31 Days to Scare ~ Vampire Circus

The Facts:

Synopsis: As the plague sweeps the countryside, a quarantined village is visited by a mysterious traveling circus. Soon, young children begin to disappear, and the locals suspect the circus troupe might be hiding a horrifying secret.

Stars: Adrienne Corri, John Moulder-Brown, Laurence Payne, Thorley Walters, Lynne Frederick, Anthony Higgins

Director: Robert Young

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A longtime fan of Hammer Studios and their horror tales, I’ve come to see recently just how limited my scope was in my formative years.  I’m making up for the time that I focused in on some of the more generic (but still worthy!) offerings and am quite enjoying expanding my horizons. With titles that might not be so in the mainstream featuring the familiar names that trigger a notion of what you can expect, like a Dracula or a Frankenstein or a Werewolf, I’m finding some fairly excellent experiences on a regular basis. I almost feel bad saying I’ve “discovered” these movies because they’ve been there all along just waiting for me to find them. So, with great humility, let’s talk about Vampire Circus.

How had I never seen this one before?  I’d heard Vampire Circus spoken of highly before and know I’ve seen the poster numerous times over the years; it’s striking image of eyes wide and a mouth open and fangs bared is instantly memorable.  Making an impact with promises of blood and mayhem, I can say the movie delivers on all accounts and it’s an R-rated delight from a studio that started off a little tentative in their willingness to go the extra mile.  From the beginning, it’s clear this isn’t just another standard vampire flick filmed against an eastern European backdrop…there’s some plot that’s been thought out and it’s exceedingly well made.

An extended prologue finds a group of villagers in the Serbian village of Stetl finally doing away with the vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) who has been preying on the young children in the village.  As he dies, he curses the townspeople and their children, promising they will all die in order for him to live once more.  Entrusting a follower (Domini Blythe) to find his relation and tell him what the villagers had done, the Count dies and his castle is destroyed.  Fifteen years pass and the village has indeed been plagued by one problem after another.  A plague has cut them off from the rest of the world and no one can go in or out…until the circus comes to town.

Led by a flame-haired gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), the Circus of Night arrives in the village under mysterious circumstances and quickly begins to enthrall the townspeople with their unbelievable acts of daring and transformation.  High flying twin acrobats turn into, well, bats.  A panther can turn into a smoldering man in the blink of an eye.  Then there are the dancers who perform a risqué pas de duex (with full nudity, another reason the movie was slapped with an R rating) along with a funhouse hall of mirrors that turns deadly.  Oh…and most of them are vampires.  So begins a three-ring act of violence and revenge, with each victim being brought to the Count’s final resting place and being offered as a sacrifice, their blood restoring him to his full gory glory.

It takes longer than it should for the townspeople to figure out what’s going on but even when they do there are still a few mysteries yet to be solved that are gradually doled out before a blood-soaked finale set in a tomb.  The special effects are well-rendered and it’s more than a little bit scary at times.  In general, the atmosphere is right on target for the time and place, something Hammer was always so pitch perfect in achieving time after time.  The production design is lovely and the location shooting in Europe adds to the authenticity of the work.  Even the performances manage to be more than just your standard victim and prey stock characters, though not everyone can bare their fangs and sink them into necks as good as Anthony Higgins.

This is an absolute must-see for fans of horror, classics and new.  Especially if you have a penchant for the vampire genre and especially the Hammer brand of filmmaking, it’s an essential watch.  It drags ever so slightly in the middle with a bit of repetitive kills and sensuality but at 87 minutes you aren’t waiting around too long before things pick up again and the Vampire Circus prepares for its big finale.

Movie Review ~ Ad Astra

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.

Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler

Director: James Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s well-documented (on this site) that I’m a sucker for any film set in space so it was probably always a given that Ad Astra was going to rank high with me.  Unless it was just a film where Brad Pitt watched Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy on the International Space Station for two hours, chances are I’d find something to like about it.  Thankfully, this features no McCarthy stinker but is instead a James Gray directed thinker and it is a wonder to see and feel.  With an excellent production design and stellar technical features across the board, Ad Astra might not be exactly the pulse-pounding action film advertised in trailers but it’s a worthwhile excursion into deep space with an A-list movie star continuing a 2019 winning streak.

Years into the future we’ve made advancements in our space exploration.  We have colonized the moon and have ventured further into our solar system, establishing an outpost on Mars and sending manned expeditions to look for intelligent life in distant galaxies.  It was on one of these expeditions that H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman) went missing on his way to Neptune.  Sixteen years later, a series of solar flares are threatening Earth and grow more dangerous with each passing day.  Scientists have pinned the source of these anomalies emanating several light years away.  From an insolvent spaceship long thought lost.  Near Neptune.

That’s when Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, The Big Short) is brought in.  A decorated astronaut known for his calm demeanor even in the most stressful of circumstances (his heart rate never goes above 80, even when involved in a catastrophic event), he’s the only son of Clifford McBride and hasn’t quite gotten over the absence of his father during his formative years.  Though he’s followed in his father’s footsteps, he can’t get out of his shaow. Now, with new intelligence gathered, the military has evidence that Roy’s father might not be as missing in the line of duty as they once thought. Hoping to stave off the global event on the horizon, the military asks Roy to venture to the ends of the galaxy to locate his father and stop him from plunging the Earth into ruin.  Along with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games), an old friend of his father’s, Roy first travels to the Moon, then Mars, and then…well, you’ll see.

Director James Gray has had an interesting career up until this point.  Starting out with five very New York-centric films that feel, to me, very similar, he hit upon something truly wonderful in 2016 when he adapted the bestselling novel The Lost City of Z.  The trouble is, Amazon Studios who did not quite know how to release it correctly, distributed it and it unfortunately was lost in the rubble.  Three years later Ad Astra almost suffered a similar fate when it was caught in the crossfire after Disney bought 20th Century Fox and moved around its release date.  Thankfully, the studio heads at Disney stuck with their plans to release it and even if they’ve still slightly bungled the marketing of the film they have given it a decent sized push.

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say Ad Astra is more heady drama than sci-fi action film like Gravity or The Martian.  It’s more cerebral than anything else and at 122 minutes doesn’t mind taking its time to get to the point.  Taking a cue from Kubrick, Gray isn’t above letting the audience make up their own minds about plot developments and meanings behind what goes on the further Pitt’s character travels toward his long-delayed reunion with his dad.  I’m sure they’ll be a lot of analysis as to the psyche behind Roy, the distance he travels, and the outcome of it all but it’s best to go in knowing the film isn’t all action.

Not that Gray doesn’t feature several impressive sequences of thrill along the way because he sure does.  From a cat-and-mouse chase played in fraught silence on a lunar surface to a recon mission that takes a freakish turn, Gray surprised me at the lengths he was willing to go to keep Roy and the audience off balance.  On the other hand, there are a few moments that could be tightened up a bit; shoring up some of the more protracted passages would help us arrive at the final act a hair more alert.  Though it may be traveling further into slightly more spoiler-y territory, I was disappointed to see Ruth Negga (World War Z) and Liv Tyler (Robot & Frank) not utilized more in their tangential roles.  Negga’s character, especially, seems like there was something left on the cutting room floor.

Like the aforementioned Gravity and The Martian, the movie fires on all cylinders when its just the audience and the star and Pitt is more than enough to hold our interest.  Coming off the rousing success of July’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (which will most likely garner him another Oscar nomination and likely win), Pitt has come back this year in a big way.  I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him a double nominee at the end of the year, being recognized for his work here would be rewarding another side to his acting that we don’t get to see that often.  While Pitt has played drama before, he’s never been as focused or introspective as he is here.  There’s a lot going on and Pitt handles it all with a master’s touch.

Looking back now, it likely was a wise move by Disney to reposition Ad Astra out of the summer movie season and get it into theaters after the heat died down.  Now, it doesn’t have the weight of “summer blockbuster” to live up to or, looked at another way, live down.  Now, the movie can be looked at for the drama it really is at its core.  The visual effects and production design could get some awards love and, while the movie may alienate some, I found a lot to take away from Gray’s familial space drama and Pitt’s, ahem, stellar performance.

Movie Review ~ Ready or Not


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A bride’s wedding night takes a sinister turn when her eccentric new in-laws force her to take part in a terrifying game.

Stars: Samara Weaving, Andie MacDowell, Mark O’Brien, Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Nicky Guadagni

Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of people are planning end of summer bashes to celebrate the highs and lows of the last few months.  After all, before it’s time to settle into more serious fall endeavors, it’s nice to be able to blow off some steam with a devil-may-care bit of frivolity.  When Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw barreled into theaters a few weeks back, I thought that would be the fun party to send a rather middling summer off with a bang…but it turns out there was one final blowout waiting around the corner.  Though it was made for a fraction of the budget of the majority of movies released over the past three months, Ready or Not bests them all with its dark sense of humor and creativity.

As I mentioned in my review of the spoiler-heavy trailer for Ready or Not, I was nervous going in the filmmakers had given away too much of the plot too soon.  Coming out on the other side of the credits I can say that yes, some fun moments have been diminished if you’ve been exposed to the preview too often but, surprisingly, it didn’t lessen the impact the movie had overall.  While some horror movies released to theaters are perfectly fine to pass on in favor of waiting for home consumption, this is one of the rare cases of a genre title you would benefit from seeing in a theater packed with like-minded individuals out for a good time.  My audience ate it up and I’ll bet would be willing to come back for seconds.

At a trim 95 minutes, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett waste no time introducing us to Grace (Samara Weaving, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as she rehearses her vows before her wedding.  Marrying the estranged scion of wealthy family that made their fortune off board games and other profitable endeavors, she can already tell her in-laws will be a handful.  An orphan that grew up in the foster care system, she loves her fiancé Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, Bad Times at the El Royale) and is willing to put up with a few days of weirdness at the massive Le Domas estate in exchange for a lifetime of happiness and the promise of a permanent family.  With their engagement, Alex has returned to his family with his bride-to-be in tow and though his mother (Andie MacDowell, Magic Mike XXL) is happy to have her son back the rest of the family seems curiously on edge.

Later that evening, before the bride and groom can enjoy their first night together, Alex lets Grace know about a family tradition all new members must go through at the stroke of midnight.  Grace will have to play a game with them, a game to be chosen through a secret ceremony, and while she initially laughs off this requirement as another Le Domas quirk, the actualities of what await her are the stuff nightmares (and entertaining horror films) are made of.  Unfortunately for Grace, the game she’s selected to play is the deadliest one of all and it sets the stage for a hunt that takes no prisoners and might not leave any survivors.  You see, the Le Domas family is no ordinary self-made clan but one that came to their status with a little…help.  It’s this assistance the family is willing to kill to protect and before she knows it, Grace is playing hide and seek from a pack of vicious psychos with varying degrees of bloodlust.

Surprisingly, first time feature screenwriters Guy Busick & Ryan Murphy (no, not that Ryan Murphy) manage to pack an amazing amount of exposition and ideas in without slowing down the action too much.  There’s an astounding array of backstory and context provided and it all makes sense in a weird, twisted way.  The characters they’ve etched out are kooky but deadly and, when put in the hands of a game ensemble of actors, spring to life.  You never are quite sure if all the family members are playing the game or playing along and that helps extend the mystery surrounding the origin of the game longer than I expected it to.  With the huge mansion’s hidden passages and shadowy hallways, you feel just as in the moment as Grace does, not knowing who will pop out when or what awaits her around the next corner.  Or what weapon they’ll be wielding.

Weaving is well-cast as Grace, ably taking on the pursued with a mixture of strength and fragility.  Though she’s running for her life around the house and grounds in her increasingly tattered wedding dress, she always has an air of, well, grace about her and that makes her an endearing heroine.  It helps that she’s not been written like a limp noodle, obviously drawing from her self-sufficient past to steel herself in the present fighting off these family fiends.   O’Brien, too, works well as the son knowing the secrets of his family but hoping his new bride can overcome years of passed down history and stay alive.  MacDowell and Henry Czerny had some good moments as Alex’s parents but the film is continually stolen by Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, a scowling shock-haired relative who doesn’t have time to mince words.  Guadagni has some incredibly well-timed line deliveries and is at the center of the film’s biggest shocker and most satisfying moment.

Obviously working on a small budget, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett stretch their monies to give Ready or Not a handsome and gothic-lite look.  Filming in Canada and using a number of local actors and crew, they’ve also invested wisely in stand-out make-up effects that give the blood and violence an extra amount of oomph.  There are two scenes of gore in particular that I had to watch through squinted eyes.  Even their finale managed to stay true to the tone of what came before, finding a well-timed laugh amidst an unexpected bit of shock and mayhem.  While I would have wanted perhaps a bit more polish on the film as a whole, particularly in the final act, I left the theater wholly satisfied and ready to play this game again.  I can see this one having high replay value and Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are clearly a team that will rise in demand for more clever work in this genre.

The Silver Bullet ~ Underwater



Synopsis
: A crew of underwater researchers must scramble to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory.

Release Date:  January 10, 2020

Thoughts: Watching the preview for Underwater, I kept wanting to shout out “This trailer knows me, it really, really knows ME!”  Horror movie? Check. Underwater horror movie? Check check. Underwater horror movie with creatures from the deep picking off the crew of a felled sea lab? Check check check!  As excited as I was to see this, I can’t help but feeling a little nervous at the same time.  I just finished reading an exhaustive profile of star Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper) and though it talked about several of her upcoming projects, there was not a peep about this one – strange, right?  Also, its January release date is either a smart move of counter-programming to clear out the post-holiday stuffiness or a keen way for Disney to quietly burn off a 20th Century Fox film that came with the studio when they purchased it.  I did a quick check online and until today there had been next to no news this movie even existed…much less that it had already received a PG-13 rating and a locked in release date.  Yet, nerves aside, I’m pulling for this one…if only to help me relive some 1989 nostalgia and resurrect some interest in titles like  DeepStar Six and Leviathan.

Movie Review ~ Dark Phoenix


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Having never been someone that has done a deep dive into the comic book realm, I can’t speak to fan reactions when a franchise plays fast and loose with characters and story arcs. There are some that can’t look past a studio wanting to continue their cash cows by making financially motivated choices to keep their films alive and there are others (like myself) who don’t mind sitting back and taking in the movie for what it is – entertainment. It’s not for lack of interest or ambivalence on my part, it’s stepping back and seeing the big picture. Of all the superhero tentpole films, it seems the X-Men movies take the biggest beating from critics and fans that revolt at the slightest stray from where they want to see the action go and I find that so strangely fascinating.

I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that by and large I’ve enjoyed most all of the X-Men films and their numerous spin-offs. True, some have been problematic and less winning than others but they’ve been more consistent than most long-running series and have evolved from the silly seriousness of the original film (you know it’s true!) to something bold and musclar like 2016’s brilliant Logan. A new era of the X-Men began in 2011 with X-Men: First Class and I was not moved either way by that semi-reboot until X-Men: Days of Future Past arrived in 2014. That film was a grand return to form and while The Wolverine didn’t connect with some I appreciated what it was doing in advancing Hugh Jackman’s character toward Logan. Knives were unfairly out for X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, even though I found it a weirdly fun film.

Arriving amidst an ominous cloud of bad buzz is the next film in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix, and I imagine it will take the same beating from former fans and critics eager for an easy target. Delayed several times by 20th Century Fox due to highly publicized reshoots not to mention its pending purchase by Disney studios which had its own Marvel superhero movie to attend to earlier this summer, I’m not sure this ever would have had a fair shot when it was released. Honestly? The film has some major flaws and often feels like it’s held together by packing tape that’s long since lost its ability to keep things in place but when it works it works like a charm. For all the negative things I’d heard about it going in, maybe the bar was set low enough that my opinion couldn’t be worse than what people were saying.

When we last left our world-saving mutants, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had unleashed the full force of her powers to destroy Apocalypse. After a brief prologue shows us the tragic beginnings of how Jean came to stay with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) at his school for teens with extraordinary talents we are thrown right into action set in 1992. The team, comprised of Jean, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, mother!), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Love, Simon), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect), is dispatched to save the crew of a space shuttle in the path of a solar storm. This is no ordinary space mission, though, and Jean is exposed to an energy source at the center of the storm.

Now possessing remarkable power that begins to consume her, Jean goes rogue to seek out answers from her past to help her decide what to do with her new gifts. At the same time, she’s pursed not only by Professor X, the X-Men, and a revenge-seeking Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), but by alien huntress Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) who has arrived on Earth with a large number of her own warriors aiming to harvest the lifeforce within Jean that has the power to create new worlds…and destroy Earth in the process. It leads to a showdown that begins with Jean’s allegiance and ends with the lives of many hanging in the balance.

It’s clear this movie has been through many an edit and it shows not only in the hastily reshot footage but in the tonal shifts throughout. Looking at the success of grittier fare like Deadpool and its sequel, you can see where writer/director Simon Kinberg (Murder on the Orient Express) wanted to push the boundaries a bit by making this one more intense but without being able to go all the way with the blood, language, or violence it comes off as too tentative and neutered. There’s also a strange reliance on scenes with characters gulping down booze whenever they can’t cope with pressure or wanting to tamp down their own emotions. Normally good actors paint with broader strokes here, perhaps knowing this was their final time at bat they are really swinging for high camp. Chastain, Hoult, and McAvoy in particular seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can be the most ostentatious…until Fassbender shows up and puts them all to shame.

Yet somehow the movie checked off enough of the right boxes on my score sheet to emerge a winner and that’s mostly due to a fantastic finale set aboard a train. Usually a reshot ending can be one big eye roll since it often is an afterthought that rarely gels with the rest of the film but this one felt like it came after the filmmakers had some distance from the work and came back refreshed. There are some crowd-pleasing moments to be had here and it provided the requisite thrills some other parts of the movie lacked. Also, it showed once again that Shipp’s Storm (and just the character of Storm in general) needs her own movie, like, yesterday.  I still long for the filmmakers to spend more time at the school so we can see more of the youngsters and their burgeoning abilities — anytime we’re in the school and we see hints at the comic-books fringe characters people recognize you can tell people want more.  Now that 20th Century Fox is owned by Disney, perhaps Disney will get a series together for their streaming Disney+ service that’s all about the school?  Might be a good idea.

I’m still grappling with these recent X-Men movies not totally lining up with the original three X-Men films that started off this whole series of films. Don’t think too hard that the first X-Men movie is set a mere eight years after this one is to take place…or wonder what happens to Fassbender and McAvoy in those eight years to turn them into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Instead, take these movies as the prequels they were always meant to be and for what they are, casual entertainment. Perhaps if you go in with the lowered expectations like I did you’ll set yourself up to get something more out of this than others who went in prepared to hate it. Give it a chance.  I’m not totally sure where the series goes from here.  There’s absolutely room for more sequels but based on the struggle this one had to get to theaters and the boos and hisses already coming from the Twitter-verse, a reset might be in order to restore some faith in this franchise.  Clearly, I’m easier to please than most and found the fun in this Phoenix…but I’m also not a hardcore fan that had a great investment in it either.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ad Astra



Synopsis
: An astronaut travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his father and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. He uncovers secrets which challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.

Release Date: September 20, 2019

Thoughts: There’s nothing I love seeing on the big screen more than a giant space spectacular and the long delayed Ad Astra (meaning ‘to the stars’ in Latin) looks like a grand achievement. Feeling on par with the likes of large scale epics such as Gravity, The Martian, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) teams with Brad Pitt (World War Z) on this project which was originally set to be released in May 2019 but was moved back after 20th Century Fox was bought by Disney.  A fall release positions the movie more in the awards competition (and conveniently far away from Disney’s summer blockbuster Avengers: Endgame) so I’m not too nervous about Ad Astra losing its original release date.  Gray’s films tend to be quite contemplative and I’m curious to see how he can marry that dramatic tension with the space chase elements shown in the preview.  Considering the caliber of the people involved and how good this first trailer is, I’m totally onboard for this one.

Movie Review ~ Alita: Battle Angel

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An action-packed story of one young woman’s journey to discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world.

Stars: Rosa Salazar, Keean Johnson, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Eiza Gonzalez

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The journey of Alita: Battle Angel to the screen has been an adventure almost three decades in the making. Originally a Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro, it caught the attention of director James Cameron (The Abyss) and became one of those passion projects that followed the director over the ensuing years. With his attention focused on other films, documentary projects, pioneering technological advances in filmmaking, and talking about his Avatar sequels ad nauseum, Cameron eventually realized that he’d have to abdicate the director’s chair if the film were ever to get off the ground. That’s where director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) comes in and how we have arrived at this strange 2019 release.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen the film and I honestly can’t decide whether it’s glorious or garbage. I can fully see where the effects extravaganza will be overpowering and maybe even off-putting but at the same time there’s a piece of me that silently was cheering on the never-ending barrage of bizarre your ticket purchase will provide.  I can tell you this, I was never, not even for one minute, bored.  If the film community and audiences decide to pass judgment that Alita: Battle Angel is a failure, it will have gone out swinging because it doesn’t seem to be afraid to embrace its oddity.

Five hundred years in the future the Earth has suffered a series of cataclysmic events, culminating with “The Fall” which separated cities of the sky from the junk-laden wastelands on the ground. Only the most elite live in that last surviving sky city, Zalem, while the rest of Earth’s inhabitants scrape by a living where they can. Some have turned to bounty hunting to earn enough money to travel up up and away and there are certainly enough sundry individuals roaming the streets for people to make a buck or two eliminating dangerous threats.

Scouring a junkyard for spare parts to aid in his robotic repair practice, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) finds the remnants of a female cyborg and rebuilds her, giving her the name Alita. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) comes back online and eventually falls in love with a local teenager (Keean Johnson), she begins to piece together her history as she discovers new strength and agility that seem to come naturally. At the same time, a killer is on the loose and Alita becomes a Hunter-Killer bounty hunter to track down who is harvesting people for their spare parts.  In doing so, she raises the ire of a punk bounty hunter (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) who doesn’t appreciate the competition from the supposed teenage girl.  When her mysterious past is revealed, it will put all who come in contact with her in danger as she’s revealed to be an important weapon and the only one that can stop the evil Nova (played in an uncredited cameo by an Oscar-nominated actor) from keeping bigger truths about Zalem from the public.

As you can probably tell, there’s a whole lot going on in the movie (I didn’t even bother to describe a sport called Motorball that figures heavily into the action) and Cameron’s script (co-written by Laeta Kalogridis, Terminator Genisys) is his usual mish-mash of overly syrupy dialogue intermixed with made-up jargon. Usually, this works against the film but here the script manages to serve things quite well as it prompts numerous set-ups for eye-popping special effects (see it in IMAX 3D, if possible) and nicely crafts a new world for our characters to explore.

Rodriguez has always had a way with making his films rock and roll even on a minuscule budget but here he’s given the keys to the bank vault and has cleaned out the coffers. It’s all rather lovely to look at, especially in an underwater sequence when Alita finds a crashed spaceship that holds a clue to her origins. Where things don’t go quite as swimmingly are in the character arcs, with several A-list actors left to fend for themselves with roles that are underwritten and underdeveloped. Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book) treat the material as high art, which leads to their performances taking on a camp factor that is surely unintentional. Salazar, digitized in post-production, turns in the most realistic performance – there were times I actually forgot she was an animation.

Not being familiar with the source material, I can’t say how close Cameron and Kalogridis stuck to the original story but there’s a definite energy injected throughout that’s hard to deny. It may be overstuffed and too effects-heavy but there’s an admirable bit of workmanship that has gone into the look of the film, even if the more dramatic pieces don’t quite gel correctly. This being a Cameron property, there’s a romance subplot that isn’t fully satisfying and Rodriguez has tacked on maybe two finales too many, but it ends on a high enough note that I’m curious to see if another installment might get the go-ahead now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox and could benefit from this property with international appeal.

Movie Review ~ The Kid Who Would Be King

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A band of kids embark on an epic quest to thwart a medieval menace.

Stars: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Rebecca Ferguson, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Patrick Stewart, Denise Gough

Director: Joe Cornish

Rated: PG

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Is it too early to make a reference to a song from Mary Poppins Returns? Oh well, I’m going for it anyway as I kick off this review. In one of the highlight numbers in that 2018 family film, Mary sings that “The cover is not the book, so open it up and take a look” and that more than applies to The Kid Who Would Be King, a movie I easily looked past as a 10am Saturday screening was drawing near. Usually, family movies that screen early in the morning on weekends were films I decided against and the title just didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. Convinced to go by my partner who loves these types of medieval tales, I’m so glad I gave in because this is a dandy of a film that works on multiple levels, delivering entertainment for all ages.

Whether you’ve grown up on the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table or are like me and have just seen Disney’s The Sword in the Stone a whole bunch of times, you’ll already be familiar with the colorfully animated prologue that opens the movie. Detailing the magic and mystery surrounding the legendary King, his sword Excalibur, and the power struggle he waged with his evil half-sister Morgana, King Arthur represented the best of what people could aspire to be while Morgana fed off people’s unhappiness. Banishing his witchy sis to an underground prison after she tried to overthrow his rule, we understand the power anyone possessing the sword Excalibur will wield. Flashing forward thousands of years to an alternate universe modern day London that is considerably more downtrodden (newspapers feature depressing headlines of global despair), it’s clear the golden days of Camelot are finally fading.

Unbeknownst to him, young Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is about to become the hero he never knew he could be. Living with his single mom and trying to survive the school day with his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) without being bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), he’s an ordinary kid about to go on an extraordinary journey. On his way home on night, he evades Lance and Kaye by entering a construction site where he finds Excalibur, unleashing its awesome power and corresponding enemies at the same time. Now, with Morgana gaining strength and sending her minions to retrieve the sword, Alex must enlist his friend and their bullies to form a present-day Knights of the Round Table and defeat the sorceress before she can break free and condemn the world to darkness.

Director and screenwriter Joe Cornish has given us something we don’t get that often – an original story. Remarkably, The Kid Who Would Be King isn’t an adaptation of a previous YA novel or based off of a video game. It’s a fresh product from a director that has injected his film with equal amounts of nostalgia and fun. I’ve seen the movie compared favorably to The Goonies and E.T. and I can see where people are making the connection but this very much charts its own course as well. It’s not the most polished family-centric film you’ll see this year and there are some filmmaking dots that aren’t connected as nicely as I would have liked but it’s exuberance more than makes up for any gaps in plot or pace.

Cornish has cast the film well with amiable child actors that don’t prove cloying or earnest with the material. Serkis (who looks remarkably like his talented dad, Andy) leads the film with distinction, handling the fantasy elements with easy while navigating some emotional terrain quite believably. I also quite liked Chaumoo as his nebbish friend that turns his meekness into a virtue. If the two bullies feel a bit one-dimensional and their arc of redemption a little stale, it isn’t the fault of Taylor and Dorris who do more than go through the motions with their stock characters. There’s a spirited supporting turn by Angus Imrie as a teenaged Merlin who only changes into the aged wizard (Patrick Stewart, Green Room) to make a point…like a mom using your middle name when she means business. As Morgana, Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) is little more than a cameo but she slinks around her well-rendered dirty dungeon nicely.

At a solid two hours and featuring a few supposed climaxes, the movie stretches things just a tad longer than necessary but it’s a small nitpick for a film that works wondrously most of the time. Though it ends with the suggestion a sequel is possible, it doesn’t feel like this was always intended to be the kick start of a new franchise. If Cornish and company were all game to return and the same spirited approach was taken, this could lead to something special that has a lasting impact on audiences.

Movie Review ~ Bohemian Rhapsody

The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the years leading up to Queen’s legendary appearance at the Live Aid concert.

Stars: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s only fair to say first off that the best part of Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic that’s not totally about Freddie Mercury but not really about Queen, is the final fifteen minutes.  That’s where the film finally draws some electricity and commands some attention from the audience.  As Mercury, star Rami Malek struts and poses with flair and gives off the kind of energy that’s been sorely missing for the previous two hours.  At my screening, you could almost feel the crowd waking up and making a connection with what was happening on screen. The problem with all this is that it’s nearly a shot for shot recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance that you could easily watch for free on YouTube.  Why go to the movies to see something easily available at your personal fingertips?

The answer is Malek.

Let’s back up a bit, shall we?

Bohemian Rhapsody has finally arrived in theaters after a development process that could most kindly be called tortuous.  Over the years many directors have come and gone along with potential stars.  Once set to feature Sacha Baron Cohen as the late lead singer of Queen, he departed due to ‘creative differences’ and the film was eventually made with rising star Malek (Papillion) and director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse).  When filming was nearly finished, Singer was fired from the picture after not showing up for work and whatever was left to shoot was taken up by producer Dexter Fletcher.  Though Singer’s name remains on the final product, the director is not doing press for the film and Malek’s own press junket has had some rocky moments.

If the film were anything memorable, this may all be a tragic series of unfortunate events but it’s so ho-hum and lazily assembled that you wonder why anyone put the effort in at all.  The film was produced by two surviving members of Queen and if you believe what is in the news they had a strong hand in guiding the movie to not make anyone look that bad, except for Freddie Mercury who isn’t alive to defend himself.  The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (Rush) takes great lengths to show how Mercury caused the band to implode (though they never broke up as the film seems to suggest) and how the other members were model family men who contributed to the band’s success.

Playing like an abridged version of an already sanitized biography, the movie is never fully about the rise of Freddie who came from a traditional Pakistani family to become one of the most enigmatic but frustrating rock stars of his generation.  It also isn’t really about Queen whose virtuosic talents are heard courtesy of the greatest hits soundtrack but never felt as performed by the actors taking on the other members of the band. Instead, it awkwardly hops along a middle line that fails to deliver anything we couldn’t have learned from reading the Queen Wikipedia page. There’s head-scratching leaps in time and curious historical omissions, then there are the downright oddball choices like having Mike Myers play a music industry exec who rejects Queen’s epic anthem Bohemian Rhapsody outright saying no one will be rocking out to this in their car.  This from the actor that starred in Wayne’s World which featured a carful of metalheads rocking out to…guess what?  It’s an unnecessary bit of goopy meta humor, one of many kooky moments that happen in the movie.

While the men playing Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, Only the Brave), and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello, Jurassic Park) acquit themselves in shallow roles, two performances keep the movie afloat and both actors are working their butts off to do so.  The first is Lucy Boynton (Murder on the Orient Express) as Freddie’s first love and fiancée before he comes out as gay.  Though he cheats on her she remains loyal to him first as a lover and then as a confidant.  When Freddie gets tangled up with a shady manager (Allen Leech, The Imitation Game) with personal and professional interests of his own, she’s the only one that calls Freddie out on his blindness and reminds him of who has always stuck by him.  Boynton turns up regularly in these types of roles but she aces them all.

Then there’s Malek who is the real reason you should consider seeing the movie at all.  Though saddled with a pair of false teeth to create Freddie’s pronounced overbite that feel two sizes to big, he brings out the loneliness felt by this star and that’s where some true emotion finally is felt.  Though it tends toward “poor Freddie with no friends and no companion” at times (again, what does this script have against him??) Malek manages to rise above all of that and find the heart if not totally the soul of the man. If only Malek was paired with a screenplay that was willing to be a warts and all tour of Queen’s journey to fame.

It all comes into focus, though, in those final fifteen minutes which are enough to send you out of the theater on a rock and roll high.  I felt it for a good day or so after I saw the film but the more I thought about the rest of the movie and it’s tuneless trappings the more I started to come back to earth.  Fans of Mercury and the band have likely been waiting a long time for this biopic and maybe they’ll get what they need out of this surface skimming endeavor – but I think it will take another set of filmmakers more removed from their subject to give us the real story.

31 Days to Scare ~ Pacific Heights (1990)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple work hard to renovate their dream house and become landlords to pay for it. Unfortunately, one of their tenants has plans of his own.

Stars: Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, Michael Keaton, Mako, Laurie Metcalf, Carl Lumbly

Director: John Schlesinger

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In these days there’s nothing quite as terrifying as…real estate. It’s a seller’s market and even though just a few years ago the market was good, unless you’re willing to pay a lot more for a lot less, you’re best to stay in your rental unit until the prices dip once more. That was also the case in 1990 when the compact little thriller Pacific Heights arrived in theaters boasting an Oscar winning director and three A-List stars. Even if the film didn’t have much of an impact at the time (made for 18 million it only made 29 in the states), it’s a taut entertainment worth another look.

Taking a chance and putting their life savings into a multi-unit house in a desirable California location, Patty and Drake fix up the place and start to rent it out. One unit goes to a quiet Asian couple and the last unit is eventually rented to Carter Hayes, a smooth talking single guy that assures them he’ll pay the rent on time and won’t be a bother to anyone else with his comings and goings. At first, everything is fine but when the rent is missed and strange construction noises from within his unit begin to stretch on into the night Patty and Drake get worried. You see, Carter isn’t who he claimed to be and the young couple has just acquired a renter from hell that will put them through the wringer.

Melanie Griffith (Working Girl) and Matthew Modine (47 Meters Down) convincingly play two individuals with a strong bond that find themselves fraying with the increased pressure brought on by Carter (Michael Keaton, Spotlight). These are just ordinary folks looking for an investment opportunity, no match for Carter who has done this before and who eventually takes a sinister turn on his landlord. There are plenty of legal frustrations as the couple tries to evict him as well as physical altercations that give way to a final third that turns a bit into a horror film.

Director John Schleisnger (Midnight Cowboy) keeps things at a good clip. At 102 minutes there’s not a lot of padding and while some of the decisions Patty and Drake make might have you pulling out your hair, you certainly feel for the no-win situation they find themselves in. In addition to the nice performances of Modine and Griffith, the latter who truly moves into the lead performance for the final act, there’s a nicely dark turn for Keaton who revels in the chance to play a different kind of sociopath. It’s a strong trifecta of actors that helps to elevate this from your TV movie of the week hellscape.