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.

Well…

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. 

Movie Review ~ The Good House

The Facts:

Synopsis: A wry New England realtor’s compartmentalized life begins to unravel as she rekindles a romance with her old high-school flame and becomes dangerously entwined in one person’s reckless behavior.
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney
Director: Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review:  Sigourney Weaver is one of our great actresses and undoubtedly one that should have an Oscar on her mantle by now. For her blistering work in Aliens, the 1986 sequel to her 1979 career-changing breakout Alien, she received the first of her Best Actress nominations for taking her lone survivor part up another level, pairing a fully-realized dramatic role with an action heroine. Two years later, her next nomination for Gorillas in the Mist gave viewers the opportunity to get to know the work of a primatologist who wasn’t afraid to be disliked for conserving the mountain gorillas she felt compelled to protect. That same year, she easily could have walked away with Best Supporting Actress for her wicked turn as the boss from hell in Working Girl. She might have taken it if she had not been nominated for Best Actress. 

Throughout her career, Weaver has been a dependable presence and, more importantly, a game contributor to whatever project she signs onto. That’s allowed her to work in multiple genres with many directors that have used her well. She’s even at the point of making cameo appearances and receiving the rapturous reception that indicates the level of appreciation the movie-going public has for her. When the time is right, and the role is just so, you get the feeling that her awards run will be a swift victory.

I’m not sure how much The Good House was intended to be positioned to get Weaver into the race, but this will not get her over the finish line. Based on Ann Leary’s 2013 bestseller, the film was initially set up to star Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro. I remember this announcement well because I tracked down the book and had it on my bookshelf for a few years until Streep dropped out and the project fell silent. With Weaver recruited to star alongside her previous two-time co-star Kevin Kline, the New England seriocomedy fell into the hands of directors Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky, who had directed films separately before but never together.

That individuality of style becomes skittishly apparent after a breezy opening suggesting The Good House might be a charming bit of matinee fun, especially for fans of Weaver and Kline. The setting is picturesque, the script by Thomas Bezucha (Let Him Go) and the directors has a crackle to it, and the faint suggestion of the supernatural is enough to draw you in quickly. Weaver is Hildy Good, the top real estate agent in her little hamlet, providing for herself, often supporting her two adult children, and staying abreast of all the goings on (i.e., gossip) in town. If someone is moving out, she knows why and she has the scoop on any newcomers seeking the perfect place to call home.

Sharing office space with a therapist (Rob Delaney, Home Sweet Home Alone) who is considering switching gears to a busier metropolis, Hildy has a prospective new listing to focus on and a potential new friend in an unhappily married housewife (Morena Baccarin, Last Looks) who has only recently arrived. Then there’s Frank Getchell (Kline, The Starling), a jack-of-all-trades handyman and former flame who lives close by and might still hold the same brand of blazing torch Hildy has been secretly keeping for him. Plus, Hildy has a gift for mind-reading, a talent she’s happy to oblige when asked to bring out at dinner parties.

All of this presentation of normalcy is a glazed veneer for what’s underneath the surface of Hildy’s carefully structured life, and it’s peeking below this shell where audiences should find the good stuff in The Good House. Instead, it’s where the most significant weaknesses lie. That’s when we notice Weaver working furiously to drum up cohesion with the actors assigned to play her ex-husband and two daughters. There’s no interplay to suggest any of these people have ever met, let alone were married or were a parent to the actresses assigned as their children. 

This large discrepancy becomes key when more of the plot is revealed, including Hildy’s alcoholism. The film shifts from Hildy trying to keep her life in line to Hildy literally trying to say within the lines of the road. While Sigourney Weaver (Copycat) has perhaps one of the cinema’s most fantastic takes to the camera during an intervention that becomes more about the people intervening than anything, the shift in tone is so jarring and breaks the tranquil spell we were under that the movie never recovers. Not even with the sweet romance between Hildy and Frank and certainly not in the film’s latter half when infidelity, blackout drinking, and townspeople with moods that change on dime start to overwhelm Weaver’s strong performance.

Unfortunately, Forbes and Wolodarsky couldn’t tighten all this up more; there are about five extraneous characters for every one we want to invest time in. There’s genuinely something living in The Good House at the beginning I wanted to see more of. Weaver is always worth the effort, and it’s never a bad day at the movies when Kline is playing it free and easy. Their scenes together are by far the best, even though the script has Weaver hysterically (embarrassingly?) telling a pot-smoking Kline to “put down that jazz cabbage.” At least we won’t have to wait long for more Weaver; she’ll be seen soon in Avatar: The Way of Water and Call Jane.

 

Movie Review ~ Fall

The Facts:

Synopsis: Fear reaches new heights as two best friends find themselves at the top of a 2,000-foot radio tower
Stars: Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner, Mason Gooding, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Director: Scott Mann
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  Why is it that when we’re young and don’t know any better, we dash headfirst into adrenaline-rich experiences and seek out high-up views, but once we reach a certain age, a hesitant develops? Some never get that momentary pause of caution that tells them to look before they leap or take a breath before they ascend. A swirling rollercoaster is a welcome challenge, and a sheer glass surface on a double-digit floor of skyscrapers in the clouds is a great place to stand and stare down. I used to be a person who could handle all that and wasn’t bothered by those thrills. Over time I’ve found it more difficult to step to the edge of a balcony, queue up for a speeding cyclone amusement park ride, or, lately, even watch movies that center on those walking the razor’s edge of extreme sports.

The set-up of Fall is marvelous. I’m sure when the director and co-writer Scott Mann pitched the movie to Lionsgate alongside fellow screenwriter Jonathan Frank, he barely had to finish the first sentence before a deal was on the table. Filmed during the pandemic with a minuscule cast from the producer of the (very) similar 47 Meters Down, Lionsgate invested in a ringer. Amid a moderate rise in the popularity of free climbing (no doubt due to the Oscar-winning doc Free Solo), the film would ostensibly put two women on top of an abandoned radio tower and then let them find their way down. 

I could describe the plot of Fall almost entirely by throwing out titles of other films instead. That might spoil it for you, but it illustrates how much it manages to lift directly from other movies. A quickie opening establishes the trauma that leaves Becky (Grace Caroline Currey, Annabelle: Creation), a young widow, and her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner, 2018’s Halloween) dealing with her pain by publicly pushing herself to often-dangerous physical limits. Unable to be comforted by her father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Rampage, filming his scenes with a double for Fulton), Becky spends 51 weeks (yes, the movie makes it that specific) wallowing in grief before Hunter arrives to snap her out of it.

What better way to exorcise her past demons than by literally and figuratively climbing out of her despair? Hunter has challenged herself and extends an invite to Becky to scale a decommissioned TV tower in the California desert. The structure stands 2,000 feet in the air and is well-worn but has held together, and Hunter wants Becky to conquer it with her to prove to herself that this pain will pass and life will go on. Reluctantly, Becky agrees, and before you know it, the two have made the tense ascent up to the top and selfied themselves at the pinnacle. The climb has loosened the rusty ladder from its screws, though, and one wrong step sets off a chain of catastrophic events that trap the women on their sky-high perch. With their route down impossible, it eventually becomes a life-or-death struggle for survival where they’ll have to innovate to survive the elements and make it back to solid ground.

While Mann and Frank’s conception of Fall is a gleeful doozy of high-stakes survival, the execution hits some rough patches. Anyone who saw the almost entirely CGI-generated original teaser trailer can attest that if you ask the audience to sit on the edge of their seats, they must believe what they see—at least a little bit. The best actors and screenplay aren’t going to save lousy everything else. What tends to weigh the Fall production down more than anything are computer-generated backgrounds that look like off-brand Windows 95 screensavers. An opening scene on a large rock face features many distance drone shots circling the mass, but you can barely spot the actors on it because they either a) weren’t there to begin with or b) are on a smaller mountain, and the effects team filled the rest of the rock in later. The scene played strangely on my large screen at home; I can’t imagine how it would look in a theater – maybe better?

Budgetary and filming restrictions necessitated the filmmakers to get inventive in how they shot the actors, and kudos to them for coming up with ways to rely on the CGI as little as possible. These unobstructed shots come off the best and give you those beads of brow sweat the rest of the film is missing. Often in movies like this, viewers can become active participants by shouting at the characters making unwise choices. Still, for Fall, the screenplay doesn’t play Becky and Hunter as foolish, aside from climbing up a structure they shouldn’t and not telling anyone where they were going. Once they are stuck, the women show themselves to be quick thinking and resourceful, not blanking on the best idea we all know they should be undertaking until the final act. I do wish a late-in-the-game plot twist wasn’t outright stolen from a similar film, though. Viewers with a keen eye (well, ear) will catch on quickly if they miss any earlier clues. 

Like that CGI teaser and frequent use of computer-generated backgrounds, Fall feels like a film engineered for an audience rather than made. Even the dialogue has been changed after the movie was shot, with over 30 expletives replaced with PG-13 friendly words by AI company Flawless and the TrueSync technology. Wouldn’t you know that the director is the co-CEO of that company? That’s why you’ll hear heavy use of the word “freaking” throughout. It’s all part of the algorithm the film fits into, which makes it feel less like an organic bit of energetic entertainment and more like a calculated effort to hit as many target audiences as possible in one swoop.

Here’s the truth, though. While parts of Fall are hokey and could be refined or outright tossed, it delivers on its mission. For all my talks about engineering to target audiences, it accomplished that with this viewer. I absolutely found myself covering my eyes as one or both women were hanging by their fingernails under the blazing Mojave sun. Whether avoiding menacing vultures that smell blood or risking a deadly drop to access necessary supplies, I was on the edge of my seat while in the moment. I can nitpick all I want after, but that’s not fair to the overall movie experience or the filmmakers that did their job. Once we get past some iffy opening drama and bypass the unnecessary strife between the ladies later on when the focus is survival, Fall rises to the occasion.

Movie Review ~ Moonfall

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious force knocks the moon from its orbit around Earth and sends it hurtling on a collision course with life as we know it.

Stars: Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, John Bradley, Michael Pena, Charlie Plummer, Kelly Yu, Eme Ikwuakor, Carolina Bartczak, Donald Sutherland

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Just this past New Year’s Eve, while much of the globe was out celebrating kicking 2021 to the curb, my partner and I decided to ring in 2022 the correct way: with pizza delivery and a viewing of the 1972 peril-at-sea classic, The Poseidon Adventure.  Why?  I’m a sucker for a disaster film and the Oscar-nominated blockbuster, conveniently set on December 31 and chock full of memorable scenes and performances, fit the bill perfectly.  I can’t quite help myself when presented with a gargantuan film that is hell-bent on pulverizing boats, small towns, big cities, planets, and the like with giant tidal waves, volcanoes, asteroids, earthquakes, or a Geostorm.  Though I almost leaned into the Sharknado craze, I realized I had to draw the line somewhere.

That should give you an idea of why I didn’t sweat some of the early bad buzz I heard about legendarily schlocky director Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall.  Despite directing the uncharacteristically strong Midway in 2019, Emmerich is back in his safety zone for this big-screen megaton world decimator presenting audiences with a so-bad-it’s-good-for-you cheesy meal that’s light on science but heavy on conspiracy theories and underbaked performances.  Throw in special effects that alternate between the polished with the barely finished, and you have yourself a new release that’s ready to divide audiences into two camps.  The first will turn their nose up at a project that never sets its sights higher than what it was created to be, which is precisely the kind of movie the second group will gobble up with glee.

Ten years ago, a disaster in space left astronaut Brian Harper (a bland name to match Patrick Wilson’s typically bland performance) cast out from NASA for claiming the catastrophe, which cost a colleague their life, was the result of an attack by a non-human life form.  Of course, the only other person up there that could back him up is Jocinda “Jo” Fowler (now there’s a name for you, and Halle Berry makes it count), but she was knocked unconscious when things went haywire.  A decade later, Fowler is part of the top brass at NASA while Harper’s life has gone further downhill after a divorce and being ostracized from his troubled child, Sonny (Charlie Plummer, All the Money in the World), who has just been tossed in the slammer for leading police on a high-speed highway chase.

When discredited pseudo-scientist (read: conspiracy theorist) and president of The Megastructurist Club K.C. Houseman (John Bradley, Anna Karenina) begins to confirm his long-held theory the Earth is headed for disaster courtesy of the alien-built Moon, he manages to convince the boozy Harper who in turn teams up with Fowler for a Hail Mary mission to save the planet.  While the race is on up in the stars, down on terra firma Emmerich and screenwriters Spenser Cohen and Harald Kloser (who also co-composed the score) can’t help but insert completely unnecessary family drama with Sonny speeding Fowler’s child and nanny to the safety of a Colorado bunker while pieces of the Moon and “gravity waves” are wreaking havoc around them. 

Anyone going into Moonfall and expecting a high-stakes sci-fi stunner is going to feel let down long before Wilson and Berry achieve liftoff in a decommissioned space shuttle amidst a humungous wall of water threatening to consume the tiny-in-comparison craft.  Emmerich always walked a fine line between overselling spectacle and underserving storyline, even at his peak output, and that’s no different here.  We can only be thankful that with the pandemic still plaguing the country, the studio heads at Lionsgate likely saw fit to request this come in at a (for Emmerich) trim 130 minutes and not a bloated running time that would keep audiences in the theater any longer than necessary.  Of course, that comes at the expense of character development and often tying one complete thought to another. Still, the majority of Moonfall moves at the kind of breakneck speed that almost wills you not to overthink its lack of logic.

Another bit of advantage working in Moonfall’s favor is Wilson’s (Insidious) workmanlike performance as a disgraced astronaut brought back into service at an unlikely juncture.  I’ve seen Wilson onstage, and he’s a magnetic performer, but I’ve never found that presence translated to screen in the same way, and that’s certainly true here.  Still, that complete lack of personality winds up being a benefit because audiences can divest themselves from getting too attached to anyone…not that Emmerich or his co-screenwriters have put much of anything there to move us to care either way.  I lament that Berry (Bruised) continues to be underserved in these types of roles, stuck as the strong female playing second fiddle to males that yield power to her only when they chicken out and can’t take the heat.  She’s got a dull ex (Eme Ikwuakor, Concussion, spending the entire film wincing like he has a rock in one of his shoes) and a kid that says, “I love you, mommy,” and doesn’t really seem to mean it. 

While researching the movie before writing the review, I had to chuckle that so many searches for Hardy and Moonfall brought up Josh Gad.  Hardy’s part feels like a role written with Gad in mind, only to have the actor wind up declining or not be available at the last minute.  While he’s far more tolerable than Gad, even his mild engagement can’t create an entirely root-able character for Hardy.  Poor Michael Peña (End of Watch) gets the shortest stick of them all, as the new husband of Harper’s ex, a nice guy whose biggest fault seems to be having too much money and resources.  Guess what happens to him?  The less said about Donald Sutherland’s (Backdraft) pee and you missed it cameo as a shadowy government figure bound to a wheelchair who gives Berry’s character just enough cryptic info before rolling off into the darkness, the better.

I expect a modest amount of success for Emmerich’s terribly silly but mostly harmless outer space jaunt, if only for lack of similar content currently or recently in theaters.  If it doesn’t deal with a virus sweeping through the country, audiences tend to go for these types of global world-enders, and for a good reason.  They’re escapist in-flight entertainment where you can check your brain at the door and pick it up on your way back to your car.  Moonfall absolutely requires this and, like all those in charge of upholding regulations on commercial airlines, please don’t hate it for doing its job.

Movie Review ~ Shattered (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a lonely tech millionaire encounters a charming and sexy woman, passion grows between them – and when he’s injured, she quickly steps in as his nurse. But her odd behavior makes him suspect she has more sinister intentions, especially when her roommate is found dead from mysterious causes.

Stars: Cameron Monaghan, Lilly Krug, John Malkovich, Sasha Luss, Frank Grillo

Director: Luis Prieto

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: All we heard in the latter half of 2021 and now into 2022 was how movies were returning to normal.  It took a while for theaters to get back up to speed and while there is still a long way to go to get people to venture out to films that aren’t proven franchises (RIP West Side Story…you shoulda been a blockbuster…), the tide is turning slowly.  The at-home market feels like it’s regaining its footing at a more rapid pace. It surely is welcoming its fair share of stink-bombs at around the same volume it was before the pandemic hit. 

The latest must-miss is Shattered, another Lionsgate effort and oh, how it pains me to say it.  This is the studio that had such a great run with the Saw franchise and launched a trove of worthy indie titles back in the day (Gods and Monsters! Eve’s Bayou!).  Yet recently I’ve seen a good amount of less than impressive titles coming out through their banner.  I know they can do better, and they can certainly do far better than the dreadful Shattered which I watched on a day off over the Christmas holiday and felt like I got a lump of coal for my efforts.  Directed with some attempt at style by Luis Prieto and working from David Loughery slimy script, I actually think Shattered had the potential to be something better than it was.  It’s just that the cast assembled is so unfathomably bad.

Describing the plot of Shattered is sort of like looking at a whole shelf of mystery thrillers in the video store, starting at the top left and then randomly assembling the synopsis using snippets from each film.  There’s little originality to the set-up featuring a wealthy divorcee (Cameron Monaghan, Vampire Academy) living in a secluded home who meets a random woman (Lilly Krug, Every Breath You Take) at the grocery store, detects she may be in trouble in her current living situation, offers to take her away for the evening to avoid a strung out roommate and skeevy landlord (John Malkovich, Jennifer 8), sleeps with her, falls for her, meets up with her again, then spends the rest of the movie suffering the consequences when she turns out to be a lunatic. Loughery (who also wrote the campy 2009 thriller Obsessed starring Beyoncé, Passenger 57 featuring Wesley Snipes, and the 2020 Hilary Swank vehicle Fatale) tries to differentiate his screenplay by giving the mystery woman a backstory which comes back to haunt her (and us), but if you don’t have actors that can sell it convincingly, then what’s the point?  That leaves us to spend the next hour or so with bad actors attempting to play dramatics far beyond their reach.         

It pained me to do it, but at the end of Shattered I went back and took a look at the IMDb page for John Malkovich.  It’s here if you want to look for yourself.  There was a time when that name called forth a certain image, at least to me, of elevated acting and a commitment to the craft which meant that when his name popped up in the credits you should take note of his involvement.  Now, when I see Malkovich listed, I have to decide if I even want to bother to read the plot description or watch the trailer.  Making movies that are so far removed from titles like 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, 1999’s Being John Malkovich, or his Oscar-nominated roles in 1984’s Places in the Heart or 1993’s In the Line of Fire, it almost feels like the actor has been taken hostage and is being forced to make bottom of the barrel scuzz.

The barrel gets scraped down to the rivets with Shattered, truly the most embarrassing role of Malkovich’s celebrated career which finds the actor playing a minor role as a majorly disgusting motel owner that gets mixed up with a femme fatale and her latest target.  If you can believe it, Malkovich isn’t even the worst performance in the movie, or the second.  Those two key positions are held by stars Monaghan and Krug, as charmless a duo as you could ever want in a psycho-sexual thriller built around a seduction that turns dangerous and eventually deadly.  Monaghan is a whiny wimp that somehow has a beautiful ex-wife (Sasha Luss) and child and now has nabbed Krug’s crazeballs chick that turns the tables on him in short order. How or why Frank Grillo (Boss Level) shows up is almost beside the point, by the time the usually dependable supporting player appears when there’s a little more than thirty minutes left, viewers will either have turned the TV off or checked out to the point where they won’t even recognize another character has entered the action.

Even though Shattered is assuredly bad, I wound up giving it a pass for my Worst of 2021 list because it could have technically shown up there…and ranked high in the process.  Being a rule follower, I also couldn’t put it on my Worst of 2022 list because I didn’t actually see it this year.  So Shattered will slip through my grasp as a call-out after this review concludes…and should slip from your mind just as quickly.

Movie Review ~ Zeros and Ones

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Called to Rome to stop an imminent terrorist bombing, a soldier desperately seeks news of his imprisoned brother — a rebel with knowledge that could thwart the attack. Navigating the capital’s darkened streets, he races to a series of ominous encounters to keep the Vatican from being blown up.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Cristina Chiriac, Phil Neilson, Anna Ferrara, Salvatore Ruocco, Valerio Mastandrea, Babak Karimi

Director: Abel Ferrara

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  I’m going to relay an anecdote to you and I wanted you to go with me on this journey.  OK? 

OK.

I only watched The Oprah Winfrey Show on a regular basis for its last season because, what can I say, I was simply a very late adopter when it came to the most popular talk show on the planet.  During that last season I was watching an interview with The Judds, Naomi and Wynonna to be exact, and they were talking about their relationship and how they made it work.  More than anything, when she was faced with a bad situation that was what it was but that she had some control over her participation in, Wynonna said that she had learned to say to a number of things in her life “That may be fine for you but that doesn’t work for me.” and then being willing to get up and leave that particular situation in the past.  I think I had what Oprah would classify as an “A-Ha!” moment right then and there and I never looked back.  I often use that phrase in times when I’m feeling cornered, step back, and recognize I actually do have more autonomy over my actions than I originally thought.

You get this lengthy look into my brain today for a few reasons.  One, it makes this post that much longer because I have so little to say about director Abel Ferrara’s newest film Zeros and Ones that I had to think of something else to include in my write-up.  I also needed to give you background into why I made it through all 85 minutes of this film (yes, you actually DO have to watch to the very end of this movie) and then said “That doesn’t work for me.” turned off my TV, and went directly to bed.  Naming your film after the scores the movie will likely get is very prophetic on the part of Ferrara, so the longtime director with his fair share of hits and misses should be given a nice pat on the back and then a good kick in the pants for such a lazy and pointless endeavor that robs the viewer of their time and its star of not one but two good roles. 

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) appears as himself at the beginning and end of the movie for some inexplicable reason that he actually does try to explain (but doesn’t really) and only further confuses whatever narrative Ferrara is trying to chase in Zeros and Ones.  Hawke then goes on to play twin brothers, one searching for the other in Rome shortly after a terrorist bomb targets the Vatican…or else he’s trying to prevent the Vatican from being blown up.  Honestly, I never really understood what was going on because there’s so much of us just watching Hawke tool around the city as one brother or another either behind a mask (production was done during the early height of COVID) or in full crazy mode.  The image you see on the poster is a Hawke that isn’t present in this film…false advertising, for shame!

One of the most famous songs The Judds recorded was ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’.  Well, as it relates to Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones, ‘Love Can Build a Bridge but Ferrara Can’t Make a Cohesive Movie’…and that doesn’t work for me, nor will it for you.  So skippable, I was almost tempted to tell you off the bat to skip my review.  Almost. Hope you stuck around!

Movie Review ~ Needle in a Timestack

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A devoted husband will stop at nothing to save his marriage when it’s destroyed by a time-traveling rival.

Stars: Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo, Freida Pinto, Orlando Bloom, Jadyn Wong

Director: John Ridley

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Is there anything more outright depressing than watching four talented (and, let’s be honest, gorgeous) actors loafing around in a truly ridiculous bit of nonsense filmmaking?  Oh geez, but Needle in a Timestack is as eye-rolling as its title suggests, and despite the presence of those four aforementioned stars, two of which will surely win an Oscar within the next decade, it’s a real effort to get through and even then you feel no sense of accomplishment.  What makes it even more of a depressing miss is that the team involved in front of and behind the camera could have collaborated on something more worthwhile and not wasted the precious time the very plot of the movie is so adamant about protecting.

I can see why rising stars like Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Leslie Odom, Jr. (One Night in Miami…) would be swayed into taking on the leads in this adaptation of a short story written in 1966 by Robert Silverberg.  Directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), the project had some relative glitter of attraction with Ridley’s script giving some modernity to Silverberg’s futuristic (for the era) story of a husband and wife torn apart by a fissure in time caused by the wife’s former flame.  For two actors looking to have more dramatic arcs in unconventional stories that didn’t expressly call on their roots in musical theater, this had definite potential to show their clear range.

What they couldn’t have predicted is how much of a goober the story would come across to viewers, or how inconsequential nearly every event would feel when filtered through Ridley’s flat dialogue, his rote direction, and Ramsey Nickell’s solar flare golden hue cinematography which feels like an ad for a Nissan Altima circa 2004.  Patch in an at times overly committed Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) as Erivo’s jealous ex Tommy who literally rewrites her history so she will be with him and Freida Pinto (Hillbilly Elegy) second banana-ing her way through an underwritten female role who exists just to be the fallback girlfriend for whatever man isn’t with Erivo and you have something decidedly uneventful.  And it’s nearly two hours long. 

The strange thing about Ridley’s movie is the way it’s so earnest and forthright about some relationships (i.e. the leads) but so cagey about others.  Take Jadyn Wong’s character Zoe, the sister of Odom Jr.’s Nick who influences much of his decision making about how to fix the problem that Bloom causes.  After Tommy manipulates time to bring Janine (Erivo) back into his life and cut Nick out like he never existed, (it’s more like Total Recall than anyone wants to admit) Nick turns to Zoe for advice concerning her ‘best friend’ Sibila who she has a ‘special relationship’ with and also has a time mishap to solve.  Ridley’s insistence on classifying this Zoe/Sibila relationship as ‘best friends’ throughout is akin to saying two men living together and sleeping in the same bed in the ‘80s were ‘dedicated bachelors’ or ‘special friends’.  If the film weren’t about such honesty in relationships, this severely awkward entanglement between these two women (not to mention Wong’s obsessive need to say ‘Sibila’ in a gravely surfer twang in each line of dialogue) just sticks out more like a sore thumb.  Let lesbians be lesbians, please.

It must also be said that as charming and commanding a presence as both Erivo and Odom Jr. are onstage and onscreen, they lack the necessary chemistry together to provide Needle in a Timestack that earnest edge to give us reason to care about their relationship being restored.  To be clear, the acting isn’t at fault in the least because both are the least embarrassingly bad things about the movie, but they seem to be united in just getting through the film sitting comfortably in the friend zone.  On the plus side, Erivo has just released an EP of original music that’s quite good and is prepping a promising sounding remake of The Rose while Odom Jr. has a nice role in the sequel to Knives Out in 2022 and will star in the intriguing trilogy continuation of The Exorcist.  And check Pinto out in Intrusion on Netflix where she gets to be the star in a creepy home invasion thriller.  Consider this Needle just a tiny prick in the midst of a greater haystack of more fulfilling projects these actors have set into motion.

Movie Review ~ Lady of the Manor

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aimless ne’er-do-well becomes a tour guide in a historic estate and winds up befriending the manor’s resident ghost.

Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Justin Long, Luis Guzmán, Ryan Phillippe, Patrick Duffy

Director: Justin Long and Christian Long

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  This last month has been awfully good for ghosts…and it’s not even October yet.  You may recall that just a few short posts ago I gave a marginal thumbs up to the rather decent Afterlife of the Party, a Netflix film starring Victoria Justice that was pleasant in a goopy, Clorox-wiped clean sort of way.  I also broke the news that I’m a closet fan of these types of films where a ghost haunts a living human and either works with them or against them to right a wrong so they can rest in peace.  I’m sticking by that statement, even after being truly haunted by the presence of Lady of the Manor, another movie with some similar themes.  If you asked me two weeks ago which of these ghost movies I’d be less impressed with, I’d surely have said Afterlife of the Party based on who was involved with Lady of the Manor…sadly, this one is a D.O.A. P.O.S.

Remember when Justin Long dated Drew Barrymore and it was weird?  And weird only in the sense that Barrymore has always seemed like such an adult and Long has felt like a forever teenager so the pairing felt like a May-December romance that even though it was more like a May 12 and June 18 one?  Long clearly remembers it too because he’s cast the talented Melanie Lynskey in a role I have a hunch Barrymore would have played if they were still together (and possibly written with her in mind) and then asked her to emulate the kewpie doll mannerisms of the star so easy to imitate to seal the deal.  Even at a subconscious level, it’s impossible not to watch the movie without having Barrymore firmly in your mind and, not to take anything away from Lynskey, wonder if she’d have brought a tad more sparkle to the role.

Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays Hannah, described in the press notes as a “ne’er-do-well” which is fancy talk for the lay about freeloader she is, occasionally delivering drugs via bike but too dim to even do that right.  When she’s mistaken for a sexual predator (cue an uncomfortable sequence involving pedophile jokes) she’s hauled off to prison where she’s dumped by her boyfriend and kicked to the curb.  As she drowns her sorrow at the local watering hole, she attracts the attention of spoiled lothario Tanner Wadsworth (an extremely puffy in the face Ryan Phillippe, Wish Upon) heir to the Wadsworth estate and recently tasked with its operations.  He’s in need of a new tour guide to dress like the former, you got it, lady of the manor and decides Hannah is the best one for the job.  Mostly, he just wants to sleep with her.

Before she knows it, Hannah has a new job that comes with a free place to live.  The only trouble is that the estate already has a permanent live-in guest (Judy Greer, Halloween) and she isn’t happy with the new arrival that’s loud, obnoxious, and brings with her a large supply of rubber bedroom toys named after famous movie stars.  Dead for a number of years, Lady Wadsworth still holds some values close to her heart and is horrified to see Hannah exhibit the type of extreme unladylike behavior that can only be found in a movie written and directed by men.  Where else can you see a childless female ghost murder victim from colonial times and a rudderless loser men use as little more than a sexual object discuss breaking wind and the best way to excuse yourself from the room when you have to let one rip?

When the validity of Lady Wadsworth’s will is questioned, Hannah will have to step up and help out her phantom friend (spoiler alert?  I mean, c’mon…you have to know they start to get along eventually) prove what her original intentions for her estate were before it falls into the wrong hands for good.  At the same time, Hannah balances a physical relationship with Tanner and something a bit sweeter with a local historian (Long, Tusk) who initially went on one of her disastrous tours.  I feel like I should at least mention Luis Guzmán (Guilty as Sin) seeing that he appears so high up in the credits but has little to do as a nameless bartender other than dry a few glasses and wipe down a counter or two while the main actors get sloppy drunk in front of him.  Surely there was more to this role…or was Guzmán visiting his friends on the set and they needed a last minute replacement?

There’s been a lot of fingers pointing lately toward movies that are deemed “more like TV movies” and the plot for Lady of the Manor is torn directly from the listings on Hallmark or Lifetime.  At its heart, it’s your typical ghost meets girl story and uncovering a not that interesting mystery is a way to spend the time while you reorganize your sock drawer.  Long not only stars in this but wrote and directed it with his brother Christian and it’s as if they took that vanilla plot and wiped their noses with it.  It’s such a snotty booger of a movie and takes every chance to go low with the cheapest possible jokes always seemingly the first choice.  Even blessed with someone comedically talented like Greer, the script favors gross-out humor and dialogue laced with trash talk – there’s little trust shown in the actors or the audience to find the comedy.

What’s most disappointing is that Long has been at this for so long now that you’d think for this first time up to bat he’d have something a bit more to offer, something better to represent him (and his family) on his debut.  Even if Barrymore had taken the lead from Lynskey (and, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with what Lynskey is doing, she deserves some sort of medal for surviving this train wreck) it wouldn’t have saved things because Lady of the Manor is just rotten, a few laughs along the way notwithstanding.