31 Days to Scare ~ Play Misty for Me (1971)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A brief fling between a disc jockey and an obsessed fan takes a frightening and perhaps even deadly turn when another woman enters the picture.
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills, John Larch, Jack Ging, Irene Hervey, James McEachin, Clarice Taylor
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  After seventeen years as an established star in Hollywood, by 1971, Clint Eastwood was looking to take more ownership of the work coming his way. Conquering television and film in several now-legendary high-profile projects had made him a household name, but Eastwood sought to try his hand behind the camera and be his own director. Forming his production company with the profits he made from the spaghetti westerns he churned out in Italy in the late ‘60s eventually allowed him to front the bill for a different type of movie audiences were accustomed to seeing. 

With 1971’s thorny The Beguiled yet to come out, a psychological thriller like Play Misty for Me might have seemed like a far reach for Eastwood on his first outing, but it turned out to be precisely what he needed to cut his teeth as director/star. Filmed practically in what would become his literal backyard (on location in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he would serve as mayor between 1986 and 1988), watching the movie today, you can see how modern films about obsessive love (think Fatal Attraction, Obsessed, or Swimfan) took key cues from Eastwood’s efficient playbook.

Eastwood (The Mule) stars as Dave Carver, an easy-going evening DJ with a fan who calls in nightly, asking him to “Play Misty” for her. When that same fan shows up after his shift at his local watering hole, he takes her home for the night, a one-night stand that gives Evelyn (Jessica Walter, Home for the Holidays) the wrong impression of his interest. Now, she keeps showing up unannounced at his sprawling (and not very secure) home by the ocean, ready to continue the relationship. At first, her advances seem pushy but sincere in their intent for something serious. However, when Dave clarifies that he is trying to rekindle a romance with former flame Tobie (Donna Mills, Nope), who has recently returned and is willing to give him a second chance, her true borderline nature and tendency toward violence is revealed.

Like most of these types of thrillers involving females stalking a male they can’t have, there comes a point when all the male must do is tell enough people the truth about what is happening, and the problem will be solved. By speaking up for his part of the crossed wires, he can get her help and, in turn, help himself out of an increasingly dangerous situation. Yet they never do. There is always a reason why they feel the need to keep secret, and it often comes with bloodshed. 

The screenplay from Jo Heims and Dean Riesner lets Eastwood’s character off the hook for far too long, allowing him to play a dogged semi-hero while Evelyn is a crazed schizoid (which, admittedly, she is, played beautifully by Walter), but it rarely takes him to task for his aloof silence. He ignores his new flame to placate Evelyn, then puts Evelyn off for Tobie and lets someone else entirely foot a horrific bill for that insult. It’s only during Play Misty for Me‘s tense finale that penance gets paid by all parties, and the result is, appropriately, satisfying.

For his first run behind the camera, Eastwood demonstrates how much he’s learned from watching the greats until then. (He even cast his frequent director, Don Siegel, as a bartender to have him close by!)  He nabs a nifty supporting cast (Clarice Taylor has a golden cameo as Carver’s no-nonsense housekeeper) and has a good eye for visuals. The movie meanders like early ‘70s films often do, taking its mellow time to move between action. Two long walks between Eastwood and Mills seem more like travelogues for Carmel-by-the-Sea than anything to do with the movie, and the infamously random sequence shot at the Monterey Jazz Festival can almost be skipped entirely.

Where would we be today without Play Misty for Me? Would Eastwood have gone on to direct so many memorable movies, winning multiple Oscars not just for himself but for the actors who starred in his films that came in under budget and on schedule? Walter was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work, teeing off a new stage of her career that kept her working until her passing in 2021. Now more than fifty years old, the film holds up well when the suspense kicks in and plays as an obvious model for the movies it has inspired since. Play it for the first time, or play it again. 

Movie Review ~ Fair Play (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An unexpected promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund pushes a young couple’s relationship to the brink, threatening to unravel far more than their recent engagement.
Stars: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, Sebastian De Souza
Director: Chloe Domont
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  For years now, I’ve been listening to the You Must Remember This podcast, a painstakingly well-researched look into “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” Hosted by Karina Longworth, the early episodes focused on various topics, but eventually, the spotlight was shone on a particular theme. Right now, Longworth is in a multi-episode arc of ‘Erotic ‘90s’, a follow-up to last year’s ‘Erotic ‘80s’, and it’s all about, you guessed it, the rise and fall of films that put sex front and center. From 9 ½ Weeks to Showgirls, Basic Instinct to Henry & June, it’s a fascinating deconstruction of the genre and the players dealt in the game.

While the era of the sophisticated erotic thriller has passed, I think a film like Fair Play would be added to Longworth’s list if she revisited the topic in another decade. In less considered hands, the film could have been your standard corporate ladder-climbing fling, but writer/director Chloe Domont wants the effect of this grappling for power affair to last long after the credits have finished. Was I tempted to give Fair Play a 10/10 for opening with Donna Summer’s ‘Love to Love You Baby’ off the bat? Maybe. It was the perfect way into this sexy thriller set in a sleek modern NYC where men and women supposedly work on a level playing field, but everyone knows the same old rules still apply.

As a young couple working at the same high-risk hedge fund, Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) and Alden Ehrenreich (Oppenheimer) are content with hiding their inter-office affair (a no-no), but all that changes when she lands the promotion they both thought he would get. The relationship is tested when he believes she did more than be good at her job to get the bump, and she sees his distrust and downward spiral as a cowardly red flag of their supposed future together.   The more she succeeds in the eyes of the head honcho (a smarmy Eddie Marsan, Atomic Blonde, doing a fishy NYC accent), the more her once supportive boyfriend’s suspicion grows.

I’ve yet to experience the pop culture phenomenon of Bridgerton, so this was my first substantial exposure to Dynevor on screen, and she knocked my socks off. The role is tricky because it must be both confident and mildly apologetic (in an unfortunate way women are often asked to be in a male-dominated corporate setting) without coming off as milquetoast, and Dynevor walks that line exceptionally well. She shares strong chemistry with Ehrenreich, who, on paper, truly has a thankless role of playing a character we know will make a series of terrible choices even though all he must do is make one right one for everything to turn around. Both work together well in conveying Domont’s message about masculine toxicity in workplaces and relationships that is less about behavior and more about idealism.

The final twenty minutes of Fair Play get unpleasant for various reasons; some work in context with the characters as they progress, and some seem to come out of the ether. Watching the film with a packed audience at the Toronto International Film Festival made it clear whose side the public was on, but when I watched this again at home, I found that the finale might push those on the fence right into the muddy waters of uncertainty. Still, I enjoyed Domont’s insistence on both characters never backing down…even amid certain (personal and professional) ruin. 

In Select Theaters September 29, 2023 – CLICK HERE for ticketing website with the theatrical locations.
Releasing Globally on Netflix October 6, 2023

Movie Review ~ What You Wish For

The Facts:

Synopsis: A down-on-his-luck chef gets more than he bargained for when he steps into the life of an old culinary school pal, a private chef for the über-rich.
Stars: Nick Stahl, Tamsin Topolski, Randy Vasquez, Penelope Mitchell, Juan Carlos Messier, Brian Groh
Director: Nicholas Tomnay
Rated: NR
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Admittedly, I have the palette of an 11-year-old, but wow, do I love watching cooking shows involving fine dining! Hold the mushrooms, but please let me watch you sauté, bake, fry, boil, reduce, sous vide, steam, tonight’s meal. Unsurprisingly, given my love of all things “chef” and suspense, it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me interested in this sly thriller, written and directed by Nicholas Tomnay. Making its North American debut at Fantastic Fest after its premiere in Canada at the Fantasia International Film Festival in late July, What You Wish For is a dish you bite into thinking it’s one temperature but realize after chewing it over that its true heat breaks late.

Arriving in an unnamed Latin American country, we aren’t sure if Ryan (Nick Stahl, Hunter Hunter) is where he should be. Texts on his phone suggest he’s trying to get away from someplace (or someone), and there’s an edge of desperation recognizable on his face that tells us he’s bearing a heavy burden. He’s quickly whisked away in a fancy car to a secluded villa where he meets up with a longtime friend and fellow chef, Jack (Brian Groh, Breaking), who has been hired to cook for an exclusive party in several days’ time. The gig is that he arrives early, sources the local produce, and has everything ready before the clients come. Jack and Ryan had recently reconnected, and the timing was right (very right, it turns out) for Ryan to get out of the States. 

Through a series of events (no spoilers, remember?) Ryan poses as Jack for the party hosted by Imogene (Tamsin Topolski), Maurice (Juan Carlos Messier), and their small, international group of guests. At first, Ryan thinks this dinner party is your standard affair and attempts to fall back on his culinary school tricks…but Imogene and Maurice have arranged something different with Jack. What this party is for, why the police show up, and what is being served are all questions that you’ll need to figure out on your own; it’s all part of the tricks Tomnay has up his chef’s jacket. 

For once, I found myself leaning forward in a movie about a man’s lies getting him deeper and deeper into trouble. Usually, I recoil the longer a charade goes on at the absurdity of not just telling the truth. Still, Tomnay and Stahl subtly sell it that Ryan would need to maintain his cover as long as possible in these circumstances. A level of danger is inherent in what’s taking place, and the stakes only get higher as the night progresses. The film takes a few giant leaps as it nears the conclusion that doesn’t jive with the established realism of the rest of the movie, but that can be forgiven because so much of the film is captivating. 

As a critic, you wish for movies that will shake up the norm in a genre and give you something new to digest. What You Wish For may have some twists you can smell coming from a few paces away, but I’m guessing it will keep you hungry to discover what happens in the final course. Stahl and Topolski are lethally good together; you are reminded again how strong of an actor Stahl has always been, and I found Topolski’s cool-as-ice performance to be top-notch. If you see this one on your (video) menu, order it up!

Movie Review ~ We Kill for Love

The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary that searches for the forgotten world of the direct-to-video erotic thriller, an American film genre that once dominated late-night cable television and the shelves of neighborhood video stores.
Stars: Andrew Stevens, Monique Parent, Amy Lindsay, Linda Ruth Williams, Kira Reed Lorsch, Jim Wynorski, Fred Olen Ray
Director: Anthony Penta
Rated: NR
Running Length: 163 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I’m a fan of the special features on home video releases, and while a behind-the-scenes featurette is fine and dandy, the making-of documentary gets me the most excited. Even better is when the documentary is retrospective many years after the fact. How a movie came together is fascinating, especially when you see it through the eyes of the filmmakers, stars who have had time to reflect, and fans who have carved out a place in their hearts for it over time. That’s why I love seeing the recent trend of “super-sized” documentaries that chronicle a specific genre. Among others, we’ve already had a massively impressive look at horror films throughout the ‘80s, which reminds me that you need to check out the In Search of Darkness films, I beg you.

Now comes, somewhat surprisingly to me, We Kill for Love, a look into the direct-to-video erotic thriller films that filled out the shelves (usually the top ones) in video stores throughout the 1990s during the true boom of VHS and early DVD market. I didn’t need much convincing to check this one out, but even I was gobsmacked at the 163-minute run time of this one, considering many of the films it covered barely cracked the 90-minute mark. I half expected this to be an excuse to show a lot of T & A in between interviews with starlets from the later less reputable skin flicks, but Andrew Penta’s thoughtfully compiled feature is a clear love letter to the forgotten genre.

Forgetting a silly framing device featuring an Archivist that almost threw off the entire balance of the doc, Penta quickly pivots out of this more cerebral dissection of the genre in favor of on-camera interviews with historians, writers, directors, and actors with insight into the growth of the business. The essential films of the era are discussed, both the Hollywood features (Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, 9 ½ Weeks) and their low-budget counterparts (Night Eyes, Eden, In the Heat of Passion, Red Shoe Diaries) as well as the major players of the time (Zalman King, Andrew Stevens, Fred Olen Ray, Monique Parent). 

Penta rarely delves into the darker side of the era, with AIDS and hard drug use primarily avoided, but then again, the entire point of these films was to sell a fantasy to consumers. Following that logic, keeping things on one level makes sense, especially with an already lengthy run time that may be testing the patience of squirmy viewers. I could have watched another hour of interviews because Penta’s subjects are fascinating, and their stories are rich with insider knowledge.

There will never be another time for the home video market like the one documented in We Kill for Love. As someone who worked in a video store while these movies came out, I can vouch for their incredible popularity among all ages, races, and creeds. Now, with so many options to watch at the touch of a button and products being put out quickly, there is less focus on the type of erotic projects discussed in Penta’s doc. It’s not meant to be kept in amber (it’s too steamy!), but the direct-to-video erotic thriller is captured fondly in this sharp documentary.

Now Available On Demand

Movie Review ~ Dark Windows

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of teenagers take a trip to an isolated summerhouse in the countryside. What starts as a peaceful getaway turns into a horrific nightmare when a masked man begins to terrorize them in the most gruesome ways.
Stars: Anna Bullard, Annie Hamilton, Rory Alexander, Jóel Sæmundsson, Morten Holst
Director: Alex Herron
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  I tend to have a strong aversion to screenplays that double back on themselves, so generally, movies that start at the end raise an alert for me. Inevitably, what we’re shown at the start is a red herring to what occurs when we return to the action an hour or so later. I’ve never understood the purpose of this awkward framing device, primarily because it’s been used so often, and you wonder if the filmmakers think audiences aren’t aware a bait-and-switch is about to happen.

English-language Norwegian horror thriller Dark Windows begins at (or very near) the end when a survivor of a night’s worth of terror has been cornered and is seemingly ready to meet their maker. A quick jump takes us several days earlier to find Tilly (Anna Bullard) struggling to enter the wake of Ali, a friend recently killed in a car accident. Tilly, Monica (Annie Hamilton, Marriage Story), and Peter (Rory Alexander) were in the car, but all three made it out with barely a scrape. Feeling the pressure of a town’s worth of stares and questions about why they survived, and their friend didn’t, the three escape to Monica’s remote weekend home for a few days to relax and take stock of what’s next.

What’s next is being stalked by a killer intent on making them pay for their survival by ensuring they don’t see the light of day. Gradually, secrets from the night of Ali’s death are revealed, leading audiences to believe that maybe the killer knows what they did that summer night and is taking bloody steps in avenging a loved one…or is someone closer to them trying to eliminate loose ends?   

Director Alex Herron maintains a good air of suspense throughout, and despite some third act swerves into true brutality, the viscera found in Dark Windows is relatively tame. That leaves room for tension to rule above gore and fleshed-out performances (solid across the board) to emerge. It’s a fairly standard story, as written by Ulvrik Kraft, but getting it on its feet and handing it to the filmmaker and actors puts it in the “worth a peek” category.

Now Available On Demand

Movie Review ~ The Passenger (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Randy is perfectly content fading into the background. But when his co-worker Benson goes on a sudden and violent rampage leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, Randy is forced to face his fears and confront his troubled past in order to survive.
Stars: Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold, Liza Weil, Billy Slaughter, Kanesha Washington
Director: Carter Smith
Rated: NR
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Here’s a perfect example of why watching a preview can ruin the natural discovery you get when watching a movie. While the trailer for The Passenger doesn’t tell you everything you can expect to find if you decide to hop on an intense road trip with two men from the same non-descript small town, it does reveal a vital pivot point that might have held a decent element of surprise at the end of the first act. Knowing what awaited me, I began the movie with a specific idea of certain characters without letting the film define them for me as it played out.

That may not seem like a big deal for most, and from what I gather when talking about this with friends and family, it hasn’t bothered them on the same level that it does for me. When I break it down for them and say, “But what if you went in not knowing this <insert any moment from the Scream VI trailer> was going to happen?” that’s when it clicks, and they realize how much was spoiled in advance. Now, The Passenger doesn’t hit Scream-level spoilers, but if you can’t tell, I’d urge you not to watch any preview in advance and go in as blind as possible. 

By all accounts, it looks like it will be another mundane day for Randy (Johnny Berchtold). We can tell by his room, house, car, and how he holds himself that he’s settled into a stagnancy that won’t change anytime soon. Small-town life doesn’t just suit him, it is him, and he’s blending into the scenery. Even showing up at his job, a roadside burger joint, barely receives any notice from his horny co-workers Jess (Jordan Sherley, Do Revenge) and Chris (Matthew Laureano), his boss (Billy Slaughter, The Magnificent Seven), or Benson (Kyle Gallner, Smile), another lone wolf like himself.

Today is not going to be like any other day, however. And it’s not because of the good news that his boss asked him if he’d be interested in a management position at a new (better) location nearby or because Chris humiliates him in front of the others as they prepare to open. After a shocking outburst of disgusting violence, Benson will take a vested interest in Randy’s future and bring him along for a ride that will push him past his limits. In a mad attempt to break Randy out of his cocoon, Benson goes to extreme lengths to force a change in the docile man, uncovering secrets from his past and using them twistedly to open his eyes to the world around them.

With its brief, but stomach-churning, eruptions of violence (some of which skids the line of bad taste), The Passenger arrives at its destination with most of its important pieces intact. That’s thanks partly to a tight script from Jack Stanley (Lou) and more focused direction from Carter Smith than he displayed in 2022’s Swallowed. Smith also draws more consistent performances here, with Bechtold and especially Gallner creating distinct, deeply flawed men with more issues to be worked out than can be handled in a 94-minute car ride.   There’s excellent supporting work from Liza Weil as a critical influence from Randy’s past and especially Kanesha Washington as a diner waitress who stands out in two pivotal scenes.

How much mileage you get out of The Passenger may be in your ability to look past the film’s tendency for overzealous violence and instead appreciate the way it attempts to be a character study of the trickle-down effect of the bully. Both men are bullies in their own ways, but digging into how they resolve those issues and their fractured histories is where the film fires on all cylinders.   

THE PASSENGER will be on Digital and On Demand on August 4, 2023
and coming to MGM+ later in 2023.

Movie Review ~ Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ethan Hunt and the IMF team must track down a terrifying new weapon that threatens all of humanity if it falls into the wrong hands. Confronted by a mysterious, all-powerful enemy, Ethan is forced to consider that nothing can matter more than the mission — not even the lives of those he cares about most.
Stars: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Esai Morales, Vanessa Kirby, Pom Klementieff, Henry Czerny
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 163 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Oh boy, have we come a long way in the last 27 years! Gearing up to see the seventh installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, I took the opportunity to rewatch the previous films that led us to Dead Reckoning during some rare downtime. It almost seems quaint now to watch the original 1996 outing, directed by Brian De Palma, when all that was being sought was one-half of a coded list of names. At the time, the stakes felt incredibly high, and it’s to the lasting longevity of everyone involved that the film maintains its suspense nearly three decades on. In the same breath, I’ll tell you that I almost can’t believe how bad the first sequel is and that I’ve warmed to M:I3 over time. Ghost Protocol remains a high water mark that Rouge Nation can’t quite build upon, but which Fallout takes a giant leap in quality over.

The entire rewatch felt beneficial going into Part One, which is by far the biggest and boldest Mission: Impossible film to date. It shows you how the series has morphed into something more than a simple adaptation of a well-liked television show (that was given a chintzy remake in the ‘80s) into a full-bodied blockbuster that consistently aims to push the boundaries of cinema, delivering maximum entertainment for its fans. At the center of it all is its star, Tom Cruise, who demonstrates time and time again (and not just in these films) that he understands the language of film and how to translate that into the kind of spectacle that only a big screen can provide. If you’re going to pay for it, he will give you what you want.

And Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is handing out nail-biting, popcorn-chomping thrills like you wouldn’t believe.

I’m guessing you aren’t waiting for me to tell you to see this film, but in case you need convincing, I can confirm that Cruise and returning director/collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) have kicked off a two-parter with fantastic style. Opening with a series of sequences (including one onboard a claustrophobic Russian submarine) that might set your head spinning, you only begin to see how McQuarrie and co-screenwriter Erik Jendresen have laid out a devious bit of groundwork as the film is rounding the corner into its third act. Until then, you’re at the mercy of screenwriters with a complex game plan in mind that lead you through a labyrinth filled with danger around every corner.

Once Ethan Hunt (Cruise, The Mummy) is tasked by former IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny, Ready or Not) to track down former ally Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, Dune) and take back a pivotal item that is instrumental in a burgeoning war waged by an experimental AI system run amok, it isn’t long before Hunt makes the mission personal. Unable to betray Ilsa or completely disregard the AI threat, he instead pursues the lead with his team, including Benji (Simon Pegg, The World’s End) and Luther (Ving Rhames, Piranha 3DD), eventually hoping to beat Gabriel (Esai Morales, The Wall of Mexico), a cruel rival from his past, in holding the key to destroying the advanced technology.

Per usual, a host of roadblocks are put in the way of our hero, and this time it’s not just our government erecting them. In addition to Gabriel’s slinky henchwoman Paris (Pom Klementieff, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 3), the smarmy Director of National Intelligence (Cary Elwes, Black Christmas), and returning black-market arms dealer Alanna Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman), Hunt must contend with slippery ace pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell, Blinded by the Light) who is in over her head but consistently gives her would-be protector the slip. Grace winds up being just the handful Hunt wasn’t expecting but needs the most, someone to remind him of his humanity while keeping him on his toes. Grace is rarely aware of her critical danger, even as the threat level is raised to vicious new heights.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One has been designed to move characters that may have gotten slightly comfortable into riskier territory, and taking that chance from a filmmaking perspective has paid off. It’s drawn better performances from nearly all the returning cast members (Rhames is especially winning this time) while showcasing newcomers like Atwell and Klementieff exceptionally well. Atwell is front and center with Cruise for the best car chase sequence I’ve seen in a film in years. Not only is their race through Rome in a yellow Fiat pursued by Klementieff in a military-grade vehicle frenetically filmed but it’s also imbued with riotous humor, which plays to the strengths of all involved.

If this entry has a weakness (and yes, this isn’t a perfect ten because of it), it’s for a few reasons. There are still a few wrinkles to iron out from a performance standpoint. Kirby’s character, introduced in the previous chapter, held promise for a power player with mysterious alliances (much like the mother of her character played by Vanessa Redgrave in the first film), but this go-around, I found the allegiance far too defined and reduced to being one-note and rote. The jury is still out on Morales as the heavy. An interesting choice for a high-profile film, but the actor lacks a certain air of complete menace.

The film’s low point is an unfortunate scene set at a raging party (supposedly organized by the AI!) which finds all the major players convening for a semi-sit-down discussion of what will happen next. That’s when McQuarrie and Jendresen get a little too embroiled in making a statement about our reliance on technology and the ramping up of AI-led efforts in automation and securities. A film that had been in constant motion suddenly comes to a halt, and for a few minutes, there’s nowhere to run; all we can do is sit idly by and wait for things to pick up again.

Thankfully, there’s always an action sequence waiting in the wings, and you’ve likely seen Cruise’s epic motorcycle cliff jump, the preparation for and execution of has been heavily hyped in the promotion leading up to the film’s release. The good news is that even knowing it’s coming doesn’t spoil the effect of seeing it in the finished film (see the movie on the largest screen possible, please!). While the stunt is awe-inspiring (you could hear a pin drop in our audience), there are so many impressive moments throughout the film that the sum total is a monumental achievement for Cruise and the entire team. The finale alone is enough for theaters to consider selling seats in “pacing aisles” so nervous moviegoers can get up and walk around.

It will be a long year waiting for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two but more opportunity to watch Part One a few more times, marveling at the work that went into this first-class entertainment. As he did last summer with Top Gun: Maverick, I predict Cruise will fill theaters again with another supersonic adventure. And it’s only the beginning.

Movie Review ~ The Man from Rome

The Facts:

Synopsis: Vatican intelligence operative Father Quart investigates an anonymous message sent to the Pope concerning a crumbling Spanish church that “kills to defend itself.”
Stars: Richard Armitage, Amaia Salamanca, Fionnula Flanagan, Franco Nero, Paul Guilfoyle
Director: Sergio Dow
Rated: NR
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  Over my time writing for this blog (and indeed from my introduction to movies), I’ve learned never to get my hopes up too high going in, lest I be less than impressed with the final product. So, believe me when I say nothing would have pleased me more than to write a favorable review for The Man from Rome because it carries a premise that should have been a slam dunk for even marginal entertainment. Based on Spanish author Arturo Pérez Reverte’s 1995 novel La piel del tambor (The Skin of the Drum), which has already been adapted for Spanish TV in 2007, the film is by all accounts a close adaptation of Reverte’s work, but something has been lost in the translation. 

See if you can follow along to the (very) basic outline. A rogue hacker has found their way into the Vatican’s security network, bypassing firewalls and finding their way to send a message directly to the laptop of the Pope (a barely awake Franco Nero, Django Unchained), who is doing some late-night emailing in bed. The message informs His Holiness of a church in Seville set for demolition, which has been responsible for the death of at least two people in a kind of spiritual self-defense. In response, the Vatican sends in priest/detective Father Quart (Richard Armitage, Into the Storm) to investigate the misbehaving church, and what he uncovers is far more dangerous than a cathedral with a vengeance.

Look, I approached The Man from Rome with an understanding that some suspension of disbelief would be essential to its enjoyment. (A killer abbey? Take THAT The Da Vinci Code!) While I’m sure there are members of the Vatican like Father Quart who are dispatched to debunk unexplained phenomena, and I’ve no doubt some are young and in shape, I’m not sure they would be walking around sweaty and shirtless on public balconies after doing push-ups. I’m also positive they wouldn’t be interacting with members of the opposite sex quite so vigorously as Armitage does with Amaia Salamanca’s potentially duplicitous heiress whose family has a vested stake in the terrorizing tabernacle. 

Those are silly nitpicks, though, items often waved off in mainstream thrillers with other elements going for them. Elements like an intriguing plot, slick dialogue, and engaging performances that The Man from Rome doesn’t have. As devoutly committed as Armitage is in playing Quart, he’s an often-lethargic presence roaming around the center of a company that isn’t in any rush to move the overly layered plot along. Nine (Nine!) screenwriters have apparently made their contributions on top of one another, and that leaves director Sergio Dow and editors Pablo Blanco and Miguel Angel Prieto to piece together disparate scenes, which give the action a disjointed flow. There’s never an urgency to the mystery, no thrill to late-breaking twists, or poignancy to how religion plays a part in it all.

The sleepy score from Roque Baños (In the Heart of the Sea) is a consistent annoyance presence, coming off like the looped tuneless music you hear when you pause a PlayStation 5 RPG game to answer a lengthy text. With the actors barely speaking above a hushed whisper (this is a movie which takes place largely in churches and other religious inner sanctums, so I guess it tracks) and the accents all over the place (wait until you hear the great Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan, Song of the Sea, try on a Spanish dialect) perhaps it is better to focus on the music. The only actor I was moderately intrigued by was Alicia Borrachero’s former nun turned restorationist, but even then, Dow has directed her to be so overly passionate about the smallest details in dialogue out of the gate that it winds up diminishing the effect of more pivotal scenes later on.

I checked the bibliography for Arturo Pérez Reverte to see if he wrote any other novels featuring Father Quart because I could see this property being picked up again down the line and the character used for further religious mysteries, although the scary Evil on Paramount+ is filling that niche nicely now. Unfortunately, La piel del tambor was the only example I could find with Quart, but perhaps we should count ourselves fortunate that The Man from Rome is staying put. Mostly ludicrous when it isn’t asleep in the pews, you’ll want to find another travel companion if you’re seeking a religious thriller.

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.

Movie Review ~ Knock at the Cabin

The Facts:

Synopsis: While vacationing at a remote cabin, a family of three is suddenly held hostage by four strangers who demand they sacrifice one of their own to avert the apocalypse.
Stars: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: R
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  There comes the point in every film from director M. Night Shyamalan where the director has laid his proverbial cards out on the table, and the audience has to choose. Do they forge ahead on the path laid out by Shyamalan (sometimes inelegantly), or do they reject it outright and spend the remainder wishing they’d opted for the rom-com in the next theater? With the once-hot director staging an intriguing comeback since 2015’s The Visit, more often than not, the viewer is more interested to see how things will turn out. (As opposed to a film like 2008’s The Happening when no one minded who wound up breathing by the time the credits rolled.)

After tripping a bit with 2019’s Glass and then literally wading into full-on silly waters with 2021’s Old, Shyamalan has taken a page from his successful Apple TV+ show Servant and delivered a compelling, tension-filled, one-setting thriller to kick off 2023. Adapted from Paul Tremblay’s frightening 2018 bestseller ‘The Cabin at the End of the World,’ Shyamalan has wisely retitled the film Knock at the Cabin (once you see it, you’ll know why) and tweaked the original screenplay drafted by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman which had bounced around unproduced for several years. The effect is 100 minutes of entertainment that reminds you how well Shyamalan can fiddle with our nerves using more than mere visual cues.

Wasting little time diving into the action, audiences find themselves in the woods near a remote cabin watching Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui in a knockout performance) collect grasshoppers. At the same time, her two dads relax on the back porch. The tranquility of her playtime is interrupted by Leonard (Dave Bautista, My Spy), a hulking figure emerging from nowhere that strikes up a conversation with the young girl. Our red alert is going off hardcore that Leonard is no good, but his easy-going charm works on Wen…for a while. When his three companions arrive with crudely assembled “tools,” the idle chatter turns ominous.

It’s here when things get a little dicey to talk about. If you’ve seen the preview or read any synopsis, it’s no spoiler to share that Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Persuasion), Adriane (Abby Quinn, Torn Hearts), and Redmond (Rupert Grint, Thunderpants) hold the family captive. Eric (Jonathan Groff, Frozen) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert) are then told they have to make an impossible decision for the rest of the world to continue. I won’t talk about the potential consequences of their unwillingness to participate as requested or if what the four outsiders are preaching is gospel. 

Interjected throughout are bits of the couple’s backstory before and after they adopted Wen, glimpses into their life that helps inform the second half of the film. The inclusion of these scenes may seem inconsequential at the time, but it’s another way Shyamalan uses his talents of emotional connection to round out his characters. Few writers/directors know how to do this as well, and in the midst of Shyamalan’s weird spinning out in his post-Signs era, audiences and critics alike failed to remember this overall strength.

One of Shyamalan’s best-cast films in ages, Knock at the Cabin, made me believe in the power of Bautista again after briefly being derailed by his shenanigans with the Guardians of the Galaxy films. His lead character has complexities that add unexpected dramatic weight. Also strong are Amuka-Bird and Quinn as ordinary people doing what they believe to be right and willing to take extreme action (in every sense of the word) to ensure what needs to happen happens. Groff makes inward gains in his work on creating three-dimensional characters that resemble real people, an area he’s struggled with. He’s helped along the way by Aldridge, who has to juggle more of the skeptical side of the coin, which is never easy. The weakest showing is Grint, the one member of the Harry Potter trio who can’t seem to find his niche outside of Hogwarts.

While intelligent for the most part, Knock at the Cabin isn’t above asking its characters to make a few head-shaking, eye-rolling maneuvers, i.e., why don’t people just shoot their attacker immediately? Thankfully, with a spooky score from Herdís Stefánsdóttir and moody camera work from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Northman), Knock at the Cabin can maintain its tone right up until its finale. It’s one of the few Shyamalan films with a perfect ending, too. With its high-stakes, high-tension set-up, I don’t think I could revisit this Cabin soon, but this initial watch was worth the dark trip.