any way he knows how…and not being able to admit he doesn’t know how. The colorful supporting cast also has a few gems in it (stage veteran Jennifer Simard walks away with any scene she shows up in), and you rarely must wait long for a line with some ring of authenticity to it. It’s not a sitcom script filled with quippy repartee but dialogue that sounds like these people would speak. With that good ear for dialogue and intelligent ey for casting, Somewhere in Queens often rules above other comedic family dramas.

Movie Review ~ John Wick: Chapter 4


The Facts:

Synopsis: John Wick uncovers a path to defeating The High Table. But before he can earn his freedom, Wick must face off against a new enemy with powerful alliances across the globe and forces that turn old friends into foes.
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Lance Reddick, Rina Sawayama, Scott Adkins, Ian McShane
Director: Chad Stahelski
Rated: R
Running Length: 169 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:   Life events got in the way of seeing the previous two installments of the John Wick franchise, which is how I wound up taking a weekend to revisit the three films that lead into John Wick: Chapter 4. This Wick-a-thon allowed me not just to reexamine the original from 2014, which I greatly admired when I first saw it, but to witness then how star Keanu Reeves (Toy Story 4) and director Chad Stahelski (Reeves’s former stunt double) went on to take what began as a simple revenge story and mold it into a true evolving saga. It could have been easy to rinse, wash, repeat, and collect their money, but the star and director harnessed a rare energy that pushed each new sequel into bigger and better territory.

I’ll assume that moving forward, you are enough of a fan that you won’t need much hand-holding to bring you up to speed, or spoilers from the three preceding films won’t bother you. I’ll keep the twists and turns writers Shay Hatten (Army of the Dead) and Michael Finch (The November Man) have cooked up to a low boil, but anyone worth their Wick salt knows to expect the unexpected, and everyone is fair game to become a turncoat or go toe up before the end credits roll. 

When we last left John Wick, he’d been betrayed by New York Continental Hotel manager Winston Scott (Ian McShane, Hellboy) in a seemingly callous attempt to save his neck. Not even being shot and falling from a rooftop could stop our hero, though, and he’s spent the time between chapters making plans to take his vicious revenge on the High Table. His plans are set into motion at the same time Scott and concierge Charon (the late, great Lance Riddick, White House Down) meet up with the High Table’s newest New York big wig, the Marquis Vincent de Gramon (Bill Skarsgård, Barbarian) and get new orders to clean up the mess they’ve left behind.

Not satisfied that one party alone can stop Wick, the Marquis enlists the help of blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), who is also being forced into service as a consequence of past actions. Caine will get his first crack at Wick in Osaka, where the knuckle-bound one-man army has taken refuge with an old friend (Hiroyuki Sanada, Bullet Train) and his daughter (recording/visual artist Rina Sawayama), both of whom have certain specific duties for the High Table. In Osaka, the film gets its initial surge of adrenaline, pushing it past the first hour as Wick goes up against an endless supply of bad guys/gals. 

In typical franchise fashion, these action sequences aren’t your ordinary kick-punch-punch-and-scene feuds but extended combat (often hand-to-hand) that showcases just how much of the incredible stunt work is being done by the cast. In many films, these battles could feel dragged out and self-indulgent. Still, in the hands of Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (not to mention editor Nathan Orloff, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), they become triumphantly tense, brilliantly conceived works of deadly art.

While the series has parted ways with original writer Derek Kolstad, Hatten and Finch carry on the established tone well. We’re in Chapter 4 now, and while I appreciate the consistency in characters from movie to movie, I wish important people introduced from each installment weren’t dropped so wholly with every subsequent film. Several characters from Chapter 3 that proved to be intriguing additions are absent here without much explanation. I get that it’s part of the overall structure of the world of Wick and that some of the fun in these films is to have recognizable actors drift by in surprising cameos – but could at least a few of them come back around now and then?

You may think the film has bitten off more than it can chew at nearly three hours. While it can be argued that Stahelski could make some cuts here and there (an easy way to shave off 5-10 minutes is anytime a camera is following McShane walking anywhere – the man isn’t in a rush to do anything), the overall experience of John Wick: Chapter 4 is so uniformly satisfying that I wouldn’t know what could go that wouldn’t make another piece of the puzzle fall apart. The last hour is the edge-of-your-seat, popcorn-gnoshing stuff of dreams. It’s when Lausten (Nightmare Alley) is given the most freedom to get creative (read: fancy) with his camera work and when Stahelski (Deadpool 2) removes all excess material to reveal a lean, mean machine of a thrill ride.

Until now, this franchise has done well because each film has felt like it arrived at the right time. You can tell Reeves (as monotone as ever) has an affinity for the character and the bonus of doing the stuntwork, but he’s shown up because there’s more story to tell. A spin-off, Ballerina starring Ana de Armas (Blonde) and a few other familiar Wick faces, is currently in production, and it’s rumored the events of that film will serve as a bridge between Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. Whether or not a Chapter 5 is possible will require deeper discussion because all parties have certainly outdone themselves with this fourth feature. 

Movie Review ~ Jesus Revolution

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the 1970s, young Greg Laurie is searching for all the right things in all the wrong places: until he meets Lonnie Frisbee, a charismatic hippie street preacher. Together with Pastor Chuck Smith, they open the doors of Smith’s languishing church to an unexpected revival of radical and newfound love.
Stars: Joel Courtney, Anna Grace Barlow, Jonathan Roumie, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Kelsey Grammer
Director: Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Rated: NR
Running Length: 120 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: Some movies can act as Trojan horses, bringing in messages you weren’t expecting or unplanned feelings. I’ve started several films assuming one experience but receiving the opposite. Thankfully usually a pleasant surprise, these movies make me edge a little further up in my seat, wondering what could happen next. However, some films work against the good tidings they offer, becoming problematic as you delve deeper into their origins.

I’m skirting around my issue with Jesus Revolution, and not very elegantly. I’ve been attempting to write my review for a few weeks but wasn’t sure how to approach it. I suppose we should start with the good, and that’s to say that directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle have turned into a far more agreeable and entertaining film than I had guessed after watching the initial trailer. After I saw an old-school billboard advertising it (when was the last time I saw a billboard advertising a movie?  In MN?) I was intrigued enough to give it a spin, and I turned off the TV two hours later with a little more knowledge about a piece of history than before going in.

Something bothered me about it, though, and I couldn’t put my finger on precisely what. It wasn’t the performances, as earnest and eager-to-please as they all were. High-schooler Greg Laurie is desperate to find his place in the world, and Joel Courtney (The Empty Man) makes Laurie an engaging presence. Watching his journey from lost soul to identifying his purpose is one many can embrace and, I think, relate to. I didn’t even mind Kelsey Grammar (The God Committee) playing Chuck Smith, a pastor that teams with a hitchhiking hippie named Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) to form a movement that would revitalize not just his failing church but make religion more welcoming to a younger generation that felt alienated during a time of war and crisis.

Eventually, I found out what was gnawing at me. The film wasn’t telling the full facts of the story that was allegedly about finding the truth. 

I have to take a deep breath and move past some obvious personal (and fundamental) issues I have supporting a film about a church that evangelizes against certain minority groups and look away from the actors that participated in making the film. (Or should we? Maybe we shouldn’t.)  Personal issues aside, to keep it professional, let’s point out that Erwin’s script is based on Laurie’s novel and omits essential details about the life (and death) of Lonnie Frisbee that could change how audiences (particularly the target audience for these faith-based films) viewed one of the first leaders of this revolutionary movement. By hiding these essential facts, the result is a skewed picture scrubbed clean of what the church deems dirty when Laurie and Smith both became enormously successful, even with the unfortunate downfall of Frisbee.

Look, I know these religion-positive films do big business at the box office (made for $15 million, Jesus Revolution has, as of this writing, grossed $41.5). Still, there’s something to be said about presenting the facts and letting intelligent audiences decide if the material suits them. Sanitizing history doesn’t change anything; it only hides it in some shady spot when time has shown it’s best to come clean from the start. Jesus Revolution isn’t a poorly made film, just an ill-advised one hiding under the guise of truth.   

Movie Review ~ Alice, Darling

The Facts:

Synopsis: While on vacation with two close girlfriends, Alice rediscovers the essence of herself and gains some much-needed perspective. Slowly, she starts to fray the cords of codependency that bind her.
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Charlie Carrick, Wunmi Mosaku
Director: Mary Nighy
Rated: NR
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  From the comfort of a cushioned theater seat (or our well-worn couch), we will watch Alice, Darling and judge the lead character. We’ll see her unhealthy relationship and wonder why she can’t see it herself. Eventually, we will side with her two friends that watch, aghast, as their once-independent companion becomes incapable of separating herself from a controlling lover who may not physically harm her but inflicts psychological turmoil with far more profound consequences. As she pulls her hair out and rolls it into little tumbleweeds that she lets drift slowly to the ground, this coping mechanism will instead seem like barbarous torture to us. All the while, we’ll think we know better.

There’s a frank openness to Alice, Darling that can feel too raw, too invasive. While we may recognize at the outset that it stars an Oscar-winning actress and is purposefully constructed as a barebones examination of a toxic relationship, the deeper it pulls us underneath to gasp for air with our leading lady, the more uncomfortable it starts to feel. It’s easy to believe that we’ve all known an Alice or been an Alice at some point because relating to the preyed upon is natural. What about when the film stealthily, almost wickedly, makes us wonder if we’ve ever been the predator?

Anna Kendrick stars as Alice, and if the actress gets alarmingly under the skin of this character down to the marrow, it’s because she’s self-reported that she was in a relationship with striking similarities. So she knows what the emotional spiral feels/looks like. Alice (Kendrick, Into the Woods) is so tangled up with her artist boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick) that she has to lie to him about going out of town for work instead of telling him she’s off for a weekend at the cabin with her two girlfriends to celebrate the birthday of Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn, Possessor). 

Tess and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku, His House) already have suspicions about the toxicity brewing between Alice and Simon but want to respect boundaries. Still, Sophie’s bad vibes about Simon began when she met him at an opening of his exhibition, and she recognized tell-tale signs there was something off about the couple when they were together. The weekend’s focus is fun, although a simmering tension between Tess and Alice grows stronger when Tess can’t help but question how Alice has changed since the beginning of her relationship with Simon. Eventually cutting off her lifeline (i.e., Alice’s cellphone) to Simon has the desired effect of freeing up their friend to be present in the moment with them…but it only creates desperation in Simon to find out where Alice has gone.

Director Mary Nighy (daughter of Living’s Bill Nighy) keeps the film as simple as possible, quickly getting out of the Toronto city tension and letting the tranquility of lake life wrap up the three women. The threat of Simon infiltrating this peace hangs over the action because we know it will happen. This isn’t a spoiler; it’s in all the trailers and other marketing. While waiting for him to arrive and what that might bring, Kendrick and the other two actresses explore what it might look like for friends to have that carefully considered conversation/intervention. The script by Alanna Francis is straightforward but respectful, less concerned with wild dramatics than it is with tiny victories in Sophie and Tess helping Alice to open her eyes wider.

The small cast handles the material with a confident hand, led by Kendrick’s revealing portrayal of a woman struggling under the weight of emotions she may not be ready to deal with. It wouldn’t have worked to play the role bigger or even a hair smaller than what she’s doing. That it’s pitched perfectly demonstrates again Kendrick is an actress capable of creating a complex character from the ground up. Alice, Darling likely isn’t loud enough to attract much attention immediately, but word of mouth can help this one get in front of the Alices and Simons that need to see it and understand its significance.

ALICE, DARLING will be exclusively in AMC Theatres

Nationwide January 20, 2023.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Inhabitant

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage descendant of Lizzie Borden is caught between paranoid visions and festering schizophrenia amid a series of small-town murders.
Stars: Odessa A’zion, Leslie Bibb, Dermot Mulroney, Lizzie Broadway, Ryan Francis
Director: Jerren Lauder
Rated: NR
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Not for nothing, but it does seem like Lizzie Andrew Borden from Fall River, Massachusetts, has had her 15 minutes of fame.  It’s been a whopping 132 years since she was accused of giving those famous whacks to her family members, and Hollywood can’t seem to let her legend rest.  Though Borden was acquitted of the crime, the salacious gossip and media frenzy surrounding the murders drove the public interest sky-high, leading to multiple retellings of her story throughout history.

Memorable movies positing various “what if” scenarios have come and gone. I still remember the one with Elizabeth Montgomery from 1975, not to mention the films like 1964’s Strait-Jacket starring Joan Crawford, which took its inspiration from the brutal slayings.  In recent years, celebrated stars such as Chloë Sevigny and Christina Ricci have played Borden in film and television to decent notices, and now along comes The Inhabitant, which takes the historical fact of the cast and mashes it up with the slasher film formula. 

I expected The Inhabitant to be as cheesy as the opening crawl suggested with its solemn recounting of the crime and how the Borden lineage was thought to be cursed ever after, specifically the women.  As it goes, those in Fall River know strange things occur to the women with Borden blood in their veins every October, so it was only a matter of time until the next one snapped.  Not the most promising set-ups, but fitting for a straight-to-streaming release timed for the Halloween season.  Surprisingly, while it’s nothing to add to your annual watch list, director Jerren Lauder’s low-boil affair is an easy watch thanks to its star performance and supporting players, not to mention a “who’s the crazy Borden?” mystery to solve.

Teen Tara (Odessa A’zion, Hellraiser) is going through the usual growing pains of being frustrated with everything in her life.  Her boyfriend is going far away to college, there’s a girl in school that has it out for her, her dad Ben (Dermot Mulroney, Gone in the Night), doesn’t fully trust her after past issues with depression, and her mom Emily (Leslie Bibb, Tag) is wary to let Tara too close to her newborn.  While she won’t say it directly, Emily fears her daughter may have inherited the same illness that affected her sister, a patient committed to the local psychiatric ward for murdering her infant child.  Letting Tara too close to the baby only creates terrible scenarios in her head, even though she knows deep down that Tara would never hurt her sibling.


As it turns out, Tara has been experiencing some strange thoughts lately.  With her birthday drawing near, she’s starting to see the apparition of a black-eyed blond woman calling to her and whispering terrible suggestions into her ear.  Nightmares of axes and murder follow, blurring the line between reality and dreams to the point that when people close to the family start to die gruesomely, it’s an obvious solution that Tara has snapped and has picked up where her relative (allegedly) left off.

Now, I’m not going to tell you if Tara is the one that starts to butcher friends, family, and foes but Lauder and screenwriter Kevin Bachar do a superior job of keeping the energy of The Inhabitant up longer than I thought was possible.  The solution isn’t that hard to figure out, but enough red herrings are tossed into the mix that you begin to doubt the most straightforward answer.  The cast, bless them, are willing to play the game as seriously as you are. While some take the task a bit too seriously (Lizzie Broadway, as Tara’s friend, delivers emotional lines as if she’s playing Greek tragedy), the core cast (A’zion, Mulroney, and Bibb) strike the right balance.  If anything, Mary Buss (Agnes), in a small but pivotal role as Emily’s institutionalized sister, finds the best balance and represents the tone for which Lauder is going.

The Inhabitant is one of those random horror movies you throw on, hoping for the best, and come out the other side no worse off.  You can see some of the shaky production values here and there, but by and large, it’s a slick effort and functions as a harmless distraction.  Depending on how successful Hulu’s Hellraiser is, I can see fans of its star A’zion tracking back into her filmography and finding this one, claiming it as another decent watch. 

Movie Review ~ Devil’s Workshop

The Facts:

Synopsis: A struggling actor spends a weekend with a female demonologist to prepare for an audition.
Stars: Radha Mitchell, Timothy Granaderos, Emile Hirsch
Director: Chris von Hoffmann
Rated: R
Running Length: 86 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  With the onslaught of content thrown at us 24/7, the more a movie can stand out from the crowd, the better.  It’s not so terrible to be bad, but it’s truly the worst to be forgettable.  That’s why how a studio plans to market a film is critical to its success.  You’ve heard me gripe enough about trailers that give too much away, so now let me get on my sturdy soapbox to bend your ear about boring posters.  What your advertising looks like visually is as essential to me as the movie itself, so don’t give me a cheap-o photoshop cover or key art that is crudely cobbled together.

Had I not been enticed by a preview that drew me in, I might have declined to review Devil’s Workshop solely on the poor quality of its poster.  Let it be known (spoiler or not) that the image you see above doesn’t factor into the completed film…and that turns out to be a good thing.  If you were to glance at this marketing, you might think Devil’s Workshop involves some half-naked ginger possessed by something rotten.  Instead, writer/director Chris von Hoffman has delivered a film aiming higher and often hitting its target, boosted by energized performances and a script that doesn’t show its hand right off the bat.

Struggling actor Clayton (Timothy Granaderos, We Are Your Friends) has been trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles for the past 15 years.  Still waiting for his big break, he endures calls from home congratulating him on his cut roles in the latest episode of NCIS and watching while his peers go on to the kind of career he wants.  He’s wildly jealous of Donald (Emile Hirsch, Midnight in the Switchgrass), a d-bag who lucked out early and has followed that initial success to consistent work.  Similar in type, the two are always competing for the same roles and Donald, being the more recognizable face, often gets the job and a nice paycheck.

When both are up for the same role in an upcoming paranormal thriller, Clayton decides to look outside his acting class (and I would too, after witnessing eye-rolling scenes of pretentious never-beens theater-gaming themselves silly) for help in preparing for the role.  He places an ad on the web for instruction on demonology and gets a hit from Eliza soon after.  Driving to her isolated home far outside the city, Clayton isn’t sure how this will benefit him, but he knows he needs to do something to change his current path.

Until this point, von Hoffman’s film has been a traditional look at the same story facing many actors arriving in Hollywood with stars in their eyes.  The business is tricky, jobs are scarce, and if you are friends with people in the industry, they will likely make it, and you won’t.  We must leave the city behind for von Hoffman to shift Devil’s Workshop into a different gear.  Coincidentally, that’s when Radha Mitchell (Olympus Has Fallen) shows up as Eliza. 

Playing a free spirit that’s perhaps a little too welcoming, Mitchell is an absolute revelation as this mysterious character.  She gives Clayton a reason to keep his guard up with the single woman living alone in a large California country house.  Eliza promises the next few days will help Clayton prepare for the role, offering her experience as a demonologist to help inform his acting choices.  First, they’ll need to get to know one another and prepare him for the ritual she’ll be taking him through.  Thus begins a weekend of strange experiences for Clayton where Eliza’ll challenge him on more than just an acting level.  Secrets from his past will affect the present, and Eliza’s history will also factor in. 

Had this been the through line of Devil’s Workshop, I may have added another point to my total.  Unfortunately, we still have to keep Donald on our mind, and von Hoffman intercuts Eliza and Clayton’s time together with Donald’s druggie/chill night with two female friends.  As is often true, Hirsch is fun to watch; yet these scenes drag the picture into territory that feels more self-indulgent the longer they stretch on.  I just wanted to go back to the A storyline and ditch the B plot once and for all. 

I’m not entirely sure Devil’s Workshop finds a satisfactory way to end the film; I thought it would surely tack on another scene after the finale that better ties things off.  From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s edited quite nicely, with impressive make-up and gore effects throughout.  For a film involving demonic possession and ritual sacrifice, the final 1/3 of the film isn’t as wild or unrelenting as it could have been and for that steady hand, I was grateful.  It’s another sign that von Hoffman had a clear vision of what he wanted.