Movie Review ~ Jungle Cruise

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A riverboat captain transports a British scientist and her brother on a mission down the Amazon to find the Tree of Life, believed to possess healing powers that could be of great benefit to modern medicine. Thrust on this epic quest together, the unlikely trio encounters innumerable dangers and supernatural forces, all lurking in the deceptive beauty of the lush rainforest.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Andy Nyman

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10) (11 AM)

Review: While most will instantly conjure thoughts of that ragamuffin Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when the topic of Disney turning their famously engineered rides into movies comes up, you actually have to go all the way back to 1997 for the very first one.  Based on the leave-your-stomach-in-your-tonsils Tower of Terror, the same-named TV-movie starred Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst and it’s perfectly fine that you forgot it.  Then came 2002’s The Country Bears, having their jamboree for not quite as many viewers in theaters that had seen them in the parks over the years, and the disappointing Eddie Murphy-led adaptation of The Haunted Mansion shrinking in the shadow of Black Pearl which had come out just four months earlier. 

Numerous Pirates sequels (all subpar) would slow the ride tide of movies coming out of the studio but all it took was one irresistible movie star to kick off another potential franchise starter.  After an extended delay due to the pandemic, audiences will finally get to hop on board this new attraction with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt for a breathless ride that hits the water at full speed and never looks back. 

It won’t take long to separate the sea captains from the landlubbers in Disney’s newest ride turned movie, Jungle Cruise.  If you don’t get that little tingle of excitement for what’s to come within the film’s opening introduction of both of our effortlessly charming leads, then this may not be the right journey for you to take.  That’s all fine and dandy, but you’ll be missing out on quite the adventure in the studio’s monster attraction for the summer, which was delayed an entire year in order to give audiences the best bang for their buck. It’s a sonic boom for every penny you’re spending in the theater or watching it at home. 

Enchanted since her youth by tales from her father of an ancient Amazonian tree with flowers that have the power to heal, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt, A Quiet Place) has spent much of her life trying to track down a missing arrowhead while she studied to become a plant scientist and prove herself among her male colleagues.  This arrowhead artifact is the final piece of a puzzle she needs to go along with a map of the Amazon jungle she has been studying that she believes will point her toward the location of the tree.  However, someone else is looking for that arrowhead as well. German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) has paid a handsome sum to the stodgy society of London antiquities that found it. The movie’s snappy prologue shows just how far both Lily and the Prince will go to get what they want…. but never underestimate the determination of a resourceful botanist who is aces at picking a lock and has a map of the antiquities shop drawn on her forearm.  With her prim brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall, The Nutcracker and the Five Realms) in tow and the arrowhead in her possession, Lily is ready to head to the Amazon…and all she needs is a boat captain when she gets there.

Anyone that’s been on the Jungle Cruise ride at any Disney theme park will recognize a number of the pun-ny jokes Johnson’s Frank Wolff is rambling off to his bored shipload of tourists when we first meet him.  Many taken right from the script of the long-running ride (side note…if you ever get a chance to ride it at night, do it!  It’s a totally different experience!), it’s the most assured nod screenwriters Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and Glenn Ficarra (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) & John Requa give directly to the attraction that inspired the film and it’s completely welcome.  Eagle-eyed viewers and true fans of Disney lore will spot many Easter eggs along the way, all in good fan service without pulling focus away from the actual story.

Yes, there actually is a story that unfolds, even if it at times feels like the three screenwriters take a little longer than necessary to get there and include one too many villains along the way.  Once Lily and MacGregor arrive at their jungle destination there are some shenanigans that stall for time until they team up with Frank, giving time for the extra obnoxious Paul Giamatti (Gunpowder Milkshake) to storm in for a not-brief-enough cameo (could Disney not afford to cast a real Italian person for this Italian character?) and add in more roadblocks for Frank to get Lily on her way.  Then it’s back to the river for meetups with an indigenous tribe led by Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón, The Forever Purge) supernatural Spanish conquistadors (including Edgar Ramírez, Point Break) resurrected with evil intentions, and an unexpected twist that comes halfway in that was a pleasant surprise. 

What I liked best about Jungle Cruise was its commitment to follow-through.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) allows the film to be 127 minutes of adventure and excitement and isn’t out to rush anything past us.  Sometimes on the ride itself it can be hard to look at both sides at the same time so you end up missing out and that also can happen in film if a director loses the focus of where the action is directed.  Instead of idling in one place and allowing our eyes to catch up, Collet-Serra just keeps things in constant motion and lets us be swept up in the action.  It’s often overwhelming and, thanks to some overdone CGI, can come off looking nearly like a totally animated film, but more often than not it is completely captivating.

Much of this is owed to Johnson (Skyscraper) and especially Blunt’s indefatigable charisma and, if not red-hot chemistry, then kindred spirit-ness.  A push toward romance feels terribly forced and especially considering how forward thinking the movie is by allowing MacGregor to not only have a full man-on-man convo with Frank where he says he’s gay without using the “g-word” and then going further into talking about acceptance and such, it’s odd to thrust romantic entanglement on our leading couple that haven’t completely sparked like that.  Any flames ignited are from their gentle baiting of one another, mostly friendly competitiveness at who is the stronger alpha of the boat. 

Scheduling the way it is and knowing that summer weather can often turn on a dime, I’ve been continuing to opt to watch a number of these movies at home. In hindsight, Jungle Cruise is one I would have loved to see on the big screen – and I could see myself buying a ticket to catch it again in theaters.  Learning afterward it’s being presented in 3D in some cinemas makes sense after noting how many extended shots of various objects coming directly toward the camera. I’d note that if you don’t like snakes, you should opt out of the multi-dimensional experience – lots of snapping jaws to contend with.  The movie will be big and satisfying no matter what size screen you see it on but with July drawing to a close and August signaling the end of a strange season at the movies, this should be the one you fork over some cash to see with the family on the largest screen you can manage.  It’s worth it.

Movie Review ~ A Quiet Place: Part II

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Forced to venture into the unknown, The Abbott family realize that the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou, Wayne Duvall, Okieriete Onaodowan, Scoot McNairy

Director: John Krasinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Even before this bugger of a pandemic arrived on our shores and fairly quickly shuttered businesses, not to mention effectively cancelling the summer movie season, a great number of people were saying that theaters were on the decline.  The streaming services were offering up faster ways to watch movies at home, and it was becoming easier than ever to get the entertainment you wanted at a far lower price than you would if you went to the cinema.  Plus, watching from the comfort of your living room meant the only person you had to worry about kicking your seat, obnoxiously using their cell phone during a movie, or eating loudly would be your significant other, friend, or family member and not a random stranger you didn’t have the courage to silence. 

At first, I found it strange to watch a film I knew was meant for the big screen on a smaller scale in my home theater but eventually I got accustomed to it like many people did.  You could see where the idea that maybe theaters weren’t as in-demand as on-demand would be coming from…but then a movie like A Quiet Place Part II comes out and you’re reminded that going to the movies, and the right kind of movie, is the best kind of communal event.  Now, I can only guess at this because I saw this sequel to the 2018 blockbuster in a Dolby Theater with about 10 other members of the press, but I would wager a bet that if you saw this in a packed theater (as packed as social distancing could be) you’d feel the same way.  The energy the film creates is tangible and I don’t think it’s simply because it was the first one I’d seen in a theater in over a year.

It sounds silly now, but I was almost nervous my senses would be too overwhelmed to take the theatrical experience after all this time, but I clearly needed no slow re-introduction.  Thankfully, the film doesn’t waste any time, either.  If by some chance you’re reading this and haven’t seen the original, fair warning that spoilers are ahead because it’s impossible to review the sequel without talking about a significant plot development at the end of the first film.  No major spoilers for the second chapter will be shared but I strongly suggest you don’t see this one before you have caught up with the film that scared the beejebus out of audiences three years ago and fast-tracked a follow-up set to arrive May of 2020.  Now, exactly a year later, Paramount is cashing in on a big gamble that audiences wanted to wait and see this in theaters, and I’d be willing to bet this is the film that will be how many make their return to the movies.

Picking up so close to the end of A Quiet Place that you could nearly edit the two films together, returning writer/director John Krasinski cleverly finds a way for his now-tragically deceased character to make an appearance.  Beginning the film with a flashback to Day 1 of the invasion when alien creatures arrive from the sky and wreak havoc in a small town (and, apparently, the rest of the world), Krasinski parallels the opening of the predecessor with sly winks to locations and props that we know will be important hundreds of days from now.  This prologue is the first pot of water Krasinski lights a fire under and slowly brings to a boil. When it bubbles over it sets the stage for a heart stopping sequence with creature scares that come in unlikely directions at unexpected times. 

Once we get into the proper film, after Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns) and her children Regan (Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck), Marcus (Noah Jupe, Holmes & Watson), and a days-old newborn, ensure the creatures on their property are cleared out they quickly realize they need to leave the protection of their farm for a nearby outpost.  Hoping for friendly inhabitants, perhaps a townsperson they used to know like Emmett (Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins), they make the perilous journey in silence, arriving at an abandoned metalworks plant where a painful surprise awaits.  It’s here I’ll stop and save the rest for you to discover, noting that Krasinski almost out of necessity has to find a way to split the family up but devises a believable way to do so.  In doing this, he’s able to stage several sequences where he uses some extraordinarily effective editing to hop between narratives and raise the blood pressure of everyone watching.

What I appreciated quite a lot about the film in general is that it sidesteps many of the duties that sequels feel obliged to fulfill.  True, you see more of the creatures in this one, but only because they’ve already been introduced so the mystery of them is gone. Why continue to hide them?  However, Krasinski doesn’t make it a priority to explain why the monsters have come to Earth or fashion a lot of backstory into the proceedings and that’s because it doesn’t matter one iota.  Why they are there doesn’t matter as much as what is happening in the here and now.  We actually don’t learn anything we didn’t already know about the beasts and why would/should we?  There isn’t time to waste studying them, they just need to be stopped.

Stopping them requires a brave spirit and Krasinski (Aloha) recognized that Simmonds is a natural choice to step into the driver’s seat for this round.  While Blunt is still a warm, commanding presence in the movie and earns the top-billing she receives, she’s less of the natural central figure.  That aura transfers to Simmonds and, to a lesser extent, Jupe.  While Jupe has shown great acumen for unlocking unique personalities in the children he’s played, his character feels less of a priority to develop than the others.  Simmonds makes up a lot of ground Jupe doesn’t cover as she rises to a challenge put forth early on which takes Regan out of her comfort zone.  Anyone coming into the dynamic that was so tight in the first film is at a disadvantage but with his bushy hair and beard, Murphy is more than an acceptable stand-in for Krasinski as a neighbor who has had a very different experience of survival than the Abbott family.

Not all sequels need to tread new ground, that’s why they are sometimes called Part II which insinuates it’s a continuation of a previous iteration.  Krasinski has exceeded expectations and given audiences exactly what they asked for, maybe even a little more.  There’s an ample number of scares to be had, some of the cheap jump variety (watch out for those random flocks of birds!) but most of the creeping flesh kind that make you squirm in your seat from anxiety.  I’ve a feeling Krasinski has a third one of these in him and if I were Paramount, I’d give him the time, money, and freedom to make it when it fits into his schedule.  If A Quiet Place Part II is any indication, it’s loud and clear he’s worth the wait.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Quiet Place Part II

Synopsis:  Forced to venture into the unknown, the Abbott family realize the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.

Release Date:  March 20, 2020

Thoughts: When A Quiet Place debuted in 2018, it became a sleeper hit and earned co-writer/director/star John Krasinski major kudos in Hollywood for delivering an old-fashioned thriller that capitalized on restraint.  One strong point about it is that is Krasinksi and his team wrapped things up so well it felt like a sequel wasn’t necessary…but you know how a movie studio desperate for a non-franchise hit reacts when a minor budgeted film strikes gold.  Yep…another chapter of A Quiet Place is completed and waiting for its March release and here is the first full trailer.

Sneaking a small teaser into theaters several weeks ago, I sort of thought that might be a nice place to end the marketing and preserve some mystery.  After all, we knew who was coming back (Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns who nearly earned an Oscar nomination for the first film), Noah Jupe (Ford v. Ferrari) and Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck) so aside from that we didn’t totally need the lengthy preview that Paramount just released.  If you haven’t seen the first film or want to keep Part II spoiler-free, I suggest you refrain from watching this…as nicely put together as it is, I’m not sure I wanted to know certain things before seeing the finished movie.

Movie Review ~ Mary Poppins Returns


The Facts
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Synopsis: Decades after her original visit, the magical nanny returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael’s children through a difficult time in their lives.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The journey to make Mary Poppins in 1964 was so fraught with tension and hard feelings that it’s no wonder it took 54 years for a sequel to make its way into theaters. If you don’t believe me, check out the entertaining Saving Mr. Banks for a little history lesson…however revisionist it may seem to be.  What child didn’t grow up seeing the titular magical nanny educate the Banks children and bring order to their family while teaching the biggest lesson of all to their workaholic father? I vividly remember seeing it not only in my house but at school on special occasions when they’d get out an old reel-to-reel projector and gigantic screen.

Over the years the popularity of P.L. Travers creation never really went away, even inspiring a long-running West End and Broadway musical that’s now making the rounds in a community theater near you. You can’t keep the old girl down and in 2018 she’s returned in an all new sequel that’s a surprisingly spry near-equal to its half-century old predecessor. The Walt Disney Company took a huge gamble in dusting off this treasured property and turning it over to director Rob Marshall and it has paid off handsomely; Mary Poppins Returns is a true movie event, a hard-working winning combination of fantasy, music, and heart-tugging emotion.

It’s been thirty years since Jane and Michael Banks spent a wondrous few weeks with Mary Poppins but life at #17 Cherry Tree Lane has moved on. Having recently lost his wife, Michael (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) now lives in his family home with his three children and gets the occasional visit from Jane (Emily Mortimer, Hugo) who has followed in her mother’s footsteps and continued the fight for equality for all. When the bank threatens to foreclose on his house and gives them less than a week to come up with the money all hopes seems lost…until a familiar figure appears from the sky.

Making her grand entrance clutching a kite, Mary Poppins (the divine Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place) has lost none of her dry wit and charming aloofness. She soon sets up shop with the new generation of Banks children while keeping her eye on Jane and Michael as they scramble to find a lost set of bank bonds that could get them out of debt. While their father worries about their future, Mary Poppins helps his children adjust to the present through adventures in undersea realms, at the upside-down dwelling of Mary’s cousin Topsy (a wack-a-doodle Meryl Streep, Hope Springs), and in the painting on a porcelain pot.

Having directed the film versions of Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods, Marshall knows his way around a movie musical but this is far and away his most accomplished and polished work to date. With the old-school appeal of a Hollywood song and dance spectacular, Mary Poppins Returns is the kind of throwback everything-including-the-kitchen-sink experience they just don’t bother to make anymore. Disney and Marshall had the good sense to give audiences exactly what they want in a sequel to a cherished classic…and then some. While not a remake of Mary Poppins per se, it does seem to hit the same beats as that earlier film even down to a splendid animated sequence and a visit to one of her zany relatives.

Even if Marc Shaiman’s songs don’t stay in the brain quite as well as the tunes created by the Sherman Brothers, they feel like they exist within the same universe and are performed with exuberance by Blunt and company. There’s no ‘Feed the Birds’ level accomplishment here but ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ stirs the right amount of feelings and ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’ is a clever bit of wordplay that the Sherman Brothers would get a kick out of. Streep’s oddball ‘Turning Turtle’ is something only she could pull off and Whishaw’s plaintive ‘A Conversation’ gives the actor a nice jumping off point early on in the film. Marshall and his co-choreographer John DeLuca also nicely avoid the trappings of filming huge musical numbers for the screen by letting the audience see the entire company dancing rather than always cutting into close-ups. ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ arrives late in the game but is a true show-stopper.

If the film makes one miscalculation, it’s in the misappropriation of time given to Lin-Manuel Miranda (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Jack, a lamplighter friend of Mary’s that’s a stand-in for Bert the chimney sweep from the first film. Whereas Dick Van Dyke’s Bert was someone that occasionally popped up in the action, it feels like Jack is shoehorned into the plot at every turn and it begins to take away from the time we want to spend with Mary and the Banks family. At times, Jack becomes the driving force of play and that made the movie feel like it was veering too far in the wrong direction.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Blunt commands the movie in no uncertain terms whenever she’s even close to the screen. I personally think Blunt is the perfect choice for any part she turns up in but here there’s a real chemistry between actress and role that is rarely seen. No one is going to erase the performance of Julie Andrews from our memory and Blunt doesn’t even try to recreate that particular take on the role. Smartly choosing to give Mary an updated look that sets her apart from her 1964 appearance, Blunt’s Mary is just as staunch as Andrews but doesn’t soften quite as easily. She’s also riotously funny with her droll line readings and incredulity at the state of affairs she encounters upon her return. Andrews won an Oscar for her work and I expect Blunt will get a nomination as well.

Filling out the cast is Colin Firth (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) playing a rare villain role as a bank manager eager to claim the Banks house, Julie Walters (Paddington) as put-upon maid Ellen, David Warner (Waxwork) as Admiral Boom, and Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) as a wise Balloon Lady with a magical touch of her own. Then there’s Van Dyke (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) dancing up a storm and keep your eyes out for the original Jane Banks, Karen Dotrice, making a cameo outside of Cherry Tree Lane.

Bound to rake in some serious money this holiday season, Mary Poppins Returns is that rare sequel that feels like it wasn’t done for the money but for the greater good. I know it’s all about the bottom line but this is one film that feels like it could heal what ails you…even if just for two and a half hours.

Movie Review ~ A Quiet Place

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family lives an isolated existence in utter silence, for fear of an unknown threat that follows and attacks at any sound.

Stars: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds

Director: John Krasinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: It would be a smart movie for theaters to support concession-free screenings of A Quiet Place because nothing will ruin this movie more than a noisy candy-wrapper or your neighbor munching on a tray of nachos. It would also save the clean up afterwards from people absent-mindedly spilling their popcorn in fright. Director John Krasinki’s slick, tension filled freak-out of a horror film makes for a monumentally entertaining movie-going experience and one that will, I think, hold-up on repeat viewings.

Set several years in the future, the world has been invaded by blind creatures that hunt by sound. Vicious and apt to strike without warning, they’ve decimated populations and driven the few survivors into hiding.   When A Quiet Place opens, we meet Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow), Lee (Krasinski, Aloha), and their children as they venture into town in search of medication. Speaking in sign language and walking barefoot to avoid any unwanted noise, the family clearly knows the rules to abide by in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves from three monsters that roam the area.

Back on their farm, Lee and Evelyn try to keep a sense of normalcy amidst the terror. Son Marcus (Noah Jupe, Suburbicon) and daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck) play Monopoly with cotton balls and felt cutouts and are silently homeschooled by Evelyn while Lee continues to try to contact the outside world. They build a nightly bonfire on top of their silo and watch for other sequestered families to do the same, desperately trying to remain connected with those in similar situations.

Originally conceived as a totally dialogue free film, screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck team with Krasinski on a screenplay that is still light on dialogue but one that winds up saying a lot. There’s no backstory provided, save for brief glimpses of newspaper clippings and a white board filled with information on the creatures. Audiences are left to fill in the blanks and much credit should go to Kransiski for handling these large chunks of exposition in a decidedly un-fussy fashion.

At 90 minutes including credits, the film makes the most of its short running time by maximizing on sustained bursts of tension. This is one where you can’t help but find yourself white-knuckling your armrest (or your companion’s arm) as scene after scene ratchets up the fear level until it’s almost unbearable to watch. You’ll cringe at every creak in the floor, wince when you can see an unwanted noise on the horizon, and fight the urge to yelp when Krasinki introduces several well-timed jump scares.

Beautifully photographed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far from the Madding Crowd) and scored with restrained flair by the usually bombastic Marco Beltrami (World War Z), Krasinski has assembled a talented group on both sides of the camera. Spouses in real life, Blunt and Krasinki have an easy chemistry that feels unforced, as does their nurturing relationships with their children. With several high profile roles in 2017, Jupe continues to impress and works well opposite the striking Simmonds who is actually deaf. The film benefits from Simmonds mesmerizing presence in every way, often switching to her perspective by having the sound completely removed.

Along with the scares, the movie has a few unexpected twists along the way that I wouldn’t dare reveal here. One happens fairly early on and others emerge naturally as the film goes for broke in its relentless final act. Though the creatures are the product of solid special effects, Krasinski keeps them largely out of full view until the conclusion. There’s a lot of work done in close quarters, further heightening the immediacy of the danger facing this family.

A worthy spree of scares, A Quiet Place may face some criticism for being too simple of a set-up and execution but I was bowled over by Krasinski’s efforts. Add to that a quartet of dynamite performances and more jolts than you’d imagine and you have a film that’s easy to recommend. Just make sure you keep a firm grip on your popcorn.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The Girl on the Train

girl_on_the_train

Synopsis: Rachel spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until one morning she sees something shocking happen there and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds

Release Date:  October 7, 2016

Thoughts: For several years now I find myself thinking at the end of most movies “Emily Blunt should have been in this…Emily Blunt makes everything good.” and it’s an opinion I hold fast to. Luckily, Blunt (Into the Woods) is front and center in this new trailer for the highly anticipated big screen adaptation of the bestselling novel The Girl on the Train.  Sure it shares not only an October release date but a plot kinship with 2014’s nice and twisted Gone Girl, but if this first look is any indication (and, I know, it’s not) Blunt could find herself with an Oscar nomination like Rosamund Pike did for Gone Girl.  Plus…I mean, look at the cast: Allison Janney (The Way, Way Back), Justin Theroux (Wanderlust), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Lisa Kudrow (Neighbors)…just a roster of dependable, stellar talent. October is a great month for mystery and I’m ready for my ticket to ride this Train.

Movie Review ~ Sicario

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I can’t tell you how much fun it is to watch a movie by a filmmaker that knows how to turn the screws on an unsuspecting audience. There are moments in Sicario where Denis Villeneuve seems to be taking an almost perverse delight in extending the suspense until it becomes almost unbearable…making for refreshing and exhilarating viewing.

The Quebec born filmmaker made a splash in 2010 with the Oscar nominated drama Incendies, before turning in two very different releases in 2013.  First up was the haunting (and unjustly Oscar ignored) Prisoners, a showcase not only for Villeneuve’s flair for suspense and cinematographer Roger Deakins brilliant cinematography but for Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal’s towering lead performances.  Made before Prisoners but released after was another collaboration with Gyllenhaal, Enemy, and while it was fairly inaccessible and barely made a blip on the art-house circuit it once again demonstrated that Villeneuve knew exactly what he was doing.

Villeneuve and Deakins are matched again in Sicario (the Spanish word for hitman) and it’s yet another cinematic trophy both men can add to their growing wall of accolades.  A harrowing and terrifying look into the war on drugs, the movie pulls no punches and leaves no dark corner unexplored.

The plot of Sicario is so complex and labyrinthine that the full attention of the audience is pretty much required to keep up with Taylor Sheridan’s serpentine script, a lean and mean story that doesn’t have an ounce of excess fat on it.  You’re advised to note everything that’s said because even the smallest detail could play a factor into what will transpire when an FBI agent gets involved with a covert operation involving drug kingpins and Mexican cartels.

I’m of the mindset that every movie needs more Emily Blunt in it.  Often I’ll be watching a film and just wonder what Blunt would have done with various female (or male) roles that may not be quite up to snuff.  Easily transitioning from comedic second-fiddle (The Five-Year Engagement) to action second-fiddle (Looper) to dramatic lead (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) before the 2014 one-two punch of Edge of Tomorrow and Into the Woods, with Sicario Blunt may just have the best performance (and first Oscar nomination) of her burgeoning career.  As principled FBI agent Kate Macer, Blunt has to show a lot of different colors throughout the film and she does so with believable skill.  When she’s offered a chance to volunteer for an undisclosed purpose on a government task force, she sees it as an opportunity for advancement and as a way to help right the wrongs she sees on a daily basis.

Lead into uncertain darkness by CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin, Oldboy, seemingly getting most of his performance from an ever-present wad of gum), Kate finds herself traveling between Mexico and the U.S. for several nail-biting missions that blur the line between the good guys and the bad guys.  It isn’t long before she’s in over her head, but her pride keeps her treading water even while the sharks start to circle her.

One of those sharks may be Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, Guardians of the Galaxy, in his best role since his Oscar win for Traffic), even though he’s supposedly on her side.  His motives for tagging along seem unclear and the movie never gets so far ahead of the audience that we know the answer before Kate does.  Even Kate’s partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, Kick-Ass 2) has loyalty issues that are tested along the way, putting Kate on an island by herself where only she is responsible for her survival.

Sicario feels very timely, very now and its situations are ripped from the very real headlines of the war on drugs that rages on along the U.S. border.  A nerve-shredding trip to Juárez, MX finds bodies hanging from highway overpasses as both the marking of certain territory and as a warning for all who dare enter…it’s a city of horrors that are grounded in a frightening reality.

Villeneuve starts the movie with a corker of an opener and only accelerates from there.  Aided by staggering cinematography from Deakins (Skyfall, The Secret Garden) and the droning score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything), there’s a sense of dread in nearly every frame.  That can make for a solemn viewing experience but paired with an intriguing story and taut performances, it’s ultimately a thrilling thrill ride of a movie.  From start to finish, top to bottom, it’s excellent.  Sicario is why we go to movies.

The Silver Bullet ~ Sicario

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Synopsis: In the lawless border area stretching between the U.S. and Mexico, an idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elite government task force official to aid in the escalating war against drugs

Release Date:  September 18, 2015

Thoughts: Back in 2013 I placed director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners on my best of the year list and while his 2014 follow-up, Enemy, didn’t rank quite as high in my book it still showed a filmmaker with dexterity, definitely someone to keep an eye on.

Villeneuve’s 2015 offering is Sicario, a taut-looking thriller following an FBI agent (Emily Blunt, Into the Woods) as she travels to the dark underside of drug trafficking along the U.S. border.  Villeneuve has demonstrated a thrilling style for these kind of tense character studies and, while I hadn’t heard of Sicario before catching this trailer, it’s quickly risen to one of my most anticipated movies of the year.  I think Blunt has demonstrated that she can nimbly balance her tough side (Edge of Tomorrow) with lighter turns (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) but this could be her true break-through role alongside Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice) and Josh Brolin (The Goonies).  Keep your eyes peeled for this one.

Movie Review ~ Into the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tammy Blanchard, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If there’s one take-away from the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s Into the Woods it would be that director Rob Marshall proves once again that it’s possible to transition a stage-bound work quite nicely to the silver screen.  As he did with his Oscar-winning Chicago (which, to be fair, was a far trickier beast to wrangle), Marshall brings a sense of wonderful theatricality to the proceedings that helps keep a saggy second act afloat.

Arriving on the heels of the disappointing remake/reboot of Annie, the first 75 minutes or so of Into the Woods is a gleefully wry take on the fairy tales we all grew up with.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) spunky as all get-out, even when faced with a zoot-suited Wolf (Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger) intent on making her his next meal.  Depp is, pardon the pun, howlingly bad in his brief cameo and you’ll be glad to know that his total screen time amounts to about 5 minutes…which still feels too long.

We also get Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) fresh-faced and clarion voiced even under a pile of soot.  Kendrick has true musical theater chops and Marshall gives her a wonderful moment to shine in a delightfully reimagined “On the Steps of the Palace” which takes place in a bit of suspended time as Cinderella ponders her next move.

Then there’s the Baker (James Corden, One Chance) and his wife (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) so desperate for a child they agree to fetch items for a next-door Witch (Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) who promises in return to have the ‘curse reversed’.  Venturing into the woods (a-ha!) to find the items they run into Little Red, Cinderella, as well as a pre-Beanstalk Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and a variety of other storybook figures.

It’s within the first half of the film that the best scene arrives featuring two puff-chested Princes (Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Broadway newcomer Billy Magnussen) hysterically belaboring their romantic entanglements (one with Cinderella, one with Rapunzel) while traipsing around a waterfall.  It’s the crown jewel of a film sparkles quite a lot.

Then something happens…and if we were in a theater I would say it was Intermission.

You see, it’s in the second half of the film that I found the same sort of problems I have with the stage show.  I know that the whole point of the second act of Into the Woods is to show what happens “after happily ever after” and that’s all well and good but where the stage show becomes somewhat intriguingly heavy handed the screen musical loses its spark and never fully recovers.

That’s due in some small part to the ‘Disney-fication’ of the film.  With the House of Mouse forking over the dough for funding certain adjustments were necessitated and that includes softening of more than a few rough edges that helped define the stage musical.  Now, certain tragedies that helped drive the musical to a conclusion onstage are rather toothless here…with some changes downright confusing from a narrative point of view.  Even die-hard fans of the show may be left scratching their heads wondering what just happened.

Were the performances not so strong, this type of late in the game mishap may have spelled certain doom for Marshall and company but he’s assembled a frothy cast with several unexpected delights.  Streep is, of course, right on the money with her hag witch popping up (and in and out) at just the right moments.  She eschews the delivery of any previous Witch and makes the part wholly her own.  I question the decision in the second half to give her a peculiar set of buck-tooth veneers that have a worrisome impact on her speech but otherwise she looks and sounds exactly how you’d imagine.

The roly-poly Corden and ethereal Blunt make a nice pair and the two play off of each other quite nicely.  Both have pleasant voices with Blunt the real surprise as she tackles the difficult passages Sondheim created.  Crawford, Mauzy, and Magnussen acquit themselves nicely but as the film progressed I found that Pine’s bo-hunk royal, with his affected upper-crust accent, didn’t work for me.  Pine takes the cartoon-y nature of his character a bit too far and Marshall should have reined him in a bit.

With a gorgeous production design (the majority of the film was shot in a man-made forest) and Colleen Atwood’s trusty duds the film looks like a fairy tale come to life.  Even with a slower second half the film doesn’t feel long and breezes by as fast as Sondheim’s score.  Worth a trip into the theater.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though some have turned their noses up at Stephen Sondheim’s musical being given the big screen treatment by Walt Disney Studios, this final trailer for Into the Woods looks positively charming. Considering the budget was “only” 40 million dollars, I’m happy to see that a lot of that money was seemingly spent on actual sets and not some CGI created world for the impressive roster of actors to play out Sondheim and James Lapine’s sly take on the fairy tales we all grew up with. Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) sounds like a perfect Witch and while I’m not too keen on the notion of Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) as Cinderella or Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) as a zoot-suit wearing Wolf, I’ve got a feeling director Rob Marshall will wrangle this into one enchanting evening.