31 Days to Scare ~ Brain Dead (1990)

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a showdown of man versus machine, Martin plunges into a chaotic nightmare trying to save his mind from the megalomaniacal corporation.

Stars: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort, Patricia Charbonneau, George Kennedy, Nicholas Pryor

Director: Adam Simon

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Spoiler alert right from the start: the poster for Brain Dead is very deceiving. The face on the cover doesn’t belong to any of our lead cast members nor does it factor in at all to what happens during the 85 minutes of this low-budget horror film from prolific producer Roger Corman. It’s an effective hook ,though, and I’m guessing it helped earn a rental from most people who never even bothered to look at the back for a plot synopsis. That was Corman’s specialty, creating a box art that that catches the eye and sets some intrigue in the eye of the consumer.

The good news about Brain Dead is that, slightly false advertising aside, it’s a dandy of a horror/thriller hybrid that has several soon to be heavy hitters doing some good work early in their careers. I’m not sure if any of them would necessarily voluntarily list the movie on their resume but their presence alone makes the film an interesting watch. Add to that a script from Charles Beaumont who wrote multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone and you have a movie that rises above its meager production to be a somewhat low-wattage cult favorite.

Dr. Rex Martin (Bill Pullman, American Ultra) is a scientist focusing on brain studies. Experimenting with new techniques, he’s contacted by an old friend (Bill Paxton, Edge of Tomorrow) on behalf of the organization he works for. Seems that one of their employees (Bud Cort) has suffered a mental break and is in a delusional state. He is the only one that knows a certain series of numbers imperative in advancing their business but in his current state he can’t remember or is unwilling to provide a response. Paxton’s character wants Pullman to help extract the data using his untested methods…at least that’s what Pullman thinks is going on.  After a rather standard first half hour the film takes the first of several turns that changes the way Pullman (and we the audience) looks at the situation. The lines of reality blur and we aren’t sure if Pullman is the doctor, the patient, or something in between.

Director Adam Simon keeps things strange enough to keep the 85 minutes rocketing along and there’s enough gore to punctuate the action when it gets staid.  I’d advise keeping yourself distraction free while watching Brain Dead because the plot twists and turns on a dime – you won’t want to miss where the film is heading. While it’s no gigantic achievement, considering the cast alone it’s definitely a hidden gem in the Corman catalog.

Movie Review ~ Nightcrawler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Lou Bloom, a driven man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story. Aiding him in his effort is Nina, a TV-news veteran.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Paxton, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmad

Director: Dan Gilroy

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The best horror film of 2014 wasn’t even marketed as a horror film at all…it’s this nail-biter of a tale from writer Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) who also makes his feature film directing debut.

Over the past decade I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, turning up my nose at his more straight-forward/commercial fare (Love and Other Drugs) and having my socks knocked off at this recent penchant for flawed anti-heroes (End of Watch, Prisoners). With the arrival of Nightcrawler my cinematic romance with the star is in full bloom.

Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a nobody that happens upon a way to become a real somebody…at the high cost of life and livelihood of others that have the misfortune of being in his dangerous hemisphere.  Taking place in the seedy world of crime journalists/photographers, Nightcrawler documents how ever-the-opportunist Bloom moves quickly up the ranks from slimy outside observer of the crimes and accidents occurring in Los Angeles to orchestrator of the right angles that will help him advance his star and bank account.

He’s aided and abetted by hungry news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo, Thor, also Gilroy’s spouse) who is also fighting to keep her head above the ever rising waters of crowded newsroom politics.  In many ways, Lou and Nina are the  perfect pair…he supplies what she needs to maintain her station while her willingness to buy what he’s selling only helps to encourage Lou to brush off any moral dilemmas the sleazy work could present.

What I’ve come to appreciate about Gyllenhaal’s movie choices is his willingness to take a character, craft a backstory, and then not let anyone else in to this knowledge he has.  Like his haunted detective in Prisoners, Gyllenhaal makes Bloom a fractured loner.  We don’t know where this guy came from or what troubles he’s had so far in life…making him all the more dangerous because we have no idea of what he stands to lose as he falls deeper and deeper under fame’s spell.

Equally outstanding is Russo in the best role she’s ever been given…no surprise that her husband wrote it specifically for her.  A female news director in a largely male climate, she’s desperate to hold on to her role and is willing to overlook some clear indicators that Bloom is off his rocker and may in fact be creating some of the crimes he’s delivering to her as news pieces.

In supporting roles, Bill Paxton (Million Dollar Arm) plays an old dog of a crime journalist that Lou first comes to for advice and Riz Ahmad (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) makes a strong showing as Lou’s dimbulb assistant.  Both men underestimate the length to which Lou will go to lock down his place in the food chain and Gilroy’s Oscar nominated script cleverly works out a doozy of a finale that is as frighteningly perfect as it is maddening.

Nightcrawler was an unexpected treat for me, I hadn’t planned on it being so skillfully constructed or so breathlessly paced.  It truly is a horror film masquerading as a psychological drama and one that should have gotten more love from The Academy when the nominations were announced.  Maybe it wouldn’t quite have made the cut for Best Picture but recognizing the work of Gyllenhaal or Russo would have been absolutely justified.

The Silver Bullet ~ Nightcrawler

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Synopsis: A young man stumbles upon the underground world of L.A. freelance crime journalism.

Release Date: October 17. 2014

Thoughts: Every time I’ve heard this movie mentioned in the last few months I instantly think that Jake Gyllenhaal is joining the X-Men crew. So it’s helpful to have this teaser trailer for the fall release to remind me that this is a hard-boiled drama that looks to sit comfortably within Gyllenhaal’s wheelhouse. I find that Gyllenhaal is making the kind of movies that Leonardo DiCaprio should be making, both are gifted actors but Gyllenhaal has the good sense to pick movies that are as interesting to audiences (End of Watch, Prisoners) as they are to himself. Nice to see Rene Russo and Bill Paxton as supporting characters here – this is one I’ll keep my eyes on. Also…what’s with fall movie posters having their Oscar nominated leads wearing sunglasses at night? See Kill the Messenger for another example.

Movie Review ~ Edge of Tomorrow

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An officer finds himself caught in a time loop in a war with an alien race. His skills increase as he faces the same brutal combat scenarios, and his union with a Special Forces warrior gets him closer and closer to defeating the enemy.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Noah Taylor, Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong, Franz Drameh, Masayoshi Haneda, Tony Way

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I was discussing Tom Cruise with a casual acquaintance in a group setting the other day and when I mentioned how much I like his films, she responded with “Yeah, but he’ll always be that crazy couch jumper.”  It’s hard to believe that nearly a decade since the couch jump heard ‘round the world people still can’t let that one go…not that Cruise has helped his case by taking a critical stance against anti-depressants and being the poster boy for Scientology in the intervening years.

As a critic, though, you have to be able to put all that aside and look at the work…and when you look at the almost thirty years of Cruise’s Hollywood ventures you’ll see a portfolio filled with major blockbusters (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), guilty pleasures (Cocktail), old-fashioned epics (Far and Away), under-appreciated misfires (Oblivion, Jack Reacher), and miscalculated bombs like Rock of Ages that Cruise managed to emerge victorious from.  Put plainly…the man knows how to deliver the goods and that’s something that no amount of religious discussion or questionably hyper antics can sully.

Cruise is back in summer 2014 with the unexpectedly fun sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow, adapted from the graphic novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.  Already being described by critics as Groundhog Day with guns, the script from Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth rises above the simple ‘Live Die Repeat’ tagline to be a genuinely interesting mind-bender that plays by the rules (mostly) and keeps you on the edge of your seat after taking off like a rocket.

An alien race has arrived on Earth via comet and is lying waste to much of Europe.  In the battle to conquer these invaders, the army has developed specialized metal suits (think Sigourney Weaver in the final battle of Aliens) as armor against some very sneaky creatures that look like Medusa heads and strike with fatal precision.  Playing Cage, a cowardly lion of a military man, Cruise unwillingly finds himself moving from the face of the war recruitment effort into the front lines after running afoul of a general (Brendan Gleeson, Albert Nobbs, The Company You Keep) unimpressed with his spinelessness.

Without any training or real life knowledge of the enemies he’s fighting, Cage is dispatched to a military base where he’ll be one of the first troops to deploy on a deadly mission that plays out like the battle on Omaha Beach. Disoriented and seeing his platoon fall around him, he comes face to face with a Big Nasty Alien and dies.

Only that’s not the end, that’s just the first 20 minutes of director Doug Liman’s smashing freight train of a film.  See, when Cage dies the day starts over again, back when he arrives at the base.  Initially not believing it’s a convenient case déjà vu, when he continues to die in different ways only to wake up in the same spot he begins to figure out a way to change his fate and the fate of those around him.

Helping him out is Emily Blunt (Looper, The Five-Year Engagement) playing hard-ass Rita dubbed the Angel of Verdun for her impressive skills in alien extermination.  Cage soon finds that he has more in common with Rita than he’d ever imagined…and soon both are working together to turn the tables on an enemy always one step ahead of them.  Though the previews for Edge of Tomorrow seem to show a lot, there’s a nice hunk of story left that hasn’t been spoiled by the marketing department and certainly won’t be spoiled by me here.

Cruise is in top form (my date for the evening was heard saying several times “He’s 50!  The man is 50! How does he still look like that?” in the darkened theater) and is more than happy to let Blunt get her moment in the sunshine as well.  A movie star through and through, Cruise has fun playing a man of avarice humbled by his new found curse of living a bad day over and over and over.  Blunt steps up to the plate in a big way, proving to be a formidable co-star and giving the impression she’s just as tough as her leading man and any of the grizzled grunts that populate the film.

Liman keeps the action going strong without muddying the waters.  Originally I was a bit overwhelmed by the onslaught of explosions and battle sequences but it’s all in service to how the script refines what we’re seeing as the film progresses.  The musical score by Christophe Beck (Muppets Most Wanted, Endless Love) is appropriately juggernaut-y and the special effects blend seamlessly with the large scale set pieces necessary to tell the tale.

Movies are often compared to video games and in the case of Edge of Tomorrow that’s a fair comparison.  In video games, when you die you get to repeat the level and do your best to try and avoid past mistakes.  It’s a gimmick the film uses well and even if it bends the rules ever so slightly to get to an ending that was probably unavoidable, it’s a small nitpick for a summer blockbuster that more than gets the job done.  Well worth a watch.

Movie Review ~ Million Dollar Arm

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A sports agent stages an unconventional recruitment strategy to get talented Indian cricket players to play Major League Baseball.

Stars: Jon Hamm, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Aasif Mandvi, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Alan Arkin

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Much to my number-minded mom’s chagrin, I was never the math whiz she wanted me to be. With a flick as by the numbers as Million Dollar Arm is I can, however, spot a movie formula without the use of a graphing calculator. It’s a simple equation, really, made simpler by a hokey screenplay courtesy of Tom McCarthy and pedestrian direction from Craig Gillespie. You ready?

True story multiplied by 2 Indian youths divided by 1 Jon Hamm-y performance plus 1 extraneous subplot = Million Dollar Arm

Here’s the thing: I actually think there’s a respectable movie to be made out of the story of an arrogant sports agent (Hamm, ) scraping the bottom of the financial barrel who strikes a deal with the baseball league to sponsor a contest to find the first Indian baseball player.  The problem is that Walt Disney Studios, McCarthy, and Gillespie all made the movie from the wrong perspective. If you see the movie (as a rental, por favor) you’ll understand that it’s the two young men and their baseball loving translator that are the heart of the picture and anything/everything related to Hamm’s agent character drags the film to TV movie of the week levels.

Though he’s popped up in ok supporting roles over the past few years, Hamm sadly doesn’t have the chops that make the type of leading man this type of film needed. Better suited for a Dennis Quaid, Ben Affleck, or shoot, even Casey Affleck, Hamm struggles with Don Draper-izing his small screen handsome features and wardrobe. Taking a page from Jerry Maguire, he can’t even do what Tom Cruise accomplished in that film and make his character likable…even when he’s speaking lines that should do the trick.

It’s puzzling that the film so desperately tries to avoid telling the story at the center of it all with way too much of the way too long 124 minute running length devoted to Hamm’s gradual realization that the woman renting his guest house (Lake Bell, who knows she and Hamm are mismatched) is girlfriend material. Bell, Bill Paxton (Indian Summer), and Alan Arkin (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, who literally sleeps his way the film) do their best to counterbalance the enormous anchor Hamm ties to the film but can’t keep it afloat.

As the fish out of water baseball hopefuls, Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) are winning presences and do much of their own impressive pitching. However, the one person that manages a home run if not an outright grand slam is Bollywood star Pitobash making his Hollywood debut. At first I wrote the tiny bundle of energy off as simply comic relief but as the film went on I wanted to see more of him. To say that he makes a great save in the final inning is to put it mildly as in one short speech he nearly makes up for all the hooey that came before. It’s in this moment that you might, like me, realize how much better a movie was waiting to be made had Disney recognized where the true focus should have been.

Reminding me a lot of Disney’s 90s offering Cool Runnings, Million Dollar Arm can’t complete in the big leagues of other sports related family entertainment (rated PG, parents should know this really skates the edge of PG-13 material) due to Hamm’s not ready for primetime performance and a lack of faith in the material. Instead, take a peek at The Rookie, Disney’s 2002 baseball-makes-grown-men-cry offering.

The Silver Bullet ~ Million Dollar Arm

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Synopsis: A sports agent stages an unconventional recruitment strategy to get talented Asian cricket players to play Major League Baseball.

Release Date:  May 16, 2014

Thoughts: Let me start out by saying that I’m going to see Million Dollar Arm when it’s released in 2014 because I like this particular type of film.  No one makes an underdog story with the right amount of schmaltz quite like Disney and it’s hard to find good PG material that doesn’t pander to tots and doesn’t induce eyerolls in adults.

I will say, however, that this film looks an awful lot like Cool Runnings, Disney’s 1993 film of another American Jo(h)n (Candy) that finds star athletes (a bobsled team) in a most unlikely location (Jamaica).  Jon Hamm (Friends with Kids) seems like the right gent for the job but he’s yet to truly prove he can carry a theatrical film all on his own.  There’s charisma to spare here but it’s not yet made the leap from TV to film…perhaps this sure-to-be feel good-er will seal the deal.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Edge of Tomorrow

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Synopsis: A soldier fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, though he becomes better skilled along the way.

Release Date:  June 6, 2014

Thoughts: It’s become almost too easy for people to go after Tom Cruise and how he lives his life off-screen.  Yes, the couch jumping was eyebrow raising, the Scientology is head-scratching, and the rumors of his personal life have been tabloid fodder for decades.  Still, it’s hard to deny that the man continues to make very watchable films.  I thought his performance in Rock of Ages was the only saving grace in that mess and the underappreciated Jack Reacher and Oblivion showed the scrappy actor aging gracefully in quality product.

Slightly delayed from its original intended holiday 2013 release date and re-titled from the more interesting All You Need is Kill, Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow has the creative time behind it that suggests it’s more than just another big budget Tranformers-y point and shoot film.  Adding considerable interest to me is Emily Blunt (Looper, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), an actress consistently good but who has yet to lock into that perfect role.  2014 might be her year as she goes action chick in this and shows off her singing pipes in Into The Woods so check back in a year to see where she winds up.  Me, I’m looking forward to this…as I do most Cruise vehicles because they are always cinematically in tune with the times.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Indian Summer

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven friends reunite for a week-long reunion at a summer camp in Ontario they used to attend as children which is now threatened with being closed down.

Stars: Alan Arkin, Matt Craven, Diane Lane, Julie Warner, Vincent Spano, Sam Raimi, Elizabeth Perkins, Kimberly Williams, Kevin Pollak, Bill Paxton

Director: Mike Binder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  This is truly one of my favorite movies and my appreciation of it has only grown as I’ve become an adult.  Released in 1993, Indian Summer was called out as ‘The Big Chill goes to summer camp’ — a not entirely unfair comparison when you consider it involves a group of friends gathering together after years apart to reminisce about their youth, rekindle old flames, and come to terms where their life journey has taken them.

Why this film has become as valuable to me as an adult is the way it handles the sensitivity and humor that’s found in the transition people go through as they age.  Some people can never really outgrow their teen angst or feelings of inadequacy…just as some see maturing as a way to start over again.   Director/screenwriter Binder (Crossing the Bridge, The Upside of Anger) manages to shuffle a wonderful cast around in situations that may seem like retreads of any number of films…without ever making them feel old-hat.

That’s partly thanks to the breezy script but most certainly attributed to a fine cast of actors who interact with each other and their surroundings over the course of their week-long stay at the summer camp of their youth.  The standout to me is still Perkins (The Doctor, Avalon) as a wise-cracking but wise single that has something to say in every situation but closely guards her own emotions.  She’s followed by Lane’s grieving widow that maybe hasn’t truly accepted the loss she experienced.  Warner and Spano are appealing actors that I miss seeing in film — their troubled marriage  has impacts on several other characters.

Craven, Pollack, and Williams too have nice turns with their well-drawn characters and a scene stealing Raimi (director of Oz The Great and Powerful and the original The Evil Dead) is a riot as a simpleton handyman around camp.  Academy Award winner Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine, Argo, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) balances his deadpan aloofness with a warmth that reminds us all of someone we look up to and want to emulate.

Filmed on location at Binder’s Canadian summer camp, the movie absolutely glows with a vibrancy that few films can really capture well.  Returning to this film at least once a year I find myself drawn to its wacky humor, late-night hi-jinks, and serious heart – it has an authenticity that keeps me smiling and continues to be a film I whip out when someone needs a recommendation for quality entertainment.