Movie Review ~ Hellboy (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hellboy and his closest allies battle an undead sorceress who has the intention of destroying the world

Stars: David Harbour, Ian McShane, Milla Jovovich, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church, Penelope Mitchell, Sophie Okonedo, Brian Gleeson, Alistair Petrie

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I believe it’s best for me to out myself right at the top of this review. I was not a comic book kid so have never been well versed in the mythology of the characters that have turned up in the pages over the years. From Marvel to DC to the Dark House imprint that published the Hellboy comics, it was just never something that I found any traction with so I was left to be a happy fan that would see these characters come to life for the first time on the big screen. I mean to show you how out of the loop I was, when The Avengers was first announced I thought it was another remake of the UK series from the 1960’s.

I give this disclaimer at the beginning of my review of Hellboy because I’m coming at this with no knowledge of what the characters SHOULD be or what the tone of the comics was. All I can report back on with my modicum of authority is the quality of this rebooted product taken as an outsider. Though it starts off with some verve and vigor, far too soon it becomes packed with the kind of noise and shoddy CGI that overwhelms the audience instead of impressing them.

The road to this Hellboy restage has been a long one, with plans for a third film under director Guillermo del Toro’s watch being abandoned in favor of starting fresh. That meant del Toro (who would wind up winning an Oscar for The Shape of Water) and original star Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim) were out and director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Tales of Halloween) and David Harbour (Suicide Squad) were in. Further separating this film from the 2004 original and its 2008 sequel was a desire to bring the character back to his darker roots and away from the more outwardly heroic (and PG-13) character del Toro and Perlman created. This new Hellboy was going to be an R-rated brawler pitted against a host of ghastly foes.

Marshall makes it clear from the opening that his approach will be different. The first shot of the film finds a crow picking the eyeball out of a corpse while Ian McShane (Jack the Giant Slayer) narrates a prologue littered with foul language. It’s here we’re introduced to the evil witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), known as The Blood Queen, who is defeated by King Arthur and cut into pieces that are spread around the world so her powers can never again be restored. Jumping ahead to introduce Hellboy as he searches for a missing agent within a nest of Tijuana vampires, the bloodletting continues.

These early scenes kick off the movie with some semblance of charm and hint there is some playfulness afoot in Andrew Cosby’s screenplay that mixes Arthurian lore with tales of vampires, witches, giants, and various other ghoulies and beasts. It’s when Hellboy’s dad (McShane) sends him off to England to assist members of The Osiris Club take down a trio of ugly giants that the film begins its gradual decline into less interesting territory. It’s also when the two weakest links in the film are introduced.

Daniel Dae Kim (Allegiant) and Sasha Lane (American Honey) become allies of Hellboy as he hunts down Nimue and her warthog henchman and you’ll wish he were working alone. As Ben Daimio, an agent harboring a dark secret, Kim barely registers as Hellboy’s opposites attract sidekick who starts off trading barbs with the red devil before softening the more he gets to know him. While Kim may struggle with his British accent it’s nothing in comparison to the abysmal effort from Lane as Alice Monaghan, a woman abducted by faeries as a child that has the ability to speak for/as the dead. Everything about Lane is wrong, from her atrocious accent (when it’s there) to her basic line readings that often arrive without inflection – if ever a single performance could ruin a movie, this is it.

As our main guy, Harbour brings the requisite attitude to the proceedings, with his Hellboy a more tortured soul haunted by his past than Perlman chose to play him. I feel like Perlman still has the edge on the role, though Harbour makes his Hellboy wholly separate and his own. The person that seems to be having the most fun and who recognizes what movie she’s actually in is Jovovich as the villainous Blood Queen seeking to find a king to rule alongside her. Reaching out to Hellboy as a possible contender for the throne, Jovovich manages to find some strange sparks with Harbor – it’s not exactly sexual chemistry but something a little more meaty and wicked. Jovovich has been relegated to Resident Evil sequel hell for years and it’s nice to see her show up in something different.

Most of the practical make-up effects are quite impressive, from Hellboy’s detailed horn stumps to the truly terrifying character of Baba Yaga. Their meeting in a nightmare-scape is a highlight of the film and I wished that Baba Yaga was given more screentime, though it feels like the studio is holding onto her for intended future installments. It’s the CGI effects that are uneven throughout. Some of the visual effects look downright terrible, a few notches up from something you would see on the SyFy channel. We’re supposed to be immersed in this world yet the sub-standard effects keep jarring us back into the reality we’re in a theater. Some late in the game scenes of extreme gore (think innocent Londoners literally ripped in half) are kind of a hoot but wind up so fake looking that the impact isn’t what the filmmakers intended.

I’ll be interested to hear what fans of the Hellboy comics think of this new film and if it aligns more with their vision of the character. Two post-credit scenes signal intentions on keeping this franchise going and if a sequel ditches Kim and Lane, improves the effects, and maybe uses make-up that is more practical than computer generated it might smooth out some of the rough edges of this reboot.

Down From the Shelf ~ Pet Sematary Two

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage boy and his father move to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, where they encounter the ancient Native American cemetery with the power to raise the dead.

Stars: Edward Furlong, Anthony Edwards, Clancy Brown, Jason McGuire, Sarah Trigger, Jared Rushton, Darlanne Fluegel

Director: Mary Lambert

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If you were to be browsing the roster of movies that have been made from the novels/novella/short stories of Stephen King, you’d notice the strange absence of a popular Hollywood occurrence: sequels. Something about King’s work has never leant itself well to a continuation of the story, mostly because the tales are largely self-contained within the singular telling. When the effort has been made to squeeze a little more money out of a popular title, you wind up with an icky franchise like the Children of the Corn saga, which has produced numerous sequels. (I stopped watching after the third one and stopped counting after the sixth). Then you have interesting misses like The Rage: Carrie 2 and this sequel to 1989’s Pet Sematary.

I could actually see where Pet Sematary would be a valid property to revisit seeing that the ending of the first film was so open-ended and ambiguous. The evil at its center, an ancient Indian burial ground where dead things come back to life, was still open for business so what was stopping another unsuspecting family from moving into the neighborhood? With the slate wiped clean there was an opportunity for screenwriter Richard Outten (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and returning director Mary Lambert to expand on King’s original idea and go deeper into the origins of the cemetery.

Unfortunately, this was 1992, when the goal of studios was to make their horror films as straightforward as possible. There’s little care for those pesky detailed complexities of backstory that would take time away from gore and bloodshed. So instead of a creative furthering of the material, Outten opts for a vague rehash of the original where someone learns the hard way that you shouldn’t re-bury dead things.

After watching his B-movie star mother get electrocuted in a freak accident on the set of her latest flick, Jeff (Edward Furlong, A Home of Our Own) returns with his father Chase (Anthony Edwards, Top Gun) to her hometown of Ludlow, Maine to bury her and start a new life. Chase sets up shop as the town veterinarian while Jeff quickly runs afoul of the school bully (Jared Rushton) and befriends a lonely outcast (Jason McGuire) with a tyrannical stepfather (Clancy Brown, Thor: Ragnarok). When the stepfather accidentally kills his friends dog, Jeff is introduced to the local pet sematary and the dark magic it holds.  Everyone in town knows what happened to the Creed family just three years earlier…and now Jeff is standing in the same location where the dead can walk.

Like the wiley cat in the first film, the once docile dog returns as an aggressive pup and causes all sorts of trouble that lead Jeff and Justin down a morally dangerous path. As they try to undo their dirty deed and as Chase learns more about what his son has been up to, the movie feels like it shows its hand far too early on. The big reveal on the ultimate power of the burial ground in the original movie was kept for the last twenty minutes or so but here you have someone resurrected about 45 minutes in and that person becomes almost an almost comedic figure, intentional or not.  Though they are supposed to be menacing, one-liners and a strangely goofy stare are clearly meant to put this character in the Freddy Krueger territory as someone who might kill you but also might just as well make you sit down and listen to their comedy routine first too.

Lambert actually succeeds well in the first half of the movie, starting with the creepy opening on the movie within a movie. She’s not working with A-list actors here and this is another opportunity to wonder why the screechy Furlong was ever considered a commodity in Hollywood. As the movie devolves into its expected violent end it never brings any scares along with it – and that starts to get mighty frustrating because you want something more to be happening. I appreciated Lambert opted to include scenes with some sincerity in them, such as when McGuire is mourning the loss of his dog but then they are overshadowed with lame pseudo-terror sequences that feel imposed upon her by the studio. The ending is especially problematic and bombastic, feeling like it was made by another filmmaker entirely.

Not surprisingly, Pet Sematary Two failed to dig up the same kind of business its predecessor did and it’s largely because no one bothered to come up with something interesting for audiences. Instead of giving us just another story of death, burial, resurrection, and violence why not go back and show us a little more about its origin? I’m sure everyone made a nice buck off of their time spent on the project…but it effectively killed any chance of a third film or more. And this is one that could have, in my opinion, had a few more sequels up its rotting sleeve.

Down From the Shelf ~ Pet Sematary (1989)

The Facts:

Synopsis: For most families, moving is a new beginning. But for the Creeds, it could be the beginning of the end.

Stars: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne, Miko Hughes, Blaze Berdahl, Brad Greenquist

Director: Mary Lambert

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Pet Sematary was released to theaters in April of 1989, Hollywood had already worked its way through many of Stephen King’s earliest works. Carrie, Cujo, Christine, The Shining…these and more had found their way to the big screen and the attention was now turning to his more obscure works as well as the new novels he was continuing to publish. Largely, the results weren’t that impressive, resulting in some clunkers and a few passable entries in the anthology horror genre before a welcome detour into nostalgic drama with the now-classic Stand by Me.

So going into opening weekend Pet Sematary wasn’t exactly a license to print money like some King adaptations would be several years after this one made nearly sixty million dollars at the box office. Yet the reason why Pet Sematary stands above many of the films that came before it and after (with a few notable exceptions) can be attributed to several factors. Unlike other novels that got the silver screen treatment, the source material was strong, the script from King himself was much more focused than anything the author had turned in before, and the direction from Mary Lambert was skilled at turning even the most benign situations into the stuff of nightmares.

Moving from the big city of Chicago to the small town life in Ludlow, Maine, the Creed family is ready for a change. Louis (Dale Midkiff) is the new doctor at a local college while his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby, Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary) sets up home with their two young children (Blake Berdahl and Miko Hughes, Kindergarten Cop). Aside from being directly next to a busy road that sees semis frequently speeding past, it’s a welcome change of pace. They even have a friendly neighbor named Jud (Fred Gwynne) who has lived in the same house long enough to fill them in on all the town gossip…including what’s at the end of the path behind the Creed’s house.

That’s where the pet sematary is…where the children of the town bury their dearly departed animals that either died of old age or met an untimely end thanks to the dangerous road right outside the Creed’s front door. Filled with headstones and gravemarkers that date back almost a century, there’s plenty to see here…but there’s also a place beyond the standard burial ground that holds a darker secret and it’s where Louis Creed will innocently cross a line that will lead to deadly consequences for his family.

King has gone on record saying his 1983 book is the only one that truly scared him when he was writing it and there’s something to the simplicity of the set-up that makes you understand why. What King is detailing in the events of the movie are all of our wishes to bring our loved ones (human and animal) back but not understanding that often, dead is better. King also turns the tables on those that feel a sense of relief when the sickly do die…showing that they are haunted by memories long after the other person has been buried.

Director Lambert has a rock and roll vibe to her movies but also perfectly captures the small town feel the movie requires. Largely taking place inside and around the Creed house, it’s a contained picture with only a few players and keeping it small makes the shocks more effective. It also shows some of the limitations to the actors with people like Crosby and especially Berdahl coming off as weak counterpoints to Midkiff and Hughes (who, at 3 gives a remarkable performance). Still, it’s Gwynne who walks away with the film with his Maine accent delivered in his basso profoundo voice. I also liked Brad Greenquist (Annabelle: Creation) as a mostly benign (if ghastly) ghost trying to guide the Creed family away from the evil they can’t seem to avoid.

With a remake of Pet Sematary on the horizon, it’s nice to look back and remember how solid this first pass at King’s tale of terror is. Admittedly, it starts to get a bit histrionic in the last half hour with the dial being turned up on everything from Elliot Goldenthal’s music to Midkiff’s performance but when it plays it cool it’s highly effective.

For an in-depth look at the making of Pet Sematary, check out Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary.  It’s available on Amazon Prime!

Movie Review ~ The Aftermath


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Post World War II, a British colonel and his wife are assigned to live in Hamburg during the post-war reconstruction, but tensions arise with the German who previously owned the house.

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Kate Phillips, Alexander Scheer, Tom Bell

Director: James Kent

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you glanced at the poster for The Aftermath and thought it was going to be more prestigious than it actually turns out being. I mean, you have period dramas #1 go-to-gal Keira Knightly front and center looking striking flanked by the brooding stares of Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgård. If you did further investigation you’d find out it was a post-WWII drama adapted from a bestseller which adds a little more fuel to the thinking that this would be a decent bit of counter-programming for a discerning adult audience as we move into the spring movie season. Alas, despite some handsome production values and the presence of the aforementioned stars, The Aftermath comes up far short of being anything to get excited about. Just a few steps up from a television soapy melodrama, it’s a strikingly ordinary bit of filmmaking that doesn’t bother to uncover the rich layers suggested by the source material or the performances the actors are trying to give.

Based on Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name, the film opens with Rachael (Knightley, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) traveling to Hamburg to meet her husband Lewis (Clarke, All I See Is You), a colonel in the British Armed Forces. The couple lost their only child during the war as the result of a Nazi attack so Rachael traveling to the heart of Germany is anything but a welcome journey for the still-grieving mother. As she travels by train, she sees the devastating impact the war has had not just on the physical structures but on the emotions of the people that were left behind. Now, after its defeat, the country has begun the arduous process of rebuilding their cities under the watchful eye of foreign nationals.

Lewis has commandeered a sprawling mansion for his military operation in Hamburg, which displaces the owner of the house a widowed German architect Stefan (Skarsgård, The Legend of Tarzan) and his young daughter, Susan (Flora Thiemann). Surprisingly, instead of fully asking Stefan to leave, Lewis attempts to forge new lines of compassion and allows the father and daughter to stay in the attic. This drives a deeper wedge between Lewis and Rachael, who can’t believe her husband is taking pity on anyone that might have been a Nazi sympathizer, though Stefan claims he was not. Eventually, Rachael begins to soften not only to Susan but to Stefan and before you know it…there’s a love triangle afoot.

Having not read the book, I’m not sure how many liberties director James Kent and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse took with the source material. Certainly there’s a decent set-up for a steamy romance between Germany and Great Britain but it’s handled in such a paint-by-numbers manner that there’s no thrill to any of it. At first, Rachael can’t stand Stefan but then she gets to know him and, guess what, she starts to like him! To their credit, Knightely and Skarsgård do their darndest to drum up some sparks but their early friction fails to lead to a bonfire of passion when they get down to it. Skarsgård especially looks totally lost and unsure how to handle a character that should be more complex than the screenwriters make him out to be. Only Clarke manages to work his way toward something interesting, presenting a man trying to forget the painful memories of his past by losing himself in the present.

The Aftermath may turn out to be one of those films you make time for on a sick day when you want a starry drama but don’t feel like investing too much in anything happening on screen. You could honestly fall asleep for part of the movie and wake-up without losing much in the way of plot. Some movies are slow-burns, this one is just slow.

Movie Review ~ Dumbo (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As the screening date for the live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo was arriving I realized I hadn’t seen the original in probably two decades. Though it is classic Disney, 1941’s Dumbo is just not one that has ever made it on my rotation when it comes to revisiting the old classics. Plus, I still think I have traumatic memories of Dumbo’s Circus on the Disney Channel back in the day. So I decided to fire up the 64-minute chestnut and there were a few things that really stood out for me. One was the simplicity in the storytelling and animation – this is why movies becomes timeless because they are handled with a delicate touch that helps them transcend the years. The other thing was, slightly spoiler-y, but the dang elephant doesn’t even fly until the last five or six minutes of the movie. You remembered it differently, too, right?

Now seeing that Dumbo isn’t one of my all-time favorites I don’t have the same precious feel toward it that I would have with, say, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, Pinocchio, or Sleeping Beauty. So I was less up-in-arms with Disney continuing their trend of turning their animated classics into live-action films…but more concerned with the guys they hired to do it. First up was screenwriter Ehren Kruger, best known for Scream 3 and a handful of the Transformers movies. What about his credits made it seem like he’d be the best choice to tackle the tale of a baby elephant at first ostracized for his large ears before being embraced when those same ears allow him to take wing? Second potential problem was the one time can’t-miss director Tim Burton, who hasn’t had a sizable hit for years and already biffed a major Disney adaptation with his brain-numbing bloated expansion of Alice in Wonderland.

Then the first teaser appeared and it seemed like things may be going in the right direction. Showing just enough of those baby blue elephant eyes against the strains of the melancholy Oscar-nominated song Baby Mine hit audiences with the right dose nostalgia and the tide seemed to shift from uncertainty to curiosity as to how Burton would bring Dumbo and his circus adventures to life. Maybe Burton would go back to the type of fantastical creations that became his calling card in his early films before he fell into relying on a never-ending rampage of CGI world he’s been filming in for the last two decades.

Sadly, Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction) and Burton (Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows) have not only run off with the circus in Dumbo but they’ve taken most everything you liked about the original with them. What they’ve given audiences (family audiences, no less) is a tale that’s too dark, scary, and frankly, boring. It also represents yet another failure by the studio to make any kind of case that these live-action remakes are somehow improving upon their source material. In fact, going all the way back to the Glenn Close led 101 Dalmatians, Disney has yet to totally perfect this formula…though 2015 lavish Cinderella came quite close.  And it’s another Burton fiasco where an entire world is created on a soundstage rather than use the types of old-school Hollywood movie-making that used to set Burton apart from his peers.  It’s all make-believe but there is no whimsy or fantasy to anything.

It’s 1919 and the Medici Bros. traveling circus has seen better days. Led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, The Lorax), the performers are weary of another season traveling on a shoestring budget yet they are happy to see trick riding sharp shooter Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) back from the war. Holt returns to his two precocious children (Nico Parker & Finley Hobbins) to be a father figure to them after the tragic death of their mother while he was overseas. Though he lost an arm in battle, Holt is eager to engage in his old act…if Max hadn’t sold his horses and most of his possessions already. Max suggests Holt work with the elephants, and it just so happens a new one has arrived and is due to give birth any day. When the baby arrives he causes an uproar with his oversize ears…as if any of these circus clowns and carnies don’t also have faces/features only a mother could love.

How the baby elephant gets his name is one of the few clever bits Burton brings forth but too soon the kids have figured out Dumbo seems to take specific delight in flight whenever a feather is in his presence and we’re off on a very different movie. In the original film Dumbo doesn’t learn to fly until the final moments, in the 2019 version he’s soaring around the circus tent before the movie is ¼ finished. That leaves 75% of the movie for Kruger and Burton to expand Dumbo’s world and introduce new characters and, in some good news, excise those horribly racist crows.

Michael Keaton (RoboCop) positively chews his way through every green screen Burton has erected as V. A. Vandevere, the scheming sovereign of Dreamland, a permanent circus that bears a striking resemblance to Walt Disney World with it’s multiple themed lands, wildlife on display, and cleverly concocted thrill rides. His star attraction is aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green, Cracks) and after seeing Dumbo in the local papers Vandevere sets his sights on purchasing Medici’s circus and establishing an act between Colette and Dumbo that will pack the audiences in. When Max, Holt, and the kids find out Vandevere has set them up only to gain access to Dumbo, it’s up to them to save the elephant and expose Vandevere for his greedy selfishness.

This plot is directly from any number of family films (many released by Disney) so it offers little in the way of surprise or fulfillment. It’s hard to believe Disney executives green lit something so pedestrian, actually. Considering this is the studio that also has live-action remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King still coming in 2019…I’m worried more than ever about how those films will turn out. As for Dumbo, this is mostly disappointing because there was potential here to make something with more appeal and charm.

Aside from the CGI elephant, there’s a seriously lack of personality anywhere to be found in the movie. DeVito seems like someone wound him up with a coffee IV and let him go while Farrell (who looks more handsome in clown make-up than he has any right to) is almost completely disengaged with the action. It doesn’t help the two tykes playing his kids are not only struggling to hide their British accents, they also are incapable of pulling empathy from an audience with their pallid line readings. Green, as always, feels like she wants to do something wild with her character but is operating within a framework that doesn’t support that. There’s no depth to anyone here, least of all in their choices or actions which are wholly dictated by the screenplay not by any real passion.

If you’re looking for any hold-over moments for the original, you’ll be disappointed to know that most of the music has been replaced by Danny Elfman’s same-sounding score. There are hints at the original tunes but maybe the biggest sleight of all is the beautiful lullaby Baby Mine delivered by a ukulele strumming carnival worker as a campfire dirge to no one in particular. Admittedly, the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence has made the transition into the remake largely intact, this time as part of an impressively trippy Dreamland circus act. When all else fails, there’s Dumbo who will likely charm the pants off you and nearly made me forget how crummy the rest of Burton’s film is.

Movie Review ~ Us

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother and a father take their kids to their beach house expecting to enjoy time with friends. But their serenity turns to tension and chaos when visitors arrive uninvited.

Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Tim Heidecker Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Jordan Peele

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: I don’t think anyone expected 2017’s Get Out to be the massive critical and commercial hit it eventually became. Though the early trailers looked intriguing, it’s January release and low-grade buzz didn’t cause Hollywood to give it much more than a second glance. Besides, did one half of a television comedy duo have the goods to deliver a social commentary thriller in his first time out of the gate as a writer/producer/director? Well, a huge box office take, multiple memes, endless cultural analysis, and an Oscar later I think Jordan Peele proved he had more than an inkling as to what he was doing. So when his second feature, Us, was announced, everyone held their breath to see if the sophomore slump would strike someone everyone was now rooting for.

A mere two years after Get Out landed with a bang Peele is back with a film that’s bound to be compared to his previous work but is actually a different experience all together. Where Get Out was a slow-burn thriller, a clear (and clever) response to the then current political climate when it was made, Us is pure horror and doesn’t dig quite as deep into what divides us as a community but instead turns the attention into what defines us as individuals. It’s no less thought-provoking but is resolutely aiming for any exposed nerve where it can strike…and strike hard.

Arriving at their California lake house outside of Santa Cruz, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Non-Stop) and Gabe (Winston Duke, Black Panther) are ready for a serene weekend with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). It looks to be an ordinary few days. The kids bicker like most siblings do while the parents settle in. Gabe has bought a boat he wants to take for a spin around the lake but first he has to convince Adelaide to spend the day at the beach with their casual friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss, The Old Man & the Gun) and Josh (Tim Heidecker, Ant-Man and the Wasp). Yet there’s something about the beach at Santa Cruz that puts a knot of fear into Adelaide…and we’ll soon find out why.

To give away much more than that would possibly delve into spoiler-territory and I wouldn’t want to reveal any of the secrets the film has been wisely holding back in its carefully curated promotional materials. What I can tell you is nothing the previews haven’t already given away. Another foursome confronts Adelaide and her family on their first night, a family that looks an awful lot like them, a family that may have a link to a traumatic incident from Adelaide’s past that has come to haunt her present, a family we come to know as The Tethered.  And they have a rather unique score to settle.

Peele drops clues to what’s happening along the way but most are only obvious in hindsight as you drive home or start to discuss the film in the parking lot with your friends and loved ones. Like Get Out, Us will be a movie that is fun to dissect long after it’s finished and already ranks high on the re-watchability scale. I also appreciated that Peele kept the movie mostly within the realms of acceptable reality. This is not a supernatural movie where people walk through walls or events occur that are totally unable to be explained. It amps up the tension and makes you feel like what’s happening could conceivably take place. Even if all the pieces don’t quite line up under our modern microscope, there’s enough giddy ways that things fall into place that I was able to forgive the elements that didn’t quite get resolution.

While Get Out was a fairly solid movie considering the budget and novice of those involved, Us represents a leveling-up of all elements. Peele’s already present confidence as a writer and director has grown even more, this is clearly an individual that knows his film history and respects the process.  He has an eye for what looks good and crafts several sequences that are not only technically difficult to construct  but are visually impressive as well.  Everything just looks wonderful in Us. The production design, costumes, cinematography, and score are all key players here and add to the overall effect the film has on its audience. If any of these areas were weak it would have left the film feeling off-kilter in unintended ways. So many horror films that take place in the dark are hard to see but even in dark settings you can follow everything that takes place (though you may be watching it from behind your fingers covering your eyes) and Peele blessedly sets many scares in the stark daylight.

Nyong’o already has an Oscar for her devastating work in 12 Years a Slave and if I had any say in the matter she’d be in the running for another one for the stunning work she turns in here. Playing a dual role that requires her to play two very different sides of a complex coin, she separates the characters so much that when she shows up for the first time as her other character I actually didn’t believe it was her at first…even though I knew it was. It’s a total transformation and though through the wonder of special effects she can share the screen with herself it feels like there are actually two actresses on screen with one another at the same time. Both roles are infinitely challenging and tightrope walking in their level of skill and I can’t imagine any other actor working today who could have done what she did with them.

As he did on his first film, Peele demonstrates a keen eye for casting and has filled the rest of his cast with standouts from top to bottom. Duke is a great match of Nyong’o, he’s a laid-back dad and supportive spouse that holds his own with his formidable co-star. Joseph and Alex make good on going the extra mile in difficult roles for young actors and complete a convincing family unit with Duke and Nyong’o. In their small supporting roles, Moss and Heidecker are appropriately awful in their triteness. Moss especially seems to enjoy basking in her California housewife attire and saying things like “it’s vodka o’clock”…something you know the actress has never said (and would never say) in her entire life.

A huge part of the fun in Us will be for audiences to experience it in theaters with a crowd. While Get Out worked like gangbusters on the big screen for an initial viewing, it’s thriller nature leant it to play just as strongly if you saw it for the first time at home. Yet I think Us will best be enjoyed first and foremost if you’re shoulder to shoulder with another person getting the same jolt you are.

Movie Review ~ Gloria Bell

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A free-spirited woman in her 50s seeks out love at L.A. dance clubs.

Stars: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Caren Pistorius, Holland Taylor, Michael Cera, Sean Astin, Alanna Ubach, Brad Garrett, Rita Wilson, Jeanne Tripplehorn

Director: Sebastián Lelio

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I already have a conflicted relationship with remakes in general and the internal battle I wage with English language remakes of foreign films is even greater. If a film is so revered in its native language why can’t it exist on its own merits and let audiences discover the film on their own terms in their own time? Must it always be necessary to, let’s face it, pander to the lazies that can’t be bothered to put on their reading glasses? It frustrates me mostly because rarely are these U.S. remakes in the same league as their foreign counterparts so the lasting impression most audiences have are watered down versions of what were dynamic originals.

An added complexity to the American remake is when foreign directors adapt their own film for the English language. This is not a new concept. George Sluzier remade his dynamite 1988 thriller Spoorloos in 1993 as The Vanishing and turned it into a tepid vehicle for Jeff Bridges. Michael Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games made it’s remake debut on our shores in 2007. In 2002 Takashi Shimizu released Ju-on: The Grudge two years before he would direct an English language remake that is getting yet another remake in 2020.

The latest auteur circling back to his own work is Sebastián Lelio, the Oscar-winning director of 2017’s Best Foreign Film A Fantastic Woman. Based on his surprise 2013 hit Gloria, Gloria Bell is one of those rare remakes that allows both films to stand on their own without either suffering by comparison. Each may have the same story to tell and center on a woman of a certain age not often well represented in mainstream cinema but Lelio and star Julianne Moore bring a profound depth and realism to the character and her adventures. This helps the movie out of the remake shadow and into it’s own vibrant light.

Fiftyish divorcee Gloria Bell (Moore, Still Alice) lives in Los Angeles and is a manager at an insurance company by day and a dance club denizen by night. Spending her drive to and from work singing along to hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Gloria has two children she has a typical relationship with and a few good friends she can confide in. She’s living her life…but maybe not her best life. Her nights on the dance floor are a way for her to go into her own world and lose herself and it’s there she catches the eye of Arnold (John Turturro, Fading Gigolo) another divorcee with his own baggage that quickly gets laid at her feet. As her relationship with Arnold starts to take off and throws her some unexpected curveballs, Gloria takes stock of where she finds herself and starts to enact more control of her life than ever before.

The ups and downs of the relationship between Gloria and Arnold won’t be unfamiliar to most of us but the way things play out may be. A great scene involving Arnold being introduced to Gloria’s adult children (Michael Cera, This is the End and Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines) and her ex-husband and his new wife (Brad Garrett, Christopher Robin and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct) leads to some fairly awkward and embarrassing developments. It all culminates in one downright infuriating deal breaker that’s not just forgiven (though, admittedly, not easily) but actually repeated later on in the film.

The beauty in Lelio’s film and Moore’s performance is that much of the journey Gloria goes on doesn’t come in what we hear but in what we see. It’s how we see Moore and Turturro interact that informs where they are in their relationship, it’s how Moore carries herself after suffering a set-back before squaring her shoulders that tells us how quickly she bounces back from disappointment. There’s so much happening internally that it could be easy for the movie to feel small but it’s largely filled with truly lovely moments.  It also helps that I genuinely had no idea where the movie was headed and where things would wind up for Gloria.  There was no telegraphed path to conclusion or hints at what the next turn would be — such is life.

Aided by a strong soundtrack of popular tunes not to mention an intriguing score from Matthew Herbert, the film gets the overbaked sunniness of Los Angeles completely right and always places our leading lady in locations that feel like the real world. She lives in the style of apartment and drives the type of car someone with her job would and Moore, as usual, totally loses herself in the role. Though the film does have some melancholy moments laced throughout it ends with a hopeful bang (and, of course, on the dancefloor) as Moore takes us through a whole range of emotions as Laura Branigan’s Gloria plays in the background.  It’s easy to see why many people are highlighting this last scene as a standout but it’s just one of many moments in the film that showcases the star becoming one with the material/character.  Another winning performance from Moore and a worthwhile film to see.

Movie Review ~ Climax


The Facts
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Synopsis: French dancers gather in a remote, empty school building to rehearse on a wintry night. The all-night celebration morphs into a hallucinatory nightmare when they learn their sangria is laced with LSD.

Stars: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull, Giselle Palmer

Director: Gaspar Noé

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: You’re on a plane and before take-off the flight attendant makes the announcement to make sure you know where the exits are. You’re in a Broadway theater and the pre-show spiel mentions to locate the nearest exit in the event of an emergency. These are public services meant to help people that need to get to safety as quickly as possible should there be any danger. My public service message to you, dear reader, should you find yourself in a screening of Climax is to make sure you know where the nearest exit is so you can high tail it out of there if things get too out of hand for you. I sort of had to suffer through it (though not everyone in my screening stuck it out) and I feel like I’m owed some sort of survivors T-Shirt for my efforts.

It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. French director Gaspar Noé has been pushing the boundaries of cinema and the tolerance of viewers for years. His passion to shock is like a child run amok and while Climax is definitely not the most extreme example of his assaults it ranks as one of the most disappointing because it starts out so strong. Had the movie stayed on its path and refrained from the director’s tired tropes meant to rattle our cages it could have signaled a maturity only hinted at in the first (electrifying) half hour.

Opening as most Noé films do with the closing credits before seguing into interviews with a troupe of dancers, Climax manages to create some interest right from the start as we’re introduced to an eclectic group who may not speak eloquently but who charm nonetheless with their off the cuff responses. The non-professional actors improvised almost all of the film and this green-ness works well in these opening scenes as the inexperienced folk gradually become more comfortable with the camera and being questioned by the off camera voice of Sofia Boutella (The Mummy), the only professional actor in the bunch who is also a trained dancer.

The first of two dance sequences is fairly astounding and showcases every person with their individual strengths. Limber, lithe, and fearless, the troupe performs a dance directly to the camera of a piece they’ve been working on for the last three days.  It’s the bold and breathless culmination of an intense period of work that has brought them close together in a short time span. They still don’t know each other that well personally but being in that close proximity has forced an intimacy on them many people outside of the situation wouldn’t understand. I’d almost say this dance scene and the one that follows is worth the price of admission…but then again…

Soon after the dancing ends the drinking begins and it’s discovered someone has laced the sangria everyone is gulping down with LSD. That’s when the trouble starts as the dancers turn on themselves and each other in increasingly bizarre ways. Following the action in five or six long shots that take up the expanse of the 95 minute run time, Noé takes no prisoners as no taboo is off limits. Rape, incest, abuse, drug use, self-immolation, hate crimes…all are explored in gross, gory detail. I should add there’s a child thrown in the mix…and that’s never a good thing in a Noé film. Though I try to remain a spoiler-free source, I have to say that once a pregnant woman gets viciously kicked in the stomach and turns to self harm, I was sort of over what Noé was trying to sell me.

The amateur status of the actors in Noé’s nightmare begins to become a drawback the more the emotional stakes are raised and everything soon becomes a delirium of twisted limbs and screaming frenzy as the LSD-fueled rave rages on into the night. It makes the finale of 2018’s Suspiria look like an MGM musical by comparison. The insouciance displayed toward the audience is remarkable, I don’t think Noé would be disturbed at all to be told that a screening started off sold-out and by the time the film ended only two people were left in the theater. I’m not saying a movie shouldn’t challenging or willing expose a dark side but there’s a taste level threshold that’s crossed here you just can’t bounce back from.

I would strongly suggest skipping Climax completely, even though the first half is quite intriguing. Better yet, wait for it to show up on Amazon Prime in a few months and turn the film off once the dancing stops and the party begins.

Movie Review ~ Captain Marvel

 


The Facts
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Synopsis: Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Stars: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening, Gemma Chan, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Clark Gregg

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: This should be a time of full-scale rejoicing. I mean, it only took 11 years and 21 films but Marvel Studios finally is releasing a superhero movie with a female lead. Though it may be trailing Warner Brothers’s epic Wonder Woman by a full two years, Captain Marvel is surely a welcome addition to the Marvel stable of action heroes and the studio seemed to be thoughtful in bringing the character to the big screen. Casting an Oscar winning actress as the titular character and signing on a directing team known for their independent dramas seemed like unexpected choices for an action movie of this size and unfortunately the payoff isn’t entirely worth the risk.

We’re so deep into this saga that it’s almost become a requirement for audiences to have seen, or have qualified knowledge, of previous films in order to make sense out of the action and developments that take place throughout whatever hero’s adventure we’re watching. That’s even true in this first appearance of Captain Marvel, which is set in 1995, long before the events of the movies that preceded it. Make sure to bone up on your Avengers knowledge (namely watch The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy) because it will go a long way in getting you up to speed.

Starforce warrior Vers (Brie Larson, The Gambler) is on a mission with her team on a desolate planet when she is captured by a band of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, Darkest Hour) and taken back to their ship. Staging a daring escape, she crash lands on Earth where she meets a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Glass, de-aged quite nicely) and teams up with him to locate a power source integral to her own origin story…and future Avenger movies. Along the way Vers learns why she’s plagued with nightmares of a fallen comrade (Annette Bening, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) and memories of a life before her time with Starforce. The secrets she discovers help shape the hero she’ll become and reframe what she’s actually defending.

I’ll be honest and say that I couldn’t resist closing my eyes for a small section of the movie around the forty-five minute mark.   Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck can’t quite keep up a solid pace and the film drags early on, even when we should be actively engaged with Vers uncovering more of her history. Things start to pick up once we meet her old Air Force buddy (Lashana Lynch) who fills in some memory gaps and helps to propel us forward into the final act. It’s when her old Starforce buddies, led by Jude Law (Side Effects), Djimon Hounsou (Serenity), and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) show up that the film becomes unstoppable as Vers realizes the full force of her power (a moment that gave me goosebumps) and uses it against an enemy she never considered.

Working with a script from four credited screenwriters (Meg LeFauve, Nicole Perlman, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan), Captain Marvel is a bit of an odd duck because it’s an origin story for several key elements that make up the Avengers universe. There’s the obvious first steps for Vers discovering she’s really Carol Danvers, a pilot with the U.S. Air Force presumed dead after her plane went down years earlier. Then you have the beginnings of Nick Fury’s pet S.H.I.E.L.D. project as well as grudges introduced that get resolved in later installments. It’s a lot to juggle and it’s not a totally satisfying balance of storylines.

It doesn’t much help that Larson walks through the movie strangely blank-faced, rarely changing expression from one emotion to the next. She’s definitely putting the acting effort into the movie but one wishes she’d loosen up a bit and I also wonder if she’d ever seen an Avengers movie prior to signing on. Most of the films are sold with tongue planted firmly in cheek but Larson seems averse to going along with any kind of joke. She does create a pleasant chemistry with Jackson’s Fury…you can see why he’d call on her when the going gets tough in Avengers: Infinity War.  The supporting cast is what helps to keep the movie afloat, namely Mendelsohn and Lynch as two key elements to Danvers coming into her own and embracing her superpowers.

Starting off slow but gradually building to an exciting finale, right now I feel like Captain Marvel falls squarely in the middle of the Marvel canon. That being said, I’m willing to wait it out and see if time is kinder to the film over the next few years as the studio wraps up some loose ends and decides what’s next in their plans for the Avengers.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

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

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

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

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

 

Movie Review ~ Apollo 11


The Facts
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Synopsis: A look at the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon led by commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin.

Stars: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Rated: G

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  The red carpet has barely been rolled up from the Oscars celebrating the 2018 movie season but is it too early to feel like 2019 has already seen the release of a surefire nomination for Best Documentary?  Yeah, I know it’s barely March and there are many months to go before the documentary features released this year get shortlisted for a shot at an Academy Award but I can’t imagine Apollo 11 won’t be included in that spread.  Before this weekend, I had heard next to nothing about this film released from indie studio Neon, but after it secured a one-week engagement in IMAX I was curious if I should make time for it.  I’m so glad the timing worked out and I had the opportunity to see it projected on a huge screen.  Here’s a stunning accomplishment in cinema 50 years in the making that looks like it was filmed yesterday.

The moon landing in July of 1969 by the crew of Apollo 11 isn’t exactly an event we don’t know a lot about.  There have been countless books, movies, TV specials, and a few conspiracy theories that have broken down the extraordinary measures it took for NASA to send a man to the moon.  Just last year saw the arrival of First Man, a biopic of Neil Armstrong where Apollo 11’s mission plays a key part of the action.  While that movie was a bust due in no small part to its cold aloofness toward the audience, Apollo 11 embraces viewers with open arms.

Using an astonishing amount of footage that hasn’t been seen previously, director Todd Douglas Miller has put together a documentary with a style I usually shy away from.  There’s no narration and no interviews…it relies entirely on film shot during the time of Apollo 11’s mission both on the ground and in space.  Okay, there’s a tiny bit of basic animation to illustrate some of the maneuvers the spacecraft undertook on its journey to the moon but it’s unobtrusive to the fascinating audio and video many of us will be taking in for the first time.  Remastered and optimized for an IMAX experience, the footage looks spectacular, you’ll very likely forget you’re watching a documentary and not a Hollywood movie that’s spared no expense in reproducing the mission with top notch production design and special effects.

The movie wastes no time in introducing us to astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins and detailing their preparation to take on this challenge into the unknown.  As they suit up, we get quick flashes of each of their personal histories that led them to this point and hold our breaths as they take their place at the top of a rocket that will send them into orbit. If you’ve seen First Man, you have the added context of what fueled Armstrong’s urge to take to the skies but Aldrin and Collins have always been a bit of an enimga to me.  It should also be noted that Armstrong is shown to be a genial, warm, personable presence…a far cry from the emotionally vacant shell Ryan Gosling played him as in First Man.

Making sure everything goes as planned are hundreds of workers on the ground monitoring their progress from Florida and Houston.  Almost entirely male, the NASA employees manning the control station are level-headed and precise…but at times become a little hard to distinguish from one another.  At the same time, Miller brings in footage of the general public arriving to witness this historic moment, crowding onto beaches and hotel balconies to have the best vantage point at lift off.  These establishing shots are important to orient us to the time, place, and people without ever having to explain anything to the viewer.  I can understand where Miller obtained the NASA footage but these passages of the swells of people is truly an impressive get, especially considering how pristine they’ve been rendered.

There are several scenes in Apollo 11 that unexpectedly hit me in a real emotional sweet spot.  Don’t be shocked if the pulse pounding take-off, Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, the astronaut’s splash landing on their return, or a beautiful coda elicit some tears.  I’m not sure if it was the general awesomeness of these moments captured on film or a feeling of pride at the accomplishment of our country but it’s enough to make you almost uncontrollably leap out of your seat at the end.  I’d sit through the movie all over again just to witness Apollo 11 lifting off from the ground and ascending into the heavens — a truly spellbinding few minutes.

Certain movies are meant to be seen in theaters on the biggest possible screen, like last year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Free SoloApollo 11 is absolutely one of those films where you should do everything you can to catch it before it leaves your local cinema.  I can imagine it will still play well if you watch it at home but there’s nothing that will be able to beat the experience of watching these monumental moments on the most gigantic screen you can find.  See it, see it, see it.  You won’t be disappointed.