Movie Review ~ Tolkien


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.

Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Craig Roberts, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Genevieve O’Reilly, Laura Donnelly, Pam Ferris, Sir Derek Jacobi

Director: Dome Karukoski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: As biopics of famous authors have proved, finding a way to depict the life of someone so renowned for his or her storytelling can be a tricky game. One needs only to look at the curious flatness of Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Becoming Jane, or even as far back as 2003’s Syliva, to see that a screenwriter has their work cut out for them if they want to take on a well-known literary scribe. On name recognition alone, J.R.R. Tolkien is by far one of the bigger names to get the “this is your life” treatment on the big screen and for a man who was so closely associated with fantasy it’s rather pleasant to note his biopic is one that is most grounded in reality.

The life of Tolkien could easily have been covered as a multi-part mini-series on HBO, Netflix, or Amazon Prime (where they are getting ready to film their own series based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels) because the man certainly lived a life. Raised with his younger brother by a poor single mother who died when he was 12, he went to live in an upper-class boarding house that afforded him the opportunity to go to a good school and get into a prestigious university. Marrying his first love before serving in the war, he returned home to teach and began writing the novels that would be his legacy. These events even read like the plot of a movie we’ve all seen before and would seem to lend itself well to a similar treatment, which would have been just fine. Thankfully, the filmmakers took a different approach.

The movie centers on the friendship that develops between Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) and three other young men he meets in school and remains close with as they go to college and join the war effort. At first an outcast from the boys in his class, Tolkien eventually finds they are really no different from him with their own set of personal problems in life and at home. Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson, The Darkest Minds) is the headmaster’s son living in the heavy shadow of his emotionally withdrawn father, Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, Dunkirk) struggles to make a name for himself as a musician, and Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle, The Lost City of Z) is a sensitive poet who becomes Tolkien’s closest friend.

Screenwriters David Gleeson & Stephen Beresford (Pride) give us a light sketch of the early life of Tolkien and a brief dab of his post-War life but their film mostly focuses on his teenage years through his time at the Battle of the Somme. For director Dome Karukoski, this is more than enough meat to cook a fine feast that doesn’t rely on trickery (or much pre-knowledge of the author) to be fulfilling. While there are some interesting visual cues during Tolkien’s war experience that veer to the fantastical, such as seeing dragons in fire raids or ominous evils in plumes of smoke, Karukoski’s movie has its feet on the ground. I was bracing myself for the movie to feature hints along the way of how Tolkien came up with the stories and characters that would earn him a place in the history books. Thankfully, aside from a wise teacher that has a twinkle of Gandalf in his eye, there’s no crusty janitor at Oxford that could have inspired Gollum nor is there a squat gentleman at the local pub enjoying a fine meal who reminds us of Bilbo Baggins. No, the screenwriters and director have held back on being too on-the-nose with these elements and have conveyed instead how the books came out of the collective whole of Tolkien’s life up until the point he put pen to paper.

While it doesn’t exactly stretch his range, Hoult’s performance as Tolkien is admirable in its presentation because many general fans of the author likely aren’t too aware of the personal life of the man behind the majestic worlds he created. So there’s a bit of freedom for Hoult to make the role, more or less, his own. Whether he’s muddied up on the battlefields, in natty tweeds lounging around Oxford, or walking through the woods talking to trees, he always seems to be on the right track. As his sweetheart and eventual wife, Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) turns in her best performance to date by giving some decent nuance to a role that could easily have been tossed away as the “supportive spouse” part. Recognizing her limitations in society, Edith’s one night out with the boys turns from joy to sadness as she realizes that she’ll never (in her lifetime) be able to have the same privileges as the man she loves. If there’s anything that feels truncated in the film, it’s the love affair between Tolkien and Edith which is the first thing to take a backseat in favor of other plot points.

All three of Tolkien’s friends provide good supporting performances, namely Boyle as Tolkien’s best ally and the one he desperately tries to find during the war. Hoult and Boyle have some good scenes together, as does Holt with Genevieve O’Reilly (The Kid Who Would Be King) as Geoffrey’s mother who sadly comes to realize she doesn’t know her son as well as his friends do. In his few brief scenes, Sir Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) challenges Tolkien to push himself further as a writer/scholar and it’s not too hard to discern where the genesis of a certain white wizard came from. The only nitpick I have is that there’s a lot of dark-haired guys in the film and during some of the war scenes it was hard to keep track of who was who.

Arriving in the still massive wake of the Avengers: Endgame box-office juggernaut, I fear Tolkien might get lost in the mix because it’s not loud enough to attract much attention outside of fans of the author that know it’s coming. There was some buzz in the news a few weeks back when it came out that Tolkien’s family did not endorse the film, though they hadn’t even seen it at that time. While that may give you pause to see this film, it’s helpful to know that most biographies don’t have the support of the family and sometimes that allows the author of the work to, sure, take a few liberties with the material but also not be as beholden or precious to their subject. In the case of Tolkien, it’s clear everyone involved had a great respect for the late author (he died in 1971) and were invested in this tale of his first valued fellowship.

Movie Review ~ Pokémon Detective Pikachu


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a private eye goes missing, his son is prompted to find out what happened. Aiding in the investigation is Pokémon and Harry’s former partner: Detective Pikachu.

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Ken Watanabe, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Chris Geere, Suki Waterhouse, Rita Ora

Director: Rob Letterman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: By the time Pokémon made its debut in 1995, I had graduated from being the target audience for the global franchise. Starting as video games, as so many million-dollar empires do, before expanding into books, tv shows, comics, toys, etc. the brand was revitalized in 2016 when Pokémon Go became all the rage. Finally tapping into a more adult base, this scavenger hunt game was a sensation and the subject of many issues with players traversing onto private property or into oncoming traffic to “capture” their Pokémon. During the summer of 2016, you were either playing Pokémon Go or rolling your eyes at those who were.

If there was one area left for the Pokémon to conquer, it was live-action film. Over 20 animated films were released over the past two decades but when Pokémon Go reignited interest in this country, studios looking to capitalize on the craze sought out the rights to bring the characters to new life on the big screen. Using the popular 2016 game Detective Pikachu as inspiration, four screenwriters collaborated on Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Warner Brothers locked down an A-list star to provide the voice for it’s title character. Now…would the audiences come out and play?

The relationships between humans and Pokémon have evolved at the start of Pokémon Detective Pikachu. While they still “choose” their own Pokémon who become their semi-sidekicks, humans are no longer training them to do battle against others. This is all thanks to the vision of Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy, About Time), the creator of Rhyme City where everyone co-exists in harmony. In the prologue, an experimental laboratory comes under attack and a dangerous next-gen Pokémon is released, causing mayhem and what looks like a deadly car crash.  Jumping outside of Rhyme City, we catch Tim (Justice Smith, Paper Towns) and his friend Jack (Karan Soni, Safety Not Guaranteed) trying to locate a Pokémon for Tim. Once interested in being a trainer, now Tim has his eyes set on climbing the corporate ladder for the insurance company he works for. Everything changes with the news his private detective father has died in Rhyme City, and when Tim starts to dig into the secrets his father was trying to expose it brings him face to face with his father’s Pokémon, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Life).

Usually, only the human that choses the Pokémon can understand what their little friend is saying but somehow Tim hears Pikachu loud and clear. Pikachu has lost his memory, only being able to piece together that he was also in the crash with Tim’s father. Just as invested in finding the evil Pokémon and who might be behind their actions, Pikachu teams up with Tim and they begin to sleuth around the city for answers. Along the way they encounter an eager junior reporter (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back), a gruff police detective (Ken Watanabe, Transformers: Age of Extinction), and a plethora of wacky Pokémon.  In one particularly notable bit, Pikachu and Tim have a run-in with Mr. Mime, an excellent but mischievous pantomime with an act that was a highlight of the film.

Director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) knows how to work with blending live action and the computer animated Pokémon creations and most of the visual effects are impressive. It’s not as seamless as it could be, though, and that gives the film a second-tier feeling that doesn’t befit a release from a first-rate studio. The screenplay is fairly basic and hinges on a twist that becomes rather obvious within the first thirty minutes. Smith is not that appealing as a leading man (already proven by audiences actively asking for him to be eaten in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) and the charismatic Reynolds is relegated to being merely a voice which only gets at half of what makes him so engaging. Yet, the film bounces along, working almost in spite of itself with a handful of nice gags and chuckle humor that was appealing. It’s not the raucous comedy of Long Shot but it doesn’t elicit deadly silence either. For what it’s worth, my audience absolutely roared with laughter at obvious insider Pokémon references that went right over my head. One thing is clear, the film wants you to invest in the Pokémon brand – it’s almost a feature length commercial for their line-up of characters which will equate to mass dollars being spent on products.

I can’t honestly tell you what a fan of Pokémon will think about Pokémon Detective Pikachu but as an uninitiated viewer I found the film to be sporadically funny, rarely boring, but almost instantly forgettable. The kind of ho-hum pre-summer flick that arrives before the bigger players in the hope of cashing in quickly before vanishing from screens in time to be a back-to-school gift on BluRay. There’s nothing particularly bad to report but it’s all so pedestrian and uninspired you’d think a little more effort would be put in to mask the blatant consumerism on display.

Movie Review ~ Long Shot


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An unemployed journalist battered by his own misfortune endeavors to pursue his childhood crush and babysitter, who now happens to be one of the most powerful and unattainable women on the planet.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Alexander Skarsgård, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park

Director: Jonathan Levine

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Don’t look now, but we may actually be in a small scale renaissance of the mid-range romantic comedy. There were rumblings that it was coming back when last year’s Crazy Rich Asians made a splash, only to be followed by the popular streaming releases like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Set Up. So far this year, we’ve had the modest hit Isn’t it Romantic and soon after Long Shot’s May release there’s still The Sun is Also a Star to look forward to and Last Christmas for the holidays…plus several more Netflix offerings along the way. It’s not a full scale rebirth of the genre but it definitely gets a healthy dose of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation courtesy of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot.

Originally conceived as more low-brow comedy titled Flarsky, the script from Dan Sterling attracted the attention of Seth Rogen after it got good buzz on The Blacklist, the infamous Hollywood insider-y annual survey of the “most liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Rogen brought in screenwriter Liz Hannah (The Post) who gave the film a good polish, making the starring female role more of real person and creating more equality between the lead protagonists. With a new title and Rogen’s friend Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) in the director’s seat all they needed was a star. And boy did they get one.

Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) is the real reason you should be buying a ticket to see Long Shot and is the film’s not-so-secret weapon. Sure, you may be a fan of Rogen, romantic comedies, or just need a solid two hour film that is worth your time but Theron is by far the main selling point Long Shot has to offer. Already adept at playing any genre she’s thrown into, Theron dives headfirst into a role that requires the actress to convince us her gorgeous buttoned-up Secretary of State could fall for Rogen’s lumpy (but lovable) political journalist, all while keeping her composure as she plots out an environmental treaty to lay the groundwork for her presidential run.

Recently fired from his grassroots publication, Fred Flarsky (Rogen, This is the End) is drowning his sorrows with his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton) at an upscale benefit when he runs into his old babysitter Charlotte Field (Theron). Flarsky may have written a few popular pieces on the internet but Field has done considerably better for herself; she’s the youngest Secretary of State under a dim bulb President (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) who was elected after playing the Commander in Chief on TV for years. When the President decides not to run again and offers to endorse Field, she gets early reports (from a too-brief cameo by Lisa Kudrow, Friends with Kids) that the public doesn’t think she has a sense of humor. Running into Flarsky and reading his material gives her an idea: why not hire this guy who knew her back in the day and see if he can punch up her image?

For Field, this starts as a business proposition. For Flarsky, this is a chance to get closer to a girl he has had a crush on since he was a pre-teen. Even more than that, he believes in her as a politician and gets behind her as a potential presidential nominee. As they make their way around the globe gathering support for her environmental protection plan, the two get closer…much to the horror of her staff members (June Diane Raphael, Girl Most Likely and Ravi Patel, Master of None) until they become an unlikely item.

It really is on Theron to sell us on her character falling for Fred and Rogen and Levine help her get there (with no small assistance from Hannah’s script) by keeping Charlotte aware of their differences but following her heart anyway. That’s what makes it all work because, unlike other Rogen vehicles where he’s paired with beauties just…because, here he initially winds up with the girl by winning over her brain first before anything physical happens.

Clocking in a tad over two hours, the movie comes in just a hair too long and a wiser editor could have excised more of Jackson’s unnecessary scenes as Fred’s friend that don’t wind up informing the action on anything we don’t already know. As good as Raphael and Patel are, they only work in small doses and their business could be trimmed as well because we really want more time with Theron and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rogen.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Serkis (Black Panther) popping up in a truly bizarre role as a publishing magnate with ties to Charlotte and Fred.  It’s not that the role is bizarre, it’s that Serkis is under heavy layers of make-up to render him unrecognizable.  Why?

The film almost makes it across the finish line without resorting to gross out gags but can’t resist a fairly atrocious bit of toilet humor that cheapens things up at the wrong time. Honestly, I get why they inserted it in the grand scheme of things but it sinks the film to a different level that I thought it was rising above.  Still, that and a rather perfunctory ending can’t erase the fun of the previous 100 or so minutes and any movie that prominently features Roxette’s mega-anthem “It Must Have Been Love” on more than one occasion already scores high in my book.

The Silver Bullet ~ Crawl



Synopsis
: A young woman, while attempting to save her father during a Category 5 hurricane, finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.

Release Date: July 12, 2019

Thoughts: It’s not hard for me to figure out where my love of creature features began. Ever since I saw Jaws as a kid I’ve been enthralled by monsters on land, under the sea, and in space.  From nature run amok atrocities to alien lifeforms, I’m pretty lenient on films that pit men and women against some beast with really sharp teeth.  We’ve been pretty starved for these mid-budgeted movies (at least in theaters) with tastes shifting to blockbuster entertainment for the masses but this July sees the release of Crawl and it looks schlocky and fun.  While, as usual, the trailer gives away more than I’d like, there’s more than enough here to get me interested in what other scares director Alexandre Aja (Horns) has in store.  Also…while I’m not freaked out by spiders, snakes, or sharks, I am legit frightened by alligators and crocodiles so this is going to be sweaty palm experience for me.

Movie Review ~ The Mustang


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A violent convict is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program involving the training of wild mustangs.

Stars: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Josh Stewart

Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I wouldn’t blame you if you happened to let The Mustang trot on by you as we start to approach the jumping off point of the summer movie season. It’s not a flashy movie with superheroes dueling it out in a grand finale of a popular franchise (Avengers; Endgame) nor is it a horror film out to spook you (Us, Pet Sematary, The Curse of La Llorona) and it definitely isn’t a family film like Dumbo, though I’d argue that’s not a family film either. It doesn’t feature actors that can open a movie on their name alone and the film has been marketed accurately as a heavy drama with a main character often hard to root for.

I saw The Mustang right after taking in Captain Marvel for a second time and the experience was different though some of the feelings were the same. Both films featured strong examples of emotional resonance but whereas Captain Marvel is designed to have you sort of blasted backwards in your seat, The Mustang’s quiet grace made it a film you wanted to lean into and sit a little further forward for.

In a Nevada prison, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Danish Girl) is serving a long sentence for a violent crime we only get bits and pieces of information about. Used to serving his time in his preferred solitary confinement, he’s brought back into the general population and given a roommate (Josh Stewart, Interstellar) for the first time in years. Barely speaking more than a few words to anyone in a given day, Coleman starts a prison job maintaining the grounds but is intrigued by the horses being watched over by other inmates. He becomes fixated on one particular horse too wild to be broken and is recruited by the salty program lead (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to try to see if he can have any luck taming the beautiful horse.

Now, it isn’t hard for the audience (or Coleman) to see the obvious parallels between the prisoner and the horse and that doesn’t seem to concern director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre in the slightest. In fact, I feel the filmmakers almost go out of the way to show us how closely tied in personality the man and mustang are. Stubborn and willful could describe Coleman or the horse he names Marquis and over time the two form the bond we expect but in ways we can’t quite predict. The path isn’t easy and the film features several unsettling acts of violence (not always directed toward the horse) that don’t feel like cheap devices to gain sympathy.

At a sleek 96 minutes, The Mustang is mostly muscle and is led by a stellar performance from Schoenaerts. Over the last several years Schoenaerts has proven to be a dependable presence in films but he’s yet to truly break through to the next level of stardom in the US. His performance is as good as any Oscar nominee last year (even better than at least one) as is Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell (Contraband) memorable supporting turn as a fellow inmate that shows Coleman the literal ropes of the horse ring. A sidewinding subplot concerning Coleman’s prison visits with his estranged daughter (Gideon Adlon) skate the edge of maudlin but the two actors are so good in their strained meetings that you begin to feel just as uncomfortable in their presence as they are. Featured in just two scenes, it’s never a bad day when Connie Britton (This Is Where I Leave You) appears onscreen as a prison psychologist.

Financed with monies awarded by the Sundance Institute, The Mustang has the distinct feel of an indie drama that would go over well at the Sundance Film Festival before playing at your local art house cinema. It’s likely a bit too small to become a breakthrough hit and its release date so close to highly anticipated blockbusters will all but push this one out of your local theater quickly. So after you see Avengers: Endgame, consider saddling up to this one. Or, make this one your first choice because it won’t be around for long.

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Endgame


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the devastating events of Avengers: Infinity War, the universe is in ruins. With the help of remaining allies, the Avengers assemble once more in order to undo Thanos’ actions and restore order to the universe.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sebastian Stan

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 181 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: My advice right off the bat for all of you planning on seeing Avengers: Endgame is not just to avoid spoilers but to avoid any liquids for several hours before the show. This will save you the hard decision on when is the best time to run to the bathroom and let you fully enjoy this grand finale from the creative minds at Marvel Studios. After 22 films and more than 10 years, the time has come to finally close the book on the Marvel Cinematic Univerise as we currently know it. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly more stories to be told and countless movies to be made but there won’t ever be a time when all of the characters we have come to know and love (and maybe not care for at all) will be in the same film at the same time.

While this review will not contain any spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, it’s hard to discuss this movie without giving away key plot points from 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. Read on with confidence that your enjoyment of Avengers: Endgame isn’t going to be spoiled in advance.

First, a refresher.

At the end of Avengers: Infinity War the big purple baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin, Oldboy) had achieved his goal of gathering the six infinity stones and used them to wipe out half of the population on earth. With a snap of his fingers, Thanos “dusted” some of our beloved characters who were part of the unlucky 50% that were collateral damage in a misguided attempt at population control. As seen in subsequent films Ant-Man and The Wasp and Captain Marvel, no one was spared with people either turning into particles carried away on the air or left behind to mourn their fallen loved ones.

Avengers: Endgame starts so casually (the Marvel Studios logo and title card appear at well-timed points later) that I wasn’t even sure the movie had begun. It’s like the days when you had a double-VHS to watch and just popped in the tape and things picked up right where you left off. Suddenly, you’re just back in it like a whole year hadn’t passed since the last movie ended. Picking up with a character we haven’t seen in some time, the movie quickly moves forward in establishing where our heroes are and takes its time in bringing them back together again.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have wisely been given the time to really explore the lasting effects on all who remain and convey to us their feeling of loss. Just like audience members were left all torn up after the snap from Thanos, so too are these super men and women who don’t know how to move on from the tragedy. While much of the 181 minute run time is devoted to amazing action sequences and visual effects that represent the tippy top of quality yet seen in these films, there’s almost an equal amount of space given to continue to give these comic book characters a dramatic arc that feel completely earned at this point.

The film kicks into high gear when an Avenger feels like they’ve figured out the key to identifying what happened to the people that disappeared…and gathers the group together for a final mission that will take them to places, emotions, and alternate dimensions heretofore unexplored. Much the way the previous film found a creative method in pairing up the Avengers to divide and conquer, directors Anthony and Joe Russo juggle multiple storylines without ever letting things fall by the wayside or allowing audiences to get ahead of the action. Two hours into the movie and I still had no idea how it was all going to end.

End it does, though, and with the kind of rousing action and developments that feel just even if they sting.   Every fan has a theory of who will survive until the credits and who might emerge as a new leader but I would say that you shouldn’t go into the movie trying to figure out how things will wrap up. Stay present in the moment and leave it to the writers and directors because they have your ultimate best interest (and entertainment) at heart.

As has been the case over the entire series of films, the impressive cast roster is what truly sets the Marvel films apart. Leading the pack is Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) as Tony Stark/Iron Man. We’ve seen Tony grow from cocky businessman to cocky hero to cocky recruiter of future Avengers and his investment in this last film is right up there with his all-time best work. The character could easily have become abrasive and unlikable but Downey has always managed to keep him just ever so slightly on the tolerable edge as tough but lovable. There’s also good work from Chris Evans (The Iceman) who we’ve seen become a leading man before our eyes. Evans wasn’t always the most interesting actor in films but he’s shown such growth since he first took up Captain America’s shield that you know that whether he continues with the films or not (I’m not telling!) he’ll have another career in films where he isn’t always in battle with foes from space.

Continued good work from Chris Hemsworth (Rush) as Thor shows how the actor came back from having a character start off shaky until he finally found his rhythm and made the Norse god something memorable and unexpectedly funny. After two previous Hulks failed to make the role their own, I’m eternally grateful that Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) was enlisted to take over way back in The Avengers. And if you can’t get enough of Scarlett Johansson’s (Under the Skin) Black Widow and her ever changing hairstyles you won’t have to wait too long as a standalone origin film centered on her and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, Tag) is about to go into production.

As for the rest of the supporting players, you can’t throw a gummi bear at the screen without hitting another familiar face that pops up from an earlier film – most are expected sights to be seen but there are a few nice surprises along the way. I don’t want to mention any of them but will let you pick out your favorites along the way. Even from a filmmaking perspective, this is a great looking movie that has been composed with care featuring excellent performances. There’s a somber shot near the end of the movie that calls back to that first amazing camera work in The Avengers which managed to capture all our heroes in one long swoop of action.

Filled with rousing moments (I almost got out of my seat and started jumping up and down for joy in one goose-bump inducing scene) and peppered with gasp-inducing twists that will likely have you reaching for your Kleenex, the emotional payoff in the last 45 minutes is equal to anything I can recall from the last decade. Yeah, it’s easy to dismiss this as another superhero movie in a long-standing franchise that will make billions of dollars but this is something more robust, more special.  There’s no denying that everyone involved knows they have a responsibility and shows great respect for each loose end that is tied up. It may have taken over twenty films to wrap up those loose ends but the wait was ultimately worth it. I just look forward to see what happens next.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018)
Captain Marvel (2019)
Avengers; Endgame (2019)

Phase Four
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

Movie Review ~ The Curse of La Llorona

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker and her own small kids are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm.

Stars: Linda Cardellini, Patricia Velasquez, Raymond Cruz, Sean Patrick Thomas, Marisol Ramirez, Madeleine McGraw

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Loosen your belts, good audience members, because The Conjuring Universe continues to expand at a rapid rate. The Conjuring sent moviegoers screaming in 2013 and it wasn’t long before we had a decent sequel and spin-offs including 2014’s Annabelle (and its 2017 far superior follow-up Annabelle: Creation) and 2018’s The Nun. Now, hot on the heels of the new release The Curse of La Llorona, is Annabelle Comes Home, arriving in just a few months. What began as unexpectedly frightening solid shocker stand-alone film has grown into a cottage industry franchise of fear. The question is, in a saturated market of theatrical releases, movies on demand, and streaming originals, can the filmmakers behind these horror flicks continue to introduce interesting characters that make future sequels of interest?

While The Curse of La Llorona ultimately fares better than The Nun (partly because it manages to make it to the finish line making some modicum of sense), the cracks are starting to show in The Conjuring Universe and it’s time for some originality to be brought back into the mix. The film is efficient, well-made, and delivers the requisite scares to give the audiences a jolt every five minutes (sometimes less) but it doesn’t captivate you like truly memorable horror films should. Like a late night trip to Taco Bell, it gets the job done but isn’t all that good for you.

A short prologue set in idyllic 17th century Mexico introduces us to a mother (Marisol Ramirez, Circle) who suddenly drowns her young sons for no apparent reason. Flash forward to 1973 Los Angeles and the story picks up with widowed social worker Anna (Linda Cardellini, Green Book) making a house call to Patricia (Patricia Alvarez, The Mummy) who has two boys that haven’t shown up to school lately. Finding the mother out of sorts (to put it mildly) and the boys locked in a closet, Anna steps in and places the boys in protective care while their mother gets the help she needs.

Unfortunately, the moment Anna opens that closet door she becomes part of a curse that affects everyone around her, including her children Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen). She’s incurred the wrath of La Llorona, a vengeful spirit doomed to roam the earth searching for children to replace the two she murdered. Stemming from Mexican folklore, La Llorona is used as a way for parents to scare their children into following the straight and narrow. “You better be good or La Llorona will come and get you!” Now, this spirit has her sights set on Anna’s children and will stop at nothing to make them her own.

Working from a script by Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis (also represented currently in theaters with Five Feet Apart), director Michael Chaves (who is signed up to direct The Conjuring 3) doesn’t bring the same kind of flashy élan to the frights like other directors in The Conjuring Universe but what he does have is a good sense of rhythm in keeping the scares coming at a good pace. True, most of the frights are forced into your body because they’re accompanied with a loud noise that you can’t help but tense up at but there are a few nice shocks delivered just after the hairs on the back of your neck have been raised to full attention.

Daughtry and Iaconis unfortunately dumb down Anna and her kids into people that experience something they can’t explain and choose not to tell anyone else. All three of them are living in the same house and they can’t share they are all seeing the same ghostly apparition of a creepy lady in a white dress? To their credit, Cardellini and the children make a believable family unit, one that is still grieving over the loss of their father, which is one of several plot points never fully explored. There are attempts to link the movie to the original Annabelle film but aside from that brief glimpse of the creepy doll in a flashback this is largely a property unto itself.  Several characters are also introduced and you think they’re going to play a major role…but we wind up never seeing them again.

If there’s one thing I can say that I’ve enjoyed about these films in The Conjuring Universe it’s that they’ve all been set in the past. This removes the advances of technology as a way to help our terrorized family and prevents them from roaming the internet for ways to escape the ghoul preying on them. In The Curse of La Llorona, the lack of outside assistance/knowledge brings about the introduction of a shaman (Raymond Cruz), a sort of a stone-faced wise-cracking urban exorcist. Cruz’s character may bring some comic relief to the proceedings but his once-holy man seems to come from another movie entirely.

At a scant 93 minutes, The Curse of La Llorona doesn’t overstay its welcome and my audience seemed to have a dandy of a time screaming along with the movie. The scares are modestly commendable when they are doled out with precision and less successful when things just pop into frame along with a loud sting of music. I saw this in IMAX and should have brought earplugs. I’m sure the movie will do the kind of business that will encourage the people behind this franchise to keep going – I just ask that they take a little more time to think things through in future entries. If they want to make this a true universe, they should also be attempting to connect their films more than just having random props from other movies pop up.  I mean, the doll from Annabelle also appeared in Aquaman and Shazam!…do they belong in The Conjuring Universe too?

Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary (2019)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.

Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed

Directors: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Normally, I’m not a fan of remakes of originals that were just fine to begin with. Stephen King’s 1989 adaption of his own novel Pet Sematary was a solid horror film that has held up quite well over the past thirty years. Sure, it’s low tech and some of the performances delve into out-of-place hysterics at times but it was largely a successful effort and often spoken of highly as one of the better King adaptations that have made it to the big screen.

Yet I wasn’t that mad at the fact that the source material was going to get another treatment…and I actually thought it was long overdue. After a lackluster sequel that failed to move the series forward in any compelling way, the property just sort of sat there on the shelf for the ensuing years. I’ve always considered the book and its concept to be one that would lend itself well to multiple sequels and creative approaches yet no one had bothered to take another crack at it. As the original film approached it’s 30th anniversary, Paramount decided to dig up their former horror hit and handed it over to three guys that have been making a name for themselves in the scare business.

The new film has a screenplay written by Jeff Buhler who already had The Prodigy in 2019 and will pen upcoming remakes of Jacob’s Ladder and The Grudge, and was directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer who gave us the underrated horror gem Starry Eyes. Having these three give King’s tale of a city family that moves to the country and experiences the dangerous power of a nearby burial ground seemed like an on the money choice and with stars like Jason Clarke (The Aftermath) and John Lithgow (Pitch Perfect 3) on board this remake was elevated up a few notches from being just a shameless cash-in.

The Creed family has uprooted their life and moved to a small town in Maine so Louis (Clarke) can be a big fish in a small pond as the doctor at a local university. Like the first film, his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next) doesn’t seem to have much of a life of her own outside of taking care of their two young children so while Louis goes to work Rachel begins the process of setting her family up in their new house. Friendly neighbor Jud (Lithgow) catches young Ellie (Jeté Laurence) exploring in the woods and shows her the pet sematary on their property where children come to bury their pets. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is driven to make an unholy choice involving the pet sematary that has deadly repercussions for everyone.

While the film largely falls into the remake category, with names and situations that echo what we’ve read/seen before, certain elements of the plot have been reimagined and not all of them work as well as they should. If you’ve seen the previews you’re likely aware of the one big change from the book/original film and that choice is, in hindsight, a smart one considering what it allows the filmmakers to do with the final 1/3 of the movie. What I didn’t care for, actually, was that last act when it became less of a slow-burn horror movie and more of a cheap scare machine which undercut some of the strong structure that was built up early on.

Another strange thing about this film is that Buhler’s script is overly talky. In most cases, having some extra character development in a movie designed to provide maximum scare time would be welcome but there seemed to be an endless series of scenes with Louis and Rachel talking in their bedroom. Feeling like low-grade Cassavetes, their marital squabbles and differences of opinion in how much they share with their children about death starts to feel intrusive to the frights. After a while, you begin to wish the bad thing that is coming will just happen so they’ll have something else to talk about.

Clarke, as usual, makes for a reliable leading man and the conflict Louis experiences sits well with him. No one plays tragically at odds with oneself quite like Clarke can. Like the movie, he starts to veer off course near the end but he holds on longer than the film does. I’ve not seen Seimetz in a lot of things but she brought a nice layer to Rachel that wasn’t present in the previous film. The subplot concerning her guilt over an incident from her childhood involving her dying sister isn’t as scary as the 1989 version because its less subtle but she navigates some jarring pseudo-scares quite well. The Jud character was always the most memorable in these films and while Lithgow is no Fred Gwynne, his wind-beaten face and growly voice convinced me right off the bat he was the right guy for the role. The trickiest part in the film is taken on by Laurence as the Creed’s daughter who has to play a whole range of emotions – for a young performer tasked with the film’s most important material she is a strong presence.

As they demonstrated in Starry Eyes, Kölsch & Widmyer know how to slowly turn up the heat on their movie pot and allow it to boil over at just the right time. Here, though, the pot stays on the fire just a hair too long, that is the difference between a remake that sticks its landing, and one that bites off more than it can chew. (I’m trying to jam pack this with metaphors today, clearly). The ending of the film doesn’t measure up and just gets too bizarre to the point where the audience laughs in all the right places but more than a few unintentional passages as well.

I feel like we’re going to be seeing more of these remakes of popular films over the next few years and if they turn out like Pet Sematary I won’t be totally disappointed. There’s some thought that went into this one and more than few examples of creativity on display that are worth noting from directors that are continuing to hone their craft. Showing a bit more appreciation for narrative follow-through and arriving at an ending that satisfies is what was missing.

Movie Review ~ The Best of Enemies


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Civil Rights activist, Ann Atwater, faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Bruce McGill

Director: Robin Bissell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The filmmakers for Green Book haven’t even had their Best Picture Oscar on the shelf long enough to gather dust before another problematic movie on race relations has made it to theaters. Now I have a feeling that The Best of Enemies tells its tale with a bit more honesty and is unquestionably less outright manipulative but still…something feels off here. Though, like Green Book, it boasts two likable stars (one a recent Oscar winner) and is based on actual events, The Best of Enemies overstays its welcome by hammering home its message audiences will have received loud and clear early on.

It’s 1971 and Durham, North Carolina is still racially divided. Though laws on desegregation have chipped away at the antiquated restrictions at many institutions within the state, the schools remain separated by race. Continuing to fight for her civil rights and the rights of others was the outspoken Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), a grassroots activist that wasn’t afraid to raise her voice to call attention to injustice within her community. On the other side of the coin was Ku Klux Klan leader C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, Vice) who also felt like he was seeing the rights of another population of Durham being restricted. The two public figures were both respected within their individual circles and known to each other…and they didn’t care for the other one bit.

When a fire destroys part of a school that served the black children of Durham, it sparks a debate that leads to the city council voting whether or not to allow children of both races to attend the same school. At the same time, a court-ordered school desegregation decree has finally come into play but instead of being the deciding vote and making history, the district judge involved passes the decision down to the people of Durham. Through a structured two-week community meeting known as a charrette, Atwater and Ellis become co-chairs and lead a group of representatives from the city in deciding how they want to move forward on several key issues, the biggest being fully integrating their schools.

Writer/director Robin Bissell (a producer of The Hunger Games) has adapted Osha Gray Davidson’s book and while it’s clearly a labor of love, it is quite a labor to get through. At two hours and thirteen minutes, the movie takes a while to get moving and then just sort of treads water for a good sixty minutes rehashing what we already know or setting up more scenes of racial tension designed to elicit the appropriate rage from the audience. By the time the film reaches it’s predicted climax, audiences might be a bit numb after all the elevated dramatics Bissell introduces.

The saving grace of the movie lies in the casting and it starts at the top with Henson and Rockwell. Both are actors that invest themselves fully into their roles and that’s certainly the case here. Though Henson is sporting an almost comically large fake set of breasts, she brings a dignity and strength of soul to Ann who wrestles with wanting to practice what she preaches about acceptance even when the person on the other side won’t look her in the face. You may think Rockwell has played a version of this character already in his Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri but the differences between the two men are vast. At the beginning of the film Ellis actually believes in the racist thoughts he spews forth but Rockwell takes us through each crack in his belief system as he spends time not only with the black members of Durham but other white people that don’t share his values.

There’s nice supporting work from Anne Heche (Volcano) as Ellis’ wife who doesn’t suffer fools…especially her husband, Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as the prototype KKK member of that era in that area, and Bruce McGill (Lincoln) as a crooked councilman. I also liked John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a local shopowner sympathetic to the integration that has to choose between what’s right for him and what’s right for his community. He shares a brief scene with Rockwell that hints at the kind of impactful moments the movie is sorely short on. Yet the film never takes off quite so much as when Henson and Rockwell are bickering or, eventually, seeing eye to eye.

Conceived as a historical piece documenting an important turning point in the Civil Rights movement but orchestrated as an audience rousing drama where everyone goes home happy, The Best of Enemies wants it both ways. It tries awfully hard, though, and that work doesn’t go unnoticed. Yet it winds up feeling like another strange misstep in Hollywood’s attempt to get a movie about the Civil Rights…right.

Movie Review ~ Shazam!

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.

Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Those poor souls over at Warner Brothers/DC Comics were likely looking at 2019 and feeling crestfallen at their prospects. With three highly anticipated Marvel films set for release and their Wonder Woman sequel pushed back to 2020, it must have felt like any hopes of getting another foothold in their franchise ladder weren’t going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith they had in Shazam! at the outset but they should have pumped this one up a bit more than they did. Sure, I saw the preview more times than I needed to before other films but going into the movie I wasn’t expecting anything vastly different than the soulless offerings they’ve been churning out in the past decade.

Thankfully, it seems like they may have stumbled onto something good.

Foster kid Billy Baston (Asher Angel) has found himself on the wrong side of the law for the last time when he is apprehended after obtaining information from a police database. He’d been attempting to find his mother after they were separated when he was a toddler and hasn’t given up hope that she’s out there and is looking for him as well. Taken in by another foster family that already boasts a diverse line-up of kids in similar family situations, Billy bides his time until he can run away again to continue his search.

When he’s mysteriously brought to the temple of an aging Wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Serenity) tasked with guarding the seven deadly sins, he absorbs the fading Wizard’s magic and turns into a buff superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World) anytime he says the Wizard’s name: Shazam. Unware of the extent of his newfound powers, Billy has the mind of a teenager in the body of a mature adult and at first doesn’t exactly use his upgrades for good. Though he runs through some trials of his abilities with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer, IT), he starts to be the kind of hero that’s only looking out for himself instead of assisting others.

He’s put to the ultimate test when Sivana (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) enters the picture. Obsessed with finding the temple of the Seven Wizards that he too visited as a young child, the grown man eventually makes his way back to the hidden dwelling and frees the sins from their prison. Now being used as their vessel for evil, Sivana sets his sights on taking the Wizard’s power from Shazam (who has become something of a local Philadelphia celebrity) and eliminating everyone he loves.

If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from the DC slate of superhero movies it’s a sense of humor and finally the stiff suits at the studio backed up and let wiser talents guide this process – and it’s largely successful. Though the previous credits for screenwriters Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) might not have suggested they’d be the right choices to bring Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s superhero to the big screen, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace from the darker-hued adventure films the studio has been greenlighting. Adding director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) was another inspired choice as he’s nicely able to balance the lighter/more comedic elements of the plot with the darker edges supplied by Sivana.

Sandberg has cast the film well starting with Levi as our hero that becomes more than the sum of his bulging muscles and caped suit. Seeing that he’s actually a teen given awesome powers, Levi might overplay the sarcasm and wise-cracks a bit early on but it provides him a place to jump off from as he grows into a more responsible hero and a more understanding teenager. He has a nice rapport with Grazer and his other foster siblings, adding some layers to a character that could easily have been pretty one-dimensional. The villain role doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Strong at this point and while he’s perfectly fine in the part it would have been nice to see it played by someone a little less expected. It’s just too easy for Strong to slide into these wicked characters by now.

While it’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, spending unearned time with Sivana and following Levi through perhaps a few too many blunders, Sandberg and the screenwriters manage to introduce a late breaking twist that I found pretty delightful and nicely inclusive. Buoyed by strong performances by the child actors (a rarity these days) and a nice dose of humor and creativity, Shazam! is a fun right turn from the careening curve DC studios couldn’t pull out of.