Movie Review ~ They Shall Not Grow Old


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A documentary about World War I with never-before-seen footage to commemorate the centennial of the end of the war.

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: With an abundance of celebrated feature films, made-for-TV movies, television series, and award-winning documentaries, I feel like I have a pretty well rounded knowledge of World War II. I’m not sure why, but it seems like that particular time in history has provided a wealth of opportunities to highlight the men and women that served their country and the horrors of the war they were fighting. I feel more than a little bit guilty in admitting I’m not nearly as familiar with the first World War; so, while I know the basics, it’s been some time since I’ve done any kind of deeper dive into it.

Spearheaded by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Frighteners) the new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old isn’t the first film to explore the hell of the battlefield of The First World War but it’s in the way it is delivered that sets it apart (and, in some cases, above) similarly themed films. Using archival video from the Imperial War Museum and oral histories gathered from British servicemen, Jackson has crafted a strikingly immediate film that puts audiences right into the trenches.  With a personal connection to several of the soldiers that fought in the war, Jackson’s first documentary is (of course) a film that looks beautiful but also has a significant abundance of heart.

When war breaks out in July of 1914, a once-idyllic façade in England cracks, thrusting men as young as 15 into service fighting for their country. Though the 120 interviewees speaking aren’t identified until the end credits, each have a story about how they came to sign up and ship out into a war zone from which they may never return. These early sequences showcase an England and a people that might have been lost forever without this valuable film stock.  Seeing the faces of the enlisted men without a clue of what they were about to face is haunting.  The black and white footage that accompanies these early sections of the film (including establishing shots of soldiers training for battle and traveling to the frontline) gives way to a goosebump inducing moment when Jackson colorizes the film.

In transitioning to color, Jackson somehow makes things feel more “real” not just for the soldiers but for audiences as well. No shoddy colorization like you may have seen in old I Love Lucy episodes or that awful version of It’s a Wonderful Life, Jackson’s special effects team has painstakingly taken care in making wise choices in color and tone. It’s an astonishing effect and coupled with added sound effects, vocals, and a few tweaks to the film here and there, it helps the footage to feel brand new. Some showings of the film will also be in 3D and here is another example where I think the upgrade is worth it, adding that extra depth helped bring some of these amazing images even further into focus.

If there’s one thing that keeps the movie from being an outright winner it’s a saggy middle that finds Jackson falling into repetition in certain stories and images. I know he didn’t have a lot of material to work with to illustrate specific moments that are described in interviews but there are some images and film footage that are used multiple times to represent several different incidents. These become distracting after a while and near the end there are events described that have no accompanying footage so they are paired with artist renderings instead.  All in all, the film feels right on target when the stories being relayed in the voice-overs match up with the film footage (much of which has never been seen prior to this release) is being shown.

While it shouldn’t substitute for some good old fashioned cracking opening of a book, They Shall Not Grow Old is quite a remarkable achievement as a historical documentary. Managing to deliver a unique holistic overview of The Great War using innovative technology and narration culled from interviews by those that lived through it, it’s a sobering experience that benefits from a viewing on a big screen.

Movie Review ~ The Kid Who Would Be King

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A band of kids embark on an epic quest to thwart a medieval menace.

Stars: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Rebecca Ferguson, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Patrick Stewart, Denise Gough

Director: Joe Cornish

Rated: PG

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Is it too early to make a reference to a song from Mary Poppins Returns? Oh well, I’m going for it anyway as I kick off this review. In one of the highlight numbers in that 2018 family film, Mary sings that “The cover is not the book, so open it up and take a look” and that more than applies to The Kid Who Would Be King, a movie I easily looked past as a 10am Saturday screening was drawing near. Usually, family movies that screen early in the morning on weekends were films I decided against and the title just didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. Convinced to go by my partner who loves these types of medieval tales, I’m so glad I gave in because this is a dandy of a film that works on multiple levels, delivering entertainment for all ages.

Whether you’ve grown up on the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table or are like me and have just seen Disney’s The Sword in the Stone a whole bunch of times, you’ll already be familiar with the colorfully animated prologue that opens the movie. Detailing the magic and mystery surrounding the legendary King, his sword Excalibur, and the power struggle he waged with his evil half-sister Morgana, King Arthur represented the best of what people could aspire to be while Morgana fed off people’s unhappiness. Banishing his witchy sis to an underground prison after she tried to overthrow his rule, we understand the power anyone possessing the sword Excalibur will wield. Flashing forward thousands of years to an alternate universe modern day London that is considerably more downtrodden (newspapers feature depressing headlines of global despair), it’s clear the golden days of Camelot are finally fading.

Unbeknownst to him, young Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is about to become the hero he never knew he could be. Living with his single mom and trying to survive the school day with his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) without being bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), he’s an ordinary kid about to go on an extraordinary journey. On his way home on night, he evades Lance and Kaye by entering a construction site where he finds Excalibur, unleashing its awesome power and corresponding enemies at the same time. Now, with Morgana gaining strength and sending her minions to retrieve the sword, Alex must enlist his friend and their bullies to form a present-day Knights of the Round Table and defeat the sorceress before she can break free and condemn the world to darkness.

Director and screenwriter Joe Cornish has given us something we don’t get that often – an original story. Remarkably, The Kid Who Would Be King isn’t an adaptation of a previous YA novel or based off of a video game. It’s a fresh product from a director that has injected his film with equal amounts of nostalgia and fun. I’ve seen the movie compared favorably to The Goonies and E.T. and I can see where people are making the connection but this very much charts its own course as well. It’s not the most polished family-centric film you’ll see this year and there are some filmmaking dots that aren’t connected as nicely as I would have liked but it’s exuberance more than makes up for any gaps in plot or pace.

Cornish has cast the film well with amiable child actors that don’t prove cloying or earnest with the material. Serkis (who looks remarkably like his talented dad, Andy) leads the film with distinction, handling the fantasy elements with easy while navigating some emotional terrain quite believably. I also quite liked Chaumoo as his nebbish friend that turns his meekness into a virtue. If the two bullies feel a bit one-dimensional and their arc of redemption a little stale, it isn’t the fault of Taylor and Dorris who do more than go through the motions with their stock characters. There’s a spirited supporting turn by Angus Imrie as a teenaged Merlin who only changes into the aged wizard (Patrick Stewart, Green Room) to make a point…like a mom using your middle name when she means business. As Morgana, Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) is little more than a cameo but she slinks around her well-rendered dirty dungeon nicely.

At a solid two hours and featuring a few supposed climaxes, the movie stretches things just a tad longer than necessary but it’s a small nitpick for a film that works wondrously most of the time. Though it ends with the suggestion a sequel is possible, it doesn’t feel like this was always intended to be the kick start of a new franchise. If Cornish and company were all game to return and the same spirited approach was taken, this could lead to something special that has a lasting impact on audiences.

Movie Review ~ Serenity (2019)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The mysterious past of a fishing boat captain comes back to haunt him, when his ex-wife tracks him down with a desperate plea for help, ensnaring his life in a new reality that may not be all that it seems.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Jeremy Strong

Director: Steven Knight

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: When you’ve been following movies as long as I have, you tend you get a feel for when a stinker is approaching. Take Serenity as a prime example. Here you have a movie headlined by two Oscar winners featuring an additional two Oscar nominees in supporting roles written and directed by another Oscar nominated filmmaker arriving in cinemas with no promotion and no buzz. Even more curious is that it’s being released the same week Oscar nominations were announced, typically a popular weekend for audiences to catch up on films going for the gold. This is a movie everyone, including the fledgling studio that produced it, is clearly hoping will go away quietly.

Set on a small island community where the days are hot and the nights wet, the film opens with a heavy dose of overbaked Hemmingway finding fishing captain Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike) obsessing over a monster tuna that continually evades him. Audiences prepped for a steamy thriller by the previews are in for an off-kilter start as tuna talk takes up a good twenty minutes at the offset with McConaughey jabbering on about this fish to his first mate (Djimon Hounsou, The Legend of Tarzan), the town floozy (Diane Lane, Man of Steel), and anyone else within earshot. It’s not until a blonde bombshell from his past (Anne Hathaway, The Intern) enters the picture that the cash strapped Dill gets lured away from the titan tuna and hooked into a murder plot that leads to several large twists.

Written and directed by Steven Knight, who earned an Oscar nomination for 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things and was responsible for the hackneyed script for 2018’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the crux of Serenity hinges on a plot twist so bonkers that when I figured out it was coming I was almost begging for it not to be true. Even though it makes the film harder to review, I won’t spoil it for you. The twist comes from such a strange place and is at times so outright bizarre that I could see it almost working had Knight fully committed to it from the beginning. When it’s revealed around the halfway mark it just doesn’t hold up if you carefully replay the first part of the movie back in your mind.

That’s not to say Serenity might not have been a moderately enjoyable bit of C-movie trash had it been released as a Netflix original film with a lesser lauded cast. There’s something about the gathering of this caliber of talent that instantly elevates the movie to a higher level of prestige and, in doing so, invites a closer scrutiny of everyone involved. If the film starred Chris Pine and Mila Kunis in place of McConaughey and Hathaway, for example, I don’t think we’d be running the film through the same wringer. Knight’s script is heavy to the point of Mel Brooks spoofing on noir symbolism (though admittedly there’s a reason for that) and he’s given everyone at least one doozy of a line they have to deliver with a straight face. Example, from Hathaway: “You gave me this ring and said, ‘With this stupid ring, I thee wed, baby’…I memorized that.” Really? She memorized that? I mean, it’s not Shakespeare but…

Thinking about the performances after the fact, I’m wondering if only one actor knew about the twist. How else to explain the disconnect between what we know as an audience and what is being happening on screen. McConaughey plays things so deadly serious that you can’t help but laugh at his misguided intensity at the most minor of emotions. His reaction to catching a fish is pretty much in line with deciding whether or not to kill Hathaway’s abusive husband (a snarling Jason Clarke, All I See Is You). He’s either drunkenly stumbling around the island or cliff jumping naked into a deep blue vision quest. Some may find it worth the price of admission just for the gratuitous shots of McConaughey’s rump, which I think gets more screen time than Diane Lane.

Hathaway doesn’t seem like much of a femme fatale in my book and though she admirably goes for it here, I prefer her taking on bad girl roles that have a sly wink to them (think Oceans 8) instead of the cold calculation of her character here. I often wondered why Lane wasn’t playing this part instead – she seemed like a better fit for the role. As the lone voice of reason in an increasingly crazed cast of characters, Hounsou does what he can with his thankless role and Jeremy Strong (The Judge) kept my attention as a mysterious man following McConaughey’s every move.

Sometimes a movie is so bad I feel like recommending it just so we can have that shared experience of saying we survived it together. Right now, with the way our country is going and the amount of problems we’re facing…adding Serenity to that list seems irresponsible. It’s a movie you absolutely should avoid at all costs and skip over when it inevitably pops up on your streaming service in a month or so. Everyone involved is capable of better – even the title needed more thought.

Movie Review ~ Minding the Gap


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Three young men bond together to escape volatile families in their Rust-Belt hometown. As they face adult responsibilities, unexpected revelations threaten their decade-long friendship.

Stars: Kiere Johnson, Bing Liu, Zack Mulligan

Director: Bing Liu

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Part of the joy of a documentary film done right is getting an insider look into a world different from your own and gaining some knowledge into a unique human experience. Sometimes that world is on the other side of the globe and sometimes, like in Minding the Gap, that new understanding can be found just a few states over. The three men at the center of Minding the Gap feel like people I’ve known or could have grown up with; that is, Midwestern guys from blue collar families that don’t want to grow up to be like their parents. Finding solace and friendship in skateboarding culture, their lives may center around that thrill seeking rush of adrenaline but as they take on more adult roles not all make the transition to maturity with ease.

Filmmaker Bing Liu brings audiences into his life as well as the lives of his friends Kiere and Zack over several years as the three deal with personal struggles and set-backs. Each bring a different set of conflicts to the table. Liu’s childhood involves unresolved issues with his immigrant single mother that brought an abusive stepfather into his life, leaving lasting emotional scars that have never healed between parent and child. Losing his dad unexpectedly just as he is entering manhood, Kiere pushes down that pain as he tries to find a male role model to guide him through his formative years…and quickly realizes his core group of older friends aren’t much wiser than he is. Then there’s the charismatic Zack, raised in a tumultuous home by young parents who seems destined to repeat history with his own girlfriend and infant son.

When the film began, I sort of slumped in my seat because I was expecting it to go in a totally different direction. I assumed it would be more focused on the skateboarding and didn’t see the emotional heft of the movie that, looking back on it now, was hiding in plain sight. While there are terrifically filmed scenes of grit as various skateboarders bob and weave around downtown Rockford, IL like locomotives (creating enough tension that my palms started to sweat like they did in Free Solo),  the skateboarding becomes the bright spot of the film to break away from the more emotionally taxing moments.

As he continues to peel away layers, it’s clear that Liu begins to discover things about himself and his friends he never considered when he started making the film. That’s what sets Minding the Gap apart from so many similar documentaries and what keeps your eyes glued to the screen, you just never know what turns the film will take next. It helps that Liu isn’t afraid to turn the camera around and direct the tough questions he asks of others to himself. Even at only 93 minutes, the movie gave me hints of Boyhood in that it truly shows its subjects growing right before our eyes. Where these people end up is so far from where they begin – it’s a remarkable achievement in documentary filmmaking.

Movie Review ~ Stan & Ollie


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Laurel and Hardy, the world’s most famous comedy duo, attempt to reignite their film careers as they embark on what becomes their swan song – a grueling theatre tour of post-war Britain.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston

Director: Jon S. Baird

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: With a total of 107 movies to their name, the comedy duo Laurel & Hardy were kings of comedy in the late 1920’s through the late 1940’s, the golden age of Hollywood.  While both men had established careers apart from one another, it was only when they were paired up at the famed Hal Roach film studio that their stardom went through the roof and they became the stuff of legend.  Though they maybe aren’t remembered by name quite as much as the other comedic acts at the time like Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges, it only takes seeing an image of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and you instantly are familiar with their style of slapstick comedy.

It’s surprising to me that the story of these two men has taken so long to get to the screen and now that it has it’s arrived as a small but sturdy film focusing on the later lives of the pair as they attempt a comeback tour through England in 1953.  Far from their youth and out of practice with each other, the trip proves to be eye-opening in examining their personal and professional relationship and forces them to confront long-held grudges they’ve never really gotten over.

With a career as long and varied as the one Laurel & Hardy had, screenwriter Jeff Pope (Philomena) was wise in focusing in on just one chapter in their story.  The film buff in me would have loved a longer tale that showed us the early Hollywood years that led up to this comeback tour which proved to be the last time the two men would work together, but perhaps that’s too tall an order for a feature film and might find itself better suited as a series down the road.  Pope traces the two men as their tour starts out small but gathers steam as the has-been stars get their spark back and begin to pack in theaters throughout Britain at a time when the country needed a laugh.

Casting was crucial in pulling off this piece and director Jon S. Baird tapped the right people for the job.  As Stan Laurel, Steve Coogan (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) has moments when he looks eerily like the gangly goofball with the flat face and slinking shoulders that stands in stark opposition to the somber fellow Laurel is painted as being offstage.  John C. Reilly (Holmes & Watson) plays his counterpart wearing a fat suit and convincingly real latex prosthetic to enhance his chin and jowls.  Though he doesn’t have the same ringer look that Coogan does, Reilly doesn’t let the make-up do the work for him (I’m talking to you Christian Bale in Vice) and brings the physicality of the rotund comedian out to strong results. The men are backed up by two ladies that often steal the movie right out from under them.  Nina Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) is a hoot as Laurel’s brash Russian wife that hogs the spotlight and then there’s Shirley Henderson (Anna Karenina) showing quiet grace playing Hardy’s concerned wife.

At 97 minutes, the movie feels longer than it actually is because it’s ever so slightly on the slow side.  I hate to say it but it even devolves into a rather dull film around the halfway mark when it starts to fall into a familiar biopic formula where conflict is introduced in preparation for a reconciliation right before the credits roll.  The period settings are spot-on and if you’re a fan of the duo then you’re in for some delightful moments where portions or their act are nicely recreated by Coogan and Reilly.  I just wish the movie exuded the same kind of spritely spirit Laurel & Hardy were able to convey in their work.

Movie Review ~ Glass

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Security guard David Dunn uses his supernatural abilities to track Kevin Wendell Crumb, a disturbed man who has twenty-four personalities.

Stars: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Seeing that this is a spoiler-free zone I have to say up front that while you’re not going to get much in the way of big reveals when it comes to Glass, it’s impossible to talk about the movie at all if you haven’t seen the two films that came before.  So if you haven’t seen Unbreakable or Split and don’t want to know key plot points, now is the time to turn back.

We good?

Okay…let’s get on with it.

Director M. Night Shyamalan is famous for his twist endings that send the movie and audience into a tail spin right at the conclusion, calling into question everything we’ve been watching for the previous two hours.  At first, it was a fun parlor game to predict what he had up his sleeve until it became evident that the twist was both the most interesting thing about the film and its downfall.  At the end of Split, Shyamalan lobbed a soft curveball at us before the credits but then laid out a whopper when he brought back Bruce Willis’ character from Unbreakable for a brief scene that suggested the two movies had a common bond that would become evident in a future film.

With the unexpected success of Split (not to mention 2015’s scary romp The Visit) Shyamalan was able to parlay his renewed good standing in Hollywood and his hefty profits into capping off a trilogy supposedly always at the back of his brain.  That seems like a convenient way to pat yourself on the back in hindsight but, okay, let’s just go with the claim that Shyamalan always imagined he’d make Unbreakable, Split, and Glass as a trio of films that suggested real life superheroes and mega villains truly did walk among us.

So where did we leave off with the previous films?  At the end of Unbreakable, David Dunn (Willis, Looper) had just accepted his developing powers that gave him the ability to see the bad deeds of others just by touch while his body proved to be indestructible.  At the same time, the mysterious Mr. Glass, (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight) with a rare disorder that caused his bones to break with the greatest of ease, showed his true colors as a master criminal that orchestrated multiple catastrophic events in an attempt to find a man like Dunn to be his foe.  Shyamalan’s late-breaking twist gave way to an abysmal wrap-up via on screen text that did no one any favors.

The last time we saw Kevin, James McAvoy’s (Trance) disturbed Split character with dissociative identity disorder, he had transformed into a 24th personality known as The Beast.  Though his kidnapping victim Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The VVitch) managed to escape, The Beast has joined with the rest of the angrier personalities within Kevin to form The Horde and has continued to hunt young girls that are “unbroken”.  Casey’s recovery has included fleeing her abusive uncle, taking up residence with a foster family, and attending the same school as Dunn’s son, Joseph ( Spencer Treat Clark, The Town that Dreaded Sundown)

The movie begins with Dunn doling out vigilante justice as The Overseer in a very Michael Myers stalker-ish way, with his ultimate goal to hunt down The Horde and find a new batch of missing girls.  When Dunn and Kevin are captured by the ambitious Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave) and brought to a remote psychiatric hospital for testing, Dunn is reunited with Mr. Glass who has been waiting over a decade to initiate the next phase in his evil plan.

I wish I could say that Glass is the amped-up finale it’s being advertised as but sadly it’s a movie that coasts instead of soars.  While the first third of the film creates some genuine interest as we see the characters from previous films crossover, it quickly devolves into talky repetition that feels indulgent on several levels.  Shyamalan can’t quite get out of his own way where the crux of the story lies, falling into a black hole of superhero mythos he can’t adequately tie into the action onscreen.  The finale especially feels like a convergence of so many ideas that aren’t fully realized, making it all feel slightly half-baked and not as satisfying as I would have liked.

While I genuinely like all the actors in the movie, I struggle with praise for any of them here.  McAvoy has the showiest role…and he knows it.  Wheras in Split the shifts between Kevin’s multiple personalities seemed like an actor exercising considerable control in delineation of characters, in Glass we get to meet even more of the alters and that starts to trip up McAvoy early on.  With Shyamalan giving him far too much room to play, the performance feels overworked.  You’d be forgiven if you forget Willis is in the movie, he’s so low-key Paulson practically has to shake him awake in their scenes and he outright disappears for a long stretch in the middle section of the film.  Jackson seems to having more fun than the rest, if only Mr. Glass had been giving any new defining character trait in this film…but it’s just a repeat of work that’s been done 19 years ago.

This is all too bad because the film is rather well made thanks to thoughtfully constructed scenes by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis.  Let it also never be said that Shyamalan doesn’t fill the screen with visual clues for audiences to pick up on along the way.  Even working with a smaller budget, Shyamalan has stretched his coin with intelligence, spending the money on important visual effects and keeping the location shooting to a minimum.  What they didn’t spend money on?  A decent make-up artist.  Poor Charlayne Woodard looks like she’s melting under her old-age make-up as Jackson’s mother – we never forget the actress is five years younger than that actor playing her son.

As with most Shyamalan films, the filmmaker rounds out Glass with a coda to send audiences out with more to think about and I have to give some credit to the director for finding a way to get us back in his corner right at the very end.  It’s not quite enough to make the movie a true success but it doesn’t shatter the film experience completely.

Movie Review ~ Free Solo


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000ft high El Capitan Wall. With no ropes or safety gear, he completed arguably the greatest feat in rock climbing history.

Stars: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin

Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: One of the benefits of reviewing movies is we’re often sent screening links in advance of a film being released into theaters. Free Solo arrived in my inbox on a wave of positive reviews and good buzz coming out of the early festivals it played at. Around the same time a podcast I know and trust said the movie was best experienced on the big screen if at all possible so I opted to hold off on a home viewing in favor of a theatrical exhibition. So the link sat there and went unwatched until it expired. Ouch. And then I missed it when it was released in theaters! Double ouch.

Fortunately for me (and for you), the movie gods have smiled in our favor and saw fit to re-release Free Solo for one week in IMAX theaters and when you’re done reading this review I’d suggest you find the theater nearest you and get your butt in a seat pronto.

This documentary from National Geographic directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is likely headed for an Oscar nomination and after witnessing the stunning work that went into capturing free soloist Alex Honnold’s landmark climb it’s not hard to see why. Famous for his rapid ascents on some of the world’s largest rock formations, Honnold was already a superstar in the climbing world but his 2017 journey 3,000 feet up El Captain in Yosemite National Park made him a legend.

A free soloist works without the aid of ropes or other protective equipment. Rising far above a safe distance, any wrong move would likely mean death so it’s totally on the strength (mental and physical) of the climber to navigate a route that will keep them alive. For the armchair adventurist, this is right up there with swimming with sharks without a cage or skydiving out of a plane while trying to put your parachute on. Any mistake and you’re a goner.

Honnold is one of the most fascinating subjects for a documentary I’ve seen in some time because his seeming ambivalence to his own mortality is strikingly bold. A lone wolf that lives in a van even though he’s made a considerable amount of money off of endorsements and sales of his book, he lives to climb and seeks out every opportunity to push himself further and further. Some may say he has a death wish but he’s actually looking to challenge himself in new ways that just happen to have a considerable amount of risk to it. How many of us are that willing to go such a great distance?

The film follows Honnold as he prepares for the climb he’s long dreamed of while at the same time exploring the seeds of a growing relationship. In the past, Honnold has kept girlfriends and family at a distance because it’s easier to go into these high-stakes situations with as few emotional attachments as possible but this one seems different. With this romantic development comes new distractions that weren’t there before, playing tricks with Honnold’s focus that ultimately proves dangerous. And then there’s the question of being filmed in the first place. Is he making this milestone trek for himself or because there are cameras present? What responsibility do the filmmakers have in this situation where they could be filming Honnold’s final climb?

With a filmmaking crew made up of experienced climbers and utilizing skilled technology that allowed them to capture incredible moments without getting in Honnold’s way, the directors have made a documentary that almost feels like a feature film. I could easily see this being translated to a narrative feature with it’s emotional arc, false starts, tragedies, and triumphs. Yet it always feels immediate and honest. Constantly checking in by reminding us how far up he’s climbing, Chin and Vasarhelyi give us stunning views in the midst of incredible tension. If your palms don’t sweat and your heart doesn’t beat faster during the final 20 minutes of the film then you’re made up of stronger stuff than I am.

Movie Review ~ Capernaum (Capharnaüm)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, a 12-year-old boy sues his parents for neglect.

Stars: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef, Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam

Director: Nadine Labaki

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: It happens every year around this time.  We’re neck deep in awards season and the foreign language film categories start to loom large for me.  The movies submitted for consideration by their countries that make the Oscar shortlist and nab spots on the earlier awards ballots (the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, etc) start to become clearer and you can predict which will probably be the nominees at the Oscars.  Yet these are the films that will inevitably be my Achilles Heel, either because I often lack the drive to see them or miss the opportunity to screen them when they present themselves.  Then I have the opportunity to see a movie like Capernaum and I realize that I’m my own worst enemy and I need to see more foreign films not just during Oscar season but throughout the year.

The likely nominee hails from Lebanon and is from celebrated director Nadine Labaki, who also has a small supporting role as the defense attorney for Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) a young boy appearing in court bringing charges against his parents.  In flashbacks, we see why he’s brought his parents to a very public hearing before a judge and what kind of life he’s been forced to live in the short twelve years he’s been alive.  Before you think this is just a Lebanese remake of Irreconcilable Differences, know that Zain’s story is filled with trauma and poverty the likes most of us will never know and, like many privileged US citizens that will watch the movie, the film was an eye-opening experience for me.

Zain’s journey takes him from his family apartment in Beirut to a rundown amusement park where he is befriended by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian woman in the country illegally forced to hide her baby, Yonas, who is also undocumented.  Forming a sort of fractured family with the woman and her child, Zain takes on responsibilities in caring for the baby while Rahil works on getting her papers in order.  Through several devastating twists, Zain and Yonas are left to fend for themselves and eventually we’ll find out how Zain ends up in jail serving time for a violent crime.

This is a tough film to watch and I’m guessing an even more difficult film to get made.  Labaki was working with actors that had no experience in situations that were culled from real life stories.  That she was able to coax such realistic performances out of them is nothing short of remarkable, lead by a mesmerizing performance by Al Rafeea as our young hero.  Wise beyond his years and forced to grow up faster than any child should, his tiny frame bears evidence of neglect and yet he always soldiers on.  Shiferaw, too, impresses as a mother left to fend for herself by the man who got her pregnant and now offers no support.  With little options, she desperately attempts to piece together a semblance of a better life.

Though it runs slightly longer than necessary (it hammers its points home loud and clear) there are unexpected surprises throughout.  Let it be known that Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, the infant that plays Yonas, is the cutest baby you’ll see on screen in 2019.  Labaki is good at turning her camera on faces and places we don’t normally see.  The overwhelming bustle of the city is captured thoroughly, you can easily see why two children roaming the street could be overlooked by passersby.  True, there are several brutal lines of dialogue that cut like a knife but Labaki ends the film with an extended freeze frame that’s downright beautiful.  Even if you’ve heard that Roma has it in the bag for the Academy Award this year, keep your eye on Capernaum as a stellar example of the power of world cinema.

Movie Review ~ The Upside

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who’s hired to help him.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Genevieve Angelson, Aja Naomi King, Julianna Margulies

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m going to level with you and let you know that for the most part remakes are just not my cup of tea.  I just don’t see the point of the exercise so unless you are going to go your own way (hello, Suspiria), then I’d rather filmmakers spend their time on creating new work.  Don’t even get me started on American remakes of foreign films, just another way Hollywood plays into the notion that audiences won’t sit for two hours reading subtitles.  Box office notwithstanding, there are but a few examples where an English film has surpassed its international counterpart but there are times when a movie makes the leap over the ocean to our shores without tarnishing our good memories of the original.

Thankfully, The Upside is an example of the happy path a film can take when translated and it has arrived in theaters by the skin of its teeth, nearly lost indefinitely due to a controversy within its production house that delayed its release for nearly a year.  Originally set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, when the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein sent waves through Hollywood their slate of films set for release were canned and sold off to other studios.  It’s unfortunate The Upside suffered under this melee because, while imperfect, it’s largely an audience pleasing dramedy that feels like the kind of critic-proof feel-gooder that could be a sleeper hit if audiences bite.

Based on Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano’s The Intouchables from 2011, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original work with some modifications that I felt were improvements…but more on that later.  The set-up is still the same: mega-millionaire Phillip (Bryan Cranston, Trumbo) is a quadriplegic looking for a new care-giver who chooses recent parolee Dell (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer) against the advice of his executive (Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased) because he’s the least qualified for the job.  The two are a mismatched pair with Aretha Franklin loving Dell clashing with opera-fan Phillip in fairly benign ways.  As Dell learns more about responsibility after largely being absent from his own son’s life and Phillip gets a new lease on living via Dell’s tough love methods, the two form exactly the bond you expect but don’t arrive there in quite the way you’d think.

Director Neil Burger (Divergent) and screenwriter Jon Hartmere have tinkered with the story, removing some of the more white savior-esque moments from the original which just wouldn’t have gone over well in this age where everything is under a different microscope.  Dell is more of a fleshed out character than his French counterpart was, there’s less imposed upon him but rather he is the driving force in many of the key developments of the movie.  There’s also an interesting splitting of one character into two (kinda) and the insertion of a tense scene between Phillip and woman played by Julianna Margulies (Ghost Ship).  With movies like Green Book running afoul of the PC police, I feel The Upside slides by largely without incident.  In the end I guess you could unfairly boil it down to it being about a rich white guy somewhat educating, and by proxy being educated by, a poor black man but the movie rises above that antiquated trope largely on the strength of its casting.

We talk a lot about chemistry in the movies and how hard it is to come by and it’s clear at this point that Hart can create chemistry with just about any costar you put him with.  Cranston has his moments as well but Hart is what really fuels the film even when it teeters into preachy schmaltz or cornball familiar territory.  He’s dialed his routine down a few notches but that hasn’t diminished his delivery or screen energy.  It’s not hard to see why there was early buzz on his performance being a bit of a revelation.  Confined to a wheelchair and not able to move his extremities, Cranston can only use his face to sell the scenes and it turns out that restraint works wonders for coming across less earnest.  Though saddled with a wig that always seems like it needed to be brushed, Kidman’s tightly wound exec gets to cut loose a few times, though some developments later in the film feel a tad underdeveloped (if not wholly underwritten).

It’s surprising to me how popular The Intouchables remains seven years after its release.  It was the second biggest film in France that year and last time I checked it was #40 on IMDb’s list of Top 250 films…ahead of Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I quite liked the film that inspired The Upside and was surprised at how easy this remake went over with not just me but the audience I screened it with.  The laughs were where they should be and, as expected, when the credits rolled it was met with enthusiastic applause.  This says to me that audiences won’t be swayed by critics thumbing their nose at this decently entertaining buddy film.  I’d still suggest watching the original but if you’ve given that one a spin then there’s no downside to seeking out The Upside.

Movie Review ~ Escape Room

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.

Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis

Director: Adam Robitel

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s the time of year when we are past the season to be jolly and across the Oscar hopeful finish line of prestige pictures trying to make their end of the year release date cutoff.  Now we’re into January, a month commonly known in Hollywood when studios will push their less than desirable products into theaters either hoping they will go away quietly or praying for a small miracle and have them catch fire with audiences and make them a buck or two.  Over the last few years the films that tend to do the best are low impact horror thrillers that are good for a jolt or two and quickly forgotten.

So it’s indeed a perfect time for Sony to release Escape Room, their modestly budgeted and mostly forgettable time waster thriller.  Though it boasts a good director that has shown he knows a thing or two around this genre and a concept filled with intriguing opportunities, it winds up being a strictly mediocre effort that sacrifices early hints of creativity for a messy finale that fails to deliver. It’s not that good but if I’m being totally honest it’s also not that bad.

Opening with my least favorite plot device, introducing a character in a dire situation and then flashing back “three days earlier”, Escape Room gathers six disparate strangers vying to win $10,000 if they can solve a new escape room that’s come to Chicago.  Though it appears they have nothing in common, over the next 100 minutes we’ll learn why they were chosen and how it came to be they are involved in a game that gets more deadly the deeper they go into the labyrinthine rooms.  Their weaknesses become their strengths and their paranoias become their downfall as each one faces their fears that pop up in a variety of ways.

Those familiar with the Saw series or the cult classic Cube will find a lot of common threads here and Escape Room starts to feel like a Frankenstein monster of better movies the longer it goes on.  Those movies at least had a concept that had an endgame, though, and it becomes clear around the halfway mark that screenwriters Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik may have had a beginning and end sketched out but failed to come up with enough twists and turns to keep the audience off balance.  I kept waiting for the film to take a different path than what was expected but it kept motoring on with no surprises along the way.  Even the escape rooms themselves start out with interesting clues to solve but gradually get less and less creative as the group moves forward and their numbers start to dwindle.

Director Adam Robitel gave us The Taking of Deborah Logan, one of my absolute favorite horror films of the last ten years as well as last January’s Insidious: The Last Key.  It’s clear he possesses a style that works well in this genre but there’s less focus here on the substance to go with that polish.  There’s also an extreme problem with the likability of the cast.  Aside from Taylor Russell as a mousy brainiac and Deborah Ann Woll’s (Ruby Sparks) haunted veteran, none of the other cast members seem worth keeping around, especially annoying grocery store burnout Logan Miller (Love, Simon)

Yet the movie moves swiftly without wasting unnecessary time in one location for too long.  This notorious watch checker was surprised to see the first time he looked at his timepiece was 90 minutes into the film.  Unfortunately, that’s when the film lost me in a major way with a bizarre denouement and even stranger stinger that didn’t feel like it matched up with the rest of the action.  It felt like a studio mandated add-on to keep the door open for future sequels.  Up until that point the movie had played mostly by the rules but then it seemed to toss out logic and reason in favor of extending the story past the closing credits.  I wish the filmmakers had spent more time rounding out the rough edges of this movie before laying the groundwork for another.

With movies like Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, and Bumblebee still easily occupying the top slots at the box office, Sony is hoping Escape Room might find a foothold with audiences that just want to sit back and not have to think too hard over what’s passing in front of their eyes on screen.  Escape Room fits that bill and should easily make its money back in its first weekend.  I’d say it’s one that you could hold off on catching in theaters, though, and put on your list for a rainy day at-home selection.