Movie Review ~ The Nun


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A priest with a haunted past and a novice on the threshold of her final vows are sent by the Vatican to investigate the death of a young nun in Romania and confront a malevolent force in the form of a demonic nun.

Stars: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Bonnie Aarons

Director: Corin Hardy

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I have to hand it to director James Wan for going the distance with this notion of creating a universe of movies inspired by his film, The Conjuring. Starting with the lackluster Annabelle and it’s much superior prequel, Annabelle: Creation, Wan sought to expand the playing field by spinning off frightening characters introduced in his massively scary 2013 film and its 2016 sequel. With Annabelle 3 going into production soon and another offshoot based on the Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2 slowly coming together, the wheels are certainly turning in Wan’s scare factory.

A priest, a nun, and a French-Canadian walk into a haunted convent…sounds like the start of a late night joke told in a dive bar but no, that’s the premise of The Nun which is Wan’s latest bid for domination of the horror genre. While it doesn’t fall as flat as Annabelle, it doesn’t rise to the thrill level found in the other fright flicks released to date. Still…there are far worse way to scare yourself silly while paying top price ticket fees in the process.

Set in 1952, The Nun follows a priest (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) called by the Vatican to look into the suicide of a nun at a secluded convent in Romania. He’s accompanied by a novice (Taissa Farmiga, The Bling Ring) who has yet to take her final vows but possesses a talent Vatican officials feel will be useful in the investigation. It’s never fully explained (at least not to my satisfaction) just why she’s sent along for the ride but her presence helps the priest gain access into the cloistered abbey where evil is certainly playing a wicked game.

Local food delivery boy Frenchie (no, seriously) shows the two the way into the massive castle-like convent which once housed some decidedly unholy tenants. Catholic guilt is no match for Hollywood terror so check your religious piety at the door if you don’t want to be too offended by stigmata, a few naughty nun jokes, and one scene where it looks like the devil is playing a game of nun bowling. The bulk of the film follows our investigators as they are terrorized by the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons, Silver Linings Playbook) who has taken on the terrifying visage of a nun and appears at numerous inopportune times.

The screenplay from Gary Dauberman (IT) with input from Wan (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) has a nice set-up for the first forty five minutes or so, finding a lighter tone and quick pacing to keep things moving. Strangely, it’s when the guests arrive at the moody monastery that reveal some peculiar twists that never find a good pay off. Over the top sequences I swore would be revealed to be dreams were actually occurring and the finale felt like too many ideas shoehorned into a quick wrap-up. As in previous films of The Conjuring Universe, there’s an effort to tie this film into later events but it hinges on you remembering a minor incident from The Conjuring.

Performances here are fairly standard with Bichir plodding through the film with conviction, even if he’s oddly given a truly been there, done that backstory involving a botched exorcism. While her sister is the star and highlight of The Conjuring films, Farmiga doesn’t quite have the same gravitas of her elder sibling. As Frenchie, Jonas Bloquet (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) feels like he walked in from a Netflix rom-com with his arched eyebrows and one-liners at the ready. If there’s one thing that truly saves the film and actually elevates it, it’s the production design and cinematography. This is one of the best looking horror films in recent memory and the 22 million dollars allocated for the budget were certainly put to good use. Its European setting reminded me more than a few times of the classic Hammer Horror films and director Corin Hardy makes the most of several ominous set pieces. Fantastic production values aside, the catacomb-y finale felt like a test run for The Nun’s guaranteed appearance at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights in 2019.

Make no doubt about it, Wan is on to something with this idea to bring all of his scary creations to life in films of their own. He’s learned from his past mistakes and is bringing in the right people to get the job done…but if this universe is to continue to thrive attention needs to be paid to all the details and not just chuck careful planning out the window in favor of a cheap-ish scare. There’s no prayer for forgiveness required from The Nun…but penance must be paid in future installments if the filmmakers don’t plot their approach better.

Movie Review ~ Operation Finale


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Years after World War II, a team of secret agents are brought together to track down Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi architect of the Holocaust.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Haley Lu Richardson, Nick Kroll, Joe Alwyn

Director: Chris Weitz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the prevalence of movie previews giving away major plot points I tend to stay away from them all together so I can go in as blind as possible. In the case of Operation Finale, I wound up going in double blind because not only did I manage to bypass seeing any trailers for the film but also my last flirtation with a WWII history class was more than decade ago. Now, truth be told, I could have done without the history lesson from a scholar before the screening who spoiled the entire plot and its, ahem, finale, but it was my bad for not remembering such an important moment in history.

This historical drama centers on Israeli intelligence officers plotting to capture former SS Officer Adolf Eichmann who has been found in Buenos Aires in 1960. Among the Mossand agents are Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, Annihilation), a man haunted by the loss of his sister and her children during the Holocaust. After a failed mission in Austria in 1954, Malkin has been on the outs with his commanding officer who sees him as a shoot first and ask questions later kinda army man. Selected alongside other agents with their own personal stake in the game to travel to Argentina and extract Eichmann, Malkin will have to place his own feelings of vengeance aside and protect the man that was responsible for orchestrating The Final Solution.

Director Chris Weitz (A Better Life) has amassed an interesting career as a writer/director. For me, he’ll always be associated with the raunchy teen comedy American Pie so every time I see his name that’s all I think of. His previous films have run the gamut from entertaining to enervating so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from his efforts here. Working with a script from Matthew Orton, Weitz largely stays out of the way of his esteemed cast and let’s them do the heavy lifting. While it’s a well-made picture to be sure, it sometimes wearily creaks along like the Hollywood machine film it is. That’s not a (total) knock on anyone or anything involved with Operation Finale, just an observation that the film knows its place in the box office food chain.

Also serving as a producer, Isaac gets under the skin of Malkin and effectively creates a layered performance that goes far beyond the backstory the screenplay briefly fleshes out. Kept awake at night by painful musings on how his sister may have met her fate, he’s joined this mission not only to capture the man who was tangentially responsible for her death but to exorcise his own personal demons that won’t go away. Isaac and Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) go toe-to-toe in several gripping scenes that feel immediate…like we’re in the room with them. If you told me Operation Finale started as a play I wouldn’t have second guessed you – the scenes between the two men are easily the highlight of the film.

Speaking of Kingsley, it’s interesting to see him play a very different side to the WWII coin after his work in Schindler’s List. While you may need to squint you eyes a bit to buy the 74 year-old actor is supposed to be playing 56 year-old Eichmann, you’ll want to cover them during flashbacks when the filmmakers use iffy CGI to make him appear 20 years younger. Kingsley is a master of the blank faced reaction and it’s used to frustratingly perfect results as Malkin and his crew attempt to get Eichmann to sign a document saying he’s willing to be transported to Israel and stand trial for his crimes.

Weitz populates the film with a strong cast of supporting characters, from Mélanie Laurent (Now You See Me) as Malkin’s former flame employed as a physician to keep Eichmann alive to Nick Kroll (Sausage Party) bringing some appropriate humor to the film as a fellow Mossad agent. The international cast blend seamlessly with their American colleagues and there’s little trouble tracking who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. Special points go to two-time Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat’s (The Shape of Water) nicely pitched score that aids in the intrigue of the spy shenanigans.

Everything about this movie feels unexpected in a good way. The performances are engaging, the direction taut, the writing solid, and the production overall is handsome. It suffers from being ever so slightly too slick (blame Hollywood) and for its rushed ending that seems to skip over some more interesting beats. Still, for a late summer movie this is a nice surprise of a quality film, a attention-grabbing precursor to a busy fall season.

Movie Review ~ 2001: A Space Odyssey (IMAX)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Humanity finds a mysterious, obviously artificial object buried beneath the Lunar surface and, with the intelligent computer HAL 9000, sets off on a quest.

Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Rated: G

Running Length: 149 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Hello and welcome to another episode of Confessions of an Embarrassed Movie Fan. Today’s episode will briefly cover my red-faced shame in admitting that before catching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey projected in glorious IMAX I had never seen the film all the way through. Yes, it’s true. Though not for lack of trying, up until yesterday my efforts in taking in this masterpiece where thwarted by distraction, sleep deprivation, and, gulp, a little boredom. The Blu-Ray has played from start to finish in my house a grand total of 3 times and each time I fell asleep. I think it was because before I was seeing it out of necessity rather than true interest so it failed to capture my attention or keep me awake.

I had no trouble staying awake, however, seeing the film during its one-week engagement in IMAX at the Minnesota Zoo. For the first time I was able to sit back and truly take in the beauty and wonder of Kubrick’s grand epic and be totally enveloped in the dazzle of it all. For a film celebrating its 50th birthday, it has lost none of the grandeur and awe it inspired when it was first released. Sitting here now in the midst of seeing one CGI-fest after another, it’s truly an amazement to recognize the magnitude of the work that went into 2001: A Space Odyssey and marvel at the countless movies, actors, directors, and effects technicians it has inspired in the years since it was first released.

To explain a summary of the movie in full would be to oversimplify things because the plot is very clearly secondary to the portals of self-interpretation opened up to us by Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke’s short story provided the genesis of the project, which, after Kubrick’s ambiguous movie came out, he spent the next years trying to explain in greater detail. Kubrick was ok with leaving the film (especially its divisive ending) open to interpretation and so am I. There’s a refreshing sentiment in a filmmaker trusting the audience enough to let them make up their own minds.  By the time the film ends we’ve been on such a journey that it feels right for Kubrick to hand it back to us and let us discover what it all means to us.

The connective tissue of the movie surrounds a mysterious black monolith. Appearing first in a 20-minute dialogue-free opening segment following primates in the Africa desert millions of year ago, the presence of the monolith seems to grant the great apes knowledge that helps them advance in evolution with the use of tools. That leads us to the next segment several million years later when the monolith is discovered buried on the moon. When the monolith is first exposed to the sun it seems to send a signal through the universe directed at the planet Jupiter and that’s when the most familiar elements of the plot take hold. The Jupiter mission, led by Dave (Keir Dullea) and Frank (Gary Lockwood), is on its way through the stars to the far off planet when they run afoul of HAL 9000, the sentient computer that oversees the operations of their ship and their life support.

At 149 minutes (not including a 20-minute intermission 90 minutes in), the film is a commitment to get through but it does fly by. Even numerous prolonged sequences set to classical music, mostly involving spacecraft landing places with grand majesty, don’t feel overindulgent or repetitive. It’s the incredible visuals from cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth aided by Kubrick’s Oscar-winning way-ahead-of-their-time visual effects that give the film its sheer size.  There are several camera shots done practically that you’ll be scratching your head wondering how they achieved such a feat.  An extended light sequence near the end as our hero passes through time and space might test your visual and aural limits but its best to just grip your seat (or your companion) and take it all in.  Kubrick is attuned to every element of what is coming off the screen.  There’s silence when necessary, exposition only when required, and large sequences without dialogue that are presented visually in such a way that we are able to narrate for ourselves almost subconsciously.

The film is massive in cinematic size, emotional scope, and cognitive scale and is easily the most recommended on the biggest screen you can find. For one week you can catch this in IMAX theaters near you and if you’ve never seen the film, never made it through without falling asleep (apologies again, Mr. Kubrick!), or haven’t seen it in years, now is your chance to check another classic off your list in the most deluxe way possible.

Movie Review ~ Papillon (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Wrongfully convicted for murder, Henri Charriere forms an unlikely relationship with fellow inmate and quirky convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega, in an attempt to escape from the notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island.

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Roland Møller, Yorick van Wageningen, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson

Director: Michael Noer

Rated: R

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While I was familiar in passing with Henri Charrière’s semi-autobiographical 1970 novel Papillion and it’s 1973 film adaption starring Steven McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, I’d never dug deep into either source material before taking in the 2018 remake. So I have little to compare and contrast to what has come before. Maybe that’s a good thing, too, because for all the bleakness and cold to the touch emotions the new Papillion employs, it seems like it would make a good rainy day selection for audiences craving something with some substance.

Set between the years of 1933 and 1941, Papillion follows petty thief Charrière (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim) as is he wrongfully convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and sentenced to serve his time on a penal colony in French Guiana. The conditions are terrible and the punishments for disobeying orders (or worse, attempted escape) are brutal. Through a friendship that develops with Louis Dega (Rami Malek, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) the two men plot an escape from the island prison but face the elements and their own demons along the way.

Fans of The Shawshank Redemption might find more than a few similarities between that film and Papillion. Both are set in hellish prisons governed by an imperious warden and feature a colorful set of supporting characters there to alienate our leads at some points and assist them in their quest at others. While the overall message of hope amidst darkness is delivered expertly in Shawshank, it’s a feeling that Papillion can’t quite relay in the same powerful way.

Danish director Michael Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) speed through Charrière’s life in Paris with his girlfriend (Eve Hewson, Enough Said), eager to get him convicted and en route with Dega to the island as quickly as possible. The journey by boat is a nightmare for the affluent and slight Dega, but buddying up with Charrière gets him the protection he needs to survive until he makes it to shore. The film soon gets into an episodic routine of Charrière looking out for Dega while planning an escape with fellow inmate Celier (Roland Møller, Skyscraper) and suffering various tortures for both efforts.

Though he’s often lost among the more popular actors of his generation, I find Hunnam to be a real star sitting right on the brink. He chooses interesting projects (2017’s The Lost City of Z was maybe the most unheralded movie of that year) and commits himself completely to his work (maybe that commitment to material he believes in is why he famously bowed out of a leading role in Fifty Shades of Grey) and that same talent is on display here. Charrière gets put through the ringer and Hunnam ably takes us through every heinous step of his imprisonment. Still, he doesn’t let the character wallow too long and while he maintains some impeccably clean teeth even after years in solitary confinement, his physical and emotional transformation is largely impressive.

I still wish I understood why people are trying to make Rami Malek happen as a leading man. He’s supposedly wonderful on TV’s Mr. Robot but I’ve yet to be thrilled by any of the work he’s done on screen. He talks like he has a frog in his throat and maintains skittish tics that feel like nuances derived from Acting 101 textbooks. Malek’s big test will be playing Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody later this year and while he’s perfectly fine as the bug-eyed Dega, he’s matched with an actor that strong arms him in more ways than one.

The cinematography from Hagen Bogdanski and the production design from Tom Meyer (The Internship) are top notch, putting you right into the heat and horrible conditions within the prison. There’s some wonderfully intricate designs that make you curious to explore the space…an impressive accomplishment as the space we want more time in in a dingy prison and, later, an island cut-off from the rest of the prisoners.

Even pushing past the two hour running length, the opening and closing of Papillion feel rushed and unfinished.  It’s frustrating for films to feel constructed around attention spans as opposed to story and that dings the effort a bit in my book.  Still, Papillion is another film like the recently released Alpha that are better than their meager roll-outs suggest. Like Alpha, it’s a film you’re going to have to work to see and work harder to get comfortable with. Those willing to make that pact are likely to be rewarded.

Movie Review ~ The Happytime Murders


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When the puppet cast of an ’80s children’s TV show begin to get murdered one by one, a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye puppet takes on the case.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Leslie David Baker, Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Klash

Director: Brian Henson

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Continuing the entertainment industry’s penchant for turning the sweet and cuddly into rude and raunchy, The Happytime Murders comes from none other than the son of Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. Brian Henson grew up in Muppet-land and even directed Muppet Treasure Island and the enduring chestnut that is The Muppet Christmas Carol. Like a former child star that decides to pose in Playboy, Henson wants to show us all how grown up he is by pandering to the lowest common denominator, not just in jokes but in filmmaking. The results is a gross, stupid movie that elicits a few shocked laughs but more often than not earns a somber silence.

At the screening I attended for The Happytime Murders there was a problem with the projection and they had to stop the film about five minutes in. This turned out to be a blessing. Not only did it get rid of the foreign language subtitles that had been mistakenly turned on but it also gave audiences a chance to see what a second viewing of the movie might be like.  And it wasn’t pretty.  The first time a puppet swore, there was a huge reaction from the crowd. When a female puppet said something repulsively filthy, you could hear shrieks of stunned cackles. Then the movie stopped to fix the issue and they started it from the beginning. The next time these same jokes came around not ten minutes later, there were light titters but the odd feeling we knew it wasn’t truly funny the first time.

Aping on the classic film noir, the film follows disgraced cop turned private investigator Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta, Muppets Most Wanted) as he teams up with his former partner (Melissa McCarthy, The Boss) to solve a series of murders. All the victims were members of a popular kids show, the first of its kind to show puppets and humans on equal ground, even though in reality puppets are seen as second-class citizens humans can do whatever they want with. At the same time, Phillips gets tangled up with a femme fatale client (voiced by Dorien Davies) being blackmailed who has more than her fair share of skeletons in the closet.

The set-up is not so far afield from the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett but I doubt either writer could have ever thought they’d be mentioned in a review about trampy puppets that secrete, excrete, and swear like sailors. Screenwriter Todd Berger’s weary script resurrects ‘90s-era groaners in between languid exposition and tired twists. Any audience member that’s watched a police procedural in the last three decades will be able to spot the killer and figure out their motive long before our hero does.

There’s probably no point in poking holes in the logic here but I’m going to give it a go. The way that Berger and Henson see it, puppets are little more than socks filled with fluff so it’s easy to watch them get torn up, blown up, or wrung out without cringing too much. Yet at the same time we’re led to believe that a human can receive an organ transplant from a puppet that supposedly isn’t made of any kind of tissue and just how are these puppets popping out Easter eggs when frightened or ejaculating silly string when excited? If they aren’t more than stuffing, where is the glitter pee coming from? I won’t even get into the scene set in a sex shop that features an octopus doing terrible things with their eight arms to a ecstatic cow.

Poor McCarthy, she’s regressing right back into the gutter humor that did her no favors in films like This is 40 and Tammy. While she’s made a bid in the last few years for respect with Spy and Life of the Party, here she’s slumming it once again and apparently without much arm-twisting. This is a tired performance from an actress that usually shows boundless energy. The same sorrow can be felt for Maya Rudolph (Inherent Vice) who gives great moll but is stuck delivering her lines to a puppet – it’s a lot of energy being spent for absolutely no result. Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 3) another actress like McCarthy that has experience with ribald comedy, deserves some sort of award for sportsmanship for the scene where she peels a carrot in order to sexually excite a trio of rabbits.  Proving he’s definitely no movie star once and for all, Joel McHale (Blended) pops up as a grimacing FBI agent and manages to miss every potential laugh.

The most shocking thing about the movie is that, based on the audience I saw the film with, parents actually are considering it OK to bring their kids. This is nowhere near an acceptable film for anyone under 17 and this is coming from someone who saw a heap of inappropriate films in the theater before I was old enough to drive. Parents…please, don’t bring your kids to this. YOU don’t even have to go…and, in fact, you shouldn’t.

Movie Review ~ Crazy Rich Asians

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: This contemporary romantic comedy, based on a global bestseller, follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family.

Stars: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Lisa Lu, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remi Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Ken Jeong

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: So here we are in the final weeks of summer. The kids are getting ready to go back to school and adults (at least this one!) are breathing a sigh of relief.  As far of summer movies go, over the course of the last few months we’ve had some highs (Avengers: Infinity War), some lows (Book Club), and some downright stinkers (Breaking In). If you asked me a few weeks ago what would be the best film of the summer my vote would have been Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I mean, that Tom Cruise vehicle was a real corker, firing on all cylinders and delivering a massive jolt of adrenaline…a perfect formula for a memorable summer blockbuster.

Well, right before the summer season finish line we have a late breaking champion that swooped in and stole the Best Of prize from Cruise and company. Yep, Crazy Rich Asians is, for me, the best film of the summer and the one I think you’ll have a lot of fun at. It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a movie this fresh and satisfying, a romantic comedy that’s effervescent but not operating twelve feet in the air. It’s a grounded, well-made film that’s exuberantly fun and endlessly charming.

Though I failed to make it through Kevin Kwan’s bestseller (the first in a trilogy) before seeing the movie, I knew enough to see that Crazy Rich Asians stays respectful to its source material. Readers will remember the zinger of an opener set in the past that leads directly into the present where we meet economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, Sound of My Voice) and her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding, the upcoming A Simple Favor). Nick wants Rachel to accompany him to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to introduce her to his family. Though Rachel has met some of Nick’s friends already, meeting the family is a whole other ball of wax and it’s an invite she’s eager to accept.

It’s not until they are seated in a deluxe first class cabin on their international flight that Rachel starts to realize her boyfriend is a tad more well-off than he has led her to believe (remarking at how frugal he is, Rachel says “You even borrow my Netflix password.”). Turns out Nick Young’s family is well known throughout much of Asia and they haven’t even touched down in Singapore before nearly the entire country knows of their arrival. Over the next week of celebrations leading up to the wedding, Rachel will meet Nick’s tradition-minded mother (Michelle Yeoh, Morgan), his adoring grandmother (Lisa Lu, The Joy Luck Club), his cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan, Transformers: The Last Knight), and a whole host of other relations both crazy and rich to varying degrees.

Much has been made that Crazy Rich Asians is the first studio film with an Asian cast set in the present day since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club and it’s a headline worth taking note of. Thankfully, the film doesn’t hang its hat just on this distinction but instead presents itself as a fully-formed, gorgeously made, romantic comedy that feels almost immediately like an instant classic. The characters are broad but relatable…even if you’ll likely be drooling at the kind of opulent lives they lead. The comedic entanglements from screenwriters Peter Chiarelli (Now You See Me 2) and Adele Lim are familiar but delivered with a zest that clears away any stale smell of retreading clichés, and the message about tradition/home/family feels exceedingly timely.

Director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) has fashioned a handsome looking film that feels like every single dollar was put up on screen. With no huge names in the cast, the budget went intro production design and the movie benefits hugely from it. Not that the cast is bargain-rate by any means. Wu is a fantastically contemporary leading lady, a smart woman of today that doesn’t lose herself within the confines of visiting a culture very different from her own. Newcomer Golding is a real find (and the product of a lengthy casting search) and the chemistry he has with Wu and the other cast members is electric. Chan has an interesting arc as Nick’s sister in a difficult marriage and by the time her storyline wraps up expect some applause as she delivers a killer takedown. Yeoh has a fine line to tread between being too much of a villain when she’s not really a bad person and she expertly navigates this minefield with class and in countless glam gowns. Keep your eyes and ears open anytime Awkwafina is onscreen as she steals scenes even more than she did in Oceans Eight earlier this summer.

From it’s eye-popping displays of the lifestyles of the crazy, rich, and famous to its smart soundtrack featuring Asian remakes of pop songs, this is a movie that knows exactly what it is and who it’s for. Even better, this feels like it was made for one type of audience but winds up likely appealing to many more. If this does well we can hope not only for a sequel but for studios to wise up and greenlight more projects with casts that represent our world.

Movie Review ~ Alpha


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a hunting expedition during the Upper Paleolithic period goes awry, a young man struggles against the elements to find his way home, all the while developing a friendship with a gray wolf. This forges the tentative first bond between man and canine.

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leonor Varela, Natassia Malthe, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Priya Rajaratnam, Mercedes de la Zerda, Jens Hultén

Director: Albert Hughes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Release dates are tricky things when it comes to movies. Studios look at a calendar and date films for release hoping that no other similar flicks lock in the same/near date to avoid major competition.  Place your movie on the wrong date and what was supposed to be a financial hit turns into a movie that appears at your local Redbox that much faster. Alpha has been through several release dates, pushing the film back almost an entire year from its originally intended 2017 debut.

Usually, a fluctuating release date spells trouble for the film, as the studio doesn’t know how to market it or has little faith in it but in the case of Alpha I can see why timing was everything for it to see the light of day. It’s not really a summer blockbuster or an end of the year awards contender, and its price tag would suggest that it wasn’t one that could just be dumped into theaters with little fanfare. So Sony has decided to set Alpha free at the tail end of the summer when most of the big dogs have come and gone and hope for some scraps from audience members. A late-breaking controversy in the past few weeks from PETA regarding some questionable animal handling hasn’t helped the film and that’s a shame because Alpha is a surprisingly moving bit of filmmaking with breathtaking scenery and its heart squarely in the right place.

The first thing you should know, and which trailers have played incredibly coy about, is the entirety of the dialogue in Alpha is spoken in an ancient language and subtitled in English, translating the words spoken by a primitive tribe in Europe over 20,000 years ago. It would have been much easier for director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt to nudge this into familiar territory and have everyone speak in English with a vague British accent but everyone goes full out here and the result gives the film its first dose of authenticity. It also could alienate families bringing in young children on the premise this is going to be a routine boy and his dog tale…it’s anything but.

Alpha is first and foremost a tale of survival against the elements, an intense journey of self-discovery for a boy just becoming a man. The son of a chief, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, X-Men: Apocalypse) is a sensitive soul that struggles with taking the steps toward adulthood that are expected of him. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Atomic Blonde) wants to protect his only son but e recognizes he must educate him as well. Taking his son on their seasonal bison hunt hundreds of miles away from their home, he hopes to teach him the ways of his ancestors and give him greater strength. When an accident separates Keda from his tribe, he is forced to grow up fast as he fights the elemtents (both natural and animal) to make his way home. Along the way he befriends a gray wolf and develops a bond that will set the stage for future generations.

There’s nothing monumentally deep to the story that Alpha seeks to tell and the film reminded on more than one occasion of the type of adventure film Disney might have released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Attempts to somehow tie the tale to the “origin of man’s best friend” aren’t as successful because the movie isn’t solely about that connection. It’s Keda’s story through and through and though Alpha (the name he gives the dog) becomes an important piece of that tale it’s ultimately about an internal maturity that develops within the boy as he treks across land and rapidly changing seasons to reunite with his family.

What pushes the film into recommended territory is the filmmaking and performances. Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) go for an epic scale and the achievements are breathtaking. I saw the film in IMAX 3D and Alpha makes one of the strongest cases in recent memory to shell out the extra money for this premium experience. The vistas are rendered through a mix of CGI and natural scenery from locations in British Columbia and the unobtrusive 3D provides a wonderful depth that actually enhances the visuals ten-fold.

Smit-McPhee has had numerous successes on screen in his ten year career but this is a definite high point. Tasked with carrying much of the movie along with his canine co-star (also a mix of CGI and real dog), Smit-McPhee doesn’t say much throughout the film but conveys much emotion with his physicality. As the film progresses and the expedition gets more difficult, the young actor helps to relate the desperation and doubt his character begins to feel as more and more roadblocks emerge to prevent his safe arrival. As Keda’s father, Jóhannesson gives great emotional weight to a role that could just as easily have been a staid macho Neanderthal.

Chances are Alpha is going to get lost in the hustle and bustle of these waning summer weeks. If it’s showing in your neck of the woods in IMAX, in 3D, or better yet in IMAX 3D I’d strongly encourage you making the effort to see it. My advice would be to leave young kids at home but anyone older than 11 would be a good companion for this one – it’s worth your time.

Movie Review ~ The Meg


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After escaping an attack by what he claims was a 70-foot shark, Jonas Taylor must confront his fears to save those trapped in a sunken submersible.

Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Cliff Curtis, Sophia Shuya Cai, Masi Oka

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I like sharks.  I like movies.  I like shark movies.  From Jaws to The Shallows to 47 Meters Down, I’m a fan of anything featuring an underwater predator snacking on unsuspecting prey.  Even in lesser known entires like Bait or Shark Night 3D, there’s a certain amount of satisfied fun that comes with these creature features.  Of course, it helps I’m writing this review from the landlocked safety of Minnesota (aka Land of 10,000 Lakes) so these ocean tales of killer sharks don’t dredge up the same fear in me that might plague someone living near the open water.

Steve Alten’s 1997 “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” was tailor made for a screen adaptation.  After spending a solid 20 years in development hell and tossed around by several studios, directors, and stars, The Meg has finally surfaced.  Was it worth the wait?  Did director Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping) and star Jason Statham (Spy) strike the right balance of fun and fear that made Alten’s original novel (and multiple follow-ups) such a blast?   I can’t say for sure whether or not you’ll go for this sometimes scary, sometimes silly late summer adventure but for someone like me who has waited so long for this sizable shark soup it satisfies a hunger two decades in the making.

Not having read the book in a good decade, I picked up my tattered copy and skimmed the pages before heading out to the screening.  Alten’s no Hemmingway but he manages to take the reader along for a plausible (for 1997) ride to the depths of the ocean where a fish long thought extinct has been living undisturbed for thousands of years.  The screenplay from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber (Battleship), Erich Hoeber (Red 2) retains elements and a few characters from the novel but alters the action for its star and international supporting cast.

At an underwater research facility in the South China Sea, scientists are using sophisticated underwater submersibles to dive deeper than any human has before.  They hope to prove the existence of another underwater ecosystem thousands of feet below sea level.  Their attempts at a scientific breakthrough instead release a gigantic Megaladon, a shark long since though extinct.  With little time to warn neighboring countries, the crew must track down the deadly shark before she gobbles up throngs of swimmers along the coast.

Reframing Statham’s character Jonas Taylor from a marine biologist to a grizzled deep sea rescue diver allows Statham to do away with the formality of a pretending he’s had a scientific education and clears the way to draw on his brawn to save the day.  Whereas the novel’s Jonas eventually comes into his own set of brass balls, Statham presents as a no-nonsense Hercules from the word go.  He’s nicely matched by Li Bingbing (Transformers: Age of Extinction) as Suyin, the plucky daughter of the head of research (Winston Chao, The Wedding Banquet) at the scientific laboratory involved with the discovery of the massive shark.  Suyin and Jonas parlay their growing (and nicely unforced) chemistry into believable teamwork as they work together to use their collective bravura to save the day.

While Statham and Bingbing are pleasing leads, Turtletaub has a bit of a mixed bag in the supporting characters.  There’s a whole lot of people popping up and sadly not all of them serve their purpose by becoming fish food by the time the credits roll.  Ruby Rose as a tough scientist and Sophia Shuya Cai as Suyin’s playful daughter fare best while Cliff Cutis (Whale Rider), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and Page Kennedy do what they can with their stock character roles.  The biggest head-scratcher is Rainn Wilson (Cooties) as the egocentric money man behind the entire operation.  Wilson, best known for his brilliant work on The Office is truly miscast here, never funny enough to be comic relief or villainous enough to earn our bloodlust in rooting for him to get tenderized by the shark.

Ah…the shark.  You want to know about the shark, right?  It’s well documented that during the production of Jaws the mechanical shark was prone to breaking down, which gave director Steven Spielberg the challenge of showing less and implying more.  This lead to that movie becoming a classic but also meant for future genre movies using a practical creation was far more difficult than creating a sizable beast using special effects.  I’m fairly sure our titular monster is all CGI and aside from a few sketchy renderings it’s mostly a handsome bit of movie magic that blends seamlessly with the live action.  This leads to some ample scares (jolts more like it) and sustained bits of action, especially in the jam-packed final third of the film.

Where I found the film to be lacking were the moments when the shark wasn’t on screen.  That’s where the screenplay shows it’s flimsiness and resorts to some eye rolling dialogue clearly meant to be judicious exposition.  This being a film largely financed by international producers , there are specific moments that feel like cultural insertions (father-daughter bonds, noble deaths, etc) rather than plot points.  Still, even the dumbest sounding dialogue is delivered with a harmless earnestness that’s easy to forgive.

A pure popcorn extravaganza, The Meg swims ashore this August to take a bite out of the late summer box office and stands a good chance at doing well in the U.S. but even better in foreign markets.  Expect the movie to open big in Asia and take in enough money to generate a sequel – and if it’s handled with the same balance of camp and thrill, I’ll be first in line to see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Bel Canto

Synopsis: A world famous opera singer becomes trapped in a hostage situation when she’s invited to perform for a wealthy industrialist in South America.

Release Date: September 14, 2018

Thoughts: It’s been four years since Julianne Moore won her long overdue Oscar for Still Alice and she’s largely avoided the Best Actress curse popping up in interesting, if underperforming, films like Wonderstruck and Suburbicon.  In 2018 she’s back with two interesting projects: Gloria, a US remake of a popular Chilean film and this adaptation of Ann Patchett’s bestseller which casts Moore as a opera singer who becomes a hostage and political chess piece in a South American uprising.  Written for the screen and directed by Paul Weitz (Admission, Grandma, Being Flynn) and co-starring Ken Watanabe (Godzilla) I have to say this looks more important than entertaining.  Also, while I’m glad they are being transparent that Moore’s singing voice is dubbed by the legendary Renee Fleming based on the few shots of her singing I’m a bit nervous it’s going to look too fake-y.  In the end, it’s Moore that appeals to me so I’m always interested in her work…but Bel Canto feels like it has an uphill battle in front of it.

Movie Review ~ Christopher Robin


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A working-class family man, Christopher Robin, encounters his childhood friend Winnie-the-Pooh, who helps him to rediscover the joys of life.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Chris O’Dowd, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: A year ago, this Winnie-the-Pooh fan was excited to learn of two upcoming projects. One promised to go deeper into the life of the author A.A. Milne and the other from Walt Disney Studios would bring the famous bear and his friends to life in a live-action/CGI hybrid. Both films had serious potential considering the beloved material and high nostalgia factor. Well…fool me once (Goodbye Christopher Robin), shame on you. Fool me twice (Christopher Robin), shame on me.

Whereas 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin was a manipulative mess of a biography, Christopher Robin is a dreary miss that clings too tightly to its wistful moments. The movie is constructed to have you biting your lip and furtively wiping away tears at very specific points but it tries too hard to get you to go that sad place. Maybe I’ve turned into a monster in my old age but I resisted and outright resented the way the film went about its business.

Opening with young Christopher Robin attending a going-away party in the Hundred Acre Wood thrown by his animal friends, we learn he’s off to boarding school and will be leaving his friends far behind. Thus begins a rather long prologue where the lad becomes a man (Ewan McGregor, Beauty and the Beast) and eventually a war veteran. He’s now working for a luggage manufacturer with a wife (Hayley Atwell, Cinderella) and young daughter (Bronte Carmichael, Darkest Hour) he rarely spends time with. It’s a familiar sketch of a child that grows up and forgets what it’s like to conjure the kind of make believe fun that fueled a rich imagination. I mean, we all saw Hook, right?

With his family away for a weekend, Christopher is supposed to be working through the logistics of making cost-saving budget cuts at his job when he meets up with Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh can’t find his friends but found his way through a magic door that connects the Hundred Acre Wood to the outside world. Christopher follows Pooh back through the door and begins a sentimental journey through his past that connects him back to the likes of Tigger, Piglet, and Eeyore.

Director Marc Forster has been hit or miss in my book for a while. I enjoyed World War Z, am slowly coming around to his James Bond entry Quantum of Solace, and last year’s All I See Is You was pretty underrated in my book. He’s had a diverse range of tones/genres which I respect but there’s this curious heaviness he adds to Christopher Robin that feels wrong. Even though it makes a last ditch effort to zing up the action in the last 20 minutes, the majority of the movie is too somber for young children and far too slow for older kids. Adults are advised to bring a pillow.

The marginal good news is the period film looks amazing and the characters (much closer in design to Milne’s vision) are brought to impressive life through CGI. Whatever crazy subliminal product messages Disney put in the film worked because I left wanting to get a set of the updated Pooh and co. for my very own. The action blends seamlessly with the live actors and McGregor gets a gold star for making me believe he’s interacting with a stuffed bear. The film doesn’t try to hide the fact these animals can talk, nicely avoiding at least one tired plot device hurdle of stories such as this.

With bits and pieces culled from better movies about growing up too soon (add Peter Pan and Mary Poppins to the list while you’re at it), Christopher Robin is a disappointing entry in Disney’s attempt at giving its characters a live-action treatment. The film scores high in production value and is often saved by its CGI creations but it’s too tangled in its gloomy plot and obvious attempts at wringing tears out of you to be more than a summer bummer misfire.