Movie Review ~ Bad Boys for Life


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Old-school cops Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett team up to take down the vicious leader of a Miami drug cartel.

Stars: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Paola Nuñez, Jacob Scipio, Kate del Castillo, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Theresa Randle

Director: Adil & Bilall  (Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah)

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though we’re in a time at the movies where it’s popular to revive old favorites that many had thought were done and over, it’s never a good sign to see a high profile movie star bruised by a string of box office duds return to the well of what was once profitable.  There was a time when having Will Smith in your film meant assured box office gold but one too many poor choices and a seemingly panicked desperation to be taken seriously as more than an action star led him down a path of wince-inducing downers and stinkbombs.  And while Martin Lawrence was never an A-List movie star, his eponymous landmark television show was a gigantic hit and, to be fair, he had his share of box office blockbusters, though none were what you would call challenging art.

When Lawrence and Smith first paired up for Bad Boys in 1995, it was Lawrence that was the bigger star and it showed on screen.  Re-watching the film recently it’s interesting to see how the movie, (originally intended as a much squishier comedy for other actors) was tailored around Lawrence’s style and how director Michael Bay (Pain & Gain) treated Smith more like Action Star Ken than as an actor who would go on to net several Oscar nominations.  By the time the sequel arrived a full eight years later, the tides had definitely turned and while Lawrence still received top billing, Bad Boys II was Smith’s film all the way.  It was longer and louder and absolutely horrible.  Returning director Bay took all the rules for making a bigger sequel too literally and delivered a ghastly horror of a movie, turning what was a fun buddy cop film into an offensively gross pile of mush that purported to be all style but was so far out of fashion it wasn’t even self-aware enough to realize it.  It made a killing at the box office but fans and critics revolted against it, waylaying any future plans…until now.

Normally, with sequels I’m of the mindset that it’s a good idea to watch the preceding films before catching a new one in theaters (unless we’re talking James Bond) because it helps you spot the consistencies, or lack thereof, throughout the series.  You’d be surprised at how good some franchise films are with carrying forward even the smallest of supporting roles through from film to film.  However, in the case of getting ready to screen Bad Boys for Life, I think watching Bad Boys II so close to seeing the third film was a mistake.  I was so put off by how smarmy that movie was that I went into the new one with a bad taste in my mouth, prepared to see the franchise sink lower.  That’s also taking into consideration after a 17 year break it just couldn’t be a good sign Lawrence and Smith had given in and come back to the roles that gave them both their first bona fide hit. Right?

Well, here’s the thing.  It turns out Bad Boys for Life is an energetic return to form for the two stars, a reunion that reminds us why their chemistry worked so well back in 1995.  By ditching hyper-kinetic director Bay and working with a script that forms the first semblance of a discernible plot in any of the films so far, the duo have righted a ship that was sunk on a massive scale almost two decades ago and given themselves a fine showcase on top of it all.  In addition to a fine supply of laughs, there’s genuine heart on display and a dedicated engagement from the stars which only serves to bring audiences closer along on this new rollicking ride.

Though a number of years have passed since we last took to the streets with Mike Lowery (Smith, Gemini Man) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence, Do the Right Thing), not a lot has changed with the veteran Miami cops.  Lowrey is still a fast-driving playboy that takes the fierce protection of his car’s interior as seriously as he does ensuring the streets of the city are free from drug violence.  Still claiming he’s going to retire any day, family man Burnett becomes a grandfather at the start of the movie which gives him one more reason to want to ditch the fast lane life Lowrey is addicted to for the more peaceful existence resting in his easy chair.  Plans for the future are put on hold, though, when a mysterious woman (Kate del Castillo, The 33) escapes from a Mexican prison and is reunited with her son Armando (Jacob Scipio), whom she dispatches to take ruthless revenge on a series of high profile (and familiar to us) individuals.  Spilling her secrets would delve into spoiler-territory but just know the multiple credited screenwriters have given Bad Boys for Life an appealing villain and villainess with an endless supply of cronies that don’t take kindly to any outside interference in their mission.

In previous films, Lowery and Burnett have largely been working on their own but this time they are paired with a young crew from AMMO, an elite squad of specialized officers led by Rita (Paola Nuñez) a former flame of Mike’s that was never fully extinguished.  There’s some clear groundwork being set to either create a spin-off for these new officers or keep them around if future installments are called for. I didn’t mind this too much, mostly because Vanessa Hudgens (Second Act), Alexander Ludwig (Lone Survivor), and Charles Melton knew when it was their turn to step up and when it was time to let Smith and Lawrence take center stage.

While I wouldn’t exactly say Smith is revitalized in Bad Boys for Life, he’s surely more on his game than he has been over the past several years.  Though he gives in to his bad habits of overselling dramatics in several opportune moments, he’s largely the charming action star that could open a summer movie with little effort and I’m hoping he enjoyed his work on the film because it suits him.  Lawrence is the real winner here, with the long-absent comedian making his welcome return to the screen (or public view in general) as a more centered, worldy-wise fella that holds to his convictions.  More often than not, the movie shifts gears to his strengths and that’s the wise, more entertaining choice.

I don’t know if it’s just because the two guys are getting older and have been through parenthood but Bad Boys for Life is also noticeably less heavy on the profanity that was so prevalent in the previous pictures.  It was non-stop in the second film to the point of pathetic obnoxiousness but the change for 2020 was welcome, if only to make one not feel so bad at the number of children in the theater attending the screening as well.  Belgian directors Adil & Bilall instead fill the movie with dynamic action sequences that are true showcases of brilliant stunt work and skilled execution.  They may lack in overall ‘pow’ factor that Bay could deliver but on the flip side I found them far easier to follow and stay engaged in.  With Bay’s films, they are so overproduced that you tend to want to step away from the movie for fear it may blow up in your face.  Adil & Bilall have a big movie on their hands but it has a way of bringing you closer in.

If rumors are true, a fourth film may be in the cards and Bay (who has a cameo in the film) is said to be returning as director.  Boy, I hope that isn’t true because I can only imagine how he’d mess up the good thing Smith and Lawrence have got going in this third Bad Boys film.  As of now, that’s in the distant future so until that becomes a reality just bask in the glow of a rarity – a successful return to a dormant series that’s been revived with an electric jolt.

Movie Review ~ Little Women (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s been 151 years since Louisa May Alcott wrote her classic novel Little Women and it seems over that time there have been as many adaptations of it on stage and screens big and small.  There’s just something timeless about Alcott’s tale of sisters moving through stages of their lives that has spoken to countless generations.  Whether you come from a big household or were an only child (like me), there’s something relatable and warmly familiar about the March family, allowing readers to latch on to a particular character and know them well enough to say “I’m a Jo” or “She’s more of a Meg”.  No matter how many times we’re exposed to the material, we still laugh at their comedic moments and cry when the reality of life steps in.

Having read the book on more than one occasion and keeping a certain fondness for anything it inspired (stage play, musical, miniseries, film), I could easily call myself a fan and am always willing to give any new interpretation the benefit of the doubt.  Heck, over the holiday break I even watched the made-for-television movie The March Sisters at Christmas, a modernized version of the story that took some giant liberties with the source material.  (For the record, it wasn’t half bad.)  What makes it difficult for me is that I think the much-loved 1994 version is the epitome of success in translation to the screen.  Though it had been seen in theaters before in 1933 and again in 1949, something about the ‘90s version just hit all the right notes for me, making it indelible and hard to measure up to.  Even so, when I heard Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) was taking on the duties of writer/director for a 2019 take on Little Women, I was interested to see what she would do with it and where it would land on the scale of successful retellings.

For those not familiar with the source material, the bones of Alcott’s story remain the same.  The Civil War is going strong and Father (Bob Odenkirk, Long Shot) is on the front lines, leaving his wife Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story) and their four daughters to keep the household going for the duration.  Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson, The Bling Ring) strives to lead by example, eagerly anticipating a domestic life with a husband and children.  That’s quite the opposite of headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan, The Host) the de facto leader of the siblings who makes great plans to roam beyond the confines of their Concord, Mass homestead.  Shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects) is the calming presence, taking solace in her piano playing while the youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar) longs for a romanticized life rubbing shoulders with the elite.

Drifting into the March orbit at various times are a sour Aunt (Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins) anxious to see her family lineage continue on well-funded and neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy) whose curiosity and friendship with the sisters quickly turns into something deeper and more heartbreaking.  Also playing a part in the episodic developments as the years go by are Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), tutor John Brooke (James Norton, Mr. Turner), and Mr. Bhaer (Louis Garrel, The Dreamers), a professor staying in the same boarding house as Jo when she moves to New York City.  As the girls turn to women, they experience love and loss while striving to find their place not just in the outside world but in the small haven they’ve created within the walls of their childhood home.

Thankfully, there are a lot of things to recommend in this adaptation and I largely enjoyed it, even if there are some interesting choices made that don’t always feel effective.  It should please fans of the novel, although I’m not sure how easy it would be for newcomers to the story to get into the hearts and minds of our favorite characters. Though set in the appropriate period, Gerwig’s modern voice is front and center and while it doesn’t change the overall impact of Alcott’s novel the emotional beats are delivered in a different way than ever before.

Following up her semi-autobiographical breakout hit Lady Bird, Gerwig has made the intriguing choice to take a non-linear approach to Little Women.  Instead of a straight narrative that follows along the years with the family, events are chopped up and rearranged to function as memories or recollections.  What this accomplishes is giving the characters the opportunity to look back from the other side of conflict which eventually starts to wreak havoc on the way audiences are involved and invited into the story.  I found the first hour a bit of a struggle to stick with and, though well performed by Gerwig’s cast, difficult to keep up with because it bounces around so much.  The second hour is more of a challenge to talk about without giving away a crucial bit of plot but suffice it to say turns that in the past had me reaching for the Kleenex barely registered a sniffle in this telling.  That’s unfortunate because there’s such rich opportunity to explore the complexities of the heart but how can you take any time for emotion when the next scene may take place years prior, undoing whatever loss we’ve just seen?

The casting announcements for this were exciting at the time because Gerwig has assembled a dynamite team of actors that aren’t necessarily known for being overly earnest with their material.  What’s needed is honesty, not an overselling of what is essentially a near perfect piece of American literature.  In that respect, the cast is successful; however there are a few elements that I just couldn’t quite get over.  For one thing, it’s never clear the ages of the sisters.  Pugh looks the oldest of all and she’s playing the youngest while Watson feels like she’d be a more adept Beth than a Meg.  Ronan is a wonderful Jo, skillfully presenting her stubbornness without being obnoxious, eventually exposing the raw vulnerability beneath a lifetime of building up a hard-ish surface.  Amy is often seen as the flightiest of the March sisters but Gerwig and Pugh have confidently grounded her, showing the character is more worldly-wise than she’s ever been previously given credit for.  I quite like Scanlen’s take on Beth, even though she (like her character) gets overshadowed by the other women she shares the screen with.

Not surprisingly, Streep is a wry gas as a fussy relative who is “not always right.  But never wrong” and Cooper’s sensitive take on the kindly neighbor is fairly lovely.  The two main suitors Gerwig has cast are likely the most problematic for me.  As Jo’s elder boarding house friend, Garrel doesn’t create much in the way of sparks with Ronan.  It’s a distinctly flat performance and you wonder why Jo would ever have her head turned even a fraction the way Garrel handles the material.  I know Gerwig thinks Chalamet can do no wrong but he’s not well-suited for the role of the pining boy next door.  Certain finalities of his character don’t ring true, which is perhaps what Gerwig was going for, but it weakens Laurie’s relationship with two key March sisters.  Chalamet has the acting chops to give it a go but isn’t the right choice for the role.

In the car on the ride home, I became one of those purist people that wanted this new Little Women to be the way I imagined it to be.  I rattled off a list of things that didn’t sit right to my partner, citing the 1994 version as my ideal way to tell the story.  That’s not fair to Gerwig or her team, nor is it doing right to the movie as a whole.  Just as each generation has discovered Alcott’s everlasting story, so too should a new audience be exposed to the Little Women through their own version on screen.  I hold the 1994 effort in high regard and, clearly, this one trails that in my book, yet it shouldn’t ultimately define how it stacks up historically.  The tagline for the movie is “Own your own story.” and it can serve as a reminder that the version we have in our head will always supersede anything we can see from another perspective.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Synopsis: The story follows a family moving to a small town, where they learn more about who they are and the secrets of the town itself.

Release Date:  July 10, 2020

Thoughts: In 2016, Paul Feig tried to do something different in continuing/rebooting the Ghostbusters franchise.  Reducing that effort to just being the ‘female Ghostbusters’ seems entirely reductive so I’ll tread carefully and say that the movie didn’t work and not because of any gender switching that happened.  It failed to capture the tone of the original films and, more than that, didn’t capitalize on the talents of it’s skilled stars – instead choosing to forcefully make them work in roles they weren’t suited for.  Unfortunately, it fed the hungry bellies of the haters already poised to take it down.

Unwilling to give up on a reboot of their precious franchise so easily, Sony pivoted in a rather clever way by enlisting Jason Reitman (Labor Day), the son of original co-writer/director Ivan Reitman (Kindergarten Cop), to write and direct a true sequel to the original films and our first look at the highly anticipated summer 2020 film has arrived.  Let me say, there’s a point in this two and a half minute trailer where a little tingle started deep in my spine and quickly rose through the top of my head like an exaggerated thermometer in one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons.  I get the feeling Reitman, having grown up around this world, is the right person to take the reins on this series and with the rumored return of many of the original stars (who showed up in the 2016 movie but mostly as different characters) I’m truly happy to this resurrected again.

Movie Review ~ Charlie’s Angels (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a young systems engineer blows the whistle on a dangerous technology, Charlie’s Angels are called into action, putting their lives on the line to protect us all.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Leading up to the screening of the brand-new 2019 reboot of Charlie’s Angels, all signs were pointing to something less than impressive.  Early trailers were considerably lackluster and the marketing of the film was…well, look up a few inches and check out the poster I selected to headline this review.  It’s the best one I could find and that should be saying something because it’s pretty bad on its own.  It’s like a major studio (Sony) had decided to revamp a key piece of IP and then opted to spend no creative energy or cash on seeing to its success.  If they didn’t have some faith or interest in the movie, why should I?

I had also come off a recent double-feature rewatch of the previous 2000 McG directed reboot starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu and it’s 2003 sequel and was kind of ashamed of myself for having a poster of both films on my wall at one point. (In my defense, the first poster was a fairly sweet high quality shiny foil material.) Both movies are still cornball pieces of bubblegum entertainment but they now come off as pre-packaged raunch fests, pushing the limits of the PG-13 rating and filtered through a male gaze so much that you can almost feel your chin stubble growing as the film progresses.  And the butt shots.  Oh my goodness.  You could do a drinking game (there has to be one, right) at the amount of gratuitous gluteus shots that occupy a rump-shaking amount of the film’s running length.

So yes, I was feeling conflicted about yet another new take on Charlie’s Angels, adapted from the popular television series that ran from 1976 to 1981.  I also had some questions.  Written and directed by Elizabeth Banks (Brightburn) tackling her sophomore feature after 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2, would the star actress be able to switch from a frothy musical to a spy-adventure?  What about the involvement of Kristen Stewart? The hard to pin down indie darling isn’t wholly picky with her roles but even this seemed like an out of left field choice for her.  Overall, the movie was lacking in mega-star wattage, a big selling point of the previous revitalization.  The two other women starring with Stewart were Naomi Scott (Aladdin) and Ella Balinska, not exactly household names.  With the less than boffo box office of Ocean’s 8, would audiences line up for another female-led caper action film?

I would never advocate for arriving late at a movie because it’s rude to others around you and you might miss some important info that could come in handy down the road but in the case of Charlie’s Angels, it wouldn’t be an outright terrible idea.   That’s because the first 10 minutes of this are pretty bad.  So bad I feared all my apprehensions about the movie were being made manifest and I’d be sitting there for another 105 minutes watching the time tick by in agony.  Fear not, because after that rocky road of an opening the movie rights itself almost immediately and a rather solid film materializes right before your eyes.  One that feels of the moment and also one that’s in on the overall joke from the jump.

Acting as a semi-continuation of the two previous films (with a few poorly photoshopped tweaks), Charlie’s “Angels” have gone international and now have branches all around the world.  {Stick around for the post-credits to see just how star-studded the recruits have become.} Bosley is now an official rank within the organization, which is why Banks, Patrick Stewart (Green Room), and Djimon Hounsou (Serenity) are all credited by some version of the moniker in the cast list.  They are each responsible for specific areas and keep tabs on their Angels that are close by, in addition to recruiting and training new candidates. Angels come from all walks of life and are called in when their special talents are required, so it’s less like they work as a group but more as a team of experts based on the need.

The need that exists currently is to keep an eye on an engineer in Germany (Scott) who has discovered a flaw in a handheld electrical system she helped create.  Without spending more time and resources to mend the error, the tool could go to market and be used as a weapon by someone with advanced knowledge and kill anyone in close proximity.  With her company intent on moving forward with mass-producing the item and not fixing the issue she’s found, she reaches out to the Townsend Agency/Charlie to help her find a way to stop her invention from falling into the wrong hands.  Before she can pass her info off, an attempt is made on her life – which is when the Angels fly in.  Tomboy Sabina (Stewart, Personal Shopper) is an heiress that likes to live on the edge and Jane (Balinksa) is a former MI:6 agent who left the agency for mysterious reasons we’ll learn about later on.

The movie plays like an extended episode of a television show with little in the way of complex plot development, save for a couple of well-timed twists that would have coincided nicely with a commercial break.  It’s not aiming to be that deep, however, and I appreciated that it favored forward momentum instead of digging too deep under the surface.  That’s not to say Banks doesn’t ask anything of her three leads because she elicits fine performances out of all, it’s just clear that they all had a mission to create a movie that was entertaining and I think they accomplished that.  The elaborate wig and costume changes are fun but grounded and the most madcap Banks lets things get is a giggly little bit of choreographed disco led by Stewart and Balinska. (Speaking of Balinska, she’s a real find and manages to steal the movie away from her fellow Angels quite often).  Whereas the Barrymore/Diaz/Lu movie felt like it was amusing them more than anything by the end, Banks and company allow us into that fun arena on a more regular basis.

If the new Charlie’s Angels spreads its wings at the box office, Banks has set things up to be an intriguing franchise.  With the globalization of the Townsend Agency, the Angels can come from anywhere so even if, say, Stewart wasn’t available for the next film you can easily swap her out for another super spy from the opposite side of the world.  It leaves the playing field (and cast list) open for a myriad of interesting possibilities for future installments.  Just make sure to give these new Angels a chance past those first ten minutes – we’re in the culture of snap judgments now and if you stick it out I think you’ll like where this one lands.

Movie Review ~ Escape Room

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.

Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis

Director: Adam Robitel

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s the time of year when we are past the season to be jolly and across the Oscar hopeful finish line of prestige pictures trying to make their end of the year release date cutoff.  Now we’re into January, a month commonly known in Hollywood when studios will push their less than desirable products into theaters either hoping they will go away quietly or praying for a small miracle and have them catch fire with audiences and make them a buck or two.  Over the last few years the films that tend to do the best are low impact horror thrillers that are good for a jolt or two and quickly forgotten.

So it’s indeed a perfect time for Sony to release Escape Room, their modestly budgeted and mostly forgettable time waster thriller.  Though it boasts a good director that has shown he knows a thing or two around this genre and a concept filled with intriguing opportunities, it winds up being a strictly mediocre effort that sacrifices early hints of creativity for a messy finale that fails to deliver. It’s not that good but if I’m being totally honest it’s also not that bad.

Opening with my least favorite plot device, introducing a character in a dire situation and then flashing back “three days earlier”, Escape Room gathers six disparate strangers vying to win $10,000 if they can solve a new escape room that’s come to Chicago.  Though it appears they have nothing in common, over the next 100 minutes we’ll learn why they were chosen and how it came to be they are involved in a game that gets more deadly the deeper they go into the labyrinthine rooms.  Their weaknesses become their strengths and their paranoias become their downfall as each one faces their fears that pop up in a variety of ways.

Those familiar with the Saw series or the cult classic Cube will find a lot of common threads here and Escape Room starts to feel like a Frankenstein monster of better movies the longer it goes on.  Those movies at least had a concept that had an endgame, though, and it becomes clear around the halfway mark that screenwriters Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik may have had a beginning and end sketched out but failed to come up with enough twists and turns to keep the audience off balance.  I kept waiting for the film to take a different path than what was expected but it kept motoring on with no surprises along the way.  Even the escape rooms themselves start out with interesting clues to solve but gradually get less and less creative as the group moves forward and their numbers start to dwindle.

Director Adam Robitel gave us The Taking of Deborah Logan, one of my absolute favorite horror films of the last ten years as well as last January’s Insidious: The Last Key.  It’s clear he possesses a style that works well in this genre but there’s less focus here on the substance to go with that polish.  There’s also an extreme problem with the likability of the cast.  Aside from Taylor Russell as a mousy brainiac and Deborah Ann Woll’s (Ruby Sparks) haunted veteran, none of the other cast members seem worth keeping around, especially annoying grocery store burnout Logan Miller (Love, Simon)

Yet the movie moves swiftly without wasting unnecessary time in one location for too long.  This notorious watch checker was surprised to see the first time he looked at his timepiece was 90 minutes into the film.  Unfortunately, that’s when the film lost me in a major way with a bizarre denouement and even stranger stinger that didn’t feel like it matched up with the rest of the action.  It felt like a studio mandated add-on to keep the door open for future sequels.  Up until that point the movie had played mostly by the rules but then it seemed to toss out logic and reason in favor of extending the story past the closing credits.  I wish the filmmakers had spent more time rounding out the rough edges of this movie before laying the groundwork for another.

With movies like Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, and Bumblebee still easily occupying the top slots at the box office, Sony is hoping Escape Room might find a foothold with audiences that just want to sit back and not have to think too hard over what’s passing in front of their eyes on screen.  Escape Room fits that bill and should easily make its money back in its first weekend.  I’d say it’s one that you could hold off on catching in theaters, though, and put on your list for a rainy day at-home selection.

Movie Review ~ The Girl in the Spider’s Web

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.

Stars: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Cameron Britton, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang, Christopher Convery, Synnøve Macody Lund, Vicky Krieps

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When 2011’s U.S. remake of the 2009 Swedish phenomenon The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo failed to bring in the kind of audience Columbia Pictures and MGM was hoping for, the two planned sequels were put on an indefinite hold.  What a pity.  Though the remake had its share of detractors, it was a compelling mystery and expertly made film that took its time to explore the characters and wasn’t afraid to wallow in some dark material.  Director David Fincher is a master at what he does and the look and feel of the movie, not to mention the fantastic performances from Rooney Mara (who received an Oscar nom for her work) and Daniel Craig, has helped to keep the film a singular experience.

Deciding to skip the two direct sequels and start over with a new novel released in 2015 brought a challenge. With Fincher, Craig, and Mara all released from their contracts and on to different projects, when the time came to bring the franchise back to life for The Girl in the Spider’s Web the studio had to go back to the drawing board and find a new director and star.  Bringing on rising director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) and hiring Claire Foy (Breathe) as the titular character were impressive gambles that don’t completely pay off.  The resulting film works fine as a standard thriller if you didn’t have any previous knowledge of the characters but as a continuation of what Fincher started back in 2011 (and what really began with the original film trilogy in 2009) it misses the mark by a longshot.

It’s been three years since the events of The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander has become a not-so-secret vigilante of sorts in Stockholm, coming to the aid of women wronged by men.  The opening of the film (spoiled, like much of the movie, by trailers that have given away far too many key plot points) finds Salander giving a wife beater a bit of sweet vengeance.  Foy plays the exchange like she’s buying carpet for her rec room at IKEA, it’s fine to be emotionally removed from these abusers but her monotone delivery suggests boredom rather than detachment.

Salander’s ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) hasn’t seen her since her wrote an exposé centered on her family.  Though his editor and sometime lover Erika (a sadly underused Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) urges him to move on, he can’t forget the troubled girl. Much like Fincher’s film, Alvarez keeps Lisbeth and Mikael apart for a good half of the film but unlike the previous entry when they do share screen time there’s next to no spark between the two.  That’s partly because the dynamic in this movie feels like it’s shifted and Mikael is now more of a second banana to Lisbeth’s main character.

When Lisbeth is asked to retrieve a computer program that becomes a threat to the national security of America and Sweden, she’s thrown into a conspiracy that will bring her back to painful memories (and people) of her childhood.  If you’ve read the book The Girl in the Spider’s Web is based off of, be prepared for major changes.  For fun, after the screening I read the plot synopsis of the novel and was amazed at the liberties screenwriters Alvarez, Jay Basu, and Steven Knight took with David Lagercrantz’s original text, rendering it almost wholly new.  For what it’s worth, the novel sounded far more muddled and complicated, something that wouldn’t have translated easily to the screen.

That leaves Alvarez to cut his own course with the material, leaving out the connective tissue that helped make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo such an intriguing mystery.  There’s no real thought process from anyone in the movie, they either just “know” the answer to a perplexing puzzle or whatever methods they use to figure things out happen offscreen.  One example is a character in the U.S. who is trying to locate a hacker by tracing their location.  The location is narrowed down to Stockholm, at which time the character grabs his coat and runs directly to the airport…because Stockholm is so specific. Part of what makes these kind of films fun is playing detective alongside our lead characters but here we are so far removed that it’s like someone is reading us a story instead of inviting us to follow along.

The screenwriters also make a giant leap in turning Lisbeth into more of a superhero than a heroine.  She takes a licking and keeps on ticking, bouncing back from explosions and beatings needing little to no recovery time.  One moment Lisbeth has been drugged and the next she’s snorted some crushed opioids and is driving a car in pursuit of cybercriminals.  She also has a curious knack for knowing the right way out of dead end.

I’ve enjoyed Foy in her films so far in 2018.  She was great in the paranoid thriller Unsane and good in October’s First Man.  Here she’s merely OK and it’s mostly due to her being miscast as an edgy character lacking bite.  Mara and her Swedish counterpart Noomi Rapace played Lisbeth as damaged goods, alternately withdrawn and feral which led to her being unpredictable.  Foy isn’t afforded much in the way of surprise so we’re just tagging along for what is largely an unremarkable ride for the actress.

As a jumpy NSA agent on Salander’s trail, Lakeith Stanfield is even more of an enigma.  There’s no backstory to his character by way of an introduction nor do we get any blanks filled in along the way.  We get a sense he’s good at his job but how spectacular can he be if he’s constantly bested by Salander and the thugs on her trail?  By the time he’s somehow called on to be an expert marksman in an admittedly nicely constructed action scene, I sort of stopped asking questions.

The best performance in the whole film is Sylvia Hoeks as a ice blonde specter from Lisbeth’s past.  Dressed head to toe in red and never speaking above a child-like purr, she’s intimidating without even raising a finger.  It does veer toward campy Bond villainess at times (the whole film feels like a gender-bending Bond romp, actually) but Hoeks knows exactly what film she’s in and sinks her teeth into every bit of scenery she can get her hands on.  Much like she did with her unsettling character in Blade Runner 2049, she becomes the focal point of any scene she’s in.

Alvarez shows off some style in his eye for imaginative camera angles with the help of cinematographer Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe) and slightly macabre visuals but he is far more restrained than he was in previous films.  Aside from one rather ghastly sight of a man missing a key piece of his face it’s relatively tame.  I appreciated that he included a brief title sequence, nicely echoing the unforgettable pulse-pounding nightmare credit sequence of the first film.  The music by Roque Baños (In the Heart of the Sea) helps to set the mood, even if that mood too often requires Baños to veer into action movie histrionics.

I’m not sure what the impetus was for the studios to revive this franchise again in 2018 (were they about to lose the rights?) but they’ve given us another chapter in the Dragon Tattoo collection that doesn’t even feel like it’s in the same universe as what’s come before.  The characters deserve better, the actors deserve better, we deserve better.

Movie Review ~ Alpha


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a hunting expedition during the Upper Paleolithic period goes awry, a young man struggles against the elements to find his way home, all the while developing a friendship with a gray wolf. This forges the tentative first bond between man and canine.

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leonor Varela, Natassia Malthe, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Priya Rajaratnam, Mercedes de la Zerda, Jens Hultén

Director: Albert Hughes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Release dates are tricky things when it comes to movies. Studios look at a calendar and date films for release hoping that no other similar flicks lock in the same/near date to avoid major competition.  Place your movie on the wrong date and what was supposed to be a financial hit turns into a movie that appears at your local Redbox that much faster. Alpha has been through several release dates, pushing the film back almost an entire year from its originally intended 2017 debut.

Usually, a fluctuating release date spells trouble for the film, as the studio doesn’t know how to market it or has little faith in it but in the case of Alpha I can see why timing was everything for it to see the light of day. It’s not really a summer blockbuster or an end of the year awards contender, and its price tag would suggest that it wasn’t one that could just be dumped into theaters with little fanfare. So Sony has decided to set Alpha free at the tail end of the summer when most of the big dogs have come and gone and hope for some scraps from audience members. A late-breaking controversy in the past few weeks from PETA regarding some questionable animal handling hasn’t helped the film and that’s a shame because Alpha is a surprisingly moving bit of filmmaking with breathtaking scenery and its heart squarely in the right place.

The first thing you should know, and which trailers have played incredibly coy about, is the entirety of the dialogue in Alpha is spoken in an ancient language and subtitled in English, translating the words spoken by a primitive tribe in Europe over 20,000 years ago. It would have been much easier for director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt to nudge this into familiar territory and have everyone speak in English with a vague British accent but everyone goes full out here and the result gives the film its first dose of authenticity. It also could alienate families bringing in young children on the premise this is going to be a routine boy and his dog tale…it’s anything but.

Alpha is first and foremost a tale of survival against the elements, an intense journey of self-discovery for a boy just becoming a man. The son of a chief, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, X-Men: Apocalypse) is a sensitive soul that struggles with taking the steps toward adulthood that are expected of him. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Atomic Blonde) wants to protect his only son but e recognizes he must educate him as well. Taking his son on their seasonal bison hunt hundreds of miles away from their home, he hopes to teach him the ways of his ancestors and give him greater strength. When an accident separates Keda from his tribe, he is forced to grow up fast as he fights the elemtents (both natural and animal) to make his way home. Along the way he befriends a gray wolf and develops a bond that will set the stage for future generations.

There’s nothing monumentally deep to the story that Alpha seeks to tell and the film reminded on more than one occasion of the type of adventure film Disney might have released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Attempts to somehow tie the tale to the “origin of man’s best friend” aren’t as successful because the movie isn’t solely about that connection. It’s Keda’s story through and through and though Alpha (the name he gives the dog) becomes an important piece of that tale it’s ultimately about an internal maturity that develops within the boy as he treks across land and rapidly changing seasons to reunite with his family.

What pushes the film into recommended territory is the filmmaking and performances. Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) go for an epic scale and the achievements are breathtaking. I saw the film in IMAX 3D and Alpha makes one of the strongest cases in recent memory to shell out the extra money for this premium experience. The vistas are rendered through a mix of CGI and natural scenery from locations in British Columbia and the unobtrusive 3D provides a wonderful depth that actually enhances the visuals ten-fold.

Smit-McPhee has had numerous successes on screen in his ten year career but this is a definite high point. Tasked with carrying much of the movie along with his canine co-star (also a mix of CGI and real dog), Smit-McPhee doesn’t say much throughout the film but conveys much emotion with his physicality. As the film progresses and the expedition gets more difficult, the young actor helps to relate the desperation and doubt his character begins to feel as more and more roadblocks emerge to prevent his safe arrival. As Keda’s father, Jóhannesson gives great emotional weight to a role that could just as easily have been a staid macho Neanderthal.

Chances are Alpha is going to get lost in the hustle and bustle of these waning summer weeks. If it’s showing in your neck of the woods in IMAX, in 3D, or better yet in IMAX 3D I’d strongly encourage you making the effort to see it. My advice would be to leave young kids at home but anyone older than 11 would be a good companion for this one – it’s worth your time.

Movie Review ~ Peter Rabbit


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a rebellious rabbit trying to sneak into a farmer’s vegetable garden.

Stars: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As I hunkered down on a chilly Saturday for an early morning screening of Peter Rabbit there were a few thoughts going through my head. The first was a silent prayer that Hollywood didn’t take Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters and turn them into grating kooky animations. The second musing I found myself pondering was what took so long for Potter’s creations to make their way to the screen in the first place? Plenty of small screen animation adaptions featuring Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin, and more have popped up throughout the decades and a fond memory of my youth was going to see Beatrix Potter’s Christmas (think The Avengers, just with Potter’s most famous critters) over several years at MN’s Children’s Theater Company. Yet aside from a Potter biopic (the largely forgotten Mrs. Potter), there’s been little love for the woodland creatures themselves.

What a pleasure it was, then, to find that Peter Rabbit is a real delight, a rare family film that’s truly something the whole family can get something out of. For kids there’s plenty of slapstick comedy that doesn’t involve farts or other rude nonsense and for adults there are a bevy of laughs that will easily sail over the heads of tykes too young to get the humor.

In the English countryside, Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, Into the Woods) is fond of making his way into the garden of Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and filling up on his plump vegetables. Pulling his cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) in on his schemes and being cheered on by rabbit triplets Flopsy (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), days are just a series of adventures that usually end with Peter being chased by the annoyed farmer into the loving arms of his caretaker Bea (Rose Byrne, Insidious). One day, the antics go too far and Old Mr. McGregor has himself a heart attack leaving his garden and home to be overrun by animals.

In London, tightly-wound Thomas McGregor’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin) OCD ways have gotten him the heave-ho from his job at Harrod’s department store. Informed of his inheritance of a house from an uncle he’s never met and without much to keep him in the city, he treks out to see his new property in the country. Once he arrives and cleans up the place, he sets his sights on ridding himself of the vermin problem…but also starts to fall in love with Bea. The latter half of the film focuses on Thomas and Peter’s escalating war, fighting for their territory and over the lovely woman that cares for both of them.

Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck (Annie) has crafted a film that’s quite charming from the get-go. There’s sentiment for the origin of the stories (Bea is a painter that creates bizarre modern art but sketches her forest friends in intricate details, ala Beatrix Potter) but keeps enough pep in its step to not feel like a staid transfer of the books to the screen. The humor is broad and fast-paced but with a sly wink to always let the audience in on the joke. Sure, there’s a few questionable bits of mayhem (such as one moment where Peter briefly considers sticking a carrot into Old Mr. McGregor’s plumber butt crack) but the overall joy the film brings outweighs a few of these catering to the masses missteps.

Sprinkled with a soundtrack of familiar songs reimagined not to mention a few tunes Gluck penned himself and using Australia’s picturesque countryside as a stand-in for the English village of Windermere, this is a valuable film for parents to keep in their back pocket.  I found the 90 minute run time flew by and there are some nice touches from Gluck and company, such as having the live-action leads also provide voices for a few of the animals.  Along with Paddington 2, it represents a step above the usual family fare that blends live-action with animation (the result is dazzlingly seamless) and offers sure-fire matinee potential for the whole gang.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In doing some prep work for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the first thing I thought was wow…the original Jumanji came out in 1995?  Man, do I feel old.  22 years is a whole Disney star lifetime ago and though it had a semi-kinda-sorta sequel a decade later in 2005’s Zathura, it took all this time for a true sequel to that big-time blockbuster to materialize.  While the wait was mostly worth it in the same breath I feel compelled to mention that the first movie isn’t all that great to begin with (go ahead, watch it again and tell me it hasn’t aged well in plot, word, and deed) so there wasn’t exactly a high bar the filmmakers had to navigate. The result is a pleasant but largely forgettable holiday family film that is a viable option for those wanting to avoid Jedi’s and Greatest Showmen.

While it has a few connective tissues to its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is largely a self-contained story that finds the mischievous board game adapting for the times.  Magically transforming itself into a video game cartridge, a 1996-set prologue sets up a thin backstory involving a teen that disappears after playing the game.  Skip ahead twenty years and four more teens of various stock character origins (nerd, jock, pretty girl, loner girl) find themselves in detention and coming into contact with the game.

Whisked away into Jumanji’s jungle setting, the teens become the grown-up characters they selected on the game screen.  That’s where some true fun emerges, though if you’ve seen the trailer the film’s already spoiled a few laughs for you.  The nerd enters the game and becomes buff explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), the towering jock is tiny zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer), meek loner girl appears as commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Oculus), and the superficial pretty girl winds up as chubby (and male!) scientist Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black, Goosebumps).

Watching the four adjust to their new bodies is amusing but aside from Oberon thrilling at being able to pee standing up, it’s not a theme that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) or the four (!) screenwriters linger on for any stretch of time. Instead, the movie kicks into high gear as the four are plunged into a quest to restore a stolen jewel to its rightful place in one of Jumanji’s vine covered monuments.  Stolen by a power-hungry villain (Bobby Cannavale, Blue Jasmine), the jewel gives the owner dominance over Jumanji’s creatures and landscape so it’s up to our heroes to battle the elements and themselves to save the land and get back to the real world.

Kasdan has cast the film with a pleasant group of game players more than, uh, game to play into their types.  I know Johnson has perfected this big softie character before (just last year in Central Intelligence, in fact) but there’s something so winning about the way he leaves himself vulnerable, not just relying on his gigantic muscles to do the literal and figurative heavy lifting.  Hart is a scream as a big man in a small body while Gillan gets laughs as an awkward girl inhabiting the visage of a lithe action star.  It’s really Black’s show, though, and he milks every ‘girl stuck in a man’s body’ joke for all its worth.  Normally a little of Black goes a long way but he’s the clear audience favorite from the start.

The construction of the movie is made of solid stuff but there’s too much jungle and not enough Jumanji type game-playing for my tastes.  For all the problems I had with the original, at least it established some rules and forced the players to continue to roll the dice in order to finish the game.  Here, the characters enter the game and find out they have three lives but aside from a few small twists here and there there’s little in the way of boundaries.  I have major problems with the ending resolution but as I vow not to provide spoilers I gotta leave that one for you to find out on your own.

Before I go, let me get something trivial off my chest that’s been bugging me since they first released the marketing materials for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  I hate the title.  Hate it.  Like the movie itself, it’s too long and fussy.  Something short and sweet like, oh, Jumanji: Jungle would have would have left the door open for future sequels set in a host of different locales. To top it all off, take one guess what song plays over the closing credits?

Movie Review ~ Roman J. Israel, Esq


The Facts
:

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.