Movie Review ~ Greta

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A young woman befriends a lonely widow who’s harboring a dark and deadly agenda towards her.

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In my mid-teens, I used to love the made-for-TV movies that aired on the USA Television Network.  Remember those?  The modest thrillers featured an array of crazies (mothers, nannies, children, stalkers, stepfathers, etc) preying upon naïve chumps that were easily tricked and overpowered.  They were soapy, syrupy, and an absolute delight to devour on their own or in a weekend marathon where they would all start to blend together by the time Sunday night rolled around.  Watching the entertaining new thriller Greta, I found myself riding a wave of nostalgia because you don’t have to squint too hard to see that for all its handsome production values and A-list leads it’s just a gussied up made for cable movie.

Still grieving the loss of her mother, recent NYC transplant Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, Suspiria) hopes living in a new city with her college friend Erica (Maika Monroe, The 5th Wave) will help her move on.  Though she’s from Boston, Frances displays some downright Midwestern morals when she finds a purse left behind on the subway and returns it to Greta (Isabelle Huppert, Dead Man Down).  The lonely woman takes a liking to Frances and the two form a friendship that seemingly fills a void present in both of their lives.  Greta’s daughter doesn’t live close and Frances begins to enjoy spending time with the soft-spoken older woman.  That all changes when Frances discovers a secret about Greta that sets into motion a series of events revealing Greta’s true nature.

To say more about the second and third acts of Greta would be to give away some of the twists screenwriter Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, In Dreams) have waiting for audiences, most of which are telegraphed well in advance.  The film is exactly what you think it’s going to be and doesn’t stray too far from the path.  Usually, I’d huff and puff about this lack of originality but the way Greta unfolds is so nicely handled by Jordan and his actors that I found myself quite enjoying just going along for the intriguing ride.

The performances are actually the most surprising thing the movie has to offer.  It’s a great benefit that Jordan has Huppert in the title role because she brings her inherent oddity to the forefront and makes it her weapon to keep us on our toes.  We know from moment one there’s something off about her (and it seems like Frances does too) but Huppert’s sad eyes and wan smile nicely hide the rage boiling underneath her porcelain surface.  When she feels rejected by Frances she lashes out in unexpected ways, which creates an air of uncomfortable unpredictability and that’s a space Huppert seems to revel working in.

I often struggle with Moretz as an actress but her turn here feels like one of the most fully formed characters she’s tackled.  Frances has some emotional trauma that hasn’t healed and she can’t totally forgive her father (Colm Feore, The Prodigy) who appears to have moved on with his life.  Moretz wades through some of the heaviness in Wright’s script and brings forth a lonely girl in a big city that feels familiar and relatable.  We understand why she might eschew a night out drinking at a club with her party girl trust fund roommate for a quiet dinner with the widowed Greta.  And we also see why Greta’s betrayal of trust hurts her so much.

The slow boil of the first 45 minutes gives way to an increasingly hard to swallow turn of events that don’t always jibe from scene to scene.  At one point Moretz is kicking down a door with her bare foot and in the next shot she’s unable to break a window.  A character is introduced late in the proceedings for no good reason other than to up the danger ante for Frances and satisfy some unspoken violence quota.  And for a movie set in the modern day it mystifies me that Greta’s place of residence is so hard to find one character goes on what is essentially a needle in a haystack search instead of firing up Google Maps.

Jordan is a curious filmmaker with a resume that covers many genres.  He hasn’t had an outright thriller in a while but he wades into the waters quite well with interesting camera set-ups and pacing that keeps things moving along without accumulating much drag.  There are several suspenseful sequences staged with people in peril from dangers just outside the frame and it creates the desired tension.  For those that like blunt edges, there’s a bit of gore that shocks with glee.

Now that the Oscars have been given out and everyone has patted themselves on the back, it’s time to get back to business.  We made it through a particular rough January (Serenity – yikes!) and a February that saw some modest, but not huge, hits (Alita: Battle Angel, What Men Want) and before you knew it, March is upon us.  With a host of anticipated movies set for release in March, Greta is being released in a narrow window before the blockbusters arrive.  It may be getting a release without much fanfare but it’s a better film than it’s modest roll-out would have you believe. With noted caveats aside, this one is worth catching in theaters.

Movie Review ~ The Prodigy


The Facts
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Synopsis: A mother concerned about her young son’s disturbing behavior thinks something supernatural may be affecting him

Stars: Taylor Schilling, Brittany Allen, Jackson Robert Scott, Colm Feore, Peter Mooney, Paul Fauteux, Oluniké Adeliyi

Director: Nicholas McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: At this point early in the new year, audiences are easy targets for cheap, mindless entertainment that goes in one ear and out the other before you are back to your car and warming your hands. Most often, the easy targets are horror fans looking for a decent scare they can’t get from firing up their streaming service. They have to be inspired to get all gussied up (for me that’s basically putting on pants), head to the theater, pay an exorbitant ticket price, and then hope for the best. I don’t really blame Hollywood for preying on viewers in this fertile hunting ground but you do wish that once in a while they would get it right and make it worth our effort.

The latest wilted offering is The Prodigy, a fleetingly scary but most languid “evil child” story being released from the recently resuscitated Orion Pictures. I don’t know about you but every time I see that Orion logo there are two movies that come to mind. The first is 1989’s black comedy She-Devil starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr and the other one is 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. Each time I see the starry sky that forms the Orion title card I get a chill up my spine and I think the producers of The Prodigy are counting on that. They even go so far as to mimic some font titles emblematic from The Silence of the Lambs that show the location where the prologue takes place.

Eight years ago, a woman (Brittany Allen, Jigsaw) escaped from a serial killer (Paul Fauteux) who had a thing for women’s hands. The police track him down to his home where he is taken down in a flurry of bullets. On the same night, a young couple (Taylor Schilling, The Lucky One and Peter Mooney) are rushing to the hospital for the birth of their son, Miles. When Miles is born, the blood on his body mimics the bullet wounds of our dying killer. It’s the first of several interesting visual cues director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) has for us and they become the smartest things about the film.

As the boy grows older, he demonstrates early signs of genius. He speaks before he’s one year old, he can solve difficult IQ tests, and he shows some disturbing social tendencies his parents and teachers shrug off as just going with the territory of children with advanced gifts. Miles is more than just socially awkward though, as we come to see he has killer instincts…and not just in solving algebra equations. When the ties to the killer become known, it’s up to Miles’ mom to put a stop to a madman that has taken over her son’s persona or risk losing him forever to a psychopath’s deadly revenge plot.

Bringing in some supernatural elements, the script from Jeff Bluher (who is also scripting 2019’s remake of Pet Sematary) is big into psychobabble mumbo jumbo (delivered with dead seriousness by Colm Feore, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) but light on logic. Main characters disappear for long stretches only to show up when the movie needs to enact some gruesome violence and the connection between how the killer winds up within Miles isn’t explained more than a passing reference to historical possession cases.

That leaves the success to rise and fall on the performances and Schlling’s sleepy acting doesn’t serve the film well. She always speaks as if she’s phonetically sounding out her sentences and isn’t able to flip from one emotion to another without physically making some adjustment. It’s a strange performance to anchor the film, which makes her scenes with Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, IT) all the more awkward because he seems like he’s come with exactly the right attention to what his job is while Schilling struggles right up to the end with metering her performance.

Even though it comes up short as a whole, I’d be lying in saying that McCarthy’s doesn’t pull off several shocking scares and a few eyebrow raising bits of dialogue that must have been recorded by a double for Miles. There’s just no way some of the things the boy says could have come from the young actor. I jumped several times and not because the music suddenly gave me a jolt, McCarthy clearly has a way with constructing a creepy visual.  Though much of the cinematography is fuzzy to suggest shooting on film stock and favors shadows, McCarthy finds ways to make what comes out of that darkness quite ghoulish.

This one could easily have gone straight to streaming and might have been regarded as a decent thriller for a gloomy day. Releasing it in theaters brings it to a higher scrutiny, though, and you have to evaluate the movie on those merits. It doesn’t meet the standard we’d expect from a wide-released horror film so I’d advise you to hold off on The Prodigy until you can give it a spin at home without much regret…and you don’t even have to put your pants on.

Movie Review ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him, impacting on his life.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, B.J. Novak

Director: Marc Webb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 142 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the arrival of this sequel to a 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I’m still not at all sold that the world needed a re-imagining of the series so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy of films released between 2002 and 2007. That being said, with a more forward moving plot and a collection of interesting characters, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows a marked improvement over the moody and overly emo blockbuster that arrived two years ago.

I find that the first entries in most superhero series are always tricky because it’s necessary to tell an origin story detailing how the central character (or characters) became the caped crusaders or men of steel we know them to be. Very few films have been successful in that regard, with 1978’s Superman being the gold standard of origin story films in my book.

The Amazing Spider-Man faced an uphill battle because in my mind it had to provide some rationale for why we needed to go back to square one with Peter Parker and his arachnid powers. It couldn’t make the case and though it made a truckload of cash for Sony/Marvel and had some impressive special effects, it was slow and housed an uninteresting villain that provided more yawns of boredom than gasps of excitement.

The sequel sets to out to right some of those wrongs but winds up overcompensating for its lackluster predecessor by stuffing so much into its first hour that audiences should buckle up for tonal whiplash. Returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, People Like Us), Roberto Orci (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeff Pinkner have great difficulty finding their bearings in the further adventures of Peter Parker and it’s not until well into the second act of their film that they get into the groove.

Opening with a whiz-bang flashback prologue that shows what really happened to Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz) after they mysteriously left him with Aunt May (Sally Field, Lincoln) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) we jump right into a present that finds Peter (Andrew Garfield, less troubled here but still a tad whiny) and Gwen (Emma Stone, bringing valuable sparkle to her role) trying to navigate their relationship. Haunted by a promise he made to her dying father, Peter struggles with honoring his word and the love he feels for Gwen.

At the same time and in true sequel fashion, more time is spent on introducing several new villains to the mix than with our hero. The first foe Spidey has to deal with is Electro (Jamie Foxx, Annie) who starts the film as a dopey nerd desperate for attention that finds himself at the business end of a tub of electric eels. Foxx plays these early scenes as such a simpleton it borders on insulting stereotype though he does manage to find good but hardly electrifying moments when he gains his evil powers.

Also appearing is Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, Lawless, Chronicle) who, after the death of his father (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County) returns to manage Oscorp, the mega company that employs Gwen and seems to be the breeding ground for villains out to take over the world. Dying due to a genetic disease, Harry needs Spider-Man’s blood to save himself…a problem made more difficult when he discovers that Spidey is really his childhood friend Peter Parker. DeHaan and Garfield are both talented young actors, so it’s guffaw inducing to watch scenes that have them spouting douche-y dialogue with numerous “bro” and “dude” interjections.

There’s something to be said when the most interesting character has no superpowers at all. Showing once again why she’s such a value add to any film, Field makes the most of her limited screen time by creating a character designed to be the voice of reason but delivering her material with an honesty that seems out of place in a film otherwise populated with some fairly generic dialogue and plot developments.

Composer Hans Zimmer replaced James Horner and the resulting score creates an excitement the original was lacking. Aided by super producer Pharrell, Zimmer’s score is just as impressive as the special effects which are deployed in a spectacular fashion whether it’s in Spidey’s high flying opening pursuit of a gang of thugs or a final showdown with Electro at a power plant. T

he final third of the film is pure action, leading to a series of endings (there are at least three) that signal change is ahead for Parker and company. With a third entry on its way in 2016, there’s little doubt Spidey will spin his web for years to come and if this sequel is any indication, the series will continue to improve.

Movie Review ~ Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

Stars: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Peter Andersson, Kenneth Branagh, David Paymer, Colm Feore

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: The only thing Hollywood seems to love more than a remake is a reboot and we’ve certainly had our fair share of those in the last several years….some good (Batman Begins), some iffy (The Bourne Legacy) and some disappointing (Man of Steel).  Then you have reboots like The Amazing Spider-Man, which are more puzzling than anything else.  Why kickstart something new if you don’t have anything remarkable to add?

You can toss Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to the garbage pile though because it’s a disappointing waste of time, talent, and resources.  A character that was brought to life on the pages of Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels and in four previous film outings has been reduced to a standard grade action hero that’s light on the action and questionable on the hero.

First appearing in 1990’s The Hunt For Red October (and played by Alec Baldwin), Ryan played second fiddle to Sean Connery’s defecting Russian sub commander.  When Baldwin wasn’t available for 1992’s Patriot Games, producers nabbed their original first choice Harrison Ford to take over as the CIA analyst in a film that was a slickly made bona fide commercial affair.  Returning in 1994 for Clear and Present Danger, Ford’s second outing was a more somber picture, almost the polar opposite of the tight packaging of its predecessor.  A half-hearted attempt to re-launch the franchise was made in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck not totally able to bear the weight of it all.

Instead of  remaking a previous Jack Ryan film or delving into the other five novels Clancy included him in, the studio went the Muppet Babies approach and just chose to turn back time and start over again with Ryan now injured in a post 9-11 Afghanistan rather than during a routine exercise.  Even worse is that they repurposed an existing script for a generic action film and just plugged in Ryan and a few others familiar to fans of the novels and tried to make a go at it.  What we’re left with is a script barely better than a failed NBC pilot and thrilling action sequences that are missing any sort of thrills.

I knew we were in trouble even before the title came up when the first shot of Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan involved a badly coiffed wig.  Pine has found great success in outer space (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) but has struggled with films of the earthy variety (though I liked it, People Like Us, was a bomb).   While Pine may have the requisite All American boy scout looks like would go well with any vision of Jack Ryan one may have, the script affords him no favors with wooden dialogue and a plot involving financial ruin that would makes sense only if you weren’t really paying attention.

As his quasi-mentor, Kevin Costner (Draft Day, who would have made a great Jack Ryan back in the day) doesn’t work up much of a sweat since I’m almost positive there are no shots of him doing anything but standing still or sitting down.  Costner seems as bored as we are and I find myself missing his early days when he could deliver a line with a sly sideways glance and make even the most cornball of situations amusing.

Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina, A Dangerous Method) doesn’t close her mouth the entire film, opting to let it just hang open whenever she doesn’t have much to do…which is the majority of the time.  Though the film tries to put her in the middle of the action late in the game her ship has sailed by then and she just gets in the way – until she suddenly becomes useful when the film needs her most.

Actually, there are several of these moments in the movie where a heretofore useless character magically becomes the expert in a field they know nothing about.  Take Ryan himself for instance; the entirety of the movie has Pine saying things like “I’m not cut out for this” and “I can’t do that”, only to gloriously rise up to astounding heights at the opportune moment.  If it was a result of the character finding some inner strength or deeper knowledge that’s one thing but it’s almost as if lines meant for someone else were accidentally spoken by a different character and no one noticed.

Someone should have noticed though and some of that falls on Kenneth Branagh who seems to gain a new mole for each movie he directs as well as stars in.  As a Russian businessman with plans to throw the economy into ruin through a seriously dated (and tremendously gauche) terror attack, he gets the accent down but follows through on little else.  Like his directorial duties in Thor, Branagh shows a strange lack of a big picture view…almost forgetting that he’s in charge of a huge movie.

I wouldn’t say that I exactly had high hopes for the film but I was at least looking forward to something entertaining.  The shortest Ryan film at less than 105 minutes, the film feels hours longer mostly because Branagh has a plethora of shots with people just staring at each other and not speaking like some Ingmar Bergman flick.  The film had my sympathy when it was bumped from its primo holiday spot by Paramount when The Wolf of Wall Street ironed out its kinks…but Paramount clearly knew that it was better to give Wolf a go and leave Jack to wallow in the shadows.

Please…leave Jack Ryan alone.

Down From the Shelf ~ Thor

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The powerful but arrogant god Thor is cast out of Asgard to live amongst humans in Midgard (Earth), where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Buoyed by the enormous success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Marvel sought to continue toward its ultimate goal of making what would become the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers by releasing Thor in May of 2011.  Re-watching the film again before taking in its 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World, I was again reminded why Thor was my least favorite of the Marvel films franchise so far.

In the two years since I originally saw Thor theatrically Marvel has also released Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3 and these films have only served to solidify my thoughts that Thor doesn’t work as well for me  because so much of it is set primarily in a world of CGI fantasy.  Whereas characters like Iron Man and Captain America operate in a world not so far away from our own recognizable metropolis capitals, Thor’s land of Asgard is a nicely rendered but ultimately too shiny a façade to keep my interest.

It doesn’t help that Thor has the least interesting characters and villains in the Marvel Universe so it’s hard to get attached to any of them.  While he fared better in The Avengers, Chris Hemsworth (Rush, Cabin in the Woods) is a sullen dud as Thor, confusing rote glowering for juvenile indignation when he doesn’t get his way.  When he’s banished from his homeland and left powerless in the deserts of New Mexico where he’s rescued by astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman, fresh from her Best Actress Oscar win for Black Swan) who happens to be studying the very wormhole that brought him to Earth.

In a plot that mines some of Shakespeare’s best works (no wonder Bard-indebted actor Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair here), Thor must come up against his half-brother Loki (a benignly sinister Tom Hiddleston) to stop him from taking the throne as the heir of Asgard and plunging the world into a frozen wasteland.  The familiar themes of a royal family betrayal are a nice complement to the mythology of the superhero but a lack of original battle sequences and climax that feels rushed ultimately lets the film and audience members down.

The big budget bucks are fully on display here and, don’t get me wrong, though the film is effects heavy it looks great.  It’s just so different from the other Marvel films (so far) that I always knew I was watching a film that existed within its own rules.  There’s something about seeing Iron Man/Tony Stark pursued by various nasties through an urban earthly landscape that speaks to me more than watching Thor dangle dangerously on the edge of an impressive but obviously effects created black hole.

As with every Marvel film there are fun cameos, hidden clues that tie the film to other movies, and hints at what’s next to come.  The final scene in the end credits was directed by The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon because it served as a bridge toward the opening scenes of Whedon’s awesome summer blockbuster.  There’s also a quick appearance by Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) as Clint Barton/Hawkeye who would become a major player that next summer.

A solid super-hero flick with a spattering of theatrical drama, Thor is still low on my Marvel list but does serve its purpose of introducing The God of Thunder to whole new legion of fans.

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The Silver Bullet ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends a slew of supervillains up against him.

Release Date:  May 2, 2014

Thoughts: While I wasn’t married to the idea of Tobey Maguire being the one and only Spider-Man forever and ever, I wasn’t convinced in 2012 that Sony needed to reboot our webbed hero with The Amazing Spider-Man.  The film, while impressive visually, was missing that special spark that all lasting superhero films need to stand the test of time.  History has shown that some franchise films need to work out some bugs at first so I’m going to put faith in director Marc Webb and the creative time that this second go ‘round with Spidey hits the bullseye.  Adding rising star Dane DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks), and Jamie Foxx (White House Down, Django Unchained) to the mix, this special New Year’s Eve preview is shorter and more compact than the longer trailer released a month ago, truly teasing the audience with images of the nasty baddies that await them when the film is released in May.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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Synopsis: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

Release Date:  January 17, 2014

Thoughts: Poor Jack Ryan…he can’t catch much of a break.  The star of Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels has already shown up in four screen outings and his latest screen adventure was set to open in a prime late December spot…until The Wolf of Wall Street was pushed back, taking good ‘ole Jack’s place.  Perhaps moving this reboot from the crowded Christmas season will be a good thing but I can’t imagine director Kenneth Branagh and stars Chris Pine (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Keira Knightly (Anna Karenina) were all that pleased with the last minute shuffle.  I’m not sure I love the idea of moving Jack Ryan back into his youth…he’s been played by three different actors so far (Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games {my favorite} and Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears) and I think I prefer the character to have a few more miles on him.