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.



REVIEW: “Yesterday” (2019)


From its very first trailer there was something really weird about “Yesterday”. I actually say that as a compliment. I was immediately fascinated by its bizarre concept and the wacky way it blended romantic comedy with a ‘price of fame’ cautionary tale veiled as a fun tribute to the Beatles.

Danny Boyle helms this light-hearted tale starring newcomer Himesh Patel. He plays Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter who has lost faith in his chance at a career in music. His lone true supporter and loyal manager Ellie (a delightful Lily James) encourages him to stay with it while tirelessly working to secure him gigs. From the start it’s pretty obvious Ellie has feelings for Jack, but he’s too lost in his own perpetual pity-party to notice.


Now things get weird. One night while riding home on his bike Jack is hit by a bus during a brief worldwide blackout. He wakes up to discover that no one on the planet has ever heard of the Beatles. Along the way the movie randomly mentions several other random things the world has forgotten (Coca-Cola, Harry Potter, etc.) but we never learn what or if there is any connection.

But back to the Beatles. Jack (a big fan of the Fab Four) begins writing down the lyrics to their songs and singing them as his own. Ellie hooks him up with a small-time producer to do a demo which leads to performance on a local television talk show. Global pop star Ed Sheeran (playing himself) hears the new songs and invites Jack to be his opening act in Moscow.

His meteoric rise to stardom reaches its apex when a rapacious and brutally honest record company executive (a pretty funny Kate McKinnon) signs Jack to a lucrative recording contract. She whisks him away to Los Angeles to set up recording sessions and promotional appearances. Jack’s new found fame puts him on top of the world, but how long can he lie to the public, himself, and the one girl who loves him?


It goes without saying the whole thing is a little hokey, yet there is still a sweet and tender undercurrent that runs throughout the movie. Much of that is channeled through Lily James who is so earnest, charming and who you could argue is the heart of the movie. Patel is also really good in his feature film debut. In addition to acting, Patel does his own singing and playing on the movie’s numerous musical numbers.

Still, it’s hard to view “Yesterday” as anything more than lightweight, feel-good fluff. But is that such a terrible thing? Sure the premise is silly and makes little sense. Yes it zips through parts of the story too fast for us to ever get our footing. But as a pop music fairy tale and a reminder of how these songs stand the test of time, there is certainly room for a movie like this. And I kind of admire its complete disregard for conventional storytelling.



REVIEW: “You Were Never Really Here”


With “You Were Never Really Here” writer-director Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) makes a forceful statement. Not just to her own individual talents as a filmmaker, but to the female perspective and the powerful jolt it can give a genre. By genre, I would call her latest film an action/revenge thriller although even giving it a label feels like a disservice to Ramsay and the plethora of cool ideas she is working with.

Ramsay adapts “You Were Never Really Here” from Jonathan Ames’ 2013 noir novella. At only 95 pages, the novella is both brisk and brutal, an equally fitting description of Ramsay’s movie. Not a second of the taut, economical 90 minutes is wasted and within its framework is a level of craftsmanship and unique storytelling prowess that leans heavily on mood and immersing us through our senses.


Look no further than the opening scene, a tightly edited collage of sound and images that introduces us to Joe (a burly and bearded Joaquin Phoenix). We learn he is a hired gun who specializes in retrieving the young daughters of wealthy, prominent parents from sex trafficking rings. He works off the grid and in his own moral mélange of brutality and compassion. Ramsay only feeds us bits but Joe’s scar-riddled body and glazy worn eyes speak volumes.

When not embedded in New York’s sordid underbelly, Joe cares for his elderly dementia-stricken mother (played by Judith Roberts). Phoenix, the definition of committed and uncompromising, seamlessly moves back-and-forth between these two contrasting worlds. In one scene he’s wiping off a blood-soaked hammer and shortly after polishing silverware and singing a song with his mother. And when Ramsay pushes us deeper into Joe’s head we witness suicidal impulses and traumatic flashbacks to his childhood and military service. They come in startling quick bursts making them all the more unsettling.

Things get even uglier when Joe takes a job to find a State Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) only to run face-first into unexpectedly deeper levels of depravity and corruption. The story grows darker (there is rarely any light to begin with) and the bloodshed amps up. But Ramsay doesn’t revel in the violence nor exploit it for effect. Joe, her principle subject, is a child of violence and his dark psychological journey is often defined by it. While at times graphic, most of the killing happens just off camera or from strategic perspectives – a cracked mirror on a ceiling or through surveillance cameras. It certainly doesn’t mute the savagery.


Ramsay’s style of filmmaking has a fascinating synergy with this material. She often tells her stories through vivid imagery and pulsing sound design instead of a more traditional narrative structure. This is what keeps “You Were Never Really Here” from falling in with more conventional genre pictures. Her camera works like a gritty kaleidoscope, creating and maintaining an essential mood and intensity. Jonny Greenwood’s menacing score is filled with eerie strings and synthesized chords as if pulled from the cracked psyche of its lead character. It all works together in a twisted hypnotic harmony.

At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival “You Were Never Really Here” received a seven-minute standing ovation. Awards went to both Ramsay (Best Screenplay) and Phoenix (Best Actor). I understood why after first seeing it. But it was my second viewing that I was able to fall in with the film’s unique rhythms. And while Joe isn’t necessarily a character you want to spend time with nor is this a comfortable world to be in, Lynne Ramsay keeps our eyes glued to every frame.