REVIEW: “Your Place or Mine” (2023)

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

“Your Place or Mine” lives and breathes through the likability of its two stars, Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher. Both have plenty of charm and they give us two best friends who are fairly easy to root for. They have decent chemistry, although it’s hard to gauge due to the fact that they’re rarely on screen together (the vast majority of their interactions come through phone calls and FaceTimes). But for the most part, the always likable Witherspoon and the nicely toned down Kutcher have the ingredients for a winning pair.

But here’s the issue – the film is plagued by a problem that comes baked into so many of these romantic comedies – predictably. Within the first five minutes we know exactly how this story is going to end. Over the course of the movie we recognize many of the genre’s usual character types. And even with a couple of noticeable diversions, the overall trajectory of the story follows the well-worn rom-com blueprint to a tee. So we’re left with a promising yet ultimately forgettable movie.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Debbie (Witherspoon) and Peter (Kutcher) have a close yet not-so-close friendship. They had a fling 20 years ago in Los Angeles and then Peter promptly left for New York (he claims it was due to his fear of earthquakes). But they stayed in touch, becoming long distance best friends. During that time Debbie stayed in LA, got married, had a son Jack (Wesley Kimmel), and got divorced. Peter became a successful business consultant and now lives in a swanky apartment overlooking the Manhattan Bridge.

Listening to them talk, you would think Debbie and Peter are two peas in a pod. But they’re actually quite the opposites. Debbie plays things safe and is very by-the-numbers. She never takes chances and rarely makes time for herself despite the urging of her thoughtful (and dryly funny) friend Alicia (a really good Tig Notaro). Peter is a bit of a flake and can’t get a firm grip on what he truly wants to do with his life.

Debbie is all set to come to New York for a writing class she’s long put off, but her excitement and plans are put on hold after her sitter for Jack bails out on her. So Peter offers to fly over and watch Jack. He’ll stay at her homey place in LA and she’ll stay at his ultra-modern apartment in New York. While there, each gets a taste of the others life. “We tell each other everything,” they each repeat during their stay-overs. But both are surprised by how little they actually know about the other, including feelings that may go beyond friendship.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

As Debbie and Peter have their considerably different adventures on opposite coasts, we’re introduced to a collection of colorful characters including Debbie’s wacky self-assigned gardener Zen (Steve Zahn), Peter’s trendy and kooky neighbor Minka (Zoë Chao) who takes Debbie under her wing (despite not being asked), and a hunky literary editor named Theo (Jesse Williams) who Debbie immediately hits it off with. He’s the romantic diversion that helps her to ‘see the light’.

Within its smattering of hit-or-miss humor and a lot of songs from The Cars, “Your Place or Mine” has a pretty sweet center. The relationship between Peter and Jack is easily the funniest and warmest. Meanwhile Witherspoon and Kutcher manage enough chemistry despite spending the majority of their time ‘together’ in split screen. But it’s hard to shake the feelings of “we’ve seen it all before”, and it simply doesn’t have enough ideas of its own to be the slightest bit memorable. It’ll probably work for its target audience. But for anyone else…it probably won’t. “Your Place or Mine” is now streaming on Netflix.


Sundance Review: “You Won’t Be Alone” (2022)

Yet another debut feature that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was “You Won’t Be Alone” from Goran Stolevski. The Australian-Macedonian writer-director has over 25 short films to his credit, and here he brings a unique and fresh twist to the familiar witch story. His folk horror concept is intriguing. His visual style is stunning. And at different times his film can be both chilling and beautiful. If only it played as well as it sounds.

Snatched up by Focus Features prior to the festival, “You Won’t Be Alone” is already slated for an April 1st release. It will be interesting to see the reactions considering how shockingly gruesome it can be. Yet it can also be quiet and soothing, with the meditative rhythm and visual sensibility of a Malick film. It fully embraces the ghoulish and grotesque, while also taking an often tender and poignant look at what it means to be human. Unfortunately, certain indulgences keep it from seamlessly combining those two extremes.

Set in a remote mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, the story begins on an disturbing note. A mother finds a hideously scarred crone (Anamaria Marinca) hovering over her newborn baby’s crib. Legend says she’s a shape-shifting witch known as the Wolf-Eateress. Others in the village refer to her as Old Maid Maria. The mother breaks down and begs the ghastly woman not to take her child. The two come to an agreement – the mother can raise her daughter until she turns 16. At that point the crone will return and take the girl for her own. But before leaving the old woman leaves her mark on the child (not an easy watch).

The mother takes her daughter to a sacred cave in the mountains. Her motives are good – hide and protect her daughter (named Nevena) from the witch. But by raising her in such stark isolation, Nevena has no understanding of the real world when Maria inevitably finds her. The old maid takes her prize to the forest and endows Nevena (now played by Sarah Klimoska) with her shape-shifting ability. But Nevena’s childlike and open-hearted curiosity infuriates Maria who casts out the young witch. Alone, Nevena wanders into the nearby village where the movie’s bigger interests unfold.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

To say much more would be a disservice, but broadly speaking, Nevena begins (rather gruesomely) inhabiting the bodies of villagers. And with each new person she inhabits, she gets a new perspective on the world. It’s a captivating conceit – living and experiencing humanity through the bodies (and in turn the experiences) of others. It gives Nevena the opportunity to see both the ugliness and the beauty of the human condition. It also allows Stolevski to explore a number of social themes that are still relevant today.

In addition to Klimoska (Macedonia), Stolevski puts together a well-tuned international group to play the witch’s different incarnations. Noomi Rapace (Sweden) plays an abused wife who vividly portraying the travails of women, Carloto Cotta (Portugal) is a handsome village beefcake who embodies patriarchal privilege, and Alice Englert (Australia) as a sweet innocent little girl who allows Nevena a taste of the childhood she never had. Each offer moments of insight and challenge many modern-day norms despite being set in the 1800s.

While the film impresses with its surprising amount of emotional depth, some of the more practical things aren’t as convincing. Take Nevena’s strangely eloquent internal monologue which doesn’t exactly ring true considering all her time spent disconnected and in isolation. She was barely a step above a feral child when Maria found her and took her away. Yet the mellifluous and poetic flow of thoughts in Nevena’s mind at times sound like the words of a seasoned lyricist rather than a wild and untamed girl. Perhaps it’s meant to simply convey feeling, but it doesn’t come across that way.

There’s also Maria’s appearance which too often looks like a rubber suit and thick makeup. It’s unquestionably a reflection of the film’s budget, but it also keeps Maria from being as visually forbidding as she could be. But that’s okay because it’s her backstory that’s most haunting. As is often the case in stories like this, the history behind Maria’s scars are both horrifying and tragic, and Stolevski brings it to light with unsettling clarity.

With “You Won’t Be Alone” Goran Stolevski has created something that defies categorization. He brings with him an undeniably artful vision and a truly thoughtful mind. Along with it comes a few needless excesses, such as the sometimes weird and almost obsessive way he uses sex and gore. But beyond that is movie of impeccable craft. An arthouse drama with a folk horror veneer that doesn’t reach every mark it’s going for. But at least it’s reaching for something.


REVIEW: “Yes Day” (2021)


After seeing the trailer for the upcoming family comedy “Yes Day” I immediately wondered if the two likable leads could make the movie’s otherwise shaky premise more appealing. After all it stars the ever-pleasant Jennifer Garner who makes credit card commercials charming and the talented, often underappreciated Édgar Ramirez. Without question both make the movie better, but carrying the movie especially through its loud and contrived second half proves to be a tough task.

Garner and Ramirez play Allison and Carlos Torres. From the day they first met their relationship has been full of excitement and they would say “Yes” to every adventure that would come their way. Now happily married with three children, things are a lot different. Now it seems like they’re always telling their kids “No”. Some of it is just good responsible parenting. But there’s no denying their sense of adventure has fizzled. Allison takes the brunt of their children’s frustrations, to the point of being branded “fun killer” by their oldest daughter Katie (Jenna Ortega) and compared to Mussolini and Stalin by their son Nando (Julian Lerner).


Image Courtesy of Netflix

In need of a jump-start, Allison and Carlos take the advice of a kooky school guidance counselor, teacher, and coach (a funny but overused Nat Faxon) and decide to have a ‘Yes Day’. The idea is that for 24 hours the parents must say “Yes” to everything their kids ask with a few rules of course. It has to be legal. They can’t ask for something in the future. Requests have to stay within a 20-mile radius and so on. The Torres five set out to rekindle their spark during a day of silly fun and family bonding. And who knows, through it all both sides may come to better understand the other.

Directed by Miguel Arteta from a script by Justin Malen, “Yes Day” starts with a lot of promise as it introduces its characters through some cute family moments and some pretty funny family-oriented humor. Even the first couple of stops on their ‘Yes Day’ journey are sweet and smile-worthy. But in a snap Artera amps things up past 100 and the rest of the movie plays out to a lot of screaming, scenes of over-the-top mayhem, more screaming, some really cheap humor (gas gags, a crotch shot, it’s all here), and even more screaming. I quickly realized I was grimacing much more than grinning.

The ending scrambles to get back to the sweetness and charm of the earlier moments, but the high-volume silliness and the artery-clogging cheese that comes before it makes it hard to readjust. It’s unfortunate because Garner and Ramirez have a delightful chemistry and the movie gets off on a good foot. Who knows, maybe there is enough good-natured, big-hearted fun for kids to enjoy on a rainy Saturday afternoon. But that doesn’t shake the feeling that this could have been a lot better. “Yes Day” is now streaming on Netflix.



REVIEW: “Young Ahmed” (2020)


Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne remain among my favorite contemporary filmmakers and every new movie immediately finds itself high on my must-see list. The brothers are known for telling stories through an intensely realistic lens, often honing in on the disenfranchised working class and their everyday circumstances. The Dardennes have a restrained and observant style, reminiscent of the great French auteur Robert Bresson, but with slightly busier compositions and a considerably more fluid camera.

The Dardennes again bring their subdued, clear-eyed approach to their latest film “Young Ahmed”. A Cannes Film Festival winner for Best Director, “Young Ahmed” shares many of the same traits of their previous films, but they’ve never tackled subject matter quite like this. Their story centers on a 13-year-old Belgian boy named Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a young Muslim who has been radicalized by a local imam (Othmane Moumen). Right out of the gate you realize this a tricky and sensitive material. But it’s also a case where the Dardennes’ distinctly grounded style makes them more capable to tackle it than many of their filmmaking contemporaries.


Image Courtesy of Kino Lorber

By the time we meet Ahmed he has already committed himself to the imam’s teaching and is deeply devout when it comes to prayer and study. His strict interpretations can be seen in nearly every part of his daily life. From his refusal to shake the hand of his teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) down to the precise way in which he washes his hands. It doesn’t take long to notice other concerning things about Ahmed, most notably that he’s a somber and serious boy who never cracks smile. He’s obviously impressionable and a dramatically different person than he once was. We also notice the wedge his religious zeal has put between him and his family, particularly his heartbroken single mother (Claire Bodson).

It all culminates in an ill-advised and utterly botched violent act that sees Ahmed arrested and sent to a youth detention and rehabilitation center. It’s here that the film takes an unexpected turn and begins to examine Ahmed from a different perspective. While in the facility his caseworker and staff engage in a strategically subtle form of intervention, allowing Ahmed to pray but involving him in activities that may help him reconnect with the kid he once was.


Image Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Storywise it sounds rudimentary, but throughout the film’s second half the Dardennes keep us wondering how far Ahmed has fallen down the rabbit hole. How deeply rooted are his convictions? Are the activities at the rehab center having any effect? We don’t know because Ahmed is such a hard book to read – never emotional and rarely interested in anything other than his prayer time. But we see cracks, especially when he meets a flirtatious young girl named Louise (Victoria Bluck). Still the Dardennes and their lead actor never tip their hand. It’s an especially impressive feat for Idir Ben Addi considering he’s in practically every scene.

“Young Ahmed” is yet another Dardenne brothers film that highlights their unique harmony of story and style. It’s a quietly affecting drama stripped of artifice and that fully embraces their naturalistic point-of-view. Interestingly it doesn’t always have the same intimacy as some of the brothers’ best films, but it still examines humanity through their uniquely personal lens. That makes “Young Ahmed” another great addition to their already fascinating catalog of movies.



REVIEW: “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” (2020)


Documentaries come in every shape, size, or form. They can be about any person, place, issue, or topic under the sun. Case in point: “You Cannot Kill David Arquette”, an unusual film telling an unusual story about an unusual man. It comes from co-directors David Darg and Price James and highlights the once starbound Arquette’s journey to regain respect, not in Hollywood, but in the world of professional wrestling.

A little backstory. David Arquette once seemed destined for superstardom. He was considered among the biggest rising stars, even appearing on a 1996 Vanity Fair cover with the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Will Smith (in fairness it also featured Skeet Ulrich). Also in 1996 Arquette was cast in Wes Craven’s slasher film “Scream” playing the good-hearted but dim-witted Deputy Dewey. It would become his most recognized role, but it also led to him being typecast and his career never took off as expected.

Jump ahead to the year 2000. While doing publicity for his new film “Ready to Rumble”, Arquette partnered with World Championship Wrestling. In the ill-advised cross-promotion it was decided that Arquette would actually win the esteemed WCW Heavyweight Title. The storyline enraged wrestling fans who felt it cheapened the title. Much of the outrage fell on Arquette, a true wrestling fan who loved the business but was quickly considered persona non grata in the wrestling world.


Photo Courtesy of Super LTD

“You Cannot Kill David Arquette” finds its subject lost in the cracks of Hollywood and wrestling, two forms of entertainment he loves, neither of which takes him seriously. “I’m sick of being a joke,” he laments. In one sense it’s hard to feel bad for Arquette. He has a beautiful family and a swanky California home. And while he talks about his promising acting career turning into “ten years of rejection“, a quick gander at his IMDB page shows that’s not entirely true. In reality he has been steadily working, just not in caliber of movies he would like.

On the other hand, we can’t help but sympathize once the film digs into more personal soil. Darg and James put their camera on Arquette and allow him and his family to reveal anything they want about the actor/wrestler’s rollercoaster journey. We learn of depression, anxiety, and self-destructive hard living. At one point Arquette describes himself as a “functioning alcoholic”. Then he has an epiphany of sorts. Despite his physical and psychological problems, Arquette decides to get back into wrestling, starting at the bottom and working his way up in an effort to win over the fans who have shunned him. “I don’t care about being a champ. I care about respect.”

The majority of the documentary follows Arquette’s quest to rid himself of the undeserved shame and earn the respect of the die-hard wrestling community. Not the smartest move for a 46-year-old out of shape guy with health concerns, but admirable and inspiring in its own weird way. It’s not an easy journey. Arquette starts by doing backyard matches in makeshift rings where he’s slammed on thumbtacks and has fluorescent light bulbs shattered across his back. He works his way up to the independent wrestling circuit where he begins to get back in shape. He even travels to Tijuana to train with luchadors.


Photo Courtesy of Super LTD

Some of what we see is fun, even exciting and you can’t help but root for the underdog. Other scenes are uncomfortable to watch, most notably a brutally violent and bloody “death match” against a wrestler named Nicolas Gage that ends in a near life-threatening injury. It leaves you questioning whether the potential sense of accomplishment and purpose Arquette hopes to gain is worth the ultimate cost. The film wants us to wrestle with that quandary even though Arquette doesn’t. He’s resolute and unwavering in his goal.

Along the way we get welcomed perspectives from David’s family including his wife Christina, sisters Patricia and Rosanna, and his ex-wife Courtney Cox. We even get a brief yet touching scene with the late Luke Perry (blink and you may miss it). We also get insight from several recognizable faces from within the professional wrestling sphere including Ric Flair, Jerry “The King” Lawler, and Diamond Dallas Page. All of these contributions are invaluable and they add points-of-view that helps ground the film (something it really needs from time to time).

It may be tempting to view the entire movie as nothing more than a vanity project. Certainly there are elements of that which are hard to get around. But reducing it to such a linear reading means missing its biggest strengths. As cliché as it may sound, “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” is a documentary of self-discovery. It’s about a broken, wayward man-child longing for acceptance and a sense of self-worth. In one of the more subtly sad details, the only way he feels he can get it is to re-enter an industry that views him with bitter contempt. Yes, there are scenes in the doc where it looks like Arquette is putting on a show. And who knows, maybe the whole thing is a ruse. But his pain and yearning feel deeply personal and they set him on a journey that is silly, heartbreaking, endearing, and violent, often all at the same time. “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” is streaming now on VOD.



REVIEW: “You Should Have Left” (2020)


Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried make an intriguing couple in the new aggressively titled psychological thriller “You Should Have Left”. Right off the bat you can’t help but notice the significant age difference (Bacon is a spry 61 while Seyfried is 34). It’s something the film is aware of and even has fun with (“You’re her dad?” a security guard sincerely asks Bacon). You may be able to squeeze some commentary out of their relationship, but the movie has other interests.

Bacon plays Theo Conroy, a wealthy ex-banker stained by a tabloid-rich scandal from his past involving the death of his first wife. Theo has steadily maintained his innocence and even the courts agreed with him. Still his high-profile case gained him unwanted notoriety and he hasn’t fared as well in the court of public opinion. As a result Theo battles frequent nightmares as well as bouts with insecurity. He combats those issues by keeping a doctor-prescribed daily journal and quietly meditating to self-help lessons.


Photo Courtesy of Universal Studios

Seyfried plays Theo’s much younger wife Susanna with whom he shares a daughter, 6-year-old Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex). Susanna is a working actress, forever tethered to her cellphone, and seemingly impervious to how some of her choices may affect her husband. Whether it’s constantly giggling and leaving the room when getting texts from a male co-star or having her husband visit the movie set on a day she’s filming a sex scene. Do you chalk it up to the age difference? Is it Theo’s petty jealousy? Or is something else going on?

Realizing they need a getaway, Theo and Susanna rent the proverbial house in the middle of nowhere – a two-story modernist home in very rural Wales. Before the three have time to settle in we begin noticing peculiar things about the house’s design. It only get weirder as lights begin coming on by themselves. Doors appear one night but are gone the next. Spooky Polaroids start popping up. And someone (or something) has scribbled a chilling warning in Theo’s journal. “You should leave – go now” followed by “You should have left.”


Photo Courtesy of Universal Studios

At first it’s hard to watch and not think of “The Shining” just on a smaller scale. Clearly something’s up with the house and the longer the family stays there the more macabre things get. At the same time Theo begins to unravel in ways we’re used to seeing in these types of thrillers. But thankfully writer-director David Koepp gives his movie enough of its own identity to keep it from feeling like a routine genre exercise. He also tosses in some chilling and inspired twists. Unfortunately they run head-first into a clunky final reveal dump that basically takes place over a single phone call.

“You Should Have Left” is never really scary although it does occasionally get under your skin. I does some clever things with the haunted house formula which keep it from feeling tedious or redundant. At the same time you can’t help but notice some things that are undeniably familiar (especially if you’ve seen the recent and much better “Relic”). But the biggest draw is Kevin Bacon and even though this isn’t top quality material, it’s great to see him on screen again and he keeps us invested from start to finish.