Movie Review ~ The Gentlemen


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mickey Pearson is an American expatriate who became rich by building a marijuana empire in London. When word gets out that he’s looking to cash out of the business, it soon triggers an array of plots and schemes from those who want his fortune

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery

Director: Guy Ritchie

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  When he first started out, director Guy Ritchie was able to deliver films that felt like rough and rowdy brawlers.  They were British to their core, authentic in their design with deliriously off the wall characters that didn’t come off as cliché stereotypes or too arch to be taken seriously.  Finding a crossover hit early on in the US with 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels he scored and even bigger hit (and married Madonna) in 2000 with Snatch starring mega-star and super fan Brad Pitt and his career in Hollywood was officially off and running.

Briefly distracted by an ill-conceived remake of Swept Away starring his wife, he found his way back to the grittier gangster pics (albeit with bigger budgets and more formal studio involvement) for Revolver and RocknRolla.  That’s pretty much the last time the Ritchie who was heralded as the next big thing in the early 2000’s was seen because the director has largely toiled in high profile franchise or tent pole fare for the past decade.  His two Sherlock Holmes films were fun but didn’t play to his strengths and while the big screen adaptation of television’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t the sizable hit it should have been, it felt like Ritchie was getting back to what he was good at.  By the time Ritchie signed on to oversee the live-action adaptation of Aladdin that was released in 2019, I think even he was surprised at where his career was sitting.

Perhaps that’s why he’s starting 2020 off with the release of The Gentlemen, an interesting return to form for Ritchie that’s a good reminder of what he can do with material he feels some affinity toward.  Serving as both writer and director, Ritchie has assembled some top tier talent from the UK and US but don’t let the title, poster, or other marketing fool you.  This isn’t a refined “ol chap” sort of crime caper but a hard-nosed, foul-mouthed, not always linear crime drama that often gets lost in its own maze of double crosses and deception.

After years of building a successful drug trafficking empire in the UK, American businessman Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar) has tired of all the extra precautions and risk and is ready to sell his business and retire with his wife Roz (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop).  News of his plans spreads quickly and attracts the attention of a quietly treacherous billionaire (Jeremy Strong, Serenity) who thinks he can outsmart Mickey and drive down his asking price and ambitious Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding, Last Christmas) looking to make a play for his own piece of the London underworld.  With the two men vying for the whole mincemeat pie, they’ll resort to any method of skulduggery to get what they want and that may involve working together…or are they all being outsmarted by an entirely different puppet-master?

This being a Ritchie film, there has to be several subplots going that will eventually loop back around to tie into the central story line.  One involves a flighty (and foppish) tabloid journalist (Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins) attempting to extort money from Mickey’s right hand henchman (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim) who knows where all the bodies are buried and isn’t above digging another hole for the reporter.  Also factoring in the mix are a team of young amateur boxers and wannabe rap viral video stars who raid the wrong drug house and need their exasperated coach (a divine Colin Farrell, Dumbo) to get them out of a jam.

How these threads get braided together, tied off, trimmed up, and sewn shut makes for an entertaining final act of The Gentlemen but it’s that first 75 minutes or so that are a bit rocky to get through.  It’s a fairly slow opening and one that is, at times, hard to follow with Ritchie jumping around in timelines which can make it difficult to track the action and the characters.  There’s a smart way of doing these shifts (think Pulp Fiction) and it starts with a strong screenplay that’s well defined, razor sharp. Unfortunately, Ritchie’s script isn’t all that dynamic so even if the double crosses and twists that emerge aren’t exactly easy to identify, it’s mostly because we’ve been deliberately not given information that would have helped us piece together the puzzle.  One scene has us not being able to decipher what people are saying in a key moment because there’s something in the way blocking our view yet when the scene is replayed later on that obstruction has vanished and we can clearly hear that one nugget that would have clued us in.  In a way, that’s cheating the audience through trickery.

Along with a rather inspired soundtrack (always one of Ritchie’s strengths), the cast helps to sell the movie, even with these narrative blips.  I liked McConaughey’s weary and wary kingpin, he’s clearly been in the business long enough to know when to lose his temper and when to keep his cool.  Some may find the performance “lazy” but I found it appropriately conserving energy for the characters Mickey interacts with that deserve more of his output.  I wasn’t ever totally sold on Hunnam playing such a buttoned up fellow that keeps the dirty work out of Mickey’s hands – there’s just something that doesn’t fit and I would much rather have seen Golding take on this role because I also didn’t believe him as a short fused petulant gangster.

Freed from the frocks as Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, Dockery looks like she’s having a ball as Mickey’s no-nonsense wife and while Ritchie has never been great with female characters…he at least gives her a nice zinger of a scene, small as it is.  I’m torn on Grant’s fey reporter act, half horrified at how uncouth it is in this day and age to play a part so literally and half enjoying seeing Grant continue to take on roles that are a far cry from his mop-top romantic leads that made him a star nearly three decades ago.  Stealing the show completely is Farrell as a tough love trainer who isn’t willing to let his young acolytes pay the ultimate price for a stupid mistake.  If Ritchie were to want a spin-off of this movie, he could easily find another film story for Farrell and the boys…and I’d happily see it.

Recently, 2019’s Uncut Gems was called out as having the seventh most f-words in film history and I’d be willing to bet The Gentlemen would rank just as high for the most use of the dreaded c-word.  Now in the UK that verboten word doesn’t carry quite the same weight it does on our shores but it still has a significant  impact over the course of 113 minutes.  I’m a fan of these kind of crime films and so it’s worth seeing The Gentlemen if only to make sure Ritchie continues to go back to making movies like this and doesn’t make a movie musical with Will Smith as a Genie again.  This is clearly a world and material he has a meter and rhythm for and while the overall orchestra isn’t quite in tune yet they’ve been warmed up nicely.

Movie Review ~ Clemency


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Years of carrying out death row executions are taking a toll on Warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares for another one, Williams must confront the psychological and emotional demons that her job creates.

Stars: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, LaMonica Garrett. Michael O’Neill

Director: Chinonye Chukwu

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When the Oscar nominations were announced there were a few titles and names I was hoping, but not necessarily expecting, to see.  Sure, I was crossing my fingers that Taron Egerton’s solid singing and dancing dramatic performance in the Elton John biopic Rocketman would sneak in and my heart was with previous acting Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen landing a songwriting nom for her lovely tune from the underseen Wild Rose, not to mention holding out a sliver of hope the Academy would see past the genre lines and give Lupita Nyong’o a nod for the dynamite work she did in the horror feature Us.  Yet there was one name I really wanted to see in the mix and even though it was a longshot I half-believed a surprise Best Actress nomination for Alfre Woodard in Clemency would turn up.  You can head over to my Oscar 2020 nominations page to see who landed a nomination instead of Woodard.

It’s a shame Woodard was left out of the big night for her career high work in Clemency, a small but mighty picture from writer/director Chinonye Chukwu that premiered around this time last year at the Sundance Film festival where Chukwu became the first black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.  Ever since it debuted, the buzz around Woodard’s turn as the warden of a maximum-security prison in charge of death row inmates was strong and that low hum continued throughout the rest of the year.  Here was an actress (a previous Oscar nominee in 1983 for Cross Creek, starring Steenburgen of all people!) that had worked steadily in Hollywood for the last four decades and built up a strong resume, appearing in projects with top directors and stars that was finally getting a lead role.  Certinaly, this was a role to be celebrated and rewarded.  Still, how did the movie match up to her performance?

The opening moments of Clemency are as gripping as they come.  Warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard, Annabelle) and her small team of death row guards are accompanying a condemned inmate through the final steps of his execution and the audience is taken through the agonizing procedure with them.  What seems to be an unfortunately routine process doesn’t go as planned and it has a devastating effect on all involved, spurring a sort of awakening in Bernadine to reflect on her position and the emotional toll carrying out death sentences has taken.  Though she claims to her colleague (Richard Gunn, Dark Places) to just be doing her job, it’s evident from her increased reliance on alcohol and a disconnect with her husband (Wendell Pierce, Bad Moms) that a measure of uncertainty and roiling guilt is running just below her calm surface.

It’s with the delivery of an execution date for Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, What Men Want), a prisoner maintaining his innocence, that the cracks in Bernadine’s surface start to show.  Her marriage suffers, her once friendly relationship with a anti-death penalty lawyer (Richard Schiff, Man of Steel) is strained, and her own beliefs on what really is the correct punishment that fits the crime unavoidably start to enter into her life, blurring the once solid lines between the personal and professional.  It’s not all Bernadine’s story, though, with a good chunk of time in the middle devoted to Anthony and his attempts to be granted a reprieve from the governor for a crime he says he didn’t commit and a late in the game encounter with his ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks, Orange is the New Black) and mother of his young child.  This conversation between two people so close together physically and emotionally but so far apart divided by the glass of a prison visiting room starts one way and veers into a surprising direction.  Hodge and especially Brooks play it fantastically and for maximum effect without resorting to overly dramatizing what is already a emotionally heightened scene.

The film belongs to Woodard though and when some people say an Oscar is often won by one particular scene you could point to a long unbroken take on Woodard’s face where the actress takes you on a remarkable journey.  Everything you see informs you about what this character is feeling, thinking, harboring, and deciding and Chukwu hangs on it just long enough for you to realize you’ve been leaning far forward in your seat, holding your breath.  Much like Margot Robbie’s mirror scene in I, Tonya where she practices her “game face”, battling back her fears and aggression, Woodard does the complete opposite and lets her guard down. The results are chilling and that one scene alone should have bumped out at least one of the talented women that received a nomination over her.

Acquired by Neon distribution, Clemency was added to its already busy slate of 2019 films and I think Woodard’s nomination hopes suffered because of it.  Neon also distributed Parasite and the small but growing company likely could only put their efforts behind one film and obviously Cannes Best Picture Winner Parasite was it.  Note that in addition to Parasite, in 2019 Neon released the Oscar nominated Honeyland as well as the aforementioned Wild Rose and other well-regarded titles like The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Biggest Little Farm, Amazing Grace, and Monos.  So you can understand why they may have spread themselves a little thin.  While Woodard should have received an Oscar nomination, I’m glad she was recognized by the Independent Spirit Awards.  Who knows?  Maybe she’ll pick up  a win there!

I saw Clemency in the morning before heading to the theater to see Just Mercy and it was interesting to see both movies back to back as they are dealing largely with the same social justice issues, just from different sides of the prison wall.  I found strength in both perspectives and might give the edge to Clemency only because it isn’t wrapping its tale in any crusade after the fact.  Both are clearly anti-death penalty and if I’m being honest I found myself challenging my own feelings about these sentences when presented with the numbers and facts of just how many people have been exonerated by evidence while on death row…and thinking of all those that didn’t get that chance.  I haven’t been exposed to it as much as the fictional characters in Clemency or the real live ones in Just Mercy so my eyes aren’t open as wide, but they are open.

Movie Review ~ Color Out of Space


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism that infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong

Director: Richard Stanley

Rated: Unrated

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It may seem like a distant memory now, but there was a time when Nicolas Cage was a bona fide movie star that had clout at the box office and with the notoriously picky voters in several guilds/associations that handed out major awards. Winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, Cage was always a bit of an odd duck in his approach to his craft and his habit for driving his co-stars nuts (the female ones in particular) has been well documented as more than just idle Hollywood lore. Recently, Cage has seemed to revel in leaning in to the public perception of him and it feels like he pops up in some random movie every other month. I’m not sure when the man has time to sleep or get his well cared for hair system spiffed up but he’s an old school acting workhorse.

Though most of the films Cage stars in are indecipherable from the other, every now and then he finds himself in one that gets people talking. Back in 2018 that film was Mandy, a grim head trip of a horror movie that became a bit of an underground hit – inspiring late night showings and putting Cage back in the good graces of fans that hadn’t seen a movie of his in theaters for years. That movie was very nearly an art project, a true experience into hell that had an impressive style and some bold moves but ultimately didn’t thrill me as much as it did others that were welcoming Cage back into the fold. Now, just a little over a year later comes Color Out of Space, another strange foray into the unknown with Cage in the drivers seat but this time he’s in a vehicle that’s going someplace interesting.

Adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space”, this isn’t the first time Lovecraft’s supernatural sci-fi has gotten the big screen treatment. Audiences first saw a version of it via the 1965 Boris Karloff schlocker Die, Monster, Die! and the one I remember fondly, The Curse from 1987 but for some reason within the last ten years it has become a hot property with two other versions floating around. For this retelling, the screenplay comes courtesy of Scarlett Amaris and director Richard Stanley and they’ve done a rather remarkable job updating Lovecraft’s story while maintaining much of his original set-up.  Though modernized, it’s quite reverential to Lovecraft and the nightmare he dreamt up.

The Gardner family has come to the tiny town of Arkham, Massachusetts for a change of pace. Raising llamas while trying to get his gardening business off the ground, Nathan (Cage, Valley Girl) is making the best out of a recent rough patch of setbacks. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson, Endless Love) may have followed her husband from the city to the country but she hasn’t quite unplugged from her corporate life in doing so. Their children Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur, Big Eyes), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard, The Haunting of Hill House) are all adjusting in their own way with Lavinia opting to fully embrace her Wiccan ways and rituals now that she’s fully ensconced in nature’s beauty.

When Ward (Elliot Knight) a visiting water-surveyor enters the picture, he finds more than just a contaminated stream after a meteor crash lands on the Gardner’s property and begins to have a strange effect first on the flora and then on the family. At first, the changes are barely noticeable. New plants sprout up, unexplained phenomena increase in their occurrences. Then, those that drink from the water in the well begin to exhibit increasingly bizarre behavior until the extraterrestrial force that was contained within the meteor is fully unleashed, bringing with it an otherworldly terror. As the force gains power and begins to spread, the survivors have to evade a deceptive intelligence that aims to trick them into following it into darkness.

I was surprised at how effective Color Out of Space was for the majority of its run time. Largely, it’s a tense bit of entertainment with a heavy dose of the paranoid thriller and credit should be given to Aramis and Stanley for keeping things at a nice simmer for as long as they do. That’s quite a feat considering they have Cage in a role that is ostensibly the lead but who remains a bit in the background until the latter half of the film. You can see Stanley did his best to restrain Cage’s performance and I think editing had something to do with the finished product because Cage comes off quite well here. Sure, near the end he starts to whirl out of control but the film kinda calls for it and no one can swerve off a cliff quite like Nic Cage can. (I do wonder, however, if he was trying to emulate a certain impeached official when his character was having violent mood swings…I mean, it had to have been intentional, right?)

Along with Cage there’s a strong supporting cast with Arthur a real star in the making. There’s a worldly curiosity to her performance that makes for an intriguing character and a snappy rapport between all of the family members made me believe they all liked each other enough to withstand a good teasing. While his contributions are limited, Tommy Chong (Zootopia) is quite funny as a local off-the-grid stoner. It isn’t a stretch for Chong but he sells it with some flair. I continue to find Richardson a very underrated actress who has lived a bit in the shadow of her late sister (Natasha) and famous mother (Vanessa) throughout the years. She’s pretty great, especially when you consider just how far Stanley asks her to go in one scene.  Other actresses might have flinched but Richardson dives right in.

It’s interesting to note this is Stanley’s first feature film since he was famously fired from 1996’s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The legendary tale of Stanley’s ouster from that movie has been recounted a number of times (including the fantastic documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which is available on Amazon Prime) and judging by Stanley’s ferocious comeback he’s more than ready to get back to moviemaking without a lot of studio interference. Working with a budget around $12 million, Stanley and his visual effects crew have created an impressive looking world that is both a wonder to behold and frightening, often at the same time. There’s a particularly grotesque effect near the end of the film that should recharge the battery of any horror fan running low on gore fumes.

Though the film begins to lose some energy the further down the rabbit hole it goes and the characters start to make increasingly bad decisions, it’s absolutely one you should see if given the chance. I can see this one following a Mandy trajectory (though I found this far less intimidating and grimy) and finding an audience that responds to its mind-bending visuals, dynamic color palate, and shocking sequences of terror and violence. Even if it doesn’t all make sense all of the time, it’s more entertaining than I ever thought going in.

Movie Review ~ Just Mercy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or those not afforded proper representation. One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian, who is sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Karan Kendrick

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There’s always a dilemma in missing an early screening of a movie and waiting to see it after it is released to general audiences.  I had the opportunity to see Just Mercy back in October at the Twin Cities Film Festival and again in late December for a press screening but wasn’t able to attend either showing due to other commitments. This was a disappointment because I had been looking forward to this high-profile studio film starring rising A-Lister Michael B. Jordan and Academy Award winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson in a true-life legal drama.  With buzz out of initial festival screenings that it could be a crowd-pleasing awards favorite, I wanted to be able to see it early, yes, but also with a packed house to get their reaction as well.

So, I couldn’t have that group experience, though I don’t think Just Mercy is meant to be one of those roof-raising stand up and applaud your noble defense attorney movies in the first place. Though it could be unfairly compared to a TV movie of the week because of its familiar story line of ambitious attorney battles Goliath bigoted legal system, it’s the small gentle touches that make it special.  You get a sense it’s wrong emerging from Destin Daniel Cretton’s fourth feature feeling entertained because there is nothing fun about its racially charged subject or the picture it paints about the conviction rates of the past, present and future.  It’s a somber and sobering look at the life of one man at the beginning of his journey in the fight for social justice and the individuals that had an impact on setting him on his path.

Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Jordan, Creed) turns down offers from bigger (i.e. better paying) firms in better ports of call in favor of moving to Alabama to defend inmates wrongly convicted of crimes.  Inspired by an early meeting with a death row inmate he formed a connection with while he was still a law student, he starts the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Larson, Captain Marvel).  Seeking to provide a pro-bono defense for death row inmates who may not have received a fair trial due to their social class or ethnic background, Stevenson and Ansley come up against communities that sees them as nothing more than trying to free murders and rapists.  They face opposition from the start.  No one will rent them space for their office, Ansley receives bomb threats at her house, Stevenson is targeted by the local police and, in so many words, told to keep out of their business.

Marketing for Just Mercy would suggest that all of Stevenson’s time is devoted to working on overturning the conviction of Walter McMillian (Foxx, Django Unchained) who was accused of killing a teenage girl and given the death penalty despite a mountain of evidence proving he was innocent but that is a bit deceiving.  While it’s true that the bulk of the film revolves around the relationship that forms between the two men, there’s a significant amount of time spent with inmate Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) a veteran with PTSD on death row that also comes under Stevenson’s banner.  Both men have an impact on the lawyer Stevenson becomes and especially the time he spends with Richardson informs how Stevenson approaches the numerous setbacks he faces in the McMillian trial.  As Stevenson digs deeper in the McMIllian case, it opens the old wounds of a community that used the McMillian conviction as a Band-Aid to heal after the violent murder and aren’t willing to look at any evidence suggesting McMillian was innocent.

As this is based on a true story, the outcome of everything is right there for you to see if you choose to spoil things for yourself before going in, but I’d advise staving off that knowledge if possible.  I went in knowing nothing and it added to the tension of not being able to predict what would happen next and if justice would be served after being denied for so long.  The answers aren’t always what we want or how we expect to receive them but overall there’s a strength in Cretton’s script, though at 137 minutes the film is slightly circuitous in its path to get there.  What I can say is that the events in the film had a lasting impact on the lives of everyone involved and the work continues to this day — be sure to stay until the credits are fully rolling to be brought up to date with where things are presently.

Continuing to show he’s going to be one of the next generation of Movie Stars (the capital and M and S are purposeful), Jordan can come across as overly earnest as Stevenson but it’s exactly the right approach for the recent grad having his eyes opened to the certain realities.  He’s not naïve enough to think justice is always blind or that everyone is treated the same but watching his spirit get a bit broken during a cruel strip search his first-time visiting McMillian in jail is hard to watch.  With McMillian, Foxx has his best role in years and should have had an Oscar nomination to show for it.  The resolution to his situation and a body bereft of hope is evident when Stevenson first meets him, and Foxx creates a nice kind of magic letting the hope seep back into his person when the tides seem to turn in his direction.  Both men have an electric chemistry with Foxx the actor taking a fatherly role over Jordan — I can’t say for sure but it feels like the two got along like gangbusters and it shows onscreen.  Though their characters struggled to trust at first, the beauty found behind the walls eventually broken down is extraordinary.

Having worked with Cretton several times now, I’m surprised Larson didn’t have more to do.  She’s determined and confident as Ansley but goes missing for long stretches only to appear again to give Stevenson a pep talk or be a sounding board – so it winds up feeling like a utilitarian role rather than a pivotal one.  In some ways, I thought Morgan’s troubled death row veteran outshone Foxx.  He’s honestly the heart of the film and he’s got a whopper of a showcase that will easily get him work for the next several years.  Every film needs a villain or villain-adjacent and while it’s hard to cast the legal system into one person, Rafe Spall (Prometheus) as the stubborn District Attorney refusing to see the evidence presented to him fits the bill just fine.  Some may find Tim Blake Nelson (Angel Has Fallen) as a key witness to be slightly on the broad side but considering that Nelson had to add a speech disability that distorts his face, I found it to be an effective performance.   I also couldn’t write this review and not mention the enormous contribution of Karan Kendrick (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) and her solid turn as McMillian’s devoted wife who rallies her community behind Stevenson and her spouse.  There’s more to the role than simple love and support and Kendrick makes the most of her few scenes.

Plenty of movies have been made about the failure of our justice system to serve the men and women that can’t afford the kind of defense that would prove their innocence and plenty more will be made in the future.  Each has it’s own story of lines being crossed and motivations that are less than noble winning out over the quest for the truth.  All are worthy stories to tell because maybe it will prevent one more person from being wrongfully convicted of a crime.  Just Mercy may not have set out to change the way lawyers work with their clients, prosecutors pursue a conviction, juries weigh the facts, or judges deliver sentencing but it does highlight there is still work to be done to get it right.

Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2019)


The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Ladj Ly

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Disturbing the Peace


The Facts
:

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

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

Director: York Alec Shackleton

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Honeyland


The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Three Christs


The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Jon Avnet

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Inherit the Viper


The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Anthony Jerjen

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Underwater


The Facts
:

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

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

Director: William Eubank

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

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

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

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

It’s good!  Like, really good!

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

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

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

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

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

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