Movie Review ~ Awake

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a sudden global event wipes out all electronics and takes away humankind’s ability to sleep, chaos quickly begins to consume the world. Only Jill, an ex-soldier with a troubled past, may hold the key to a cure in the form of her own daughter.

Stars: Gina Rodriguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher, Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, Shamier Anderson

Director: Mark Raso

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Blame Sandra Bullock and that darn Bird Box but ever since the 2018 film premiered on Netflix and created a massive amount of publicity for the streaming service, a number of imitators centered on a massive world event have tried to capture that film’s same energy.  It’s not that the original movie was all that special, but it hit at just the precise moment when audiences needed that particular kind of escapist entertainment and didn’t mind some of its sillier plot mechanics.  The point was, it was led by an A-list, Oscar-winning actress who may have brought people in initially, but who eventually stuck around for the effective scares.  Any attempt to duplicate that would be a bit pointless…but oh did people try.

At first glance, you may look at the new Netflix film Awake and chalk it up to another Bird Box wannabe, but any doubt of its intentions wears off within the first few minutes and you realize this is no mere imitation but a different kind of beast with its own plan of attack.  Like Bird Box, it can’t quite figure out how to untangle itself from third act problems and takes a bit of a nosedive just when it should be accelerating to the finish line. Up until that point, it’s a breathless thriller that succeeds on the merit of the performances and the skill of the filmmaking.

Recovering veteran and single mom Jill (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire, an excellent actress that always seems to be one role shy of truly breaking through) is putting her life back together working as a security guard for a government run psychiatric unit while repairing the fractured relationship with her two children.  While she occasionally lifts unused pills from her job so she can sell them in order to make ends meet, she’s largely on the level, which is beginning to earn back trust from her former mother-in-law (Frances Fisher, Titanic) and daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblat, A Bad Moms Christmas), though her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos, What If) remains wary that his mom has truly turned over a new leaf.

After a solar flare creates an enormous electromagnetic pulse, wiping out all electronic devices and means of transportation, at first the family believes they need to just wait out this incredible inconvenience.  However, soon it becomes apparent that the unexplained phenomena triggered something else within the human race, rendering them unable to sleep.  Returning to her workplace, Jill finds the unit in chaos and her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) scrambling to relocate their operation to The Hub, a secret facility where they can study what has happened and, using a mysterious woman who has been able to fall asleep, figure out a way to fix it. 

What Jill fails to tell them is that Matilda can also sleep, something her mother-in-law has already figured out and told their local pastor (Barry Pepper, Crawl) who, in turn, has told his congregation.  Already whipped into a frenzy due to their lack of sleep, the prospect of having one in their midst that might hold the key to getting back their slumber becomes too much for them and violence erupts.  That’s about where Awake reaches the first of its numerous points of no return and as an audience member you’re going to have to either love it or leave it as Jill and her family go on the run from all kinds of sundry sorts over the next 90 minutes. Encountering car thieves (two different sets of them!), a highway full of nude cultists, and, in one of the film’s eeriest looking moments, a small town with streets full of wandering prison inmates in orange jumpsuits, there’s danger down every highway for this household. 

It’s a lot to handle, but Canadian director Mark Raso (who wrote the film along with his brother Joseph) keeps the pieces moving in a rather orderly fashion the majority of the time.  Raso isn’t above putting young Matilda in as much danger as possible but managing to do it in a way that has a sort of cinematic thrill to it.  That sounds weird. Let me explain. There’s a scene where Jill, Matilda, Noah, and a passenger who I won’t reveal are all in a car and attacked from the outside. In one camera move (or meant to look like one) we are inside the car, front and center, for the attack and it feels real and raw.  All this intensity works up unto a point near the end and that’s when Awake veers off course into territory that’s more messy than structured.  The final act may be a letdown after such a promising start, but it doesn’t completely overshadow the skill in which Raso constructs the setup.

Rumors abound that a Bird Box 2 is happening sometime in the future but until then we are going to have to be satisfied with films that run a similar route to that earlier movie.  Awake is one of the better Netflix films to arrive and wholly worth keeping your eyes open for. I don’t believe the Rasos intended to create a film to outpace the popular Netflix film Bird Box, but they’ve wound up with one that could easily be mentioned in the same breath and draw some favorable comparisons. 

Movie Review ~ Woman in Gold

woman_in_gold_ver3
The Facts:

Synopsis: Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Tatiana Maslany, Charles Dance, Max Irons, Frances Fisher

Director: Simon Curtis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:

Review: For Oscar winning star Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold probably looked like a sure bet.  Here was a true life tale of a woman battling painful memories from her childhood in her quest to take back what is lawfully hers and teaming with a young upstart lawyer to do so.  Throw in some courtroom drama and a lovely series of period-set flashback sequences and the Dame was likely flashing that wickedly smug smile of hers to any passerby on the street.

So how does Woman in Gold come across so phony, so airless, so totally beneath her talents?  It’s all in the surroundings, my friends…all in the surroundings.

As an attorney introduced to Maria Altmann (Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey, RED 2) by a mutual acquaintance (his mother, played by Frances Fisher, who hopefully pocketed a nice paycheck for her five minutes of screen time) Ryan Reynolds (A Million Ways to Die in the West, Ted) spends the first half of the film playing second fiddle to Mirren’s old biddy of a client.  She wants to reclaim a series of paintings by family-friend Gustav Klimt, the well regarded artist responsible for the painting known as Woman in Gold.  Maria knows the titular character as her aunt Adele, a beauty that died tragically young but with a visage immortalized in the gold leaf heavy work.

Forced out of her home and homeland by Nazi invaders, she came to know that the paintings that adorned the walls of the stately apartment owned by her wealthy family were seized and later displayed in one of Austria’s most renowned galleries.  As a way to retrieve some semblance of a family legacy, Maria joins the famous legal battle in the late 90s that sought to restore the countless works of art stolen by the Nazis to the Jewish families they originally belonged to.

No doubt about it, all the elements for a finely tuned drama were available to everyone involved but what a mess they make of it.  From the tin-earned dialogue courtesy of Alexi Kaye Campbell to the ham-handed direction of Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) the final product is a teeter-totter of a film with some very good elements unable to overcome the larger weaknesses that weigh the whole thing down.

The first problem is Mirren’s co-star.  Reynolds has never been what you’d call an emotional heavy in his roster of roles up until now, trading on his good looks and frat boy “charm” in place of lines delivered with any semblance of sincerity.  Reynolds has carved a nice little career in comedies and the occasional superhero bomb film (Green Lantern, X:Men Origins: Wolverine) but his dramatic roles have been scarce.  There’s clearly a reason for that.

A bizarre party of random familiar faces dot the supporting cast, most of whom can’t make heads or tails of their roles which are little more than walking plot devices for Reynolds and Mirren to do their thing.  I have to believe that most of Katie Holmes’s role was removed in editing…how else can you explain her character (Reynolds’s wife) dropping in only to have the occasional child and reciting lines that, and I’m paraphrasing slightly here, “Here’s what you’re going to do.  You’re going to drop me off at the hospital so I can have this baby and then you’re going to Washington D.C. because it’s the right thing to do.”  The scenes between Holmes (Batman Begins) and Reynolds are awkward to sit through because they’re meant to be emotionally driven yet the film never establishes anything about them as a couple so we don’t care about what they’re going through.

Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Elizabeth McGovern turn up as various judges that Mirren and Reynolds appear before.  Pryce is supposed to be a member of the Supreme Court but for the life of me I can’t figure out which one.  McGovern, the wife of the director, obviously did her husband a solid and donned a robe for her brief, yet enjoyable, cameo.  There’s also Brit Charles Dance (Dracula Untold) doing the most head-scratching Kentucky-fried accent you’ve ever heard and several minor doughy-faced European males feebly sketched as villains that won’t relinquish Maria’s beloved painting.

The good news is that a good chunk (though not nearly enough) of the run time is devoted to Maria’s flashbacks to her youth when she’s played by Tatiana Maslany (The Vow).  Not only does Maslany look strikingly like Mirren but she makes it feel like Mirren modeled her performance off of Maslany and not the other way around.  These flashbacks are where the real gold lies in a film that’s otherwise very paint by numbers.  Another positive to mention is that these flashbacks are almost entirely in German, resisting Hollywood’s penchant for being afraid of using subtitles.

Had the movie been set in the past with brief glimpses of the present, Woman in Gold may have been an overall better film.  Saddled with weak performances (Maslany and Mirren notwithstanding), a hokey-pokey script that feels like the first draft of an intro to screenwriting assignment, and a director that can’t make lemonade out of these lemons, it’s a pure pyrite affair.

Movie Review ~ The Host

44

host_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: When an unseen enemy threatens mankind by taking over their bodies and erasing their memories, Melanie will risk everything to protect the people she cares most about, proving that love can conquer all in a dangerous new world.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Frances Fisher

Director: Andrew Niccol

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: TBD

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Let’s just face the facts –Stephenie Meyer just isn’t a very good writer.  No matter how much spit shine you put on the film adaptation of her novels you can’t escape that reality.  The four Twilight novels (and subsequent five films) were a worldwide phenomenon…but these always had a shelf life on them.  Her other literary endeavor is The Host and though it was marginally better received in the book community, it’s yet another half-baked saga concerning a love triangle and the impact that has on a continuing battle between two species.

To its credit, The Host is a bit loftier in the message it’s trying to convey but for every inch the film moves forward in making a point about a peaceful society, the sappy romance elements drag it back a few feet.  Worse, the film has to overcome more than a few silly plot devices such as a character having an ongoing internal dialogue with a secondary personality living inside her head. 

If that last statement had you going back and reading it again…maybe I should back up.  The Host is set in the not too distant future where an alien race has invaded our planet and implanted “souls” in our bodies.  These souls are alien life forms from distant planets that are here to restore peace and order to a troubled world.  Problem is, to do so they use our bodies as vessels…destroying our original personality and replacing it with one from the souls.  Though they can access our memories, mankind has become a prisoner in their own bodies. 

Some humans have developed a way to fight their host and that’s where we find Melanie Stryder (Oscar nominee Ronan) as she is implanted with a soul (that calls itself Wanderer…hey…at least it isn’t Renesmee!) that she battles with and eventually learns to coexist with as she leads her physical body to the desert where a small band of freedom fighters await her.  It also helps that her uncle (a surprisingly game Hurt), her brother (Chandler Canterbury), and her love interest (Irons, son of Jeremy) are there as well.

Pursued by a vengeful Seeker (Kruger…doing her best Charlize Theron impression) as Melanie/Wanderer joins the fight, another love interest (Abel) comes into play…creating not so much a love triangle but a rectangle of feelings.  While the film isn’t as dewy eyed or groan-inducing as the Twilight films, there are more than a few moments when your eyes will get a nice workout from rolling around in your head.

In his previous films  Gattaca, Simone, and In Time, director Niccol has created a steely sterile version of the future and those same elements are on display here.  All of the “bad guy” cars are shiny silver (even the helicopters) and everything about the enemies is in perfect alignment.  That contrasts nicely with the rough edges of the remaining un-hosted humans who look like refugees from a Mad Max movie.  Shot in some fantastic vistas in New Mexico, the film looks expensive and has some above average special effects.

It’s too bad that the script doesn’t match up to the production values.  Adapting Meyer’s novel was probably a chore and I think Niccol did his best with it…but an overabundance of cliché situations doesn’t give the film much room to breathe.  Ronan is a decent heroine, though like a groundhog her Louisiana accent only comes out to see its shadow before it retreats.  Irons and Abel are, if possible, blander love interests than the vampires and werewolves in Twilight and Kruger just doesn’t fit the ice queen persona she’s tasked to play.  Only Hurt seems to come out of this unscathed…maybe because he knows not to take everything so very seriously.

When all is said and done I’m glad that The Host was a standalone novel and not one we will see countless sequels for the next few years.  With the recent released (and much better) Beautiful Creatures totally bombing, I’ve a feeling this one will be a hard sell to audiences who are exhausted from tween romances.  For all its sleek effects and occasional on the money social observance, The Host winds up feeling lackluster and sluggish and not the satisfying movie experience that it could have been

The Silver Bullet ~ The Host – Trailer #2

host

Synopsis: A parasitic alien soul is injected into the body of Melanie Stryder. Instead of carrying out her race’s mission of taking over the Earth, “Wanda” (as she comes to be called) forms a bond with her host and sets out to aid other free humans.

Release Date: March 29, 2013

Thoughts:  Thankfully, the second trailer for The Host shows more plot points than the previous teaser released earlier this year.  Based on Stephenie Meyer’s novel (that was received much better than her Twilight tomes), I’m interested to see how this one develops.  It looks fairly run of the mill to me but I’ve enjoyed director Andrew Nicol’s work in the past — his cooly futuristic Gattaca is still a favorite – so there is some hope.  I’m hoping this is less lovey-dovey than The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 but having not read the novel I’m unsure of how similar the two films will be.