MYSTERY MOVIES Reviewed! Origin + Lisa Frankenstein + Land of Bad + Ordinary Angels | @Jon is back!

Hello, and welcome back to Movie Night after a very long – and quite frankly, very enjoyable hiatus – my name is Jonathan Paula. Since I saw you last during my review of “The Rise of Skywalker” I have watched 2,354 more movies, which is something like 43% of every movie I’ve watched in my entire lifetime – and boy, do I have thoughts about… some of them – including tonight’s three pictures! And I would certainly encourage you to check out my Letterboxd profile for a deep dive into all of that. But tonight, I’ll be reviewing a group

of pictures I had the pleasure of seeing at advanced screenings at my local theater’s “Mystery Movie Monday” program over the last month. For those who aren’t familiar, every other week or so, participating Regal Cinemas and AMC Theaters will screen a new, yet-unreleased film for only $5… but the only information you’re provided beforehand is its approximate runtime and the MPAA rating. No genre, actors, poster, hints, or anything. And honestly? I love it. Going in absolutely blind is such a refreshing experience. You have zero expectations, allowing the movie to unravel completely organically without any foreknowledge. Granted, most

of these movies are mid-budget indies looking for cheap word-of-mouth to bolster their marketing, and not likely to see wide-release –

but they’re often worth checking out. Especially for “watch-a-movie-every-day” people like myself. Now, you’ve waited over four years since my last review, so I know you must be eagerly awaiting to hear my opinion on tonight’s first ‘Mystery Movie.”… “Origin.” An interesting experience! Produced on a budget of $38 million, Ava DuVernay’s fifth feature premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival before seeing a small theatrical release in January of 2024. Now… if you were to film Charles

Darwin’s landmark book, “On the Origin of Species” – how would you go about it? I think you’d probably write a screenplay about Darwin’s personal life and show him visiting the Galapagos Islands for research, right? How else do you “show” a work of anthropological nonfiction on screen? Writer and director DuVernay was faced with a similar challenge here, and the results are mixed. Based on the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson – this biographical drama is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Structurally speaking, this movie is part traditional drama, part college dissertation, part

documentary, and part dramatization. In a misguided attempt to juggle all four of these styles, the movie fails at establishing a cohesive identity. The lengthy 135-minute film begins with a bit of a fake-out non-sequitur; as we’re witness to a reenactment of Trayvon Martin’s unjust murder. But the movie isn’t about him! And DuVernay makes it explicitly clear that this story isn’t about racism, either! It’s about *castes.* You know, those fixed social groups we learned about in high school? That. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor stars in the lead role, explicitly spelling out this thesis statement with frustrating repetition. Just when the

movie starts to focus on this through-line, it shifts to a maudlin family drama, as Ellis-Taylor embarks on a personal journey to find herself through her writing after tragedy strikes at home. Think “Eat Pray Love” meets “Finding Your Roots.” But wait… what’s this? A series of flashbacks to random characters throughout history to help illustrate the research she’s doing for her book? And if that tone shift wasn’t enough, let’s include a bunch of minutes-long, multi-camera interviews for good measure. Entire portions of this movie feel like they were ripped straight from a literal documentary. Frustrating still, each of

these individual threads – drama, dissertation, dramatization, and documentary – are completely interesting, eye-opening, affecting, and educational (respectively.) But they’re constantly at odds with each other, and the choice to wrap them all together isn’t only a disservice, it also feels indulgent. I loved the message, I just didn’t care for the mechanism. The interwoven fabric that connects subjugated minorities throughout culture and time is a powerful theme worth hearing and exploring – I honestly would have preferred a regular documentary or essay, truthfully. Something even longer than an essay though… perhaps a book? Although it is regretfully told in

a non-optimal format, I was still drawn to this story and its core message: “A world without caste would set everyone free.” Despite its structural flaws and almost non-fictional approach, I found “Origin” to be illuminating and occasionally emotional. It’s kind of MEH… but for those looking for a more educational-type experience this Black History Month, I think I’d still give it a soft recommendation. P.S. I am definitely thankful for Regal’s “Mystery Movie Monday” program – because, if I’m being honest, I would not have watched this outside of a blind-viewing. Second tonight, and brand new in theaters this

week: Lisa Frankenstein. Charming in its absurdity… despite a lack of big laughs. This horror / comedy film from Zelda Williams – the daughter of the late, great Robin Williams – was produced on a budget of $13 million and released on February 9, 2024. The PG-13 rated film shares the story of a misunderstood teenage goth girl who reanimates a Victorian era corpse and works to make him into the man of her dreams. Given her legendary comedic pedigree I definitely expected Zelda’s directorial debut to be, well… funnier. Now, don’t get me wrong – there’s a ton of

enjoyable and humorous moments here, but few moments elicited little more than a chuckle from my packed Mystery Movie crowd. In the lead role as a resourceful social outcast is Kathryn Newton – who’s quickly making a name for herself after solid outings in “Freaky,” “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” and the otherwise terrible “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” with “Winner” coming out later this year. Here, she’s equal parts cute and awkward: mixing quirky energy with cold ambition. And the result is a wonderful three-dimensional character I had no problem rooting for… even as her decisions become less

and less defensible. I hope we see a lot more of Newton in the years ahead: she is a delight to watch. Playing her stepsister is Liza Soberano – who is equally interesting as the superficial cheerleader with surprising compassion and empathy. She also drops the movie’s funniest line when she defends her own anxiety by reminding her sister, “You don’t have to worry about anything because your mom has already been murdered!” As the reanimated corpse that falls for Newton, Cole Sprouse does a decent job mugging for the camera under layers of undead make-up. Truthfully though, the former

star of “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” felt wasted in the mostly-mute role… as he starts to get interesting only during the final act. Carla Gugino is also particularly wonderful as a vindictive stepmom obsessed with her social status and looks. Behind the camera for her first film, Williams certainly has a cinematic eye: filing each frame in the 101-minute picture with bright colors, smart blocking, and sharp compositions. There’s some creative choices made with cross-cutting, too – as several key moments are shown in parallel to other scenes with great effectiveness. This movie shares obvious similarities to

“Warm Bodies” – but without any huge laughs or pointed satire. Although it didn’t quite meet my optimistic expectations, “Lisa Frankenstein” is a sweet and well-intentioned experience that mixes romance with silly horror. I thought it was a GOOD film: and a fine pick for your next date night. Lastly, let’s take a look at an upcoming release that actually surprised me, “Land of Bad.” “Behind Enemy Lines” meets “Lone Survivor.” Slated for a February 2024 release, this is a brutally violent survival-thriller that pits the ruggedly handsome and capable Liam Hemsworth against a horde of insurgents deep in the

jungles and caves of the Philippines. Liam is excellent as an untested JTAC officer – who gets his first taste of combat when his extraction mission goes badly wrong. The action is loud, graphic – and despite the multitude of drone-kills – fairly intimate, too. Director William Eubank strategically uses short bursts of slow-motion to emphasize key moments in the frantic battle scenes, and the results are pretty awesome. It’s like if Zack Synder actually had restraint. “Land of Bad” earns its hard-R rating and then some. Meanwhile, Academy Award winner Russell Crowe is amusing and believable as the “guy

in the chair” – helping the youngest Hemsworth brother navigate the hostile terrain via a drone he’s piloting overhead. This parallel plot delivers a lot of realistic levity to the otherwise serious script. I found myself particularly invested in Crowe’s passionate dedication to this young soldier he’s never met. Which is good, because outside of their comms-only relationship, we learn exceedingly little about their backstories – only that one like Fruit Loops, the other is on his fourth marriage, and they’re both from Ohio. There’s some nail-biting set pieces loaded with huge fiery explosions and blistering fire-fights: which should please

all audiences looking for an audiovisual rush. But outside of a surprisingly wholesome moment in the film’s final scene – this is not a particularly deep or affecting film. It may feel derivative of better pictures, but its solid performances, loud action, and a brisk 110-minute runtime kept me thoroughly engaged throughout. A solid, by-the-numbers tactical adventure dads everywhere are sure to love, I thought “Land of Bad” was a rather COOL film, and one of the better #MysteryMovie selections! Last up, “Ordinary Angels.” A surprisingly moving story. Directed by Jon Gunn, this family drama was released in February of

2024. The 116-minute film shares the incredible true story of a hairdresser who single-handedly rallies an entire community to help a widowed father save the life of his critically ill young daughter. It’s also a movie about addiction, charity, pride, faith, selfishness, and selflessness. Or, more pejoratively: one of those “Hallmark movies.” Hilary Swank’s performance evokes obvious similarities to Julia Roberts as “Erin Brockovich” – a no-nonsense, high-heel wearing businesswoman who wears flashy outfits and gets the job done. And to her credit, the two-time Academy Award winner is delightful in the role of a small town hairdresser who trades

an addiction to alcohol for an addiction to charity work. Meanwhile, Alan Ritchson is particularly convincing as the widowed dad: too stubborn to accept help, with the broad-shouldered roofer silently breaking down in tears after receiving some life-altering good news. The young girls, portrayed by Skywalker Hughes (awesome name, by the way!) and Emily Mitchell enjoy some fun moments of levity before things get more serious… but their role in the story is more of a plot device than fully fleshed-out characters. Contrary to what the marketing and promos may have you believe, “Ordinary Angels” is isn’t so much a

faith-based movie as it is a faith-adjacent movie. Sure, the characters attend church… while faith, God, and Heaven are all referenced: but this is a story about working-class people in Kentucky, so that’s pretty unavoidable. It’s more about community and perseverance than anything – and with its PG rating, should be accessible to almost all audiences. I also want to stress how funny this movie is! With such serious subject matter, getting audiences to smile is always a bit easier – but I legitimately laughed out loud more here than I did for “Lisa Frankenstein.” There’s some moments toward the

end that definitely felt artificial in their attempts to wring even more drama and conflict out of an already powerful story… but these issues are relatively minor. So while this movie was a bit maudlin and saccharine… it still got to me. Granted, I have two girls nearly the same age as those in the film, so my own imagination is doing a lot of emotional projection onto this script: but yeah, I cried. And I suspect most fellow parents would be hard pressed not to do the same. If “Land of Bad” is your quintessential “Dad film” – this

is definitely one for the moms. “Ordinary Angels” is a feel-good experience that re-affirms your faith in humanity. I thought it was a COOL film, and worth your time if you need a pick-me-up. Now that we’ve shaken the rust of this old show, I certainly hope to return with more reviews and new episodes a bit more frequently than twice a decade – but I definitely can’t promise anything! All the more reason to subscribe and hit the bell icon below to make sure you’re notified whenever I do upload a new video. Once again, my name is Jonathan

Paula – thank you so very much for your patience while I was away, thank you for watching, and – as always – have a good Movie Night.

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