REVIEW: “The Good House” (2022)

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

Sigourney Weaver stars and anchors “The Good House”, a smart and thoughtful new drama aimed at grownups from co-directors Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky. It proves to be a wonderful vehicle for Weaver who (inexplicably) hasn’t been given a role this meaty in a long time. Watching her navigate between comically sardonic and tragically damaged is a treat.

“The Good House” isn’t an easy movie to map out, and it ends in a much different place than it begins narratively, thematically, and tonally. To Forbes and Wolodarsky’s credit, they do a good job ushering us through their wonky story, keeping us focused and laying enough groundwork that the inevitable final act, though a little shaky, feels earned. It’s also helped by a collection of interesting and organic supporting characters who liven things up and fill out the film’s cozy small town setting.

The movie starts by planting our feet in Wendover, Massachusetts, a picturesque little town on the North Shore of Boston. It’s a quaint and quiet community with an inviting atmosphere and postcard quality views. It’s where me meet Hildy Good (Weaver), a hometown real estate agent with confidence to spare. Hildy is all about perception, dressing to the nines and driving a Range Rover just to convey the image of success to her clients. And Hildy is accustomed to success, that is until recently.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

“The Good House” is all about unpacking Hildy’s story and much of it is done through her own words to us. Weaver routinely breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience and establishing herself as our unreliable narrator. But her straight-to-camera dialogue is more than some gimmicky narrative device. It’s a key ingredient to the movie. At times it comes across as Hildy simply sharing her story through her own biased and self-deluded lens. Other times it comes across as a woman wrestling with her conscience; trying to convince it (us) and herself that she’s fine. Some of the most revealing moments come through these brief one-on-ones.

Though she’s not ready to admit it, Hildy’s life is crumbling. The souring housing market has hurt her business, leaving her with mounting debt. She has to pay alimony to her ex-husband Scott (David Rasche) who left her for a man. Her two adult daughters (Rebecca Henderson, Molly Brown) have their own lives yet still sponge off mom. Her once trusted protégé (Kathryn Erbe) stole most of her clients and started her own realty agency. And to top it all off, Hildy’s an alcoholic. She’s duped her family into believing she’s in recovery following an intervention and a rehab stint. But while she plays sober during the day, at night she guzzles wine from her hidden stash at home.

Of course she think she’s okay, but Hildy lives in denial. “I need a good year,” she tells us, as if selling more homes will solve all of her problems and help get her mojo back. She’s pretty convincing, and we’re tempted to give her the benefit of the doubt. That’s because both Weaver and the cagey script (penned by Forbes, Wolodarsky, and Thomas Bezucha) imbue Hildy with such a persuasive self-assurance, especially in the film’s first half. But we learn better over time as the cracks in her facade become more noticeable.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The colorful array of townsfolk weave in and out of the story, each used to reveal a little more about Hildy. In addition to her daughters, ex-husband, and arch reality rival, there’s also the town’s therapist, Peter (comedian Rob Delaney), a wealthy young newcomer, Rebecca (a terrific Morena Baccarin), her perpetually soused old friend, Mamie (Beverly D’Angelo), and the local coffee shop gossip, Henry (Paul Guilfoyle).

Out of the slew of side characters, the most alluring is Frank Getchell (Kevin Kline). He’s the local jack of all trades who happens to be Hildy’s old high school flame. He’s a bit kooky, but he’s also an all-around good guy who still cares for Hildy. It’s a nice reunion for Weaver and Kline who worked together in two movies during the 1990s, “Dave” and “The Ice Storm”. From their first scene together, the two screen veterans instantly rekindle their old chemistry.

“The Good House” offers something that has become a rarity in modern movies – an actual look at womanhood that’s free of pity and sentimentality. It’s even more rare for its subject to be an older woman – a demographic that Hollywood repeatedly overlooks. But “The Good House” proves what many of us have known – that there are plenty of good stories to tell from this age group. And there are plenty of good actors who still have a lot to bring to the screen. In this case it’s Sigourney Weaver, who not only proves that point, but who delivers some of the best work of her already stellar career. “The Good House” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “God’s Creatures” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

This year A24 has built upon their well-established hip image with the zany and self-indulgent multiverse bop “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and a string of attention-getting horror films that includes “X”, “Men”, “Bodies Bodies Bodies”, and “Pearl”. But easily one of the best movies from A24’s 2022 catalog is “God’s Creatures”, a searing psychological drama from co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer.

“God’s Creatures” is a tough-minded social study wrapped in a warped Prodigal Son story. Along the way it takes a scalpel to familial bonds, family loyalties, and small town justice, all while looking hard at sexual assault amid the slanted social dynamics of a tight-knit Irish fishing village. That’s meaty subject matter on its own, but it’s Davis, Holmer, and first-time feature screenwriter Shane Crowley’s honest and unvarnished perspective that makes it resonate.

Image Courtesy of A24

The film features a terrific cast, none better than Emily Watson, an actress who can convey more through a simply stare than most actresses can with pages of dialogue. Her awards worthy performance offers a fascinating spin on the mother archetype, one minute embodying it to the fullest and later offering a full-blown deconstruction as her character is faced with choices and their potentially damning consequences.

Firmly rooted in the everyday monotony of her rural coastal village, middle-aged matriarch Aileen O’Hara (Watson) spends her days sorting fish and oysters with other women at the town’s seaside distribution plant. At home, her family is jolted by the unannounced return of her favorite son, Brian (Paul Mescal) who has spent the last several years in Australia. There’s never a reason given for his sudden reappearance, but there’s plenty to glean from the film’s second half for us to reach our own conclusions.

While the ecstatic Aileen instantly reverts to the doting mother, the other members of the family seem leery of Brian’s return. His cold taciturn father, Con (a stern and earnest Declan Conlon) speaks volumes with his silence. But his clear-eyed straight-shooting sister, Erin (a wonderful Toni O’Rourke) doesn’t hide her suspicions. The family tension is palpable, and Crowley’s screenplay manages it without the need for melodramatic flashbacks or heavy exposition. He simply trusts us to follow the breadcrumbs and figure things out for ourselves.

Aileen’s maternal joy in having her son back comes with its own set of form-fitting blinders. Not only does she tune out the growing concerns of her family, she also blindly brushes off some clear red flags (anything for her little boy). But the tide shifts after Brian is accused of sexually assaulting Aileen’s younger co-worker and longtime family friend, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi, full of quiet fortitude). When asked by the police about her son’s whereabouts on the night in question, Aileen lies to corroborate Brian’s story. The repercussions of that choice reverberates through the remainder of the film’s running time.

Image Courtesy of A24

While its story unfolds into a gripping character-driven slow burn, “God’s Creatures” is full of modest yet extremely effective touches. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin’s beautiful yet somber gaze shrewdly feeds the film’s tragic mood and atmosphere. The sound design leans heavy on local ambience (the caws of seagulls, the clacking of oyster shells, the many different sounds of water) which provides a strong sense of place. Then there’s the disconcerting score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans – a brilliantly strange blend of wailing strings and higher pitched thumps.

But “God’s Creatures” always comes back to the characters and the exceptional ensemble behind them. Emily Watson should immediately be put into the Oscar conversation for her raw and unflinching performance. Mescal’s uncanny ability to mix sinister with charm plays with our perception of his character by making Brian both endearing and unnerving. And then there’s Franciosi who gets several great scenes, none better than a single sustained profile shot that comes at the film’s most crucial moment. It’s a scene that encapsulates what makes the movie so good – it’s concise, affecting, and it has faith in its audience to figure things out. “God’s Creatures” is out now in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” (2022)

After four years, director Peter Farrelly returns to the big screen for the first time since winning the Best Picture Oscar for 2018’s “Green Book”. While it might not have been Best Picture material (whatever that even means), “Green Book” was an earnest, big-hearted crowdpleaser that infuriated many who took the film (and awards shows in general) too seriously. It had its flaws, but it also had its charm.

Farrelly’s follow-up, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” features some of the same ticks that both helped and hurt “Green Book”. It’s sincere, mainstream, feel-good entertainment. But it also keeps so much on the surface, rarely (if ever) digging into the themes it introduces. The movie has a good message, several of them in fact. But the screenplay (co-written by Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Pete Jones) bluntly conveys them rather than explore them which is sure to push away those looking for something deeper.

Based on an inconceivable true account, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” tells the story of John “Chickie” Donohue (played by a mustachioed Zac Efron, packing his signature goofiness and charm). Set in 1967, Chickie Donohue is a thick-headed merchant marine who still lives with his parents in Inwood, a tight-knit neighborhood in northern Manhattan.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

While many local boys are off fighting in Vietnam, Chickie and his gaggle of drinking buddies spend most of their time hanging out at a bar owned and ran by the Colonel (a fantastic Bill Murray). Collectively, the group sits around declaring their unwavering support of the war even though they can’t really articulate what America is fighting for (certainly it’s something to do with those dang “Commies”). But with eight kids from their neighborhood already killed in action and a ninth just declared MIA, their blind allegiance is a tough sell.

On the other side is Chickie’s sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) who’s heavily involved in war protests which he believes dishonors the troops. So Chickie and his pals from the pub hatch a wild-haired idea – one rooted in mind-boggling naivete. Wouldn’t it be great if someone from back home went to Vietnam and surprised the neighborhood boys still fighting with an ice-cold beer? What better way (in their minds) to support the troops? And who better to carry out such a cockamamie plan than Chickie?

While Chickie’s appreciation for the troops is sincere, he’s just as much about showing he’s not a flake. None of his friends or his family expect he’ll REALLY go over to Vietnam. After all, he has a reputation for not going through with his ideas. Convicted over his inaction and determined to prove that everyone’s wrong about him, Chickie stuffs a bottomless duffel bag with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and hops a cargo ship bound for Vietnam. Two months and 10,000 nautical miles later he arrives in Vietnam and begins his improbable beer run across a war-torn country.

After firmly establishing Chickie’s ignorance of the world around him, Farrelly spends the rest of the film opening the eyes of our well-meaning yet gullible dope. Much of what he learns comes from the assortment of people he encounters. There’s Arthur Coates (Russell Crowe), a cynical but realistic war correspondent for Look Magazine. There’s “Oklahoma” (Kevin K. Tran), a local traffic cop he befriends in Saigon. And there’s the hysterical Lieutenant Habershaw (Matt Cook) who’s convinced Chickie is an undercover CIA agent.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

But Chickie’s biggest reality checks comes through his unexpected face-to-faces with war itself. Such as when he dupes his way to the front-line to see his buddy Duggan (Jake Picking). Or when he gets caught up in the Tet Offensive. These scenes stretch the bounds of plausibility, yet they offer several sobering moments for Chickie and us. It all comes down to how much you buy into both Chickie and his outlandish odyssey. Efron’s multilayered performance is convincing even when the storytelling isn’t. And while it’s hard to buy some of the liberties Farrelly and company take, Efron ensures we never doubt Chickie or his motivations.

There’s one hilariously delivered line of dialogue that perfectly sums up Chickie’s crazy venture, “It may be idiotic”, says one character, “but it’s a noble gesture.” The movie agrees. Farrelly makes no attempt to hide the absurdity of Chickie’s idea or the crazy way he pulls it off. But it does recognize Chickie’s heart and his transformation from a naive and credulous lunkhead to an informed and contrite lunkhead. Ultimately that worked for me.

At times Farrelly’s pacing feels too rushed, and the tone-hopping can be distracting. Also, his attempt at connecting the fractured country then to our current climate of divisiveness doesn’t quite land. Still, I love the intent and the optimism behind its overarching message. Efron continues to grow on me as an actor, there are a few good laughs, and several of the more sobering moments have the desired emotional impact. It’s probably too much to juggle in one movie, but Farrelly keeps it all together and makes an utterly preposterous true story resonate in ways I wasn’t expecting. “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” opens tomorrow (Sept. 30th) in select theaters and streams on Apple TV+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Goodnight Mommy” (2022)

In the opening scene of the new film “Goodnight Mommy” we see a father (Peter Hermann) drop off his twin sons Elias and Lukas (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) at their mother’s middle-of-nowhere modernist home. We pick up on several things in these early moments. It’s clear the mother and father are separated. It’s equally clear that the boys haven’t seen their mother in a while. So as the dad drives away, Elias and Lukas scamper inside to find their ‘mommy’. What they discover is alarming to say the least.

The brothers find their mother (Naomi Watts) and are surprised to see her entire face covered in bandages. She explains it’s the result of a recent cosmetic surgery and that she just needs time to heal. The three sit down and their mother lays down a few house rules. Some are pretty normal (no running or shouting in the house, stay out of her office, etc.). But some will automatically set off alarms for any well-versed horror/thriller fan (keep the blinds closed, sunlight is bad, stay out of the barn, etc.).

Directed by Matt Sobel and written by Kyle Warren, “Goodnight Mommy” is a remake of a 2014 Austrian film of the same name. I haven’t seen the original, but many have praised it as dark, disquieting psychological horror. Obviously I can’t compare the two, but this new “Goodnight Mommy” didn’t quite grab me that way. It’s not that it’s a bad film. In fact it wastes no time building up some pretty good suspense. And it’s helped by Watts who (to no surprise) delivers a solid performance despite a script that does her no favors.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

As the tender Elias and the more rambunctious Lukas spend more time with their mother, they start to notice unusual behavior. She’s colder and more distant. She’s quick tempered and snaps at the boys for the smallest things. But things only get worse, and soon Elias and Lukas come to a startling conclusion. They convinced that the woman under the heavy gauze is not their mother.

That’s a really good setup with loads of potential. And there are plenty of ways to squeeze some good tension out the premise. But unfortunately things start to deflate in the second half as the movie struggles to keep its early momentum. Even worse, the story’s big twist becomes obvious well before it’s revealed. And that turns out to be a killer, zapping the movie of any tension and suspense. And with the exception of one lone delightfully terrifying scene, finding anything resembling a fright or a thrill proves to be a chore.

Again, I haven’t seen the original “Goodnight Mommy”, but this English-language update plays like a more sanitized version – one that lacks the guts to really take this story to darker and more unsettling places. In fairness, by the end it makes sense why things aren’t quite as twisted and deranged as they could’ve been. But that doesn’t change the experience of watching the film, especially the second half which desperately needs a kick. “Goodnight Mommy” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Gigi & Nate” (2022)

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

The new feel-good drama “Gigi & Tate” taps into that well-worn but tried-and-true ‘a boy and his dog’ formula. Except this time it’s a boy and his capuchin monkey. Directed by Nick Hamm from a script by David Hudgins, “Gigi & Nate” tells the touching true story of an unexpected friendship and shows how it saved a young man’s life and brought a hurting family together following a devastating tragedy.

Charlie Rowe plays 18-year-old Nate Gibson who we first meet only a couple of weeks before he’s to head off for college. He has big plans and a bright future ahead. That is until his life is forever changed. Nate contracts bacterial meningitis after cliff diving. Nate is med-flighted to a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee where his parents, Claire (Marcia Gay Harden) and Dan (Jim Belushi) and his two sisters, Katy (Josephine Langford) and Annabelle (Hannah Riley) are given some heart-shattering news.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The movie leaps ahead four years where we learn Nate is a quadriplegic. Confined to a wheelchair and spiraling into depression, he finds solace in a capuchin monkey named Gigi. She was rescued from an abusive petting zoo in California and nurtured and trained to be a service animal. After some initial hesitation (by both Gigi and some of his family) Nate and the pint-sized primate bond. They develop a tender relationship that not only helps Nate and his outlook on life, but helps bring a splintering family back together.

But these days it seems like we always have to have an antagonist. Here we get it in the form of an absurdly one-note animal rights activist named Chloe Gaines (Welker White). She heads a group called Americans for Animal Protection, and she immediately puts Nate and Gigi in her legal crosshairs. The second half of the movie gets bogged down in their room-temperature conflict that includes a laughably phony protest sequence outside the Gibson’s home and some tensionless courtroom drama.

The clunky storytelling doesn’t exactly help things. The movie tends to skimp on details, often bypassing opportunities for some good character building. For example, there’s an early scene where we seen Nate in such a bad state of mind that he attempts to take his own life. But less than a minute later we see him at a service animal training facility, smiling and eager to meet Gigi for the first time. There’s not a single scene devoted to showing how Nate went from completely broken and suicidal to optimistic and excited. It turns out to be a reoccurring frustration.

While it’s hard not to take note of the Gibson family’s wealth, Hamm and Hudgins do a good job of helping us see the people beyond the privilege. The filmmakers put in the effort to connect us with this tight-knit family as they each try to cope with Nate’s condition in their own ways. As with other story elements, sometimes the movie breezes past opportunities to make this family dynamic even richer. But as a whole, we get a good sense of who these people are and of their efforts to recover individually and collectively.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

And then there’s Gigi. She’s brought to life by blending the work from a real capuchin monkey named Allie with digital effects. Of course we get a few saccharine scenes of animal cuteness meant to melt our hearts. But as a whole, the filmmakers use Gigi smartly and to great effect. She plays a pivotal part, not just in realizing the story, but in opening up a number of themes the movie is interested in. She too ends up undercut by some of the second-half sloppiness. But as animal portrayals go, Gigi is used well and has an undeniably heartwarming presence.

I can’t say enough about the movie’s message of hope and triumph. I love what it says about coping with tragedy and overcoming adversity. Yet while “Gigi & Nate” is full of compelling themes and scenes that are tender and earnest, it’s hampered by some nagging frustrations that make it hard to focus on the more meaningful moments. The corny villain angle, the jolts in the pacing, some wobbly performances – they pulled me out of a movie that really hinges on our emotional investment. “Gigi & Nate” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Good Boss” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa’s biting anti-corporate satire “The Good Boss” is the kind of movie that can have you snickering one minute and squirming the next. It’s a dark workplace comedy with a subtle edge; one driven by a tour de force performance from Javier Bardem, whose smooth-talking charisma-rich presence turns megalomania, duplicity, and self-serving passive-aggression into a captivating image you can’t turn away from. It’s some of the 53-year-old Oscar winner’s best work.

While Bardem is undeniably magnetic, just as key to the movie’s success is de Aranoa’s cracking script. With its many side characters and smorgasbord of sub-plots, there are so many ways this could have turned messy. But de Aranoa has such a firm and confident control of the material. It’s nicely paced; it has a near perfect balance of storytelling and character development; and the subtle shots of humor often come from the most hilariously unexpected places. Most importantly, the story maintains a remarkably tight cohesion throughout. Not easy for a movie with this many moving parts.

Image Courtesy of Bright Iris Film Co.

The story revolves around Julio Blanco (Bardem), the titular head of Blanco Scales. It’s a mid-sized company he inherited from his father that makes and sells weight scales of every shape and size (the richness of that reoccurring metaphor is impossible to miss). Along with his wife Adela (a really good Sonia Almarcha) who runs her own fashion boutique, the two are a working couple who never had children. Instead, Blanco claims his employees as his “children” to the point of frequently involving himself in their personal lives.

In reality, Blanco uses his “One Big Family” spiel as a tool to manipulate and control his workforce. Some see through his fatherly ruse and have learned how to manage it. Others fall victim. Take Jose (Óscar de la Fuente), a disgruntled former employee (and perpetual thorn in Blanco’s side) who sets up camp on a splotch of public land near the factory’s main entrance to protest being laid off. Or the string of young female interns who Blanco is quick to bring onboard and even quicker to replace once he’s had his way with them. So the irony in the movie’s title is pretty glaring.

Blanco’s company is one of three finalists for a prestigious industry award which he desperately wants to win. Winning would secure some much-needed subsidies, but deep down it’s all about the glory. Ever the narcissist, Blanco craves the adulation, and he even has a trophy wall which the film routinely cuts back to, highlighting the empty space that he has already prepared. And with the awards committee set to make a surprise visit, Blanco wants to make sure everything at the factory is in top form. Of course that proves to be easier said than done.

The bulk of the film follows Blanco’s attempts at managing his employees and their range of problems (many of which he is directly or indirectly responsible for) before the awards committee shows up. Days serve as chapters, starting on a Sunday, and the story moves throughout the week chronicling the growing workplace and personal drama.

Image Courtesy of Bright Iris Film Co.

Along the way we’re introduced to a fun array of surprisingly layered supporting characters. There’s Blanco’s oldest friend and the company’s Head of Production Miralles (Manolo Solo), his handyman and jack-of-all-trades Fortuna (Celso Bugallo), his dutiful second in command Rubio (Rafa Castejón), his factory’s front gate security guard Román (Fernando Albizu), an ambitious floor worker Khaled (Tarik Rmili), and a young marketing intern, Liliana (Almudena Amor) who proves to be more than some new flavor of the month. The more Blanco meddles in their lives the more complicated things get and his paternal charade quickly starts to crumble.

That may not sound like the most compelling story, but don’t be fooled. Even at two hours, “The Good Boss” keeps you locked in thanks to its whip-smart script and a powerhouse Javier Bardem lead performance. Again, this is some of his best work, and he takes this rich character and embodies him to the fullest. And Fernando León de Aranoa clearly knows what he has in Bardem and gives the actor the material he needs to vividly bring Blanco to life. De Aranoa does the rest, using his know-how to wrangle everything else together to fill out a story that never loses its wit or it’s bite. “The Good Boss” opens in select theaters August 26th.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS