Blind Spots ~ The Hidden Fortress

Every movie lover has their admitted blind spots and sad to say mine is definitely Akira Kurosawa, the famed Japanese director who was behind such celebrated features as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961).  Chances are, if you have an art-house film nearby you can wait it out for a Kurosawa film to make its way into the rotation; however if you are lucky enough to live near an Alamo Drafthouse you should check out their upcoming slate because my Alamo Drafthouse Twin Cities is playing Kurosawa’s 1958 action adventure The Hidden Fortress coming up on Wednesday, March 11 to celebrate it’s 60th Anniversary.  I’m finally going to get my first taste of Kurosawa and it’s going to blessedly be on the big screen in a movie I’ve heard a lot about over the years.

The plot of The Hidden Fortress is described as this: Lured by gold, two greedy peasants escort a man and woman across enemy lines. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess and her general.  Parallels to this film and Star Wars have been drawn for years, even being confirmed as by George Lucas who cited Kurosawa’s movie as inspiration for the plot he developed for that 1977 global sensation.  It will be hard to watch the film and not try to match up the characters between the two movies but I’m going to try to go in with as little expectation as possible. This was Kurosawa’s first film in the widescreen format and I’m looking forward to seeing his eye for imagery fill the large screen at the Alamo, a theater chain that truly knows how to display a classic film of this nature with great reverence.

If you live in the area, check out the Alamo Drafthouse Twin Cities website for more details and tickets!

Movie Review ~ Onward


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

Stars: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodgriguez

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: By this point, I’ve gotten pretty good about preparing to see a Pixar film. I always make sure I bring Kleenex from home because when I inevitably cry, wiping my eyes/nose with the rough napkins from the movie theater always leaves them a bit red and raw. Also, it’s best to make sure you know where the exit is so you can make a quick dash out of the place if the theater is cruel and turns the lights on immediately when the movie is over, exposing all the tear-stained faces to the rest of the crowd. The best place to sit is near the entrance, on an aisle and definitely not near a family with small children because you don’t want to step on any kids as you try to avoid people seeing the after effects of your ugly cry.

I say this now looking back at my experience of watching Onward and recognizing that my mind was in a completely different place that day and I totally forgot all my pre-planning rules. Here I was, a guy that just celebrated a milestone birthday and about to mark the 12 year anniversary of the loss of my father and I had no tissues, was seated in the middle of a row with families all around me seeing a movie about sons using magic to spend one last day with their deceased father. Was I completely crazy?

The town of New Mushroomton isn’t quite the magical mecca it used to be as we see when the prologue for Onward begins. All sorts of magical creatures coexisted and used their gifts to get by, whether it was creating fire for light/heat or flying over vast oceans. Then, with the evolution of science the world began to find ways to accomplish magical tasks without magic (lightbulbs, airplanes) and the need for wizards, magic staffs, and important quests dissipated.  On the eve of his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is just wanting to feel a little more at home in his own skin. His mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said) encourages him to be more outgoing at school and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) thinks that life should be lived like its one big role-playing game. More than anything, though, Ian wishes he had met his dad who died before he was born. Barley barely remembers him but at least he has something…Ian doesn’t have anything. So when their mom presents a gift their dad had asked her to reveal when both were over 16, it sets them off on a journey to complete a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours.

The first attempt at the spell only brings back the bottom half of their dad so communication comes through the feet, and it will take finding another rare stone to complete the magic that will restore him fully. Forcing the vastly different brothers to work together, the search for the gem puts them into contact with a mythical Manticore (Octavia Spencer, Ma) who was once fearsome but is now toothless and through challenges straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. As is typical with any Pixar film, there’s a host of wild supporting characters throughout with some appearing briefly (two words: feral unicorns) and others getting a bit more screen time (Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe is Pixar’s first confirmed lesbian character) but the main focus is on the brothers and how they come to appreciate one another through their time together.

The long and short of it is this: yes, I did cry in Pixar’s latest tear-factory fantasy movie but it was not the severe ugly cry I was afraid it would be. Instead, I was taken with how the studio has once again managed to take a sensitive subject and made it palatable for children and a good jumping off discussion point for adults to have with their kids if any questions come up after the movie. Death is always a hard topic to discuss but in several of their movies, Pixar has found a way into that conversation that isn’t as scary as it might have been years ago when there weren’t animated characters that are saying some of the same things children are also feeling. Writer/director Dan Scanlon also has a nice way of bringing a lot of plot points together into one theme as the film moves toward its conclusion – I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it but it gets there in a lovely way.

It’s always risky now in this Must Be Proven Franchise Material cinema world we live in to create original story but Onward is a striking bit of computer generated fun with pathos on top of it all. The animation is beautiful…so is the message.

 

Movie Review ~ Extra Ordinary


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Though an Irish driving instructor has a love-hate relationship with her supernatural abilities, she decides to help a local man and his possessed daughter.

Stars: Maeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Will Forte, Claudia O’Doherty, Jamie Beaming, Terri Chandler, Risteard Cooper, Emma Coleman, Carrie Crowley, Mary McEvoy

Director: Mike Ahern & Edna Loughman

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Here’s one of those “bad” problems to have if you’re a movie critic…try not to roll your eyes. Sometimes, I have offers to watch so many screeners that I don’t know which one to choose and I wind up going simply on the logline or the poster – whichever catches my attention first. Then I line them up by release date and start knocking them out, hoping I’ve chosen titles that won’t be eye-rollers like the horror film about a priest that turned into a dinosaur (The VelociPastor) or the latest in a line of rural crime dramas (Inherit the Viper and Disturbing the Peace). At the back of my mind, I’m always waiting for the true diamond in the rough.

It took me a while and even though I’ve been fortunate to see an amazing amount of good movies from the comfort of my home I was so pleased to find Extra Ordinary exceeded all expectations. Here’s a movie that has a description that sounds like a lot of fun, boasts a poster that looks like a wacky ride, produced a trailer that didn’t give all the laughs or twists away, and winds up being one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen so far in 2020. Mixing genres is tough with any combination but comedy and horror is, surprisingly, often the most difficult. The team involved in front of and behind the scenes for Extra Ordinary know what they’re doing and they’ve not only turned out a wholly satisfying blend of gory horror and laugh out loud comedy but they’ve likely created a small cult classic at the same time.

The daughter of a famous paranormal psychiatrist who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, Rose (Maeve Higgins, who also co-wrote the film) is a driving-instructor that enjoys her peaceful life in the Irish countryside. With her love-life non-existent, she hangs out with her pregnant sister (Terri Chandler) and dodges gossip hounds looking for information on her dad and also requesting her services. Seems that while her dad investigated unexplained occurrences, Rose actually has supernatural abilities that manifest themselves in different ways. She can talk to spirits and other objects, which is great for those that want her help but bad for Rose who thinks that her “gift” killed her father.  Meanwhile, making a pact with a demon to resurrect his career is one-hit wonder rock musician Christian Winter (Will Forte, Nebraska) and he’s looking to sacrifice a virgin. When he takes Sarah (Emma Coleman), her father Martin (Barry Ward) enlists Rose’s help in saving his daughter and stopping Christian from bringing forth an evil that wants to do a hell of a lot more than assure success for its minion. Racing against time, Rose must face her childhood fears and put aside her burgeoning feelings for Martin if she’s to save Sarah and herself from certain hell.

If you’re reading this you’d think by now it was some new Blumhouse horror movie but the writers and directors have delivered it all with tongue firmly in cheek and a never ending barrage of one-liners and visual gags that work almost exclusively to its advantage. Truth be told, there were so many asides and small touches that I thought I’d have to watch the movie again in order to catch everything before writing this review.  I’ve seen many compare the movie to Ghosbusters and I can see where that may tie in (those that were grossed out by Slimer in that ’80s movie should brace themselves for a host of icky phlegm appearances here) but I’d liken this movie more to Peter Jackson’s underrated horror comedy The Frighterners or Housebound, mostly because the humor seems in better alignment.  Many movies start out with a bang but can’t maintain that energy or interest but the wonderful thing about Extra Ordinary is that it just gets better, funnier, and more engaging as it goes along.

That’s due in no small part to the enormous charm of Higgins leading the cast of talented players that all fit their roles to perfection. I wasn’t familiar with Higgins before this but I hope to see more of her and I’m betting more people will take notice after this. The way she presents Rose as so relatable without making her some sad-sack or the butt of jokes (an early scene in her kitchen where she eats a microwave meal in nothing but control top pantyhose deserves some kind of Not Giving Zero F***s Award) is exactly the right approach. As the straight man to Rose, Ward supports Higgins well as does Forte who resists the urge to go fully over the top and make the movie more about him than anything else. He tends to push too much at times (as many former SNL players do) but when he gets it right the role hums perfectly.

Likely to be a movie you’ll hear about a lot before you actually see it, make some extra time in your schedule for Extra Ordinary. Sure, you may not be a horror fan or the target audience for this type of film but Higgins and company may convince you otherwise and coax you to their side with their charming whip of frights and fun.

Movie Review ~ Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Unable to become a priest because of his criminal record, when Daniel is sent to work at a carpenter’s workshop in a small town he accidentally takes over the local parish, providing an opportunity for the local community to begin the healing process after a tragedy.

Stars: Bartosz Bielenia, Eliza Rycembel, Aleksandra Konieczna, Tomasz Zietek, Leszek Lichota, Lukasz Simlat, Zdislaw Wardejn, Barbara Kurzaj

Director: Jan Komasa

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The past few years, I’ve started to feel a little bad for the other four nominees in the Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Film) at the Oscars. The way things have shaken out, by the time the nominations are announced there is already a clear front-runner and that tends to push the other films in that category to the sidelines. Though people can say they want to be well-rounded and globally astute, if there is one blind spot at the Academy Awards where they can be comfortable it’s Best International Feature. That’s why I get the feeling that once voters know about the front runner (this year Parasite, last year Roma, the previous year A Fantastic Woman) they then feel they can ignore the other nominees.

That’s a shame because doing that means you miss other interesting features like Never Look Away and Capernaum from 2018 and the selections from this year: Les Misérables, Honeyland, Pain and Glory, and this Polish entry just getting a wider release now. I was fortunate enough to get a look at this one before the ceremony and while I don’t think I could have rightfully voted it as the winner, you can easily see why the nominating committee took notice of this interesting feature.  Mixing themes of faith, drama, redemption, and, astonishingly, a little bit of mistaken identity comedy, I thought I knew the familiar path Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) was going to tread but director Jan Komasa, working from a script by Mateusz Pacewicz, finds a unique and scenic cinematic route to take.

Developing faith during his stay in a youth detention facility, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) wants to continue his training when he is released and become a full time priest. His past run-ins with the law prevents that from happening so he accepts the terms of his work release and travels to a small town to begin work as a carpenter. Through a series of coincidences that can only happen in the movies (but a smartly crafted one), he winds up being mistaken for a new priest that’s been expected at the parish and uses that misunderstanding to his advantage.  Barely met with a sideways glance or anyone questioning his true identity, he fits in remarkably well and it’s only when he challenges the town’s approach to a tragedy that feathers get ruffled and truths are uncovered. Until then, Daniel forms a bond with the daughter (Eliza Rycembel) of a devoted pillar of the church (Aleksandra Konieczna) while trying to avoid a figure from his past that shows up at a most inopportune time.  Through it all, he manages to impart on the town, and on himself, some words of true wisdom that only someone speaking from the heart could drum up. In doing that, he tells the truth even when living with a lie.

Aside from a rather unfortunate graphic sex scene and the insistence of finding some kind of villain to fill the film’s third act, Corpus Christi is a rather lovely film that could have been something they showed in church. As Daniel, Bielenia commands the screen with not just charm but a passion that makes you root for him even though you know he’s deceiving others and digging a dangerous hole deeper and deeper. I wish the film had focused a bit more on figuring out who he was before we met him instead of making him such an enigma but perhaps that’s the point and we the audience are being treated like the townspeople – how do we judge Daniel based only on what we are presented with? Interesting questions for an intriguing film.

Movie Review ~ Escape from Pretoria


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two white South Africans, imprisoned for working on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC), determine to escape from the notorious white man’s `Robben Island’, Pretoria Prison.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page, Stephen Hunter

Director: Francis Annan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Just when you think you’ve seen all the prison movies you can take, along comes Escape from Pretoria and you find that you have to give it a chance.  I mean, it’s an important true-life tale of political prisoners in the late ‘70s South Africa unjustly jailed for spreading propaganda denouncing apartheid who form a clever plan over time to escape their captors.  Along the way there are setbacks and strife, inspirational moments and bitter defeats, culminating in a broad daylight break out for freedom. Let’s be real, The Shawshank Redemption it ain’t but it stirs some of the same emotional vibes of that gem of a film and uses them to keep your interest for much of its tense running length.

Caught setting off small explosives that send political messages with anti-apartheid sentiment into the air, Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee were both sentenced to multiple years in Pretoria Central Prison in 1979.  Unable to bribe their way out of confinement, it would have been easy to just accept their sentence and serve their time but Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe, Victor Frankenstein) wasn’t going to give his racist government the satisfaction of holding him prisoner.  Though his other anti-apartheid inmates felt that serving their time was an honor and an important representation of their sacrifice for the cause, Jenkin, Lee (Daniel Webber), and French prisoner Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter, The Dressmaker) were of the belief they could do more outside the walls.

For over a year, Jenkin plotted an ingenious method of escape.  It didn’t involve digging a hole or shimmying through a sewer drain but making keys to the prison cells out of the wood scraps they had at their disposal.  With a number of doors to account for and even more methods of opening them, making the keys was easy but figuring out the sequence of events without getting caught was the real challenge. Jenkin’s trial and error over time is what writer/director Francis Annan uses to create some fairly suspenseful sequences along the way, keeping audiences unconsciously biting their nails or gripping their armrests.  Each bead of sweat that hangs precipitously from a brow and every key that won’t open a lock when it has to is worth at least a few fingernail clippings.  That Annan can keep up this atmosphere throughout is worth noting, especially when you can tell the budget for this one wasn’t huge and the simple sets require some imagination to work in.

Though he (like everyone in the movie) battles more with his accent than any prison guard, Radcliffe continues to take on interesting roles that challenge him.  He seems intent to not play the same character or shade of character the same way twice and that’s impressive.  He’s long past the point of having to prove he’s more than just Harry Potter and now you can see he’s doing it for himself and not to show his naysayers he’s limited.  As an elder prisoner, Ian Hart (Mary Queen of Scots) has a nice turn as a source of sage advice for Jenkin…even if he doesn’t always like what the more seasoned inmate has to say.  Winter, too, is good in early scenes as a man determined to get out not just for his own freedom but so that he can reunite with his child, though he gets increasingly wild as the film progresses, the first half of the movie is a well crafted look at a man intent on not letting the system beat him.

It would be easy to browse past this one but I’d encourage giving it a chance.  Like the recent underseen remake of Papillon, while it may look predictable, it isn’t as cut and dry as it may appear at first glance.  With Annan’s intelligent direction and the excellent performances throughout, this is one prison film you could get locked up in.

Movie Review ~ Run This Town


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An emerging political scandal in Toronto in 2013 seen through the eyes of young staffers at city hall and a local newspaper.

Stars: Ben Platt, Nina Dobrev, Mena Massoud, Damian Lewis, Jennifer Ehle, Scott Speedman

Director: Ricky Tollman

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Political movies can go one of two ways in my book.  They can either be timely pieces that illustrate how current events line up with the past (or vice versa) or they can be too talky, with insider-baseball scripts that only a third year Senate intern would appreciate.  So it’s interesting to note that Run this Town is one of these genre films that wants to have it both ways.  It revels in deep dive dialogue that strives to impress while looking to find a way to connect up with our political climate today.

Living in the early months of 2020 and the simmering pot of salty water that will soon be brought to a boil by our November presidential election, it can be easy to forget the 2013 events that are covered in Run this Town.  Even I needed to stop the movie for a few minutes to get a little refresher about what’s happening in writer/director Ricky Tollman’s breathless opening, a back and forth between a group of young politicos that hits the ground running without much of a warm-up. While I’m more familiar with Toronto’s Rob Ford for his infamous antics first as Mayor and then as a scandalized fallen citizen with drug charges, I admit I wasn’t aware of the late politician’s troublesome behavior in a pre-Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment landscape.

At the center of the film is Bram (Ben Platt, Pitch Perfect), a recent college grad hoping to become a journalist that lands a job at an impressive paper in Toronto where his bosses are Scott Speedman (The Vow) and the imposing Jennifer Ehle (RoboCop).  Coming from a privileged family (not unlike Platt himself), Bram has an uphill battle in proving himself and he’s after a big story…and it presents itself to him when he catches wind of the dirty dealings surrounding Mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, unrecognizable in a fat suit and prosthetic facial additions) and his political office.  As Bram attempts to navigate the tricky ethics of exposing a political animal, Ford’s long-suffering aide (Mena Massoud, Aladdin) struggles with his own morals in protecting his boss though he knows what kind of man he is.  An encounter between Ford and a young aide (Nina Dobrev, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) proves to be a catalyst that will send a ripple effect through the political halls and newspaper rooms of Toronto and, soon, the world.

Reminding me to a lesser extent of Spotlight, Run this Town absolutely has its focus in the right place but I’m not sure if there was something lost in the translation of Tollman’s script to the screen or what but the movie is dense and distracting.  Even focusing in on the dialogue, the movie is sometimes hard to follow and at a not that long 99 minutes the film feels padded for time.  The performances are solid across the board, but the jury is out if Lewis is excellent under all that plastic and padding or if it’s an absolutely terrible hammy take on Ford.  You won’t be able to take your eyes off it, that’s for sure.  There’s promise in Tollman’s ear for sharp dialogue though and, with time, I think he’ll be a director to watch out for.  Not quite the talk of the town yet, but Run this Town is a good start.

Movie Review ~ The Invisible Man (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman

Director: Leigh Whannell

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 Minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  In the mid 2010’s, Universal Studios saw the writing on the wall.  They didn’t have any true franchise properties left and even the recently resurrected Jurassic World would only take them so far.  With Marvel doing beyond spectacular business with The Avengers and all their spin-offs and after Warner Brothers got into the groove of their DC world with Wonder Woman, the once titan Universal was suddenly taking at least the bronze in the box office Olympics.  Then, some clever person within the company hit on something…the studio had a literal haunted house full of characters that had filled their coffers almost a hundred years earlier and had largely laid dormant for the last half century.  Why not resurrect Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein? Then they’d give them a modern twist to create what was to be known as the Dark Universe.

To me, this sounded like a heck of a lot of fun.  With The Mummy in production with Tom Cruise, the kernel of an idea started to grow into something interesting with the news that Oscar winners Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and other A-listers like Johnny Depp would be coming on board for various projects over the next several years.  Announcing not just the movies but also actual release dates along with a much passed around photo of these stars giving their best brooding monster face, the studio put all of their precious eggs in one mummified basket and the result…was a complete disaster.  Released in 2017, The Mummy had its moments but Cruise was too old for his role and the titular character (recast as a female and that’s where the creativity stopped) was largely absent.  While not a complete bomb, the box office returns were paltry enough to completely throw the Dark Universe off its axis, resulting in a humiliating about face for Universal, which eventually cancelled all of its gothically grandiose plans.  The Dark Universe was dead.

It was surprising, then, to see a new version of The Invisible Man quietly make its way onto the schedule for an early 2020 release.  Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3), this isn’t a straight-up remake of the classic film from 1897 based on the novel by H.G. Wells but an original story that has more in common with the 1991 Julia Roberts film Sleeping with the Enemy.  What made The Mummy such a downer was how much it was clear it was trying to be this jumping off point for something bigger.  The Invisible Man doesn’t come with those extra trappings (at least not that I could immediately observe) so it has a freedom to be its own monster instead of being the first step in a full-blown creature crawl.

The first thirty minutes of Whannell’s movie is focused on establishing Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss, Us), a woman putting her life back together after escaping (literally) her violent and controlling significant other, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Raven).  Fleeing from his impressively secure beachfront home in the middle of the night, she hides out with her sister’s boyfriend James (Aldis Hodge, Clemency) in the home he shares with his daughter (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle in Time).  Fearing Adrian will find her and even though James is a police officer that isn’t rattled easily, Cecilia stays indoors and out of sight…until her sister (Harriet Dyer) arrives with the news that Adrian has taken his own life.  Now…Cecilia is truly free.

Adrian’s death brings Cecilia some emotional relief and a financial windfall after she’s named the beneficiary of his fortune at a meeting with his brother, Tom (Michael Dorman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales).  The calm is short lived, though, because soon she starts to get the strange feeling she’s being watched by an unseen presence.  Items start to disappear and events occur that can’t be easily explained unless…maybe Adrian isn’t really dead.  Perhaps his work in optics has given him a way to crack the code on invisibility and allowed him to stalk Cecelia, her family, and her friends.  Could that invisibility suit he was working on in his lab actually work to let him slip in and out of Cecilia’s new life unnoticed and enact psychological torture on her? Then again…with her already fragile mental state it could be that Cecelia is just imagining it all and she’s the one behind the violence that begins to occur?

At 124 minutes, Whannell definitely gives audiences a full movie experience with a beginning, middle, and an end and I appreciated the whole thing felt like such a complete package.  It absolutely has an old-school ‘90s vibe to it and that isn’t a bad thing in my book, though it may come off a little hokey for movie-goers used to seeing their foes instead of just imagining them.  Blessedly going light on the kind of visual effects that could have bogged things down, Whannell opts for practical methods to elicit good scares along the way.  I think there are a few too many one-person fights with an invisible enemy but they are staged with flair that keep you alert and engaged.  The final 40 minutes are a wild ride, yet Whannell makes a bold choice to end the movie on a quieter (but still effective) note than you may be used to.

Though she’s amassed a large fan following from her days on Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve never totally warmed to Moss as an actress.  Her addled lady on the edge only goes so far with me and after 2019’s Her Smell was so widely embraced I sort of just couldn’t take it anymore. (I can’t believe how many people liked that movie – it’s just…blah…terrible and you can hate me all you want for saying it).  Here, though, all the ticks and quirks that Moss uses as calling cards work in her favor and she positively makes this movie soar on a different level than a conventional horror film.  She has the relatable “Anytown, U.S.A.” look to her so that when she turns around and surveys an empty room, unable to place why she’s uneasy but knowing something is wrong, you instantly understand the rising fear.  Her performance is so key that while the rest of the supporting cast is strong (Hodge, in particular, is becoming a value-add to anything he shows up in), they tend to fade into the background when sharing the screen with her.

If this is where Universal is going creatively with their intellectual property than I say more power to them because it’s an intriguing entry point into pulling from the past to create something new.  In November it was announced that Elizabeth Banks would direct and star in The Invisible Woman which thankfully isn’t related to this movie and they also have plays for a Renfield movie, taking a secondary character from Dracula off the sidelines and positing them at the forefront.  All interesting choices that I’m excited to see play out.  Right here, right now though…The Invisible Man is well worth getting a glimpse of.

Movie Review ~ The Lodge


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A soon-to-be-stepmom is snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote winter cabin. Isolated and alone, strange and frightening events threaten to summon psychological demons from her strict religious childhood.

Stars: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Living in the Midwest, we take the cold and the snow very seriously.  When the temps drop and the white stuff piles up, there’s nothing more we love doing that hunkering down indoors and waiting for summer to arrive, all the while hoping the cabin fever keeps its distance.  So you’d understand why, for me, when a movie like The Lodge comes around it doesn’t spark the same kind of instant fear that someone in, say, Malibu might have if they could think of nothing so horrible as to be stuck in a wintery retreat cut off from the outside world with malevolent forces at work.  That being said, I’m always up for a spooky little horror yarn from an independent distributor and this one was arriving with a sharp snare drum of good buzz so I made sure to bundle up and see it at a recent screening at my local Alamo Drafthouse.

Usually, you can take the pull quotes from the marketing materials with a large grain of thick kosher salt because the studio is looking for the lines from advance reviews that will catch the greatest amount of attention.  Why call a movie “scary” when you can call it “the scariest movie I’ve seen in ages!”?  Thankfully, those smart folks at Neon aren’t out to overshoot things and have found a good one to describe this new horror film from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz: “Scary as Hell” and for once they aren’t too far away from spot-on.  This is a taut, largely unpredictable film that refuses to be put into a box early on and manages to maintain its mood and suspense far longer than it ought to.

Now, it’s going to be harder than usual to discuss this without giving away some semblance of spoilers because the set-up has some spoiler-ish elements but know that I’m weighing what I’m revealing against your overall experience.  Read on if you will – or if you truly don’t want to know anything that stop right now and come back and read this as you’re warming up after the movie.

For Aidan (Jaeden Martell, Midnight Special) and Mia (Lia McHugh, Hot Summer Nights) the holidays aren’t going to be the same as they were last year.  Their parents have split up and while their emotional fragile mom Laura (Alicia Silverstone, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) works out her own issues they are spending more time with their dad, Richard (Richard Armitage, Into the Storm) and his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough, Mad Max: Fury Road).  As is the case with many children of divorced parents, the teens aren’t taking too well to dad’s new squeeze and it doesn’t make things better when he invites her along to their family cabin weekend for the Christmas holiday.

On the surface, Grace seems like she should be a good fit with the family.  Though maybe slightly too young to be both in a new relationship with Richard and a possible future stepmother, she bares a striking resemblance to Laura and that only adds fuel to the fire of Aidan and Mia’s dislike for her.  When Richard leaves for a planned weekend back in the cities for work, he leaves Grace alone with the children and that’s when things start to get…weird.  You see, Grace was the only surviving member of a mysterious doomsday cult and her sanity begins to teeter on the edge when unexplained things start to occur.  Is it the children playing a practical joke, have shadowy figures from her past come back to continue their work, or is Grace simply losing her mind and imagining it all?

There was a Q&A after the movie with the directors and they seemed to revel in the fact that this movie is as twisted as it is.  Going off of their previous film, 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, I definitely see why they would have been drawn to this as their follow-up because there are similar themes of children acting as possible manipulators on fragile adults and how their games can turn deadly.  What’s so intriguing about The Lodge is the way it builds its central mystery with such care that the solution could have been any number of outcomes.  I honestly had it in my mind it was going in one direction and had the scenes/dialogue to back-it up…only to have the directors pull the rug out from under me with another twist I didn’t see coming.

All the twists in the world wouldn’t have meant a hill of beans if they didn’t have a cast that was able to convince you to go in the wrong direction over and over again.  Martell and McHugh have tricky, tricky roles and for reasons that I can’t divulge will only say that what they are asked to do is pretty remarkable right up until the credits run.  I’m so glad to see Silverstone continue to take on challenging roles that couldn’t be further away from her Clueless days and while Armitage likely has the least interesting part of all, he manages to keep you wondering what he’s up to when he vanishes for long stretches of time. The film belongs to Keough, though, and her gradual descent into a calculated madness is well thought out and benefits from Fiala and Franz shooting the film in chronological order.  That allows Keough to chart her breakdown convincingly; giving her room to find the little ways her resolve begins to crack along the way.

For most of these types of movies, once the Big Twist has been revealed the rest of the run time gets a little tiresome as audience members just wait for all the edges to be rounded off.  In The Lodge, Fiala and Franz make good use of what comes after to instill even more disturbing outcomes, serving up real time consequences that are tough to watch.  You can tell Fiala and Franz have affinity for their characters in the way they see them through to the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they let them off easily.  This one earns its stripes as a solid horror film but also benefits from strong film making at its core.

Movie Review ~ The Night Clerk


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While on duty, a young, socially challenged hotel clerk witnesses a murder in one of the rooms but his suspicious actions land him as the lead detective’s number one suspect

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathon Schaech, Jacque Gray

Director: Michael Cristofer

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  As a lifelong fan of all things mystery and thriller, I’ve come to know my way around a whodunit.  At first, being able to decipher the plot twists and guess the solution early on in a film was frustrating because I felt I was somehow being let down by the movie not playing its cards closer to the chest.  I wanted to have to work to figure it out – that’s the fun of it all, right?  Well, as I kept watching over time I found that it became more interesting to see what else the film was offering up even if it couldn’t keep its secrets safe until that final reel.  Often, I’d wind up appreciating performances more when I saw how they lined up with where the outcome was heading and that showed signs not of a weak script but a well-thought out one.

I mention this at the beginning of my review for The Night Clerk because the murder mystery plot that writer/director Michael Cristofer uses is well-worn and easy to solve almost from the top.  I wouldn’t dare spoil it but Cristofer has not built this tale on a series of complex plot machinations and, y’know, I think that helps the movie at the end of the day because it allows for more interesting moments to emerge.  Though working with a tiny budget that doesn’t call for much in the way of sets or location shooting, Cristofer has assembled an appealing cast that approaches the material as a drama first, a mystery second.

Working the late shift for a modest hotel chain, Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan, Mud) is trying his best to overcome his socially awkward ways.  Clearly on the spectrum but high functioning and living in the basement of his mother’s house, Bart has taken to hiding video cameras in the hotel rooms but not for the reasons you may think.  Instead of being a peeping Tom, Bart observes the way the guests interact and models his speech patterns and conversation starters off of the topics he overhears.  While he still eats the meals his mother prepares alone in the basement as she dines solo upstairs longing for her son to sit with her, you can tell he’s trying to forge some kind of connection that makes sense to him.

Thriving off his routine, Bart’s precision and order is upended after a guest is murdered while he watches remotely, unable to help, on his video monitors.  He’s haunted by the event but unable to say anything to his mother (Helen Hunt, The Sessions) or the cop assigned to the case (John Leguizamo, American Ultra) who can tell Bart knows more than he’s letting on and is further perplexed by Bart’s over-interest in the homicide.  Complicating things further is another guest at the hotel, a mysterious beauty (Ana de Armas, Knives Out) that seems to understand and accept Bart more than others.  Is she the kind soul he’s been waiting for, or is there another plot underway that’s tied back to the earlier murder?

Surprisingly, the murder plotline and everyone associated with it (including Johnathon Schaech’s hammy overacting as a grieving widower) becomes the least interesting part of Cristofer’s film once de Armas arrives.  As Andrea, at first you wonder if she’s just a figment of Bart’s imagination until you realize that isn’t the kind of movie Cristofer is trying to make.  The enigmatic figure struts into Bart’s life late at night and captivates him for all the right reasons.  Sure she’s beautiful but she also appears to be a genuine person and the scenes Sheridan and de Armas share are quite good and interesting to watch.  It’s always a gamble when someone without autism takes on a character on the spectrum but Sheridan doesn’t make Bart a jumble of tics and clichés.  He slightly overdoes it at times but for the most part, it’s an admirable take on the challenge.

Running a trim 90 minutes, the interludes with Sheridan and de Armas can’t carry the entire running length and when Cristofer attempts to pull a series of last minute twists it starts to fall apart a bit because he’s tugging at too many strings all at once.  I would have been more interested in this one if it was just a drama about two people that found each other in an unlikely situation and managed to develop something interesting out of it.  Introducing some seedier elements cheapens that special relationship Sheridan and de Armas create but it doesn’t take away from it fully.  Worth checking this one out if you can catch it on your streaming service.

Movie Review ~ The Assistant


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A searing look at a day in the life of an assistant to a powerful executive as she grows increasingly aware of the insidious abuse that threatens every aspect of her position.

Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh, Noah Robbins, Dagmara Domińczyk, Purva Bedi

Director: Kitty Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: A film like The Assistant was bound to arrive eventually.  Ever since the Harvey Weinstein scandal brought to light the unspoken predatory behavior beyond Hollywood’s closed doors there have been countless news articles, think pieces, and non-fiction works that have gone deep into how things got as bad as they did.  Yet for as many of these real-life dealings in sensational exposés there was going to come a time when a fictionalized account would make it way to screens and I was bracing for a squirm-inducing bit of discomfort.  The trailer for The Assistant is cut to look like a razor sharp thriller and even the log-line promises “a searing look” at a day in the life of our titular character.

So…why isn’t The Assistant more affecting or more substantive?  Writer/director Kitty Green certainly has decent designs on her compact story told over the course of one seemingly ordinary day but whatever she’s trying to say about the current state of the Time’s Up or #MeToo movement gets lost in muddled delivery.  It’s never clear if this is an indictment on the industry at large or intended to cast a withering look on those that see troubling things happen but refuse to say anything.  Instead of being a modest yet compelling voice that adds to the proposed change the industry needs, The Assistant winds up becoming a frustrating part of the problem with its resolute adherence to staid storytelling.

Jane (Julia Garner, Grandma) works for a high-profile movie exec at an unnamed studio and seems to have gotten used to her surroundings.  She arrives before dawn and sets up for the day; organizing schedules, preparing coffee, and steeling herself for her boisterous male peers that routinely slough off the more mundane tasks to her plate.  We never see the boss, only hearing his muffled bark on the phone or through walls when he’s berating his staff but his presence hangs over the office like a dark cloud.  Aside from the occasional celebratory (Patrick Wilson pops in playing himself and seeing that his wife Dagmara Domińczyk has a smaller role you wonder if they aren’t friends of the production), a parade of women flow through the doors during business hours, with no one batting an eye if some of the more exotic beauties leave slightly disheveled, unable to make eye contact on their way out.

When a pretty but clearly unqualified girl fresh off the turnip truck shows up saying she’s been hired by the boss as a new assistant to work alongside Jane, Jane’s reaction and next steps are startling for two reasons.  The first is that she recognizes just how little importance is placed on the work she’s currently doing and it’s somehow only dawning on her now that hard work in the industry only gets you so far.  The real lesson, and best sequence of the movie, is a scene between Jane and an HR leader (Matthew Macfadyen, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) who she has turned to with her concerns.  Garner and Macfadyen both play the dynamics of this conversation well and it takes you in directions you may not initially guess.  Green’s script may not give Garner the kind of speech you want her to have but there’s something telling in what’s not being said between the two characters.

If only the rest of The Assistant had been as finely tuned as this one scene, it may have amounted to more than a small distraction that further illustrates that men in power routinely abuse their position.  I wish Green had gone further in the forum she was given and had been able to create some more depth in the other secondary characters that fill out the rest of the cast.  Aside from Garner and Macfadyen, everyone else seems to be barely etched and, consequently, played without much grounding.  There’s something to the structure Green has created but it’s in the building of the finished product where things just fall flat.