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.

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)

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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…