REVIEW: “Senior Year” (2022)

In the new Netflix teen-ish comedy “Senior Year”, a cheerleading accident leaves a high school senior in a coma. After she wakes up 20 years later, she sets out to finish her high school dream of being named prom queen. Sounds utterly ridiculous, right? Well, it pretty much is. And while first-time feature film director Alex Hardcastle deserves points for trying to make something out of this nutty premise, the utterly predictable movie can only manage a few mild laughs and even fewer interesting characters.

The movie begins by introducing us to Samantha Conway (played in the early scenes by a really good Angourie Rice). Since moving to the United States from Australia with her parents, Samantha has struggled to fit in with the popular crowd. She has her loyal yet eccentric friends Seth (Zaire Adams) and Martha (Molly Brown), but she really want to be in with the in-crowd. So Samantha begins her freshman year with a pledge to become the most popular girl in school.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

After reading a lot of magazines and fixing her hair a certain way (because apparently that’s all it takes to be most popular), Samantha becomes the toast of Harding High School. By her senior year she has the hunkiest boyfriend, Blaine (Tyler Barnhardt) and even wins cheerleader captain from her snooty rival, Tiffany (Ana Yi Puig). All she needs to cap off her self-centered popularity run is winning Senior Prom Queen.

But then an cheering ‘accident’ during a pep assembly puts Samantha in a coma. Now played by Rebel Wilson, she wakes up 20 years later to an entirely new world. Older Blaine (Justin Hartley) has married older Tiffany (Zoe Chao), older Martha (Mary Holland) is Harding High’s principal, and older Seth (Sam Richardson) is the school librarian. You would think it would all be a shock for Samantha who’s physically 37-years-old but mentally still 17. Instead, she just picks up where her younger self left off, determined to finish her senior year, regain her popularity, and be voted prom queen.

But these days things are much different at Harding under the more buttoned-up Martha. The school has moved from the privileged, egocentric clique culture of Samantha’s youth to a more self-important, ultra-progressive, and hyper sensitive environment. So of course we get the inevitable bits where Samantha’s ways are constantly clashing with the new. Some are mildly amusing while others see the trio of screenwriters (Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli, and Brandon Scott Jones) working way too hard.

Yet despite it’s more enlightened exterior, Samantha learns Harding still has the same nonsense but in a different form. It’s embodied in the new most popular girl, Brie (Jade Bender), a social media maven who (of course) happens to be Tiffany’s daughter. She touts her social consciousness with the same smugness as Stephanie once brandished. But in today’s Harding, the popularity contest is determined by the number of online followers you have. So it’ll take an adjustment if Samantha wants to reach her dream of prom queen.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The movie milks it central conceit dry and touches on several pretty obvious themes in the process – true friendship, reevaluating your dreams, learning what really matters in life, etc. Meanwhile the characters are more or less caricatures who click a wide assortment of genre boxes. Some still manage to be entertaining. Rice is quite good as a young Samantha, impervious to how her lust for popularity impacts those who love her. Wilson’s version of older Samantha has its moments, but it often feels like a performance rather than something genuine. I did like Chris Parnell as Samantha’s single dad. It’s a very by-the-book character but Parnell pulls some feeling from it. There’s also a great cameo later on that I’ll let you discover for yourself.

As the movie plays out it gets more and more predictable. Eventually everything falls right into place, exactly as expected. A few dance numbers are thrown in, but they aren’t particularly fun or well done. The worst one comes at the end – a corny cringe-soaked musical finish that turned this shallow yet watchable mess into something I was anxious to get away from. “Senior Year” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

RETRO REVIEW: “Con Air” (1997)

There was a time when Jerry Bruckheimer was to action movies what Jason Blum currently is to horror. Obviously it’s not a true one-for-one comparison as both producers had very different approaches to the kind of movies they made. But their names did become synonymous with specific genres and both had loads of success giving those genres some much needed boosts.

While the 78-year-old Bruckheimer is still steadily producing (he has the highly-anticipated “Top Gun: Maverick” next week), one could argue that his box office blockbuster heyday was in the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. Included in that ten-year stretch were four films with the delightfully enigmatic Nicolas Cage. One of them was none other than “Con Air”.

I’ve always enjoyed Cage, and while his career is certainly at a much different point today, there has been a surge of love for the actor following his wacky (and not-so-great) recent film “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”. So what better time to look back at one of Cage’s silliest yet most entertaining action movies, “Con Air”. The film came out in 1997 to fairly positive reviews and it was a box office success. So how does it play 25 years later? Well, pretty good to be honest.

Cage plays Cameron Poe, an honorably discharged Army Ranger returning home to Mobile, Alabama to surprise his pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Porter). The two have a bubbly reunion as Trisha Yearwood’s Oscar-nominated original song “How Do I Live” simmers in the background (such a movie staple of the 80’s and 90’s). But when they’re attacked by three obnoxious drunks, one of the thugs ends up dead and Cameron is sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter. While in the penitentiary, he misses the birth of his daughter Casey (Landry Allbright). But the two frequently exchange letters, anxiously anticipating the day Cameron gets out and can finally see his daughter.

The day finally comes when Cameron is granted parole, and just in time to make it home for Casey’s birthday. But to get back home he has to hitch a ride on plane carrying inmates to a new maximum security prison in Alabama. It’s a prison designed for lifers, “the worst of the worst”. So he’s put onboard a converted Fairchild C-123 (appropriately called The Jailbird) with an “all-star” lineup of the country’s most dangerous felons.

Obviously there are a ton of questions. For example, why was Cameron sent off to a prison so far away for what amounted to self-defense? And was there no other way to get him back to Alabama other than a flight full of the most savage criminals? To be honest, in a movie like this those are details I’m happy to overlook. That’s because director Simon West and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg are clearly having a good time stacking up their wacky scenario. And part of what’s fun of “Con Air” is throwing ourselves into it and watching how it all plays out.

As far as the “Who’s Who” of convicts onboard, John Malkovich plays Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, the brilliant yet psychotic mastermind of the inevitable takeover of the plane. Some may laugh, but this is one of my favorite Malkovich performances. He’s a great fit – equal part hammy and cold-blooded menace. It’s said Malkovich wasn’t high on the movie, but he makes for a delightfully devious (and at times dryly funny) chief antagonist.

Cyrus is joined by Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames), a black militant domestic terrorist and Cyrus’ right-hand man. There’s William “Billy Bedlam” Bedford (Nick Chinlund), a mass murderer who killed his wife’s entire family; a serial rapist who goes by “Johnny 23” (Danny Trejo); Earl “Swamp Thing” Williams (M.C. Gainey); a wild-eyed convict with piloting experience; and a chatty arsonist/dopehead named “Pinball” (Dave Chappelle). Oh, and then there’s Garland Greene aka “The Marietta Mangler” (Steve Buscemi), a notorious serial killer who creeps out even the most hardened of the cons.

As Cyrus’s plan unfolds in the air, U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack) works on the ground to regain control of the plane. Along the way he constantly butts heads with the insufferable (and annoyingly over-the-top) DEA Agent Malloy (Colm Meaney) who wants to shoot the plane down despite there being innocent people onboard including our protagonist. Cage is a hoot with his hit-and-miss Southern accent and his flowing gif-ready locks. The movie has fun with his unique style of action hero and hearing him utter overtly silly lines like “Put the bunny back in the box” never gets old.

“Con Air” only gets crazier with two particularly memorable set pieces, one at an abandoned airfield and the other on the Las Vegas strip. If you’re looking for realism, you’ll be disappointed. Instead West goes for the gusto with over-the-top action and a hearty wink of the eye. It’s that last part that is so important. “Con Air” never takes itself too seriously. It knows how preposterous it is and doesn’t try to be anything other than wild raucous popcorn entertainment. And sometimes that’s all I’m in the mood for. Sadly, we rarely (if ever) get these kinds of movies these days. But at least we have escapes like “Con Air” for whenever that mood hits.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Firestarter” (2022)

One of the first “grownup” novels I recall reading was Stephen King’s “Firestarter”. It first published in September 1980, but my exposure to it came a few years later. I’m guessing it was around the time of the 1984 movie adaptation starring Drew Barrymore. I was just a kid and remember finding a tattered paperback copy of King’s book based on the movie featuring “that girl from E.T.”. I immediately dove in, and while it took my younger self a while to finish, I was pretty proud when I turned that final page.

I wouldn’t see the movie adaptation for another couple of years or so, and I haven’t revisited it since. Pretty much all I remember is the wind blowing Barrymore’s hair whenever she would use her power and Heather Locklear (I was an 80s kid, what can I say). A better critic probably would have done his homework and rewatched “Firestarter” 1984 before reviewing the new Blumhouse produced reboot. But don’t worry, no knowledge of the original is needed for this pointless and lifeless update. It stands and stinks on its own.

“Firestarter” is directed by Keith Thomas whose last feature was the excellent supernatural horror film “The Vigil”. It’s written by Scott Teems who wrote and directed 2009’s terrific “That Evening Sun” and 2020’s underseen “The Quarry”. But he also penned last year’s “Halloween Kills”, a mediocre horror film that’s biggest issues lied with the script. There was enough filmmaking history between both for optimism. But when the studio announced they were holding press screeners until the day of the movie’s release, well that’s generally a bad sign.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As it turns out, “Firestarter” does little to justify a reboot. It’s a flat, unoriginal, and surprisingly fright-free film that doesn’t showcase the filmakers’ past successes in any way. It’s a shame because the premise from King’s book is loaded with potential as a horror movie, an action thriller, and even a family drama. But while it dabbles in all of those things, this 2022 reimagining doesn’t do any of them well. And we’re left with a story that flatlines early and is never able to recover.

The story revolves around 11-year-old Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) who has possessed pyrokinetic powers since birth. The “bad thing”, as her parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) call it, has mostly laid dormant. But lately it has been flaring back up, especially at school where Charlie is frequently bullied. Vicky wants to train their daughter to control her powers. Andy wants Charlie to keep it buried out of fear of what the film’s bad guys might do if they get a hold of her.

We learn that both Andy and Vicky have special powers of their own. Vicky has a form of telekinesis which she has kept suppressed for years. Andy is a $100-a-session cash-only life coach who uses his mind-powers to help people kick their cigarette habits. Both have built the closest thing to a normal life for Charlie while staying off the government’s radar. But after an incident at school reveals Charlie’s fiery powers, the film’s baddies set out to apprehend her.

That may sound interesting, but don’t expect much depth, especially when it comes to the movie’s villain(s), a secret government outfit called The Shop. They operate under the cover of some company called DSI and are ran by the recently promoted Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben). She’s supposed to be devious and cold-hearted, but she’s a bland and toothless chief antagonist whose motives are paper-thin. Hollister claims she wants to capture Charlie in order to help her. In reality her intentions are far more sinister. Unfortunately the movie never feels the urge to let us in on those intentions. Basically she wants to use Charlie’s powers for the government and that’s supposed to be enough for us.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Lack of information turns out to be a reoccurring problem. The movie never tells us much of anything. In fact, we get more pertinent information in the opening credits than we do for the rest of the movie. There are a couple of exposition drops, one featuring Hollister visiting Dr. Joseph Wanless (Kurtwood Smith), one of the original scientists with The Shop and the inventor of a serum that imbued subjects with special powers. Hollister wants the good doctor to come back now that they’ve located Charlie. But he realizes Charlie’s power is in its infancy and that her capabilities will only intensify. He knows he made a mistake with the serum, but how he came to that realization, who knows.

The lone interesting character in the film is a mysterious mercenary named John Rainbird (a chilling Michael Greyeyes). He’s reluctantly reactivated by Hollister to hunt down Charlie for The Shop. The movie teases a compelling backstory for Rainbird, but (like so much else) it’s mostly left off screen. It’s an omission that really hurts the film’s ending which desperately tries to interest us in a sequel (something Thomas has expressed interest in).

Aside from Greyeyes, the only other noteworthy thing is the cool retro synth-heavy score from John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies. Otherwise “Firestarter” stays dull and flavorless, dryly moving from one point to the next, checking off boxes in the story and offering nothing is terms of frights, surprises, or suspense. So we spend most of the time waiting for the movie to kick into gear, which unfortunately it never does. “Firestarter” is now showing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Innocents” (2022)

CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Fresh off his Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for “The Worst Person in the World”, Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt goes in a much different direction with his new movie “The Innocents”. This subtle yet relentlessly eerie supernatural thriller first premiered at Cannes in 2021. Now it’s set for its release this weekend and I promise you, this one will rattle you in ways you won’t be expecting.

Vogt uses a richly detailed but thoroughly unsettling vision to explore the notion of childhood innocence and burgeoning moral conscience. While he handles the subjects with a great deal of restraint, Vogt also manages to shake us to our core. Part of it is due to his ability to infuse a near unbearable level of dread into certain sequences. He’s also not afraid to shock his audience, using violence in a way reminiscent of Michael Haneke. Not simply for the sake of doing it, but with a precise intention in mind. It gives his movie a real bite.

Pretty much the entire story takes place in and around a large Norwegian apartment complex. Our avatar is nine-year-old Ida who’s played by the incredibly expressive Rakel Lenora Fløttum. Ida has just moved to the apartments with her parents (Ellen Dorrit Pedersen and Morten Svartveit) and her autistic older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Vogt builds a compelling family dynamic centered around Ida’s relationship with the mostly nonverbal Anna. Jealous of all the attention her sister requires from their parents, a resentful Ida will often pinch Anna when no one’s looking and sometimes does much worse.

Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight

While Ida’s cruelty is troubling, Vogt doesn’t cast her in a one-dimensional light. There’s more to her character and it really begins to come out once she makes two new friends, a troubled boy named Ben (Sam Ashraf) and the kindhearted Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim). The two come from significantly different single-parent homes. Aisha’s mother (Kadra Yusuf) loves her dearly but struggles financially to make ends meet. Ben’s mom (Lisa Tønne) is abusive and neglectful, often leaving her young son to fend for himself.

The supernatural element is introduced after Ben reveals his telekinetic powers to Ida. It starts innocently enough with him snapping twigs and flinging pebbles with his mind. Neither seem shocked by his power. Both treat it with the same childlike amusement as they do Ida’s double-jointed elbow trick. They laugh it off the way kids often do with any cool little discovery. But some of their other antics go beyond simple kiddie mischief, and reveal a darker side to Ben that even Ida finds unsettling.

Aisha adds another variable to the story. Along with being sweet and compassionate, she also possesses psychic abilities that allow her to speak with people via their minds. It’s through Aisha that we learn Anna also has untapped supernatural powers of her own. I won’t spoil where things eventually go, but the interactions between the four children fester into something disturbing and deadly. And while the main story turns chilling and occasionally brutal, a powerful subtext examining class and minority status simmers under the film’s surface. It’s something that could’ve been explored deeper, but at the same time it’s there and relevant.

Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight

There are several interesting storytelling choices that are surprisingly effective. For example, we get no lengthy backstory explaining how these children acquired their powers or how widespread the phenomenon may be. It’s sounds like a significant omission, but by keeping us captive in their small confined world, such detail isn’t needed. Also, you may wonder about the adults. They’re present but they mostly exist on the periphery. They nicely serve the young characters, and their influences (both good and bad) can be felt in their children.

I also like how Vogt uses several clever methods to keep us always seeing things from the children’s perspective. One of my favorites is his visual approach. DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camera often puts an emphasis on the height of the children’s surroundings. Shots of the massive high-rise apartment building, the near bottomless stairwell in their complex, the towering trees in the nearby forest where they play – they all contribute to capturing the world the way these four young people see it. It may sound like a small detail, but it’s an artistic touch that proves impactful.

Led by four outstanding child performances and an unflinching vision from writer-director Eskil Vogt, “The Innocents” uses elements from the horror genre to challenge the traditional way we often depict childhood, both in the movies and in reality. It can be hard to watch (take heed cat lovers), and its patient and unvarnished style may let down those looking for a more conventional genre film. But that’s a key thing I loved about it. Vogt’s clear-eyed treatment allows him to focus on what matters most – his characters. And it’s their stories, as tragic and as uneasy as they may be, that makes this a hard movie to shake. “The Innocents” opens today in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

First Glance: “Avatar: The Way of Water” Teaser

It has been 13 years since James Cameron’s “Avatar” hit theaters, shattering box office records and ushering in a 3-D craze that (thankfully) has died off. The story of “Avatar” was essentially an overly preachy “Dances with Wolves” rip-off. But technically the movie was an eye-popping wonder and unlike anything moviegoers had ever seen. And it utilized 3-D in a way that no other movie after it could ever do.

Following numerous delays, many were wondering if the rumored “Avatar” sequel would ever see the light of day. Well, it most certainly is and we actually have the first teaser. There’s not much there in terms of story. We do know it’s set a decade after the first film and it revolves around Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) protecting their family from a new evil on Pandora. But this teaser is all about the visuals and it looks stunning. You could say it looks more like a PC graphics card demo than an actual movie. But I’m sure we’ll see more soon.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” hits theaters December 16th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

RETRO REVIEW: “Thelma & Louise”

Ridley Scott’s acclaimed road-trip crime movie “Thelma & Louise” came out 31 years ago this month. And after watching it again for the first time in well over a decade, I was blown away by how well it still holds up. With its strong female-driven story, “Thelma & Louise” still resonates today. And while it’s characterization of men can still be over-the-top to the point of cartoonish, that’s kinda the point in a movie about women taking charge of their own fate in such a male-dominated society.

“Thelma & Louise” came out on March 24, 1991 and was a hit both critically and commercially. It would go on to earn six Academy Award nominations including two Best Actress nods for its stars, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. Ridley Scott was also nominated for directing. The movie’s lone Oscar win was for its screenplay written by Callie Khouri. It was Khouri’s first feature film script. What a way to make a splash.

“Thelma & Louise” was followed by some controversy at the time. It faced several accusations from those calling the movie “anti-male” for its depictions of men. But again, the movie is a parable with a very important point to make. And focusing on the movie’s sometimes exaggerated portrayal of men instead of the message being conveyed is doing it a disservice. And it’s not like every single male presence in the film is decidedly negative. I like what Khouri said in response to the controversy, “If you think it’s anti-male, you’re identifying with the wrong character.”

The story centers around two best friends from Arkansas stuck in their dreary mundane lives. Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a waitress who’s tired waiting for her on-again, off-again boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) to commit. Thelma (Geena Davis) is a housewife married to a slimeball car salesman named Darryl (a hilariously despicable Christopher McDonald). Louise has planned a weekend fishing trip just for the two friends, but Thelma is scared to bring it up to her self-obsessed husband. After yet another Darryl tantrum, Thelma decides she doesn’t need his permission. She leaves him a note next to his TV dinner and calls Louise.

The two pack their bags and head out in Louise’s 1966 Thunderbird convertible for a road-trip that will change their lives. It begins when they stop to stretch their legs at a roadside honky-tonk where Thelma catches the eye of the overly flirty Harlan (Timothy Carhart). But what starts as a few drinks and some dancing ends up with Harlan beating and attempting to rape Thelma in the parking lot. Louise finds them and shoots Harlan dead with a pistol Thelma swiped from Darryl’s bedside drawer.

Thelma wants to go directly to the police, but the cynical Louise (for reasons that become clearer later in the movie) doesn’t think the cops will believe them, especially since the entire club saw Thelma and Harlan all over each other on the dance floor. So they go on the run, driving into Oklahoma and plotting a route to Mexico that doesn’t include Texas. Why not Texas you ask? That too becomes clearer as the story progresses.

A good on-the-lam movie needs a good pursuer and “Thelma & Louise” has one in Harvey Keitel. He plays Hal Slocumb, an Arkansas State Police detective with a heart. He’s genuinely concerned about Thelma and Louise and does his best to find them and bring them in before things get out of hand. Keitel has such a natural charisma and he’s such a nice fit here.

And of course there’s Brad Pitt in the supporting role that put him on the map. He plays a gentlemanly and good-looking young cowboy named J.D. who hitches a ride with Thelma and Louise as they’re crossing Oklahoma. It’s not a particularly great performance, but I don’t think it’s the performance that earned him the most attention (if you get what I mean).

Still, without question the stars are Sarandon and Davis. Flipping gender roles for a road-trip buddy movie was certainly significant. But this isn’t simply a case of two women simply mimicking what men have done in similar movies. Sarandon and Davis make for a spirited duo and they bring personality, grit, and humor their roles. And they really get to have fun once the second half kicks in. “We’re fugitives now. Let’s start behaving like that.”

While there is a real weight to the story itself, the two leads, Khouri’s straight-shooting script, and Ridley Scott’s stellar direction gives it room to be funny, warm, and even a little crazy. Some of the male caricatures are a little too goofy (see the chauvinistic truck driver who wears out his welcome after his second appearance). And the ending, though unquestionably iconic, has never fully felt right to me. I really like the choice and I even like the freeze-frame. But the quick fade to white ends things on such a hurried note. We’re seeing credits before the weight of what has happened can really set in. Still, it wraps things up in the most fitting way, and it gives the movie the kind of final punch that people are still talking about today.

VERDICT – 4 STARS