REVIEW: “Honor Society” (2022)

Director Oran Zegman and screenwriter David A. Goodman team up for “Honor Society”, a high school coming-of-age comedy wedged right between freshly original and disappointingly conventional. It’s a movie with plenty of its own ideas and a charismatic star who helps the film consistently subvert our expectations. But there are also times where it resorts to the more familiar teen movie formula. That’s when you can see the filmmakers checking boxes and leaning on tropes rather than using them in interesting ways.

While “Honor Society” may not be the most balanced movie, it does have its own distinct personality and allure which keeps you locked in. It all starts with the film’s lead character, Honor Rose, played by a delightfully snarky and devilishly charming Angourie Rice. Honor is an ambitious and determined overachiever in the final days of her senior year of high school. Since her freshman year, Honor has stuck to her own strict and obsessive four-year academic plan with only one goal in mind – acceptance into Harvard. There are no contingency plans, no second choices, no rethinking it if something goes wrong. It’s Harvard or bust, and she’ll trample anyone in her path to get there.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

The framing of the story is interesting. Basically, Honor is walking us through her story, constantly breaking the fourth wall to let us know how she really feels about what we’re seeing. It’s revealing as we learn she’s not only brutally honest, but also conceited, condescending, and astonishingly self-serving. She’s ready to ditch her small town and leave middle-class life in the dust. And she lets us know she has just the kind of ego to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Rice conveys all of these qualities with jarring clarity, and she gives us a character we are appalled by but also strangely admire. I mean her point-of-view on certain things may be a bit harsh, but they can also resonate.

Essential to Honor’s plan is her perverted guidance counselor, Mr. Calvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who happens to have Harvard connections. Honor needs him to write her a letter of recommendation and has tried to use his utterly inappropriate feelings towards her to her advantage. But instead of writing her the letter, he informs her that she’s among his top four choices. Only one will get his Harvard recommendation. Of course that is unacceptable for Honor who immediately starts putting together her next course of action.

Honor narrows down her competition to Travis Biggins (Armani Jackson), the hunky captain of the lacrosse team; Kennedy Park (Amy Keum), an eccentric and ignored introvert who wears historical costumes to school; and Michael Dipnicky (Gaten Matarazzo), a brilliant but bullied outcast. Honor hatches several plans to preoccupy the three so that they bomb their mid-terms. But in her efforts to manipulate everyone for her benefit, she unknowingly ends up changing some of their lives for the better.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

As the plot unfurls more characters are introduced which is where the movie begins to veer towards the conventional. Collectively most feel like typical teen movie types and neither them nor their story angles move beyond that. Some characters fare better than others. But most hit all too familiar beats with very predictable trajectories. And it’s not without its corn and cringe. Take the all too tidy finale that comes right after a smart and surprisingly wicked twist. The sappy and groan-worthy final few moments land with a thud.

But the most stable force from start to finish is Angourie Rice. This should be an attention-getting performance and a star-making turn for the 21-year-old Australian. Regardless of where the story goes she keeps us anchored, brilliantly juggling acting directly into the camera and with other actors. And despite a few tired conventions, there’s still some good material here that let’s Rice take her character to some unanticipated places. That’s when “Honor Society” is at its best. “Honor Society” is now streaming on Paramount+.


REVIEW: “Hustle” (2022)

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

Adam Sandler seems to be a likable guy, but it’s been a while since I’ve really enjoyed one of his movies. The trailer for “Hustle” didn’t inspire much hope. It teased a sports movie that seemed to lean heavy on well-worn tropes and countless cameos (one of Sandler’s favorite gimmicks). And considering I just recently watched a really good basketball movie (more on it next week), I wasn’t itching to immediately watch another one. But the response to “Hustle” has been pretty great with critics I trust speaking highly of it and Sandler’s performance. And trailers aren’t always reliable, right?

“Hustle” turns out to be a mixed bag. It’s made well enough by director Jeremiah Zagar and it has some truly heartfelt moments. Sandler gives a solid performance and Juancho Hernangómez is surprisingly good. But the film has such a copy-and-paste sports story which doesn’t offer much of anything that we haven’t seen before. Co-writers Taylor Materne and Will Fetters stick too close to an overly familiar blueprint which means there isn’t an ounce of suspense about how things will turn out. You pretty much know where it’s going from the very start.

And yes, there is a deluge of cameos. So many that they quickly begin to feel like a crutch. Sandler (who also produces) and the filmmakers stuff in every basketball personality they possibly can. Mark Cuban, Doc Rivers, Julius Irving, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and that just scratches the surface. It goes well beyond servicing the story, almost to the point of vanity. Yes, we get it Sandman. You know a lot of people. It doesn’t mean you need to cram them into every Happy Madison Production.

Back to the story, Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, an aging basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. He spends his days spanning the globe, bouncing from country to country in hopes of finding the next big thing in the NBA. His dream is to finally land a coaching job which would allow him to spend more time at home with his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and their teenage daughter, Alex (Jordan Hull).

His dream comes true when Sixers team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) promotes Stanley to assistant coach. But his excitement is short lived. In the first of several contrivances you can see coming a mile away, Rex suddenly dies, leaving his conceited son Vince (Ben Foster) to handle the day-to-day operation of the team. And one of his first acts is to take Stanley off the bench and put him back on the road. Now Rex has a daughter named Kat (Heidi Gardner) who holds a prominent position with the team. Like her father, she’s close to Stanley. But she suddenly vanishes for no apparent reason other than the writers need her to.

While in Spain, Stanley happens upon a streetball game. There he gets his first look at Bo Cruz (Hernangómez), a 22-year-old phenom in work boots who hustles on the court to help support his mom (Maria Botto) and young daughter (Ainhoa Pillet). In Bo, Stanley sees his ticket back to the Sixers bench. So he takes the young man under his wing and begins prepping him for his shot at playing in the NBA. Over time, the two grow close with Stanley becoming more of a father figure/coach than a down-on-his-luck scout.

Along the way we get several of the tried-and-true sports drama story beats. For example, there’s the mandatory rah-rah training segment as Stanley works to get Bo ready for the NBA Combine. And there are the conventional hurdles that are packed into every one of these movies. You know, the ones that leave our heroes feeling defeated and thinking all is lost. That is until the music swells and they get that one last shot. There was a brief moment where I thought the movie was actually going to do something fresh and unexpected. Alas, it immediately fell back in line and wraps up exactly as expected, bypassing several glaring questions, and going straight for the feel-good jugular.

Sandler and his inherent charm is almost enough to keep things afloat. Sure he’s playing a variation of the same character he’s played in several of his movies, but that’s part of what draws people to him. He also has a natural chemistry with Hernangómez and together they form the heart of the story. But other characters don’t fare as well. Take Foster who is easily dealt the worst hand. His Vince devolves into nothing more than a one-note villain with no nuance whatsoever. And in a truly lazy bit of writing, his story angle wraps up off screen and with one simply line of dialogue from another character.

The movie is at its best in the few moments where it pulls back from basketball and allows its characters to expand beyond the game. I also like how Zagar captures the energy of the big city streetball scene. But beyond that it’s hard to find much in “Hustle” to be excited about. And that’s mainly because we’ve seen all of this before. Throw in some really shaky writing and shoddy character work and you’re left with a cookie-cutter sports movie that may please Sandler diehards but with little to offer otherwise.


Sundance Review: “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” (2022)

If its title didn’t grab your attention the film’s two co-stars should. The always great (and in this case perfectly cast) Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown play a megachurch power couple in the upcoming “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul”. It marks the directorial debut for Adamma Ebo who gives us a biting and often hilarious critique of pseudo-Christianity and megachurch corruption. It’s a snarky satire that uses a mockumentary style to lambaste the lavish self-serving absurdity at the heart of these rackets.

From its opening moments, those familiar with the megachurch phenomenon will immediately notice the spot-on detail. Ebo has clearly done her research and she uses it to expose these wealthy scam-artists who put price tags on righteousness and sell their version of salvation for profit. And of course she delivers plenty of laughs, always at the hucksters’ expense. But Ebo’s craftiness shows in the glimmers of humanity she brings out of her characters, even amid their glaring over-the-top chicanery.

Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) is the pastor of Wander to Greatest Paths Baptist Church in Atlanta (how’s that for a name?). It was once a prominent megachurch with an estimated 25,000 congregants. He and his wife Trinitie (Hall), who’s proudly flaunts the haughty, self-aggrandizing title “First Lady” (not uncommon in these circles), live a opulent lifestyle complete with matching Ferraris, a helicopter, a palatial mansion, closets full of expensive dresses and designer suits, all in the name of the Lord’s service of course.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

You won’t find words like “humility” “moderation” or “contentment” in this couple’s vocabulary, with Lee-Curtis excusing his high-priced indulgences as “divine additions” while Trinitie buys $2000.00 hats at a boutique called Bathsheba’s Bonnets (the irony is both obvious and hilarious).

And then came the fall. Lee-Curtis found himself embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal which rocked his cash-cow empire, resulting in a mass exodus of church members and the eventual closing of the church. But rather than bowing out and slithering away in shame, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are prepping for their big comeback, marking down Easter Sunday for their church’s grand re-opening. And to help capture the occasion (and to shamelessly get as much publicity as possible), they’ve brought in a film crew to shoot a documentary.

And so we get the movie’s come-and-go mockumentary style which begins one month before their big Easter event. Ebo has her faux filmmakers follow Lee-Curtis and Trinitie over the next several weeks as they share their “vision” for the future of WGPBP. But instead of demonstrating remorse and repentance, we get the same two charlatans, still decked in Prada and still finding ways to rationalize their sin.

Though a bit uneven, the mockumentary conceit allows for many of the film’s funniest moments. Such as the various times the couple inadvertently expose their true selves in front of the camera. Or in the rivalry we see between the Childses and Keon and Shakira Sumpter (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance), the husband and wife co-pastors of the bustling Heaven’s House Baptist Church. There are some shakier scenes where the movie drifts away from its whole mockumentary framing (one particularly cringy rap-song sing-a-long being a prime example). But it never takes it long to get back on track.

While the humor is a real strength, the movie often feels at odds with itself when it steers away from straight satire and ventures into more serious drama. That’s when its intentions get a little muddied, especially in its portrayal of Trinitie. At times it seems to paint her as both a hero and a victim. Not totally unlike last year’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, another film examining a corrupt couple living large in the name of ministry. In that film, most of Tammy Faye Bakker’s wrongdoings were scrubbed clean in an effort to make her more saintly. Here we actually see many of Trinitie’s sins firsthand which makes embracing her as a victim lot harder.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

While she is clearly a victim of Lee-Curtis’ insatiable self-centeredness, Trinitie is no weak powerless damsel nor is she witless or gullible. In fact, you could say she’s the brains and the backbone of the outfit. So rather than a victim, this plays better as a redemption story of a woman who stood by her disgraced husband in order to protect her life of luxury. But as the only Childs with a sliver of conscience, she’s had enough and is ready to finally own up to her part in the hustle. I think that reading gives a more honest and cohesive image of Trinitie. I’m just not sure the movie itself agrees.

Of course the real victims are those who are swindled by these prosperity gospel peddlers who turn shepherding into a performance art and rake in the cash while doing so. Ebo uses some hilariously outrageous antics (which aren’t that far removed from reality) to pose the question, “Who would ever buy what these people are selling?”

Though a little messy, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” holds together thanks to a filmmaker’s keen understanding of her subject and two pitch-perfect leads. Hall especially shines, shrewdly navigating some sketchy character work to give us some semblance of a rooting interest. And while the film asks us to overlook much of what we’ve seen in order to feel a certain way about her character, Hall (miraculously) finds a way to not only earn our respect for Trinitie but also our sympathy.


REVIEW: “The Humans” (2021)

A24’s “The Humans” is a fascinating and impossible to pigeonhole drama and the kind of movie that can often slip under the radar. It’s written and directed by Stephen Karan and sports an eye-catching cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yuen, Jayne Houdyshell, and June Squibb.

Based on Karan’s one-act play of the same name, “The Humans” plays out in a single location and has a structure that clearly shows its stage roots. But to Karan’s credit, he uses that one setting to great effect, drawing his audience in and then leaving us with the feeling of being trapped in a place that steadily grows more unpleasant. That feeling partially comes from the stellar production design. But just as much is conveyed through the six beguiling characters we spend the running time with.

Image Courtesy of A24

The story is set around the ‘complicated’ Blake family as they gather together for Thanksgiving dinner. Brigid (Feldstein) and her boyfriend Rich (Yuen) are hosting her family for Thanksgiving at their new apartment in New York’s Chinatown. The dated fixer-upper with all of its creaks and cracks plays a pretty big part in Karan’s story. I’ve never seen the stage play, but here the apartment has a leering ominous presence that Karan’s camera conveys in a variety of crafty ways.

As Brigid’s family arrives and it doesn’t take long to notice that they aren’t the happiest bunch. We spend a lot of times listening to their individual problems and mining deep rooted issues between them. But this isn’t some dour study on family misery. Instead Karan gives us a family that is still bound together by their love for each other. But love and family can be a messy combination and the movie shows that with an affecting clarity. There are also slivers of dark humor that makes sure things don’t get too gloomy.

The top-to-bottom strong performances give us a good sense of who each of these characters are. Brigid is ambitious, but is stuck bartending to help pay down her student debt. The generally soft-spoken and supportive Rich has a history of mental illness. Brigid’s father Erik (Jenkins) comes across as preoccupied, often blankly staring down into the complex’s cramped interior courtyard. Her mother Deirdre (Houdyshell) feels unappreciated by her family and her job where she has worked for over 40 years. Her sister Amy (Schumer) has several health problems, is struggling with a recent breakup, and just found out she’s no longer in line for a partnership at her firm. Last is Brigid’s grandmother Momo (Squibb) who can barely get around and struggles with dementia.

Image Courtesy of A24

As their individual stories and the unearthed family drama plays out, Karan uses his camera to create the perspective of a guest. We’re constantly peering over shoulders, observing from other rooms, looking in through windows. His use of still shots through stationary cameras really hones in on his performers letting them do most of the heavy lifting. But Karan breaks up their scenes with shots that accentuate the apartment’s unwelcoming appearance. For a movie with such firm stage roots, Karan’s visuals really impress.

“The Humans” is a talky, performance-driven drama that asks a lot from its audience. It’s not easy to sit for so long listening to a group of people talk about their jobs, the economy, their frustrations, and their ailments. You have to read between the lines and pay attention. You have to assume to role of the quiet guest, listening and learning who these people are and discovering what makes their lives so complicated. By the end, you’ll find yourself sucked in even as the story takes its more unsettling turn. “The Humans” is out in limited release and on Showtime.


REVIEW: “House of Gucci” (2021)

Ridley Scott’s second movie in as many months couldn’t be more different than the one that came before it. “The Last Duel” was a really good medieval period film that unfortunately bombed at the box office. Since then Scott has gone on to blame millennials, cell phones, Facebook, and so on. Without getting caught up in where he’s right and where he’s wrong, I’ll just say it’s a shame the movie didn’t get a bigger audience and you can’t help but theorize about the reasons why.

His follow-up “House of Gucci” could spark some of the same reaction from the 83-year-old filmmaker. Considering the source material, I always expected the film to be a train wreck. But would it be the good kind or the bad kind? The early reactions didn’t clarify much, and since then moviegoers have pretty much remain divided. Well after sitting through Scott’s nearly 160-minute drama/satire, I’m still not sure what kind of train wreck this ‘based on a true story’ yarn is.

Ridley Scott has been hungry to make a movie about the renowned Gucci fashion house since the early 2000s. If you don’t know the wonky history of this Italian family owned empire, I won’t ruin it for you. Suffice it that greed, betrayal, and even murder all have parts to play in their story. Scott’s avenue into the family’s prominence and eventual disintegration is the relationship between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).

Image Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

The movie opens in 1978 Milan where Patrizia works in the offices of her father’s smalltime trucking business. Our first glimpse of her shows a woman of ambition who has a taste for attention. Maurizio is the son and lone heir of Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons made up to look like death warmed over). Rodolfo owns 50% of the Gucci brand while the other half is owned by his brother Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino).

Scott, along with screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, begin the story by showing the unashamedly forward Patrizia’s pursuit of the bookishly awkward Maurizio. The ailing Rodolfo doesn’t like the budding romance and warns his gullible heir. But Maurizio rejects his father’s wishes (and his future inheritance) and marries Patrizia.

After showing how they became a couple and giving us a glimpse of their early days together, the movie spends the bulk of its time on how Maurizio and Patrizia made their way back into the Gucci ranks. Patrizia drives the burgeoning power couple to the top by first pushing the generally apathetic Maurizio (he’s studying to be a lawyer) into taking on a bigger role in his family’s company. But later, as her lust of fortune and fame fully reveals itself, Patrizia hatches plans behind her husband’s back to pit Gucci against Gucci. And while the couple eventually rises to the top of the fashion house, once the ever naive Maurizio gets wind of his wife’s manipulation, their marriage starts to crumble, much like Gucci family’s once prominent empire.

All of that makes for some batty yet undeniably compelling drama. Up to that point the story bops along at a steady pace and the inside look at this Italian family and their business is both interesting and comical. Scott spends a lot of time digging into the family dynamic and the shifting power structure. But he also pokes fun at the superficiality of their extravagant lifestyle and status. The cast is certainly in on the gag with Gaga leading the way. Parts of her performance is more caricature by design, plucking inspiration from the tabloids and running with it. But Gaga is so committed to details and in-tune with the material that she uses different scenes to rein in her character, revealing an emotional backbone that makes Patrizia real rather than a cartoon.

Image Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Driver is also very good. He’s like the straight man in an absurdist comedy. Driver portrays Maurizio as stiff and sheepish, brandishing a thick comb-over and even thicker oversized glasses. He hardly ever gets above room temperature, but that’s part of the character’s strength, especially as he subtly transforms before our eyes. Pacino is clearly having a lot of fun, hamming it up in the early scenes while shattered and defeated in the latter. Jared Leto is a little sketchier. He plays Aldo’s buffoon of a son Paolo. On the other hand, you could say Paolo is the only forward-thinking Gucci of the bunch. Leto goes full…something, burying himself under layers of makeup and latex while doing a routine that can be hilarious yet utterly distracting.

But then we get to the third act which quite literally brings the film down a few pegs. The movie completely loses its footing as it bogs down in scenes dealing with control of shares and majority ownership. Meanwhile Patrizia becomes this impossible to read character. So much so that the the movie doesn’t even seem to know how to portray her. And then there is the woefully undercooked buildup to the big crime. We only get a couple of scenes to show the planning and the crime being carried out. Even less attention is given to the outcome. Just snap your finger and everyone is suddenly in court being sentenced…end movie.

For about two-thirds of “House of Gucci” I was onboard, really enjoying the wackiness of the impervious rich and famous. I was into the film’s central relationship and was getting a kick out of the crazy contrast between both the characters and the performances of Gaga and Driver. But everything comes to a screeching halt in that third act and the movie suffers for it. I watched several people leave the theater during it. I was invested enough to see it through, but I can see why some were ready to check out. “House of Gucci” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “The Harder They Fall” (2021)

For those wondering (and I doubt many are), this isn’t a remake of Humphrey Bogart’s 1956 boxing drama. Nope, this is a stylish new Western from the folks at Netflix. Directed and co-written by singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel, this star-studded shoot ‘em up immediately grabs your attention for its predominantly black cast. But despite a strong start and the amazing talent on screen, the film sags in the middle before limping across the finish line with its predictable ending and head-scratching sequel setup.

“The Harder They Fall” tells a fictional story but uses real 19th century Old West wranglers, lawmen and outlaws. The story begins with a bang. In the tradition of some of the great spaghetti westerns, the movie opens with a fantastic credits sequence followed by a burst of violence that will define key characters moving forward. In this case a young boy watches his parents gunned down in cold blood. It’s an exceptionally shot scene that echoes the work of the genre’s two greatest Sergio’s – Leone and Corbucci.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Years later, the traumatized boy is now a man going by the name Nat Love (played by an exceptional Jonathan Majors). Marked by a cross carved into his forehead by his parents’ killer, the revenge-fueled Nat gets wind that the man he’s looking to kill, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), was out of prison. Helping him on his quest for vengeance is saloon owner and Nat’s former flame Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), dead-eye sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a young quick-draw named Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), and Mary’s loyal saloon hand Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler). Also joining them is seasoned lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) who has a bone to pick with Nat but wants Rufus more.

Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s very best scenes both visually and performance-wise, Rufus Buck faithfuls, the surly “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King), the sly ruthless Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and a few disposables, bust their leader out of a prison train and then head for the town of Redwood City. Once there they kick out its crooked sheriff, once an old associate of Rufus’ named Wiley Escoe (an excellent Deon Cole), and set up shop. Sadly, it’s here where the movie begins to stall.

For some reason Idris Elba, bursting with charisma and brandishing a quiet menace, up and vanishes for a long stretch of the movie. He essentially stays shut up in Redwood City waiting for the inevitable showdown between gangs. The movie misses his presence. Majors is terrific and carries his gang’s load (he has some especially good scenes opposite of Beetz). But when it comes to Buck’s gang, King and Stanfield (both really good here) do their best but are stuck in one place basically spinning their wheels. It’s a shame, because together with Elba, the three make for a cracking combination. Each give us characters who grab us and leave us wanting more of them.

This is the feature film debut for Jeymes Samuel whose sure-handed direction and blaring style routinely gives us something cool to look at and admire. But not all of his choices work. For example, there are scattered patches of dialogue which sound plucked out of a modern day comedy rather than in the American west. There’s also a few scenes where Samuel’s ambition gets the best of him and he gets a little too carried away.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

A good example is a bank robbery scene in Maysville, a town exclusively populated by wealthy white folks. The entire town is quite literally whitewashed from top to bottom. Every building, every water trough, every hitching post. Even the ground. I won’t spoil any more, but the symbolism is pretty crafty. Unfortunately the execution is so glaringly on the nose and the town so brazenly fake that it yanked me out of the movie.

While the film sometimes feels a bit too polished, its characters are full of grit. The violence is probably best described as Tarantino-light. It can be brutal and rather gruesome and other times it’s almost cartoonish. But more importantly, it works well within Samuel’s world. And while the story can be pretty grim, there’s enough witty rapport to keep things from becoming too dry and dour. Yet with all of that, the style-over-substance story can’t keep its momentum. And rather than building up to a big finish, we’re left with an overly long middle that drains too much energy and leaves you wondering “Where’s Idris?” “The Harder They Fall is now showing in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 3rd.