Movie Review ~ The Guilty (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A demoted police officer assigned to a call dispatch desk is conflicted when he receives an emergency phone call from a kidnapped woman.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano, Bill Burr, Gillian Zinser, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Christina Vidal

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  American remakes of foreign films are a strange beast indeed, especially when the original is one you still are recommending to people when the English version is released for a wide audience.  That’s the dilemma I face when a film like The Guilty arrives for its limited theatrical run and streaming debut on Netflix.  Here’s a smart, compact, film from the slick streaming service by a popular director (Antoine Fuqua) with an enhanced screenplay courtesy of an in-demand writer known for their pot-boilers (True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto) and starring a red-hot actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who always attracts attention in any project he attaches himself to.  Sounds like a no-brainer, right?  Of course. The tiny wrinkle is that they’ve remade a 2018 film from Denmark still going strong (on Hulu) and while the 2021 has all the right players, does it improve the game?

At a 911 call center, LAPD officer Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) is nearing the end of his shift as the wildfires in the Hollywood Hills rages on nearby.  Relegated to a desk job as he waits on a trial for something we’ll learn more about as the 91 minutes tick away, Joe is a hot-tempered live wire…not a perfect match for the charged atmosphere he’s working in.  In between phone calls to his estranged wife, he receives a call from a teary woman (Riley Keough, The Lodge) who appears to be talking to a small child.  Eventually realizing the call to a “child” is a ruse to whomever she is with, Joe confirms the woman has been kidnapped and launches into a one-man mission to save her and reunite her with her children.

To say more of the film might give away one or two of the twists and turns present in the original and thankfully retained here.  It’s nice to see that Pizzolatto has kept a hold of much of the solid structure installed by original screenwriters Emil Nygaard Albertsen & Gustav Möller, adding small tweaks for its transport to America along the way.  Adding in the pressure of the California fires ups the ante for making Joe such a man on a solo mission, because much of the force is busy attending to that devastation and danger. 

Where you have to look at remakes is how they diverge from the initial film and then make your comparisons and as strong as the team is on the 2021 take, it can’t quite make it over the bar set so high by the 2018 Danish thriller.  The beauty of the previous film is that it was so simple a set-up which made the events unfolding so breathless and terrible all at once.  Here, everything is just awful all around so things start at level 10 and just have nowhere to go.  Fuqua and Pizzolatto remade The Magnificent Seven and, while no classic or in danger of besting the original, it had some fun moments of ingenuity that boosted a few of the characters in interesting ways.  Pizzolatto isn’t as successful here with the way they’ve added physical burdens to Baylor to go along with the emotional weight he’s carrying inside.  This is especially true in a strangely self-indulgent coda, not present in 2018, that stretches on far too long and is meant to turn our attention from the story to Gyllenhaal’s performance…and that doesn’t feel right.  It feels show pony chic and it cheapens the mood. 

The Guilty would actually have made a wonderful audiobook or podcast experience since so much of it is just Gyllenhaal onscreen talking to disembodied voices.  Keep your ears open and see if you can put some voices with the famous faces of actors and comedians that pop up throughout.  By all means, do yourself a favor and watch both films to compare but I’d still give my overall greenlight to the 2018 entry which does a better job with portraying the inner turmoil going on below the surface of the emergency operator and the way that his intervention might wind up doing more harm than good.

Movie Review ~ Venom: Let There Be Carnage

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Eddie Brock tries to reignite his career in journalism by interviewing serial killer Cletus Kasady, who becomes the host of the alien symbiote spawn of Venom, named Carnage.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Stephen Graham, Reid Scott, Peggy Lu

Director: Andy Serkis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If you’ve been a long-time reader (thank you!) you know that I like to include a small plot synopsis in The Facts section of my review to get some of the nitty gritty details out of the way.  I hate just spending ¾ of the review rehashing the story and, to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, I give it a good scrub first to make sure nothing major is given away.  Usually, it’s easy to find a summary either through an official studio press release or some other internet source and often I must trim it way down.  Only rarely do I run into problems like I did with Venom: Let There Be Carnage.  Try as I might, there was only the briefest description of the sequel to the 2018 film out there, basically saying “This is a sequel where the main character comes back.”  I scrolled through several pages looking, and this was even after the movie had screened for critics. There was no place that had a sliver of a plot description available.

This should give you some idea of the problems inherent in the follow-up film to the surprisingly divisive original which found star Tom Hardy having quite the identity crisis as an investigative reporter infected with an alien from another planet.  Hardy’s performance was the true revelation of Venom, softening an actor known for punishing roles into a more malleable bit of clay.  Thankfully, that sense of fun carries over into this sequel (Hardy is credited as a producer and creating the story, along with Cruella screenwriter Kelly Marcel) but not a lot of it makes much sense, eventually turning into a mishmash of goopy special effects and hammy performances from actors unsuccessfully trying supervillainy on for size.

With his career as a hard-news journalist dwindling, Eddie Brock (Hardy, This Means War) is called to death row by special request of convicted killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me).  The police hope Kasady is ready to reveal the location of his victims, but Kasady just plans to toy with the media again, hoping a coded message finds its way to his girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) who has been locked away in a sound-proof chamber in the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane.  Brock has Venom on his side, though, and he spots clues in Kasady’s cell which leads Brock to break the story wide open and solve the remainder of his crimes, allowing the state to proceed with executing the serial murderer.  Before they can lethally inject him though, Kasady manages to become infected with his own symbiote after biting Brock in an altercation.  As Kasady becomes Carnage, he quickly frees himself and Barris to begin a murderous rampage through the city and it’s up to Brock and Venom, two sides of the same coin locked in an ever-present battle of the wills, to stop them.

Taking over from previous director Ruben Fleischer, Andy Serkis (Breathe) knows a thing or two about actors conveying a performance through a computer-generated creation so it’s no surprise that the scenes where Brock is fully Venom (and even when the two are simply talking back and forth) land with a greater ease here.  It’s not just a stronger familiarity with the character, there’s a different understanding Hardy seems to have with his relationship with Venom and while the theories of bromance or even real romance are endless, the two are absolutely the yin to each other’s yang.  Harrelson doesn’t succeed as well but, then again, he doesn’t quite feel like he’s as committed to anything in the movie as much as Hardy is.

At 90 minutes, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is 22 minutes shorter than the original and the last fifteen minutes are chock full of action excitement, the kind you buy your popcorn for and get excited to witness.  The rest of the time leading up to that is sort of bewildering and I’m halfway convinced the film lost a huge chunk in the editing process to keep things moving along.  Why else would there be such little character development for the Barrison character apart from her having a profound scream? Harris wouldn’t bounce from being Oscar nominated to a Bond movie to this secondary, cut-rate character.  No, something was definitely omitted, and her role suffered because of that.  Audiences suffer too because Serkis is so concerned about getting to the action that anything that isn’t nailed down gets completely missed. 

I also would be willing to put money down that we hit the accelerator to get to Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World) that much faster.  As it is, Williams fans might be nervously tapping their foot around the 40-minute mark when the previous leading lady hadn’t shown up yet.  Even then, one wonders if she’s there for good or just fulfilling her sequel requirements.  (Have no fear, she’s more than participatory later.)  Aside from Williams absence at the front part of the movie, it’s hampered by some weird technical choices…like dubbing in Harrelson and Harris over the voices of younger actors playing them as teens.  Are we supposed to think a 17-year sounds like 60-year-old Harrelson?  Voices change over time…audiences will track who these characters are.  It’s just another sign of lousy editing that this dubbing occurred.  Someone along the way felt like the film moved too quickly to the adult actors and viewers wouldn’t get the connection and there was no footage that explained it well enough, so the older voices were used. 

As sequels go, Venom: Let There Be Carnage will likely please the fans of the original that craved another round with the wise-cracking, gallows-humor of the titular alien and if you stay through the closing credits, you’ll see why Marvel Studios would want to keep this character going just a tad bit longer.  I’m hoping if there is a third appearance by Hardy and company that it’s does the proverbial job of charming me because so far, it’s just passing muster when it should be slam dunking it.  The star is invested…now get a booster shot and make the rest of the Venom world feel right.

Movie Review ~ The Addams Family 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: To reclaim their spooky family bond Morticia and Gomez decide to cram Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester and the crew into their haunted camper and hit the road for one last miserable family vacation. What could possibly go wrong?

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Kroll, Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton, Bette Midler, Wallace Shawn, Snoop Dogg, Bill Hader

Director: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  My my, doesn’t it seem like we were just singing this theme song and snapping our fingers?  It was only two Halloweens ago that the animated reimagining of The Addams Family was released to theaters and even though it took in 100 million at the box office, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a sequel in this fickle market.  However, MGM must have looked at the receipts and their upcoming schedule and figured that it was worth the bet and greenlit the follow-up almost as soon as the original was released.  Good thing they did, too, because now The Addams Family 2 has arrived in time for Halloween 2021 as theaters are opening up more and also releasing this to streaming services so it can be viewed at home as a safe alternative. 

I had my reservations about the first film, having come of age with the live-action films of the early ‘90s starring Raul Julia and Angelica Huston as the dark heads of a strange family of characters.  My overly precious feelings were broken down just a tad by the friendly good-nature vibe created by directors Conrad Vernon (Kung Fun Panda 2) and Greg Tiernan (Sausage Party) and despite some, let’s just say it, ugly animation, it was a mostly harmless exercise in update for generational purposes.  My parents’ generation had their version of the family created by Charles Addams, I had mine, now a new crop could have theirs.

The directors have returned with a sequel that scores higher because it’s less about re-telling an origin story and more about getting into the fun adventure of it all, exploring the dynamics of family (even the kookiest and spookiest) in between wild bits involving tourism throughout the U.S.  Coming out of a summer in which many people re-discovered the simplicity of the road trip, it could very well speak to families that dealt with similar issues of cramped quarters and too much togetherness, while highlighting the overall value of these moments you can never get back if you pass them up.

Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz, Suspiria) is aghast when everyone receives a participation ribbon at the school science fair.  She had, after all, worked hard and believes in rewarding that effort with…some kind of prize.  The sponsor of the competition, Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader, It Chapter Two), agrees and is impressed enough with her invention that swaps human personalities with those of other animals that he asks her to share the creation with him.  She politely declines but it gets her thinking about her place within her own family, leading her into a glum (or glummer) state.  Mother Morticia (Charlize Theron, Bombshell) thinks a road trip that forces them all to spend more time together might break Wednesday out of her funk and encourage more interaction with the rest of the family.

Leaving Grandma (Bette Midler, Hocus Pocus) behind to watch the mansion (she immediately begins planning parties and charging admission), the Addams set off to familiar points of interest on a cross-country journey.  A stop at Niagara Falls means someone is going over in a barrel, then there’s the Alamo, Grand Canyon, etc. etc. all given to some kind of foible, often related to Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll, Vacation).  There’s another reason why Morticia and Gomez (Oscar Isaac, Annihilation) decided to head out of town quickly…but I think I’ll keep that bit of news under wraps and let the viewer find that out on their own.  All I’ll say is that it’s a plot turn and resolution we’ve seen countless times before but given an Addams twist and then another flip for good measure. No points for originality at the outset but I’ll toss some back for having fun.

If the animation has improved greatly from the first film, the voice talent has slipped a notch or two.  Perhaps the voices were done differently than they were previously when all the actors could be in the same room but it has the feeling of no one being in close proximity when they laid down their voice tracks.  Theron sounded sleepy enough in the first film but for the sequel it’s as if she’s at the stage where one eye is completely closed and the other has an eyebrow raised so high to keep the eyelid up just one fraction of an inch.  Someone needs to call Huston and give Theron some pointers – she’s too good an actress to biff this classic vamp of a character.  Moretz seems to be following suit in the snooze-button department.  Even Isaac as the excitable Gomez comes across as lacking that pizzazz that makes the role such a flavor burst for any actor taking it on.  There’s just a curious lack of connection anywhere and for a movie in which the main theme is bonding with one another, it only sticks out more.

Look, these are all things that adults are going to pick up on more than a kid.  In fact, maybe I just need to write a review from a kid’s perspective and call it a day.

I liked The Addams Family 2 because it was funny, colorful, and I ate a handful of candy while I watched it.

Snap Snap. 

31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Bingo Hell & Black as Night

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It’s nice to see Blumhouse TV went ahead with another round of Welcome to the Blumhouse, a quartet of spooky films released in October from underrepresented voices.  The films might not be quite the right fit for a theatrical run with the typical Blumhouse advertising push but still there’s something there that make them a nice match for a streaming release under this new banner.  Last year the films (The Lie, Black Box, Evil Eye, Nocturne) felt a little slapped together, like they were picked to fill a slate quickly and this resulted in an unevenness in tone and return on investment of time spent.  This time around, based on the first two entries the quality is higher as is the overall sense of purpose in alignment with the mission Welcome to the Blumhouse is promoting.  While not outright scary, these first two were nice ways to ease into October after a sleepy September.  Let’s enter the Blumhouse and see what they have in store for us in 2021!

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the Barrio of Oak Springs live a strong and stubborn group of elderly friends who refuse to be gentrified. Their leader, Lupita, keeps them together as a community, a family. But little did they know, their beloved Bingo hall is about to be sold to a much more powerful force than money itself.

Stars: Adriana Barraza, Richard Brake, L. Scott Caldwell, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Bertila Damas, Clayton Landey, David Jensen, Grover Coulson, Kelly Murtagh

Director: Gigi Saúl Guerrero

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  If you’ve seen the trailer that Amazon released for Bingo Hell, you may have had the same reaction that I did when I first saw it…the urge to run the other way.  A headache-inducing edit matched with a droning voiceover of creepy lead Richard Brake’s Mr. Big character just had me dreading seeing this tale of terror involving a neighborhood being appalled , then lured in, by a garish new bingo hall offering phenomenal cash prizes…with a twist.  Well, clearly someone on the marketing side either didn’t know enough about the movie or just didn’t care because they sold Bingo Hell quite short as it features several memorable performances and is by and large a skillfully made effort from director Gigi Saúl Guerrero.

Everyone that has lived in a neighborhood for a long time has a woman like Lupita (Adriana Barraza, Drag Me to Hell) living a few houses down.  Traditional, likes to keep her friends close and enemies as far away from her front lawn as possible, she doesn’t care for the changes that have happened to the Oak Springs community she has called home.  Family-owned stores are closing and being replaced by hip new places to shop and so Lupita surrounds herself with her friends and patronizes their places of business, like the the beauty salon owned by Yolanda (Bertila Damas) or Clarence’s (Grover Coulson, A Ghost Story) auto shop.  She’s in for a shock when Mario (David Jensen, Midnight Special) up and sells the local bingo parlor to mysterious Mr. Big (Brake, Batman Begins) and overnight it becomes a garish, neon-colored nightmare.  Soon it creates bad blood and bloodshed between the once-friendly neighbors who are now competing for the ever-growing cash prizes being doled out nightly.

There’s a little bit of Stephen’s King’s Needful Things going on in the script from Guerrero, Perry Blackshear, and Shane McKenzie but I wouldn’t draw too many parallels between that and Bingo Hell.  The story here is far more about Lupita and, to some extent, her friend Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell, Concussion), letting go of their tight grip on the past to fully live in the present than any complex dance with the devil.  That’s not to say Brake doesn’t get the opportunity to enact some ghoulish bits of magic and gnash his nasty chompers around, there’s a great sequence following Raquel, (Kelly Murtaugh, When I Consume You) the tragic daughter-in-law of Dolores, as she wins big but loses large in short order.

I sincerely hope people don’t watch the preview for this and skip it because it’s quite good and Oscar-nominee Barraza is absolutely the fire that fuels the movie from the beginning. All the main actors are “of a certain age” and Barraza leads the charge with a determined rage that feels thoughtful, important, and relatable.  I wouldn’t say the performance makes the ENTIRE movie but it’s darn close, especially at the times it segues into the less interesting secondary plot involving Dolores’ grandson being tempted to a life of crime.  This feels like its lifted from a less interesting film and takes us away from our elders too often.  It’s Barraza’s show and when she’s front and center, delivering one of her last lines in a fit of rage…that’s when you stand and shout BINGO!

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage girl with self-esteem issues finds confidence in the most unlikely way, by spending her summer battling vampires that prey on New Orleans’ disenfranchised with the help of her best friend, the boy she’s always pined for, and a peculiar rich girl.

Stars: Asjha Cooper, Fabrizio Guido, Craig Tate, Keith David, Mason Beauchamp, Abbie Gayle, Frankie Smith

Director: Maritte Lee Go

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m a sucker (pun intended) for any kind of vampire film so writer Sherman Payne’s New Orleans set tale Black as Night began already a few points ahead in my book.  What struck me from the start is how naturalistic a look and feel the entire movie had and much of that credit goes to director Maritte Lee Go (Phobias) clearly not wanting to make this another urban tale with a supernatural twist.  People behave like people, not like how the media has portrayed them up until now.  Even the mother of our brave lead, a drug addict, isn’t outfitted with disintegrating teeth and grainy skin, frothing at the mouth as she begs her daughter for money as the film begins.

This important level setting at the start of Black as Night helps prepare the audience for the creature feature elements that develop after 15-year-old Shawna (Asjha Cooper, Everybody Wants Some!!) is attacked by a pack of homeless vampires on the way home from a house party in her neighborhood.  Someone has been preying on the disenfranchised that roam the city streets in a New Orleans that continues to recover from Hurricaine Katrina.  Turning once benign homeless into hungry vamps, whomever is responsible appears to have an agenda targeted at, of all things, social justice reform.  That means it’s up to Shawna and her crew comprised of gay best friend Pedro (Fabrizio Guido, World War Z), suburban white girl Grania (Abbie Gayle, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) with a wealth of vampiric knowledge, and local hottie Chris (Mason Beauchamp) to uncover a long-simmering plot about to boil over and stop the killing before their family and friends become the next victims.

At a sleek 87 minutes, there’s enough plot in Black as Night to carry it through to the end and good acting to make it worth your time.  I liked that there was some method to the vampiric madness, even if the deeper depths of the reasoning felt like grasping at something greater that never quite got to the point.  Even so, the attempt to at least try for purpose makes it noteworthy.  It wouldn’t go down nearly as well without Cooper’s strong performance in the lead or the solid supporting work from the core players.  The fringe actors may need a little jolt to wake them up at times but when everyone is alert and on the same page there’s a crackling energy going on that’s hard to ignore. Don’t put a stake through this one until you’ve given it a shot.