Movie Review ~ Phobias

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Five dangerous patients, suffering from extreme phobias at a government testing facility, are put to the ultimate test under the supervision of a crazed doctor and his quest to weaponize fear.

Stars: Alexis Knapp, Charlotte McKinney, Lauren Miller, Monique Coleman, Martina García, Hana Mae Lee, Leonardo Nam, Benjamin Stockham, Anthony Gonzalez, Steve Park, Macy Gray, Ross Partridge, Joey Luthman, Micah A. Hauptman, Mackenzie Brooke Smith

Director: Jess Varley, Maritte Go, Camilla Belle, Chris von Hoffman, and Joe Sill

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I like bad horror films just like every other true horror fan out there.  You horror fans reading this, don’t pretend like you read that sentence and don’t agree with it because for as much as we love our tried and true classics like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. we also have a fond soft spot for the other side of the movie score.  These stinkers may not reach favor with the majority of the public, but odds are if you like a silly/stupid horror film there’s a good chance someone else chalks it up as one of their long-standing must-sees as well.  Yet there’s a definitive line in the sand that gets drawn between the bad horror films that just land off the mark, but you could tell at least aimed in the right direction, and the horror flicks that are just bad movies overall.  Those are the ones to look out for, heed the warnings on, and avoid at all costs.

Newly added to this running list is the new cheap-o lame-o dumb-o anthology film Phobias.  Consisting of five short vignettes joined together by a wraparound story, you may want to have your dictionary handy to look up the definitions of the phobias because making a point of defining anything clearly isn’t the first priority of any writing or directing in this headache.  Instead, the tone from piece to piece is wildly different (somewhat excusable at first seeing that each has a different director) but there is no real cohesion to the entire saga, so the audience is left lurching forward and braking hard based on what director shows slightly more promise.  The result is a discouraging downward spiral for a concept that should work better than it does and one that could have set the stage for an easy round of sequels had the collective unity of the films been clearer.

A marginally decent start kicks of Phobias using Robophobia (fear of robots, drones, robot-like mechanics or artificial intelligence) as a jumping off theme.  Asian-American Johnny (Leonardo Nam, One for the Money) is a meek programmer caring for his ill father and avoiding local bigots that regularly torment him.  All this begins to change when he receives a new friend that promises to turn things around for him.  If only the friend wasn’t a sinister AI program that’s out to take over Johnny’s life and move from a digital space to the real world.  This clunky yet promising chapter/prologue ends right when it’s getting interesting so we can see how it will feed into the rest of the night’s events.  The next time we see Johnny, he’s at an undisclosed location along with several others monitored by a quack doctor looking to “harvest fear” through one of those contraptions that looks like it was made for a grade school production of Frankenstein.  While our visits to this interlacing story are brief, they unfortunately leave enough time for Ross Partridge (The High Note) to gnosh on some of the cardboard scenery as the psycho scientist.  To his credit, Partridge looks unhinged enough to believe the whack-a-doo malarkey he is spinning.

Each patient in the ward with Johnny has a particular phobia the dear doctor wants to exploit to gather the most fear in a single dose.  So we ping over to the usually fun Hana Mae Lee (Pitch Perfect) in Vehophobia (the fear of driving) who delivers an oddly detached and dead-eyed performance as a cruel woman that has manipulated men all her life and is about to pay a price.  While Hoplophobia’s fear of weapons has the potential to be more of a cautionary tale that maybe deserved a different platform with a longer space in which to tell its story, actor turned director Camilla Belle (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) doesn’t yet have the right tools to fashion it into a mature angle.  Ephebiphobia is the fear of youth and when you meet the wretched scuzzbuckets that terrorize a woman in the middle of the night you might come down with it as well…or does the woman have her own secrets that absolve the meen teens from their dirty deeds?

That brings us to Atelophobia, or the fear of not being good enough.  Looking up the definition afterward (you’re welcome, by the way for getting these as you go!) I was surprised this was how the phobia was defined because it’s the simplest definition for the wildest of all the chapters in a very dull book.  It’s honestly the reason to see the film at all and I have a sense the people involved knew it, and knew reviewers would say it, and that’s why it’s conveniently right at the end of the movie.  Starring singer Macy Gray as a stern executive striving for perfection at all costs, it has the most gore and I think looked the most polished.  Gray is sort of all over the map, acting-wise, but her oddball behavior seemed to make sense with the weird nature of her character.  I wouldn’t spoil where this story ends but kudos to Gray for really buckling down and embracing some gruesome work.

If it weren’t for that final Atelophobia segment and Gray’s off-the-wall performance (I’m not sure if it was good…I think it was…but it could just as easily be terrible.) Phobias would be a complete write off because even the small flashes of style it has are completely consumed by a lack of insight into anything fresh or engaging. Substituting crass dialogue in place of clever lines that enriched the story, the lack of polish only winds up reflecting poorly on those onscreen and you can’t blame it all on them.  Numerous writers/directors were involved with Phobias and it feels as if none of them ever met to discuss what this project was about and intended to be…or who it was for.  It’s certainly not for serious horror fans or even those of us that enjoy the occasional cheese-ball title.  Watch it for Gray or skip it all together.  Better yet…watch Arachnophobia again.  That’s one that never gets old.

Movie Review ~ Coco

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to work out the mystery.

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil

Director: Lee Unkrich

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: There was time when Disney/Pixar had the market cornered on movies that hit you with enough emotional force that tears were inevitable.  Often they were happy tears but every now and then they’d find a way to trigger the kind of ugly cry that made audiences glad the lights didn’t come on right when the credits rolled. With the advent of 3D technology being used in their films, we then had another way to hide our red eyes as we shuffled toward the exit and our cars.

Over the past decade Pixar has lost a little bit of that luster producing not fully satisfying sequels to proven franchises.  They looked great and were amusing, sure, but something was missing…there wasn’t the magnitude of honest heart and soul the studio was known for.  Add to that live-action movies and rival animation studios locking into that coveted emotional sweet spot and Pixar started to become one of the gang instead of their leader.

Now along comes Coco.

I didn’t know what to expect from Pixar’s latest release, an original tale of a boy in Mexico struggling with accepting his family and having them understand him too.  Early previews didn’t give much in the way of plot but they sure got tongues wagging with its spectacular animation and the promise of something inventive. not just another rehashed sequel (Monsters University).  Could this be the spark that re-ignited the Pixar fire?  And would audiences make time for something that might be out of their cultural comfort zone?

Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, who also has a sweet singing voice) narrates our tale and through a creative prologue catches us up on his family history.  His great great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise their daughter alone.  Banishing all forms of music from her descendants, she starts a successful shoe business that is passed down from generation to generation.  In present day, though he knows its forbidden, Miguel dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol, matinee star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, Doctor Strange).  Though de la Cruz perished onstage in an unfortunate scenery malfunction, his memory lives on in movie appearances Miguel replays in a secret hiding place where he can play his guitar along with his hero.

When a talent contest is announced to take place in conjunction with Dia de los Muertos (the three-day celebration in October that’s a staple of Mexican culture), Miguel chooses to emulate de la Cruz and ‘seize the moment’, but when his family gets wind of his plot his dreams are crushed.  It’s when he breaks into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and strums his famed guitar that Miguel becomes enmeshed in a family curse he’ll need de la Cruz’s help to break.  Meeting up with his relatives that have long since passed and teaming up with a fast-talking hobo (Gael García Bernal, Rosewater) to find de la Cruz, Miguel embarks on a journey of discovery to get back to the Land of the Living before the sun rises.

The story, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (Inside Out) is full of colorful characters and creative endeavors.  There’s a bit of a mystery to solve and it gets more interesting as the film goes along and Miguel learns more about his family.  Parents should heed the PG rating because there are some images/ideas that may frighten younger children but kids that can sit through its rather long running time should be quite enthralled.  I was pretty mesmerized from the word go and marveled at how intricate the plot becomes, especially when it threw in Frida Kahlo and other references to Mexican history.

Speaking of detail, the animation here is just outstanding.  The background designs are super and the fine details on each of the skeletal faces of the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are unique and serve to soften what could be a scary sight.  There’s wonderful music pulsating through the film (some from the team behind Frozen) and a recurring musical theme is put to good use, especially in the final 1/3 when Unkrich amps up the emotion and carefully (if shamelessly) goes for the jugular.

For a film that takes place mostly in the Land of the Dead, there’s an abundance of life and joy on display.  It signals that Pixar is listening to audiences and critics that wanted the studio to get back to what made them so special in the first place: telling original stories that touched us on more than a simply entertaining level.  Coco represents a high-water mark for the studio, arguably one of their best films so far.  In addition to its dazzling animation that uses every color known to the human eye it has a strong story about family and finding one’s place in your lineage.  It pulls very few punches and will likely inspire some discussion afterward for parents to have with their children. Make sure to stay until the end, the final image that serves as a thank you from the filmmakers is the cherry on top of an already personal-feeling experience.  Also…major props for directing audiences to their local libraries to study up on the cultural events depicted in the film.