Movie Review ~ Heart of Stone

The Facts:

Synopsis: An intelligence operative for a shadowy global peacekeeping agency races to stop a hacker from stealing its most valuable and dangerous weapon.
Stars: Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, Alia Bhatt, Sophie Okonedo, Matthias Schweighöfer, Jing Lusi, Paul Ready, Archie Madekwe, Jon Kortajarena
Director: Tom Harper
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 122 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In the middle of the Barbenheimer mania, I went with friends to see Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One for a second time to see if that Tom Cruise big-screen blockbuster was as crazy action-packed as I remembered.  The first time was so enjoyably overwhelming that it became exhausting…so much so that I felt I needed to take it all in again, if only for that car chase scene alone.  That second viewing solidified how much I like catching these large-scale, full-throttle films on the most giant screen possible. 

While that film is strangely struggling to keep up with the movies about a doll and the creation of the atomic bomb (who would have thunk?), audiences wanting to stay in and stay cool have another option to explore from the comfort of their homes.  And it just so happens that it comes from the same production company that has handled multiple Mission: Impossible entries.  Although I would have loved to see Heart of Stone at the cinema (more than any recent Netflix original, it should have had a theatrical release), I was slightly surprised at how slick and entertaining this potential franchise kick-off was.  If this is the start of something new for Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), then the star has found a worthwhile new character to lay claim to.

Before its title sequence (have I mentioned how much I l-o-v-e a title sequence?), an extended prologue introduces us to MI:6 agent Rachel Stone (Gadot), a tech wiz teamed up with Bailey (Paul Ready), Yang (Jing Lusi, Crazy Rich Asians), and Parker (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) on an assignment high up in the Alps.  When their intended target gives them the slip, and they realize they’ve fallen into a trap set by mystery woman Keya (Alia Bhatt), the team scrambles to secure their asset before he makes it down the slope.  It’s an energetic way to open the film, and director Tom Harper (Wild Rose) demonstrates early on his ability to handle large-scale action sequences and blend them with doses of humor that don’t get moldy quickly.

Of course, there’s more to Rachel than a harmless tech wiz, but I’ll let the twists in the screenplay from Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder (Frozen II) reveal themselves while you watch.  It’s more fun that way because some of the curveballs thrown are nicely pitched and timed perfectly to catch you off guard.  In addition to the MI:6 crew, a faction of agents known as The Charter are finding ways into their version of the peacekeeping business via The Heart.  A new technology that connects all of the informational/media sources around the world, it can find anyone and even make future predictions on potential outcomes in brawls.  When Keya sets her sights on stealing The Heart, Rachel must protect and/or retrieve it before it falls into the wrong hands and is used against the people attempting to keep order.

One of those movies that is in a constant state of motion, Heart of Stone’s biggest asset is Gadot, who always feels like an excellent example of leading with authority.  Yes, Gadot has been in a stinker or two (how did Red Notice happen?  And how is it getting a sequel?), but she often has an instinct for what projects will be a good fit, and Rachel Stone is a character that is tailor-made for what she can bring to the table.  It shows off her dramatic side but highlights her physicality at the same time.  The action sequences may rely on stunt doubles (her double wears a shorter and stringier wig), but she’s incredibly active in many of the fight spectacles.  And it’s futile to deny her screen charisma.

Working with his longtime cinematographer George Steele (The Last Letter From Your Lover), Harper might not have the budget to stage Tom Cruise-level stunts, but he does fit in several impressively filmed scenes involving a car chase (this is the year of off-the-wall car chases!), two tense passages involving a parachute, motorcycle pursuits, and more than a few hand-to-hand combats and shootouts to keep you alert.  Most of the combatants are the nameless/faceless masses that filter through these action thrillers, but everyone gets their turn in the ring at some point.  Kudos to Gadot’s opening team (Ready, Lusi, and Dornan) for participating in the fun car chase scene through Lisbon!

Aside from Gadot, Dornan (Belfast) knows the assignment and isn’t afraid to go for extra credit, and Bhatt (RRR) keeps her cards close to her chest for as long as she can, it creates the appropriate amount of mystery and the tiniest dash of frustration we should feel for her character.  How can I forget to mention the likes of Sophie Okonedo (Catherine Called Birdy) & Matthias Schweighöfer (Army of the Dead) as members of The Charter who keep their eye on Rachel throughout?  Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo that almost made me do a spit-take.  The actor’s costume and wig are the campiest in the whole movie (two words: Prada linebacker), but their brief presence is eternally welcome.

This is enormous fun, and I appreciated that it doesn’t have a throwaway charm to give off the impression you have to check your brain at the door to get something out of it.  I wouldn’t even say you have to compromise with your own standards to like Heart of Stone, either.  Maybe I had set my bar too low initially, so all I could do was be impressed.  Then again, that doesn’t give the filmmakers and writers enough credit for crafting a spy thriller that consistently delivers surprises while promising the possibility of more to come.

Movie Review ~ Happiness for Beginners

The Facts:

Synopsis: A year after her divorce, Helen Carpenter signs up for a wilderness survival course. Through this experience, she discovers you must get lost to find yourself.
Stars: Ellie Kemper, Luke Grimes, Nico Santos, Blythe Danner, Ben Cook, Shayvawn Webster, Esteban Benito, Gus Birney, Julia Shiplett
Director: Vicky Wight
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Like some wild forest creature, I’m a person that lives by instinct and is guided by my sense of smell. If my gut tells me to walk confidently into a dark room and avoid the more inviting lighted pathway, I’ll do it. I’ll dodge places, people, and situations that give off a strange smell. Basically, I’m a walking sniff test. I can detect the good, the bad, and all the fakery in between. Passing the sniff test doesn’t need to apply to that jug of milk hiding at the back of your refrigerator or the fickle frenemy you can’t shake; it can also apply to what movies are out there for you to watch. 

Take a movie like Happiness for Beginners, which gives off the pungent aroma of a well-worn cable knit sweater just your size. It’s warm and inviting, goes with anything, and will keep nicely for years. While it may not look like much when you first see it and probably not your preferred style, once you get close and breathe in its simple folksy notes, you’re hard-pressed to want to throw it in the hamper immediately.

You’re now picturing me as some animated cartoon floating over the forest, swooning over this Ellie Kemper-led dramedy on Netflix, right?

OK, in all sincerity, Happiness for Beginners is simply a perfect example of a middle-of-the-road Netflix-acquired film that works because of its willingness to focus on the heart of the characters it follows rather than their flaws. It would be easy to take this adaptation of Katherine Center’s novel and exploit for laughs the tale of a recently divorced woman’s journey into the wilderness on a group hike for all the Eat, Pray, Camp comedy director/screenwriter Vicky Wight could mine. Yet comedy is often put on the back burner for moments of bonding in unexpectedly touching ways, opening the hikers (and viewers) to honest discoveries.

Signing up for a trek into the Connecticut wilds is a giant leap for Helen Carpenter (Kemper, Home Sweet Home Alone) because her life is pre-planned. Still adjusting to her divorce, she’s taking this time away from her life (including her younger brother Duncan, Alexander Koch) to regroup, and after a stop at her grandma’s (a too-brief cameo by Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams) she meets up with her group. Led by wired forest guide Beckett (Ben Cook, West Side Story), the troupe is a typically motley assortment of diverse personalities that would/could only be assembled in a movie.

Among them are the actor (an uproariously dry Nico Santos, Crazy Rich Asians) working on his craft, the chatty millennial (Julia Shiplett) using this as a not-so-silent retreat, an athletic alpha male (Esteban Benito, Brittany Runs a Marathon), an eternally optimistic psychologist Shayvawn Webster, and a zoned-out kook (Gus Birney) attempting to overcome trauma against “wood.”  They’re also joined by Jake (Luke Grimes, The Magnificent Seven), a childhood friend of Duncan’s who may or may not have signed up to be close to Helen at the last minute. As they descend into the beautiful backwoods (the film is genuinely a postcard for tourism of the state – kudos to cinematographer Daniel Vecchione), they’ll face challenges, both physical and emotional.

While you could likely predict how Happiness for Beginners will evolve, I was surprised at how well-paced this expedition was. What you’d think would be the climax arrives at a unique point, and Wight makes good use of the remaining time to fill in details that keep us interested. There were moments when I wondered if the movie would have worked better with two A-Listers instead of Kemper and Grimes, but both made strong cases for themselves by the time the credits rolled. Kemper is a gifted comic but has something special going for herself as a subdued dramatic actress. It’s nice to see that develop here, and working with Grimes brings out good moments for both.

Bound to be one of those Netflix watches you fire up on a sleepy Sunday and wrap up when you’ve downed your second cup of coffee, Happiness for Beginners should signal the start of a new phase in Kemper’s more serious stage. She wouldn’t have to lose what gave her a start, but there are decent dramatic chops to work with. They play a significant role in enjoying what is ultimately easy-to-take entertainment that offers a pleasant return on your investment.

Movie Review ~ Run Rabbit Run


The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman grows increasingly unsettled by her young daughter’s claims to have memories of another life, stirring up their family’s painful past.
Stars: Sarah Snook, Lily LaTorre, Damon Herriman, Greta Scacchi
Director: Daina Reid
Rated: NR
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Striking while the iron is hot is critical to longevity in the entertainment industry, so I can understand why Run Rabbit Run is coming out at this strange point in the summer. Lead star Sarah Snook has completed her run on HBO’s much-lauded series Succession, and her unpredictable performance over the seasons is widely regarded as key to why it became such a crave-able hit. I’ve yet to finish the series, but even from what I’ve seen and based on the previous performances Snook has given, I’m not shocked that her star is on the rise. I’m just amazed it took this long.

I worry that a film set up to boost her profile, like this slinky Run Rabbit Run, which has premiered on Netflix, is bound to get lost when pushed out during many summertime options. Coming out just as audiences are about to careen down the most prominent hill in the blockbuster rollercoaster ride known as July, how much room is there for a quiet ghost story mystery that takes its time to unravel its secrets? Is there room for something so small when viewers are offered IMAX-sized thrills down the block?

Divorced mom Sarah (Snook, The Dressmaker) is a fertility doctor and always keeps daughter Mia’s (Lily LaTorre) well-being at the forefront of her mind. Still dealing with the loss of her beloved father and being unable to unpack his boxes from her garage, she puts all her energy into work and her child. There’s a sense of running away from a past she’d like to forget, and how she reacts to specific names confirms pent-up tension that overflows quickly. With her ex-husband starting a new life with his girlfriend and suggesting he may want to bring Mia with them, the pressure rises again for Sarah, who thought their life had reached a tranquil place.

Around this time, Mia starts to exhibit strange behavior that ties back to Sarah’s family history, memories that begin to haunt them both and get very real the longer they are ignored. As Mia brings up people, places, and things she couldn’t know about, Sarah must confront a shadow following her since childhood and reexamine her actions from that time. When mother and daughter travel to Sarah’s childhood home in the remote Australian country, a dark energy that has been waiting for them is unleashed with deadly consequences.

Originally a vehicle for Elisabeth Moss, who worked with director Daina Reid on the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m thrilled that Snook wound up in the role. She’s capable of playing an exhausted do-it-all woman who had built a wall around a personal secret only to have that protection infiltrated when she least expected it. LaTorre is appropriately creepy as the little girl possibly in contact with the beyond, and while we’re talking about longevity, it’s great to see Greta Scacchi (Operation Finale) turn up as Snook’s dementia-plagued mother who isn’t as frail as she appears. The original script from author Hannah Kent is a change of pace for the historian, but it takes its time working toward a finale that is obvious from the start but arrived at with a great deal of earned spooky mood. And that’s all one should have at the top of their list for a commercial thriller like Run Rabbit Run. Does it earn all its dark shivers? Yes, completely.

Series Review ~ FUBAR

The Facts:

Synopsis: Luke Brunner and his daughter Emma have lied to each other for years, neither knowing that the other is a CIA operative. Once they both learn the truth and are forced to work together to take down an international terrorist, they realize they know nothing about each other.
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Monica Barbaro, Milan Carter, Gabriel Luna, Fortune Feimster, Travis Van Winkle, Fabiana Udenio, Barbara Eve Harris, Aparna Brielle, Andy Buckley, Jay Baruchel 
Director: Phil Abraham, Stephen Surjik, Steven Adelson, Holly Dale
Running Length: 8 Episodes (~55 minutes each)
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Once the king of the summer blockbuster, it’s been a bit touch and go for Arnold Schwarzenegger over the past decade. Without the sizable hit the A-lister used to knock out on the regular in the late ’80s through to his semi-retirement when he became governor of California in 2003, the actor’s resume has been all over the map. Since his return to acting, it’s hard to predict where he’ll pivot next. One minute he’s trying out deeper acting chops in thrillers like 2015’s Maggie and 2017’s Aftermath, and the next, he’s returning to familiar oft-trod territory like 2019’s shoulda-been-bigger Terminator: Dark Fate

Before falling victim to a similar trajectory as many of his peers from the same era (think Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis) and either going entirely into self-parody or cheapie shoot-em-ups filmed back-to-back-to-back in Slavic locales, Schwarzenegger has been thrown (or found) a lifeline in Nick Santora. A respected showrunner, writer, and executive producer on several crime series for network and basic cable, Santora is the creator of Schwarzenegger’s new 8-episode Netflix gamble FUBAR, and it’s a fast-moving, rollicking roll of the dice that has paid off handsomely for everyone involved. 

Feeling at times like a reworking of True Lies, Schwarzenegger’s 1994 collaboration with James Cameron in that it juggles the personal and professional life of a government agent, FUBAR expands on that film’s scope to incorporate more characters, subplots, and mini adventures that stretch across eight hours of entertainment. I don’t often review series because there’s pressure in that long of a binge, but I burned through FUBAR with minimal interruptions (sleep, the need for sunlight), and I easily could have sat through another few hours with Schwarzenegger and this well-assembled team. 

After years of dedicated service, undercover CIA agent Luke Brunner (Schwarzenegger, Terminator Genisys) is ready to hang up his spy gear and focus on winning back his ex-wife (Fabiana Udenio), who divorced him years earlier in part because of his lack of follow-through on promises to show up when his family needed him the most. His adult daughter Emma (Monica Barbaro, Top Gun: Maverick) is the apple of his eye, excelling at anything she sets her mind to and currently doing humanitarian work in underprivileged countries while her kind-hearted boyfriend (Jay Barucel, Blackberry) waits at home. Son Oscar (Devon Bostick, Words on Bathroom Walls) knows Emma is the son Luke always wanted but is trying to make something for himself with a app that is ahead of the curve.

Before Luke can officially sign out, he and his tech-savvy handler Barry (Milan Carter) are brought back in based on intel received that an agent stationed in Guyana is in grave danger of being found out. The agent is working with a rising extremist (Gabriel Luna, Bernie) Luke has a history with but never broke cover for, so it makes the most sense for him to go in and whisk the agent away before anyone is the wiser. Along with Barry and fellow operatives Aldon (Travis Van Winkle, Friday the 13th) and Roo (Fortune Feimster, Office Christmas Party), they high-tail it to South America, where Luke gets the surprise of his life.

If you’ve seen even one promo for FUBAR (which stands for, well, this), it’s no spoiler to reveal that the agent Luke has been sent to rescue is Emma, and the bulk of the series will revolve around the trust issues that spring up between father and daughter as they reconcile years of deception on both of their parts. Recruited out of college, Emma plays the nice and sweet girl for her family but is an expert agent that often exceeds her father’s capabilities. However, she doesn’t always possess his experience or expertise in diffusing a high-stakes situation. That friction yield results, though, and that, in turn, becomes a strong catalyst for agency leader Dot (Barbara Eve Harris, People Like Us) to insist the two work together to finish this last case.

Though written by a team of scribes and directed by several filmmakers, the eight episodes of FUBAR have a remarkably consistent tone throughout. It’s got all the makings of a summer blockbuster, just in an extended format that is only available through a delivery service like Netflix. Each episode ends on a solid cliffhanger, and while all are available on the same date, it would have been nice to see this series get the weekly release treatment that other streaming sites have been trying lately. I believe audiences would willingly chomp at the bit for the next episode to drop to see how things turn out.

Schwarzenegger the action star was always welcome, but I enjoyed it when the star would turn on his charming talent for wry comedy. He gets a fair shot at both and lands some terrific jokes. Yes, some of the action sequences feature an apparent stunt double, but you can’t fake quality line readings, and there were a few choice Schwarzenegger comebacks or deadpan reactions that I had to rewind to watch again. Surrounding himself with good comedians like Feimster (talk about knowing how to deliver a line!), Carter, Scott Thompson, Andy Buckley (Jurassic World), and Adam Pally (The To Do List) also help in that department.

FUBAR is a perfect series to binge over the Memorial Day weekend, a supercharged return to form for Schwarzenegger. By allowing the star to stretch his considerable muscles in a role that allows him time to play in the action sandbox but pauses long enough to provide him ample amounts of comedy, the creator and filmmakers have given viewers a surefire winner. 

Movie Review ~ Blood & Gold

The Facts:

Synopsis: Desperate to return home to his daughter in the final days of World War II, a German deserter finds himself caught in a battle against SS troops on a mission to uncover hidden gold.
Stars: Robert Maaser, Alexander Scheer, Marie Hacke, Jördis Triebel, Stephan Grossmann, Florian Schmidtke, Petra Zieser, Gisela Aderhold, Jochen Nickel, Simon Rupp, Roy McCrerey
Director: Peter Thorwarth
Rated: NR
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As summer draws near, it’s not uncommon to find movies with similar themes competing for the attention of a target audience. From Deep Impact and Armageddon to Volcano and Dante’s Peak, studios have shown they aren’t willing to blink when standing behind their features and hoping their project will emerge victorious for box office totals. Making money is one thing, but it’s sticking in the mind of viewers that counts. Plenty of people remember Armageddon over its crashing comet rival, while I’m not sure if anyone is rushing to defend with Volcano or Dante’s Peak (tough call…I give the edge to Dante’s Peak, though, for the love of Linda Hamilton). 

There’s a new face-off happening in 2023, albeit on a smaller scale, but it’s interesting to look at the similarities in subject matter between the two. After all, who could have predicted two riffs on the spaghetti western emerging from the foreign market set in the final days of WWII, pitting a gold-hungry evil Nazi SS squad against an opponent they initially underestimated? Barely a month after the gonzo glory of Finland’s Sisu zipped into theaters, another punchy action film is arriving on Netflix via Germany. While Blood & Gold may lay out a familiar mission, it goes about things in its original way.

Strung up from a tree and cruelly left for dead by a group of Nazi soldiers led by von Starnfeld (Alexander Scheer), German deserter Heinrich’s (Robert Maaser, 1917) last thoughts are of his wife and son killed in the war and the young daughter he was trying to get back to. Before the lights can completely fade, he’s saved by Elsa (Marie Hacke), who lives on her family farm close by with brother Paule (Simon Rupp) while they wait for the war to cease and her fiancé to return. 

As Elsa tends to Heinrich’s wounds, the Nazis continue toward a neighboring town they have targeted for a specific reason. They have intel that leads them to believe a significant stash of gold has been hidden, left behind by a Jewish family that the Nazi-sympathizing town leaders ousted before they were sent to the concentration camps. As the war concludes and allegiances are sketchy, amassing riches is the priority for the greedy, disfigured von Starnfeld and his wicked Sergeant (Roy McCrerey, All the Money in the World). There’s one problem; no one knows where the gold is. Or if they do (and they do), they aren’t going to give it up so easily. 

The next ninety minutes of Stefan Barth’s twist-filled script has plenty of surprises for the viewer, with the unpredictable subplot of the missing gold being the frothy icing on top of this German chocolate cake. Whereas Sisu primarily showed how one man could take on many, director Peter Thorwarth keeps numerous plates spinning simultaneously as Nazis and corrupt townsfolk get what’s coming to them in gruesomely staged battles. Even more than Sisu, Blood & Gold draws much inspiration from the tone and style of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds without becoming an outright copy of what that much-cited film achieved. 

A former stuntman, Maaser isn’t always the most compelling lead dramatically but does make for a solid knuckle-crunching action star, and that’s what he’s called on most to do. The dramatic heft of the movie rests with Hacke as a woman who survived the war, saw further trauma, and isn’t about to let these Nazi infiltrators make off with any reward for their crimes. Balancing hard-edged action with sensitivity keeps her performance and others around her grounded most splendidly. Several supporting characters that fill out the town are either comically arch or mustache-twirlingly evil – and both approaches work for the mood. 

Thorwarth’s last film was the deliriously good and impressively cinematic Blood Red Sky which could have quickly been released in theaters. That vampire on a plane movie kept building and building to a gnashing, gnawing frenzy, almost to the point where it was too much to take without standing up and pacing around (maybe it was good to watch it at home, after all?). Still, Blood & Gold takes a more metered approach to its suspense and lets things rise at a more natural boil. It manages to peak at the right moments, and while I thought it had one or two more endings than it needed, it’s impossible to leave unsatisfied.

Movie Review ~ The Mother (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: While fleeing from dangerous assailants, an assassin comes out of hiding to protect her daughter she left earlier in life.
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Joseph Fiennes, Omari Hardwick, Paul Raci, Lucy Paez, Gael García Bernal
Director: Niki Caro
Rated: R
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Like picking your favorite holiday or ABBA song, we all have our favorite ways to J.Lo at the Movies, right?  Some want their Jennifer Lopez experience to be a straight rom-com, and they’ll go right to the bona fide classics: The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, Marry Me.  Then some like a more serious Lopez and will pull Out of Sight, Parker, Hustlers, or Bordertown down from the shelf.  Lopez defenders will be waving around Angel Eyes, U Turn, and The Cell begging you to watch them (and you should).  As for me, please and thank you, give me the J.Lo that knows a pulpy audience-pleasing hit when she sees it: Anaconda, The Boy Next Door, and Enough.

Honestly, I’ve been waiting for Lopez to give us a movie in the same vein as Enough for years now, one that would show off her talent for serious drama while also delivering a blistering bit of action to juice the joints.  It took over twenty years (wow…), but she found the right team for the right project, and The Mother, streaming on Netflix and in select theaters, is blazingly good work from nearly all involved.  It’s unabashedly made for the most commercially minded viewer but makes good on every promised expectation and then some. 

At an FBI Safe House, a woman (Lopez, Second Act) is being interviewed by agents about her involvement with two nefarious arms dealers she had been romantically linked to.  Pregnant, afraid for her safety, and knowing the government agency won’t be able to protect her for long, she’s there not so much for shelter but to see how close her exes are to finding her.  As it turns out, closer than she ever thought.  A frightening attack on the house and an up-close run-in with Adrian (Joseph Fiennes, Hercules) prove that she will always be hunted for her involvement, even after she gives birth to her daughter.

Coerced into giving the girl up for adoption and vanishing for both of their protection, Mother (we never know her real name) retreats to a small town in Alaska where her only connection to the outside world is a local shop owner (Sound of Metal’s Oscar-nominee Paul Raci) and the FBI Agent (Omari Hardwick, Army of the Dead) she’s asked to keep her posted if her daughter is ever in any danger.  For twelve years, there has been silence.  Only messages with pictures give her an idea of how her daughter is faring with her foster parents.  The silence is broken when Hector (Gael García Bernal, Werewolf by Night) locates her daughter, forcing Mother out of hiding to shield the child she never knew from an onslaught of violence coming their way.

The slick screenplay by Misha Green, Andrea Berloff, and Peter Craig feels like it has a higher edge of sophistication to it (both Berloff and Craig have Oscar nominations within the last decade), and perhaps that’s why The Mother, in general, comes across like an above average action thriller.  Had it starred someone without the screen presence of Lopez, it might have been a simple streaming title easy to pass over, but anytime you add the multi-hyphenate artist to the mix, you can expect something special to come from it.  It’s good to see Lopez try this haunted persona on and find it fits so well.  There’s a raw chill to her, and it’s unwavering, even when confronted by Zoe (Lucy Paez), who is desperate to know more about the mother that left her when she was days old. 

Lopez is far and away the best performance in The Mother, but it’s a strong production overall.  While the script winds up casting her as a series of child cliches by the end, until that time, Paez is working on giving us a complicated kid that seeks answers and is seriously affected by not getting them.  It’s an approach I don’t feel like we’ve seen before, and I liked watching it develop.  Without giving too much away, something happens early on that makes Fiennes feel like more of a Bond villain than a ruthless assassin, but he is appropriately menacing when called upon.  Hardwick and Raci offer strong support as the men in Mother’s life, helping her get through each day.

The action sequences staged by director Niki Caro are often uniquely thrilling, demonstrating that Caro is a filmmaker with a rich visual language and is comfortable working in multiple genres.  More women need to be directing action films like this because if they are half as good as the films Caro and others like Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) and Gina Prince-Brythwood (The Woman King) are making, viewers are in for an upheaval in the same tired old boys club in the action thriller genre.

It’s almost impossible not to watch these streaming titles and wish you were viewing them in a theater.  As good as many theatrical features I’ve seen lately, The Mother is a strong Netflix title that could have been a good litmus test for them if they want to try a wide-release strategy for their titles before debuting them on their service.   Standing in uncertainty at the cliff of Summer 2023 with blockbusters on the horizon that may or may not pan out, it’s at least calming to know that The Mother has arrived and delivered.

Movie Review ~ Luther: The Fallen Sun

The Facts:

Synopsis: Brilliant but disgraced detective John Luther breaks out of prison to hunt down a sadistic serial killer who is terrorizing London.
Stars: Idris Elba, Cynthia Erivo, Andy Serkis, Dermot Crowley, Jess Liaudin, Lauryn Ajufo, Natasha Patel, Henry Hereford
Director: Jamie Payne
Rated: R
Running Length: 129 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Over twenty episodes between 2010-2019, star Idris Elba led audiences through the dark world of Detective Chief Inspector John Luther in the eponymous television series for the BBC. Tracking serial killers and other sordid criminals, Luther also dealt with demons from his past and a slinky psycho who became obsessed with him and took their cat-and-mouse game to terrifying extremes. As Elba’s fame began to heat up, there was little time for more Luther, and eventually, creator Neil Cross announced that the series was over. Ah, but you can’t keep a good DCI down, and now Cross and Elba have reteamed, returning for Luther: The Fallen Sun, a feature-length trek through another sadistic nightmare.

As we rejoin the world of DCI Luther, he’s promised a young mother that he’ll find the person responsible for the brutal murder of her son. The young man’s body was found among a group of deceased individuals, and we already know that David Robey (Andy Serkis, The Batman) is the mastermind behind it all. Still, just as Luther is getting close, his rival finds a way to send him to prison, allowing his devious game to continue. As more victims pile up and Robey toys with Luther stuck in a cell, Luther attempts to work through his old friend DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley, Octopussy) and current lead investigator DCI Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo, Harriet) before breaking out and doing it his way. The ensuing pursuit will test Luther’s limit beyond anything he’s encountered before because Robey is curiously one step ahead of them all.

For his part, Elba (Concrete Cowboy) slips effortlessly back into the recognizably comfy coat Luther sports and plunges back into his psyche. Nominated for four Emmys (and winning the Critics’ Choice Television Award, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance), this is truly the role of Elba’s career, and he knows it. I think Cross has come up with a dandy script too. Often tense and gruesome, frequently scary, because we identify Robey early on, it’s perhaps less of a puzzle than previous Luther chapters have been. I ultimately missed the crackle of Luther having a genuinely equal opponent or partner to work with. As strong supporting players, Serkis and Erivo do what they can, but something is missing in their limited time to develop. 

Ultimately, what keeps Luther: The Fallen Sun from rising too high is its director.  Jamie Payne is most notable for his work in television, and there’s an odd lack of energy as the film moves into its final act, just when it should be picking up its most significant momentum. It’s too bad, too, because there’s a nifty location set-up for Luther’s confrontation with Robey, but Payne stages it with such a clumsy hand that there’s never much excitement to draw from.

Four years was a long time to wait for another check-in with Luther, and I hope we don’t have to sit around as long for the next case to come in. Now that this feature has been produced by Netflix and streamed on the service, perhaps Elba can be talked into a few more films or a limited series again. For now, I’m grateful to bask in the warm rays of Luther: The Fallen Sun, even if it occasionally has a few clouds roll by.

Movie Review ~ We Have a Ghost

The Facts:

Synopsis: Finding a ghost named Ernest haunting their new home turns Kevin’s family into overnight social media sensations. But when Kevin and Ernest investigate the mystery of Ernest’s past, they become a target of the CIA.
Stars: David Harbour, Jahi Winston, Tig Notaro, Erica Ash, Jennifer Coolidge, Anthony Mackie, Faith Ford, Niles Fitch, Isabella Russo, Steve Coulter
Director: Christopher Landon
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 126 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Growing up, there were “movie theater” movies and “mall” movies. Movie theater movies were the ones that had a parking lot you had to hunt for a space for, bundle up (this was MN remember?) to and from your car, and sometimes have to wait outside in line to get your ticket. You would go to Mall movies sometimes on a whim between shopping at Spencer Gifts and likely after you gobbled down a calzone from Sbarro. When you left a Mall movie, you’d get swept right back up into the buzz of the shoppers, often easily forgetting what you just saw. Not necessarily the movie’s fault, but that’s why you chose a silly comedy or goofy horror film to see because it wouldn’t matter much by the time 90 minutes were over.

We Have a Ghost is a big-time Mall movie. It aims a bullseye at the heart of the nostalgia fans still clutching onto their Goonies T-shirts and Ghostbusters cartoon sleeping bags and doesn’t apologize. Though it doesn’t ever rise to the level of those classics, it makes a decent play for your attention over its too-long-running time by employing a lot of bells and whistles to keep your focus squarely on what it deems most important. Logic isn’t often welcome at this good-natured table, but then again, when has that stopped us from enjoying a harmless distraction in the doldrums of a February winter?

The Presley Family doesn’t know much about the rickety house they have purchased, only that they got a sweet deal on it, and they need it to start over again after dad Frank (Anthony Mackie, The Woman in the Window) lost their money in a pyramid scheme. Of course, we know from the opening shot that the previous tenants were sent running out in the middle of the night, screaming their heads off, running from some unseen entity that proceeded to shut the front door and turn the upstairs light off. It doesn’t take long for this apparition (David Harbour, Hellboy) to make himself similarly visible to sensitive youngest son Kevin (Jahi Winston, The Dead Don’t Die). Still, he’s seen enough not to let the transparent visage of a balding man in a bowling shirt scare him. 

The ghost, Ernest, can’t speak but can reach out and touch anyone he wishes, a power he uses sparingly but effectively. It’s eventually how the rest of the family comes to know him as well, with Frank attempting to monetize the haunted nature of their house, attracting the attention of ghost hunters, shoddy psychics (Jennifer Coolidge, Shotgun Wedding, in a glorified cameo), and a disgraced former CIA agent (Tig Notaro, Your Place or Mine) still desperate to prove the existence of spiritual entities. Of course, the real story is how Ernest became a ghost in the first place, and that’s when the adventure begins.

We Have a Ghost has that same awkward structure of those YA films we all grew up with in the 80s and early 90s in that it introduces one story but, around the halfway mark, morphs into something different. I won’t say precisely how it does this, but it feels like two markedly different features spliced into one. I liked them both in their respective halves, but I am not entirely sure they are successful as one completed film. In doing this, director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) essentially short-shrifts the big picture of both tales, sidelining most supporting players. It’s good that Winston and Harbour play so well together, with Harbour again showing impressive range with a predominantly silent character.

Running over two hours, the film drags during the middle portion, where it should be accelerating. The Coolidge section, while always welcome to see the actress, doesn’t add anything to the action but curdles like the filler it is. The character is there for another storyline to advance, but more efficient writing could have gotten that plot point where it needed to be without taking up more time. That Coolidge never returns is disappointing because if you’re going to use the actress, get your money’s worth at least.

Like most Mall movies, We Have a Ghost is bound to vanish from your mind in the same amount of time it would have taken you to push through the crowds on the escalator down to the first floor, past the pet store (oh cute, look at that dog!), across the promenade from Suncoast Pictures (dig that blue VHS of The Firm!) and out to the Camel Parking Lot (CameLot for newbies)…wait…what were we talking about?

Movie Review ~ Your Place or Mine

The Facts:

Synopsis:  Two long-distance best friends change each other’s lives when she decides to pursue a lifelong dream and he volunteers to keep an eye on her teenage son.
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Ashton Kutcher, Wesley Kimmel, Jesse Williams, Zoë Chao, Steve Zahn, Tig Notaro, Griffin Matthews, Rachel Bloom, Shiri Appleby, Vella Lovell
Director: Aline Brosh McKenna
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  Be honest. When you hear that Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher are starring in a romantic comedy together, you squinted your eyes a bit and thought, “Really? Those two?”  This is no knock on the talent of either Hollywood A-lister because both have demonstrated their talent throughout their decades in the industry. She’s an Oscar-winner and multi-hyphenate producer/mogul that is as good at finding material for others as she is for herself. He’s now known as much for his philanthropy as he is for his acting and less for the personal relationships that were the stuff of tabloid fodder.

Paired in a Netflix rom-com, though? It’s weird, right? Some stars you can picture teaming up and watching sparks fly, while others you could imagine joining forces to bring down a smarmy water company with expert legalese. In their new film, Your Place or Mine, premiering on Netflix on February 10, I regret to inform you that Witherspoon and Kutcher share some of the most awkward screen chemistry I’ve seen in some time.   With the same breath, I’m going to say that they are together so little in what is otherwise a delightful film that it hardly matters. The charm quotient boasted by both stars is through the roof, more than making up for the lack of heat, which winds up being beside the point.

Sharing a one-night stand twenty years ago helped Debbie (Witherspoon, Home Again) and Peter (Kutcher, Vengeance) realize they are better off as friends. Through stints in rehab, divorce, death, single-parenthood, jobs, etc., they have always been there for one another. Now living on separate costs, California-based Debbie is a helicopter mom to son Jack (Wesley Kimmel, yes, Jimmy’s nephew) and has long since put her dreams of becoming an editor on hold. A successful corporate fixer in NYC, Peter has little responsibility or accountability in his life, making it easier for him to fly out to CA and watch Jack while Debbie stays at his luxe condo to complete a necessary certification for her job.

Of course, swapping homes necessitates a somewhat swapping of lives, so Peter gets a taste of what it means to be a parent (in the general, Hollywood one-week, low-impact sort of way), and Debbie sees only the best parts of NYC where there is not a single item of garbage on the street. She’s quickly taken under the wing of Peter’s ex, Minka (a droll Zoë Chao, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), who introduces her not only to sophisticated Big Apple nightlife but a handsome editor (Jesse Williams, The Cabin in the Woods) she makes an instant connection with. As Debbie gets closer to her editor, Peter realizes his feelings for Debbie have always been more than he’s willing to admit, but he’s been afraid to lose his friend. Is it too late to make up for the last two decades?

Having been the screenwriter for works like 27 Dresses, The Devil Wears Prada, Laws of Attraction, and Morning Glory, writer/director Aline Brosh McKenna knows her way around the rules and regulations of Romantic Comedy 101 and, thankfully, steers clear of the pitfalls that can trip up lesser efforts. For one, gender roles are handily swapped but without any significant pains in the process. Instead of the woman being the one to bend over backward to help her male friend, the male is the one making the most sacrifices and starts his emotional journey first. There’s little of the loud shenanigans that turn a rom-com into a headache. McKenna doesn’t need to fill the film with laugh-out-loud moments to find the funny. Even a potential annoyance (Debbie’s Zen neighbor named, uh, Zen, played by Steven Zahn, 8-Bit Christmas) is handled gently.

That brings us back to that whole chemistry thing we were talking about. It’s not a spoiler to say that Witherspoon and Kutcher have little screen time together. It’s the nature of the film. Both have a good command of their segments, and I liked each of their confidants (Chao for Witherspoon, Tig Notaro, Together Together for Kutcher). Still, I was less enamored anytime the focus drifted to Kutcher’s character attempting to father this child he knew little about. That there is little resolution on this makes it even more phony feeling. 

Above all else, Your Place or Mine brings out the best in both stars, and, let me repeat it, they are so undeniably charming that you are willing to forgive anything that might otherwise be missing between them. It’s a harmless, uncomplicated evening’s worth of entertainment with the right amount of laughs and heart not to overstay its welcome.

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.