Drive-Away Dolls

Posted on February 22, 2024 at 6:39 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and very intense violence including beheading, guns, fire, torture, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters

Once there was a vibrant category of trashy, low-budget films for the cheap theaters and drive-ins. Sometimes called grindhouse films or exploitation films because they were designed to be shocking, they are so beloved by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that they made a tribute film called “Grindhouse” that was a high-budget version of the kind of 50s double features that inspired them when they were growing up. “Drive-Away Dolls,” from Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke, is another tribute to the Grindhouse-era films. While the sex and violence that was so shocking in the 1950s that audiences did not care about the shabby the production values are no longer shocking today, “Drive-Away Dolls” captures the transgressive spirit of those films, with no air quotes or irony, just engaging and very sincere joy in the genre. Top-level actors, camerawork, music, and wipes (we’ll get to them later) are just a bonus. Coen and Cooke (an un-credited co-director) say this is the first installment of their planned “lesbian b-movie trilogy.” Cooke is queer and they have spoken about their non-traditional marriage, which they have said is reflected in the relationships in the film.

The foundation for the story is one of the oldest and most beloved in the history of human stories: two people who are very different take a journey with many adventures along the way that expand their understanding of themselves and their world. Those people are the very free-spirited, impulsive Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and the very conventional, wear a suit to the office and correct people’s grammar Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). It is 1999, and they are queer women living in Philadelphia. Jamie’s girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) has just kicked her out for cheating, and she has no place to stay. Her friend Marian is feeling stressed and wants to go to Tallahassee for a break. So, Jamie decides to come along, and suggests they get a drive-away car, through a service that matches up drivers with people who want their cars to be driven to another city. As it happens, Jamie and Marian show up at the drive-away company run by Curlie (a wonderfully dry Bill Camp) just as a car going to Tallahassee has been dropped off. Curlie, who has been told to expect a pick-up and assumes that they are the ones. We, on the other hand, know that they are not.

Jamie paints “Love is a sleigh ride to hell” on the trunk of the car, and the adventure begins. The car they are driving to Tallahassee is of great interest to some very bad people. We have already seen that they are prepared to kill and inflict all kinds of mayhem and that it relates somehow to, perhaps a nod to Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction” here, an aluminum briefcase with contents that, unlike “Pulp Fiction,” will eventually be revealed and, trust me on this, you are not going to guess correctly.

The film is stylized but stylish with wipes — the transitions from one shot to the next — that are amusingly old-school and surprising guest star cameos I will not spoil here. Jamie and Marian have a lot of adventures along the way, including a make-out party with a female soccer team that is skillfully filmed in a manner that is empowering rather than explotative. The goons (as they are credited) sent to get back the briefcase have their own adventures in between bickering with each other about whether finesse or brutality is the best way to get what they want. The film includes the characteristic Coen twisty-funny dialogue, and makes good use of the settings, including statues of William Penn and Ponce de Leon gazing down on the wild adventures below. Qualley and Viswanathan are two of Hollywood’s most engaging young stars and their performances are joyful and captivating, their imperishable freshness and high spirits making it impossible for the outrageous elements to seem tawdry. It’s not for everyone, but it will be an instant favorite for fans of the Coens.

Parents should know that this movie has nudity and explicit sexual references and situations, a lot of peril and violence including a beheading, guns, knives, and fire, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Where would Jamie and Marian be today and what would most surprise them about what has and has not changed since 1999? How did they see each other differently over the course of the trip?

If you like this, try: “Grindhouse” and “Bottoms”

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Posted on February 18, 2024 at 5:33 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for strong violence and action and some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style peril, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None

Review by guest critic Danielle Mathias with many thanks.

Matthew Vaughn has a knack for cheeky yet surprising action movies. If we didn’t find that out from the Kingsman franchise, his new movie Argylle is surely one for the books. This time around, his quintessential and clueless leading character who is dropped into a world of spies is Elly Conway, played expertly by Bryce Dallas Howard. Elly is a successful writer of a spy series, Argylle, and when she’s stumped for a proper ending to her latest book, she takes off with her beloved cat, Alfie, to spend time with her mother and writing partner (Catherine O’Hara).

Does Elly ever make it to her mom’s? Of course not! On her train ride she meets a fan who happens to be a spy who happens to be there to save her life. Aidan (Sam Rockwell) swiftly awakens Elly to the world she’s always written about, but didn’t know existed–even though the players in this world knew all about her. Not only are her books accurate, they are verbatim what is happening in a real off the books spy operation that mirrors her fictional one. The powers that be are not best pleased that this new book hasn’t clued them into the goings on in the real world. Elly stopped her story as Agent Argylle was meeting a man about a master file, a file that could bring down the very organization he defected from. The master file, as you may have guessed, is the “McGuffin” everyone is always after in an action flick. Between the code decrypting and secret identities, Argylle takes us on a journey to find out who Elly really is and what she has hidden, even from herself, because it may be the key to everything.

Copyright 2024 Universal Pictures

Howard is a charming, awkward protagonist who is our conduit into the world; she’s just as lost as we are and as she learns we do, too. Playing opposite her is Sam Rockwell, who brings a structure and levity to the situation that is always needed. He is our benevolent guide in a story where no one can be trusted and he plays the sarcastic rogue well. The two play off of each other easily, if not cheesily. The all star supporting cast includes Catherine O’Hara, Brian Cranston, Samuel L Jackson, Arianna Debose, John Cena and a quick cameo from pop star and sometimes actress Dua Lipa and each brings their own distinct flavor of comedy no matter how long they’re on screen. Henry Cavill was as charming as ever in a role that was made for him. Though he isn’t as central or present as the promotion suggests, Cavill steals the screen when he is present.

Argylle has everything a Vaughn action movie needs, and, unusual for him, a toned-down PG-13 rating. It has a relatable lead, multiple techsavvy somebodies, well choreographed and complicated fight sequences, and absolutely absurd plot twists. While the CGI usage was a bit heavy handed and the absurdity took a turn for the worse toward the end, all in all, “Argylle” is a distinctly fun time with a surprisingly twist-filled plot and mind-bending fight scenes. And, as in any Vaughn film, there is a levity and a self awareness that many action movies lack, but sorely need.

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Bob Marley: One Love

Posted on February 14, 2024 at 9:23 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for marijuana use and smoking throughout, some violence and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Extended marijuana use
Violence/ Scariness: Perll and violence including guns, fire, fights
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie

“One Love” does a better job of conveying the love reggae superstar Bob Marley’s family has for him than in showing us why we should love him, too. This movie, produced with the involvement of Marley’s widow and some of his reportedly 11 children, is a love letter to the international star, who died of cancer in 1981, just 36 years old.

The film has very strong performances by Kingsley Ben-Adir as Marley and especially Lashana Lynch as his wife, Rita, who also performed with him. Lynch gets to explore a range of emotions with Rita, from loving and supportive to angry and hurt to the devastating grief of her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Ben-Adir shows us Marley’s charisma onstage, but other than one furious outburst, he’s pretty much all “Yah, mon,” and smoking weed.

There are two parts to the story. First is the traditional music biopic, a young person with performing ambitions, the time before success, the time when someone at the recording studio notices the talent, the contract, the tour with bigger and bigger and biggest audiences cheering madly, the records zooming up the charts. A bit of a new twist; in this case the recording studio guy pulls a gun on them before he lets them in. That is because this is Jamaica during the very violent and politically volatile era following its independence in 1962. Early in the film, we see Marley, Rita, their manager and a bandmates were shot by armed intruders into the Marley home, two days before they were scheduled to perform at a free unity concert. They did make it to the concert, and we get to see Marley’s loose-limbed dance around the microphone.

This part also includes another traditional element of biopics about hugely successful and impactful figures; the stress on the family. This is where we get to see Lynch’s extraordinary, deeply vulnerable and loving portrayal of Rita. But we do not get to learn more about the children both had by other partners or about what the impact was on the children to be sent to live with Marley’s mother in Delaware while he recorded in London and toured in Europe.

The second part of the story is the role that Marley played as a symbol of Jamaican unity. We see it but do not fully understand why, other than being a Jamaican who has become a worldwide superstar who has returned home to sing for his countrymen. While his song lyrics include references to freedom and love, and we see him on stage with the leaders of both parties, the connection to the issues and conflicts of his country is never explored. And Marley himself, always in a cloud of smoke, seems disengaged. Like so much in this film, his conversion to Rastafarianism is noted, but not illuminated.

Parents should know that this movie features extended drug use, violence including guns and fire, references to marital and family dysfunction including affairs and parental abandonment, and strong language.

Family discussion: Why was Marley the worldwide breakthrough for reggae? Why were his concerts in Jamaica so important to the people there?

If you like this, try: the documentary “Marley,” and more from Ben-Adir like “One Night in Miami…” (as Malcolm X) and “The Comey Rule” (as Barack Obama) and Lynch in “The Woman King” and “Captain Marvel”

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Dakota Johnson in Madame Web

Madame Web

Posted on February 13, 2024 at 7:06 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence/action and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action style peril and violence, crashes, explosions, poison, guns, fire, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Copyright Sony 2024

When EMT Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) introduces her colleague as Ben Parker (Adam Scott) as Ben Parker, your spidey sense better be tingling or this movie is going to be a slog. Not that this origin story of Marvel superhero Madame Web is just another Spider-Man variation. It’s way different. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, and Madame Web is bitten by a natural but imaginary with magic powers spider. Got it?

Cassie (short for Cassandra, which should tingle your spidey-sense, too) is a loner. Once she delivers a patient to the hospital, She cares very much for Ben Parker and for their boss, O’Neil (the always instantly-appealing Mike Epps) but she does not want to spend much time with anyone outside of work. Cassie’s mother died in Peru, where she was researching a rare species of spider with peptides that could have healing powers for humans, and Cassie, who grew up in foster care, has always felt abandoned, even rejected, by the mother who was so reckless in exploring the wilds of South America when she was eight months pregnant.

We know there is more to the story than that. We saw her mother (Kerry Bishe), betrayed by her assistant, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), shoot her and steal the spider she has worked so hard to find. As she dies, a member of a spider-enhanced tribe thought by most people to be a legend appears, and he is able to deliver her baby before she dies.


Cassie and Ben rescue a man from an overturned car hanging over the side of a bridge, but the car flips into the water with Cassie inside. Ben rescues her, but while under water her heart stopped, and the experience has triggered in her a power it will take a while for her to understand; she can see a few moments into the future, enough for her to make a difference and prevent disaster.

Meanwhile, Sims is having his own visions of the future, where he will be murdered by three young women with spidery superpowers. He is determined to prevent this by killing them, when they are still teenagers. He gets access to government databases and cameras and hires tech whiz and morally bankrupt Amaria (Zosia Mamet in a thankless role that consists of peering intently into screens and saying yes to Sims’ demands) to find the girls. She does get to wear elegant necklaces while she’s doing it, though.

Somehow, Cassie and the three girls, who do not know each other, end up on the same train and when Cassie sees visions of Sims killing them she gets them off the train and away from him. Keeping them away from him takes up most of the rest of the movie and unsurprisingly that means chases and explosions and at least two vehicles crashing through buildings. The girls are played by the exceptionally talented and sadly underused Isabela Merced, Sydney Sweeny, and Celeste O’Connor.

It’s not an awful movie but it is not very good. The origin story spends too much time on the origin, with Cassie getting used to her powers, which involves a detour to Peru that slows down the pacing. What we really want is more time with Cassie and the girls. If it’s going to be an origin story, let’s get their origins, too. There’s an irresponsibility and lack of even the most limited consequences to the mayhem that goes beyond the usual suspension of disbelief we grant a comic book movie. The dialogue is pedestrian, occasionally laughable, and the references to the Spider-Man universe or one of the Spider-Man universes are clumsy. And what should be the strongest part of any superhero movie, the villain, here is the weakest. Sims, who at times sounds like his dialogue has been dubbed by someone else, is just not that interesting. If you could see ahead like Madame Web, you might fix your future by waiting to see this on streaming.

Parents should know that this movie has extended comic book-style peril and violence with guns, poison, chases, crashes, fire, and explosions. Characters use some strong language and there are sexual references and situations as well as two scenes of childbirth or labor.

Family discussion: How did what Cassie learned about her mother change the way she thought about herself? What did Julia, Anya, and Mattie have in common? What superpower would you like to have?

If you like this, try: the “Spider-Man” movies and the Madame Web comics

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Lisa Frankenstein

Posted on February 8, 2024 at 12:43 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violent content, sexual assault|, language, bloody Images, sexual material, teen drinking, and drug content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters brutally killed, character sees her mother killed by an ax murderer, re-animated corpse, mutilation, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Lisa Frankenstein Copyright 2024 Focus

An uneven mash-up of 80s teen comedy and horror wisely relies on the terrific Kathryn Newton as the title character, a high school girl whose mother was hacked to death by an ax murderer. Her father quickly remarried and they have moved in with her new stepmother, Janet (Carla Gugino), and step-sister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), a sunny-spirited cheerleader.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody famously began her film, “Jennifer’s Body,” with Amanda Seyfried saying, “Hell is a teenage girl.” That is the theme of that film, this film, and even her sweet, beloved screenplay for “Juno.” “Lisa Frankenstein’s” best moments are the ones that play off of the idea that horror and high school are a lot closer than we like to admit. So when Lisa falls for a re-animated corpse of a 19th century musician who died young, she matter-of-factly explains to him that Taffy told her it’s a mistake to try to change a boy, so she is just going to accept him the way he is, rotted, foul-smelling flesh and all.

Well, she does clean him off. When he first staggers into her house, covered with mud from the grave, he looks like a golem. And he does not speak. Cole Sprouse plays a character who is just identified in the credits as “the Creature” (an allusion, like the title, to the original Frankenstein story — remember, Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster). He worked with a mime to make his non-verbal character as expressive as possible. Once the mud is washed off, as he becomes physically and emotionally re-connected to the world of the living, he gives us a sense of who he was and what he is feeling.

Newton, who memorably starred in the body-switching horror comedy “Freaky,” playing a high school girl whose body is occupied by the 6’5″ deranged serial killed played by Vince Vaughn, brings just the right tone to Lisa, who begins the story still shell-shocked from the loss of her mother and her new home with the superficially welcoming Janet and the just plain superficial Taffy. She finds it comforting to visit the abandoned cemetery in the woods, and that is where she see the grave of the Creature, with the handsome bust on the headstone. She whispers that she wishes she was with him, and somehow that calls him to her. Luckily, her after-school job doing repairs in a dry cleaning ship has given her sewing skills that will come in handy when it turns out the Creature needs some replacement body parts.

Williams relies too heavily on 80s references to make her points. Those who did not come of age in that era will not have the instant emotional connection (or laugh) she is hoping for. The opening credits are a witty mash-up of 80s-era Lisa Frank designs and Victorian silhouette animation. It is a lot of fun to see Newton as Lisa become confident and brave, rocking those 80s, Madonna-influenced outfits, the 80s songs still hold up, and it is entertaining to see some switch-ups on the usual rom-com tropes. It’s the Creature who gets the trying-on-clothes sequence, for example. First-time feature director Zelda Williams (the daughter of Robin Williams) has some strong ideas but the tone wobbles when it tries to straddle.

Parents should know that this is a horror movie and many characters are murdered in a gory manner. It includes sexual references and teen partying.

Family discussion: What 80s touches are most important in this movie? Why was Lisa so drawn to the abandoned cemetery? What do you like best about horror movies?

If you like this, try: “Freaky” and “Young Frankenstein”

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