Movie Review ~ Roman J. Israel, Esq


The Facts
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Synopsis: An attorney at an L.A. law firm discovers some unfavorable things about his partner and decides to right his wrongs.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Shelley Hennig, Carmen Ejogo

Director: Dan Gilroy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Oof…can someone please, PLEASE find Denzel Washington a comedy?  Flying (deservedly) under the radar until it’s late 2017 release, Washington’s Roman J. Israel Esq. is one of those painfully pointed exercises in social importance that thinks it’s a power player but is really just an also-ran that drags several good actors down with it.  Coming off a fun roster in 2016 that saw him cut loose (a little) in the undervalued The Magnificent Seven remake and nearly nabbing another Oscar for his tremendous Fences, this is a paltry piffle of a film that deserves to be buried in paperwork and forgotten.

Writer-director Dan Gilory gave us one of 2015’s best films, Nightcrawler, and one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s most impressive roles so I’m sure the hope was that lighting could strike twice with Roman J. Israel Esq.  Sadly, Gilroy’s follow-up is a draining affair that’s far too long and isn’t destined to be the high point for anyone involved.  This is a film that feels like one you’re assigned to see in a social justice class that you watch half off, get the point, write your paper, and never think of it again.

Washngton (Flight) is the titular character, an enormously intelligent partner in a small Los Angeles law firm.  Best suited for working behind the scenes writing briefs and letting his colleague be the face of the firm in the courthouse, he’s called into action when his partner suffers a stroke and is unable to continue working.  The first day Roman must take over the docket, his consternation at the broken judicial system lands him in contempt of court and running afoul of his clients.

When the niece of his partner brings in a big-wig lawyer (Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) to take-over the existing cases and close up shop, instead of accepting his offer to work at his fancy firm Roman decides to go it on his own. Reaching out to a non-profit social worker (Carmen Ejogo, The Purge: Anarchy) with the hope of finding assistance in introducing a long in the works brief he thinks will fix the system, Roman finds doors closing to him left and right.  Reluctantly returning to work for the expensive law firm, he’s put in charge of a case that will change everything.

Gilroy’s script has some interesting twists and turns for our leading man, placing upon him a moral dilemma to show that Roman might be just as susceptible to corruption as his colleagues.  Yet the film, told mostly in flashback, struggles with its own timeline and can be confusing if you aren’t paying rapt attention.  This is hard to do with Washington turning in a skittish performance on the spectrum that doesn’t provide any heart or soul.  In Nightcrawler, Gilroy presented an anti-hero as the protagonist that we’re supposed to abhor, but in this one the way Washington plays it we’re supposed to find some nobility in his actions and that never comes together correctly.

When the film first screened at a film festival, the buzz after was that Washington and Gilroy went back and took several minutes out…but by my estimation they could have done well with removing another fifteen.  The film has a serious case of droopy drawers in its middle half, with much too much time spent with Washington trying to intellectually woo Ejogo who strangely falls under his spell much too easily.  Audiences won’t be as receptive, I think, and with good cause.

This is another much too serious film from Washington that’s not as bleak as other recent works but is somehow darker because the actor never truly forms a connection between the material and the audience.  I can see why Washington was attracted to the role but it’s trying to say more than we want to hear, it all winds up a jumble of jargon that feels more like homework than entertainment.

Movie Review ~ Only the Brave

The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters risk everything to protect a town from a historic wildfire.

Stars: Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Kitsch, Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Andie MacDowell, Ben Hardy

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: It’s a good idea to go into Only the Brave without having seeing the trailer or knowing much about the true story that serves as the basis for the film. I say that because that’s how I found my way to the movie and I’m not sure I would have been as rapt as I was if I knew how it all turned out. Instead of being too informed as to what I was seeing, I was able to sit back and let this tale of heroism unfold without any pre-conceived notions. In a time when most movies arrive with spoiler-heavy fanfare, I took the viewing of Only the Brave as a rare opportunity to really experience the movie I was watching.

My grandfather was a firefighter for the city of Minneapolis so I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for any movie/tv show that featured these courageous men and women running toward the flames as others were running away. Based on Sean Flynn’s 2013 article in GQ magazine, Only the Brave chronicles the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots founded in 2008 in Prescott, Arizona. The first half of the movie shows how this scrappy and at times unconventional crew established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Led by hothead Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice, never better) and mentored by town fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, who finds time to sing as well!), the merry band of firemen had egos as big as their heart and formed a bond of brotherhood that couldn’t be broken.

Entering into the established crew is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now) a troubled kid just out of prison trying to get on the straight and narrow now that he has a new daughter to take care of. Struggling to find his place, Marsh takes him under his wing and soon he’s cutting his own path as a valued member of the group. He even makes nice with a former adversary (Taylor Kitcsch, John Carter) and the two men form a bromance that is a cornerstone of the picture.  Another strong bond on display is between Marsh and his equally headstrong wife (Jennifer Connelly, Winter’s Tale, in an award-worthy performance). The married couple bicker and reconcile often throughout the film, both wanting to better themselves but not understanding how to bring their partner along in stride. Brolin and Connelly have some of the year’s best chemistry, accurately portraying a complex relationship with unexpected layers that keep getting peeled away throughout the movie.

Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) and screenwriters Ken Nolan (Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) pay great homage to the town and crew that are featured in their picture. As they go from town to town saving homes and landmark trees from wildfires that put them in harm’s way, a camaraderie develops not only between the men onscreen but with the audience watching their adventures. Stock up on your napkins before the movie starts because this one has moments that might make even the hardest tough guy shed a few manly tears.

Movie Review ~ Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Poster

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. The discovery leads him on a quest to find a former blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 163 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Though it’s enmeshed in pop culture now, it’s worth noting that when Blade Runner was originally released in 1982 it wasn’t anywhere near the hit it probably should have been. Way ahead of its time (as most Ridley Scott directed movies were in those days) and arguably overtooled for less than discerning audiences, the movie was a wonder of visuals but lacked a certain depth. Scott would later make some cuts and remove a tiresome voiceover narration from star Harrison Ford (Working Girl) and that started guiding Blade Runner to a new audience while reenergizing its original fan base. Honestly, the movie has had so many different versions released that I have trouble remembering which is which…but the Blade Runner you can view in 2017 is much different (and better) than the one first seen over thirty years ago.

In this age of nostalgic and reworked reboots, when I first heard that Scott was coming back to the Blade Runner universe I was curious to see what the outcome would be. Having already dipped back into his canon with a prequel to Alien (Prometheus and, later, Alien: Covenant) would he be able to find that same new way in without totally destroying the memories of his original creation? Turns out, Scott did the wisest thing possible and stepped out of the director’s chair but kept his producer cap on for oversight. Handing over the reins to red-hot director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Arrival) was a stroke of genius because Villeneuve has delivered not only an exceedingly worthy sequel to Blade Runner but one of the most exciting visual spectacles of the year.

At the end of the screening I attended for Blade Runner 2049, we were read a laundry list of items the studio and director would rather we not mention in our review. I’ve no problem keeping those secrets as to go into the film with any hint of spoilers would be doing a disservice to yourself. What I can tell you is that the film picks up 30 years after the events from Blade Runner when the original replicants from the first film have been all but obliterated, replaced with newer models that are programmed to obey at all costs. There are a few early replicants still roaming the overcrowded wasteland cities of the future, though, and a new blade runner (Ryan Gosling, The Big Short) is tasked with rounding them up and retiring them for good.

During one mission, Gosling’s character makes a discovery that sets into motion a series of events that is equal parts mystery and sci-fi action suspense. His superior (Robin Wright, Wonder Woman) wants him to get to the bottom of things and eliminate any threat before anyone else does. That puts him in opposition with the new manufacturer (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club) of state of the art replicants who dispatches his cold as ice henchwoman (Sylvia Hoeks) to get to Gosling’s target before he does. His journey eventually bridges the gap between the past and the future when he meets up with a familiar face harboring secrets of his own.

That’s all! I can’t say more or the studio will send a blade runner to retire me!

Villenueve has shown time and time again that he’s a master of both style and substance and Blade Runner 2049 is likely the pinnacle example of that. With jaw-dropping visuals incorporating seamless effects with Roger Deakins (Skyfall) gorgeous cinematography, the film is overwhelming in all the best possible ways. At 163 minutes, it could have had some major dips in momentum but miraculously the film keeps rocketing ahead, gathering speed and tension as it goes. There so many memorable sequences that it’s hard to pick just one that rises above the others, but be on the look-out for Gosling’s fight sequence set in a showroom amongst holograms of throwback Vegas entertainment. The finale showdown is also a white knuckle mini-masterpiece.

While the A-list stars are pitch perfect, it’s the lesser-known supporting players that stuck with me long after the movie was over. Hoeks, in particular is a most exciting find. The Dutch beauty actually has more screen time than Leto and she’s scary good because you never know quite what her angle is. Carla Juri and Mackenzie Davis (The Martian) also contribute strong work as important contacts Gosling makes along the way.

Answering some of the questions that Blade Runner left open may or may not happen here and this sequel may or may not close up shop with even more questions left for you to ponder…I won’t spoil some of the biggest surprises screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (Logan) have waiting for you.

See this movie on the biggest screen you possibly can find, preferably with the best sound system too. Villeneuve has provided a full-bodied entertainment package for you and it deserves to be seen and appreciated for the knockout it is.

Movie Review ~ Life (2017)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station whose mission of discovery turns to one of primal fear when they find a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: On the drive home after the screening of Life, I ran afoul of my partner after repeatedly referring to it as an ‘odd, little movie’.  At first thinking I was just lazily falling back on a casual turn of phrase, I began to agree with myself that for all its A-List star power, occasional scares, and well-executed special effects the film was a strange, small endeavor for all involved.  Not tiny enough to be a direct-to-video tax write-off and not big enough to be a major player in the summer months (though it was intended for a May 2017 release until Alien: Covenant moved its release date in close proximity), Life fits decently into the grey area between Oscar season and the mid-year blockbuster event films.

In an unusually long pre-title sequence, we meet the crew occupying the International Space Station as they intercept a satellite returning from Mars containing a specimen from the red planet.  As the camera glides from person to person, it feels less like an introduction and more like a location tour to help orient the audience for the action to come.  Macho Rory (Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool) is the wise-cracking dude of the team, Army vet David (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) is about to break the world record for most consecutive days in space which worries quarantine officer Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation).  They join commanding officer Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare, Jupiter Ascending), and pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada, 47 Ronin) in marveling at the extraterrestrial life discovered when the Mars sample is thawed out.

Fascination turns to horror as the specimen, dubbed “Calvin”, begins to grow rapidly in mind and body, eventually escaping the confines of the lab and hunting down the crew one by one.  It’s Alien-like premise aside, there are a few surprises to be had in Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese’s script for Life as it takes some turns you may not be expecting.  Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44) is no Ridley Scott, however, and the workmanlike way Life is compiled and its odd pacing gives it the feeling of a movie that desperately wants to be better than it is.

When Reynolds, Ferguson, and Gyllenhaal signed on, I’m betting they were counting on this being a summer release but truth be told the way the film is structured and performed it feels more like an art-house alternative to a sci-fi horror tent-pole picture.  Reynolds is on cruise control as his usual cool as a cucumber self while Gyllenhaal surprisingly rests a bit on his laurels and goes only halfway in crafting the haunted character he’s perfected in films like Enemy and Nightcrawler.  Only Ferguson seems to lock into her role, never over-doing the “company man” attitude or under-selling her rising terror that this creature may somehow find its way back to earth.

Had the movie only had three characters, it may have felt a bit less cramped…and been a bit easier to understand.  Dihovichnaya & Sanada’s thick accents make it difficult to understand them at times, which becomes a problem anytime they’re tasked with delivering key bits of information.  There’s an attempt to give Bakare an interesting back story in a briefly mentioned tangent as to how the wheelchair bound man is living out his dream of mobility in the anti-gravity playground above earth.  Alas, any deeper development is jettisoned in favor of more scenes of peril inflicted by the bloodthirsty fast evolving being that’s taken over the ISS.

While there are some solid special effects sequences that take place outside of the station, anything that happens inside had me alternately rolling my eyes and raising my eyebrows.  Calvin flirts between an animated starfish-like object and a questionably created CGI monster that looks like an evil cousin to the benign alien creatures from The Abyss.  Espinosa films so much of the movie in tight close-up or without any establishing shots that it’s often hard to tell where anyone is in relation to each other and voiceovers are used as a cheap gimmick to tell what they can’t show.  I definitely got a couple of guffaws from the way the astronauts kept bobbing up and down (some more violently than others) as a way to show the zero-gravity atmosphere.

So yeah…it’s an odd little (big-ish) movie and while it may carve out some decent box office numbers by being released in a movie climate that’s been largely earthbound, Life isn’t going to be on the calling card for anyone involved.  It’s bound to be forgotten entirely by the time Alien: Covenant is released in two short months.  Perhaps this will find greater value on Netflix which, come to think of it, would have been an ideal release platform instead.

Movie Review ~ Passengers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Morton Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It’s hard to believe it now, but just a few short months ago there were whispers in Hollywood that Passengers, this sci-fi romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, might be a late-breaking entry up for award consideration.  Now it’s clear that those “insiders” were people stumping for Sony because while it isn’t quite the train wreck most people will tell you it is, it’s certainly a disappointment when you consider the people behind it.

This is one of those “looked good on paper” sort of affairs.  Two of the hottest stars (literally and box-office-y) working in Hollywood right now team up with an Oscar nominated director for a big-budget two-hander set aboard a spaceship traveling to a new world.  While I can admit the concept driving the action is fairly intriguing, it’s a bit of a puzzlement as to why many big names have been orbiting around the pedestrian script from Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) for some time.  Revolutionary material this is not and in many ways it’s a big step backward for at least one of its stars.

According to Passengers, in the future it will be possible to survive on different planets and Earth will see a sizable number of its inhabitants emigrate to a new solar system.  Sure, it will take over a hundred years, you’ll never see your loved ones again, and if you can’t afford the ticket you’ll be little more than an indentured servant for the span of your life…but what an adventure! As the movie opens, a meteor shower damages the massive ship and causes one of the transport pods to trigger an early wake-up call for Jim (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World).

Noticing he’s the only one up and about, Jim learns of the pod malfunction and that he’s still 90 years from his destination with no way to get back to sleep.  He spends his days exploring the ship, practicing his free-throw, mastering a Dance Dance Revolution-style video game, and commiserating with an android bartender (Michael Sheen, Admission).  After a year, though, Jim is lonely and that’s when he catches sight of Aurora (Lawrence, Joy), a sleeping passenger he gets to know through her introductory videos prepared pre-flight.

Keeping spoilers at bay, I’ll just say that Aurora is roused as well and bonds with Jim in and out of the bedroom.  For a while, things are in breezy rom-com territory before reality sets in when Jim has to come clean about a Big Secret that threatens his relationship with Aurora and the other passengers as well.  Maybe another passenger wakes up and maybe there’s a recognizable star that shows up for literally 12 seconds near the very end but that’s for me to know and you to find out…if you want.

Passengers plays well, fueled by the chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence.  The only problem is the chemistry is more brother-sister than boyfriend-girlfriend and that’s just the tip of the creepy iceberg when all is said and done.  Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) tries to sidestep some fundamental moral dilemmas of the characters by distracting audiences with plenty of skin from his leads (Pratt’s two rump shots elicited quite the murmur of approval from the guests at my screening) and forcing us to see what a perfect match the two are.

Things really go awry in the last 1/3 when Passengers morphs into an effects heavy action film.  Lawrence is reduced to a damsel in distress, a far cry from the take charge women of steel she’s been playing (and receiving Oscar nominations for) recently.  Pratt fares better, only because the blue-collar guy he’s playing isn’t too far outside of his wheelhouse.  I kept wanting Sheen to play a bigger role in the action and come out from behind the bar or do something (anything) that would keep the film from being so earthbound and ordinary.

While its nowhere near the level of sophistication it should be, Passengers isn’t a complete turkey.  Aside from the appeal of Pratt/Lawrence, there’s some fine effects work but one too many slow camera pans of the ship inside and out.  When the characters stare into the vast blackness of space tethered by a single rope as they float, I got a little spooked/excited at what could happen if they broke free from their safety net.  Same goes for the movie – it never breaks free from its constraints.

31 Days to Scare ~ Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

happy_birthday_to_me_poster_01

The Facts:

Synopsis: At the snobby Crawford Academy, popular high school senior Virginia Wainwright survives a freak accident, but suffers from memory loss and traumatic blackouts. As she attempts to resume a normal life, something terrible is happening – her friends are ruthlessly murdered one-by-one.

Stars: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lisa Langlois, Tracy Bregman, Lenore Zahn, Lesleh Donaldson

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By the time Happy Birthday to Me rolled into theaters in May of 1981, movie houses were becoming saturated with holiday themed slasher pics after the booming success of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980.  No government holiday stone was left unturned and no religious day of remembrance was safe from having a killer (or killers) hunting down people that just want to have a good Easter egg roll or plant in tree in honor of Arbor Day.  See Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and Terror Train if you need a refresher.

What sets Happy Birthday to Me apart from the others is that it actually feels like it’s trying for the majority of its running length, aiming to provide audiences with some unique kills and a fair number of red herrings to keep you guessing until the totally ludicrous finale.  Underneath the gore and out of left field plot twists lies a fairly interesting film that isn’t totally lost along the way to its genre’s normal trappings.

A puzzling late career entry for director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, The Guns of the Navarone) and one of actor Glenn Ford’s last roles, this nicely budgeted Canadian produced flick has Mary Ingalls herself (Melissa Sue Anderson) as a popular girl who just can’t keep her friends alive.  Still feeling the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury due to a car crash that claimed the life of her mother, she starts to suffer blackouts and when she wakes up finds that another coed has been murdered.  With her birthday approaching the guest list gets liberally trimmed by a killer that likes to off their victims in a most cinematic fashion (I mean, just look at the poster!).

It’s clear that along the way the original script was jiggered with and lost some of its intended focus.  Though it feels like it’s headed one way for its big reveal, the ending provided is one no one would ever be able to predict in a million years.  I’m guessing there was a last minute reshoot to make the conclusion less obvious but in doing so it renders a heap of earlier clues and plot points useless.  It’s a cheat and a big cheat at that, but it’s just looney tunes enough to make it memorable.

Anderson never was that strong of an actress and it shows here as well.  Whether crying, screaming, or saying her lines in a flat monotone, a Scream Queen she was not destined to be.  Ford collects his paycheck without much shame while a bunch of Canadian teens never make that much of an impression, save for Matt Craven (Indian Summer) and Tracy Bregman as Anderson’s doomed chums.

It’s a film that goes from spooky to silly to scary to stupid but it’s not a bad party to think about attending – trust me, you’ve been to way worse real birthdays.  And don’t forget the creepy theme song that plays over the end credits…

31 Days to Scare ~ Single White Female

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman advertising for a new roommate finds that something very strange is going on with the tenant who decides to move in

Stars: Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Steven Weber, Peter Friedman, Stephen Tobolowsky

Director: Barbet Schroeder

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Ahhhh!  It’s movies like Single White Female that make me pine for a revival of the early ‘90s psycho thrillers!  It seemed that two decades ago not a week would go by without the release of another movie about a crazed boyfriend/girlfriend/co-worker/stranger terrorizing some poor unfortunate soul.  Giving birth to an endless trail of sleaze films (and sequels!) these potboilers were slickly produced and often featured top notch actors and directors pushing themselves out of their comfortable blockbuster zone.  Most of these movies are forgotten now, deemed cliché relics of a more exploitative time. Every so often, though, a film like Single White Female earns its place at the top of the heap.

Adapted by Don Roos from the novel SWF Seeks Same by John Lutz and efficiently directed by Barbet Schroeder (coming off of an Oscar nomination for directing Reversal of Fortune in 1990), the movie dives headfirst into its tale of software designer Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda) who winds up with the roommate from hell.  Needing the extra money to make the rent in her spacious New York loft (the place would rent now for thousands of dollars a month) and having recently broken up with her philandering boyfriend Sam (Steven Weber), she posts an ad that attracts a variety of eccentrics.  Arriving at a time when Allison is emotionally fragile, mousy waif Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) quickly earns her trust and the keys to the apartment.

At first Hedy and Allie get along swimmingly, but when Sam re-enters the picture Hedy feels like she’s losing her best friend and living situation and she’ll do practically anything to stay where she is.  Next thing you know, Hedy cuts and dyes her hair to match Allie and starts wearing her clothes and that’s when the real weirdness begins…along with the murders.

The film has some interesting blunt obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is Hedy’s inherent oddball-ness from the get-go.  She preys on Allie’s need for companionship, a need that blinds her to the danger Hedy poses to far more than her security deposit.  Leigh brings some extraordinary depth to the role and moves the character from being not just a lunatic but a deeply wounded soul that lashes out when her happiness is threatened.  It’s a layered performance that matches well with Fonda’s sharp edged Allie.  Allie isn’t the sweetest soul either and there’s a little bit of a popular high school cheerleader rooming with the poor misfit outcast vibe to it all.  Makes me miss Fonda’s presence in Hollywood where she’s been sadly absent since 2002.

The film isn’t perfect, failing to explain any of the life that happens outside the walls of the apartment and not doing much in the way of etching out the male roles like Stephen Tobolowsky’s lecherous client of Allie’s and Peter Friedman (Side Effects) as an upstairs neighbor.  Feeling like a play at times, the concentrated claustrophobia of the historic building (beautifully filmed by Luciano Tovoli who did wonders with Suspiria) can be a bit suffocating at times but works in the films favor when it approaches its cat and mouse chase climax.

Aside from some guffaw inducing computer software graphics, Single White Female plays quite well in this age of advanced communication and connection.  It’s always a risk to live with a roommate you don’t know…but at least know you can Facebook stalk them or pull up their criminal history with the touch of a button.  Back in 1992, you had to go with your gut and in 2016 my gut still tells me to watch this thriller every few years.

31 Days to Scare ~ Eyes of Laura Mars

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A famous fashion photographer develops a disturbing ability to see through the eyes of a killer.

Stars: Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Rene Auberjonois, Raul Julia

Director: Irvin Kershner

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Where to Watch: DVD

Review: Deep down inside, somewhere where most of my guilty pleasure movies are filed away, I know that Eyes of Laura Mars isn’t good. It’s a hollow thriller that misses the mark on many levels and doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do. Moreover, it has one of the dumbest endings of all times…so bad that I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if projectionists had just turned off the movie and sent everyone home five minutes before the film concludes. At least you’d leave with a bit of a zing and without your eyes tired from rolling in exasperation.

Yes, Eyes of Laura Mars is a kitschy late ‘70s thriller attempting to have some class. Yet here it is, featured early on in 31 Days to Scare. Why? It’s just so…entertaining. Whether you’re actively engaged in it or far removed, it’s never dull and not the museum piece it could have become. And it has Faye Dunaway (fresh off her Oscar win for Network) turning up her crazy knob long before her famously camp performance in Mommie Dearest.

Laura Mars is a famous fashion photographer known for glamorizing violence to sell product. Her images have galvanized the population and have attracted the ire of one demented psycho. Conveniently, when the killings begin Laura discovers a psychic link between herself and the murder, allowing her to see what the killer sees. When her closest friends and colleagues start getting their eyes plucked out and with a brutal manic gaining on her, she teams up with a cop (Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs) to unmask the fiend.

Originally intended as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand (her then-boyfriend produced the film and Streisand contributes an impressive song for the opening and closing credits), Dunaway is actually quite good here even when she’s ferociously overacting. Known for her frustrating method ways, if Dunaway knew the film was shaky she doesn’t show it but instead sinks her fangs in even further. Jones is surprisingly upbeat and even blasts out a few smiles. Brad Dourif (Color of Night), Rene Auberjonois, & Raul Julia (credited as R.J.!) are the various men in Laura’s life who wear their red herring T-shirts with gusto.

Rumor has it George Lucas was so impressed with a rough cut of this film he hired director Irvin Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner and cinematographer Victor Kemper (National Lampoon’s Vacation) do give the film an elegant, classy sheen but there are enough close-ups of Dunaway’s eyes bugged out and wild to be featured in some sort of mascara ad. Though many of the costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge are stuck in the ‘70s, Dunaway is beautifully decked out in tartan plaids and regal attire but pity the models stuck in dreadful fad clothing, forever on celluloid wearing fancy togas.

Even though there are some interesting sequences, like Dunaway being chased through an abandoned building while seeing through the killer’s eyes as they gain on her, there’s a restraint that starts to sink the film. Low on blood and feeling watered down from a more violent version, someone (the studio, the director, etc) decided to play it safe instead of going for the jugular. The script (from a 10-page treatment by genre legend John Carpenter, Halloween) feels like a dozen people wrote it. There’s zero interest in finding why Laura and the killer have a connection and no real detective work in trying to figure out whodunnit until the third act when half the cast has been sliced and diced.

Watching it again recently (as I do every few years), I was surprised I only just realized the movie is an attempt to Americanize the Italian Giallo film. With its heightened sense of reality, its focus on celebrity and excess, and its embracing of glam-violence Eyes of Laura Mars is a noble but ultimately hopeless attempt to capitalize on the popular films successfully imported from Italy. Had someone like horror maestro Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci taken a crack at this, it may have wound up being a film with more lasting impact and imagery.

And they would have fixed the ending.

Movie Review ~ The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, Billy Slaughter, Vinnie Jones, Peter Sarsgaard

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I have two things to admit right off the bat. I’ve never seen the original The Magnificent Seven from 1960 or, worse yet, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the movie that inspired both films and countless other knockoff Westerns throughout the years. The second admission is that I’ve been wanting Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Flight) to lighten up a bit already…all of his movies are so serious, so steely, so tortured inside that it has me almost dreading every new film he’s headlining even though he’s one of our great working actors today. While Washington doesn’t quite achieve tranquility during the course of this remake, the actor does show some signs of a sense of humor in between the gunfire and exploding dynamite sticks.

The prologue sets the stage. It’s the 1870s and the town of Rose Creek has a problem whose name is Bartholomew Bogue (a typically ratty Peter Sarsgaard, Lovelace). Determined to buy up all the land in the area for 1/10 of what it’s worth, Bogue has staked his claim on Rose Creek and dares anyone to stand his way. Protected by a crooked town sheriff, Bogue and his army of gunslingers draws a line in the sand for the townsfolk; accept his low offer to purchase their plots of earth or suffer deadly consequences. Before the credits even begin, Bogue has struck down several strong-willed citizens (including an actor listed in the opening credits after he’s been killed) and prepares to return in three weeks to start rounding up and kicking out.

Rose Creek needs a savior, that’s why Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Girl on the Train) offers bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) all the town has to offer in exchange for his protection. Taking her up on her proposition partly because he empathizes with her and partly to exorcise his own personal demons, he recognizes he can’t go up against Bogue alone and recruits a sextet of men as he makes his way back to Rose Creek. First up is wise talking gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World), as good with a gun as he is with a deck of cards. Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) a longtime friend of Chisolm and former army sharpshooter now making a living off of managing the duels of the deadly Billy Rocks (Byung Hun Lee, I Saw the Devil). Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), a Mexican criminal on Chisolm’s wanted list is given a reprieve if he pitches in while Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) makes nice with Chisolm by chowing down on the heart of a freshly killed animal. Finally, we have Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) a soft spoken bear of a man that proves a dangerous person to underestimate.

Look, there’s a formula here and it’s shown to have worked for more than a century. Find someone that needs help, gather a rag-tag group of would-be heroes, and then let them loose in a fiery blaze of glory. It helps The Magnificent Seven that the heroes would likely be the bad guys of another movie but find themselves put to better use doing good. Working together they arm the town and stage some Home Alone-style booby traps that are a, ahem, blast.

At 132 minutes, it’s a long film but I found myself responding to it more than I thought I would. I love a good Western and while this won’t be remembered as any kind of classic I found it engaging and entertaining, two things we’ve had a serious lack of in 2016. It takes it’s time and maybe moseys when it should be sprinting but I didn’t seem to mind it and I think it’s largely due to the cast.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) teams up with Washington for the third time and clearly the two men have worked together enough to develop their own rhythm. Fuqua nudges Washington ever so slightly out of his run of stone-faced champion and gets the actor to feel his inner cowboy. Pratt’s role isn’t quite as challenging, largely being an extension of the good ole boy he’s played before. Hawke, too, turns in a performance that I wasn’t quite expecting. Robicheaux has some ticks and tricks that Hawke takes and runs with…much like D’Onofrio does with his odd, child-like lumberjack of a man. As the lone female, Bennett more than holds her own, stopping just short of going full on Linda Hamilton/Terminator 2 mode as the film reaches its pinnacle.

Pure popcorn entertainment with some great shots of canyons and dust bowls set to a purposeful score by the late James Horner, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t rise to the level of greatness its title implies. Still, there are far worse ways to spend your time at the movies and the cast makes it worth your while.

The Silver Bullet ~ Passengers

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Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Release Date:  December 21, 2016

Thoughts: It’s okay if you watch this first trailer for Passengers and feel like you’ve been to this space rodeo before.  Peppered with hints of Gravity and The Martian with a little old (Sunday) school Adam and Eve business, our initial look at the late December release feels promising.  I mean, two hotter than Hades A-list stars with their choice of scripts wouldn’t sign up for this without it having some thrust, right?  I’m counting on blind faith that Chris Pratt (Jurassic World) and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) have chosen wisely.  Under the direction of Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) from a Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) script that’s been orbiting Hollywood stars since 2007, Passengers could pure rocket fuel at the box office if these heavy hitters bring their A game.  As for me…it’s set in space so…I’m in.