Tag Archives: First film

Untitled Horror Movie

[2 stars]

The pandemic has gifted us with a slew of found footage/phone footage movies. It was a trend already in motion with movies like Searching, but it had taken a new sort of energy because what else do creators do when not allowed to create in groups? They create in groups virtually. Staged and Language Lessons are probably the best examples of what has come out of that approach so far.

This film, however, is not in their ranks. It is, to be fair, intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but that can’t forgive all its flaws. The issues are really mostly with the script. Or, to be fair, perhaps it is having me as an audience. It just wasn’t funny. It was all very inside-baseball for the entertainment industry, but with a millennial and GenX attitude that I found more annoying than entertaining.

Luke Baines (Shadowhunters) co-wrote with Nick Simon (Truth or Dare?). For a first feature script by Baines it isn’t horrible. Derivative to a large degree, but not horrible. Simon’s hand is visible in the shaping of the material into a genre film. But Baines also had a major role in the movie, playing a pretty, but not very talented, actor. Draw your own conclusions.

The rest of the main cast are similarly aged talent, all with recognizable faces. Darren Barnet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Timothy Granaderos (13 Reasons Why), Claire Holt (47 Meters Down), Katherine McNamara (The Stand, Shadowhunters), and Emmy Raver-Lampman (Umbrella Academy). While none of the individual performances really rise to the top, the ensemble creates a believable cadre of a sitcom cast stressing their series renewal, and managing to get along only with the utmost effort on all their parts.

The story picks up pace as it goes along, but it doesn’t find the proper end, nor does it really manage to thrill, satisfy, or scare you. It simply is. Honestly, I can see why the crew got together to make the piece. It was clearly fun for them and it was an outlet during a period of isolation and little-to-no work. That journey is somewhat memorialized in the script itself. But that is also part of the issue, at least for me. I could see all the gears, both in the story and surrounding it. It was a project that was best left on the shelf and dragged out at private parties they could enjoy together. It was a game attempt, and no performer irked me such that I wouldn’t watch them again in something else, but this wasn’t really worth my 90 minutes. YMMV.

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Lady of the Manor

[2 stars]

The ideas in this movie are fine and even intriguing. And with Melanie Lynskey (Hello I Must Be Going) and Judy Greer (Uncle Frank) driving the center of it, I had hope. Hope that was dashed by 30 min in when the movie had yet to get going.

Written and directed by the brothers Long (Justin [Masters of the Universe: Revelation] and Christian), the flick kept creeping up to the edge of being something but refusing to tip over it. It didn’t help that we were bouncing between the grounded moments of Long and the brotastic and unrelenting bravado of Ryan Phillippe (Big Sky) as they catalyzed the tale. The movie never quite finds its groove on screen nor style in script.

Ultimately I jumped to the end to see if there were any surprises or aspects that might make me go back and watch the whole thing. There wasn’t. Even the outtakes (absent the final one) that run during the credits weren’t funny or intriguing. Basically, this is a complete miss for me. I wanted it to work, and it even has a sort of topical dénouement, but that isn’t worth the 90 minutes you’d have to spend to watch it.

Lady of the Manor Poster

Dating & New York

[3.5 stars]

Like Broken Hearts Gallery, this first feature by Jonah Feingold delivers on almost all levels. They both aim at Millennial love connections and struggles. And both made me realize how much things have changed about dating… and how much they’ve really stayed the same. Dating & New York is a bit less polished than Broken Hearts, and it’s more unapologetically aimed at a younger audience, but there is plenty there for all ages to sympathize and recognize and laugh with (and at).

From the moment it starts we know we’re about to enter a sort of satirical view of old romance films, but done with both love and affection. It isn’t making fun of those fantasies so much as updating them. And the main couple in this modern romcom comes to wonderful life with Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale (Stranger Things). The energy and easy nature of both are completely engaging. And their friends, Catherine Cohen (The Lovebirds) and Brian Muller, bring some framework and balance to what we know just has to get messy eventually, no matter how civilized and above-board it all starts.

Feingold keeps the pacing unrelenting…exhausting even, at times. The story is entertaining. The ending is honest and romantic. The gender flips he does are nicely turned. And, OK, absent one character, I never had any idea how any of these people supported themselves, but that wasn’t the focus of the story. Having found out he filmed it all in 15 days, this movie is sort of amazing.

This is a romantic comedy for both those that like romantic comedies and those who scoff at them. It’s an honest romantic comedy. Well, mostly honest. Mainly, it’s believable where it needs to be and wry where it threatens to get too syrupy. Above all, it’s fun and funny.

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Adam & Steve

[3 stars]

Craig Chester’s indie romp and rumination on missed opportunities and love is as entertaining and sweet as it is raw. Chester and Malcom Gets’ near slapstick romance plays out over the course of the film, helped along by the secret that they had met once long before, but neither puts the story together. It also includes a surprising cast of characters, most notably Parker Posey (Lost in Space) and Chris Kattan.

Chester had fun with this story. He allows it to get absurd, but never for too long. But he also uses the craziest of those moments to find the deepest humanity and emotion. This isn’t a great film, or even a polished product, but it finds some really great moments and truths. If you can get through the first couple scenes, the rest is a cake walk. And if you spent the late 80s and 90s/00s in NYC it will resonate even more.

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A Nightmare Wakes

[2.75 stars]

The reason to see this first feature by writer/director Nora Unkel is not the movie itself. The story, while closer to history than the typical apocryphal retelling of it in many movies and even a recent Doctor Who, ends up as a a tortured metaphor for the birthing of the story. It isn’t bad or uninventive, but it just isn’t as engaging as the myth, and isn’t accurate enough to serve as revelatory. And, worse, it weakens Shelley as a writer, a person, and as a woman.

However, what Unkel does show us is what she might be capable of with better equipment and script. The movie is beautifully filmed, edited, and framed. It is also relatively well acted, particularly by Alix Wilton Regan (The Wife) who has to navigate a huge range of emotion and mixed reality.

For a peek at a director and what may be to come, check this story out. While it is no more accurate than many of the previous tales (especially at the end) it attempts to present a more honest view of the creative process and relationships that gave rise to one of the most enduring tales ever put to bound paper. And if the movie should fail to excite, appreciate it simply for the potential it presents.

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Cinderella (2021)

[3 stars]

Cinderella is a tale that is told over and over again in various formats, from Ella Enchanted to Pretty Woman to the recent classic retelling or even as another reimagined musical. It endures because it speaks to hope and escape. It can morph into many frameworks because those feelings and fears are untethered to a particular venue or time. So it is no surprise that Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect) wanted to tackle it with her own musical spin.

The result is entertaining, if very much on the surface. Imagine In the Heights meets Beauty and the Beast with a dash of Moulin Rouge. Songs you already know slotted into big numbers to bring a feudal setting to current life. Mind you, the songs often expand the running time unnecessarily and the choice of songs was odd to my ear. I knew most of them, but this was a movie aimed at young girls and women…and almost none of them were alive when they released and were popular. If Cannon was looking for familiar touchpoints, she mostly missed the mark in her selections.

The cast certainly gave it their all. X-Factor alumn Camila Cabello brings energy and joy to her Ella…enough to keep it all afloat. And she’s surrounded with some solid talent to help her along. But of them, Billy Porter (Pose), Minnie Driver (Spinning Man), and Idina Menzel (Frozen) are the most memorable. And while they all support Cabello well, there just isn’t enough Billy Porter. I understand why…Cannon wanted Ella to be her own savior. And I applaud that approach, but after he appears (way late in the film), his lack is sorely felt..and the story feels like it’s missing something.
On a more general note, though humorous, the CGI for the mice is awful. How they could cheap out on that aspect was a surprise as it ruins their moments on screen. And the songs are over-engineered to the point of almost being lifeless. They’re so clean as to have no emotion, no guts. Notes, yes, but no humanity.
Grumbles aside, there is a feminist message throughout that goes full-blown, Handmaids included, in a quietly angry musical number that is among the best and poignant in the flick. Ultimately, the story pays off in the way it should, even if unsurprising. Subtle the movie isn’t, but it does try to forge new ground. It just would have been nice if it had some depth to the soil it spread.
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Cosmos

[2.75 stars]

So, what kind of movie do you get when two documentarians and science-loving artists tackle a science fiction premise? Well…this. Elliot Weaver and Zander Weaver have produced a story that tries to show real science and moments of discovery that occur on a long night of sky-watching, but with a sort of superhero sensibility.

The small 3 person cast is actually pretty natural on screen. Tom England, Joshua Ford, and Arjun Singh Panam work well off of one another. Though the tension between them is also just a little, well, odd at times. There is a sort of Miles/Basheer vibe to the whole thing, though more as a trio. But they all feel like real individuals.

In some ways I really respect what the Weavers tried to do. The fact is that most science is about long hours and lots of grinding efforts. Scientists are heroes and they deserve their moment on screen. It was refreshing to see a tense tale of possibilities told from the perspective of the unsung geek heroes. But it’s all done just a little too preciously, and with swelling music little too often, to fully work.

Part of the problem is the flick is about 40 minutes longer than it needs to be, though like Dark Star or even Contact and Interstellar they use that time to try and add some reality to the efforts and actualities of research. Basically, it’s often just boring. And while there are times where the Weavers use (and, as mentioned, overuse) music to help enhance the moments of discovery, it’s just as often obvious they’ve watched The Right Stuff and other similarly hero-charged tales a bit too often. In fact, there were moments I almost laughed at the attempted emotional charge as it was so patently ridiculous.

But those gaffs and ego moments aside, the story was compelling. It won’t be for everyone. There are no explosions or massive effects, and some of the science and depictions are, shall we say, a little adjusted, but there is a sense of the real about it all. And that sense makes it feel more immediate…just not fast. So if you’ve ever done a night of starwatching and wondered what it would be like to make a major discovery while doing so, this is for you. If you want a more standard action/adventure film, this most definitely isn’t it.

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Sweet Girl

[3 stars]

This one surprised me. I went into it expecting just a bit of action escapism and got a bit more than that. Unlike some of its comparisons to Taken, this story of corruption, power, and family starts morally gray and ends up in a blender of ambiguity that is unlike most movies of its ilk. And what starts as a standard sort of anti-hero action flick, it evolves into something more interesting by the end.

Jason Momoa (Aquaman) is the headliner here. He does fine and gets to have a range of emotions in between his fights. Nothing spectacular, but he’s good enough and feels more right as the story unfolds. As his daughter, Isabela Merced (Dora and the Lost City of Gold) gets to walk more interesting lines even as she follows in his wake. She is rapidly growing up into an actor with some real range.

One rep from each side of their battle is interesting to watch as well. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (6 Underground) for his cold calculation and Lex Scott Davis (Rebel) for her attempts, however unlikely, to gain control of the situation and help Merced. I’d have liked to see more from Amy Brenneman (Words and Pictures), but she served her purpose in the tale well enough.

The script by Gregg Hurwitz (The Book of Henry) and Philip Eisner (Event Horizon) is clever even with its procedural and logic flaws (and they are legion). But the story keeps moving along with nice riffs on tired tropes. For a first feature directing gig, Brian Andrew Mendoza does a credible job with the story and the pacing. It doesn’t always feel like it, but it remains on point and moving forward constantly. When you’re in the mood for a slightly dark and violent story about revenge and comeuppance by the little guy that’s more than just a little different, this will do.

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Reminiscence

[3.5 stars]

For her first feature Lisa Joy (Westworld) has delivered a dark and deliberately pace noir mystery. It also has the melancholia and rumination of Blade Runner, as Hugh Jackman (The Front Runner) falls down the rabbit hole of trying to help the femme fatale that drops into his life.

Reminiscence is expansive in its world building, but generally very intimate in its cast and focus. The story really revolves around only three characters. Thandiwe Newton (Solo: A Star Wars Story) provides Jackman an anchor to reality while Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep) is the chain around his neck and heart. The three form an emotional, if not romantic, triangle that shifts and evolves as the story unfolds.

There are plenty of side characters to keep the action going as well though Only Cliff Curtis (Hobbs & Shaw) and Daniel Wu (Tomb Raider) really have enough time and depth to be of notice. Both of these antagonists help flesh out the world and provide a wider view of what’s gone on and what’s gone wrong.

While Joy hasn’t made a perfect flick, it is one that will stick with you, bouncing around your head as you consider the points. She had the guts to deliver exactly what she tells you she will in the film. And while the plot unravels a bit toward the end and is a bit forced and unlikely, it’s still effective. The journey getting there is just complex enough to keep you engaged and satisfied. It’s also a complete story without any intention of a sequel (a nice change of pace these days). And, finally, despite the pall of the dystopia she sketches out for you, Reminiscence is a highly romantic film, even as it questions that concept as part of the story.

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Beckett

[3 stars]

There is something wonderful about Hitchcockian suspense/mystery films. By design and structure they entertain and they amuse. Kevin A. Rice’s script (his first) is definitely in that vein. It’ imperfect in plot and lacking the trademark humor, but it really captures the old master’s approach to the everyman caught in the web of deceit and without any context to what’s going on.

After a brief interlude to set up the adventure and the emotional foundation, we follow John David Washington (Tenet) down a rabbit hole of international intrigue where he’s about as clueless as we are…at least near the top. Frankly, the audience gets way ahead of him rather quickly, but it isn’t entirely unfair that he’s left baffled for as long as he is. Also, it’s becoming clear that Washington really likes to get the crap beat out of him in movies; and he’s good at it.

Washington’s character slowly makes he way across Greece to save his skin, not to mention others. Though the movie isn’t shy about leaving a wake of innocent bodies in his wake either. The bad folks here are cold and, mostly, efficient but without much depth. During these adventures, he crosses paths with a few that last more than a short scene and who we get to know a little such as Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) and Boyd Holbrook (Predator). But we never really connect with anyone in the story, including Washington, who can’t even manage a “thank you” to anyone into whose lives he introduces chaos until late in the film.

Director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, who is better known for his 2nd unit directing than his first, gets to really stretch his wings and talent. Keeping this movie rolling like an avalanche was no small feat. A slightly better script would have helped elevate the film, but the framing and story (which he has credit for) are solid.

If you need a bit of adventure with a mystery thrown in, and you don’t mind some cold violence, this will work for you. It is definitely a mixed bag emotionally and without a clean and simple ending, but I have to admit, I prefer them that way generally. And the gritty reality of it all is often very compelling.

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