Movie Review ~ Silent Night

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Nell, Simon, and their boy Art are ready to welcome friends and family for what promises to be a perfect Christmas gathering. Perfect except for one thing: everyone is going to die.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Davida McKenzie, Rufus Jones, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Lucy Punch, Holly Aird, Trudie Styler, Dora Davis, Gilby Griffin Davis, Hardy Griffin Davis

Director: Camille Griffin

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Every now and then I find that I run into a bit of a crisis as a reviewer.  Here’s the situation I face.  There’s a movie I’ve seen which I know is worth a look, yet I have trouble with an outright recommendation because there’s something about it which could turn the viewer against it and, by proxy, me.  I don’t want you to end up hating me and “ghosting” my webpage in the future.  Obviously, if this was my full-time job and I was getting paid for my thoughts I would have less trouble just churning these musings out without worry but I sort of, y’know, care about you and your trust in me so I’m going to be always upfront. 

In the spirt of that message (and the season) I need to tell you the new Christmas-set UK film Silent Night is one of the most unrepentantly bleak movies you’ll encounter this year or any year in recent memory.  Dealing with a family that gathers at a secluded country estate for a yuletide celebration on the eve of a population-ending event, one they all know is coming, there’s an invisible ticking clock hanging over the ninety-minute film which makes it feel both too short and never ending at the same time.  Timed for release on the second Christmas the world is spending in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a well-made but unsettling drama offering none of the easy-outs you may be expecting. 

For Christmas this year, everyone attending Nell and Simon’s gathering has been asked to bring one important item…their own suicide pills.  Due to an environmental catastrophe which has sent a cloud of toxic gas throughout the land, all humans will perish, and it’s set to hit British soil on Christmas.  This is known. There is no escape.  The most humane way to deal with it, and not suffer the horrific effects of dying by the gas, is to take the pills issued by the government with your loved one and die quickly rather than painfully.  First though, there’s a feast to be had and the guests are arriving.

In addition to Nell (Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method), Simon (Matthew Goode, Stoker), their eldest son Art (Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit) and their twin boys, the revelers include steely Sandra (Annabelle Wallis, Malignant) who is bringing her less than well-liked daughter, fun-loving lesbian Bella (Lucy Punch, Into the Woods) and her more button-downed wife (Alex Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cruella), and reflective James (Sopé Dìrísù, His House) and his newly pregnant wife Sophie (Lily Rose-Depp, Wolf).  Not everyone is so sure about taking the pill, Sophie is about to bring new life into the world and maybe wants to wait to see if the gas is survivable, Art doesn’t want to have his parents decide his fate for him.  Various points throughout the night provoke stark questions about death, human rights, and who has the ultimate choice about existence.

Director Camille Griffin (mother of Roman who plays Art) makes a wonderful debut that’s as challenging to watch as it is interesting to debate. It’s meant to be a conversation starter and boy is it ever.  It’s certainly a well-made movie, just horribly sad and without much reprieve throughout.  I can’t lie and say it has the rosiest of endings but can offer a shred of light and say that in ending the way it does, there are lessons to be learned that we can all benefit from in some way.  Is Silent Night one to consider swapping out one of your Christmas favorites for?  Not a chance.  However, maybe you can wait until March or April to try this out one…unless you enjoy the sadness the holidays can bring.

31 Days to Scare ~ Malignant

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Mckenna Grace, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jake Abel, Ray Chase, Jean Louisa Kelly, Susanna Thompson

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I feel as if I should start a review of Malignant by dividing up the reader into two different categories.  Are you the type of person that sees a horror film and need to have it grounded in some kind of truth, a reality that benefits from an explanation with sound science behind it?  If you are, please step to the left and I can find you another movie later.  For the rest of you still with me, I invite you to try out this ambitious bit of terror that unfurls itself slowly before taking several shots of adrenaline as it reaches its climax.  It’s utter nonsense, let’s be real clear, and gets so crazy you almost wonder if it’s going to turn out to be some huge joke with a “Gotcha” dance break, but it’s in the way it takes itself so seriously that ultimately makes Malignant such a wild ride.

The movie locked me down almost from its first shot, the imposing Simion Research Hospital perched high on a cliff one rainy night in 1992.  Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie, The Water Diviner) is documenting the study of her patient Gabriel when she’s suddenly called to his room to witness something…strange.  Jumping ahead to 2019 and into the Seattle home of Madison (Annabelle Wallis, The Mummy) and her good for nothing husband Steve (Jake Abel, The Host), we barely get to meet the couple before we learn that Steve likes to rough up the pregnant Madison and that she’s lost several babies because of it.  It’s during one row that he smashes her head up against a wall, leaving her bleeding from the back of her head and needing to lie down.  Later that night, a ghostly figure appears and makes Madison a widow, eventually sending her to the hospital where she loses another baby. (Fear not of spoilers…this is all within the first 10 minutes!)

With the police investigating Steve’s strange death, Madison returns home with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, We Summon the Darkness) and let’s her in on a little secret: Madison was adopted when she was very young after being abandoned by her birth mother. She also had an imaginary friend when she was young…a boy named Gabriel.  While Madison is putting her life back together and recovering, several other seemingly unrelated people are meeting the same dark figure that did-in wife beating Steve. One woman (Jean Louisa Kelly, Uncle Buck) is hunted down after giving a tour of Seattle’s underground city, others are violently slaughtered by the specter that walks funny and evades Detective Shaw (George Young) and Detective Moss (Michole Briana White, Songbird) with apparent ease.  It’s during these new crimes that Madison starts to see visions of the killer at work, like she is actually there when it is happening.

Director James Wan, working from Akela Cooper’s (Hell Fest) script (which he gets a story credit on along with his wife Ingrid Bisu who also appears in the film), has a long history with creating iconic horror characters and/or series.  An original creative behind the Saw series as well as directing Insidious and it’s sequel as well as The Conjuring and it’s follow-up, Wan fit in Malignant after directing Aquaman and before he set to work on the big-budget follow-up to that superhero film.  This feels like a pet project that Warner Brothers let him roll with and perhaps why Wan pulls out all the tricks in his arsenal for a movie that’s way more fun to watch than dissect.  There’s just too much bonkers business going on to take it all that seriously, even if some of the resolution has some grounding in science.

While the big reveal is a total doozy, it’s not close to the end of the film and it’s a credit not just to Wan but the rest of the cast that they are able to continue making the film engaging while carrying a rather strange idea to its bloody conclusion.  It’s during that time when Wan goes heavy metal on the action with dynamic camera angles (the director has never met a multi-level house he can’t shoot entirely from above in an uninterrupted take as an actor goes from floor to floor) and limber stunt people to bend and twist their way around in largely practical physical acts that boggle the mind.  It’s all very breathless and a tad exhausting…and I loved it.

It truly helps Wan has a cast that is taking the material deadly seriously.  Were they to even wink slightly at the camera it would have broken the illusion that someone was in on the silliness of it all.  With her dark hair and eye lined lids, Wallis is tortured soul personified and quite good as a wild-eyed woman putting together her past while trying to figure out if she needs to be worried more about her present.  Wan tends to cast his leading females well and he’s got another bullseye here.  Production elements are top notch and watching the film in 4K HD on HBOMax the cinematography from Michael Burgess (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) is spooky and spot-on. 

When this is published, Malignant is sadly not available to watch on HBOMax (who’s the smartypants that decided it shouldn’t be available for Halloween??) but could be playing at a local theater near you.  Try to catch it on a rainy night, because if you are in the right frame of mind, this is a decidedly good watch and fun for the “sure, ok, why not” explanation that meets viewers ninety minutes in.  The cast is strong and Wan is more than prepared to present a film made with precision and skill.  Don’t cut Malignant out of your queue without investigating it a little bit.

Movie Review ~ Boss Level

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A retired special forces officer is trapped in a never-ending time loop on the day of his death.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rob Gronkowski

Director: Joe Carnahan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Quick!  Tell me the last time you were able to watch a Mel Gibson movie (any Mel Gibson movie) and not think about all the crazy way his career took a bizarre twist around 2006.  Clearly under the influence, Gibson was caught on tape ranting about all sorts of unfortunate things, not the least of which were anti-Semitic comments that cast the once sure-fire hit actor as an unhinged looney toon-a-tic.  For a while, it looked as if Gibson’s career was going to be another one undone by an actor’s inability to reconcile with their own internal demons.  Relegated to low-profile cameos in films by his friends or throwing himself into passion projects, Gibson’s been largely out of the public eye for almost fifteen years and only lately has started to turn up in higher profile endeavors where he’s not bearing the weight of the entire production on his shoulders.

That’s good news for Frank Grillo, star of the new Hulu action film Boss Level because had this film been made at the height of Gibson’s stardom, not only would Gibson’s villain role been moved to more of a central figure but it’s likely Gibson himself might have taken on Grillo’s leading man role himself.  It’s especially good news for us because both actors are perfectly cast where they are in a movie that looks like it would be just a hyperactive, bloodier version of the streaming service’s own small wonder hit Palm Springs but is actually just as creative and breathlessly fun and funny as that late summer romp.  More than anything, it’s exciting to see Grillo, who has paid his dues for years in Hollywood as a second or third banana in major studio fare or as the heavy in indie productions that aren’t at his level, finally get a significant chance to move up a pay grade.

Roy Pulver (Grillo, Homefront) has been having a bad morning for a few hundred days by the time we meet him.  Rudely woken up by a machete-wielding assassin, Roy has only moments to dispatch of him, dress and get out of the way of the helicopter hovering outside his windows with a gunman hanging off ready to take aim.  The first killers of the day seem like small potatoes compared to the deadly female sharpshooters, backwoods bumpkin with a crossbow, little person with a big bomb, self-name-checking swordswoman, and doppelgänger slayer (among others) that have been sent to off Roy in a variety of ways before he can make it to lunchtime.  Yet each time he gets shot, run over, blown up, decapitated, sliced and diced, or eviscerated he wakes up to the same machete-wielding assassin and has to go through it all again.

Why is this happening to Roy, a former special forces guy that can take a beating and keep on going in the best of circumstances but is getting tired of dying day in and day out?  Does it have anything to do with the visit he paid yesterday to his former flame Jemma (Naomi Watts, Luce) who has been working on a top-secret project for a mysterious industrial company run by Colonel Clive Ventor (Gibson, Mad Max).  Various clues in a prolonged flashback sequence point to yes but screenwriters Chris Borey, Eddie Borey, & Joe Carnahan (who also directed) don’t let all the secrets out too early on and that’s wise because Boss Level wouldn’t work as well as it does in keeping us engaged if we saw where things were headed.

Instead, Carnahan (The Grey) keeps giving us information the same time Roy gets it and that acts as definite amplifiers of energy right about the time the movie seems to be losing some steam.  The first jolt happens right about when Ken Jeong (Scoob!) appears and threatens to derail the zip of the opening with his staler than stale comedy but then Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) enters as a champion sword fighter and suddenly we’re back on track.  The bursts of energy continue from there and you may even think the movie is coming to a close and ending on a somber note, but check your watch because there’s more than enough time for Carnahan, Grillo, and co. to stage a satisfying finale.  With ample amounts of wink-wink comedy and a willingness to go a little broad (Selina Lo’s deadly Guan Yin never misses a chance to drop her catchphrase as a magically appearing wind blows through her hair), Boss Level parallels Palm Springs not just in the time loop set-up but in the sneaky way that it burrows into our good graces.

Grillo’s been working his way through the film industry for some time and always manages to acquit himself in even the dreariest of releases (see the droopy Body Brokers, released just a few weeks ago for proof) so it’s nice Boss Level has come his way.  He deserves a flashy movie like this that I think will be well received with good replay value.  If we’re being honest, Gibson’s role feels like a favor from Carnahan because he’s not required to do much, and I’d wager the actor completed his work in no more than three or four days.  A star’s a star though and Gibson, for all his troubles, can play both the hero and the villain.  It’s nice to see Watts in her second role in as many months where she’s not taking herself so seriously.  While Penguin Bloom for Netflix was a real-life drama about a woman learning to live as a paraplegic and befriending a magpie, it was a rare opportunity for Watts to be a little looser in her acting and a fresher performance emerged because of it.  Same goes for her work in Boss Level.  She’s tasked with some inane scientific dialogue around time travel that might sound totally implausible with another actress, but she’s got just enough gravitas to make it not sound totally beyond reason.  If there’s one person I would have urged Carnahan to rethink (aside from Jeong who really is long past his sell-by date), it’s not any of the diverse group of assassins but Will Sasso (Irresistible) as Gibson’s right-hand goon.  Either the writers completely lost interest in this character early in the writing process or Sasso didn’t sell it right but it’s such a bland role that could have been a lot more energized with some sort of gimmick that made it memorable.

The film is far too digitized to be called handsomely rendered yet the action sequences do have a gentle thrill to them.  I would have taken less of the showier large scale set pieces that were completely computer generated in favor of more one on one interactions.  It’s these scenes between Roy/Grillo and the other assassins/actors that are arguably more entertaining to watch, even from a visual standpoint.  Boss Level moves so fast and furious, though, that you hardly have time to catch your breath before you’re shot like a cannon into the next foe (or starting again from the beginning) so things are in constant motion.  I keep saying I’m over these time loop movies but if they keep getting done as well as Palm Springs and Boss Level, why stop now?

Movie Review ~ The Silencing

Available In Theaters, On Demand and On Digital August 14, 2020


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A reformed hunter living in isolation on a wildlife sanctuary becomes involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse when he and the local Sheriff set out to track a vicious killer who may have kidnapped his daughter years ago.

Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Annabelle Wallis, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Josh Cruddas, Zahn McClarnon, Melanie Scrofano, Shaun Smyth

Director: Robin Pront

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When talking about The Silencing I think it’s important to focus first and foremost on the good news of the situation.  While the new serial killer flick didn’t manage to make its debut at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin Texas this past March as intended, it is getting a nice release on demand and might stand a chance to do well for viewers in need of a quick thrill.  It also can’t be stressed enough that these middle of the road films harken back to a simpler time of B-movie filmmaking (we’re talking the late 70s through the mid-90s) when you could get one of these genre films every few weeks at your local cineplex.  In that respect, I say bring on more films of its kind and start making them soon – they fill a kind of Wednesday evening void that I need in my life.

Then there’s the other side of the coin where you have to step back and admit that a lot of The Silencing isn’t very good and aside from a strong lead performance from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and a secondary character that might just be more interesting than the supposed star, it’s mostly forgettable.  Though it starts with some promise it will deliver on its premise of a fine mystery solved by ordinary people that act like human beings, it oddly shifts gears several times so that eventually you don’t know what direction the action is headed…and not in a good way.  So maybe I’d like to amend my earlier statement and say that I’d appreciate more movies like The Silencing…just not like The Silencing.

Haunted by the disappearance of his daughter five years ago, Rayburn Swanson (Coster-Waldau, Headhunters) has turned his large area of land into a wildlife sanctuary in her honor.  Though he continues to search for her by putting up fliers and combing local towns asking on her whereabouts, most of his small Minnesota town has accepted the hard reality of the situation.  Turning to his sanctuary and thoughts of preservation, he keeps an eye on video cameras set up within to ward off game hunters that come onto his property.  That’s how he spots a young girl being pursued by a figure in camouflage hunting her down with a Comanche weapon known for its deadly precision.

Intervening with the attack puts him in the middle of a murder investigation already in progress headed by Sheriff Alice Gustafson (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle).  Bodies of girls have been found and in an election year, Gustafson is intent on catching the killer and restoring a reputation that has turned sour thanks to her troublemaking brother Brooks (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) who is always running afoul of the law and getting off with a slap on the wrist.  That doesn’t sit well with Blackhawk (Zahn McClarnon, Doctor Sleep) who represents the police for the Native American tribe of the area and has had to hand over Brooks one too many times.  Competing storylines are always tricky until they intersect because you know they’re going to overlap at somepoint…it’s just a matter of when.

How Rayburn and Alice eventually cross paths is where the film skips from developing nicely as a run of the mill standard suspense thriller to something much less pleasing and it’s a misstep screenwriter Micah Ranum never recovers from.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you but it’s such a achingly dumb error that you have to wonder if everyone involved thought what they were doing was an inspired bit of rug-pulling.  Not stopping there, Ranum upends some floorboards underneath the rug he pulls out from under audiences a little later on with another twist that makes no real sense which leads to a dénouement that mystery fans will have solved long before.  Try an experiment for me.  Watch the first twenty minutes of the movie.  Stop.  Think about everyone you’ve met.  Write down who you think “did it” and then continue on.  I’ll bet you get it right when the unmasking occurs shortly before the credits run.

Not for nothing but Coster-Waldau and even Wallis try to do what they can with these roles, with only Coster-Waldau having much luck convincing us he’s this broken shell of a man.  Wallis never sold me on her tough sheriff persona (or her American accent) and that robbed the character of some authority that was desperately needed.  Though he’s grown popular from the surprise hit After, Fiennes Tiffin is just a bundle of nerves and cuticle biting that grew tiresome.  The one to pay attention to is McClarnon as a wise deputy (and, coincidentally, Rayburn’s ex-wife’s new husband) who figures out something strange is going on and actually does something about it.  I’d be interested in seeing McClarnon get a starring vehicle in a similar vein as The Silencing and credit should be given to director Robin Pront for, if nothing else, this bit of solid casting.

That’s not to say The Silencing signifies nothing.  I applaud the effort to instill some Native American lore and information on primitive weaponry as well, it’s not often these details are included.  There are some well shot sequences and while any Minnesotan like me knows the scenery on display is in no way found in our state, the Canadian locales captured by cinematographer Manuel Dacosse are impressive.  Those in the mood for an easy thriller that doesn’t demand a lot of your attention and are OK with some sag in the middle (it’s about 12 minutes too long in my book) will likely find what they need out of The Silencing.  Me?  I needed a little more noise for it to strike the right chord.

Movie Review ~ Tag


The Facts
:

Synopsis: One month every year, five highly competitive friends hit the ground running in a no-holds- barred game of tag they’ve been playing since the first grade.

Stars: Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Rashida Jones, Isla Fisher, Leslie Bibb, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner

Director: Jeff Tomsic

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: In their marketing, the studio releasing Tag is making a big deal of pointing out it’s based on a true story which, miraculously, is correct.  That’s the first and last genuine thing about Tag, a dreary supposed comedy that manages to take an interesting kernel of inspiration and turn it into a childish game no one will want to play a second round of.  Based on a story first reported in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article (and nicely profiled in a segment on CBS Sunday Morning), the original subjects fielded so much interest in their story they quickly cashed in on a deal for Hollywood to buy the rights to their curiously ongoing game.

Tag uses the basic premise of the shenanigans and takes heavy liberties with the storytelling as it follows five forever friends that have been playing the same game of tag one month each year for over three decades.  When one of the members who has never been “It” decides to quit, the other four scramble to get their hands on him before the month is up.  Problems arise when the quartet arrives to find their tricky target in the middle of his wedding weekend…but will that keep them from doing anything and everything they can to pass the touch and break his winning streak?

Oof…where to start with this?  Proving the bro-tastic juvenile antics of middle aged men in arrested development is a genre that’s still alive and kicking (even after the diminishing returns of The Hangover trilogy), Tag is a rare film that produces absolutely no likable characters for any audience member to latch onto.  None.  Starting at the top, there’s the usually affable Ed Helms (Vacation) as Hoagie, a sad-sack holder of the eternal tag flame who seemingly does nothing but wait until the yearly event to get his game on.  At the start of the film, he’s applying for a job as a janitor just to be able to tag his corporate friend Bob (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm) and get him onboard with the  plot to tag Jerry (Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy).   Your enjoyment of the film will be determined in these opening minutes between Hoagie and Bob – it’s a litmus test of how much lame-brainedness you’ll be able to take for the next hour and a half.

With Bob, Hoagie’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher, Now You See Me) and a Wall Street Journal reporter (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle), ahem, tagging along, they recruit tag buddies Randy (Jake Johnson, The Mummy) and Kevin (Hannibal Buress, The Disaster Artist) and make their way to Washington state.  It’s there they plan to nab Jerry, who has been expecting the arrival of his old friends for one last round before he settles down with Susan (Leslie Bibb, Iron Man).  The resulting antics follow the gang as they repeatedly try to outsmart Jerry who manages to stay a few steps ahead and just out of reach.

Making his big screen directing debut, Jeff Tomsic may know his way around some cleverly staged bits of entrapment but too often he places the camera directly on his actors…someone should have told him the GoPro business is so 2012.   No one is helped by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen’s staid screenplay that features expected developments and one remarkably tasteless joke the film returns to so often the audience literally began loudly groaning each time it was brought up.  Director and screenwriters don’t bother fleshing out any of the characters, nor do they explain how 47 year old Hamm and Renner were in the same class as 44 year old Helms, 40 year old Johnson, or (yikes!) 35 year old Buress.

Sure, movies are allowed to be silly and we’ve totally had enough films to stock a small college dorm room DVD library featuring men behaving like children – but I guess I’m just bummed Tag didn’t aspire to be anything more than a stupid time waste.  They at least could have presented some halfway decent characters for the cast to dive into.  Johnson’s (exhausting) character is a stoner who puffs away the entire movie and then thinks he’s somehow appealing to an old flame played by Rashida Jones, Decoding Annie Parker, in a part so thankless she literally should have actually been thanked in the closing credits.  Then there’s Wallis’ reporter who just drops her story on Hamm’s questionable corporate ethics to report on this tag battle.  She must have had a giant per diem she’s willing to blow as she hops around the west coast with a group of dumbbells.

Aside from Bibb’s entertaining but slightly manic turn as Renner’s fiance, the only person that manages to eek a shred of kudos here is Fisher.  By-laws prevent “girls” (ugh) from playing so she’s the pitbull wife egging her husband and his friends on, all the while gnashing her teeth in desperation at wanting to play.  Her foul-mouthed rages provide some muted laughs and much like her role in Keeping Up with the Joneses (another one Hamm snoozed his way through) she’s proven more than capable of being the most interesting person onscreen.  Come to think of it, I’d have much rather seen a female version of this story…but maybe we’ll get a remake in 10 years with Sandra Bullock in Fisher’s role.

Movie Review ~ The Mummy (2017)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia, and terrors that defy human comprehension.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

Review: You’re going to hear from a lot of people that The Mummy, Universal’s first entry in their new Dark Universe franchise, is a baffling bomb.  Those people aren’t totally wrong but they’re not completely off the mark either.  The worst thing a movie can be is neither good nor bad but just mediocre and too much of this new take on The Mummy straddles that fence, stubbornly refusing to slump into schlock or get its ass into a higher-quality gear.  It’s not a total wash but the potential was there to take a fun step forward and the studio is too, uh, wrapped up in their quest for a new charter film series that they’ve lost sight of the here and the now.

As most of these creature-features often do, The Mummy opens with a little history lesson concerning an ambitious Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) seduced by evil forces that promise her eternal life.  Clearing her way to the throne in a bloody rampage, she’s eventually captured and buried alive in a deluxe sarcophagus within an ultra-complex underground prison.  Remaining hidden for thousands of years, she’s unearthed by two unscrupulous soldiers (Tom Cruise, Oblivion and Jake Johnson, Safety Not Guaranteed) looking for antiquities to sell on the black market in modern day Iraq.  Once released from her prison, she wastes little time in bringing down a plane transporting her to London and proceeding to suck the life out of anyone that gets in her way, turning them into the walking dead for good measure.  It’s up to Cruise and a pretty prehistorian (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle) to end the madness, a task made more difficult when our Mummy Princess sets her sights on making Cruise her eternal mate.

The framework of plot supplied by a screenplay written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), Christopher McQuarrie (Edge of Tomorrow), and Dylan Kussman (Flight) has potential to it but director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us) never fully trusts the material, opting instead to let Cruise take up too much space and pushing others to the sidelines.  Let’s not forget that in addition to the above brief outline, Cruise is introduced to the Prodigium, a secret group dedicated to hunting supernatural baddies and beasties.  Led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (yep, the one and only), look closely during a visit to Prodigium’s lab for a few familiar creatures that may pop up in future Dark Universe entries.

I get the feeling that when the script for The Mummy was sent to Cruise, it was with the intent he consider taking on Dr. Jekyll (played here by a twinkle-eyed Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) but Cruise missed the memo and just assumed he’d be the lead.  Clearly written for a younger actor, everyone in the film at one time or another looks at Cruise (who’s still in fine shape and loves a good stunt sequence) and clearly is thinking, “You’re too old for this role!”  His chemistry with both of his leading ladies is strained and it becomes the Cruise show the moment he arrives onscreen with the titular character taking a frustrating back-seat to the A-list star.

Crowe seems keen on having some fun and while his storyline could be excised from the film entirely, he at least has the right idea of what his contributions are.  Knowing that Universal plans to craft a new franchise from their Stable of Scary, I wonder if the whole Prodigium business was folded in late in the game to tee up the Dark Universe.  Poor Wallis has a role that is entirely exposition, I don’t think she’s given one line that isn’t specifically meant to explain or clarify so the performance feels like the appendix it was written to be.  The true star here is Boutella and whenever she’s onscreen the film starts to crackle and pop only to be muffled by Cruise’s overbearing presence.  I like Cruise quite a lot but even I must admit he’s been given too much room to play.

Amidst a bunch of hokum happenings and a screenplay that’s pretty pokey, there are a handful of slick moments of fun that hint at what the movie could have been had it found a better focus.  A mid-air disaster is staged with edge-of-your-seat excitement and an underwater chase managed to make me hold my breath as Cruise and Wallis try to outswim a horde of the undead.  Being released in 2D and 3D formats, I caught it in 3D and since so much of the film is set at night or in dark underground lairs I’d advise going for a 2D screening which might produce clearer visuals.

There’s nothing I look forward to more than a good old-fashioned monster movie.  I don’t need flashy special effects or 3D gimmickry to get on board, just give me a good creature, a decent plot, and invested performances and I’m happy.  While Universal’s reboot of The Mummy doesn’t consistently hit any of the above specifications, it grazes them long enough to produce a somewhat enjoyable but ultimately misguided first step into a new franchise involving their classic catalog of monsters.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Mummy (2017)

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Synopsis: An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia and terrors that defy human comprehension.

Release Date: June 9, 2017

Thoughts: If you didn’t know any better, the first few moments of this first look at Universal’s 2017 reboot of The Mummy may feel like you’ve fallen into another Mission: Impossible entry.  There’s Tom Cruise looking quite Cruise-ish in a cargo plane carrying the remains of an ancient princess.  Before they can even get through customs (or land the aircraft) trouble brews with Cruise (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) winding up in a body bag.  What’s so nice about this thrilling teaser is that is leaves you with more questions than answers.  Where the 1932 original was a classic horror, its 1999 reboot owed more to Indiana Jones than to its source material.  This new take on The Mummy, however, looks to blend the best of previous incarnations.  With Russell Crowe (The Water Diviner) and Annabelle Wallis (Annabelle) along for the adventure under the direction of Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us), look for this one to be unwrapped in a prime summer slot.

31 Days to Scare ~ Annabelle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola

Director: John Leonetti

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There’s just something so unsettling about dolls, isn’t there?  I’m not talking about Malibu Barbie or He-Man but those frilly dolls with big eyes and faces stuck in permanent, and often pained, smiles.  Creepy dolls have been the subject for many a nightmare in movies, most memorably in films like Magic (a ventriloquist dummy plays a devious role in murder) and Child’s Play (the spirit of a serial killer takes the form of a benign doll) but everyone seems to have some film they can point to where something meant for snuggling winds up being deadly.

In 2013 The Conjuring made a big impact with critics and audiences (not to mention at the box office) thanks to director James Wan’s clever turning of the screws as he told the tale of a family haunted by an ominous spirit in the early 70s.  The family was aided by two paranormal investigators, The Warrens, introduced at the beginning of the film handling the Annabelle case.  Supposedly causing mayhem for two pretty nurses, The Warrens wind up keeping the doll (Annabelle) in their Occult Museum where they can keep an eye on her.  Though she figures into some events later in the movie, Annabelle isn’t really the focus of the film.

With the box office so big, the sequel ideas started flowing and the filmmakers wisely let their minds drift not just to continuing to follow The Warrens (a sequel is expected in 2015) but creating a spin-off centered on the origins of Annabelle. So that’s why we find ourselves a little over a year later with this sequel which maintains the same fine production values of The Conjuring while delivering some fine frights but which unravels just when it should all be coming together.

It’s the time of the Manson Family in California when we meet young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis, Snow White and the Huntsman), and John (Ward Horton, The Wolf of Wall Street) who are the picture of blissful perfection in their sleepy suburban bungalow.  She’s quite pregnant and content to spend her days watching soaps and sewing while he finishes up his residency as a doctor.  Mia (the first of many nods to Rosemary’s Baby) also collects dolls and after a minor squabble John’s mea culpa present to her is a familiar looking doll.

Unfortunately, the first big scare sequence in the film was largely given over in its entirety in the preview yet I still found myself squirming with a sense of dread.  Long story short, after a terrifying nighttime encounter in which the doll plays a factor things start to get pretty scary for John and Mia, prompting their move to a high rise apartment building where they have more square footage to get freaked out in.  It isn’t long before more strange occurrences happen leading to the true terror manifesting itself at the most inopportune of times.

All this is well and good and it gave me the appropriate dose of the willies but the movie starts to collapse in on itself at a rapid pace becoming highly disappointing in the process.  John Leonetti, the cinematographer of The Conjuring steps into the director chair here but doesn’t have Wan’s good instincts in knowing how to bring all of the elements together.  We can only have so many shots of the camera slowly pushing in on the doll’s face (which gets dirtier and more menacing with each passing event) or following Wallis as she slowly walks down a hall or sloooooowly reaches out to move a curtain aside to see what’s behind it.  The key word here is slow.  There’s a lot of repetition going on in the film and in the end Annabelle is merely a series of the same set-up repeated on a loop.

Wallis, for her part, has a nicely ethereal quality to her that helps her build to the frenzy she works herself into as we approach the finale.  She and the handsome Horton make for a nice couple and the acting is above par considering this was a prequel rushed into production.  I’ve always liked Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave) and though she may be slumming it here the actress never gives off the air that she’s an Oscar nominee in a barely realized supporting role.

So it’s not everything The Conjuring was…but it’s a lot better than the majority of the sequel trash we’re subjected to year after year.  Yes, it’s bloodier and less fully realized than the film that preceded it but it’s clear that some effort went into it and it’s far more effective than it probably should be considering how formulaic it all is.

The Silver Bullet ~ Annabelle

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Synopsis: A spinoff of The Conjuring that follows the origins of the demonic doll featured in the 2013 film.

Release Date: October 3, 2014

Thoughts: It was around this time last summer when The Conjuring opened in theaters, scaring the pants off of audiences (this reviewer included) and increasing the sales of nightlights everywhere. Not to be confused with the late summer horror film Jessabelle, Annabelle is a spinoff focusing on the creepy doll featured in the prologue of The Conjuring that factored into the final act of the scare-fest. Little is known about the plot of the picture, but I’m not sure how much of it was taken from the actual case files surrounding the real life horrors brought on by the titular doll. Rather long to be a true teaser and possibly giving away some of its spooks in advance, I’m still on board to see what evils this doll gets up to when she was younger.