31 Days to Scare ~ Gerald’s Game

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The Facts
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Synopsis: While trying to spice up their marriage in their remote lake house, Jessie must fight to survive when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her handcuffed to their bed frame.

Stars: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Stephen King’s novel Gerald’s Game was first published in 1992, film adaptations of the authors work had already been buzzing around for a while.  Most of King’s early books had already found their way to the screen and the well was beginning to run a little dry for marketable projects a studio could push into production.  While a King renaissance was still a few years away when his short stories were mined for more dramatic material, a few of his early ‘90s novels fell through the cracks.  With its relatively small cast of characters and abundance of inner voice monologues likely deemed too tough to adapt by studios looking to fast track flicks, Gerald’s Game kept falling to the bottom of the pile, even as lesser works got their fair shot at the big screen. Originally part of a larger planned work that included the story that became Dolores Claiborne (which found its way to the movie theaters in a drastically underrated 1995 production), Gerald’s Game finally gets its moment to shine in a first rate production courtesy of Netflix and writer/director Mike Flanagan.

It’s a beautiful day for the Burlingames as their arrive at their lake house nestled far away from neighbors and the outside world.  Hoping for a romantic weekend away to add some spice to their marital bed, every detail has been thought of.  Jessie (Carla Gugino, San Andreas) has packed a sexy new slip and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, Endless Love) brings along two shiny pairs of handcuffs.  An unexpected turn of events leaves Gerald dead on the floor and Jessie tethered helplessly to two bedposts, her screams for help echoing silently across the waters.  With no one set to arrive for days, thirst and desperation set in for Jessie…especially when she receives several visitors both real and imaginary.

Revealing more than that would ruin the game King has devised and Flanagan has finessed with King’s blessing.  Flanagan made wise choices in removing some of Jessie’s inner voices and/or consolidating them to a singular person.  The seemingly happy couple had demons that are explored over the course of the film, especially Jessie who suffered a trauma as a child that wound up affecting the choices she made for herself.

Over the past several years with films like Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and last year’s Netflix gem Hush, Flangan has demonstrated a real knack in crafting movies with good atmosphere and nice scares while digging surprisingly deep into the psyche of his characters.  Jessie is a multi-layered creation, thanks not only to Flanagan’s creative way of telling her back-story but in Gugino’s bold portrayal of a woman in crisis.  She’s matched well with Greenwood, first coming off as a genial workaholic husband before showing a more sinister side as his sexual proclivities turn aggressively frightening.  Even in death he has a hold on her, as evidenced by Flanagan letting the dead speak as one of Jessie’s imagined houseguests.

This is a Stephen King tale, though, so expect some nifty twists and turns as the action unfolds.  While Flanagan creates some remarkable tension, he isn’t hoity-toity enough to shy away from a good old fashioned shriek-inducing scare or moments of gooey-gore that had me covering my eyes.  For eagle-eared King fans, there’s also a nice little morsel that ties this film to a previous King adaptation in a most enjoyable way.

Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games when it comes to the ending.  Perhaps showing that the material couldn’t quite stretch past the 90 minute mark, Flanagan has a few finales to contend with here and none truly satisfy.  Both convenient and confusing, the final fifteen minutes are a bit of a muddle that fall well short of the superior first 2/3rds of the film.  It’s not weak enough to destroy the good-will Flanagan has roused in his audience, but a decent amount of it does evaporate.

With the pool of quality genre films getting low, Gerald’s Game is a fun addition to the good pile of available content you can stream and enjoy.  Gugino’s performance is aces and even with the few missteps mentioned above, as usual Flanagan acquits himself in the long run.  Definitely worth checking out.

Movie Review ~ The Space Between Us

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The first human born on Mars travels to Earth for the first time, experiencing the wonders of the planet through fresh eyes. He embarks on an adventure with a street smart girl to discover how he came to be.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Asa Butterfield, Carla Gugino, Britt Robertson, BD Wong, Janet Montgomery

Director: Peter Chelsom

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There’s going to be an easy litmus test as to how well you’ll enjoy The Space Between Us. If you can make it through the first five minutes without groaning and/or rolling your eyes than maybe, just maybe, this sci-fi adventure/teen romance will be worth your time. For everyone else, do yourself a solid and have a back-up movie prepared because as the film begins to lose all control of logic, tension, and interest the groans will just get louder and the eye rolls more strenuous.

In the vision of 2018 suggested by the movie, colonization of Mars is a reality and the first settlers are ready to blast off. Dubbed East Texas, the endeavor is the brainchild of Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and serves as a chance to not only explore life on another planet but a chance for Shepherd to live out a childhood fantasy. Unable to physically make the journey due to an illness never fully defined, Shepherd voyeuristically watches the crew blast off and tracks their movements while big wigs from NASA (including an authoritative, if bored looking, B.D. Wong, Jurassic Park) keep an eye on the progress.

Early into the trip, mission leader Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) discovers she’s pregnant but they’ve gone too far to turn back and she winds up having the baby shortly after arriving on the red planet, dying in childbirth. While the identity of the father isn’t immediately known, plenty of talking heads dub Sarah’s ‘behavior’ as inappropriate…making me wonder if the movie takes place in 2018 or 1968.

Flash forward 16 years and the baby has grown into angsty teen Gardner (Asa Butterfield, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). Aside from a ramshackle robot (a stock character right down to his Brit accent and uppity demeanor), Gardner’s only real friend is Kendra (Carla Gugino, San Andreas) an astronaut that seems to have other responsibilities but is shown only as a well-educated babysitter. In between shifts in the colony greenhouse (leading me a first to be confused if Gardner was his name or his profession), Gardner chats up a lonely foster child (Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride) who doesn’t know her internet pen pal is literally from another planet.

Finding a clip from his mother’s personal items of a man that could be his father and driven in no small part by his developing libido, with Kendra’s help Gardner is eventually brought down to Earth. However, whatever freedom he thought he would have isn’t in the cards and he becomes a science experiment kept in quarantine. In short order, Gardner stages a daring escape and tracks down Tulsa who isn’t so happy her pal ditched her for 7 months while returning home through the stars. A cross-country chase ensues with Gardner and Tulsa hilariously pursued by Kendra and Nathaniel with all the conviction of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Along the way, secrets are revealed, love blooms, and every scene is written and performed like the cliffhanger final moments of a season finale.

On the performance spectrum, the range is anywhere from passively engaged to Gary Oldman. As a teen finding his Earth legs, Butterfield gets the gangly piece down…but unfortunately, Allan Loeb’s (Collateral Beauty) script sets him up first to be an introverted orphan in search of answers before switching it up to make him a romanticized dweeb that loses key brain cells in his new environment. On Mars, he’s marveling at the deeper context of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire but on Earth he recoils in horror when he spots a horse trotting down the street. Gugino is typically dependable for a dose of grounded reality but paired with Oldman’s awkwardly earnest portrayal of a smarty-pants wunderkind, there’s no balance for either to find good footing. Also, Oldman can never decide if he’s from London or the Midwest. One moment his accent strains on the consonants and the next he’s practically demanding tea time. Robertson’s fairly one-note as a tough on the outside soft on the inside tomboy. It’s hinted she may have a talent for music but after plunking out a song on a keyboard at Sam’s Club, it’s never mentioned again.

Director Peter Chelsom doesn’t do much with the material either, moving actors and set pieces through a variety of hackneyed action sequences with little fanfare. He also isn’t able to inspire many sparks between Butterfield and Robertson, as both seem uncomfortably ill matched and kept together for the sake of the plot. Taking place in 2034, Chelsom’s spin on future living is delivered with little bells or whistles. Aside from some upgrades to personal computers and communication devices, teens still dress like hobos and no one is traveling around in flying cars.

Worth keeping your distance from, The Space Between Us was originally set for release in August and then pushed back again to December. Ostensibly, it was moved to the less busy pre-Valentine’s Day weekend with the hopes to attract some of the date night business for those unable to go for Fifty Shades Darker. Too light to stay Earthbound and too lackluster to be fueled by a mission to Mars, this misfire has no atmosphere to speak of.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ San Andreas

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of a massive earthquake in California, a rescue-chopper pilot makes a dangerous journey across the state in order to rescue his estranged daughter.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Kylie Minogue, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi,  Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson

Director: Brad Peyton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though we’ve gotten used to our summer blockbusters having a little bit of a brain over the past several years, there’s something so irresistible about a big dumb hunk of disaster cheese.  And San Andreas, dear readers, is a huge block of grade A cheddar that winds up being the filling meal the summer of 2015 was waiting for.  Yeah yeah, arriving two weeks after the epic size and gonzo glory of Mad Max: Fury Road you may not be as willing to forgive the corny one-liners or the overall feeling you’ve been transported to a Sylvester Stallone knock-off from the mid ‘90s but if you’re in the right frame of mind this one definitely passes the popcorn movie test.

That’s not to say San Andreas is the kind of film where you stow your brain cells in the overhead compartment, though.  True, the science presented may not be totally reliable…but I don’t doubt that it’s so far away from the truth, another reason why I’m content to be living a landlocked Midwestern life thank you very much.  I’m already worried enough about finding a route around the dastardly road construction that plagues us every summer, adding the threat of shifting tectonic plates would up my anxiety to the stratosphere.

But I digress…let’s get back to the film at hand.

When we first see Dwayne Johnson (Furious Seven, Hercules) as a Los Angeles Fire and Rescue captain he’s piloting a helicopter rescue mission to save a motorist that took an unlucky spin off a California cliffside.  Reminiscent of the nail-biting opening scenes of Cliffhanger and others of its kind, it nicely sets the mood for the disaster mayhem that’s to come.

As it typical with most disaster movies, the opening forty minutes or so are all about character introduction and for once it doesn’t seem like we’re being presented with a stock company of victims destined to end up crushed by a chunk of cement from a crumbling freeway overpass.  You can be sure that each role has been carefully designed to play their part in the overall gameplay and Carlton Cuse’s script only calls people out of the bullpen when he needs a way out of a sticky situation, but the point of the movie isn’t to figure out who will perish but rather get behind their efforts to survive.

In addition to a committed performance from Johnson (for once, the actor doesn’t seem to be forcing the material to work in his favor which allows him to feel more natural) there’s Carla Gugino (Man of Steel) as his estranged wife, and Alexandria Daddario (Texas Chainsaw 3D) playing his treasured daughter.  All three make a believable family unit, with Gugino’s Jane Fonda-esque looks seemingly passed down to Daddario.  Director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) allows for some precious time between the bombastic rumblings to let us see the family dynamic at hand…it’s not great material but it adds some extra emotional weight when Johnson has to set about saving the two most important ladies in his life.

Rounding out the cast is the less annoying than usual Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks) as a breathless scientist that figures out the earthquake pattern too late to do anything about it.  Giamatti’s barely held back hysteria gives the film some of its more cringe worthy moments, eclipsing Johnson’s awkward line readings.  There’s also good work by Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson (Dracula Untold) as brothers that find their way into the company of Daddario and team up to reach safety.

The effects are top notch, only feeling not quite up to snuff when humans are in the frame as well.  The devastating blows the multiple earthquakes and aftershocks deal the coast of Southern California are rendered nicely and with ear-splitting sound.  What I liked about the pace of the film is that the earthquakes strike at random times, often without any notice which keeps the cast and audience on the edge of their seats.

There’s follow through in the film and while the ending feels a little too showy for its own good, the ride to get there was so unexpectedly entertaining that I was able to forgive it easily.  As far as disaster pics go, San Andreas is a good addition to films like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure…just don’t go in thinking you’re seeing a “smart” film because you’ll miss the whole point of having fun.