Movie Review ~ Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern, Zoë Bell

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of directors have shown an affinity for their medium throughout the course of their careers…you kind of have to when you’re in an industry that loves a good pat on the back almost as much as they love a great opening weekend.  I’m not sure if I know of a filmmaker, however, that truly loves movies as much as Quentin Tarantino does.  Though the writer/director is notorious for his outspoken ways and has come under fire recently when some questionable actions on the set of the Kill Bill movies resurfaced, he’s never shied away from wearing his movie nerdishness loud and proud.  A fanboy for movies that range from popular classic to underground cult, Tarantino has an eclectic taste which has helped him to cull numerous reference points for his films throughout the years.

So it’s fitting that he’s finally gotten around to making a film about Hollywood, creating a story about a waning star and his stunt double crossing paths with faces both factual and fictional. Far from being an expose on the dark side of the Hollywood lifestyle, Tarantino is more interested in recreating the feel of living in this mecca that lured so many dreamers and, more specifically, how one man comes to terms with his fading career.   As with many Tarantino films, the object from the first frame is total immersion in the time and place and though it has recognizable actors from 2019 you could easily believe it was made 50 years ago.  You’ve likely heard it also has something to do with Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, and the infamous tragedy that occurred on August 8, 1969 but…more on that later.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, back onscreen after a four-year absence and reteaming with his Django Unchained director) is a former star of a mildly popular western television show looking for his next project.  Unable to rest on the laurels of his previous role much longer, he seeks the advice of a blunt talent agent (Al Pacino, Stand-Up Guys, nicely dialing down his tired Pacino-y mannerisms) who urges him to consider leaving Hollywood to star in a series of spaghetti westerns filming in Italy.  The majority of the film tracks Rick over the next two days as he prepares to film a guest spot on a television series while mulling this new international opportunity.

At the same time, Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, World War Z) acts as chauffeur, handyman, gopher, and overall sidekick to the man he takes onscreen falls for.  Earning a bad reputation in the industry for a mystery surrounding his wife, Cliff can’t get much work outside of his employ with Rick so he sticks around hoping his boss will land another role that will call for his talents.  The two men have a clear kinship that extends beyond any lines of stardom and there’s an unspoken respect and loyalty flowing both ways, which is established so well Tarantino doesn’t need to fill in any gaps for the audience into how the two were paired in the first place.

What Tarantino does do, though, is take numerous opportunities to cut away to previous jobs Rick and Cliff worked on with varying degrees of success.  It’s fun to see DiCaprio loosen up dancing and singing (terribly) on Hullaballoo and an extended sequence where Cliff has it out with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie but is quite entertaining on its own merits.  Where it gets tricky is when Tarantino indulges himself too much, taking us on long drives through Los Angeles (we get it, it’s a bigger town than we think) and burns valuable time with clips from Rick Dalton’s previous appearances.  Still, those drives through Los Angeles give production designer Barbara Ling (The Lucky One) an excuse to recreate some fantastic locales in exquisite detail.  All theaters would need to do is pump in some smog and you are right there in the heart of L.A.

The first hour of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ambles nicely into interesting territory as we get our bearings (courtesy, again, of those long car rides) but it’s Cliff’s chance meeting of a hippie waif (Margaret Qualley, Novitiate) and offering her a ride home when the movie starts to get intriguing.  When they arrive at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, CA and Cliff meets the girl’s “family” his alarm bells go off and the hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up.  Tarantino makes this not just the turning point of the movie but it’s centerpiece as well, as Cliff slowly realizes things aren’t what they appear to be and the property, which he is familiar with from his career with Rick, wouldn’t just be turned over to these creepy hippies.

Here’s where I have to give the slightest caveat of a spoiler alert coming up. While I won’t give any key plot details away I’ll need to make a few points known.  It’s not something you won’t already know.

Though many of us know about Charles Manson and his Manson Family, I was fuzzier on some of the finer details and didn’t realize until later when it was that Tarantino shifted into a slightly alternate timeline to the events as they originally occurred. The actual involvement of Manson and his followers in Tarantino’s movie is, honestly, minimal but it is a key piece of the overall story Tarantino has worked out regarding Rick and Cliff.

That means Manson victim Sharon Tate becomes a character in the film as well, showing up as Rick’s next door neighbor and giving Tarantino another real life individual with a timeline he may or may not feel the need to play around with. Though brought to life with vibrancy by a nearly silent Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), Tate is a minor player that Tarantino prefers to keep at a distance when things take a dark turn.  Clearly, he only wants to remember Tate when she was young and beautiful, even going so far as to have Robbie going to see herself as Tate in a movie but watching the actual footage of Tate in the film.  For other celebrity sightings, keep your eyes open for appearances by Steve McQueen, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, Effie Gray, in a chilling cameo), Mama Cass, and Connie Stevens.

It’s not spoiling anything to say the night of August 8, 1969 is the final destination of the movie.  The ending of the film is still a bit of a puzzlement to me and I think I’ll need to see it again to firm up my thoughts on how successful it is. I’d be interested in hearing what the families of the victims think about the way Tarantino handled the events of that night and if the choices he made moved any immovable dials in their heart.  Like most Tarantino films (and quite like 2015’s The Hateful Eight) the director pulls all the stops out for the final reel – audience members at my screening seemed to go along with it but my reaction was more muted.

The real story here are the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, arguably two of the honest-to-goodness biggest stars Hollywood has right now.  Both have toplined countless films and brought them to box office glory but combining their talents was a real win for Tarantino and a boon for the film as a whole.  As with many of his performances, I found DiCaprio good to a point, but the actor always gets to a certain level where you clearly see the effort being made and then it falls apart for me.  A scene of Rick chastising himself after a lackluster performance in a scene goes on far too long and, because we’ve already seen Rick’s vulnerability, is redundant.  It’s a good thing DiCaprio has Pitt next to him for so much of the movie because this is Pitt’s most radiant time to shine.  Wearing the barely visible faded scars of a stuntman long in the business, Pitt’s best moments are when he’s not saying anything at all but just reacting to what’s happening around him.  It’s one of his all-time great roles and, coupled with the much anticipated Ad Astra, could mean 2019 winds up being a very good year for him.

At nearly three hours, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood could arguably be trimmed by a good twenty minutes, though I think it would be at the expense of some tone setting and establishment of characters.  No question, there’s a less laborious way to get through the movie but I didn’t find myself bored, easily making it through this one more than I have numerous films half its length.  It’s a must-see in theaters and try to catch it in 35MM should it be playing in that format nearest you.  Then go read up about the people and places you see and untangle the fact and fiction braid Tarantino has weaved.

Movie Review ~ The Farewell


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.

Stars: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Ines Laimins, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo

Director: Lulu Wang

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: In recent years, I’ve come to be mighty skeptical of any movie that has buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival. Though the fest has produced several hits throughout its time, lately its been more infamous as a birthing place where great, good, and so-so movies without distributors get gobbled up by studios who then don’t know what to do with them. The great ones see their releases totally bungled, the good ones rarely find a wide-release, and the so-so ones usually get the most eyes on them.  Thankfully, most of the just plain bad ones disappear quickly into your streaming service library.

This year the two movies that I heard the most about were female-led and female directed. The first to arrive was the moderately well-reviewed comedy Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. Though it was positioned well by Amazon Studios as counter-programming to the summer blockbusters that were in full swing when its June release date rolled around, it tanked. Big time. So big that its rumored jobs were lost at Amazon Studios and a complete revaluation of their film acquisition policies in progress. As much as I would have liked to see that film do better business considering the stars, I kind of get why it didn’t catch on. Though it had laughs, I didn’t leave the theater wanting to tell my friends about it.

The same can’t be said about the other Sundance favorite now arriving in theaters. I’m telling all my friends, family, co-workers, and even a few people off the street that look like they’d be up for it about The Farewell. Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical dramedy is the absolute most winning film I’ve seen all year, equal parts comedy and drama and never less than 100% authentic in its emotions. It’s a film that starts strong and just continues to build and take root in your heart over the next hour and a half. If a PG rated film like this can’t get families (with older children) into the theater and be a sleeper hit of the summer, then nothing can.

While waiting to see if her grant proposal is approved, a thirty-year-old struggling writer in New York City arrives at her immigrant parents house to do, what else?, her laundry. It’s here Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) learns her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of terminal lung cancer. Her father (Tzi Ma, Skyscraper) is grief-stricken while her mother (Diana Lin) explains to Billi that the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis but instead will gather in China to say their goodbyes under the pretense of a shotgun wedding for Billi’s cousin. What’s more, Billi can’t come along because she won’t be able to keep the secret. Recognizing this will be her only chance to say goodbye, Billi makes her way to China several days after her parents, surprising them and threatening to upend the plan.

Over the course of the multi-day wedding celebration, Billi gets an education about China’s cultural complexities of withholding a terminal diagnosis from a loved one and how it’s not just about “lying” but about showing respect for their final days. Additionally, she finds a greater understanding of her parents difficult immigration to America and grapples with the ripple effects it had on her upbringing. While Nai Nai stresses over crab being served at the wedding instead of lobster, her family is agonizing over making sure she doesn’t accidently see her test results and finding a way to say good-bye without actually saying it.  As the family participates in numerous traditions leading up to the big day, we get a small insider view of Chinese culture and, while certainly not comprehensive, it’s valuable to be a fly on the wall for many of these celebrations, discussions, and remembrances.

Though it sounds like the makings of a dreary, teary film (and trust me, there are tears), Wang’s film is overflowing with life and demonstrates an assured way with comedy as well, drawing laughs from unlikely places and characters. Much of the comedy comes from the differences between cultures and customs but there’s a fair share of one-liners that are howlinginly funny. Family reunions are stressful enough and with emotions dialed up, everyone is on edge and that leads to a number of funny sequences and some especially awkward wedding speeches.  All of the moments feel unexpected and off-the cuff, never straying into the saccharine areas we think they’re going to go and which they maybe might have the tendency to lean.

Known for her stand-up and previous comedic roles, Awkwafina does, if not a complete 180, then a 165 degree turn as Billi. Finding a way into the comedy without being the center of it, she also doesn’t grit her teeth to get into the drama of the film either. This feels like an actress taking on another role and knocking it out of the park, not simply a comedian stretching outside her comfort zone and achieving an unexpected bullseye. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are wonderful as her parents, both getting key scenes with their daughter that tell us much about their life and love for their family, with Lin specifically tackling a difficult arc accepting responsibilities for how she raised Billi. The real standout here is Zhao Shuzhen in a performance that has Best Supporting Actress (or at least a nomination written all over it). Warm, wise, and always with a twinkle in her eye, each frame of film she’s in is enriched by her presence and each line of dialogue is of sage import. It’s fairly unforgettable, as is her final scene.

Sure to be the best film to come out of the lackluster summer of 2019 and absolutely the one of the top movies of the year, The Farewell is a real treasure to be treasured. I haven’t stopped thinking about it nearly a week after I’ve seen it, nor can I stop telling people how good it is. Opening in limited release before expanding wider, this is one to keep your eyes open for because I have the feeling this is the “little film that could” hit everyone has been waiting for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Top Gun: Maverick

Synopsis: A follow-up to the 1986 hit brings back Naval Aviator Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and will deal with the rise of unmanned drones and pilots becoming a thing of the past.

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Thoughts: Has it really been 33 years since Tom Cruise cemented his rising superstar status with the blockbuster release of Top Gun?  Inspiring countless imitators (including Cruise himself) and launching a million slow dances to the Oscar-winning theme song, the movie is firmly in our cultural lexicon and holds up quite nicely.  So you could hear some groans across the U.S. of A. when it was announced Cruise would be returning in the long rumored sequel.  For someone with as good as track record as Cruise has with starring in successful non-franchise fare, why occupy his time between Mission: Impossible sequels with another sequel to a previous role?  Teaming with his Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski and looping in an excellent roster of supporting players, from the looks of this first trailer for Top Gun: Maverick Cruise clearly knew what he was doing and I’m sorry I doubted him in the first place.  This sneak peak at the high-flying action film releasing almost 12 months from now stirs the kind of nostalgic summer excitement within me that doesn’t get a jolt that often.  Fingers crossed it’s more than just a retread of the original.

The Silver Bullet ~ CATS

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Release Date: December 20, 2019

Thoughts: I mean, I literally was speechless after I got done watching this first trailer for the long-awaited (by some) film adaptation of the international hit musical CATS.  Since it premiered in 1982 on Broadway there has been buzz of a film and though a purrrfectly decent direct to video movie was made featuring Broadway and London stars there was always a Hollywood version slinking around.  Boasting a star-studded cast with the likes of Jennifer Hudson (The Three Stooges), Judi Dench (All is True), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Lorax), Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), Rebel Wilson (The Hustle), and Ian McKellen (Beauty & the Beast) among others, I was holding out some hope this might quell some persnickety naysayers that have always turned their noses up at the show.

Yeowch!

I’m sufficiently creeped out by this preview, though, and even more amazed they let Hudson sing ‘Memory’ in its near entirety!  It’s the big 11 o’clock number…why give it all away?  Still…I’m more curious than ever to see how big of a dumpster fire this one will be.  I’m gonna get dressed up in my finest finery for the Jellicle Ball come December.

Movie Review ~ The Lion King (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.

Stars: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Beyonce Knowles, Chiwetel Ejiofor, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: There seem to be two camps of Disney animation aficionados. The first feel the studio hit its apex of its second golden age of hand-drawn animation in 1991 with Beauty & the Beast and the other side believe the tipping point was 1994 with the release of The Lion King. Both are a little right because each represent new advances not just in animation but in storytelling and musicality. Fans of the The Lion King are many and while I don’t count myself as one of the ride-or-die devotees of this Hamlet in the Serengeti tale I do appreciate it’s mature themes and humanistic approach to life and loss.

Even though I don’t find the film to be as precious as others, I was considerably surprised Disney would take the risk of adding this beloved classic to their growing roster of revisited films for a new generation.  It was easy to get Cinderella to go to the ball, Aladdin to find his magic lamp, and Pete’s Dragon was downright delightful…though it was considerably harder to convince audiences to see Dumbo take flight. Even so, how would they capture life in the African veldt in a somewhat realistic way? Going off of the success of the photorealistic computer generated animals created for 2016’s The Jungle Book, Disney handed the reins to back to director Jon Favreau and asked him to fully immerse himself in the technology to bring The Lion King to life.

Frankly, while the film is gorgeous to look at and makes the transition to screen far better than any other 2019 release has, it’s ultimately a bit of a pointless endeavor due to it being a nearly shot for shot remake of the animated original with very little creativity added in. At times, the film is frustratingly stuck in 1994, completely ignoring all of the new music added into the subsequent 1997 behemoth Broadway musical and many of its wise decisions in narrative structure. Once I resigned myself to it being so furiously beholden to the original film, I was able to settle in and admittedly got swept up in some of the grand scale of majesty, both visual and emotional, on display.

I have a feeling there will be a lot of audience members coming out of this 2019 retelling of The Lion King looking for someone to blame for the film not living up to their expectations so I’m going to run down the list of blame-ees to see if we can’t land on a culprit.

Blame Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home). This one’s easy. Blame the director who brought only a concept to the table. Yes, the technology for The Jungle Book was a massive undertaking and the results quite splendid but the same magic doesn’t translate here. Going for realism over fantasy limits the film with rules in ways the animated one didn’t have to abide by. There’s little ingenuity to how the movie is constructed, with much of it, including the still goose-bump inducing ‘Circle of Life’ opening (sung by long time London Rafiki Brown Lindiwe Mkhize), just a complete copy of the first film.  I’m familiar enough with that opening sequence to recognize similar focus pulls and camera zooms so I’d love to see the two sequences side by side to see how close they are to each other. I’m a bit taken aback at how frightening Favreau let this one get. Animals that were slightly menacing as animated cells are positively terrifying when realistically rendered – parents should take note of the trio of teeth gnashing hyenas that are decidedly not played for laughs. There’s an attack/chase scene in this that rivaled Crawl for it’s tension and element of surprise.

Blame Julie Taymor. Poor Taymor has long been a scapegoat in the industry so why not throw her to the aforementioned hyenas here as well, right? I guess you could say she “ruined” The Lion King for multiple generations by creating such an unforgettable Broadway musical out of the original material. With brilliant costumes, soaring additional music, and a genius creativity flowing through each and every nook and cranny it set a new standard for what was possible in translating a film to stage.   Actually, she did what I feel the studio should have done here and that is to take the original film, retain the best parts about it and make something equally amazing out of it that lets both exist independently of the other. That doesn’t happen here. I can’t imagine people will be more inclined to watch this 2019 version over the 1994 original and then only if they couldn’t get tickets to the Broadway show.

Blame the cast. While it was nice to hear James Earl Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) back as Mufasa and Billy Eichner is dang delight as Timon, much of the casting falls flat. What’s worse, several of the actors just plain and simple can’t sing. As perfect a villain voice as Chiwetel Ejiofor (Secret in Their Eyes) provides as Scar, his speak-singing his way through a stupefyingingly truncated ‘Be Prepared’ and unsure high notes are a real bummer. As Pumbaa, Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) is the worst offender and while the part doesn’t require a good voice it at least requires someone to stay on pitch. Donald Glover (The Martian) is also a bit of a dud as the adult Simba showing little fire while Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s Nala (Dreamgirls) doesn’t exactly sound like she’s part of a regal pride of lionesses.  Everyone sounds like they’ve just been woken up from a nap, the lions were definitely sleeping tonight before recording their lines.

Blame the Disney executives. Here is where I think we have our winner, the big baddie of them all. Though this can’t be called a live-action remake seeing that the entire film is computer-generated, it represents another attempt by Disney to again cannibalize their catalog. For what purpose? The argument I’ve heard is that “every generation deserves their version of these stories” but that’s just…stupid. By signing off on giving The Lion King a CGI upgrade but not bothering to incorporate any of the new music (aside from Beyonce’s incredibly mediocre Oscar-bait single which has no place in the film) or making inventive creative choices they’ve not provided a purpose for the movie to exist other than lining their purses.  At its best, this new Lion King takes flight because of the durability of the source material and at it’s worst it’s merely a product crafted mindlessly for consumption with a pretty awful Elton John sung tacked into the credits for good measure.

Yet I’m still encouraging people to see this film and will likely see it again myself in theaters.  It’s absolutely better than the dull Dumbo and wooden Aladdin and operates on a different scale of filmmaking.  When all is said and done, the bottom line is that the movie is incredible to look at and what works the best is what has made The Lion King a classic since it was first released 25 years ago. The songs from Elton John and Tim Rice are melodic and will stick in your head, Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing, and the storyline of parental loss and finding strength within is as resonant as ever. I’ve listened to the soundtrack now a few times since seeing the movie and still get chills when the chorus of ‘Circle of Life’ fully kick in. No improvement on the original was needed to reinforce those feelings, though.

Movie Review ~ Wild Rose


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician from Glasgow dreams of becoming a Nashville star.

Stars: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, Craig Parkinson, James Harkness, Jamie Sives

Director: Tom Harper

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: As is often the case more and more with movies, it’s the films that you know the least about the tend to provide the biggest surprises. I’d seen the preview for Wild Rose a few times here and there and didn’t give it much of a second thought, feeling like it was something that I’d catch later when I had extra time to spare. Then the soundtrack made its way to my playlist and proceeded to sit there for another month or so, gathering digital dust. With a release date looming and an opportunity to get an advanced look at the movie presenting itself, I figured I’d give it a listen and…I was just not prepared for what I heard.

The name Jessie Buckley was only familiar to me because of the buzz generated from her work in a little-seen but much loved thriller from 2017, Beast. What I didn’t know was that she possessed the kind of voice that could blow the roof off the joint one moment and soothe you to sleep the next. Comprised of sixteen songs, the soundtrack was mostly covers but included one original song written expressly for the film (more on that later). I listened to the whole thing in one setting. Then I listened to it again. And then one more time for good measure just to make sure it was as fantastic as I thought it was. Then I began to worry, would the film live up to the soundtrack? It’s a rare problem to have but I honestly had a fear seeing the movie would somehow break the magic this impressive soundtrack had conjured.

Thankfully, while Wild Rose may seem on the surface like a carbon-copy of every other girl with a guitar and dreams of stardom film that has been done to death (and just done exceptionally well last year with A Star is Born), it doesn’t pivot where you think it will and resists the urge to bend when you feel like it will break. Anchored by a superstar making performance by Buckley and overflowing with the kind of truthful heart you just don’t get in films these days, this is a real authentic winner.

In Glasgow, Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley, Judy) is returning home after serving time in jail for drug possession. Leaving her two young children in the care of her mother (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) we get the impression right away being a mother isn’t her first priority because instead of running home to see her kids she first stops off for a roll in the hay with her boyfriend (James Harkness, Macbeth). Possessing a thrillingly soulful singing voice and an equally fiery personality, Rose-Lynn lives life big and loud and everyone and everything else better stand aside. Faced with being a mom to two kids that barely know her and don’t trust her, she only half tries to parent them while attempting to reignite her singing career with the hope of making it to Nashville.

Taking a job as a house cleaner to the wealthy homemaker Susannah (Sophie Okonedo, Hellboy) who isn’t aware of her past or her children, Rose-Lynn isn’t in the house a day before she’s sneaking liquor from the cabinet. While she may not be the best maid, the children of the house overhear her signing (in a creative fantasy sequence where the odd bandmember pops up around the house as Rose-Lynn is vacuuming) and pass that information along to their mother. Now fixated on Rose-Lynn as her new project, Susannah offers her an opportunity to meet influential people and get to the place she’s been longing to be…but at what cost?

Surprisingly, screenwriter Nicole Taylor and director Tom Harper (The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) answer these questions in a different way than I was expecting. Where one film might find a climax in the friendship between Susannah and Rose-Lynn, Taylor and Harper use that merely as a mid-way jumping off place for something more robust and fulfilling. It’s a tribute to the talented supporting players that they support the script and don’t let us get too far ahead of the action. Several times, I thought I knew where a certain scene was going only to have it come out in quite a different way.

Before it builds to its deeply satisfying finale, there’s some thorny emotional terrain to navigate and Buckley has us in her pocket from the moment she appears onscreen. I’m fairly sure she’s in every scene of the film and she’s a captivating presence throughout, even when she’s doing things that are self-destructive and counter to everything we know to be the “right” step to take. When she has her first true moment to just sing while making a video recording, it’s a transformative experience for her and the audience. It’s a flawless, note-perfect performance.

She’s matched well with two formidable actresses playing two very different mother figures. Walters yearns for her daughter to grow up and take responsibility for her children and her life, now fully at the point where she can’t hide her disappointment any longer. Okonedo comes from privilege and perhaps has some blinders on to the uphill climb Rose-Lynn is on. Yet she is still her champion, looking for ways to help her succeed by earning it and not just giving it to her on a silver platter. Both women see the talent and want her to achieve her dreams, but only one understands the extra personal sacrifices she would be making if she does.

The one original song composed for the film is performed at a key point and, paired with Buckley’s from-the-gut vocals, will likely have you grabbing for some tissues. Listen to the lyrics and how perfectly they reflect the journey – and then note the song was written by Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen (Book Club) who may just add another Oscar nomination to her list for her work on this track. If we’re lucky, Buckley’s performance will get a push from its distributor and remembered when the end of the year rolls around. So far, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen in 2019. And if she ever decides to retire from acting, she could go into the studio tomorrow and make a hit record – I’m sure of it.

Movie Review ~ Crawl


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While attempting to save her father during a hurricane, a young woman finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.

Stars: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Morfydd Clark

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing that will give me the honest-to-goodness willies, it’s an alligator. I don’t care if they are on TV pestering golfers just trying to play through, lounging on the side of the highway on the Florida interstate, or six feet away behind glass in a zoo. I do not like them. I can vividly remember my father making the mistake of renting the VHS of the 1980 classic creature feature Alligator (where oh where is the remastered BluRay of that gem?) which kept me out of swimming pools for months. While other creepy monsters of the deep have had their fair share of D-grade movies, somehow the alligator and its fellow archosaur, the crocodile, have had a better run of decent films than most. Aside from Alligator, there’s Rogue, Lake Placid, Black Water, and Primeval. Heck, even the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Eraser has a memorable crocodile encounter.

So you can understand my excitement and a little bit of fear when I heard that Crawl was making its way into theaters. The logline alone, girl is trapped inside flooding house with alligators during a hurricane, was enough to entice even the most exasperated horror junkie, burned too often by SyFy originals and direct to Redbox gunk featuring killer piranhas and beastly barracudas. I kept tabs on the movie during its production and while a trailer seemed to give away key moments, I held out hope it was a return to the kind of fun monster movie we used to get served up regularly by movie studios.

It’s usually never a good sign when a major movie studio like Paramount decides not to screen their film for critics in advance and that’s what happened with Crawl. While it often can hold off negative press for a stinker (like the recent garbage remake of Child’s Play) it can also stymie a film that might be better than its genre suggests. Opening the film the week after Spider-Man: Far From Home and before The Lion King roars into theaters, there was a small gap in July when there was no competition and that’s where Paramount opted to release the film without much fanfare.

What a huge mistake.

Paramount, who often screens gigantic duds without a care in the world, kept the downright tasty Crawl under wraps and away from the eyes of critics for no good reason and that’s only to their detriment. A very fine creature feature produced on a low budget that feels like a high-end affair, it’s short and scary and delivers in every way a movie like this should. All the beats are hit, all the bites are taken. This is the movie jolt this sleepy summer has needed and it’s come from the least expected place.

Hurricane Wendy is coming on strong along the Florida coast and college co-ed Haley (Kaya Scodelario, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) can’t reach her father Dave (Barry Pepper, Monster Trucks) who lives near the eye of the storm. Against the advice of her sister (Morfydd Clark, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and local law enforcement, Haley makes her way through rough weather to the beach house to make sure her father is OK. Finding the house abandoned, upon further investigation she finds her father in the muddy subbasement with a nasty injury. However, before she’s able to get him out and avoid being stranded in the storm her exit is cut-off by a gigantic alligator that has found its way into the basement through an overflow pipe…and it’s not about to let its dinner just walk away.

So begins a fight for survival as Haley and Dave fend off the rising waters in their flooding house while evading an ever-growing number of alligators that begin to swarm around their neighborhood. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen devise some fairly ingenious ways of keeping the father and daughter believably stranded in the basement while also credibly showing their attempts at escape. In so many of these movies the characters suddenly lose all brain cells (if they had any to begin with) once they are put into a predicament but here both call upon their own convenient strengths to get them out of this ‘gator jam.

In the past, director Alexandre Aja hasn’t been the most subtle of horror directors. Beginning with the stomach-churning Haute Tension in 2003 and following it up with gross-outs like Mirrors and remakes of The Hills Have Eyes, Maniac, and the blood frenzy of Piranha 3D, he doesn’t exactly do soft horror so I was worried Crawl would be an unnecessary gore fest. Surprisingly, Aja is the most restrained he’s been ever, nicely dialing back the carnage and reserving it for when its most effective. Keeping it contained like that makes the moments when the alligators do strike have a far greater impact. The attacks, on poor souls that find themselves in close proximity to Haley and her father, are vicious and not unnecessarily prolonged.

I’d love to see some a behind the scenes making of documentary on Crawl to see how they utilized their sets and incorporated those with green screen because it’s a nearly seamless blend. Filmed in Serbia (yeah, Serbia), the movie largely takes place on that one labyrinthine basement set but does frequently switch to the rising waters outside where the alligators lurk and can swim freely. The gators themselves are an impressive mix of CGI and animatronic creations, far better than they should be considering the budget. Put it this way, I was in a movie seat that reclined and 98% of the time the alligators looked real enough to make me raise my legs up even higher.

Shortly after seeing Crawl I was speaking to someone about how much the movie frightened me and they asked me why this scared me so much when I routinely watch movies like The Conjuring, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Alien, Annabelle Comes Home, etc. Well, there’s a huge difference between those and Crawl. Crawl is a movie, like Jaws, that feels like it could maybe possible sometime somehow happen. And it’s why I’ll never live in Florida. Or by a beach. Or go into a basement. You, however, should make your way to your local theater and catch this one…if only to support these kinds of films and encourage studios like Paramount to make more of the same quality.

The Silver Bullet ~ Knives Out



Synopsis
: A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.

Release Date: November 27, 2019

Thoughts: This November, writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is hopefully going to give this Agatha Christie murder-mystery loving guy something to be thankful for when Lionsgate releases the star-studded whodunit, Knives Out.  Packed to the brim with A-listers and a few solid B-list mainstays, this looks like a cheeky and fun black comedy with a bit of death thrown into the mix.  With favorites like Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding), Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame), Daniel Craig (Skyfall), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special) among the suspects and sleuths, all bets are off on what Johnson has in store for us but I expect some twists to be turned and rugs to be pulled as we get to the final reveal.  Fingers crossed this is as entertaining as it looks.  Though I’m sure this must contain some sort of spoilers – the first look at Knives Out is fairly sparse and feels like it’s holding back big reveals for the finished product.