Movie Review ~ Lady Chatterley’s Lover (2022)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An unhappily married aristocrat begins a torrid affair with the gamekeeper on her husband’s country estate.
Stars: Emma Corrin, Jack O’Connell, Matthew Duckett, Joely Richardson, Ella Hunt, Faye Marsay
Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Rated: R
Running Length: 126 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  For a novel as infamous as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I’m surprised I knew so little about it going into this tenth film adaptation. After all, the book’s sordid history is legendary in literature for its lengthy discourse over the fine line between art and obscenity. Banned in many counties at various times since it was published in 1928 by D.H. Lawrence, it exists as a naughty novel with scandalous passages of adulterous trysts and a statement on the class division between the aristocrats and the working class. Of course, all anyone remembers are the copious amounts of sensuality, not the social commentary. A new version of Lawrence’s work gives the viewer an eyeful in that regard.

Releasing on Netflix after a brief theatrical run, the 2022 Lady Chatterley’s Lover has assembled a crackerjack production team led by director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. The sharp-eyed director was behind the understated (and underseen) The Mustang back in 2019, and she turns her talents to bringing the Lawrence novel to life through a 21st-century lens. Still very much a period drama; there’s a modern current running through the film that’s hard to ignore for any period. That will work for those new to the text (like myself) but may alienate purists who want to keep things neat.

Before heading back to the front line in the Great War, Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) marries the lovely Connie Reid (Emma Corrin, My Policeman) and promises her a life of adventure. No one could predict what the devastation of battle would bring their people, and a half year later, Clifford is paralyzed from the waist down, and the barely newlyweds are settling into their future at his country estate. Finding her love and vows tested early due to Clifford’s impotence, his desire for an heir pushes him to encourage his bride to seek out another man that could give them both a child. Recoiling at the thought initially, the arrival of handsome groundskeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) makes her reconsider not just her husband’s offer but pre-destined plans she thought she had no control over.

The relationship between Connie and Oliver develops far less as a flash-in-the-pan, steam-up-the-windows fling. As much as it would be easy to lump Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a predecessor to the Fifty Shades of Grey series, there’s a maturity and sensitivity to their affair that strikes a chord from the beginning. The chemistry and connection shared between Corrin and O’Connell helps immeasurably; with both actors frequently appearing nude, their comfort assists the audience in letting our guard down faster. The lack of inhibition endears the characters to one another and, ultimately, to us.

Yet once the film establishes this bond, it becomes repetitive quickly. The eroticism on display is filmed with caring intimacy, but at some point, it feels more titillating than transporting. Much effort has been made to set Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a specific time and place, but when it goes to a place of groans and moans, you start to look around to see who might be watching over your shoulder. Unfortunately, that’s when the performances get lost among the heaving bosoms and exposed flesh (an excessive amount of a bottomless Corrin vs. O’Connell, I should say). 

The trivia buffs have already gnawed off all the fun around a previous Lady Chatterley, Joely Richardson (Color Out of Space) from the 1993 Ken Russell adaptation, returning in the motherly caretaker role of Mrs. Bolton. Richardson works fine with the part, as does Faye Marsay (Darkest Hour), appearing as Connie’s more forthright sister in brief bookends. It’s essentially Corrin’s film, though, and she does a complete 180 from what we saw in The Crown, shedding the shy vulnerability of Princess Diana for the more headstrong Connie.

I can’t speak to how well this adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover compares to the source novel or other versions before; I chose to go in totally blind on this one. In a way, I’m glad I did because this piece has picked up a lot of baggage (read: opinions) over the years, and a new view is likely warranted. Nestled in a lovely production are performances that don’t hold back physically, even if the world they inhabit occasionally takes advantage of them.

Movie Review ~ Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

The Facts:

Synopsis: During the COVID-19 pandemic, billionaire Miles Bron invites his five closest friends and detective Benoit Blanc to his private island mansion, the Glass Onion, to participate in a “murder mystery.”
Stars: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista
Director: Rian Johnson
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 140 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  As much as the penny-pinching algorithms may tell the heads of movie studios that only established property franchise fare does well at the box office in this more restrictive movie-going environment, I still have a feeling that viewers crave more original work than the tired, conventionally familiar films arriving in theaters. After all, you can see the numbers for superhero movies, and long-running series start to dwindle and crack, leaving room for new material to have the breathing room it did in the late ’90s and 2000s. The timing couldn’t be better.

It’s partly why 2019’s Knives Out was such sweet relief, and I think it set the stage for what was to come, even though it came out pre-pandemic. Here was a film packed with stars in an old-fashioned murder mystery chock full of trickery and misdirects. Fun to see with a large audience, it provided the same adrenaline rush of the superhero movie without having that dull sameness of knowing what to expect at each turn. A box-office hit that nearly founds its way to a nomination for Best Picture, it still landed writer/director Rian Johnson a justified nod for Best Original Screenplay. Further, Johnson and star Daniel Craig had worked to create such a memorable character in Southern detective Benoit Blanc that both signed up for additional features in a new deal with Netflix.

The second Knives Out Mystery featuring Blanc, Glass Onion, has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year for Netflix. The streaming service has chosen to release it for a week in theaters before its debut later in December. This gives audiences wanting that in-house experience the opportunity to get off the couch and make it happen, while others can hedge their bets on not having plot elements spoiled for them. Rest assured, you’ll get nothing from me but the bare minimum of details. While Johnson’s follow-up isn’t as delicately weaved as his original, it’s another fun nut to crack because of an entire production overly eager to please.

As the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, four friends receive a puzzle box from their friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton, Alita: Battle Angel), which, when opened, contains an invite to their yearly gathering at whatever exorbitant paradise retreat he has planned. Friends since their early days before they were successful, they each owe some debt to Miles, or perhaps they are in debt to Miles – it’s not clear at first. Two more boxes have turned up at the doorsteps of Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe, The Glorias), Miles’s former business partner recently unceremoniously bumped out over a dispute on the future of the company, and Benoit Blanc (Craig, No Time to Die), the legendary detective who had been lamenting his boredom to a quartet of cameo-ing celebrities playing themselves (the first four of many either appearing onscreen or shamelessly name-dropped throughout as a running joke). 

Arriving on the island, online influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista, My Spy), fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson, Mother’s Day), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express), and governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn, A Bad Moms Christmas), acquiesce to their gauche hosts’ every whim, fawning over his theories and tacky tastes while ignoring how out of touch he is with the real world. Many monetarily benefit from his support, so why upset the apple cart? Andi isn’t there to make nice, though and takes every opportunity to stir up trouble. The observant Blanc mostly sits back in the sun and, like most good mystery sleuths, happens to be listening in on conversations that reveal more information than they should.

A series of events place a dead body on the ground and cast one party member as the murderer. Clues point to them, but an extended flashback fills in plot holes we’d noticed in the movie’s first half. This is when Johnson finally turns on the zest in Glass Onion and makes the film start to zing forward. Until then, it’s been a formal gathering of unlikable snooties demonstrating why they should be the ones to get the axe first – we aren’t sure who deserves it most. Johnson wisely focuses the flashback on an interesting character and takes the film in a direction I didn’t see coming. There are some subtle elements of cheating, and eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot one huge clue that gets contradicted almost immediately. This is one place where watching the movie at home may extend the mystery a while longer. Watching it on the big screen made this clue stand out like a spotlight was shining on it.

Mostly, Glass Onion’s enjoyment comes down to the cast, and for all of the hoopla surrounding the casting, Johnson has gathered the right mix of talents for this dish. Craig’s original creation for Knives Out was smooth and fun, with his accent dripping like molasses. In Glass Onion, he’s leaned in even further, which didn’t always work for me. Now, the accent is ‘seyw theyyywick Iowa hahd a hud tyme taykewin heym seeereuuuslee”. Kudos to one major reveal (with the aid of another acting cameo) that gives Blanc some personal backstory. Norton goes a bit over the top, as only Norton can, and Hudson is quite fun as a ditzy designer that had to be drawn a bit from Paris Hilton.

The film hinges on Monáe’s performance, and that’s all I can say. I had heard the same thing going in and was just as frustrated as you are by the lack of additional info. Trust me when I tell you, you’ll be glad to know as little as I did. Monáe continues to be someone you want to see more of onscreen, and Glass Onion is another level up in a career ascent that has been steady but not so rapid that it blows up before she’s ready. It’s the trickiest part in the film and, like the Ana de Armas character in the original, almost the entire crux of the evening depends on what you think of them. 

Denouements are the satisfying conclusions of the murder mysteries created by celebrated mystery authors and screenwriters. As strong as Glass Onion is, I felt its finale doesn’t have quite the bite it wants. Or I wanted. There’s some convenience included in the ending that felt out of alignment with the orchestration of the work, and I’m not sure if the way that Johnson had crafted the screenplay if he’d have ever gotten to a perfect conclusion. You’ll want to take a bite out of this Glass Onion, though, because the Knives Out Mysteries are just getting started, and this is a fine follow-up to a stellar opener.

Movie Review ~ Enola Holmes 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Now a detective-for-hire, Enola Holmes takes on her first official case to find a missing girl as the sparks of a dangerous conspiracy ignite a mystery that requires the help of friends – and Sherlock himself – to unravel
Stars: Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Louis Partridge, Susie Wokoma, Adeel Akhtar, Helena Bonham Carter, David Thewlis, Sharon Duncan-Brewster
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 129 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In early 2020, things could have turned out quite differently for the first Enola Holmes adventure. Initially set to be distributed theatrically by Warner Brothers, when the global pandemic’s lasting impact was just being understood, the studio quickly saw the writing on the wall and sold off the property to Netflix. The streaming service then sat on the movie through the summer and packaged it up to deliver it in August, riding the wave of star Millie Bobby Brown’s success coming from Stranger Things. The resulting success of the film was due not just to that timing but also to its overall quality and care for its characters. Based on a series of books by Nancy Springer, with Netflix now owning the rights to future sequels and interested in maintaining a good relationship with star/producer Brown, a sequel was planned and shot in short order.

The resulting film, somewhat uncreatively titled Enola Holmes 2, is again debuting during the fall season at the perfect moment between the finality of summer hits and the onslaught of fancy-schmancy Oscar bait. Reuniting the entire original cast (minus unavailable Sam Claflin, whose Mycroft is barely mentioned) and director Harry Bradbeer, it’s mostly more of the same in this follow-up, and that’s good news for everyone involved, including the viewers. Jettisoning an established Springer manuscript in favor of an original tale, writers Bradbeer and Jack Thorne (How I Live Now) drew inspiration from actual events, giving the film a slight edge over the more rambunctious plot of the first.

Shortly after we last saw Enola Holmes (Brown, Godzilla: King of the Monsters), the teenage sister of world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill, Zack Snyder’s Justice League), she set up her detective agency but hasn’t had nearly the same success as her more famous brother. She’s about to close her doors when a young factory girl knocks and asks for assistance in finding her “sister,” who has gone missing. Tracking down the girl will lead Enola into a web of blackmail and schemes involving members of high society and crisscross with a case that Sherlock has been working on. Together, they uncover a sinister new opponent with their sights set on Sherlock, who doesn’t mind leaving a clue or two for his sister.   

In addition to Brown and Cavill and the always clever Helena Bonham Carter (The Lone Ranger) as their rabble-rousing mother, Bradbeer has brought back fun supporting players Susie Wokoma as jujutsu teacher Edith and Louis Partridge (Paddington 2) as Tewkesbury, a potential love interest for Enola. New cast members fit in nicely, including David Thewlis (Wonder Woman) calling on his nasty side to pursue the Holmes siblings, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Dune) as an “inside woman” helping Enola solve her case.

You’d rarely want to mash two sequels together to be one long movie, but the two Enola Holmes films (so far) would make a tremendous four-hour-long sit some cozy Sunday. As we head into the Thanksgiving weekend, consider Enola Holmes 2 and its predecessor as the perfect combo to relax with after that big turkey dinner.

Movie Review ~ Christmas with You

The Facts:

Synopsis: Feeling career burnout, pop star Angelina escapes to grant a young fan’s wish in small-town New York, where she not only finds the inspiration to revitalize her career but also a shot at true love.
Stars: Freddie Prinze Jr., Aimee Garcia, Deja Monique Cruz, Zenzi Williams, Lawrence J. Hughes
Director:  Gabriela Tagliavini
Rated: NR
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  Watching Christmas with You is a bit like opening your refrigerator after having the family over for a big dinner the night before and perusing the leftovers of the homemade meal sealed tight in Tupperware. The food has retained its flavor and warms up fine, but it doesn’t taste as good as it did in the first round. Ultimately you start to pick at it before soldiering through to clean your plate and not create waste. You wouldn’t go back for a second helping, but the meal served its purpose, and the indigestion isn’t too terrible. 

A week after Netflix released the Lindsay Lohan-led Falling for Christmas, the streaming service delivers Christmas with You, starring another celeb two decades removed from being the headliner of feature films. Freddie Prinze Jr. was never what you would call a ‘bankable’ star but was a unique kind of heartthrob that boasted bad boy looks but a cheerily non-threatening disposition. Married for over twenty years to fellow former teen star Sarah Michelle Gellar (who recently popped up in Do Revenge), Prinze has always excelled at playing a nice guy, and moving into ‘dad’ mode was an inevitable transition he would be a natural at.

In Christmas with You, Prinze is a widowed high school music teacher with a daughter (Deja Monique Cruz) preparing for her quinceañera during the busy holiday season. He’s also occasionally been plunking away at a Christmas song, an old habit from playing piano with a band. An active social media user, his daughter Cristina is a massive fan of pop star Angelina (Aimee Garcia, RoboCop) and posts a message to Instagram singing one of her idol’s songs and adding a personal note about wanting to meet her.

Luckily, Angelina, feeling the creep of time and newer talent nipping at her heels, is scrolling through at the right moment and is touched by this message. Especially hitting home is both Cristina and Angelina lost their mothers at a young age. When Angelina is asked to record a Christmas song for an upcoming gala instead of singing her old hits, she panics and hightails it out of town with her assistant Monique (Zenzi Williams, Black Panther) in tow. Remembering Cristina’s video and that she lives a few hours away, she impulsively directs Monique to drive them to the tiny town where she’ll make Cristina’s wish come true, find her song, and discover love when she least expected it.

If you’ve seen Marry Me, the Jennifer Lopez/Owen Wilson romance from earlier in 2022 (and, honestly, what are you waiting for?), you already know the central romantic entanglement that follows and even some of its resolution. While that film was a not-so-subtle riff on 1999’s Notting Hill, Christmas with You has some striking similarities with the Lopez vehicle, down to supporting players that get in the way of our leads making their love connection. Not that there is an extreme electric current between Garcia and Prinze; in all honesty, when they start making goo-goo eyes at one another, it feels like they are simply going with the script and not from emotion. If anything, both actors work better, displaying their emotions in scenes with Cruz. 

Anytime you have a plot centered around a “mega-talent,” you want that actor/actress to shine, and Garcia struggles with convincing us that she’s been an international star since she was a pre-teen. Acting-wise, she’s charismatic, but anytime music or dancing is involved, you can see the nervous energy sideline her. In several scenes, Prinze (I Know What You Did Last Summer) also looks a little uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because he towers over Garcia and has to turn his head almost at a 90-degree angle to talk to her when they sit next to one another. There’s also a strange scene where director Gabriela Tagliavini has her two leads adjourn from the warmth of indoors to have a serious conversation sitting outside…while it’s snowing.

As flimsy as it is, I find it tough to want to dismantle Christmas with You too much. The representation showcasing Latino talent in front of and behind the camera is essential and should be encouraged more than anything. You’ve seen worse Christmas movies on other networks, but one does wish this had slightly more going for it. It will do to have on as you decorate your tree or bake your first batch of cookies.    

Movie Review ~ Falling for Christmas

The Facts:

Synopsis: A newly engaged, spoiled hotel heiress gets into a skiing accident, suffers from total amnesia, and finds herself in the care of a handsome, blue-collar lodge owner and his precocious daughter in the days leading up to Christmas.
Stars: Lindsay Lohan, Chord Overstreet, George Young, Jack Wagner, Olivia Perez, Alejandra Flores, Chase Ramsey, Sean Dillingham, Antonio D. Charity
Director: Janeen Damian
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Up in my neck of the woods, the weather hasn’t quite gotten frightful, but the holiday movies are arriving, and so far, I am happy to report that they are indeed delightful. Our first present under the Christmas tree is this much-anticipated Netflix film I’ve been waiting for almost since last December. I may even say that I’ve been waiting for it for longer than that because Falling for Christmas isn’t your run-of-the-mill factory-produced offering but a welcoming back of sorts for a star we haven’t seen for some time, Glee’s Chord Overstreet. Nah, I’m kidding. While Overstreet is the male lead of this well-produced treat, you’re here to read about the return of LiLo herself: Lindsay Lohan.

Getting her start in the soap opera Another World before the age of 10, Lohan made a name for herself in the solid 1998 remake of the Disney classic, The Parent Trap. Her real superstardom would be locked in when Mean Girls was released six years later, but just as quickly, the pressures of having to deliver would push her in dangerous directions. With parents more interested in being stars themselves, Lohan essentially had to go it alone. The missteps we all made growing up were, for her, the subject of gossip magazines and the Hollywood rumor mill. Everything we experienced in private she went through on movie sets. By 2013, she had earned the reputation of an unreliable commodity, valued more for her crash-and-burn potential than anything else. What has everyone always said about her through it all? Her talent was undeniable.

Lohan has spent the past few years slowly building up her brand again, including signing a deal with Netflix for several feature films. The first picture in that package is Falling for Christmas, and right out of the gate, Lohan has a winner on her hands, a movie tailored to her talents and contoured to the charm that made her loyal fans fall for her all those years ago and stick by her side. Even better? While Falling for Christmas could undeniably be lumped into those annual Hallmark-y/Lifetime-ish holiday films that feature key elements (a red dress, cups of hot cocoa, carols, one big kiss at the end), Jeff Bonnett and Ron Oliver’s script has loftier ambitions.

Beauregard Belmont (soap star Jack Wagner) has made the ski resort experience a luxury destination for those who want to hit the slopes in style. All the comforts of home are elevated, and his Instagram-ready accommodations are growing in popularity with each passing season. That’s great news for him, but it spells tough times for Jake Russell’s North Star Lodge in Summit Springs. A family-owned business gifted to him by his late wife’s father the North Star Lodge is seeing their reservations for Christmas dwindle, losing customers to Belmont’s fancier digs. Jake (Overstreet) is doing his best to make ends meet but he’s starting to come up short.

As the film opens, Jake meets with Belmont to find a compromise so that both businesses may thrive. Still, Belmont has other things to worry about, namely finding a job for his daughter Sierra (Lohan), who is about to be engaged to vain influencer Tad (George Young, Malignant). Tad has no sooner put a ring on it at the peak of a snowy mountain than Sierra is falling down the side of said mountain, bumping her head and forgetting who she is. Luckily, she’s rescued by Jake and winds up waiting for her memory to return at his lodge, helping and getting to know his young daughter (Olivia Perez, In the Heights) and mother-in-law (Alejandra Flores). One guess what happens the more time the widower and amnesiac heiress spend together at a cozy inn at the most festive time of year?

Poking holes in a block of Swiss cheese like Falling for Christmas is pointless. Lohan’s character is a Paris Hilton type, and if she went missing, I doubt she’d be left unaccounted for as long as Lohan is (then again…). It’s always hysterical how easily movies think amnesia can come and go, with memories jumping in and out at will. Lohan keeps the film bright and bubbly, with that soft, husky voice back into its higher register (not down in the deep smoker’s well it had dropped to) and her eyes sparkling and ready to have fun. There’s a twinkle in Lohan’s smile and spirit we haven’t seen in some time, and that vibrancy goes a long way in making Falling for Christmas sit right. 

Credit also must go to director Janeen Damian for surrounding her star with a strong cast and production. It feels like the “good” Netflix money has gone into it, with the Utah-filmed movie giving off an authentic vibe. It helps that it was filmed last November when it was visibly cold and not in the Spring like most are when they are forced to rely on foam snow to cover the trees. Overstreet has a winsome hangdog look, but he’s incredibly winning as the right guy for Lohan’s character. I must also give significant kudos to Perez for landing on the tolerable scale of child actors – so many kids in similar-themed movies can torment you with their cutesiness. 

We’re only in the second week of November, but it’s never too early to welcome a little holiday cheer into your heart, which is why Falling for Christmas is such a pleasure. I had my fingers crossed this would be as warm and pleasing as it was; that it turned out to be high-quality was the curled bow on top of it all. Lohan could have an entirely new career as the Queen of Christmas if she wanted, and ooo, would I love that! But if this is the only holiday outing we get with her, it’s a jolly one!

Movie Review ~ The School for Good and Evil

The Facts:

Synopsis: Best friends Sophie and Agatha find themselves on opposing sides of an epic battle when they’re swept away into an enchanted school where aspiring heroes and villains are trained to protect the balance between Good and Evil.
Stars: Sophia Anne Caruso, Sofia Wylie, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Flatters, Kit Young, Peter Serafinowicz, Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron
Director: Paul Feig
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 148 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As the story goes, author Soman Chainani grew up watching Disney movies on the small TV his family owned. All that he knew of fairytale lore and legend, he learned from watching these celebrated (but often, uh, Disney-fied) retellings of classic stories passed down throughout time. When Chainani was in college, he was exposed to the origins of his favorite fairy tales as he read the works of authors like The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen. Dark and twisted messages regarding morality and conscience permeated these tomes, surprising Chainani, who was used to seeing the characters refracted through a much more sanitized lens.

Eventually, Chainani would pen the 2013 novel The School for Good and Evil blending his childhood memories and college learnings. A worldwide bestseller, The School for Good and Evil spawned five sequels, each earning praise from critics and readers for their creative narrative and world-building. All present to the bookworm as hefty reading assignments, with the first novel coming in around 550 paperback pages. It’s no wonder that at two hours and twenty-eight minutes, director Paul Feig’s new Netflix film based on that novel is epically long and respectably ambitious.

A sprawling chronicle of the School for Good and Evil, we’d be here forever if I were to attempt the kind of plot analysis I usually do. Hence, skimming the surface for the essential highlights of the episodic fantasy is helpful. Twin brothers Rhian & Rafal (Kit Young) represent the Good and Evil that exist in the world. Locked in constant brotherly battle, one cannot live without the other, and Good always seems to triumph over its more enterprising counterpart. When Evil makes a play for control, it creates a schism that sets the two factions at odds, and their School is truly divided between the Evil (aka the Nevers, who don’t get a happy ending) and the Good (or the Evers, who we all know live happily ever after).

Sometime later, in the village of Gavaldon, two best friends, Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso, Broadway’s Beetlejuice) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie), are intelligent teens seen as outcasts for their desire to want something more than their poor provincial lives. Sophie sees herself living in the pages of the dreamy fantasies she picks up from her local bookstore, while Agatha has the gift for mixing potions and other witchy business. It’s Sophie’s dream to go to the School for Good and Evil, and when a wish cast into a special tree comes true, she winds up bringing Agatha along. However, things don’t go as planned, and when it’s time to be placed in schools, Sophie gets dropped into the Evil School and Agatha the Good.

The bulk of the film follows the young ladies as they try to prove to the headmaster (Laurence Fishburne, The Mule) and Deans in both schools, Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron, Bombshell) and Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington, Django Unchained), that they need to be switched back. Yet the more they stick around, meet their fellow students, and explore the powers they come to harness, the more they see that perhaps the selection process wasn’t so flawed after all. When a handsome prince (Jamie Flatters) comes between them, friendship is tested, as is loyalty to the true spirit of goodness that exists in us all.

Starting with Bridesmaids in 2011, director Feig has consistently created movies centered around women who feel inclusive of everyone. He’s directed big-budget entertainment before, but nothing approaches the level seen in The School for Good and Evil. Visually, the movie is dazzling with special effects that seem to spring out from the screen with vibrant colors and a shimmer. It’s restrained enough not to feel like the actors are living in a cartoon but fantastical in composition to place you in a world far removed from anything you’ve seen before. The clothing may be a bit costume party at times but complemented with interesting make-up (one startling transformation at the end is mighty impressive), it tends to work with cohesion. A lesser director could let all of these technical elements get in the way of the story, but Feig knows how to achieve a measured balance.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some heavy hitters like Theron, Washington, and Fishburne to rely on, either. While the stars are legitimate supporting players in contrast to Caruso and Wylie’s leading roles, each leaves a distinct impression while onscreen. Despite giving off mega Wicked vibes throughout (try to put that musical out of your brain until that arrives in 2024), the two competing magic-makers are matched well and should each find a nice fanbase out of their work. Caruso was a powerhouse onstage when I saw her in Beetlejuice, but it can come off a bit too knowing here. Wylie’s character is designed to be likable, and it’s not hard for the actress to come out on top either.

With more books to adapt, I’m hoping this isn’t the last visit to the School for anyone involved. Being so episodic, I’m curious why this wasn’t made into a straight series for Netflix because four episodes would have allowed the story to move along at a slightly less breathless pace. I’m guessing the star salaries worked out better for a longer film, but there were more nooks and crannies of School I would have liked to explore. As presented, attending The School for Good and Evil is an excellent elective homework assignment.

Movie Review ~ Luckiest Girl Alive

The Facts:

Synopsis: A sharp-tongued New Yorker who appears to have it all is invited to tell her side of the shocking incident that occurred when she was a teenager at a prestigious prep school.
Stars: Mila Kunis, Finn Wittrock, Chiara Aurelia, Scoot McNairy, Thomas Barbusca, Justine Lupe, Dalmar Abuzeid, Alex Barone, Carson MacCormac, Jennifer Beals, Connie Britton
Director: Mike Barker
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  All of us are running from our past; at least, that’s what the narrator of Jessica Knoll’s 2015 bestseller ‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ tells the reader at the beginning of her story. It turns out that Ani has good reason to want to leave her former life behind, but it takes a few hundred pages and a narrative you don’t always trust to get the full details out into the open. It makes for good reading, and it’s easy to see why the movie rights for the book were snapped up quickly. Like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, other page-to-screen adaptations her novel was compared to, Knoll’s work reads like a screenplay already. Maybe that’s why the author was the most obvious choice to bring her work of fiction, based in small parts on her personal experiences, to life.

Carrying far more clout and sophistication than your average pulpy thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive benefits from Knoll maintaining control of her work and making the creative edits that helped the piece transition to Netflix. It also has found a perfect star in Mila Kunis (Bad Moms), an actress that has long circled the edge of the A-List with consistency, nearly flirting with an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Black Swan but has yet to find the film that opens that elusive door. I’m not sure this is the film to unlock that access, but it again shows an actress with edge and, more importantly, a range that compels you to keep watching.

Life is good, finally, for thirtysomething Ani Fanelli. Her wedding to Luke (Finn Wittrock, Deep Water) is coming up quickly, her years of dedication writing scintillating columns for LoLo Vincent’s (Jennifer Beals, The Bride) publication are paying off with a planned promotion, and a fractured relationship with her mother (Connie Britton, Breaking) is as mended as it’s been in years. However, there’s a small fissure that needs to be addressed before it becomes bigger. A filmmaker has asked Ani to participate in a documentary about the school shooting she survived over a decade earlier. 

Thinking about the tragedy brings up faces and situations she deliberately compartmentalizes for her well-being. At the time, questions arose if the young Ani (Chiara Aurelia, Fear Street Part Two: 1978) was somehow involved or knew about the shooter’s intentions in advance due to spoiler-territory circumstances I won’t reveal here. When a former classmate attempts to bait her into participating in the film by re-opening old wounds and suspicions, Ani must choose whether to confront a looming trauma of her past she’s moved on from and risk her future with Luke. To not speak up would mean she’d continue to repress what happened and stand falsely accused of a horrific crime. Or maybe there’s another reason why Ani doesn’t want others to dig too far into her past, where old skeletons tend not to want to stay buried forever.

To the credit of Kunis, Knoll, and director Mike Barker, the soapiness inherent in much of Luckiest Girl Alive doesn’t play as such in the finished product. Instead, it moves like a locomotive and keeps the viewer on their toes, so you aren’t ever entirely sure whom to trust. Maybe it’s because we’ve been conditioned to never take for full face value what a steely-voiced narrator is telling us, especially when there’s a scene where a teacher blatantly takes about the concept of the “unreliable narrator” and its effect on narrative writing. Kunis takes to the role nicely, enjoying playing the hard and soft side of the adult Ani while Aurelia navigates through challenging scenes of trauma that were hard to watch.

For most of the film, I kept wishing there was more of a spark between Kunis and Wittrock until I realized that may have been the point all along. Ani tells us early on that her goal was to trick him into the fact that she was a certain kind of girl. You believe she has feelings for him, but she’s also forgotten who she is along the way, so the emotions aren’t honest enough ever to be true. Perhaps that’s just a way of swatting away the lack of chemistry between the actors, but it winds up working well. Aside from a ghastly wig (why I ask you??), Britton is fantastic fun as Ani’s boozy mother who puts social status before maternal care. In minor roles, I enjoyed Scoot McNairy (Blonde) as a teacher young Ani warms to, and Beals is especially noteworthy as a tough-as-nails boss that still has a guard to let down for those she takes a liking to.

We’re at the point of this post-pandemic/lockdown where I’m starting to see movies arrive on streaming that I wish to be given full theatrical releases first. Luckiest Girl Alive had a brief run in some theaters but not the high-profile one that it likely deserved. It should play nicely on Netflix and be in the top watch group, but the work from Kunis and others is so good that it shouldn’t be a film that debuts and fades after a weekend. I’m also encouraged by the strong screenplay Knoll delivered on her first attempt and the confident direction from Mike Barker. This new release thriller is a solid watch with a great closing line delivered with razor-sharp precision by Kunis.

Movie Review ~ Mr. Harrigan’s Phone

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Mr. Harrigan sadly passes away, Craig discovers that not everything is dead and gone and strangely finds himself able to communicate with his friend from the grave.
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien, Thomas Francis Murphy, Peggy J. Scott
Director: John Lee Hancock
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Enough Stephen King has been discussed on this site over the years that readers should be aware of how much I admire the author and save much of my guilty pleasure watches for his lesser-liked films.  (I’m looking at you, The Lawnmower Man and Graveyard Shift…)  I’ll always go to bat for King being one of the best storytellers out there, but with such a focus on getting inside the inner workings of his characters, I can see how his novels might not easily make the transition to the big (or small) screens.  It takes a particular hand to adapt the work, and, as we’ve seen from the flops, it helps to have King’s support as you do it.

When you hear the name Stephen King alongside Blumhouse Productions and Ryan Murphy, a particular kind of “Stephen King movie” starts to develop in your mind.  I can’t say that I blame Netflix for leaning into that in their marketing of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, writer/director John Lee Hancock’s film based on the novella from the 2020 short story collection ‘If It Bleeds’.  The poster and the preview give more than a slight hint the film packs in the thrills and has the kind of shivers expected of an October release.  While admittedly, the movie does have its moments, it emerges as something far more elegant than just your average horror movie about a boy’s supernatural connection to his elderly dead friend. 

Losing his mother at an early age, Craig (Jaeden Martell, Knives Out) has grown up with his single dad (Joe Tippett), doing his best to handle the duties of both parents.  From an early age, he even reads aloud from the pulpit in church, Craig catches the eye of Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland, Backdraft), who requests his services three times a week, where he’ll pay him $5 to read to him from various works of classic literature.  This arrangement continues for years, with Craig showing up dutifully.  Over time, he gets life advice and becomes friendly with the man that prefers to stay isolated in his vast mansion and tend to his greenhouse flowers. 

Craig begins high school in 2003, and that’s when problems start.  A bully (Cyrus Arnold, 8-Bit Christmas, who by now has built a cottage industry playing them) targets him and creates trouble wherever Craig goes.  A kind teacher (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Silent Night) notices the conflict, but Craig is too worried about repercussions to make an official report.  All the cool kids, including a girl Craig is interested in, have the hot new tech at the time (the iPhone), and once Craig gets his, he’s in the sacred circle. 

It doesn’t protect him from his bully, though, or the onslaught of time.  Shortly after giving Mr. Harrigan an iPhone of his own, Craig’s reading companion dies suddenly, and in a symbolic gesture, Craig makes sure he is buried with it.  Not wanting to vent to his dad about the continuing school problems in case he pressures him to speak with school officials, Craig instead uses Mr. Harrigan’s still available voicemail to tell him about his problems.  Then he receives a response back… 

Without opening the gate on spoilers, it’s best to let you discover what happens next because a surprising amount of time is left in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.  And it’s not all that you might think.  Leaning more toward the Dolores Claiborne end of the King canon for thrills and less of the Carrie vibe, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone affords the viewer enough time to get to know the characters and see them as real people.  It helps us then understand their motivations when facing decisions and pivot points later on.  Hancock (The Little Things) directs with a gentle hand, stepping back so a veteran actor like Sutherland can share scenes with the sensitive actor Martell demonstrably is and make something out of it.

Viewers going in expecting an all-out horror film or one that builds to a shattering climax with chains rattling and windows clanging will be disappointed with Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.  However, if you know you’re in for a well-told tale, you can overlook a few of the film’s plot holes (battery life, who is paying the phone bill?) and settle back for one of the best Stephen King adaptations I’ve seen in years. 

Movie Review ~ Blonde (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a traumatic childhood, Norma Jeane Mortenson becomes an actress in Hollywood in the 1950s and early 1960s. She becomes world famous under the stage name “Marilyn Monroe,” but her on-screen appearances are in stark contrast to the love issues, exploitation, abuse of power, and drug addiction she faces in her private life.
Stars: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Fisher, Evan Williams, Toby Huss, David Warshofsky, Caspar Phillipson, Dan Butler, Sara Paxton, Rebecca Wisocky
Director: Andrew Dominik
Rated: NC-17
Running Length: 166 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  The more we tell the same story over time, the more it can grow and gradually change form. Fact becomes fiction, and fiction becomes the legend passed down like a campfire story from one generation to the next. Each culture has its lore, and even established social circles find it hard to rebound from its stars that burn bright and then fade. Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, is a glittering example of a celebrity that captured the attention of an adoring public for her beauty and has remained an elusive mystery in the decades since her untimely death from a barbiturate overdose at 36. Her marriages (and more famous affairs) have fueled books, movies, television, and even a stage show or two. Has anyone ever told the real story of Marilyn Monroe?

Those looking for ultimate truths aren’t going to find it in Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carole Oates’ 2000 novel Blonde. A bestseller and finalist for the Pulitzer prize, the author claims her work is pure fiction, and still, it’s hard not to read between the lines of the salacious details and align them with the meteoric rise of Monroe during the ’50s through to her demise. Already adapted in 2001 into a television mini-series, Blonde has been Dominik’s pet project for over a decade, with A-listers like Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain attached to star over that time. Ultimately, the film was made for Netflix, starring Ana de Armas (Knives Out), a surprising choice given her Cuban heritage. 

The de Armas casting aside, Blonde faced an uphill battle with viewers wanting a look after it was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating by the MPAA. Having a limited theatrical run to qualify it for awards consideration, the rating limits where it can play and who can see it while it plays in theaters. On Netflix, it’s fair game, and the rating doesn’t carry nearly the same stigma it did back when it was equitable to an X. It earns that rating through several hard-to-watch, graphic sexual acts of violence Monroe experienced and a few camera angles that are looking out from a, shall we say, nether region.

At 166 minutes, watching Dominik’s film is a commitment, but one that I think is essential in beginning your understanding of the Marilyn Monroe persona that Norma Jean took on to disassociate from her painful childhood. Later, we see that Norma Jean becomes the safe haven when “Marilyn” is taken advantage of by a series of perverse men, overwhelmed, or needs solace. When learned coping can satiate neither side any longer, Dominik starkly shows the destruction within an already fragile soul. That’s as hard to take in the first time we see a budding Monroe violated by a studio head when she thinks she’s auditioning as it is when she flies in to meet JFK only to be disgustingly objectified while others sit in the next room, doing nothing.

To deny the film is to disregard the exceptional work on display from de Armas. In Blonde, she’s giving the kind of haunted, go-the-distance, audience-challenging performance we ask for every year of a Best Actress and then are too scared to reward or acknowledge. And who cares if de Armas doesn’t “sound” totally like Marilyn Monroe? The voice is far better than the early reviews said, not to mention it’s eerie how much she resembles the real woman she’s playing. This film isn’t a Vegas revue being mounted, and the spirit inside the performance counts. Remember a few years back when Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Walk the Line while looking (and sounding) nothing like June Carter Cash? 

Identified as The Playwright (really Arthur Miller), Oscar-winner Adrian Brody (Clean) reminds us why he won that prize for The Pianist two decades ago. His scenes with de Armas are gold; quiet moments of a soft-spoken man and a woman used to people raising their voices at her are so touching and played with strength. I almost wanted the movie to be exclusively them chatting. Her marriage to The Ex-Athlete (Joe DiMaggio, played by Bobby Cannavale, Thunder Force) and complicated relationship with her mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County) are also examined, albeit with more of the histrionics that give the film more of a tabloid feel.

Flipping between black and white and color photography, as well as employing multiple aspect ratios, the small screen experience of Blonde can be more than a little dizzying. I’m betting the aspect ratio changing works better in theaters where the impact can be felt more, its point clearer. All these changes feel like gussied-up tricks instead of choices at home—distractions from the shiny object at the center that keeps us watching Blonde and de Armas. Recreating many of Monroe’s famous appearances but never going full-on into impression or parody, Dominik isn’t above jumping away into another scene right as we think we’re going to get a restaged musical number or see a familiar appearance. 

Though it’s already long (too long, some would argue), I was surprised at how much Dominik omits along the way. While mostly told chronologically, several leaps ahead can leave viewers unsure of where they are in the Monroe timeline. One moment, she’s a child being dropped off at an orphanage; the next, she’s posing for Playboy. What happened between that fateful day and her first appearance in the magazine that began to shape Norma Jean into the woman she’d become? Most of her relationships have no actual start and end. They just “are,” and that’s that. 

Bound to be an endurance test for some, a fascination for many, and potentially triggering to others, I found Blonde to be a powerful watch based solely on the performance de Armas was giving. It’s not hard to root for Monroe, but what the actress brings to it is a doomed vulnerability we don’t want just to protect but help her find the tools to do it on her own. Like most legendary tales in Hollywood, the details may be fuzzy, but the ending is always the same, and the final shot of Blonde is a telling reminder that even in death, some only saw the Marilyn Monroe they wanted.  

Movie Review ~ Lou

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thinking she’d put her dangerous past behind her, Lou finds her quiet life interrupted when a desperate mother begs her to save her kidnapped daughter.
Stars: Allison Janney, Jurnee Smollett, Logan Marshall-Green, Ridley Asha Bateman, Matt Craven
Director: Anna Foerster
Rated: R
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  Right now, there are some excellent options if you’re looking for movies led by Oscar-winning actresses kicking ass and taking names. In theaters, you can witness Viola Davis charging forward (possibly to another nomination) in The Woman King, inspired by the true story of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit formed to protect the kingdom of Dahomey in 19th Century West Africa. It’s exciting entertainment that delivers what it promises and creates an atmosphere where packed houses can unite, cheering on Davis and her well-conditioned female army.

An at-home release of The Woman King is still a few weeks off, but until that arrives, you can enjoy 2017’s Best Supporting Actress winner Allison Janney in a new Netflix thriller, alongside Jurnee Smollett. Taking the same unabashedly commercial route as The Woman King (hey, every movie doesn’t have to have its eye on the Oscar prize; at least not at first), Lou is formulaic as all get-out, too long, and packs on the cliches six layers deep. That said, it’s such an engagingly alive piece of cinema that delivers on exactly what it sets out to that it’s hard to fault it for being anything but its authentic self. 

A loner living on a small peninsula in the Pacific Northwest during the Reagan ’80s, Lou (Janney, I, Tonya) is about to do something very bad at the film’s start. We’ve already watched her travel into the nearby woods with her faithful dog and dig up a box containing documents and film that she tosses into her fireplace after she returns home. Just as she’s moving to the next stage of her plan, the film jumps back a few hours to introduce us to Hannah (Smollett, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and her young daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman, Shattered) who rent a home on Lou’s property. Behind on the rent to a landlady that doesn’t do extensions, widowed Hannah promises payment soon; they all need to get through an oncoming storm threatening to wash out the area first.

The storm isn’t the only bad news coming to the peninsula tonight. Another harbinger of destruction has arrived and made off with Vee, sending Hannah into a panic and over to Lou’s, hoping to use her phone. Cut off from the authorities but knowing the specter can’t get far with a child in tow, Lou and Hannah set off to get the girl back before she can be taken from the island and lost forever. Using her retained skills as an ex-C.I.A. member, Lou hunts down a hunter (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus) that is always one step away from them and ahead of her in anticipating the next movie. Through unforgiving woods and weather, Lou and Hannah work together as an odd couple enacting a rescue operation with only the barest amount of tools at their disposal.

Writers Maggie Cohn & Jack Stanley construct Lou from traditional elements that wouldn’t seem out of place in an old-time Western starring John Wayne. With Janney taking the Wayne role, had Lou been cast as a man, I think it would have been far less interesting and not as necessary a movie to make. Giving Janney this opportunity expands her range even further than we know it to be, allowing her physicality to work in tandem with her acting chops. Director Anna Foerster, a former cinematographer for Roland Emmerich, knows how to stage tension and finds the angles and methods to ratchet up pressure nicely. 

A late weeknight watch for me, I had planned to get a few minutes in of Lou before giving myself over to sleep and finishing it the next day. What began as “just ten minutes” turned into twenty, then forty, then seventy, then finishing it all. It grabs you early and keeps you close until crossing the finish line. Sure, the end gets a little far-flung with convenience but with populist entertainment like this, what’s the harm in giving the audience what they need? Keep this one handy for a Friday or Saturday night when you want something you’ll watch all the way through without stopping.