Movie Review ~ Land

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of an unfathomable event, a woman finds herself unable to stay connected to the world she once knew and retreats to the magnificent, but unforgiving, wilds of the Rockies.

Stars: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens, Warren Christie, Brad Leland

Director: Robin Wright

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It’s always intriguing to me to see what actors will eventually try their hand at directing.  Some stars will go their entire careers without stepping behind the camera, preferring to stay in front of the lens and leave that responsibility to someone else.  Others move to it naturally early on, even doing double duty which can lead to great success (like a number of Clint Eastwood films) or middling returns (see any Zach Braff movie for perfect examples) but it’s always the actors that come to the directing chair later in their career that tend to bring a sage sense of purpose to the piece.  Now, let me be totally clear about that observation.  That doesn’t always equate to a perfect film or even one that is ultimately worth your time, but it should at least warrant your attention because in this business, experience does stand for something. 

It’s actually a surprise it’s taken veteran actress Robin Wright so long to helm her first feature film.  With almost a dozen episodes of her Netflix show House of Cards under her belt, a proper movie was obviously next in line and Land turns out to be a smart choice as her debut.  Instead of juggling too many spinning plates at once, Wright has opted for this small, intimate drama that’s nearly a one-character piece that takes place almost entirely in a single location.  That gives her the opportunity to feel her way through the movie and take the time to get it right, leaving the more difficult directorial duties for another film later down the road.  The result is a solid, if admittedly slight, showcase for Wright as a director and star.

An unknown trauma has led Edee (Wright, Blade Runner 2049) to monumental decision: she’ll leave her former life, family, and friends behind in favor of the isolation of a ramshackle cabin in the Wyoming Rockies.  With no electricity, running water, or means of communication (her phone gets discarded soon after she arrives in the nearest town), Edee is choosing not only to go it alone but to make life as tough on herself as possible.  Through wordless vignettes over her first few days, we get the impression Edee is not exactly the outdoors-y type, however this isn’t a story of a woman from the city triumphing over the harsh wilderness but a restrained piece about grief and how everyone deals with theirs differently.

Facing down her sorrow in a cabin that leaks and learning to live off the land as she goes, winter is right around the corner and the bitter cold nearly breaks her after a series of setbacks curtails what successes she has achieved up until then.  Around that time is when screenwriters Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam introduce Miguel (Demián Bichir, Chaos Walking), first as a saving grace when Edee needs it most but eventually as more than just someone Edee can have outside contact with. Both seem to gain something from the other during their quiet discussions and a shared friendship develops, allowing Edee to see the value in her own humanity again. 

With the changing of the seasons comes a changing in the tone of the film and before you know it, Wright has snuck in and changed the piece from a solo study on loneliness to one of kinship and reaching out to others…but only so far.  I appreciated that Wright and the screenwriters manage to maintain a sense of truth to their central character throughout because it’s tempting in these types of stories of sorrow to be overly redemptive or apologetic for feelings/emotions.  The loss Edee has gone through is enough to set anyone back a step or five and maybe following through with her plan to go it alone is what she needs, not as a defense mechanism but as the salve for her wound to heal.

Wright’s performance is strong as expected and she easily handles the rigors of wearing both hats.  Working with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski to capture some incredible scenic vistas, it’s a small production but doesn’t wind up feeling like a small movie.  Running a scan 89 minutes (with credits), Wright engineers her picture and her performance like a long-distance sprint and there is some kind of palpable energy coming at the viewer throughout which lets the film fly high, even when Land is at its most grounded.

Movie Review ~ Chaos Walking

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two unlikely companions embark on a perilous adventure through the badlands of an unexplored planet as they try to escape a dangerous and disorienting reality, where all inner thoughts are seen and heard by everyone.

Stars: Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter, Ray McKinnon

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know, folks, there may be some trouble keeping Tom Holland on the A-List if these past few weeks at the movies have been any indication.  It’s no wonder the hype machine on the third Spider-Man movie (titled Spider-Man: No Way Home, due later this year) surprisingly kicked into high gear right around the time the blistering review for Holland’s Apple TV+ film Cherry started popping up.  Just two weeks later, Holland has a new project coming out and another reason for his team to be sweating.  I can only imagine what bit of Spider-Man news will come out this weekend to direct attention away from the news that Chaos Walking is another dud from Holland, though this time it’s not entirely his fault.

This long in the works adaptation of the first book in a trilogy of YA novels by Patrick Ness published in 2008, it’s not shocking in the least why Chaos Walking struggled to get off the ground over the years.  Arriving on the scene in the midst of a number of other popular series for teens being adapted into movies with more of an adult slant, a fair share of high-profile writers tried their hand at the script before it finally wound up back with Ness who gave it a final polish.  At one point, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis was circling the project and while that might have been an interesting route to take, I actually think the director Lionsgate wound up with, Doug Liman, is a solid choice.  Responsible for admirable work like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is no stranger to complex narrative or impressive visuals so he wouldn’t have struggled with bringing to life a world that has unique characteristics while not getting too deep in the fantasy of it all.

Two hundred years in the future on another planet called, of course, New World, is the small settlement of Prentisstown, named after the malevolent mayor (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) who presides over the entirely male population.  All of the females of the group were killed by the Spackle, native inhabitants to the planet that descended on the group one day not long after the settlers arrived on the planet, around the same time both genders discovered the planet gave them the ability to hear and sometimes even see the thoughts of other men.  The women’s thoughts, however, were hidden. These thoughts on display came to be called “Noise”.  While the book has the luxury of explaining this phenomenon in detail, the movie skirts the subject fairly quickly so we’re left with a “that’s that, move on” sort of attitude, not that we can ever hear the “Noise” that clearly thanks to the sound design being so muffled throughout.

Too young at the time of her death, Todd Hewitt (Holland, The Impossible) never knew his mother but is aware she trusted Ben (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter, writer of Southpaw & creator of Sons of Anarchy) to care for him as his adoptive parents after she was taken.  So he spends his days trying to suppress his Noise while helping on Ben and Cillian’s humble farm.  He’s returning from the field one day when he sees something he’s never encountered before but only heard about…a girl.  Crash landing on the planet as part of the Second Wave, Viola (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) is the only survivor from her crew and needs Todd’s help to find a communication device to contact her ship so they know she made it and won’t abandon their mission.  However, Viola’s arrival uncovers a deadly secret from the history of Prentisstown that a number of people, including the town’s holy man (David Oyelowo, The Midnight Sky) would just as soon stay buried.  Pursued by those he formerly trusted, Todd and his dog Manchee accompany Viola to the far ends of New World where they’ll discover more truths about Noise, New World, and each other.

To his credit, Ness has laid a groundwork for a series that has potential.  So why is Chaos Walking so decidedly unexciting in its action and unmoving at its core?  Much of that comes down to what I think are simple logistics; nothing in the movie ever works in harmony so you have, essentially, chaos throughout.  The acting doesn’t seem to gel with the script, finding some of the cast exceling by tuning in their performances and taking the material for what it is and nothing more (like Ridley who got good at that working on the Star Wars films) while others take it too far in the other direction, working so hard to uncover what’s not there that they wind up totally blank themselves (sorry, Mr. Holland).  The simplistic, truncated script doesn’t seem to work with the style of movie Liman wants to make, either.  Liman’s action sequences are the best parts of the movie without question but they’re few and far between and never turn the dial up far enough so that you feel like any stakes are raised.

Chaos Walking also has a very bad habit of letting the focus fall on the wrong people for too long and forgetting (sometimes entirely) about characters that were introduced as important.  I won’t say who, but there’s one character played by an Oscar-nominated performer who never gets a final scene, so we have no idea what happened to them.  The last time we saw them, they may have been in danger but Liman and Ness never make it clear which way the teeter was tottering. It’s unfair to leave people hanging like that.  Also, the movie commits a cardinal sin that you simply do not do if you want a compassionate audience to remain even the slightest bit on your side.  Again, I don’t give out spoilers but if you’re paying attention to who goes with Viola on her journey you might be able to guess what said sin is.  And it’s not pretty.  It’s a cheap movie device that screenwriters should find a way out of using because it’s expected and, when it happens, only serves to show the inherent weakness in creative thought for how to motivate your hero/heroine.

Before I forget, we have to circle back to Ridley and Holland again.  Though Ridley manages to come out slightly unscathed here, there’s still a bit of a wonder why she’s back in this neo-sci-fi work so close to the end of her tenure in Star Wars.  If I were her agent, I’d be steering her away from these types of roles in favor of work that is completely different, so she isn’t pigeonholed.  Ridley is a solid actress but there isn’t much for her to work with, but at least she’s able to fashion it into something not totally goofy.  The same can’t be said for Holland who is reduced to muttering most of his lines (turn the subtitles on, you’ll thank me), many of which are descriptions rather than actual sentences, so he comes off like he’s just verbally pointing out things. “Yellow Hair” “Girl” “Pretty” “Bug” “Girl” “Pretty”.  Could another actor have fixed this?  Maybe not, but Holland seems more confused with what to do than anything… all the way up to flashing his bare bottom while fishing for his dinner.  The scene feels there to wake up anyone that might have been about to doze off.

Though this is based on the first book in a trilogy I’d be amazed if Chaos Walking performs well enough to warrant a sequel and it seems as if the filmmakers knew that too.  Thankfully, while the door is clearly open for a continuation, the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on how you’re approaching the film.  As a fan of the novels, I’m sure you’ll see the possibilities of what’s to come.  If you are new to the series and were entertained, could be that now you are invested and are crossing your fingers they can get Ridley and Holland back together again to finish the story.  However, my camp is the one that gets to the end and is ready to walk on past any more installments.  It doesn’t walk, nor run, nor jump, nor fly…Chaos Walking merely limps along, disappointingly so.

Movie Review ~ The Midnight Sky

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lone scientist in the Arctic races to contact a crew of astronauts returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.

Stars: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall

Director: George Clooney

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Ardent fans may disagree, but George Clooney has reached a point in the career of a successful actor that I always look forward to.  This is the time after an actor has paid their due (he appeared in later seasons of TV’s Facts of Life and the schlocky sequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes), had great commercial successes (a star-making turn in ER for NBC and a string of blockbuster hit movies), and won critical accolades (an Oscar for acting in 2006’s Syriana and one for producing 2013’s Argo, not to mention multiple other nominations).  He married after years of professed bachelorhood and is a father when he believed he was too immature to be one.  With all that under his belt…what’s next?  The answer? Sort of anything he wants to do.

Along with contemporaries like Jodie Foster and, to a smaller extent, friends Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, Clooney has earned the privilege (right?) to be ultra-picky with the work he does, often going long stretches without a film in the can or in production.  Leaning toward more producing than acting or directing, Clooney the actor seems to have taken a backseat to the other roles he seems to prioritize more right now.  So, like those other A-list stars mentioned above, when he does peek his head out for a film role (and directs it as well), it’s something to perk up for because there was obviously something about this certain project that was motivating enough to step back in front of the camera.

That film is The Midnight Sky, premiering the week of Christmas on Netflix, and it’s really a two-for-one kind of deal.  Both are Clooney movies through and through, for better or for worse…it all depends on which one you’re in the mood to see.  One is more of a movie Clooney is known to act in, with a sleek sophistication that builds in suspense the deeper it flies in the face of uncertainty.  The other reminded me of a feature Clooney had helmed in the past, one more focused on human drama on a smaller, more intimate level. Both pieces have their merit and varied degrees of satisfying realization throughout, but it’s delivered in a package so depressingly bleak that even an unexpectedly emotionally vibrant finale can’t clear the clouds away.

The year is 2049 (where are all the Blade Runners, I ask you?) and astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney, The Monuments Men) is alone at a research station in the Arctic Circle.  Evacuated after an unspecified global event three weeks earlier, it appears the Artic Circle is the last stand for humanity according to the radar showing whatever it was that happened inching closer to the pole Lofthouse is nearby.  Terminally ill and without family, Lofthouse chose to remain in the facility where he spends his time doing a lot of nothing save for monitoring the ongoing devastation and self-administering his daily dialysis.  Flashbacks to a younger Augustine (Ethan Peck) show an inspired young man that feels he found the answer to life on another planet, K-23, and we come to understand the study of that planet through a satellite circling a distant solar system became his one true passion in life above all other things, including a woman he loved (Sophie Rundle) but let slip away.

As he monitors the missions in space, he sees there is one crew still bound for Earth and they’re returning from a mission that involved exploration of a satellite near Jupiter that Lofthouse created.  Returning to Earth and whatever has taken place would be bad news and so Lofthouse begins attempting to make contact with the spacecraft Aether and it’s five-member crew.  Led by Adewole (David Oyelowo, A Most Violent Year) and communications office Sullivan (Felicity Jones, On the Basis of Sex), the crew is unaware of the catastrophe on their home planet, having been unable to contact mission control during the end-stage of their return voyage.  With his facility satellite not strong enough to relay a dependable signal, Lofthouse will have to trek in perilous conditions to a nearby facility if he is to get a message to Aether before its too late for them to turn back.

Based on a 2016 novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted by Mark L. Harris (Overlord), I won’t venture too far further into the plot of The Midnight Sky because there are some elements that are best left to be discovered as you travel on the journey.  Though it’s not a spoiler, per se, there is a small girl (the non-verbal but expressive Caoilinn Springall) Clooney finds has been left behind in the main research facility that becomes his companion on his frozen mission through ice and snow.  She serves as a silent sounding board for his thoughts and an outstretched hand of comfort when he finds he needs it most. Oscar-nominee Demián Bichir (A Better Life), Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now), and an excellent Tiffany Boone (Beautiful Creatures) make up the crew of the Aether, becoming important pieces in what eventually is seen to be a mystery of sorts that’s been staring us in the face from the start.

What also becomes obvious is that as grand as the movie is in certain key moments and for as well-made as the picture is, it operates too much as distinct independent features that it never quite feels like the two stories are tied together.  Long sequences with one storyline make you totally forget the other one is happening, and how the ramifications that what is happening in Plot #1 have a direct impact to Plot #2.  An important development in Plot #2 more than 2/3 of the way through is almost nullified by a bit of information from Plot #1.  These types of overlaps abound, and it pulls the movie apart rather than binding it to be stronger as a whole.  I either wanted to see more of the two features interacting with each other (because when they do, it’s all systems go for high-stakes suspense or emotional resonance) or one feature that plays solo.

Following in the footsteps of recent bleak outlook films like Songbird and Greenland, The Midnight Sky doesn’t seem that interested in finding a happy ending to appease us and that’s completely the prerogative of the filmmakers.  I continue to be curious to see how audiences embrace these types of movies during our current situation…do we really want to imagine a future even more depressingly futile than now?  Maybe it’s because my eyelids started to get just a tad heavy near the end but the finale from Clooney and Lester pulled the rug out from under me a bit too fast.  It achieved the desired impact, I think (I hope), and while the actual ending skirted the line of being too abrupt, there was a short section right before the credits played where Clooney achieved something fairly beautiful where all the elements of a film (visuals, Alexandre Desplat’s unsurprisingly hefty but surprisingly haunting score, performances) joined in harmony.   Like the stars up in the blackness, there are several of these shining moments in The Midnight Sky…I wish there were more.

Movie Review ~ The Grudge (2020)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a young mother murders her family in her own house, a single mother and detective tries to investigate and solve the case. She discovers the house is cursed by a vengeful ghost that dooms those who enter it with a violent death.

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, Demián Bichir, Betty Gilpin, John Cho, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve always liked to look at the start of a new year as a way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.  What a perfect time to forget about old annoyances, unmet goals, and the resolutions from the previous year that you didn’t stick to.  For this critic embarking on his ninth year of being a one-man reviewing band on this site, it’s also a fine time to hope that the next year of movie-going will be a smooth ride, where every film is a winner and each expectation I have going in is met.  Though 2019 shaped up to be a rather strong year for film in those final few months there were some bumps along the way…with some real rough patches especially in the horror genre remake/reboot realm.  If you read my end of the year review you’ll know I put the trash update of Child’s Play as my #1 worst movie in 2019 and unfortunately we are only two days into the new year and I already have a likely candidate to be (dis)honorably mentioned 12 months from now.

Always wanting to support my beloved horror films I was silly enough to take myself to see Sony’s restage of The Grudge thinking that it would be the scary new vision of 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge it made itself out to be.  Instead, writer/director Nicolas Pesce squanders a talented cast and decent production values in a film that is schizophrenic at best, incoherent at worst.  The films in this series have always suffered from issues with structure and there is barely a framework in place before Pesce starts to tear it all apart. Coming off of two well received movies, 2018’s Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother from 2016, Pesce was an intriguing choice to take on this reboot but brings none of the style he showed in those smaller movies with his first foray into franchise territory.  This is Horror Movie 101, with lame-o jump scares favored over any kind of build up of suspense or furthering of the narrative action.

After the death of her husband, Detective Muldoon (no first name given ever) packs up and moves with their son to Cross Creek, PA, where they have a chance at finding a new normal.  Her first day on the job she’s partnered with Detective Goodman (another character not given the benefit of a first name) and they are sent to the woods where a decomposed body has been found in a locked car.  Tracing the body back to a house with a bloody past, Goodman wants to turn the investigation over to the federal authorities and forget about it but Muldoon can’t resist doing some work on her own.  Once Muldoon enters the infamous house she starts to experience strange events that can all be tied back to a family that had been murdered two years prior…and whatever caused all that trouble before is now after her.

If you’ve never seen it, the original Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge is quite an effective entry in J-Horror.  I remember catching it at a small theater in my town when it received a limited release and receiving good chills for my effort.  When I heard the original director was coming to the US to remake the film in partnership with Sam Raimi (Oz: The Great and Powerful), I was curious to see how Hollywood would handle it.  The 2004 version of The Grudge followed it’s foreign predecessor pretty closely and was a decent if completely unnecessary effort; setting much of it Japan with a largely American cast had its own problems, though and it’s non-linear format didn’t flow as easily overseas.  A quick sequel was pushed into production and the 2006 result was a steep nosedive in quality and logic.  I never got around to seeing the third film, released in 2009, but skimming reviews for it online it appears I didn’t miss much.  Stepping back from the 2020 version a bit and squinting, you can see where a new twist on The Grudge may have sounded appealing to the studio heads at Sony.

I have to believe that something happened between Pesce’s pitch and the film being released that changed what was originally intended.  Made for a small-ish $10 million dollars, there was a real opportunity to make a suspenseful film that took the haunting elements from the original movies and placed them in a new story.  Instead, the movie is stuck in the same old narrative rut that proved so problematic in the past.  Set between the years 2004 and 2006 (why?), Pesce has really made four mini-episodes showing how the cursed house has taken deadly action over the years and then thrown it all into a wood-chipper before piecing it back together.  It never allows the action to find a rhythm because there’s no impetus to when or how the storylines diverge from one another.

One moment you’re in 2006 where Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) and Goodman (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) are investigating the body in the car, the next you’re back in the past watching married real estate agents (John Cho, Searching and Betty Gilpin, Isn’t it Romantic?) dealing with their own tragedy who make the mistake of taking on the spooky dwelling.  Aside from the original family who meet a gruesome fate, the other noteworthy arc involves a man (Frankie Faison, The Silence of the Lambs) who has called upon a euthanasia supporter (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) to help his ailing wife (Lin Shaye, Insidious: The Last Key) transition.  Of all the plots Pesce juggles this is the one that I wanted to know more about, thanks to the performances of all three actors…especially Weaver.  The way Weaver reacts to the horror she sees made me wish she had better material to work with…but she gives it her all anyway.

Actually, all the actors deserve some pat on the back for imbibing what sensibility was possible into their roles.  Riseborough is such a fascinating actress but struggles with a character that becomes more hyperbolic as the film goes on.  Pesce makes a concerted effort to pause the action while Riseborough works through her emotions but since we have no real sense of who she is these slow sections become annoying, making the film feel longer (much much much longer) than its 94 minutes.  I’m not sure if Bichir ever spoke above a throaty whisper but I’m definitely sure Cho and Gilpin didn’t know they were in a horror movie until after the movie was finished.  Both look bewildered instead of scared.  You can always count on Shaye to bring us back on track and her few scenes as a woman that has become unhinged due to the house consistently find the right tone.  I also found William Sadler’s (Freeheld) brief appearance to be approaching the right ballpark of where Pesce should have taken things.

A clumsy film to kick off 2020, hopefully audiences won’t take the bait with this new version of The Grudge and allow this series to just disappear.  The only thing good about seeing this is that everything else you watch this year is bound to be better…but maybe that’s me being too hopeful again.

Movie Review ~ The Nun


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A priest with a haunted past and a novice on the threshold of her final vows are sent by the Vatican to investigate the death of a young nun in Romania and confront a malevolent force in the form of a demonic nun.

Stars: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Bonnie Aarons

Director: Corin Hardy

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I have to hand it to director James Wan for going the distance with this notion of creating a universe of movies inspired by his film, The Conjuring. Starting with the lackluster Annabelle and it’s much superior prequel, Annabelle: Creation, Wan sought to expand the playing field by spinning off frightening characters introduced in his massively scary 2013 film and its 2016 sequel. With Annabelle 3 going into production soon and another offshoot based on the Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2 slowly coming together, the wheels are certainly turning in Wan’s scare factory.

A priest, a nun, and a French-Canadian walk into a haunted convent…sounds like the start of a late night joke told in a dive bar but no, that’s the premise of The Nun which is Wan’s latest bid for domination of the horror genre. While it doesn’t fall as flat as Annabelle, it doesn’t rise to the thrill level found in the other fright flicks released to date. Still…there are far worse way to scare yourself silly while paying top price ticket fees in the process.

Set in 1952, The Nun follows a priest (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) called by the Vatican to look into the suicide of a nun at a secluded convent in Romania. He’s accompanied by a novice (Taissa Farmiga, The Bling Ring) who has yet to take her final vows but possesses a talent Vatican officials feel will be useful in the investigation. It’s never fully explained (at least not to my satisfaction) just why she’s sent along for the ride but her presence helps the priest gain access into the cloistered abbey where evil is certainly playing a wicked game.

Local food delivery boy Frenchie (no, seriously) shows the two the way into the massive castle-like convent which once housed some decidedly unholy tenants. Catholic guilt is no match for Hollywood terror so check your religious piety at the door if you don’t want to be too offended by stigmata, a few naughty nun jokes, and one scene where it looks like the devil is playing a game of nun bowling. The bulk of the film follows our investigators as they are terrorized by the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons, Silver Linings Playbook) who has taken on the terrifying visage of a nun and appears at numerous inopportune times.

The screenplay from Gary Dauberman (IT) with input from Wan (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) has a nice set-up for the first forty five minutes or so, finding a lighter tone and quick pacing to keep things moving. Strangely, it’s when the guests arrive at the moody monastery that reveal some peculiar twists that never find a good pay off. Over the top sequences I swore would be revealed to be dreams were actually occurring and the finale felt like too many ideas shoehorned into a quick wrap-up. As in previous films of The Conjuring Universe, there’s an effort to tie this film into later events but it hinges on you remembering a minor incident from The Conjuring.

Performances here are fairly standard with Bichir plodding through the film with conviction, even if he’s oddly given a truly been there, done that backstory involving a botched exorcism. While her sister is the star and highlight of The Conjuring films, Farmiga doesn’t quite have the same gravitas of her elder sibling. As Frenchie, Jonas Bloquet (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) feels like he walked in from a Netflix rom-com with his arched eyebrows and one-liners at the ready. If there’s one thing that truly saves the film and actually elevates it, it’s the production design and cinematography. This is one of the best looking horror films in recent memory and the 22 million dollars allocated for the budget were certainly put to good use. Its European setting reminded me more than a few times of the classic Hammer Horror films and director Corin Hardy makes the most of several ominous set pieces. Fantastic production values aside, the catacomb-y finale felt like a test run for The Nun’s guaranteed appearance at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights in 2019.

Make no doubt about it, Wan is on to something with this idea to bring all of his scary creations to life in films of their own. He’s learned from his past mistakes and is bringing in the right people to get the job done…but if this universe is to continue to thrive attention needs to be paid to all the details and not just chuck careful planning out the window in favor of a cheap-ish scare. There’s no prayer for forgiveness required from The Nun…but penance must be paid in future installments if the filmmakers don’t plot their approach better.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Nun

Synopsis: A priest is sent to Romania to investigate the mysterious death of a nun.

Release Date: September 7, 2019

Thoughts: Man, the suits at Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema are really going for this Conjuring Universe, aren’t they? After The Conjuring, there was the lackluster spin-off Annabelle which was followed by the enormously entertaining sequel, Annabelle: Creation.   Now comes The Nun which focuses on that terrifying bride of Christ who kept popping up to scare Vera Farmiga (and this critic) in The Conjuring 2.  There’s nothing particularly special about this early teaser trailer but it does give the summer movie audiences a jolt of a reminder that there’s another scary film coming up this autumn to look forward to…after Halloween, of course.

The Silver Bullet ~ Alien: Covenant

alien_covenant

 

Synopsis: The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it is actually a dark, dangerous world, whose sole inhabitant is the synthetic David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

Release Date:  May 19, 2017

Thoughts: Anticipation was high back in 2012 when director Ridley Scott’s mysterious Prometheus arrived veiled in secrecy.  Was it a prequel to Alien or wasn’t it?  Early previews gave few clues and neither Scott nor 20th Century Fox did much to fill in the blanks.  Prometheus sharply divided audiences and critics, some appreciating that Scott reached further back than mere prequel territory while others loathed it with a vitriol usually reserved for a Transformers sequel.  Personally, I loved it and saw it several times on the big screen; it’s cliffhanger ending only made me more curious about what would happen next.  The answer comes next May with Alien: Covenant and this first look is a neat (if overly gory/spoiler-y) intro to a film that looks very different than its predecessor.  Perhaps Scott (The Martian) and screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Spectre, Hugo) are trying to please the fans and detractors of Prometheus at the same time.  Riding that fine line would be good, I just hope they don’t overcompensate and make a faded copy of the original entry.  Aside from Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Noomi Rapace (Dead Man Down) returning in their roles, star Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) certainly is going full-on Ellen Ripley and I’m interested (and a little nervous) to see how actors like Danny McBride (This Is the End) and the recently added James Franco (Sausage Party) figure into the mix. It’s worth noting that Alien: Covenant was originally intended for a release in October 2017.  It was then moved up to August before settling into a prime summer release date in May.  That’s a very good sign of a studio confident they have something big…let’s hope so.

Movie Review ~ The Hateful Eight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Walton Goggins, Channing Tatum

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 187 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s hard to believe that as prolific as Quentin Tarantino has become, The Hateful Eight is only the eighth feature film released by the man with the manic energy and mad love for all things cinema.  Starting off strong with Reservoir Dogs in 1992 before hitting the mega big time with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has developed a definite style that he can reign in when he wants or let loose in most outrageous ways.

Last represented in 2013 with Django Unchained (which netted him his second Oscar for Best Screenplay), The Hateful Eight almost never saw the light of day as early script leaks frustrated the director.  Thankfully, Tarantino’s got good friends and they encouraged him not to be deterred by internet trolls and make the film as he intended.  Tweaking his script and gathering a most impressive line-up of stars, Tarantino has another winner on his hands and one that shows both sides of his cinematic calling card.

In a bloody mash-up of Agatha Christie mysteries and the snowy sci-fi classic The Thing, The Hateful Eight takes place primarily on one set, a haberdashery where strangers gather to wait out a blistering blizzard…but one (or more) of them aren’t who they claim to be.  Tarantino has crafted another memorable set of characters from bounty hunters John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Furious 7) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, RoboCop) to retired General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to newly minted sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, American Ultra).  Ruth has chained himself to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Spectacular Now), a wanted woman that faces the hangman’s noose once they arrive in Red Rock, Wyoming.  Also factoring into the mix is aloof gunsman Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, Die Another Day), Bob (Demian Bichir, A Better Life), and Oswaldo (Tim Roth, Selma).

How these people end up in the haberdashery are told through a framing device that divides the film into a half dozen or so sections.  Each section arrives via a title card that announces the chapter and gives the audience a clue as to what’s coming up.  This being Tarantino, he’s not afraid to go a little out of order so he can keep the mystery hidden a little longer.

For a film taking place in largely one location, it never feels stagey or cagey.  Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson (an Oscar winner for Hugo) make the small outpost look massive, the perfect place for a killer to hide out.  The performances are typically larger than life, with Russell going full John Wayne on his line readings and Jackson being…well…Jackson.  Goggins is an actor I can usually take or leave (mostly leave) but his goofy look and delivery mesh nicely with Madsen’s cool gunslinger and Bichir’s man of few words Mexican.  There’s a lot of buzz around Leigh’s performance and with good reason, the actress has several dynamite scenes that you’ll have to wait some time for…but when they arrive they’re the stuff Oscar nominations are made of.

Tarantino and The Weinstein Company are taking a unique approach to its release of The Hateful Eight.  Tarantino filmed the movie in “glorious 70MM” and several cities are playing host to a Road Show version of the film, complete with an overture and intermission.  If you can find this version, make sure to catch it because it gives you a full movie-going experience, recapturing the way movies were released back in the heyday of moviemaking that Tarantino pines so longingly for.  It’s also an opportunity to hear the great Ennio Morricone’s haunting score during the overture.  It’s crazy Morricone has never won an Oscar and his work here might finally right that wrong (though he’ll have stiff competition from John Williams with Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

At 187 minutes the movie is a commitment and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get a little snoozy during the first half.  It feels as long as it is…but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When it does let loose, it becomes a graphic cornucopia of blood and brain matter and one character ends the film covered head to toe in gore.  The wait for this is most certainly worth it, especially when the strings are being pulled by so many talented contributors.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hateful Eight

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Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Release Date:  December 25, 2015

Thoughts: It’s still hard to believe that Quentin Tarantino has only directed eight feature films (I not counting the outings where he did additional filming or directed as part of an anthology)…but it’s impressive that each one has been a not-so minor classic.  Anyone that has an appreciation for film should also have an appreciation for what Tarantino (Django Unchained) does, cinematically, with each of his films.  From the cast to the score to the script to the production design to the cinematography, Tarantino shows time and time again in each and every frame that he celebrates film through and through.  True, his proclivity for extreme subjects doesn’t leave him open to be fully embraced by audiences with quieter tastes, but his fans (myself included) always look forward to his next endeavor.

The Hateful Eight is one to get excited about.  Filled with a stable of Tarantino favorites (and a few that you can’t believe have never worked with him before) and made in “glorious 70MM” this western drama takes place primarily on one set over one night…a bold move to make from an already bold director.  This first teaser is a sight to behold, it gets the juices flowing and gives me faith that I can make it through another busy holiday schedule if this is going to be my reward.  Can’t wait.

Movie Review ~ The Heat

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Uptight FBI special agent Sarah Ashburn is paired with testy Boston cop Shannon Mullins in order to take down a ruthless drug lord. The hitch: neither woman has ever had a partner — or a friend for that matter

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demián Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I recall the first time I saw the trailer for The Heat and marveled at how two and a half minutes could go back without a single laugh for a film that was supposedly a comedy.  Then positive early buzz had Twentieth Century Fox move it from an early spring opening to a prime June release date, so I was curious to see if the buddy cop film with two proven comedic stars (albeit adept at very different styles of comedy) partnering with the director of the wildly successful Bridesmaids may have just made a bad first impression.

Turns out it pays to trust your gut because The Heat is a barely lukewarm summer bummer, a movie that probably started out with potential but is unfortunately sacked by copious amounts of overstuffing an ungainly turkey of a film.  Don’t be fooled by the cleverly cut TV spots and trailers that suggest a laugh a minute comedy awaits all those that shell out their dough because the film itself is a chore to get through.

Perhaps knowing that the movie was rushed into production to accommodate Melissa McCarthy’s other commitments provides some context to why the film feels only half thought out.  I’m wondering if the script from television writer Kate Dippold (Parks and Recreation) didn’t start out as something more interesting because the movie seems to have been tailored to cater to McCarthy’s gruff comedic instincts and tweaked to make room for Bullock’s star wattage.

The film wants to have it both ways – it so desperately wants to be a hilarious genre re-defining buddy/cop picture while retaining a gritty edge with bloody violence.  The trouble is that it’s not funny enough to stand on its own and not gritty enough to be salvageable as a hybrid comedy-thriller.  Instead it’s a middle of the road affair with Bullock and McCarthy lost among the chaos.  All the cinematic chefs in the world couldn’t make this oil and water concoction palatable even though the recipe is right in front of them.

Though McCarthy has shown up in several movies where her improv skills have been a highlight, (The Hangover Part III, This is 40) in The Heat she lets her ad-libs get the better of her and the result is akin to the feeling of being at a bad sketch comedy show where the performer can’t right her sinking, laughless ship.  Her early scenes are so achingly bad and long that I half wondered if Judd Apatow didn’t direct the film instead of Paul Feig.

Worse is Bullock, so out of her element that she’d need a map to find her way into a joke and a compass to get herself out of it.  I like Bullock and probably appreciate her dramatic turns more than anything lately (I’m very much looking forward to Gravity, arriving later this year) but she does herself no favors here, resisting the wise idea to simply play her Special Agent as the straight (wo)man to McCarthy’s foul-mouthed Boston cop.

That’s another thing that bothered me about the film and only goes to show you how many opportunities were missed in the quick shooting schedule.  Though McCarthy is supposedly a dyed-in-the-wool Bostonian with a comically stereotypically family, there’s not a hint of an accent on her.  So at a dinner scene where her family (including the woefully underused Jane Curtain) is laying the accent on thick, when McCarthy chimes in she sounds like a visitor from Idaho.

The less said about the supporting cast, the better with not one person coming close to anything resembling a committed performance.  That’s largely due to the bi-polar script that feels as if it was either entirely made up or written scene-by-scene by different local comedians.  Did no one read, really read, this script?  It’s so formulaic and obvious that you could watch the first five minutes of the film and probably write verbatim the denouement of the bad guy and also the final scene between McCarthy and Bullock.

The few bright spots in the movie come from McCarthy…because even firing blanks she occasionally hits her target when the movie allows her to infuse the character with a little sensitivity and heart.  That’s where McCarthy really gets to shine and come alive…when she’s shown as vulnerable and layered.  Bridesmaids was smart in that it allowed this element to come out naturally but in The Heat it’s forced out in a way that’s no lasting fun for anyone.

There’s talk of The Heat 2 being fast tracked by the studio and if that’s the case, I fear what may await us.  I can only hope that any further adventures involving McCarthy and Bullock are better crafted than the cheap looking mess masquerading as a summer blockbuster.  Both actresses are better than this…you know it, I know it, and (worst of all) they know it.