Movie Review ~ Greta

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman befriends a lonely widow who’s harboring a dark and deadly agenda towards her.

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In my mid-teens, I used to love the made-for-TV movies that aired on the USA Television Network.  Remember those?  The modest thrillers featured an array of crazies (mothers, nannies, children, stalkers, stepfathers, etc) preying upon naïve chumps that were easily tricked and overpowered.  They were soapy, syrupy, and an absolute delight to devour on their own or in a weekend marathon where they would all start to blend together by the time Sunday night rolled around.  Watching the entertaining new thriller Greta, I found myself riding a wave of nostalgia because you don’t have to squint too hard to see that for all its handsome production values and A-list leads it’s just a gussied up made for cable movie.

Still grieving the loss of her mother, recent NYC transplant Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, Suspiria) hopes living in a new city with her college friend Erica (Maika Monroe, The 5th Wave) will help her move on.  Though she’s from Boston, Frances displays some downright Midwestern morals when she finds a purse left behind on the subway and returns it to Greta (Isabelle Huppert, Dead Man Down).  The lonely woman takes a liking to Frances and the two form a friendship that seemingly fills a void present in both of their lives.  Greta’s daughter doesn’t live close and Frances begins to enjoy spending time with the soft-spoken older woman.  That all changes when Frances discovers a secret about Greta that sets into motion a series of events revealing Greta’s true nature.

To say more about the second and third acts of Greta would be to give away some of the twists screenwriter Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, In Dreams) have waiting for audiences, most of which are telegraphed well in advance.  The film is exactly what you think it’s going to be and doesn’t stray too far from the path.  Usually, I’d huff and puff about this lack of originality but the way Greta unfolds is so nicely handled by Jordan and his actors that I found myself quite enjoying just going along for the intriguing ride.

The performances are actually the most surprising thing the movie has to offer.  It’s a great benefit that Jordan has Huppert in the title role because she brings her inherent oddity to the forefront and makes it her weapon to keep us on our toes.  We know from moment one there’s something off about her (and it seems like Frances does too) but Huppert’s sad eyes and wan smile nicely hide the rage boiling underneath her porcelain surface.  When she feels rejected by Frances she lashes out in unexpected ways, which creates an air of uncomfortable unpredictability and that’s a space Huppert seems to revel working in.

I often struggle with Moretz as an actress but her turn here feels like one of the most fully formed characters she’s tackled.  Frances has some emotional trauma that hasn’t healed and she can’t totally forgive her father (Colm Feore, The Prodigy) who appears to have moved on with his life.  Moretz wades through some of the heaviness in Wright’s script and brings forth a lonely girl in a big city that feels familiar and relatable.  We understand why she might eschew a night out drinking at a club with her party girl trust fund roommate for a quiet dinner with the widowed Greta.  And we also see why Greta’s betrayal of trust hurts her so much.

The slow boil of the first 45 minutes gives way to an increasingly hard to swallow turn of events that don’t always jibe from scene to scene.  At one point Moretz is kicking down a door with her bare foot and in the next shot she’s unable to break a window.  A character is introduced late in the proceedings for no good reason other than to up the danger ante for Frances and satisfy some unspoken violence quota.  And for a movie set in the modern day it mystifies me that Greta’s place of residence is so hard to find one character goes on what is essentially a needle in a haystack search instead of firing up Google Maps.

Jordan is a curious filmmaker with a resume that covers many genres.  He hasn’t had an outright thriller in a while but he wades into the waters quite well with interesting camera set-ups and pacing that keeps things moving along without accumulating much drag.  There are several suspenseful sequences staged with people in peril from dangers just outside the frame and it creates the desired tension.  For those that like blunt edges, there’s a bit of gore that shocks with glee.

Now that the Oscars have been given out and everyone has patted themselves on the back, it’s time to get back to business.  We made it through a particular rough January (Serenity – yikes!) and a February that saw some modest, but not huge, hits (Alita: Battle Angel, What Men Want) and before you knew it, March is upon us.  With a host of anticipated movies set for release in March, Greta is being released in a narrow window before the blockbusters arrive.  It may be getting a release without much fanfare but it’s a better film than it’s modest roll-out would have you believe. With noted caveats aside, this one is worth catching in theaters.

Final Oscar Predictions and Rankings

Here we are!  The big day!  It feels like this awards season has gone on forever and a never ending barrage of controversy from the host, to the length of the telecast, to what awards might not be presented live on the telecast.  At the end of the day, the 91st Academy Awards will be a hostless affair and feature only four of the five musical performances.  All the winners will be announced live and aside from that many of the races are coming down to a photo finish.  As it usually the case, many pundits (myself included) are having last-minute buyers remorse and flip-flopping on who they think the winners will be.

The time has come, however, to shore up my picks and below you’ll see my rankings by film/nominee in each category representing my overall picks as well as a Will Win and Should Win.  Hopefully, this will give me a little room to put out into the ether some last minute good vibes for nominees that may not be coming into the night as favorites but who could leave the ceremony with an Oscar in hand.

Also, this is the first year I’ve seen all the nominees and while I’m not sure how much of a edge that gets me because the Oscars are nothing if not unpredictable when it comes down to it.  I do think, though, that critics/movie fans worth their salt need to look beyond commercial films or buzzed about titles and seek out the nominees that might not be the most talked about.  It felt good to see everything and go into the night understanding what the winners were up against.

BEST PICTURE
A Star is Born
The Favourite

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Roma
Green Book
Bohemian Rhapsody
Vice

Will Win: All signs point to Roma becoming the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar.  
Should Win: My heart hurts that the raw energy of A Star is Born and the audacious pluck of The Favourite won’t be rewarded.

BEST DIRECTOR
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Adam McKay, Vice

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron’s winning for Roma seems like a foregone conclusion.
Should Win:
Spike Lee – I just feel deep down this award was meant for him this year.

BEST ACTOR
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
Christian Bale, Vice
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

Will Win: Rami Malek – a strong performance but it’s not near the level of work that the person I think should win put in.  Malek has played the game this season, though, and when he wins it will be because he gladhanded his way into voters hearts.
Should Win: 
Bradley Cooper – I just can’t believe Cooper didn’t walk away with this award.  He was responsible for so much behind the scenes with A Star is Born and then to turn in this kind of performance?  It’s remarkable.  I do think his lack of presence with voters hurt him — he likely thought he had it in the bag and didn’t put the same kind of effort that Malek did.  Which is too bad because the award should be given to the performance, not the person.

BEST ACTRESS
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma

Will Win: Glenn Close – it’s not, um, close, to her finest work but it’s definitely her time to take home Oscar gold.
Should Win:
Melissa McCarthy gave the best performance of any of the nominees.  No question.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Elliott, A Star is Born
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Will Win: It’s category fraud since he’s without question the co-lead of Green Book, but Mahershala Ali is heading for his second Oscar.
Should Win: If there’s one wish I had for Oscar night it would be that Rami Malek would be blanked for Best Actor.  If had two wishes, the second would go toward hoping Richard E. Grant would be a surprise upset in this race.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma

Will Win:
Regina King is such a strong force in If Beale Street Could Talk and she’s well liked by nearly everyone in The Academy.  I found the performance to be slightly one-note but the note is almost always played in perfect pitch.
Should Win: Rachel Weisz – though she’ll split the vote with her co-star, Weisz has the trickiest role of the other two ladies in The Favourite.  Seeing the movie again recently only confirmed that she’s the MVP of that movie.

BEST EDITING
Barry Alexander Brown, BlacKkKlansman
Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite

John Ottman, Bohemian Rhapsody
Patrick J. Don Vito, Green Book
Hank Corwin, Vice

Will Win: Seems like people want to reward John Ottman for taking the mess that was Bohemian Rhapsody and fashioning it into something that could be released.  Still, if you’ve seen the film you’d know that the editing is amateur hour all the way.
Should Win:
BlacKkKlansman has so little excess fat on it, it’s streamlined which adds to its breathlessness.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice
Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga, Green Book

Will Win: This is a close race with many wanting to reward Paul Schrader, even if First Reformed isn’t in the same league as his classic scripts for Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.  I’m still betting on The Favourite to win.
Should Win:
The Favourite – it’s the best shot it has at a sure-thing Oscar tonight, despite tying Roma for the most nominations.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, BlacKkKlansman
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters and Eric Roth, A Star is Born
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Will Win: The team from BlacKkKlansman are the likely victors, only because this might be the only time of the night to give Spike Lee an Oscar.
Should Win:
If you’ve read Lee Israel’s book that Can You Ever Forgive Me? was based off, I’m told you’d know why Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty deserve the award for taking source material and expanding its ideas for the screen.  Just look what they did with Richard E. Grant’s character who only briefly turns up in the book but becomes a solid supporting player in the movie.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Capernaum {Lebanon}
Roma {Mexico}
Shoplifters {Japan}
Never Look Away {Germany}
Cold War {Poland}

Will Win: Roma – the groundswell for this makes it almost an unstoppable force.  Only Cold War (the worst of the five) could upset it should voters not want to vote for Roma here and in Best Picture.
Should Win:
Capernaum – far more involving from a narrative perspective than Roma ever was, I can see why some people are turned off at the subject matter.  It’s still the best of the five nominees.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Robbie Ryan, The Favourite
Matthew Libatique, A Star is Born
Lukasz Zal, Cold War
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Caleb Deschanel, Never Look Away

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron for Roma
Should Win:
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography for The Favourite was, like the film, inventive and unexpected.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton, The Favourite
John Myhre, Gordon Sim, Mary Poppins Returns
Hannah Beachler, Black Panther
Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas, First Man
Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez, Roma

Will Win: The team behind The Favourite created a period-perfect world that was meticulous and gorgeous.
Should Win:
The Favourite

BEST SOUND MIXING
A Star is Born
Bohemian Rhapsody
Black Panther

First Man
Roma

Will Win: Bohemian Rhapsody
Should Win:
A Star is Born

BEST SOUND EDITING
A Quiet Place
Bohemian Rhapsody
Black Panther
First Man
Roma

Will Win: Bohemian Rhapsody
Should Win:
A Quiet Place

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Ruth E. Carter, Black Panther
Alexandra Byrne, Mary Queen of Scots
Sandy Powell, The Favourite
Sandy Powell, Mary Poppins Returns
Mary Zophres, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Will Win: Ruth E. Carter – every other nominee had some sort of point of reference to work with but Carter created these stupendous designs from scratch using new technologies.  That should absolutely get her the Oscar.
Should Win:
Ruth E. Carter

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Free Solo
Minding the Gap
RBG
Of Fathers and Sons
Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Will Win: Free Solo – even if the subject wasn’t such a fascinating guy, the effort that went into making this was Herculean in scope.
Should Win:
Free Solo

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Mirai

Will Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – no other nominee comes close.
Should Win:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Avengers: Infinity War
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Christopher Robin

Will Win: Avengers: Infinity War – the sheer magnitude of effects is impressive, and that is doesn’t look like a cartoon is why it should be rewarded.
Should Win:
First Man – the subtle work that went into sending Neil Armstrong to the moon doesn’t overshadow the action and mostly goes unnoticed.  The best visual effects are the ones that we believe to be true.

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
Border
Vice
Mary Queen of Scots

Will Win: Vice – Christan Bale’s performance would be just the glorified impression it is without the work here.
Should Win: Border – if more people had been able to see this movie, they would be on board for voting.  The full body transformation accomplished here was stunning.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk
Terence Blanchard, BlacKkKlansman
Ludwig Goransson, Black Panther
Alexandre Desplat, Isle of Dogs
Marc Shaiman, Mary Poppins Returns

Will Win: Nicholas Britell’s score for If Beale Street Could Talk was almost another character.  It’s beautiful.
Should Win:
Britell

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Shallow”, A Star is Born
“The Place Where Lost Things Go”, Mary Poppins Returns
“All the Stars”, Black Panther
“I’ll Fight”, RBG
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Will Win: “Shallow”
Should Win:
“Shallow”- If this doesn’t win it would be the capper on the cruel journey A Star is Born has gone on these last few months of coming into the awards season as the frontrunner only to be usurped by movies that aren’t nearly as universally liked.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Period. End of Sentence
Black Sheep
End Game
Lifeboat
A Night at the Garden

Will Win: Black Sheep – this was a rough bunch this year and this was probably the best of the four fairly depressing entries.  I don’t think it’s a true documentary, though, which put it out of the running in my book.
Should Win: Period. End of Sentence – I guess I’m just favoring work this year that uplifts and this documentary has its heart in the right place and put it to good use.  I can’t believe some of the comments I’ve read about how male voters will likely be turned off because talking about women’s mestrual cycles was “icky”.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Late Afternoon
One Small Step
Bao
Animal Behaviour
Weekends

Will Win: Bao – shown in front of Incredibles 2 this summer, it’s the one most voters will have seen, even if it’s not the strongest of the bunch…or even one of the better Pixar shorts.
Should Win:
Late Afternoon – the animation may be simplistic but the journey it takes you on is anything but.  It’s the clear winner for me.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Marguerite
Mother
Detainment
Fauve
Skin

Will Win: Skin – it’s the most cinematic of all but voters knowing the director went on to make a full length film with the same title loosely based on the same subject might want to hold their vote to see how that one turns out.
Should Win: Marguerite – the least problematic of all the nominees and also the least outright depressing. Like the animated short Late Afternoon, it’s a small, simple tale beautifully told.

The Silver Bullet ~ Rocketman

Synopsis: A musical fantasy about the uncensored human story of Elton John’s breakthrough years.

Release Date: May 31, 2019

Thoughts: If the phenomenal (and, in my mind, baffling) success of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody taught us anything, it’s that audiences still have a soft spot for music biopics…even if Oscar voters didn’t feel similar to the far better achievements of the musical fable of A Star is Born.  Anyway, that sore spot aside, the first trailer for Elton John’s lifestory Rocketman is out and it already looks like the type of glitzy glam spectacle Bohemian Rhapsody failed to deliver fully on.  I’m hearing the film is a more fantastical take on the material like Across the Universe and you can see hints of that in the preview.  Plus it benefits from star Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) actually singing in the lead role (take that, Rami Malek!) and evidently impressing Elton himself who has come out in praise of the rising star.  Directed by Dexter Fletcher who, strangely, was brought in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody when its original director was fired, I’m hoping audiences will give John the same kind of love they gave Queen.

Movie Review ~ Cold War (Zimna wojna)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the 1950s, a music director falls in love with a singer and tries to persuade her to flee communist Poland for France.

Stars: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Ferency, Borys Szyc

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In 2015, director Pawel Pawlikowski made a giant splash with Ida, his gorgeous Oscar-winning work that tracked a novice nun making a road trip with her aunt to learn more about her past before taking her vows. It was stunning film, easily earning its place on the best-of year lists and further establishing Pawlikowski’s late-career resurgence in his Polish homeland. The story felt personal to the director and he’s gone even further with his latest work, Cold War, using the lives of his parents tumultuous relationship to serve as the basis for the story.  Like Ida, critics that have embraced Pawlikowski’s sparse narrative and Lukasz Zal’s (Loving Vincent) stunning black and white cinematography have met Cold War with rapturous applause. Unlike that earlier work, however, Cold War lives up to its title in more ways than one; I found it almost impossible to find a way to connect with it on any level whatsoever. Though it boasts two lovely lead performances and is grand to look at, it’s not just cool to the touch…it’s frozen.

In post war Poland, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a government gathered group assembling a folk ensemble to tour as a way to bring back authentic tradition to their ravagaed country. It’s at the auditions and rehearsals for this troupe that he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) a headstrong woman with a questionable past that might not be the most talented but is certainly the most compelling performer. As the tour proceeds, the two find their attraction growing and when their repertoire changes to be more propaganda based they must decide if they will stick it out or attempt to run away to France.

At 89 minutes, Pawlikowski doesn’t leave much room for filler and even though the film takes several leaps ahead in time that can make your head spin it does have a decent forward momentum. I did find it a little challenging to track some of the secondary characters we were evidently supposed to keep tabs on because when long gone faces suddenly reappear after years you don’t get much chance to remember their names and how they fit into the story.  You almost need a cheat sheet to stay with the comings and goings or the supporting cast, strong as they are.

The film benefits largely from Kulig’s strong-willed turn as a woman wanting a better life but feeling trapped by her past. You absolutely get the intended feeling she wants nothing more than to chuck it all and run away with Wiktor if there weren’t the secrets she harbors keeping her from being able to turn away from her present circumstances. Kot, too, places his role with a plaintive quietness that works well with Kulig’s more aggressive tendencies. When the two are together, sparks fly. When they are apart, things slow down.

Pawlikowski nabbed a Best Director nomination for his work here and that’s a bit of a head-scratcher in my book, especially considering someone like Bradley Cooper didn’t get on the list for A Star is Born. As the director and co-writer, Pawlikowski is mostly the one to blame for the film having some pacing and narrative problems that keep it almost entirely at arm’s length. Perhaps it was because I saw the film at home and didn’t get to experience it on a big screen to let Zal’s crisp Oscar-nominated camera-work invite me in…but Pawlikowski’s films are so quiet and personal that it feels like this was just a story that wasn’t suited for me.

Movie Review ~ Happy Death Day 2U


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tree Gelbman discovers that dying over and over was surprisingly easier than the dangers that lie ahead.

Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Rachel Matthews, Ruby Modine, Suraj Sharma

Director: Christopher Landon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I think it shocked everyone when 2017’s Happy Death Day was such a sleeper hit. Sure, it was released on a Friday the 13th and made for a miniscule budget so the target audience was primed and the success factor was measured by a low bar but there was no denying the movie was very likely better than it ever should have been. A fun PG-13 horror spin on Groundhog Day that didn’t have the blood quotient to deter the gore averse or totally turn off the hardcore fans looking for the next great slasher film, the general consensus was that the film took it’s concept capably to the finish line and earned it’s place on the higher end of lighter horror fare.

A little over a year later, Happy Death Day 2U has arrived in theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day and both Blumhouse Productions and writer/director Christopher Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) have another pleasantly pleasing winner on their hands. Though it’s less of an outright horror film this time around, the movie aims to keep things light when it has to and isn’t above pumping the brakes to take its time navigating through some surprisingly dramatic territory. In many ways, it feels like a superior film to its predecessor because everyone involved knows what they are getting into and doesn’t hold back.

If you haven’t seen the first film and don’t want key plot points spoiled (even though the trailer already spoiled them for you!) then you are free to stop reading now – thanks for visiting! Everyone else, read on for a spoiler-free look at what new directions the sequel takes the action.

Picking up where the first film left off, Tree (Jessica Rothe, La La Land) has discovered who was trying to kill her and broken the time loop that kept her waking up on the same day over and over again. No longer afraid of being killed and having to relive her death day in and day out, she’s settling in with Carter (Israel Broussard, The Bling Ring) when his roommate Ryan (Phi Vu, Pitch Perfect 2) comes into their shared dorm room with some strange news. He’s reliving the same day after being killed the day before…something Tree knows a thing or two (or 11) about.

How and why Ryan gets stuck in the same time loop as Tree is linked to Ryan’s science project that deals with time and space, and when it’s activated again by the Dean of the college trying to shut the study down it sends Tree back into her previous death day cycle. Now Tree is stuck in her old pattern but with new wrinkles as she finds herself in an alternate reality where the previous killer is now a victim, old enemies are friends, and a deceased loved one apparently never died. As she keeps dying in her quest to figure out an algorithm that will send her back to her previous reality, she needs to decide if this reality is better and what she’s willing to sacrifice to save those she loves.

As with most sequels, the stakes are higher and credit should be given to the producers for throwing some more money at this follow-up and to Landon for taking some time to think through the set-up of the next chapter. The logic is still fairly broad and wouldn’t hold up in a court of law but there’s a breezy effortlessness to everything here that makes it all go down without much fuss. The killer out to get Tree becomes a glorified subplot and only shows up again near the end when the action needs a little zap of energy.  Mostly, this is a film that owes more to Back to the Future II than Groundhog Day, with the consequences of changing things in alternate realities playing a part in most everything Tree is thinking about. The performances (particularly Rothe’s) are more assured here and even though production on this one started fairly soon after the release of the original it was nice to see the entire cast (and some extras!) reassembled for this follow-up. Like the first one, Rachel Matthews as Tree’s rival sorority sister gets some of the better moments, even if the outlandish comedy of her faking being a blind foreign exchange student feels like it’s out of a totally different campus frat movie.

At the theater I attended on Valentine’s Day, I was surprised how many of the audience at Happy Death Day 2U were females who apparently had a ball with it. The reactions to the scares were received well and the comedy landed exactly in the right places. It’s horror-lite to be sure but it was an entertaining mix of time-travel comedy and gore-less horror. Blumhouse and Landon obviously are hoping for a third chapter if the mid-credits stinger is to be believed, and I’d be interested to see where they think future time loops could take things.

Movie Review ~ The Prodigy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother concerned about her young son’s disturbing behavior thinks something supernatural may be affecting him

Stars: Taylor Schilling, Brittany Allen, Jackson Robert Scott, Colm Feore, Peter Mooney, Paul Fauteux, Oluniké Adeliyi

Director: Nicholas McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: At this point early in the new year, audiences are easy targets for cheap, mindless entertainment that goes in one ear and out the other before you are back to your car and warming your hands. Most often, the easy targets are horror fans looking for a decent scare they can’t get from firing up their streaming service. They have to be inspired to get all gussied up (for me that’s basically putting on pants), head to the theater, pay an exorbitant ticket price, and then hope for the best. I don’t really blame Hollywood for preying on viewers in this fertile hunting ground but you do wish that once in a while they would get it right and make it worth our effort.

The latest wilted offering is The Prodigy, a fleetingly scary but most languid “evil child” story being released from the recently resuscitated Orion Pictures. I don’t know about you but every time I see that Orion logo there are two movies that come to mind. The first is 1989’s black comedy She-Devil starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr and the other one is 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. Each time I see the starry sky that forms the Orion title card I get a chill up my spine and I think the producers of The Prodigy are counting on that. They even go so far as to mimic some font titles emblematic from The Silence of the Lambs that show the location where the prologue takes place.

Eight years ago, a woman (Brittany Allen, Jigsaw) escaped from a serial killer (Paul Fauteux) who had a thing for women’s hands. The police track him down to his home where he is taken down in a flurry of bullets. On the same night, a young couple (Taylor Schilling, The Lucky One and Peter Mooney) are rushing to the hospital for the birth of their son, Miles. When Miles is born, the blood on his body mimics the bullet wounds of our dying killer. It’s the first of several interesting visual cues director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) has for us and they become the smartest things about the film.

As the boy grows older, he demonstrates early signs of genius. He speaks before he’s one year old, he can solve difficult IQ tests, and he shows some disturbing social tendencies his parents and teachers shrug off as just going with the territory of children with advanced gifts. Miles is more than just socially awkward though, as we come to see he has killer instincts…and not just in solving algebra equations. When the ties to the killer become known, it’s up to Miles’ mom to put a stop to a madman that has taken over her son’s persona or risk losing him forever to a psychopath’s deadly revenge plot.

Bringing in some supernatural elements, the script from Jeff Bluher (who is also scripting 2019’s remake of Pet Sematary) is big into psychobabble mumbo jumbo (delivered with dead seriousness by Colm Feore, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) but light on logic. Main characters disappear for long stretches only to show up when the movie needs to enact some gruesome violence and the connection between how the killer winds up within Miles isn’t explained more than a passing reference to historical possession cases.

That leaves the success to rise and fall on the performances and Schlling’s sleepy acting doesn’t serve the film well. She always speaks as if she’s phonetically sounding out her sentences and isn’t able to flip from one emotion to another without physically making some adjustment. It’s a strange performance to anchor the film, which makes her scenes with Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, IT) all the more awkward because he seems like he’s come with exactly the right attention to what his job is while Schilling struggles right up to the end with metering her performance.

Even though it comes up short as a whole, I’d be lying in saying that McCarthy’s doesn’t pull off several shocking scares and a few eyebrow raising bits of dialogue that must have been recorded by a double for Miles. There’s just no way some of the things the boy says could have come from the young actor. I jumped several times and not because the music suddenly gave me a jolt, McCarthy clearly has a way with constructing a creepy visual.  Though much of the cinematography is fuzzy to suggest shooting on film stock and favors shadows, McCarthy finds ways to make what comes out of that darkness quite ghoulish.

This one could easily have gone straight to streaming and might have been regarded as a decent thriller for a gloomy day. Releasing it in theaters brings it to a higher scrutiny, though, and you have to evaluate the movie on those merits. It doesn’t meet the standard we’d expect from a wide-released horror film so I’d advise you to hold off on The Prodigy until you can give it a spin at home without much regret…and you don’t even have to put your pants on.

Movie Review ~ The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action

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BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

Detainment (Directed by Vincent Lambe)
Synopsis: In 1993, ten-year-old friends Jon and Robert are brought to an English police station for questioning after CCTV footage implicates them in the kidnapping and murder of a two-year-old boy.
Review: I’m not sure in what order the Live Action shorts are being shown to audiences in theaters but in my screening package this one came first alphabetically and it sure started things off on a somber note.  Based on the interview tapes conducted after the horrific 1993 slaying of James Bulger, the filmmakers of Detainment have come under scrutiny by the family of the slain toddler for not reaching out to them and gaining their blessing. Watching the film, even with its strong performances it’s hard not to side with the family because it truly rips open wounds that won’t ever fully heal.  Having this thrust back into the spotlight can only serve to hurt and while the filmmaking itself is admirable the ethics behind it are questionable.

Fauve (Directed by Jérémy Comte)
Synopsis: At an isolated surface mine in the Quebec countryside, two boisterous young boys run wild, challenging each other to reckless tests of endurance and daring, with only Mother Nature as their witness.
Review: Two boys spend a lazy afternoon exploring an abandoned train and causing some youthful trouble before eventually finding themselves in an abandoned quarry.  All alone in what looks like a barren planet, the boys trek over large rock piles and dirt mounds without any thought that something could go wrong.  It’s hard to go any further in a review of this one because it would give away a major twist that affects the latter half of the film, but suffice it say that the day doesn’t remain carefree for long.  There’s a poignant coda to Jérémy Comte’s short that I found particularly moving, showing a rare moment of connection during an extreme circumstance.

Marguerite (Directed by Marianne Farley)
Synopsis: Elderly Marguerite is cared for by kindly nurse Rachel and the two become friends. As the lonely Marguerite learns more about Rachel, feelings from her youth resurface, prompting her to examine and accept her past desires
Review:  The relationship between Marguerite and her nurse Rachel is explored in this short that I found extraordinarily delicate and lovely.  I never knew quite where Marianne Farley’s film was going to end up and that’s a tribute to her thoughtful writing and the performances of our two lead actresses. A daily routine is thrown off balance when a secret is revealed, sending Marguerite on a journey into her younger days when particular choices weren’t available to her.  I found some parallels between this and the Oscar nominated short Late Afternoon, both feature women in their advanced years longing for days gone by.  A sensitive and well-acted nominee.

Mother (Madre) (Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
Synopsis: While chatting with her mother at her apartment in Spain, Marta receives a phone call from her six-year-old son Iván, who is on vacation with his father in France. Marta quickly realizes that something is desperately wrong and that she has very little time to solve the problem
Review: Every year it seems this category has one film that frays your nerves in the span of a brisk 10 minutes.  Last year it was the breathless DeKalb Elementary, the year before that it was Everything Will Be Okay, and in a previous year it was the heart-pounding Just Before Everything Falls Apart.  This year we have Mother (Madre), a tense short seemingly done in one take that brings every parents worst nightmare to the forefront.  What if your child was in danger and you were helpless to do anything about it?  As she’s about to leave her apartment with her own mother, Marta gets a call from her son that his father has vanished and left him alone on a beach in another country.  With his phone dying and her options limited, Marta has to think on her feet as how to rescue her child thousands of miles away.  The one-take style made this feel like a play and upped the ante for everything to go as planned.  Aided by strong performances, it’s a winner in the maximum tension department.

Skin (Directed by Guy Nattiv)
Synopsis: After spending the day shooting guns and relaxing at the lake with several white supremacist friends, Jeffrey and Christa head home with their young son Troy. Stopping at a grocery store, Jeffrey is irate when Jaydee, an African-American man, is friendly to Troy, and Jaydee’s innocent act results in bloodshed.
Review: This is one film likely to divide most viewers.  With the heightened tension in our society toward race relations, I can’t tell if Skin is trying to make a political point or just be a fiery bit of sensationalist drama but it’s a frustrating experience no matter how you look at it.  The son of a white supremacist sees his father beat a black man for no apparent reason, only to be witness to an act of revenge that will send shock waves through their family.  The dank places Skin goes in it’s final moments are kind of repulsive but it accomplishes its mission of getting your blood boiling.  Interesting note: the director has already filmed and screened a feature length film of the same name featuring at least one returning cast member.  Though the plot isn’t exactly the same, it does bear a striking resemblance in tone to this original short.


Final Thoughts
: It’s been my experience that the Live Action shorts are often the most forgettable of the bunch because they wind up feeling like early calling cards for feature directors looking to cut their teeth on a smaller scale. This year, however, the nominees are a strong bunch and though they are tonally dark they are more successful as a whole than they have been in the past.  I can see the skill of Mother (Madre) being rewarded while Marguerite might be a safe bet because it’s the least depressing and its rich emotion might capture the hearts of voters more.

Movie Review ~ Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: German artist Kurt Barnert has escaped East Germany and now lives in West Germany, but is tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and the GDR-regime.

Stars: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Rated: R

Running Length: 188 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Most movie nerds like myself keep a director like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in their back pocket when they need to dole out a bit of comedy with their film trivia. After his 2006 film The Lives of Others won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, von Donnersmarck likely had his pick of projects to undertake and he settled on what looked like a sure bet. 2010’s European spy thriller The Tourist starred Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, both at the height of their box office potential, and when it was released it was a notorious bomb. Nevertheless, the Hollywood Foreign Press nominated it for three Golden Globes (for Depp, Jolie, and Best Picture) which has become a long-standing joke in Hollywood and a central reason people point to that nominating body as being enchanted by getting movie stars to attend their award shows instead of recognizing quality films.

It’s been eight years since that fiasco and von Donnersmarck has returned for his third film and found himself nominated again for Best Foreign Language film for Never Look Away (or Werk ohne Autor/Work Without Author as it was known in Germany). I admit that I’ve not seen The Lives of Others but know it to be a respected winner of the Oscar and with a nomination for Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography as well, it’s obvious the Never Look Away represents an embraced return to form for von Donnersmarck after what had to have ultimately been a bruising experience with the Hollywood system.  With a stellar production design and Deschanel’s stunning camerawork, it’s a high-class picture.

Never Look Away follows Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling, Woman in Gold) an artist in post-war Germany haunted by the memories of his past and attempting to exorcise his demons through art. As a child, he saw his beloved aunt suffering from undiagnosed mental health issues taken away and his town destroyed by bombings as the Nazi’s were rising to power. Though he doesn’t follow her journey, the audience sees his aunt relegated to a hospital where she’s barely treated before being sterilized and eventually shipped off to the gas chambers with other people deemed risks to the survival of a pure society.

The first twenty minutes of the film provide several thematic threads that von Donnersmarck will pick up and discard several times over the next two and a half hours. There’s the SS doctor (Sebastian Koch, The Danish Girl) who treats Kurt’s aunt that will enter his life again when he becomes an adult studying art in East Germany. This doctor also figures into a subplot involving his arrest after the war and eventual clemency at the hands of a Russian officer who continues to protect him as the years go by. When Kurt falls in love with another student (Paula Beer) she provides still another link to the past that we’re all privy to but our main characters aren’t.

With a running time of over three hours, knowing this is another WWII story involving Nazis may suggest a daunting sit but it unfolds at just the right pitch. With such a dark subject matter, von Donnersmarck grasps onto moments of levity when he can and uses them to break up some of the heavier passages. The performances are strong, particularly Koch as a severely morally compromised man who manages to get more deplorable with each chance he gets to redeem himself. Adding to a strong list of nominees this year (Capernaum, Shoplifters, Cold War, and the favored winner, Roma) Never Look Away more than makes its case for your attention.

Movie Review ~ Alita: Battle Angel

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An action-packed story of one young woman’s journey to discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world.

Stars: Rosa Salazar, Keean Johnson, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Eiza Gonzalez

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The journey of Alita: Battle Angel to the screen has been an adventure almost three decades in the making. Originally a Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro, it caught the attention of director James Cameron (The Abyss) and became one of those passion projects that followed the director over the ensuing years. With his attention focused on other films, documentary projects, pioneering technological advances in filmmaking, and talking about his Avatar sequels ad nauseum, Cameron eventually realized that he’d have to abdicate the director’s chair if the film were ever to get off the ground. That’s where director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) comes in and how we have arrived at this strange 2019 release.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen the film and I honestly can’t decide whether it’s glorious or garbage. I can fully see where the effects extravaganza will be overpowering and maybe even off-putting but at the same time there’s a piece of me that silently was cheering on the never-ending barrage of bizarre your ticket purchase will provide.  I can tell you this, I was never, not even for one minute, bored.  If the film community and audiences decide to pass judgment that Alita: Battle Angel is a failure, it will have gone out swinging because it doesn’t seem to be afraid to embrace its oddity.

Five hundred years in the future the Earth has suffered a series of cataclysmic events, culminating with “The Fall” which separated cities of the sky from the junk-laden wastelands on the ground. Only the most elite live in that last surviving sky city, Zalem, while the rest of Earth’s inhabitants scrape by a living where they can. Some have turned to bounty hunting to earn enough money to travel up up and away and there are certainly enough sundry individuals roaming the streets for people to make a buck or two eliminating dangerous threats.

Scouring a junkyard for spare parts to aid in his robotic repair practice, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) finds the remnants of a female cyborg and rebuilds her, giving her the name Alita. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) comes back online and eventually falls in love with a local teenager (Keean Johnson), she begins to piece together her history as she discovers new strength and agility that seem to come naturally. At the same time, a killer is on the loose and Alita becomes a Hunter-Killer bounty hunter to track down who is harvesting people for their spare parts.  In doing so, she raises the ire of a punk bounty hunter (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) who doesn’t appreciate the competition from the supposed teenage girl.  When her mysterious past is revealed, it will put all who come in contact with her in danger as she’s revealed to be an important weapon and the only one that can stop the evil Nova (played in an uncredited cameo by an Oscar-nominated actor) from keeping bigger truths about Zalem from the public.

As you can probably tell, there’s a whole lot going on in the movie (I didn’t even bother to describe a sport called Motorball that figures heavily into the action) and Cameron’s script (co-written by Laeta Kalogridis, Terminator Genisys) is his usual mish-mash of overly syrupy dialogue intermixed with made-up jargon. Usually, this works against the film but here the script manages to serve things quite well as it prompts numerous set-ups for eye-popping special effects (see it in IMAX 3D, if possible) and nicely crafts a new world for our characters to explore.

Rodriguez has always had a way with making his films rock and roll even on a minuscule budget but here he’s given the keys to the bank vault and has cleaned out the coffers. It’s all rather lovely to look at, especially in an underwater sequence when Alita finds a crashed spaceship that holds a clue to her origins. Where things don’t go quite as swimmingly are in the character arcs, with several A-list actors left to fend for themselves with roles that are underwritten and underdeveloped. Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book) treat the material as high art, which leads to their performances taking on a camp factor that is surely unintentional. Salazar, digitized in post-production, turns in the most realistic performance – there were times I actually forgot she was an animation.

Not being familiar with the source material, I can’t say how close Cameron and Kalogridis stuck to the original story but there’s a definite energy injected throughout that’s hard to deny. It may be overstuffed and too effects-heavy but there’s an admirable bit of workmanship that has gone into the look of the film, even if the more dramatic pieces don’t quite gel correctly. This being a Cameron property, there’s a romance subplot that isn’t fully satisfying and Rodriguez has tacked on maybe two finales too many, but it ends on a high enough note that I’m curious to see if another installment might get the go-ahead now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox and could benefit from this property with international appeal.

Movie Review ~ The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Animal Behaviour (Directed by Alison Snowden and David Fine)
Synopsis: A group of five animals with emotional and psychological problems meets for therapy with compassionate canine Dr. Clement. Their group dynamic is rattled by a new member, Victor, a gorilla with anger management issues who believes that talking cannot change someone’s innate tendencies.
Review: A word to the wise viewer taking in these Oscar nominated shorts: enjoy the comedy in Animal Behaviour because it’s the last bit of true levity you’ll get among the nominees.  Taking place during a therapy session for a group of animals with emotional problems, the short has some genuine moments of humor mostly derived from the outlandish anthropomorphic situation we are dropped into.  There’s the leech with dependency issues, the pig with a tendency to overindulge, the praying mantis who can’t keep a mate, and so on and so forth.  It’s all a bit bizarre but still a sharp short.

Bao
(Directed by Domee Shi)
Synopsis: A lonely Chinese mother suffering from empty nest syndrome is thrilled to become a parent again when one of her homemade dumplings comes to life. As Dumpling grows, however, the inevitable conflicts between parent and child arise and Mom must acknowledge that no one stays little forever.
Review: My original review of Bao (shown before Incredibles 2 this summer) can be found here.  It still packs a nice little punch, especially if you remember halfway through that you forgot to call your mom when you told her you would.

Late Afternoon
(Directed by Louise Bagnall)
Synopsis: Emily, an elderly lady with dementia, is increasingly alienated from the world around her. Whenever she sees her reflection, Emily wanders through memories of her childhood and young adulthood, and thereby attempts to use her past to reconnect with the present.
Review: Here’s a real emotional success story, featuring simple animation and a huge heart.  Following an older lady combating a failing memory with her joyous recollections of the past, Late Afternoon looks like it’s jumped off the pages of a picture book from forty years ago with its overly round faces and detached limbs.  Still, it’s so delicate in the way it unfolds that the feelings it stirs will likely sneak up on you.  It isn’t hard to figure out the path the short is following but director Louise Bagnall says a lot by choosing her passages carefully.

One Small Step
(Directed by Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas)
Synopsis: Bolstered by the unwavering support of her devoted father, a humble cobbler, Luna Chu grows up determined to become an astronaut. Although she is sometimes daunted by the obstacles she faces, Luna always shoots for the stars.
Review: Coming on the heels of Late Afternoon, One Small Step keeps your heart in your throat as it takes you on the journey of a girl aiming for the stars with the help of her supportive father.  Without dialogue, we are guided by the storytelling of the animators and it’s marvelous how well they navigate some tricky emotional turns clearly and with a compelling voice.  It’s a rewarding and moving bit of fantasy that manages to keep itself grounded even as it ambitiously reaches higher.

Weekends
(Directed by Trevor Jimenez)
Synopsis: After his parents split up, a young boy must adjust to living with his mother during the week and his father during the weekend. Their new routine is difficult on all of the family members, but is especially confusing to the youngster as his parents move on with their lives without each other.
Review: The strangest offering is also the most complex, narratively speaking, as a boy travels between the homes of his divorced parents.  Over time, the boy doesn’t change much but the relationship with his parents does, as do their lives as they meet other partners and create new families.  Abuse and emotional immaturity are explored with care and without judgement. Seen through the eyes of their son, it’s a revealing look at the things children observe which parents might not be aware they are taking in and understanding.

Final Thoughts
: The 2019 nominees feature a nice selection of animated shorts that don’t shy away from emotional issues and adult matters. Many people see a film like the charming Bao and think that’s what all nominated shorts are like and it’s nice to see the Academy being inclusive of material and themes that cater to a more discerning taste that challenge us.  Four of these clearly target the emotional cortex of the voter while Animal Behaviour is aimed straight at the funny bone.  I found Late Afternoon and One Small Step to be the ones that stuck around in my mind in the days that followed and could easily see one of those two emerging with a gold statue.