Movie Review ~ The Grudge (2020)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a young mother murders her family in her own house, a single mother and detective tries to investigate and solve the case. She discovers the house is cursed by a vengeful ghost that dooms those who enter it with a violent death.

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, Demián Bichir, Betty Gilpin, John Cho, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve always liked to look at the start of a new year as a way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.  What a perfect time to forget about old annoyances, unmet goals, and the resolutions from the previous year that you didn’t stick to.  For this critic embarking on his ninth year of being a one-man reviewing band on this site, it’s also a fine time to hope that the next year of movie-going will be a smooth ride, where every film is a winner and each expectation I have going in is met.  Though 2019 shaped up to be a rather strong year for film in those final few months there were some bumps along the way…with some real rough patches especially in the horror genre remake/reboot realm.  If you read my end of the year review you’ll know I put the trash update of Child’s Play as my #1 worst movie in 2019 and unfortunately we are only two days into the new year and I already have a likely candidate to be (dis)honorably mentioned 12 months from now.

Always wanting to support my beloved horror films I was silly enough to take myself to see Sony’s restage of The Grudge thinking that it would be the scary new vision of 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge it made itself out to be.  Instead, writer/director Nicolas Pesce squanders a talented cast and decent production values in a film that is schizophrenic at best, incoherent at worst.  The films in this series have always suffered from issues with structure and there is barely a framework in place before Pesce starts to tear it all apart. Coming off of two well received movies, 2018’s Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother from 2016, Pesce was an intriguing choice to take on this reboot but brings none of the style he showed in those smaller movies with his first foray into franchise territory.  This is Horror Movie 101, with lame-o jump scares favored over any kind of build up of suspense or furthering of the narrative action.

After the death of her husband, Detective Muldoon (no first name given ever) packs up and moves with their son to Cross Creek, PA, where they have a chance at finding a new normal.  Her first day on the job she’s partnered with Detective Goodman (another character not given the benefit of a first name) and they are sent to the woods where a decomposed body has been found in a locked car.  Tracing the body back to a house with a bloody past, Goodman wants to turn the investigation over to the federal authorities and forget about it but Muldoon can’t resist doing some work on her own.  Once Muldoon enters the infamous house she starts to experience strange events that can all be tied back to a family that had been murdered two years prior…and whatever caused all that trouble before is now after her.

If you’ve never seen it, the original Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge is quite an effective entry in J-Horror.  I remember catching it at a small theater in my town when it received a limited release and receiving good chills for my effort.  When I heard the original director was coming to the US to remake the film in partnership with Sam Raimi (Oz: The Great and Powerful), I was curious to see how Hollywood would handle it.  The 2004 version of The Grudge followed it’s foreign predecessor pretty closely and was a decent if completely unnecessary effort; setting much of it Japan with a largely American cast had its own problems, though and it’s non-linear format didn’t flow as easily overseas.  A quick sequel was pushed into production and the 2006 result was a steep nosedive in quality and logic.  I never got around to seeing the third film, released in 2009, but skimming reviews for it online it appears I didn’t miss much.  Stepping back from the 2020 version a bit and squinting, you can see where a new twist on The Grudge may have sounded appealing to the studio heads at Sony.

I have to believe that something happened between Pesce’s pitch and the film being released that changed what was originally intended.  Made for a small-ish $10 million dollars, there was a real opportunity to make a suspenseful film that took the haunting elements from the original movies and placed them in a new story.  Instead, the movie is stuck in the same old narrative rut that proved so problematic in the past.  Set between the years 2004 and 2006 (why?), Pesce has really made four mini-episodes showing how the cursed house has taken deadly action over the years and then thrown it all into a wood-chipper before piecing it back together.  It never allows the action to find a rhythm because there’s no impetus to when or how the storylines diverge from one another.

One moment you’re in 2006 where Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) and Goodman (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) are investigating the body in the car, the next you’re back in the past watching married real estate agents (John Cho, Searching and Betty Gilpin, Isn’t it Romantic?) dealing with their own tragedy who make the mistake of taking on the spooky dwelling.  Aside from the original family who meet a gruesome fate, the other noteworthy arc involves a man (Frankie Faison, The Silence of the Lambs) who has called upon a euthanasia supporter (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) to help his ailing wife (Lin Shaye, Insidious: The Last Key) transition.  Of all the plots Pesce juggles this is the one that I wanted to know more about, thanks to the performances of all three actors…especially Weaver.  The way Weaver reacts to the horror she sees made me wish she had better material to work with…but she gives it her all anyway.

Actually, all the actors deserve some pat on the back for imbibing what sensibility was possible into their roles.  Riseborough is such a fascinating actress but struggles with a character that becomes more hyperbolic as the film goes on.  Pesce makes a concerted effort to pause the action while Riseborough works through her emotions but since we have no real sense of who she is these slow sections become annoying, making the film feel longer (much much much longer) than its 94 minutes.  I’m not sure if Bichir ever spoke above a throaty whisper but I’m definitely sure Cho and Gilpin didn’t know they were in a horror movie until after the movie was finished.  Both look bewildered instead of scared.  You can always count on Shaye to bring us back on track and her few scenes as a woman that has become unhinged due to the house consistently find the right tone.  I also found William Sadler’s (Freeheld) brief appearance to be approaching the right ballpark of where Pesce should have taken things.

A clumsy film to kick off 2020, hopefully audiences won’t take the bait with this new version of The Grudge and allow this series to just disappear.  The only thing good about seeing this is that everything else you watch this year is bound to be better…but maybe that’s me being too hopeful again.

The Silver Bullet ~ Shadow Dancer

shadow_dancer

Synopsis: Set in 1990s Belfast, an active member of the IRA becomes an informant for MI5 in order to protect her son’s welfare.

Release Date:  May 31, 2013

Thoughts: In the last month I’ve become a big fan of star Andrea Riseborough after catching her in two strong performances: as an investigative news reporter in Disconnect and an icy company woman going toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise in Oblivion.  So I’m particularly interested in seeing her take the lead in this political drama involving the IRA in the early 90’s.  Aside from Riseborough, there’s the usually strong Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson who has parlayed herself away from her The X-Files fanbase by taking on some nicely flawed characters.  Director James Marsh has helmed several notable projects (winning an Oscar for the documentary Man on a Wire) so I’m excited to see what his latest offering amounts to.

Movie Review ~ Oblivion

oblivion_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I’ll start this review with an admission of bias: I really like futuristic sci-fi films set in a dystopian climate.  From Prometheus to Moon to 2001: A Space Odyssey to 2010: The Year We Make Contact, I just really respond to the chilliness of the whole genre.  So it’s no surprise that early trailers for Oblivion caught my eye and I made it a point to see this film on the biggest screen possible to immerse myself in the world created by director Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) and screenwriters Karl Gajdusek, Michael DeBruyn (who adapted Kosinski original graphic novel)

A lot of people had issues with Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy feeling that it was a meal that looked good but offered no sustenance.  I can see where those detractors were coming from but found that film to be better than its predecessor decades earlier.  Kosinski wisely knows how to use current technology to make a future world look sleek and believable and though Oblivion isn’t as all tech consuming as Tron: Legacy was it’s still a strong entry into the sci-fi genre.

Plot-wise, there’s not a lot here that you haven’t seen before if you’re a fan of science fiction of any kind.  The notion of a future world suffering the after effects of a war with an alien race has been done to death from the truly great films to the very awful direct to television offerings.  What sets this one apart, though, is a focus on stronger character development, impressive visual effects,  and a crack cast that knows exactly what kind of movie they are operating in.

Star Tom Cruise is having a nice renaissance after several years of being the punch line to a never-ending onslaught of couch jumping jokes.  Though he started 2012 strong with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, his next two films didn’t catch fire like everyone had hoped…though to be fair Rock of Ages was a nightmare film with Cruise the only saving grace.  December’s Jack Reacher was vastly underrated and should have been a bigger hit. Oblivion has put Crusie back into a fighting spirit and for good reason…it’s a role tailor made for the action star and it gives him a chance to kick butt while showing a lighter side too.

He’s supported ably by two strong females.  Andrea Riseborough may be my new star to watch…after turning up in Madonna’s directorial debut W/E, she delivered a layered performance in Disconnect and her role here as Cruise’s partner in work and love is nicely complex. We’re never quite sure what side she’s on and even when we think we’ve figured it out, the film throws some nice twists in to keep us guessing.  Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) plays a character with secrets I shan’t give away but proves to be more than a woman that Cruise has to merely save.

Don’t be deceived by ads (or the above poster) that show Morgan Freeman playing a main role in the film.  While he does hold some significance his screen time is severely limited, ending up being more of a cameo appearance than anything.  Melissa Leo is one of the most earnest actresses out there so one should watch her performance here carefully…after the film is over her restraint is quite telling.

Seen in an IMAX theater, Oblivion has a lot of sound and fury…signifying something.  It’s a booming picture with amazing visuals and a sound design seemingly meant to test the sound proofing on any theater (as the credits were rolling I was almost out the door to the theater and could still hear the film playing).  The soundtrack by M83 is electronic heavy (I originally though Tron: Legacy composers Daft Punk had been tapped again for the soundtrack) and works nicely into the action.

This is a film that really should be seen first in the theater for the visuals alone.  It’s not going to revolutionize the sci-fi genre, nor does it really aim to.  It’s a compact re-tread of the best parts of other films that works more than it probably should.  I know the film has its nay-sayers and I completely see where they’d be coming from – but the film experience that I had was very rewarding and very unexpectedly entertaining.

Movie Review ~ Disconnect

disconnect

The Facts:

Synopsis: A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton, Andrea Riseborough, Alexander Skarsgard, Max Thieriot, Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, Haley Ramm

Director: Henry Alex Rubin

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewDisconnect is that rarest of films…the kind that works like gangbusters while you’re soaking it in at the theater but one that gradually erodes away with each day that passes.  It would be easy (and fair) to call this Crash 2.0 or Crash Online as the film is an ensemble drama with intertwining plots that circle around a single topic.  Where Crash took a hard look at race relations, Disconnect takes a timely look at how the internet has worked its way into our lives with troublesome results.

As is the case with many of these films with large casts and multiple story arcs, some of them work well and some of them fall flat.  For me, the most effective of these involves a news reporter (UKer Riseborough, sporting a flawless American accent) doing some investigative journalism into underage teens using the internet to provide sexual favors/shows in return for gifts/money.  Lured into this life, these teens are exploited and put into dangerous situations and it isn’t long before the FBI gets interested in the reporter and her relationship with an older teen (Thieriot) that agrees to go on camera to tell his story.

Riseborough is a fascinating actress to watch and though she does equally good work in the sci-fi actioner Oblivion, it’s in Disconnect where we enjoy her more because the character has some interesting moral dilemmas to go through.  Thieriot is impressive too as he graduates from Disney-fied teen films to a raw and revealing look into some dark material.

There’s also a Catfish-y story about two young high schoolers (Ford and Avian Bernstein) that use Facebook to pose as a girl interested in an outcast (Bobo).  Not just cyber-bullying but using the boy’s desire to connect against him, the two take their joke too far and soon find lives and futures are put into question when their target goes to drastic measures to free himself from their humiliation.  Grillo (building quite the impressive resume recently with films like The Grey, End of Watch, and Zero Dark Thirty) and Bateman (Hit and Run, Identity Thief) are fathers that are directly affected by the actions of their sons and both do solid dramatic work.

The least effective section involves Patton and Skarsgard as a couple with a marriage in trouble further put to the test when they are the subject of identity theft.  Was it Skarsgard’s online gambling habit or Patton’s online support group friend that opened them up to having their bank accounts drained?  That’s the back and forth issue they bicker about a lot…leading them to a confrontation with a man (Nyqvist) that may have the answers to their questions.  Patton and Skarsgard don’t have the right chemistry to sell this and I found myself squirming anytime the movie shifted focus.

How these different stories connect are mostly interesting and maybe sometimes too convenient but I won’t spoil how these overlap lest it ruin some of the discoveries the movie reveals as it goes on. Director Rubin (of the great documentary Murderball) and writer Andrew Stern clearly used Crash as an inspiration for the resolution (everything comes to a head in one high-tension series of slow-mo throat grabbers) and for the most part the film works. 

It was on my way home and in the days since that I saw how manipulative the film was.  Though there’s a connection that most audiences will make with the movie, if you sit down and consider the film you’ll see some of the plot holes and disconnecting contrivances that don’t seem to be a big issue when the fast paced movie is being taken in.  Perhaps because I enjoyed the film so much at the time and thanks to several strong performances, I’m giving it a higher rating than it deserves.

The Silver Bullet ~ Disconnect

disconnect

Synopsis: A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world.

Release Date: April 12, 2013

Thoughts: As our reliance on technology grows, so our connectivity with living and breathing beings seems to be waning.  The upcoming ensemble drama Disconnect seeks to explore the emergence of how much of our lives are spent on the internet and how intertwined we’ve become with the online world.  From cyber bullying to identify theft to “catfish”ing someone, the internet has become a place for people to lose themselves.  These types of films are always very interesting…especially when they are centered around a central theme as timely as this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Oblivion

oblivion

Synopsis: A court martial sends a veteran soldier to a distant planet, where he has to destroy the remains of an alien race. The arrival of an unexpected traveler causes him to question what he knows about the planet, his mission, and himself.

Release Date:  April 19, 2013

Thoughts: 2012 had its highs and lows for Tom Cruise.  He came into 2012 with a hot film (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), turned in a great performance in a box office bomb (Rock of Ages),  went through a very public divorce, and is ending the year with a new film (Jack Reacher) that is getting above average reviews.  It won’t be long before Cruise will be back with this sci-fi epic from the director of the underrated Tron: Legacy that looks quite entertaining.  Add a cast of interesting faces and impressive effects and Cruise may be back on top by this time next year.