Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2019)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Stéphane has recently joined the Anti-Crime squad in Montfermeil, a sensitive district of the Paris projects. Paired up with Chris and Gwada whose methods are sometimes unorthodox, he rapidly discovers the tensions between the various neighborhood groups. When the trio finds themselves overrun during the course of an arrest, a drone begins filming every move they make.

Stars: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Percia, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almany Kanoute, Nizar Ben Fatma

Director: Ladj Ly

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I wish I could be one of those people that say I took my love of musical theater to its greatest lengths and read all 2,783 pages of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables.  After all, the stage show is one of my all time favorite pieces of theater and while I know it’s ‘80s infiltration of pop culture and the influence it had on Broadway moving forward was seen by some as ghastly, I can’t help but continue to be moved by its overarching message of mercy and kindness.  I didn’t need to read the book, however, to see how this new movie had designs on tying itself back to that novel in more ways that just its title.

Director Ladj Ly grew up in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil which happens to be the same place Hugo wrote the majority of his classic novel that documented the struggle of life taking place at that time.  Inspired in the aftermath of the 2005 Paris riots and the continued divide between the black/minority communities and the police force, Ly collaborated with two other men for a short film that formed the basis for what would become the feature length drama that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019.  Sharing the Grand Jury Prize (awarded to a film that didn’t take the top award but was still singled out for its impact), it was picked up by Amazon Studios for US Distribution around the same time France decided it would be their submission for the Oscars.  Last week…it made the cut as everyone expected it would.

So what about the film has swept people away so much that they have singled it out time and again throughout film festivals and award nominations these past seven months?  At first, Ly’s movie starts out like a number of other police procedurals following an officer from the country (Damien Bonnard, Dunkirk) on his first day on a special task force having his eyes opened to the tough reality of life in the poor neighborhoods and the razor’s edge violence of the city.  The officer, Stéphane, is quiet and observant, all the better for his partners, the abrasive Chris (Alexis Manenti, who co-wrote the short and the feature) and the easy-going Gwada (Djibril Zonga), to take advantage of.

Throughout a taut 36 hours, the three men traverse the projects and wind up creating more problems than they find.  From a troublesome mayor (Steve Tientcheu) that uses muscle instead of policy to get what he wants to a traveling troupe of circus performers that have had a lion cub stolen and favor a black Muslim group for the crime, the officers have their hands full.  Complicating matters further is the ever-presence of neighborhood children who taunt them, making sure they know they are watching and whose fear of the authorities dissipates once they realize there’s only so much strong-arming the law can take.

As the film progresses you can see how Ly has set a lot of clever snares along the way and when he starts to close them all around the characters the movie takes on a whole different feel.  That’s when things really start to get interesting and unpredictable as we don’t know which side to take, both seem to have their good and bad qualities, but no one is ever completely in the right.  When you’re in that grey zone, how do you identify the black and white of it all?  Adding in modern technology, a drone owned by a boy from the projects records an act of violence and becomes a lynchpin into the fates and futures of a number of the characters we’ve met.

Hugo’s novel set up the people of Montfermeil as striving for something better but finding it impossible to get ahead and Ly seems to be showing that not much has changed in the hundred years since.  Though both Hugo’s and Ly’s Les Misérables are works of fiction, they were inspired by what the authors were seeing right outside their own front doors and that’s something to take note of.  The final twenty minutes of the film feel like a completely different movie and I’m not sure if I enjoyed them quite as much as what had come before.  There’s an awfully good shot of a sunset that could have been the place to stop…but it must have been an intentional choice for that small sleight of hand of a fake out ending in light of setting us up for what is to come next.  I understand why Ly had to finish the way he did from a narrative standpoint, though, because the ending will be fodder for good discussion over dinner or drinks after.

In another year, I could see Les Misérables being a strong contender for taking home the gold on Oscar night but it’s up against strong competition this year from Macedonia (Honeyland), Spain (Pain and Glory) and the almost assured winner from Korea, Parasite.  Just to be included in this strong list is an accomplishment and Ly is another filmmaker with a strong voice we’ll want to keep an eye on because I can see him telling more socially conscious stories in future films.

Movie Review ~ Disturbing the Peace


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A small-town marshal who hasn’t carried a gun since he left the Texas Rangers after a tragic shooting, must pick up his gun again to do battle with a gang of outlaw bikers that has invaded the town to pull off a brazen and violent heist.

Stars: Guy Pearce, Devon Sawa, Kelly Greyson, Barbie Blank, Michael Sirow, Dwayne Cameron, Michael Bellisario, Jacob Grodnik, John Lewis, Terence J. Rotolo

Director: York Alec Shackleton

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  It’s a sad truth but it used to be that you could often track the downward spiral of a Hollywood actor’s career.  First they start moving from leading player to wise boss or estranged parent, then they’d write their autobiography dishing out gossip and would experience a career resurgence on television only to find themselves as novelty cameos hauled out in sitcoms and B and C level direct to DVD films.  Now, that path is harder to follow because actors simply go where the work is and while some are smart enough to hold out for the right role no matter what, others are less discerning and that comes back to haunt them.

Take Guy Pearce as a great example.  Here’s an actor that had a minor hot streak when he first appeared on the scene with 1997’s L.A. Confidential and 2000’s Memento.  Though he worked steadily over the next two decades, he never made it to that confident A-list status so you’d find him in random roles such as back in 2008 when he appeared in Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker as well as Bedtime Stories which took home the Kid’s Choice Award for Favorite Movie.  Just slightly over a year ago he had a major role in the divisive Mary Queen of Scots and late in 2019 played Ebeneezer Scrooge in a darkly twisted adaptation of A Christmas Carol for the BBC.  So the actor clearly wasn’t hard up for work.

How to explain, then, just what Pearce is doing in Disturbing the Peace, a godawful cops and robbers cheapie?  Throughout the film I kept thinking to myself, “three years ago he was in a movie directed by Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) and now he’s acting opposite an actor that can barely stop himself from looking into the camera.”  This is one of those head-scratching watches where you can’t comprehend how a group of humans with functioning brains made something so poor, and then had the audacity to ask audiences to pay for the (dis)pleasure of sitting through 91 minutes of it.  That it was reportedly made for $5 million dollars is shocking to me because I’ve seen movies made for far less look much more polished.  Where did all that money go to?

Haunted by an incident from his past that resulted in his partner’s death, ex-Texas Ranger Jim Dillon (Pearce, Lawless) is now the prickly marshal of Horse Cave, KY who keeps to himself.  Though he has a flirtatious relationship with the preacher’s daughter (Kelly Greyson), he’s a lone wolf that hasn’t touched a gun in the ten years since he left his former position.  His resolve is put to the test when a group of hard-nosed bikers arrive in town and kick off their plan to hold up an armored car set to deliver a huge payload to the bank.  Cleverly cutting the townspeople and law enforcement off from the outside world (no electricity or cell phone towers means no way to phone a friend), it’s just Dillon and his deputy (Michael Sirow) against a mass of ruthless thugs.  Incidentally, we know they’re ruthless because they have names like Shovelhead, Pyro, Spider, Diesel, Jarhead, and Dirty Bob.

The leader of the thugs is Diablo (Devon Sawa, who also produced) and he introduces himself with the most hysterical line I think I’ll hear in the entirety of 2020: “My name is Diablo.  At least that’s what my friends call me…and my enemies.”  Er, isn’t that everyone?  I rewound it just to be sure I caught it.  Bulked up and far removed from the teeny bopper image he’s remembered for, Sawa is going for the gold medal is neck vein popping, eye bulging, red faced fury and he largely won me over because unlike most of the rest of the cast he knows his way around acting in front of a camera.  The same goes for Pearce who, for better or worse, gets the job done even if you kind of can’t believe he’s working in such an amateurish production.  Actually, the one I liked best is Greyson as Pearce’s love interest and she’s the best butt-kicker of them all.  While not entirely the best actor on the set, there’s something winning in the performance that fits with what’s happening onscreen, softening some of the awkward edges created by the directing and writing.

Director York Alec Shackleton is a former skateboarder turned director and working with Chuck Hustmyre Mad-Libs-esque script he has an eye for keeping the camera moving and setting up several interesting shots but doesn’t do much to rally anything from the supporting players.  When the violence erupts and the town is essentially taken wholly hostage, areas that were once full of extras suddenly are reduced to a handful of people.  When “the entire town” is corralled into a church it looks like there are about 12 women that reside there and all of them look extremely worried they left the oven on.  At least they don’t have lines – several unfortunate souls who shall remain nameless were gifted with small parts and deliver their dialogue like they were ordering off of a fast food menu in a language they’d never spoken before.

So yes…2020 has produced it’s first true dog of a film and here I was thinking the remake of The Grudge was going to be the lowest the bar was to be set so early in the year.  Obviously, if you are wanting a serious movie you need to pass Disturbing the Peace by and never ever look back but if you have 80-ish minutes to spare (the credits run an obscenely long 7 and a half minutes) and want to be truly bowled over with how shockingly inept this is, by all means have at it.

Movie Review ~ Honeyland


The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman utilizes ancient beekeeping traditions to cultivate honey in the mountains of Macedonia. When a neighboring family tries to do the same, it becomes a source of tension as they disregard her wisdom and advice.

Stars: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam

Director: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Anytime the Oscar nominations are announced, it sets into motion a very different type of movie watching.  Before that, you are shooting in the dark a bit and hoping you’re choosing correctly so that come nominations day you have that many fewer movies to see before the big night.  In recent years, I’ve gotten better at keeping an ear to the ground and picking up on the more obscure films that may populate the less mainstream categories because those may be harder to track down in the short period of time between the nominations and the ceremony.

When John Cho and Issa Rae announced the unsurprising nominees for the top categories for the 92nd Academy Awards on January 13, I was able to breathe a little easier that I didn’t have a huge mountain to climb if I wanted to clear the board again this year.  Last year I was able to see all the movies nominated in every category and by the time all the nominations were read and removing the short features that I already knew I’d be seeing I was left with a list of seven movies I’d need to make time for before February 9th.  Sounds easy, right?  Wel…then again… Now comes the hard part…actually tracking them down and watching them.

The first one was easy because I already had it; the screener had been looming large on the shelf just waiting to be popped in for a month or so but never made it to the top of the pile until now.  Only the second film from Macedonia to be nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) and the first film ever to be nominated in Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature in the same year, Honeyland was a fine place to start and an interesting jumping off point.

Likely to be referred to less eloquently as the Macedonian Bee Keeper Movie, Honeyland follows Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper in northern Macedonia that cares for her ailing mother while earning a living cultivating honey from her wild bees.  Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov provide no narration or text to introduce audiences to Hatidze or her world; we’re just dropped into her daily routines and interactions with her mother, neighbors, and denizens of the city market.  With skin grown tough from the exposure to the harsh elements of the Macedonian climate and other key indicators that show up physically and emotionally suggesting she grew up largely fending for herself, Hatidze is still worldly-wise even though it’s unlikely she’s rarely traveled outside her small village.

The arrival of a family who set-up shop next to Hatidze and her mother is at first a welcome change of pace for the women.  Instead of being isolated, they now have two adults and multiple children running around, not to mention the animals they brought with and the cows they intend to breed and use for milk.  Hatidze and the patriarch Hussein form a neighborly friendship, with Hatidze eventually giving the man advice on how to start his own bee business, an act of kindness that will come back to sting her in more ways than one.  We’re not quite sure where Hussein has come from with his family but you soon get the impression they wore out their welcome because it isn’t long before the household runs amok, threatening to upset the delicate balance Hatidze has maintained for so long.

It’s reassuring to see that two separate branches of The Academy voted Honeyland into the Top 5 movies of the year in very different categories…but it really does have its feet planted firmly in both genres.  On one hand, it’s a striking representation of a slice-of-life documentary in that it brings audiences from another part of the globe to a population most don’t know about.  Speaking for myself, I enjoyed the bits and pieces of culture that are represented.  That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kotevska and Stefanov deliberately attempted to create as remote of a location as possible so the film would have a “this could be anywhere” feel to it…and it works quite well.  Watching Hatidze and her neighbors suffer setbacks is difficult and one thinks how hard it must be for the filmmakers to sit back and watch these painful moments occur and not interfere.

I can also see how the documentary auteurs in charge of selecting the nominees found their way to recognizing Honeyland.  There were key moments and some interesting twits that felt like plot points out of a pre-planned movie, with villains both unintentional and rogue who pop in to cause trouble.  If I hadn’t known this was a documentary, I may have easily been convinced this was a straight narrative feature in a foreign language.  Though it starts a little slowly, I’d urge you to stick with it because the action takes a bit of time to settle in and you may find yourself wondering what all the hype was about…yet there’s a tipping point where you realize just how involved you’ve become in the lives of these people halfway across the world.

I wish as many people that line up to see the nearly three hour Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would also take the 86 minutes to watch Honeyland but I’m realistic enough to know that not even 1/10 of those watching that (also excellent) Quentin Tarantino flick will take this journey.  Still, no matter where Honeyland finishes at the end of the Oscars telecast, I know that it accomplished what few films can really do anymore – take you somewhere real that is completely foreign and open your eyes to a new experience.  That’s something to create buzz about.

Movie Review ~ Three Christs


The Facts
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Synopsis: A boundary-pushing psychiatrist treats three schizophrenic patients who believe they are Jesus Christ.

Stars: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford, Charlotte Hope, Julianna Margulies

Director: Jon Avnet

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It seems like a rite of passage for every serious actor (or actor that wants to be taken seriously) to play a psych patient at some point in their career.  Watching Three Christs, you get the feeling the three actors that signed up for this slow rolling drama felt as if this was their chance to cross the padded room experience off their list.  The trouble is, they’ve found themselves in a movie that isn’t very interesting outside of its central subjects and there’s not enough warmth within any of those characters to keep audiences engaged for its lengthy run time.

Based on Milton Rokeach’s 1954 nonfiction book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, the psychiatric case study was adapted into a narrative screenplay by director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and Eric Nazarian.  From the beginning, with Richard Gere (Pretty Woman) appearing bruised and worn-down speaking into a tape recorder so that he may, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘set the record straight’, Nazarian and Avent have a hard time translating Rokeach’s landmark study into anything compelling.  If anything, they’ve taken what was evidently a radical approach to treatment of paranoid schizophrenia that wasn’t entirely embraced by the psychiatric community and reduced it to a series of vignettes that pits a doctor (Gere) and his team against his more traditional colleagues.

As the three men believing themselves to be Christ, Walton Goggins (Them That Follow), Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks), and Peter Dinklage (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) have varying degrees of success throughout the movie in their interpretation of mental illness.  While Rokeach’s study is fairly descriptive to the degrees of how the schizophrenia affected each man, all three seem to be operating largely on the same level of energy with Goggins opting for the most expressive approach, Whitford for the most muted, and Dinklage the most practical.  Instead of it being a showcase of their talents, it just gets awkward because you become distracted by Dinklage’s droll insistence on adopting another poor British dialect and Goggins tendency to bug his eyes behind thick glasses that already magnify them.  Whitford likely emerges the most sympathetic because his affectations don’t manifest themselves as outwardly bombastic as the other two.

Per usual, Gere is all business with no one more earnest about the plight of his character than the actor himself.  Gere is always good with convincingly advocating for the roles he is playing; whether they are nice people or not, if they are wrong, he’ll convince us they’re right.  That’s troublesome here because many of the doctors methods aren’t ethical and, while breaking the rules may lead to breakthroughs, it doesn’t always mean it was the right choice.  The doctor learns that the hard way.  Also learning things the hard way?  Any fan of Julianna Margulies (The Upside) hoping to see her get to do something interesting.  Aside from a brief suggestion she’s dealing with her own troubling vices, her role is largely relegated to the wife that stands at the doorway to her husband’s study and asks “when are you coming to bed?”  As the token fuddy-duddy naysayer, Kevin Pollak (Indian Summer) get some mileage as Gere’s colleague who looks down his nose at the new doctor’s questionable methods.  Only Jane Alexander’s (Testament) brief appearance as a respected professional willing to listen to new ways of thinking strikes the kind of interesting note the rest of the movie sorely needed.

Three Christs was filmed in 2016 and had it’s premiere in September 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Just now receiving its release three years later suggests that no one was in a rush to release this movie and you shouldn’t be in a rush to see it either.  It’s a movie for fans of these actors only…and even then your mileage may vary based on how long of a leash you’re willing to give them.

Movie Review ~ Inherit the Viper


The Facts
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Synopsis: For siblings Kip and Josie, dealing opioids isn’t just their family business — it’s their only means of survival. When a deal goes fatally wrong, Kip decides he wants out for good. But his attempt to escape his family’s legacy soon ignites a powder keg of violence and betrayal, endangering Kip, Josie and their younger brother.

Stars: Josh Hartnett, Margarita Levieva, Owen Teague, Bruce Dern, Chandler Riggs, Valorie Curry, Dash Mihok

Director: Anthony Jerjen

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’d imagine had Inherit the Viper been released 10 or 15 years ago it may have been received a tiny bit better than it does in 2020 when its dark tale of an already fragile family dynamic torn apart by drugs feels more than a little also-ran.  It’s hard to watch the movie and not think of the countless other television series, true-crime documentaries, and other analogous indie films that have covered the same dingy terrain and done it better.  That’s not to say there isn’t room for other stories with similar themes to be told but there has to be something that sets it apart from its genre siblings and Inherit the Viper sadly doesn’t have anything fresh or revealing to add.

Things don’t get more cookie-cutter than the elements that make up the setting, players, and plot of the film, scripted by Andrew Crabtree and directed by Anthony Jerjen.  In the Appalachian mountain area (think West Virginia, because if one movie about the opioid crisis is set there, they all have to be), a family that has grown up in the shadow of their father’s drug trafficking have continued the family business to keep themselves afloat.  Kip (Josh Hartnett, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) is beginning to grow wary of the dangers that come with the territory, having decided to settle down with his pregnant girlfriend (Valorie Curry, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2).  That doesn’t sit too well with his hard-nosed sister Josie (Margarita Levieva, The Diary of a Teenage Girl) or their younger brother Boots (Owen Teague, Mary) who has just returned home after a long absence.

As Kip is planning his exit, Josie and Boots are just getting started thinking of making their individual moves to the next level, each for their own personal reasons.  Unable to get close to anyone to have a family of her own, Josie is carrying on an affair with the married local lawman (Dash Mihok, Silver Linings Playbook), partly as an unspoken pact for him to look the other way.  Never accomplishing anything on his own, Boots struggles to escape the impression he rides the coattails of his siblings and family name by entering into a risky deal that puts his family and his life at risk.  A series of unfortunate events affecting the siblings set into motion decisions that will force them to question how strong their family ties are.

While this sounds like the makings of a film with some grit, Jerjen’s direction doesn’t have any momentum to it so it just sort of lays there and refuses to build up to anything substantial.  Even an ending that Crabtree intends as eye-opening lands with the smallest of bangs because up until that point we’ve cared so little about the characters it’s hard to muster up much emotion for what happens next in their lives.  On the good side, Hartnett and Levieva feel like they are giving the kind of performances that should be in a movie with a better script while the puzzling appearance by Bruce Dern (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) as a crusty bar owner feels like a phoned in favor.

Blessedly short at 90 minutes, it feels longer due to the slow pacing and development.  The long and the short of it is that there simply isn’t enough to the plot to warrant a feature length film.  Had Crabtree and Jerjen trimmed this to be a short film, I’m imagine they’d fix the problems that made this one unavoidably dull.  The more you stretch something that’s already thin, the bigger the holes become.  Inherit the Viper is a good title for a subpar film.

Movie Review ~ Underwater


The Facts
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Synopsis: Mysterious creatures terrorize crew members aboard a research station located seven miles below the surface of the ocean.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie

Director: William Eubank

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I write these reviews as if the reader has read every other post I’ve written these past nine years so I feel I should probably start out my review for Underwater to say for all you first-timers out there that I. LOVE. MONSTER. MOVIES.  Also.  I. LOVE. UNDERWATER. MONSTER. MOVIES.  There.  It’s out there again, I can be free to go on with my reflection of Underwater, and you can understand why I was both excited and a little bit nervous going into this 2020 release because I really wanted it to be good.  I wanted it to be so good, in fact, that I even spoke the words out loud in the theater beforehand to my partner so it would be clear that, no matter what happened, I was always rooting for the film to succeed.  It has been so long since we had a good creature feature that I felt it was high time for something new to try to break through but I never thought it would come from 20th Century Fox starring indie-darling Kristen Stewart.

Filmed all the way back in early 2017 (we’re talking March-May), Underwater was made when 20th Century Fox was still its own studio and not owned by the Disney corporation.  Once Disney shelled out big bucks for Fox they acquired all of their movies set to be released and have been gradually rolling them out to strategically not interfere with the release dates of their own in-house movies.  Ad Astra was given a bit of a short shrift earlier this summer and, while it did decent business and received good notices, it wasn’t nearly the blockbuster it might have been had it been solely under the Fox banner.  Then again, that movie had its own share of challenging advertising issues…not really being an action movie but being marketed as one.

Back to Underwater, this is another case of Disney burning up a Fox release in that no man’s land of January and hoping that something will come of it.  Thankfully, this is one title they blessed with an advance screening so others could get the word out, but with the studio releasing it against the Oscar hopeful 1917 and the comedy Like a Boss, there wasn’t a huge audience left over for Underwater. That’s likely why the movie didn’t make much a dent during its opening weekend, despite costing upwards of $80 million to produce.  Ouch.  Let’s put that aside for the moment and focus on the movie, though.

It’s good!  Like, really good!

Actually, let me take a step back and I’ll temper my enthusiasm with a caveat that I was pre-destined to like this film based on my above mentioned penchant for this particular brand of horror movie.  Even if it was kinda bad, I probably sorta would have liked it.  That it was competently made, admirably performed, and skillfully executed only added to the enjoyment level of it and I have to say that it exceeded any expectations I had going in.  Knowing next to nothing about it thanks to a buzz machine that barely got started, it was fun to go in fairly blind and I think you should do your best to know as little going in as possible.  So I’ll keep this brief.

The set-up sounds familiar.  In an isolated area miles below the surface, an accident decimates a drilling station that is exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench, stranding a handful of crew members that were lucky enough to survive the initial incident but unlucky to live to face a perilous fate.  Mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart, Charlie’s Angels) is plucky and resourceful, rarely fazed by the obstacles that lay before them.  This comes in handy when the survivors realize they have to exit their doomed vessel and walk a stretch of exposed ocean floor in suits that may not stand the pressure to another station that might be in a similar wrecked state.  Oh…and there’s a rash of sea monsters released from the depths of the ocean by their drill trying to eat them.

Writers Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) devise some nifty set-ups and nasty ends for the workers and it helps that most of the supporting cast is played by familiar but not too familiar faces.  You never know quite who is famous enough to make it to the end, and even that isn’t a guarantee.  There are some surprising twists I wasn’t expecting but they all make sense in the overall story Duffield and Cozard set out to tell.  Along with William Eubank’s tight direction, there isn’t a moment wasted in Underwater and even some late-breaking attempts at giving greater depths to certain characters don’t feel completely out of nowhere if you consider the life or death situation they are all in.

I find it so intriguing the choices of roles Stewart is drifting toward lately.  Though filmed several years ago, taking on a studio monster movie must have been a leap for her but I can see why this more introspective character appealed to her.  There are shades of Alien’s Ellen Ripley in Norah and while she doesn’t have the opportunity to go full Ripley mode, the final twenty minutes of the movie are an exciting ride with Stewart in the drivers seat.  When T.J. Miller (Office Christmas Party) pops up I groaned, fearing the weary comedian’s way of sucking the life out of anything he appears in but aside from a bumpy start he actually becomes quite endearing.  I get the impression the Captain character played by Vincent Cassel (Trance) may have been trimmed in editing to save time but what’s been left behind is good enough to make it a memorable showing.  Rounding out the small group of survivors are Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and John Gallagher, Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane), with Henwick nicely going from naif-y to taking charge after being pushed into service.

From a production standpoint, Underwater is incredibly successful and highly effective; the sets and visual effects are solid even if you can’t always make out what you are seeing.  This adds to some, if not all, of the tension Eubank creates and there are several true edge-of-your-seat-hold-your-breath sequences that were quite enjoyable to sit through with a packed audience.  Even better, these passages lead to a pay-off of value, not some cheap scare that vanishes into the ether.  All in all, a handsome effort in front of and behind the camera.

The performance of Underwater, 2018’s The Meg, and 2019’s Crawl, not to mention their better than average reviews, indicates audiences are open to the next wave of monster movies and they don’t have to be franchise pictures either.  I don’t need a Godzilla: King of the Monsters to fill my bucket when a simple story about nature run amok will suit me just fine.  Here’s hoping more of these are produced over the next few years – if they are as well made as the three I just mentioned above, this creature feature fan would be in seventh heaven!

Movie Review ~ Like a Boss


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Best friends Mia and Mel run their own cosmetics company — a business they built from the ground up. But they’re also in over their heads financially, and the prospect of a buyout offer from an industry titan proves too tempting to pass up.

Stars: Rose Byrne, Tiffany Haddish, Salma Hayek, Billy Porter, Jennifer Coolidge, Karan Soni, Ari Graynor, Jessica St. Clair, Natasha Rothwell

Director: Miguel Arteta

Rated: R

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I always get a little nervous when I rip off the December 31 page on my calendar and see that I’ve come to the end of another year.  It’s not because of any resolutions I’ve made or due to price increases on insurance/rent/medical benefits/you name it, no, it’s something else entirely.  I know that when January 1 rolls around the movie landscape changes from studios trying hard to push out their best products for award consideration to their driving their dump trucks straight into your local theater.  It’s long been known that the first few months of the year are a good time to get rid of movies that could have issues or ones the executives have little faith in.  Maybe a film has been sitting on the shelf for several months and there’s a perfect weekend in January when nothing else like it is coming out (I’m looking at you, Dolittle), perhaps the end of the year holiday schedule was just too busy and they couldn’t wait for summer so why not let ‘er rip now (Bad Boys for Life)…you get the picture.

In the last few years, though, there has been an interesting turning of the tides and not every movie released in the first several weeks of the year are those surefire turkeys.  The barren wasteland of January has started to find some green and the studio heads have caught on that a tidy profit can be made with the right marketing and a keen sense of counter-programming.  That had to be the thinking behind getting the new raunchy comedy Like a Boss in position to open against big-time Oscar favorite 1917 during its opening weekend.  Made for ¼ of the budget of that wartime epic, this 83 minute (well, 79-ish without credits) comedy is a surprisingly pleasing bit of drop-in entertainment that succeeds on the merits of its appealing stars.

Mel (Rose Byrne, Spy) and Mia (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip) are life-long friends, roommates, and business partners.  Not a lot has come between them over the years and they’ve parlayed their yin/yang relationship into a marginally successful cosmetics company.  Mel is the more corporate focused of the two, with Mia contributing to the creative aspects, though both are shown to be well-informed business women that do their homework when it comes to where their money is going and who is controlling it.  In their late 30’s but living life like they’re still in their early 20’s, their friends wish they’d settle down even if that means spending less time together outside of work.

Just as Mel is about to tell Mia their business is suffering a cash flow problem, a messenger from the multi-million dollar Claire Luna industry (Karan Soni, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) arrives and lets the women know Claire has been following their business and wants to own a piece of their company.  Mel is ecstatic, seeing this as the miracle solution they needed while Mia is wary of the quirky Claire getting into bed with the dynamic duo.  Turns out she should be worried because Claire (Salma Hayek, Savages) has her eyes on more than just a piece of Mel and Mia…and she’ll resort to dirty tricks to get what she wants.

If this all sounds like the set-up for a ABC sitcom or a rejected sequel to Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (and there’s another connection to that movie in here as well) then I don’t think you’d be too far off the mark.  There’s little meat to the plot bones but the script by relative newcomers Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly is fast paced and amusing.  I’ll get back to the three leads but in addition to them, the supporting players are all aces.  Jennifer Coolidge (Austenland) and scene-stealing Billy Porter as employees of the ladies are put to good use, delivering some silly one-liners but not overstaying their screen welcome.  I also enjoyed a trio of wedded gal pal confidants for the ladies played by Jessica St. Clair (Wanderlust), Ari Graynor (The Guilt Trip), and Natasha Rothwell (Love, Simon) who are there to listen and respond, and blessedly aren’t armed with a repulsive anecdote about married life.  Usually these domesticated female characters are there to show what frigid harpies they’ve become since getting hitched but thankfully the script allows them to be genuine.  Credit also to the screenwriters as well for not pushing a front and center love interest  – it would have been so easy to complicate things by giving one of the women a boyfriend from one of the rival beauty companies Claire handles but that would just shift the focus from the central friendship and make the movie longer in the process.

The movie is about our lead trio though and director Miguel Arteta (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) brings out some interesting sides to each.  We all know Haddish can navigate her way around a punchline and a litany of filthy jokes (if you can make it through the first five minutes of the movie you’ll be fine) but Arteta doesn’t just let her stay in that wacky zone forever.  She has several serious moments that believably resonate and it fits her well.  I’ve always gotten the impression that Byrne has a penchant for these kind of comedic roles and she looks to be having fun with her time in Like a Boss.  She gets to sing, dance, and battle a drone…though I do wish she wasn’t again cast as the more unlikeable person of a duo.

The sheer reason to see the movie, however, is for Hayek’s bonkers turn as Claire Luna.  In a flame colored wig (the end of which I could often see coming up off her forehead, incidentally), brassy contacts, and stuffed into a mélange of tight clothes and sky high shoes Hayek bulldozes through each scene she’s in and I can’t tell if it’s terrible or brilliant but I know I loved it.  It’s one of those bold character choices only an actress completely confident and without a shred of doubt in her work could make and Hayek has shown over and over again she’s that kind of actress.  Just watch the way she interacts with each person and piece of scenery throughout — this is someone that has truly thought about what she’s bringing to the set.  It’s an unpredictable delight.

It’s easy to find the things to pick apart in the film and I admit I thought I’d come out on the other side of seeing Like a Boss with a list of things about it I didn’t care for.  I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed myself, though, because it felt like a nice palate cleanser from the last few months, which is exactly what I think it was intended as.  It’s certainly not the best work any of these actors will do nor will it make any kind of best (or worst) list when we rip off that December 31 page of 2020 but for what it is and where we are now, it gets the job done.

Movie Review ~ Dolittle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Frances de la Tour, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon.  Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward?  I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge.  That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.

By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously.  Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal.  Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.

If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters.  A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019.  Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic.  Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.

Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect.  It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.

With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals.  It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals.  He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce).  Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.

Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court.  It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure.  After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree.  Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.

For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time.  There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct.  Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle.  The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper.  They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create.  Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie.  The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.

Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels.  Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place.  What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious.  He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.

Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point.  Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given.  At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within.  I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…

Movie Review ~ Bad Boys for Life


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Old-school cops Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett team up to take down the vicious leader of a Miami drug cartel.

Stars: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Paola Nuñez, Jacob Scipio, Kate del Castillo, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Theresa Randle

Director: Adil & Bilall  (Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah)

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though we’re in a time at the movies where it’s popular to revive old favorites that many had thought were done and over, it’s never a good sign to see a high profile movie star bruised by a string of box office duds return to the well of what was once profitable.  There was a time when having Will Smith in your film meant assured box office gold but one too many poor choices and a seemingly panicked desperation to be taken seriously as more than an action star led him down a path of wince-inducing downers and stinkbombs.  And while Martin Lawrence was never an A-List movie star, his eponymous landmark television show was a gigantic hit and, to be fair, he had his share of box office blockbusters, though none were what you would call challenging art.

When Lawrence and Smith first paired up for Bad Boys in 1995, it was Lawrence that was the bigger star and it showed on screen.  Re-watching the film recently it’s interesting to see how the movie, (originally intended as a much squishier comedy for other actors) was tailored around Lawrence’s style and how director Michael Bay (Pain & Gain) treated Smith more like Action Star Ken than as an actor who would go on to net several Oscar nominations.  By the time the sequel arrived a full eight years later, the tides had definitely turned and while Lawrence still received top billing, Bad Boys II was Smith’s film all the way.  It was longer and louder and absolutely horrible.  Returning director Bay took all the rules for making a bigger sequel too literally and delivered a ghastly horror of a movie, turning what was a fun buddy cop film into an offensively gross pile of mush that purported to be all style but was so far out of fashion it wasn’t even self-aware enough to realize it.  It made a killing at the box office but fans and critics revolted against it, waylaying any future plans…until now.

Normally, with sequels I’m of the mindset that it’s a good idea to watch the preceding films before catching a new one in theaters (unless we’re talking James Bond) because it helps you spot the consistencies, or lack thereof, throughout the series.  You’d be surprised at how good some franchise films are with carrying forward even the smallest of supporting roles through from film to film.  However, in the case of getting ready to screen Bad Boys for Life, I think watching Bad Boys II so close to seeing the third film was a mistake.  I was so put off by how smarmy that movie was that I went into the new one with a bad taste in my mouth, prepared to see the franchise sink lower.  That’s also taking into consideration after a 17 year break it just couldn’t be a good sign Lawrence and Smith had given in and come back to the roles that gave them both their first bona fide hit. Right?

Well, here’s the thing.  It turns out Bad Boys for Life is an energetic return to form for the two stars, a reunion that reminds us why their chemistry worked so well back in 1995.  By ditching hyper-kinetic director Bay and working with a script that forms the first semblance of a discernible plot in any of the films so far, the duo have righted a ship that was sunk on a massive scale almost two decades ago and given themselves a fine showcase on top of it all.  In addition to a fine supply of laughs, there’s genuine heart on display and a dedicated engagement from the stars which only serves to bring audiences closer along on this new rollicking ride.

Though a number of years have passed since we last took to the streets with Mike Lowery (Smith, Gemini Man) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence, Do the Right Thing), not a lot has changed with the veteran Miami cops.  Lowrey is still a fast-driving playboy that takes the fierce protection of his car’s interior as seriously as he does ensuring the streets of the city are free from drug violence.  Still claiming he’s going to retire any day, family man Burnett becomes a grandfather at the start of the movie which gives him one more reason to want to ditch the fast lane life Lowrey is addicted to for the more peaceful existence resting in his easy chair.  Plans for the future are put on hold, though, when a mysterious woman (Kate del Castillo, The 33) escapes from a Mexican prison and is reunited with her son Armando (Jacob Scipio), whom she dispatches to take ruthless revenge on a series of high profile (and familiar to us) individuals.  Spilling her secrets would delve into spoiler-territory but just know the multiple credited screenwriters have given Bad Boys for Life an appealing villain and villainess with an endless supply of cronies that don’t take kindly to any outside interference in their mission.

In previous films, Lowery and Burnett have largely been working on their own but this time they are paired with a young crew from AMMO, an elite squad of specialized officers led by Rita (Paola Nuñez) a former flame of Mike’s that was never fully extinguished.  There’s some clear groundwork being set to either create a spin-off for these new officers or keep them around if future installments are called for. I didn’t mind this too much, mostly because Vanessa Hudgens (Second Act), Alexander Ludwig (Lone Survivor), and Charles Melton knew when it was their turn to step up and when it was time to let Smith and Lawrence take center stage.

While I wouldn’t exactly say Smith is revitalized in Bad Boys for Life, he’s surely more on his game than he has been over the past several years.  Though he gives in to his bad habits of overselling dramatics in several opportune moments, he’s largely the charming action star that could open a summer movie with little effort and I’m hoping he enjoyed his work on the film because it suits him.  Lawrence is the real winner here, with the long-absent comedian making his welcome return to the screen (or public view in general) as a more centered, worldy-wise fella that holds to his convictions.  More often than not, the movie shifts gears to his strengths and that’s the wise, more entertaining choice.

I don’t know if it’s just because the two guys are getting older and have been through parenthood but Bad Boys for Life is also noticeably less heavy on the profanity that was so prevalent in the previous pictures.  It was non-stop in the second film to the point of pathetic obnoxiousness but the change for 2020 was welcome, if only to make one not feel so bad at the number of children in the theater attending the screening as well.  Belgian directors Adil & Bilall instead fill the movie with dynamic action sequences that are true showcases of brilliant stunt work and skilled execution.  They may lack in overall ‘pow’ factor that Bay could deliver but on the flip side I found them far easier to follow and stay engaged in.  With Bay’s films, they are so overproduced that you tend to want to step away from the movie for fear it may blow up in your face.  Adil & Bilall have a big movie on their hands but it has a way of bringing you closer in.

If rumors are true, a fourth film may be in the cards and Bay (who has a cameo in the film) is said to be returning as director.  Boy, I hope that isn’t true because I can only imagine how he’d mess up the good thing Smith and Lawrence have got going in this third Bad Boys film.  As of now, that’s in the distant future so until that becomes a reality just bask in the glow of a rarity – a successful return to a dormant series that’s been revived with an electric jolt.

Movie Review ~ The Grudge (2020)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a young mother murders her family in her own house, a single mother and detective tries to investigate and solve the case. She discovers the house is cursed by a vengeful ghost that dooms those who enter it with a violent death.

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, Demián Bichir, Betty Gilpin, John Cho, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve always liked to look at the start of a new year as a way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.  What a perfect time to forget about old annoyances, unmet goals, and the resolutions from the previous year that you didn’t stick to.  For this critic embarking on his ninth year of being a one-man reviewing band on this site, it’s also a fine time to hope that the next year of movie-going will be a smooth ride, where every film is a winner and each expectation I have going in is met.  Though 2019 shaped up to be a rather strong year for film in those final few months there were some bumps along the way…with some real rough patches especially in the horror genre remake/reboot realm.  If you read my end of the year review you’ll know I put the trash update of Child’s Play as my #1 worst movie in 2019 and unfortunately we are only two days into the new year and I already have a likely candidate to be (dis)honorably mentioned 12 months from now.

Always wanting to support my beloved horror films I was silly enough to take myself to see Sony’s restage of The Grudge thinking that it would be the scary new vision of 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge it made itself out to be.  Instead, writer/director Nicolas Pesce squanders a talented cast and decent production values in a film that is schizophrenic at best, incoherent at worst.  The films in this series have always suffered from issues with structure and there is barely a framework in place before Pesce starts to tear it all apart. Coming off of two well received movies, 2018’s Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother from 2016, Pesce was an intriguing choice to take on this reboot but brings none of the style he showed in those smaller movies with his first foray into franchise territory.  This is Horror Movie 101, with lame-o jump scares favored over any kind of build up of suspense or furthering of the narrative action.

After the death of her husband, Detective Muldoon (no first name given ever) packs up and moves with their son to Cross Creek, PA, where they have a chance at finding a new normal.  Her first day on the job she’s partnered with Detective Goodman (another character not given the benefit of a first name) and they are sent to the woods where a decomposed body has been found in a locked car.  Tracing the body back to a house with a bloody past, Goodman wants to turn the investigation over to the federal authorities and forget about it but Muldoon can’t resist doing some work on her own.  Once Muldoon enters the infamous house she starts to experience strange events that can all be tied back to a family that had been murdered two years prior…and whatever caused all that trouble before is now after her.

If you’ve never seen it, the original Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge is quite an effective entry in J-Horror.  I remember catching it at a small theater in my town when it received a limited release and receiving good chills for my effort.  When I heard the original director was coming to the US to remake the film in partnership with Sam Raimi (Oz: The Great and Powerful), I was curious to see how Hollywood would handle it.  The 2004 version of The Grudge followed it’s foreign predecessor pretty closely and was a decent if completely unnecessary effort; setting much of it Japan with a largely American cast had its own problems, though and it’s non-linear format didn’t flow as easily overseas.  A quick sequel was pushed into production and the 2006 result was a steep nosedive in quality and logic.  I never got around to seeing the third film, released in 2009, but skimming reviews for it online it appears I didn’t miss much.  Stepping back from the 2020 version a bit and squinting, you can see where a new twist on The Grudge may have sounded appealing to the studio heads at Sony.

I have to believe that something happened between Pesce’s pitch and the film being released that changed what was originally intended.  Made for a small-ish $10 million dollars, there was a real opportunity to make a suspenseful film that took the haunting elements from the original movies and placed them in a new story.  Instead, the movie is stuck in the same old narrative rut that proved so problematic in the past.  Set between the years 2004 and 2006 (why?), Pesce has really made four mini-episodes showing how the cursed house has taken deadly action over the years and then thrown it all into a wood-chipper before piecing it back together.  It never allows the action to find a rhythm because there’s no impetus to when or how the storylines diverge from one another.

One moment you’re in 2006 where Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) and Goodman (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) are investigating the body in the car, the next you’re back in the past watching married real estate agents (John Cho, Searching and Betty Gilpin, Isn’t it Romantic?) dealing with their own tragedy who make the mistake of taking on the spooky dwelling.  Aside from the original family who meet a gruesome fate, the other noteworthy arc involves a man (Frankie Faison, The Silence of the Lambs) who has called upon a euthanasia supporter (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) to help his ailing wife (Lin Shaye, Insidious: The Last Key) transition.  Of all the plots Pesce juggles this is the one that I wanted to know more about, thanks to the performances of all three actors…especially Weaver.  The way Weaver reacts to the horror she sees made me wish she had better material to work with…but she gives it her all anyway.

Actually, all the actors deserve some pat on the back for imbibing what sensibility was possible into their roles.  Riseborough is such a fascinating actress but struggles with a character that becomes more hyperbolic as the film goes on.  Pesce makes a concerted effort to pause the action while Riseborough works through her emotions but since we have no real sense of who she is these slow sections become annoying, making the film feel longer (much much much longer) than its 94 minutes.  I’m not sure if Bichir ever spoke above a throaty whisper but I’m definitely sure Cho and Gilpin didn’t know they were in a horror movie until after the movie was finished.  Both look bewildered instead of scared.  You can always count on Shaye to bring us back on track and her few scenes as a woman that has become unhinged due to the house consistently find the right tone.  I also found William Sadler’s (Freeheld) brief appearance to be approaching the right ballpark of where Pesce should have taken things.

A clumsy film to kick off 2020, hopefully audiences won’t take the bait with this new version of The Grudge and allow this series to just disappear.  The only thing good about seeing this is that everything else you watch this year is bound to be better…but maybe that’s me being too hopeful again.