Movie Review ~ 47 Meters Down: Uncaged


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four teen girls diving in a ruined underwater city quickly learn they’ve entered the territory of the deadliest shark species in the claustrophobic labyrinth of submerged caves.

Stars: Sophie Nélisse, Corinine Foxx, John Corbett, Sistine Stallone, Brianne Tju, Nia Long, Davi Santos, Khylin Rhambo, Brec Bassinger

Director: Johannes Roberts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Two years ago, a minor miracle happened when the newly formed (and creatively named) Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures bought a movie called In the Deep.  Though it had been released on DVD in the U.S. already, that didn’t bother the company who saw potential to capitalize on the lack of creature features swimming into theaters.  Renaming the film 47 Meters Down and giving it a prime June release date, the studio gambled big and reaped the rewards of their low budget movie that saw big box office returns.  At the time, I had heard a sequel was being planned but details were scarce on what was being sold as 48 Meters Down.  I’d all but forgotten about the sharky follow-up until a preview arrived shortly before 47 Meters Down: Uncaged was released.

Usually, these sequels can go seriously awry because of a lack of creative input.  The original did so well so why not just follow the same plot, add a few more deaths, and call it a day?  Thankfully, this sequel decides to go a different route and in many ways improves upon its predecessor by upping the ante not just with the script but for the filmmakers too.  Sure, there are more characters to deal with and an almost pathological need to scare the audience by jolting them with sneak attacks but the overall effect is a highly watchable and not quite implausible underwater thriller.  Where the first movie made good use of a limited setting and an ever-present feeling of claustrophobia, the sequel opens things up slightly but still finds a way to keep things contained in a small scareground.

Living with her dad (John Corbett, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) and his new wife (Nia Long, in this so briefly she doesn’t even appear in the opening credits) in Mexico, Mia (Sophie Nélisse, The Book Thief) is having trouble fitting into her new surroundings.  Her stepsister Sasha (Corinne Foxx) could care less about her, preferring to hang with her friends Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (Sistine Stallone).   With her dad busy researching a recently discovered submerged Mayan city, Mia is pawned off on Sasha and her friends for the day.  As this is a movie about a shark and being trapped underwater, I appreciated the filmmakers deemed it worthy to make the time on dry ground count, even if it’s a broken family set-up straight out of a soap opera and acted with about as much gusto.  Though their parents believe they are going on a boat tour, the stepsisters actually trek into the forest where Alexa shows them a hidden lagoon.

Now, it just so happens Alexa has gotten chummy (pardon the pun) with a research assistant to Mia’s dad and the lagoon sits on top of the entrance to the Mayan city.  Desperate for a little adventure, the girls decide to scuba down into the city and look through the first cave before returning to the surface.  Once they get in, though, a bad decision leads to them being stuck in the labyrinthine city…and they’re not alone.  How a Great White shark came to be in the city is anyone’s guess but over time the shark has acclimated to the dark waters and is blind, hunting only by its already heightened senses.  As the girls struggle to find another way out the shark blocks their advances and with their air supply running thin, will they reach the surface before they become shark bait?

Y’know, in some ways it would have been wonderful if the shark aspect of the 47 Meters Down: Uncaged could have been a twist that wasn’t revealed in any of the marketing materials.  The first appearance of the CGI shark is genuinely scary and though it often looks like a computer-generated creature there are enough solid moments to make you forgive the bad ones.  Already in a precarious situation being trapped with a limited air supply, the added complexity of evading a predator puts extra pressure on the women (and consistent tension on audiences) over the remaining 60 minutes and returning director Johannes Roberts uses every minute wisely.

Performances are, for the most part, admirable in the face of some silly dialogue and implausible technology used throughout the film.   At first, Nélisse was such a mumbling noodle lacking the charisma of a leading lady that I worried the movie would suffer from not being able to root for her but she comes around once she has to rise to the occasion and get out of the path of the shark.  Foxx and especially Tju are good supporting characters while Stallone (yes, she’s Sly’s daughter in her first role) unfortunately carries on the family name with lazily slurring most of her lines.  Even so, when you consider the vast majority of the movie was filmed underwater and considering what an undertaking that must have been, the end result overcomes any leaky spots in a slightly rusty bucket.

Roberts seems to treat the entire movie like a pot of boiling water he keeps turning the temperature up on.  Once the heat gets applied there’s no letting up…all the way until the credits roll.  There are several false endings that maybe go on too long but I was having such a good time splashing around in the water that I didn’t mind.  Like the first movie, this one would be fun to see in the theaters but would also work perfectly well on the small screen as a rainy day option.  It’s short running time goes by quickly and the creative set-up held my interest more than I thought it would.  If this is the way Roberts plots out a sequel, I’m all for giving him the opportunity to take us down for a third dive with the sharks in another few years.

Movie Review ~ The Peanut Butter Falcon


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young boy with Down Syndrome runs away to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal

Director: Tyler Nilson & Mike Schwartz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Coming off a summer chock full of movies that seemed to only love us for our money, it would be easy to approach The Peanut Butter Falcon with a tiny bit of wariness.  Is this character-driven drama really asking us to just sit back and enjoy ourselves?  Shouldn’t we be figuring out what supporting players will be getting their own franchise spin-off or deciding whether or not to stay until the lights come up in case we miss any post-credit stingers?  Don’t we need to steel ourselves to debate with our friends and followers the merits of how well the screenwriter and director have brought a beloved character from the page to the screen?  Not so fast.  It’s with a grateful heart I can say that originality and a tender spirit are the key ingredients in this sweet film that has no ulterior motives.

I have to admit, when I first heard of this film the title didn’t exactly set my world on fire because I couldn’t ever seem to remember if it was a kids movie or not.  I kept getting it confused with 1985’s The Peanut Butter Solution which, incidentally, was the first flick to include a Celine Dion song. Anyway, I hadn’t heard anything about The Peanut Butter Falcon because it largely flew under the radar on its way into theaters, buoyed by a strong performance at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX.  I also should be up front and say I outright skipped several advanced screenings of it in favor of other more mainstream films but the good buzz on this kept coming back my way and so I turned a movie night with a friend into an opportunity to see what the low hum hype was all about.

Without a family to care for him, 22-year old Zack (Zack Gottsagen) lives in a North Carolina nursing home where he is looked after by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) and shares a room with Carl (Bruce Dern, The Hateful Eight), a wily man over a half century older than he is.  Far too young to live the rest of his life surrounded by old people, Zack dreams of becoming a professional wrestler and train with his idol, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, Hellboy).  Though a high functioning man with Down syndrome, Zack doesn’t have the resources to live on his own so, for the time, being he has to stay where he is.  After a botched escape attempt, Eleanor cracks down on Zack and finally puts bars on his window to prevent him from stealing away when no one is looking.

Nearby, local fisherman Tyler (Shia LeBeouf, Lawless) has gotten into trouble again for fishing without a license and winds up vandalizing the equipment of Duncan, a thorny shoreman (John Hawkes, Lincoln) that doesn’t forgive and forget.  Escaping in a boat and pursued through the marsh by the angry fisherman, Tyler discovers Zack has stowed away on his boat, having escaped from the retirement home in the middle of the night with a little help from Carl.  Though lone-wolf Tyler has plans to start over in Florida, he can’t leave Zack behind and finds some purpose and promise of redemption in helping him get to the wrestling school…even if it means a few extra days of avoiding potential violence from Duncan and his henchman.

Reviews have mentioned Tyler and Zack’s journey to the home of the Salt Water Redneck as a modern day Huckleberry Finn tale, something Mark Twain would have had great fun writing, and that comparison isn’t wholly off the mark.  Heck, at one point the two men even build a raft and sail down the river like the characters in Twain’s stories often did.  When Eleanor tracks them down and makes the duo a trio, it adds a new dimension to an already intriguing premise.  Along the way they meet a blind man of faith that affords the film some honest-to-goodness soul stirring passages and eventually come to their destination which might actually be the start of another journey altogether.

Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz have a little gem on their hands here and they’ve given it a fine polish.  While the story might feel the slightest bit warmed over treacle at times, there are enough moments that subvert the expected and yield something more interesting.  Though Johnson sinks believably into the role of an invested caregiver to Zack, the script wants her to take on another role for Tyler’s benefit that doesn’t feel as well-developed and certainly not as warranted.  Thus, Eleanor starts to feel shoe-horned into the latter half of the film, like Nilson and Scharwartz expanded the role once Johnson signed on.

The best parts of the movie are watching Gottsagen and LeBeouf converse and react off of each other.  I’m not sure how much of what is presented was the result of improv between the two or scripted developments but there’s a lightness and geniality to their quickly developed friendship that feels authentic.  LeBeouf, often given to going too far inward in his roles, is fairly fantastic here, haunted by memories of his late brother (Jon Berenthal, The Accountant) and clearly far adrift in his life.   Gottsagen, too, is an electric presence onscreen and by the time the movie reaches it’s apex we’ve fallen for his character so much that we want everything to go his way.  Separately, the actors are absorbing but together they are dynamite.

Though Nilson and Schwartz biff the ending a bit with some confusing narrative choices and a final shot that I outright disliked, what came before it was an incredibly winning and rewarding night at the movies.  It’s another film that, I feel, will play better at home because it feels like it wants to find a place in your heart.  With it’s rich soundtrack and down home charm, I can easily see why this understated film appealed to the crowds that flock to the Texas film fest and why it’s proving to be an appetizing alternative to audiences at the end of their summer blockbuster rope.

Movie Review ~ Brittany Runs a Marathon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman living in New York takes control of her life- one block at a time.

Stars: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Sarah Bolt, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If you take a step back and look at the films released this summer and don’t consider the box office returns, it’s been a good year for female-led movies.  Finding their way to theaters (but, sadly, not always wide audiences) were Booksmart, Late Night, The Farewell, and maybe, if you’re feeling generous, even The Hustle.  All had strong points of view and boldly entered the arena, often in direct competition to highly anticipated and better advertised franchise blockbusters.  Aside from The Farewell, which continues to build on positive word of mouth, these movies suggested changing tides of appetite only to find themselves in discounted theaters within weeks of their release dates.  Destined to find their audiences when they hit streaming services, it doesn’t diminish the sting of feeling these should have done better.

The latest movie likely to fall under the same scrutiny is Brittany Runs a Marathon and it might just stand the best shot of breaking the cycle of summer underperformers.  Directed by Off-Broadway playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo making his feature film debut and inspired by the life of his best friend, this is a charming comedy that finds a nice balance between humor and drama.   I found a lot to laugh at within the movie but an equal amount of the time I was struck by how insightful it was into the inward struggle we all face when standing in front of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Approaching 30 and yet to shed the carefree lifestyle that worked for her in her early 20s, Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell, Office Christmas Party) works as a part time usher at a small NYC theater and doesn’t do much else.  Her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee, Wish Upon) is dating a handsome Wall Street-type and enjoys partying and late nights just as much as Brittany does.  Visting her doctor in hopes of snagging a prescription for Adderall, she instead leaves with a recommendation to lose forty to fifty pounds to avoid ongoing health concerns.  Having an “a-ha” moment, Brittany takes stock of her situation, where she is, and where she wants to be. Unable to afford a gym, she begins to run outdoors, eventually joining a running group on the suggestion of Catherine, (Michaela Watkins, Wanderlust) a woman in her building.  Teaming up with Catherine and another newbie runner Seth, (Micah Stock), the trio set their sights on training for the NYC Marathon, each with their own personal reasons for wanting to cross the finish line.

To earn extra money, Brittany becomes a daytime house/dog sitter, eventually meeting Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect) who takes over for her at night.  While the two squabble like brother and sister at first, it isn’t hard to see where the good-natured fighting will lead…though it does take an intelligent route getting there.  As Brittany continues to train and sees her body changing, she overlooks that it was never about an outward change that needed to happen but an adjustment from within that was necessary.  Unable to be vulnerable even with her closest friends or accept their support in the simplest of matters, Brittany may lose everything she’s worked for if she can’t knock down the walls she’s put up to defend herself.

On the surface, Brittany Runs a Marathon might look like your standard offering of girl makes a change to better herself and the wacky ways she does it but Colaizzo isn’t interested in doing anything the old-fashioned way.  Yes, the movie is packed with humor both smart and smart-alecky but there’s never a time when the script is out to make fun of its title character.  It doesn’t spare her, though, from being held to the same human decency standard as everyone else.  Just as we wince when low blows are leveled at Brittany, when she does the same to another person late in the film, we hold her accountable as well.  Kudos to actress Sarah Bolt for her small role being on the receiving end of a particularly nasty putdown from Brittany and for the way she responds — it’s easily a top highlight of the movie.

I’m used to Bell’s more raunchy and ribald performances, often broad and playing to the back wall of the theater next door to the one you’re in.  So, it’s refreshing to see her, not so much restrained, but offering up a different side that’s just as entertaining.  She’s in every scene so if we didn’t like the character or the actress the movie would be in big trouble, but Bell clearly was the right person for this job.  The performance is strong and arguably one of the best of the year.  I also liked Ambudkar as her comic and romantic counterpart.  There’s a chemistry in both areas and that goes a long way in keeping the less funny moments afloat.  Watkins and Stock do serviceable supporting work, though some late breaking efforts to bring their personal lives into the mix feels like Colaizzo biting off more than he can chew in 103 minutes.  I’d rather have learned more about Brittany’s backstory, the only information we get are in snippets from her brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and even those are sometimes hard to track.

I think it’s important to look at the movie not for what it’s putting Brittany through but what the ultimate goal is.  The point of the movie isn’t for us to watch her lose weight.  It isn’t about her running the marathon.  It’s a way to show there is value in everyone no matter what they are capable of or hope to achieve.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness and offering help is not a sign you don’t believe in someone’s ability.  That Colaizzo is able to weave that message in among a hearty supply of appealing situational comedy and lively performances is a real gift.

Movie Review ~ Aquarela


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Water and ice are shown around the world, in all of their many powerful forms.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  It’s nice to see movies for free.  There, I said it.  I like that, as a one-man band critic I’m afforded the great opportunity to watch films in theaters for free and then get to write about them for everyone to read.  I feel that part of doing this work and committing to it is seeing everything that comes your way, even if it feels outside of your comfort zone.  Those that review only mainstream films or projects that are easy to consume lack a well-roundness that gives their critical eye a sharper focus.  So yes, you should see the Martin Scorsese film, but you should also be getting your butt out of bed early on a Saturday morning to see whatever kids movie is screening at 10am or watching an independent film no one in your peer group has heard of.  That goes double for documentaries, a genre that’s easy to forget about until the end of the year rolls around and you only have to focus on the five nominees vying for the Oscar.

Part of the benefits of reviewing films is that often we have the option of screening the movie at home or watching it in the theater.  I almost always opt for the theatrical experience because I feel that’s what the filmmaker was making it for when they started out.  With evenings getting packed, though, and weekends having more time available I’ve been getting used to watching upcoming releases from the comfort of my own home/sweatpants.  It doesn’t come close to seeing it a theater but at least I’m able to take it in in some form, right?

There was a dilemma facing me when the Aquarela screening was rolling around.   I could have screened it at home but then we were teased that the movie was going to be shown in a high-resolution presentation, allowing for a superior moviegoing experience.  Though my gut was telling me this was one I could get by with seeing when I had 90 minutes to spare, I am, after all, a sucker for all the bells and whistles a reclining seat and state-of-the-art sound system can ring.  Thus, I decided to forego the home viewing and trek out to watch this documentary on the big screen.  I should have trusted my gut.

I honestly don’t know where to even start this review…which is maybe why I’m only beginning to talk about the film four paragraphs in.  Director Victor Kossakovsky has offered up a beautifully shot but gratingly dull doc that is 99% dialogue free and completely lacking in narrative.  Though filmed at a rate of 96 frames per second (fps) when most movies are shot at 24fps, the life-like clarity brought to the images is totally missing in every other aspect of the film.  It’s a movie that’s all establishing shots; impressive to look at for a while but quickly becoming a gigantic bore.  I don’t need a cut and dry narrative in my films, especially in a documentary which is allowed to be a bit more free-form, but I do need to feel there is some point, some direction, some goal, to what I’m watching.

That’s not to say there aren’t occasional spots where the movie comes to life.  There’s a sequence near the beginning following a team of workers trying to retrieve a car that has fallen through the ice.  As they go about their process to pull the sunken vehicle from the icy waters, we see other cars in similar peril racing across a thawing lake hoping not to be swallowed by an expanding fissure.  Kossakovsky doesn’t stay in one place too long, though, and without any fanfare we’re watching icebergs float, crash, bob, or just stay motionless while the camera lingers around their massive widths.  Only when the camera ventures underwater and the view blessedly changes will you snap out of the sleepy trance Kossakovsky has cast over you.

Your eyes will start to look for something, anything, that is happening on screen to focus on.  Any time the perspective changes or the landscape alters there’s the hope of something greater to come but it’s not to be. Sure, I guess you can say Kossakovsky is tracking water from its most solid state at the opening to its airy etherealness as it vanishes while cascading off of Venezuelan waterfall by the end.  The problem with all of this is nothing about these images is moving or inspiring.  The filmmaking (aside from the frame rate) doesn’t seem particularly difficult or boundary pushing and I have no clue how the movie was edited into what it wound up being.  Every image looks like a screensaver to me.

There’s a fear on my part with these heady movies that I’m missing the point or failing to rise to the challenge posed by the filmmaker but with Aquarela I don’t see a line in the sand (or water, as it were) being drawn.  The only challenge Kossakovsky poses to his audience is to stay awake for 90 very long minutes.  The title, Aquarela, is from the Portugese word for watercolor…which is the most interesting tidbit I could offer you. And to think, I could have skipped a shower and slept through this at home instead of “resting my eyes” at the theater.

Movie Review ~ Love, Antosha


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A portrait of the extraordinary life and career of actor Anton Yelchin.

Stars: Irina Yelchin, Viktor Yelchin, Anton Yelchin, Drake Doremus, J.J. Abrams, Sofia Boutella, John Cho, Willem Dafoe, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Chris Pine

Director: Garrett Price

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Love, Antosha starts out like many documentaries about a life cut short often do.  A young child is being filmed by his dad showing off his imagination in creating a world of his own.  Even in this brief moment, we see the light of interest in the boy, a spark of undeniable joy of life and you can just imagine what the parent on the other end of the camera was feeling in watching their son.   The boy would grow up to be a loving son, a trusted friend, a gifted artist, a curious man, a photographer, a movie star, and the victim of tragic accident that took his life at 27.

Born in Leningrad to parents famous in their own right as figure skaters in the Ice Ballet and qualifiers in the 1972 Olympics, Anton Yelchin and his family came to America in 1989 with the hopes of starting a new life away from the oppression of the Soviet regime.  Barely six months old when he arrived in the United States, Anton grew up in California and, nurtured by parents that supported their only child, found his way into acting, first in commercials and eventually in small movies that lead to bigger roles.  Early co-stars included Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Diane Lane, and Robin Williams. An engaging lead or a scene-stealing supporting player, Yelchin was equally at home in bold indies or big blockbusters.

Director Garrett Price has amassed a healthy collection of archival footage of Yelchin (Green Room, Only Lovers Left Alive, Star Trek) from personal videos to press interviews and he intersperses those with memories from his family, friends and co-workers that clearly held him in high regard.  Not surprisingly, there isn’t anyone that has a bad thing to say about the young man and with good reason.  From the hand-written letters to his parents to videos with friends, he seems like the thoughtful and considerate life-of-the-party.  If he couldn’t speak it, he would put it to music and sing it.  And any note to his mother always ended with the two words in the movie title.

What gives Love, Antosha an extra boost is that while Yelchin was a familiar face from his numerous film and television credits, he wasn’t much in the public eye during his time in Hollywood.  Most of his closest friends weren’t in the business and if they were, they too kept a low profile.  That allows Price an opportunity to spend more time showcasing the Yelchin we didn’t get to see, and it gives the interview subjects a moment to shine a light on their fallen friend and collaborator.  We also learn some surprising facts about Yelchin related to his health only released after his death that show how much the actor overcame to get where he was, which weirdly winds up giving greater irony to his fatal accident.  Yelchin may already have been playing on borrowed time, so his zest for life wasn’t entirely without preparation.

Considering how many productions Yelchin was involved with, it’s amazing Price was able to get small slices of time with a host of A-List talent and ask them to reflect on their time with the actor.  Directors like Jodie Foster and J.J. Abrams speak of an intellectual actor able to make even the smallest moment matter in unexpected ways, co-stars Chris Pine and Willem Dafoe remark on Yelchin’s extra-curricular activities as a photographer interested in the seedier side of things, and friends Jennifer Lawrence and John Cho offer additional insights into what made Yelchin such a dynamic presence to be around.  Special mention for Kristen Stewart who speaks with a mixture of youthful embarrassment but adult graciousness on how Yelchin was her first heartbreak. Most poignant are the moments spent with his parents who came to this country searching for a better life and now spend each day visiting their son’s grave.

The bits and pieces of a life could never be summed up in 90 minutes but Price has done wonderful work sketching out the trajectory of how Yelchin came to make his way up through Hollywood.  At the same time, it miraculously doesn’t dwell in the melancholy of his tragic death, either.  Though obviously still grieving the loss of their only child, his parents have a matter-of-factness to the way they speak of their son.  They clearly still have that image of the boy working through new make believe in front of the camera in their heads…and now they have Love, Antosha to remind them how much he meant to others as well.

The Silver Bullet ~ Antlers



Synopsis
: A young teacher discovers her troubled student’s father and younger brother harbor a deadly supernatural secret. Taking the boy into her care, the teacher must fight for their survival against horrors beyond imagination.

Release Date:  TBD 2020

Thoughts: Never judge a book by it’s cover and never judge a movie by its title.  The first time I heard about a horror film coming out called Antlers, I wrote it off as another nature run amok schlock fest.

Wait though, take a look at that poster.  It’s kind of creepy and a little intriguing.  Ooo…it’s produced by Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toto (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)?  It’s starring Keri Russell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and Jesse Plemons (Game Night), two interesting actors that seemingly make intelligent, thoughtful choices on their projects?  Hey now, you say it’s directed by Scott Cooper, the same guy that gave us Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace and it’s being distributed by indie offshoot Fox Searchlight?  Ok, but let’s wait and see about the trailer.

(Watches trailer with its eerie imagery and scant details that give little about the plot away that hasn’t already been provided in the promotional materials.)

OK. I’m sold.

Movie Review ~ Angel Has Fallen


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is framed for the attempted assassination of the President and must evade his own agency and the FBI as he tries to uncover the real threat.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Piper Perabo, Lance Reddick, Morgan Freeman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nick Nolte, Danny Huston

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: From the law of diminishing returns, it wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility for me to think Angel Has Fallen was going to be a disaster.  Consider the facts.  When Olympus Has Fallen was released in 2013 it became a surprise success, coasting along and benefiting from the abundant patriotism of its audience.  It restored some faith to star Gerard Butler’s shaky career and gave stalwart actors such as Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Angela Basset, and Aaron Eckhart a chance to chew the scenery without getting too much gunk caught in their pearly whites.  Three years later, London Has Fallen arrived and, though it made a sizable amount at the box office, it was an ill-timed, ugly-American movie that was film garbage at its most xenophobic.  Truth be told, I wasn’t even aware a third movie was on its way until the first poster and preview popped up a few months back.  After the disastrous previous outing, I had little interest in seeing where this franchise was heading.

So imagine my surprise to find that Angel Has Fallen is not only better than London Has Fallen but wound up being the best of the series so far. Turns out that all these movies needed was a judicious trim of the star quotient, a refocus on more homegrown enemies, and a director with a fresh take on balancing action with drama that doesn’t detract from the pace.  With Butler and Freeman the only two returning actors from the first movies (Piper Perabo replaces Radha Mitchell as Butler’s wife), there’s space for screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook to make this outing less wholly about wall to wall action and give more time to personal moments for Butler and a few new characters.

Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler, How to Train Your Dragon 2) remains a top performer in his role leading the security detail around the President of the United States (Morgan Freeman, Lucy, happily awake and alert) but the job is taking its toll physically and emotionally.  Though he’s in line to take over as director of the Secret Service, he’s hiding a growing reliance on painkillers and shrugging off lasting effects of numerous concussions and injuries sustained in the line of duty.  More concerned with being there for his wife (Perabo, Looper) and a consistent presence for his young daughter, he’s weighing the President’s offer to take on the role when his team comes under siege during an otherwise routine fishing trip.  The first of several well designed action sequences employing a clever use of next-gen technology, it doesn’t bother too much with logic but sets its target on maximum thrill.

Though he winds up saving the President, Mike is the only one from his unit to survive, which raises suspicions from his direct leader (Lance Riddick, White House Down) and a no-nonsense FBI Agent (Jada Pinkett Smith, Girls Trip, giving her most no-nonsense glares toward the camera) who launches an investigation into Mike. When Mike is discovered to have suspicious documents with ties to Russian intelligence on his computer not to mention a few extra million dollars in an offshore bank account, he realizes an old colleague (Danny Huston, All I See Is You) and perhaps another mystery player to be revealed later are framing him.  With the President out of commission and the Vice President (Tim Blake Nelson, Lincoln) stepping in as Commander in Chief, the tensions mount as a growing distrust of Russia is used as ammunition in firing up the war machine that’s long been dormant.

So begins a cross-country chase with Mike trying to stay one-step ahead of government agents and a horde of shadow operatives desperate to keep their agenda hidden and larger plans on track.  By cutting Mike off from his crew, family, and friends it allows Mike some good moments to get creative with his evasion, not to mention escaping one dangerous situation after another.  It also lets Butler show some new sides to this character, something the actor clearly is enjoying.  For a while Butler was appearing in some real turkeys and not seeming to care how much his reputation was suffering from it.  In the last few years his films have taken a more deliberate path – the movies may not be all that different on the surface but looking at the flawed characters he’s taking on now you can see what drew him to the role.

I’m betting a reunion with a man from Mike’s past (Nick Nolte, A Walk in the Woods) is a large part of what got Butler excited to come back for a third time.  Bringing in Nolte was an inspired choice as the actor, like Butler, got a little lost inside his image for a time until he took a step back and got a hold on his career in a more concentrated way.  Nolte is the highlight of the film, a lovable grump living a solitary life in the forest and none to happy to be disturbed by Mike’s appearance.  It’s nice to see Nolte and Butler so engaged on screen and with each other, especially in one grand scene where Mike discovers just how much this mystery man has been preparing for unwanted visitors. The squabbling between the two drifts ever so slightly into a buddy-comedy film at times but it’s a welcome reprieve from some of the darker turns the film takes.

That’s one thing about all these films that I, in many ways, respect.  Though it features recognizable faces and notable nearly A-list stars, the filmmakers are not at all opposed to killing people off in rather cruel ways.  The difference in this film is a less cavalier attitude after the fact.  In Olympus Has Fallen there were too many wisecracks with each deathblow. With London Has Fallen, the bloodlust overwhelmed the plot and added to the overall nastiness of that film.  Here, though people are snuffed out with brutal efficiency (including one that’s truly shocking) there’s no pleasure taken by those on screen or in the audience.  Just that small adjustment makes a huge difference in the tone of the film and how it rolls out over the audience.

Director Ric Roman Waugh makes some smart choices in the assembly of the movie but ultimately he does allow the movie go on too long.  One more pass by an experienced editor could have trimmed some extra fat off the running time but for the most part Angel Has Fallen trucks along nicely.  The plot is entirely predictable and if I didn’t know better I would have sworn this was a script unrelated to the franchise that Butler scooped up and had tailored into a Mike Banning film.  Though you’ll be able to spot the plot twists a mile away, it somehow doesn’t make much difference because the movie is so otherwise engaging.   I did have trouble following some of the action/chase sequences that were set at night, at times everything just became a blur of flack jackets, fists, blood, and scruff. Thankfully, the important moments in the film happen in the daylight so it’s easy to follow the well-choreographed fight sequences, though some of the special effects, especially near the end, get pretty iffy.

I thought after the last film that I was done with Banning and could easily see this character be put to bed but I’m cautiously optimistic there’s a continuing future for this character if Butler and his team keep additional chapters as sturdy as this one is.  It’s clear the wrong steps of the other films were in the direction of making the threat too broad; by making the danger closer to our hero it upped the ante for him and the audience cheering for him to clear his name. Maybe next time they can let Perabo get out of the kitchen (I swear every scene she’s doing something around her center island) and allow her to get into some of the action…

The Silver Bullet ~ Bombshell



Synopsis
: A few women decide to take on Fox News boss Roger Ailes and the toxic male culture he presided over at the network.

Release Date:  December 20, 2019

Thoughts: In case anyone was worried the 2019 competing projects surrounding the scandal at Fox News would create a Volcano vs. Dante’s Peak situation, it’s safe to say the muted reception of Showtime’s The Loudest Voice is a good indicator Bombshell may strike gold this December.  Though boasting Noami Watts as anchor Gretchen Carlson and disgraced CEO Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes, the Showtime limited series was a non-event and has barely made headlines.  Counter that with the, let’s just say it, riveting teaser trailer for Bombshell in which Oscar winners Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased) as Carlson share elevator space with Oscar nominee Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Kayla Pospisil and you can see why pundits are wondering if the Best Actress statue might have to be divided into thirds this year.  Theron, in particular, looks eerily like her real-life counterpart…I’m dying to see how this movie turns out.

Movie Review ~ Ready or Not


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A bride’s wedding night takes a sinister turn when her eccentric new in-laws force her to take part in a terrifying game.

Stars: Samara Weaving, Andie MacDowell, Mark O’Brien, Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Nicky Guadagni

Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of people are planning end of summer bashes to celebrate the highs and lows of the last few months.  After all, before it’s time to settle into more serious fall endeavors, it’s nice to be able to blow off some steam with a devil-may-care bit of frivolity.  When Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw barreled into theaters a few weeks back, I thought that would be the fun party to send a rather middling summer off with a bang…but it turns out there was one final blowout waiting around the corner.  Though it was made for a fraction of the budget of the majority of movies released over the past three months, Ready or Not bests them all with its dark sense of humor and creativity.

As I mentioned in my review of the spoiler-heavy trailer for Ready or Not, I was nervous going in the filmmakers had given away too much of the plot too soon.  Coming out on the other side of the credits I can say that yes, some fun moments have been diminished if you’ve been exposed to the preview too often but, surprisingly, it didn’t lessen the impact the movie had overall.  While some horror movies released to theaters are perfectly fine to pass on in favor of waiting for home consumption, this is one of the rare cases of a genre title you would benefit from seeing in a theater packed with like-minded individuals out for a good time.  My audience ate it up and I’ll bet would be willing to come back for seconds.

At a trim 95 minutes, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett waste no time introducing us to Grace (Samara Weaving, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as she rehearses her vows before her wedding.  Marrying the estranged scion of wealthy family that made their fortune off board games and other profitable endeavors, she can already tell her in-laws will be a handful.  An orphan that grew up in the foster care system, she loves her fiancé Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, Bad Times at the El Royale) and is willing to put up with a few days of weirdness at the massive Le Domas estate in exchange for a lifetime of happiness and the promise of a permanent family.  With their engagement, Alex has returned to his family with his bride-to-be in tow and though his mother (Andie MacDowell, Magic Mike XXL) is happy to have her son back the rest of the family seems curiously on edge.

Later that evening, before the bride and groom can enjoy their first night together, Alex lets Grace know about a family tradition all new members must go through at the stroke of midnight.  Grace will have to play a game with them, a game to be chosen through a secret ceremony, and while she initially laughs off this requirement as another Le Domas quirk, the actualities of what await her are the stuff nightmares (and entertaining horror films) are made of.  Unfortunately for Grace, the game she’s selected to play is the deadliest one of all and it sets the stage for a hunt that takes no prisoners and might not leave any survivors.  You see, the Le Domas family is no ordinary self-made clan but one that came to their status with a little…help.  It’s this assistance the family is willing to kill to protect and before she knows it, Grace is playing hide and seek from a pack of vicious psychos with varying degrees of bloodlust.

Surprisingly, first time feature screenwriters Guy Busick & Ryan Murphy (no, not that Ryan Murphy) manage to pack an amazing amount of exposition and ideas in without slowing down the action too much.  There’s an astounding array of backstory and context provided and it all makes sense in a weird, twisted way.  The characters they’ve etched out are kooky but deadly and, when put in the hands of a game ensemble of actors, spring to life.  You never are quite sure if all the family members are playing the game or playing along and that helps extend the mystery surrounding the origin of the game longer than I expected it to.  With the huge mansion’s hidden passages and shadowy hallways, you feel just as in the moment as Grace does, not knowing who will pop out when or what awaits her around the next corner.  Or what weapon they’ll be wielding.

Weaving is well-cast as Grace, ably taking on the pursued with a mixture of strength and fragility.  Though she’s running for her life around the house and grounds in her increasingly tattered wedding dress, she always has an air of, well, grace about her and that makes her an endearing heroine.  It helps that she’s not been written like a limp noodle, obviously drawing from her self-sufficient past to steel herself in the present fighting off these family fiends.   O’Brien, too, works well as the son knowing the secrets of his family but hoping his new bride can overcome years of passed down history and stay alive.  MacDowell and Henry Czerny had some good moments as Alex’s parents but the film is continually stolen by Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, a scowling shock-haired relative who doesn’t have time to mince words.  Guadagni has some incredibly well-timed line deliveries and is at the center of the film’s biggest shocker and most satisfying moment.

Obviously working on a small budget, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett stretch their monies to give Ready or Not a handsome and gothic-lite look.  Filming in Canada and using a number of local actors and crew, they’ve also invested wisely in stand-out make-up effects that give the blood and violence an extra amount of oomph.  There are two scenes of gore in particular that I had to watch through squinted eyes.  Even their finale managed to stay true to the tone of what came before, finding a well-timed laugh amidst an unexpected bit of shock and mayhem.  While I would have wanted perhaps a bit more polish on the film as a whole, particularly in the final act, I left the theater wholly satisfied and ready to play this game again.  I can see this one having high replay value and Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are clearly a team that will rise in demand for more clever work in this genre.

The Silver Bullet ~ Underwater



Synopsis
: A crew of underwater researchers must scramble to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory.

Release Date:  January 10, 2020

Thoughts: Watching the preview for Underwater, I kept wanting to shout out “This trailer knows me, it really, really knows ME!”  Horror movie? Check. Underwater horror movie? Check check. Underwater horror movie with creatures from the deep picking off the crew of a felled sea lab? Check check check!  As excited as I was to see this, I can’t help but feeling a little nervous at the same time.  I just finished reading an exhaustive profile of star Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper) and though it talked about several of her upcoming projects, there was not a peep about this one – strange, right?  Also, its January release date is either a smart move of counter-programming to clear out the post-holiday stuffiness or a keen way for Disney to quietly burn off a 20th Century Fox film that came with the studio when they purchased it.  I did a quick check online and until today there had been next to no news this movie even existed…much less that it had already received a PG-13 rating and a locked in release date.  Yet, nerves aside, I’m pulling for this one…if only to help me relive some 1989 nostalgia and resurrect some interest in titles like  DeepStar Six and Leviathan.