Synopsis: After being involuntarily discharged from the Army, James Harper joins a paramilitary organization to support his family in the only way he knows how. Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, Florian Munteanu, Kiefer Sutherland, Nina Hoss, Amira Casar, Fares Fares, J. D. Pardo Director: Tarik Saleh Rated: R Running Length: 103 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: The Contractor. The Contractor? Really? Will they ever learn? Here we go again with a more than decent film saddled with the most cardboard brown-colored title you can imagine, though it was filmed under one that had a little more flair. When actors Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gillian Jacobs signed on to Tarik Saleh’s muscle-y military film, it was for a script named Violence of Action. Still, it was not entirely descriptive or exemplary enough to set it far apart from the direct to video junk starring a washed-up fourth-billed actor from a late ‘90s cop show, but…at least it had some movement to it. The Contractor could be any movie.
Title qualms aside, and I had to put them aside, this is a surprisingly brisk and engaging action thriller that deservedly was bumped from a wide theatrical release in favor of a streaming debut. It doesn’t have the full-bodiness to warrant that trip to the cinema but fits nicely with the new niche carved out for starry vehicles that need a home. Orphaned by its original studio, Paramount snapped this one up, and they’ve made a wise purchase. While it won’t ever be high on the resume for anyone involved, it acquits itself nicely as an otherwise engaging action thriller that keeps moving and doesn’t sag under easy-to-spot oncoming twists.
Sidelined from service due to a bum knee, Special Forces Sergeant James Harper (Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) struggles to provide for his family and is watching the bills pile up. When he meets up with old army bud Mike (Foster, The Finest Hours), who appears to be living beyond his means, he finds out about Mike’s side work running covert jobs for Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners). Bringing his friend into the fold, Mike leaves out a few key details. James figures these out quickly as he’s thrown into a dangerous mission exposing shady alliances that put his life and the well-being of his wife (Jacobs, Life of the Party) and child in jeopardy.
Six years after their runaway hit Hell or High Water, Pine and Foster have skilled onscreen chemistry, making them an ideal pair. Director Saleh doesn’t have to spend much time establishing their history because both actors play their roles so convincingly that we don’t need a lot of backstories to understand their relationship. That takes The Contractor only so far, though, and eventually, audiences will have only the standard plot mechanics of J.P. Davis’ script to carry them forward. It’s not that Davis hasn’t crafted a strong three-act action-thriller; it’s just that nothing you can’t see coming a mile down the road happens.
Compelling enough to not feel like a waste of time but routine in overall execution, The Contractor is best when it’s letting Pine and Foster continue to develop their non-action dramatics. Once the mission takes over, interest starts to wane, and you’re in overly familiar territory. The upside? You’re likely watching it for free (or far less than usual prices) at home, so you haven’t sunk movie theater prices on the watch.
Synopsis: In 1666, a colonial town is gripped by a hysterical witch-hunt that has deadly consequences for centuries to come, and it’s up to teenagers in 1994 to try and finally put an end to their town’s curse, before it’s too late..
Stars: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia Rehwald, Jeremy Ford, Gillian Jacobs, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Sadie Sink, Ted Sutherland, Jordana Spiro, Michael Chandler
Director: Leigh Janiak
Running Length: 114 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: OK – here we are in the final week of Netflix’s bam-bam-bam release schedule for a trilogy of scary releases based on the books of R.L. Stine. Inspired by that author’s phenomenal roster of slim novels for young adults that everyone had tucked in their Jansport backpacks during the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the movies were pitched as an event saga for July and after the first two weeks I can say that I was truly looking forward to the final chapter. Unlike Part One and Part Two, Netflix made press wait a bit longer to take in Part Three, likely to keep some of the more revealing spoilers at bay, but you know I wouldn’t dare dampen your fun. With that in mind, if you haven’t yet seen either previous film you should steer clear of my review below because we’ll be covering the events of both movies.
Some weeks back I expressed a gnawing trepidation in my review of the first in the Fear Street trilogy, set in 1994, feeling that by the end I wasn’t sure how the subsequent two films would continue to hold viewer interest. That original film covered a lot of exposition that gave viewers a pile of backstory and overall history of the towns of Shadyside and Sunnyvale and the supposed witches curse that has haunted the land for over three hundred years. With Sunnyvale and its citizens prospering with horrible things happening to those in Shadyside, by 1994 it’s just accepted that the less popular province is simply the epitome of the wrong side of the tracks. After another killing spree puts the town on edge and high school flames Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) become involved with the witch’s curse, they watch as their friends fall victim to a bevy of resurrected killers from the past.
Thankfully, Part One was just an entertaining bit of groundwork that set the stage for the larger framework constructed during Part Two. Fashioned as more of a summer camp slasher movie than an outright continuation of the story that began in Part One, the 1978-set film was quite fun as we saw a possessed axe-wielding killer with a face covered by a burlap sack hack his way through the camp on a rampage. With only two once-bickering sisters to stop him, their sacrifice leads back into the 1994 present where Deena makes a connection to a time even further back than a previous decade. As we saw at the end of Part Two, by making contact with the earthly remains of Sarah Fier, Deena now has a psychic bond and is able to “see” the part of the Shadyside/Sunnyvale creation story they haven’t been teaching in school.
This origin story forms the basis for most of Part Three and once again director Leigh Janiak and her co-screenwriter Phil Graziadei have brought in a third, Kate Trefry, to help flesh out some of the finer story points. I’m so interested to see what the writing process for this was like because while there have been new writers on each film, there’s a collective voice and through line that has given them all a consistency and coherence. While we’ve seen these stories of a person transported back in time a million times before, this isn’t that. Deena isn’t “Deena” in the past, she actually “is” Sarah living her life. For all we know, everyone else is “seeing” the real Sarah Fier (Elizabeth Scopel) and we are only seeing the actress playing Deena because that’s a character/actress familiar to us. That’s also why actors from previous films (I’m not saying who) pop up, sometimes as veiled nods to who they play in earlier entries. Perhaps this suggests their family line predestines them to certain behavior…
Janiak and her writers clearly have thought this one out because while the solution becomes readily apparent upon the appearance of another modern-day character, it’s well-explained and carried forward when the timeline inevitably jumps again. When that happens, it’s another brilliant piece of ingenuity (and a clever way for Janiak to actually break the movie into a tetralogy right under our noses) and keeps the final act energy hurtling forward at breakneck speed. It does get a little Home Alone-y but I almost wouldn’t have wanted it any other way – it’s all in keeping with the spirit of all three films.
What fun this series has been and who knows, perhaps another project like this could get made and readied for next summer. While this wasn’t based on a particular R.L. Stine Fear Street book by name, there are definitely a long list of titles that could be chosen from if they needed inspiration for the future. They’d have to have this trilogy to contend with though, one that starts off strong and only gets better as it goes along.
Synopsis: Shadyside, 1978. School’s out for summer and the activities at Camp Nightwing are about to begin. But when another Shadysider is possessed with the urge to kill, the fun in the sun becomes a gruesome fight for survival.
Stars: Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Ryan Simpkins, Chiara Aurelia, Gillian Jacobs, McCabe Slye, Ted Sutherland, Drew Scheid, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr.
Director: Leigh Janiak
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Gotta start with a spoiler-alert right off the bat. If you haven’t watched Fear Street Part One: 1994, we’re going to be discussing a lot of plot points from that film here, so I suggest stop reading now.
Here we are in Week Two of Netflix’s fun, three-week schedule of releasing a trilogy of movies inspired by R.L. Stine’s classic novels. At the end of last week’s film, poor Sam had all sorts of witchy things possessing her and her girlfriend Deena was willing to do anything to save her from the curse of Sarah Fier. With friends Kate and Simon rather cruelly and gruesomely dispatched and with apparently no adults over forty residing in the town, Deena and her brother Josh call up the one townie they know might be able to help them. That would be the person that has survived an encounter with The Witch of Shadyside before…C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs, Come Play)
Now, here’s where the film actually picks up and meeting the character Jacobs is playing is an interesting introduction. While she was merely a voice at the end of 1994, offering a scant bit of advice to Deena, she’s front and center from the start in Part Two and director Leigh Janiak allows time for audiences to see how the recluse is living her life. A creature of routines (her entire life is set by a variety of alarm clocks around the house labeled with various mundane tasks), she keeps herself locked away and is obviously still frightened of…something. Of course, Deena and Josh easily find her house and have no trouble bursting in and instead of going full on panic attack at the teeth-gnashing growler demon Sam has become, C. Berman sits the two unpossessed teens down and calmly tells them how she faced Sarah Fier at Camp Nightwing in 1978 and lived to talk about it…and how her sister didn’t.
A rollicking summer camp straight out of every horror film of that early slasher film era, Camp Nightwing is all tube socks, lip gloss, athletic shorts, and friendship bracelets. The counselors are always smoking dope and finding ways to frolic while the campers are largely learning by example. Goodie two shoes counselor Cindy Berman (Emily Rudd) and her hunky boyfriend Tommy Slater (McCabe Slye, Destroyer) are the responsible ones while partiers like Alice (Ryan Simpkins) are of the lesser dependable variety. Cindy’s sister Ziggy (Sadie Sink) is also at Nightwing, but the siblings go together like oil and water leading them to keep their distance while Ziggy is pursued by counselor in training Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland)
When the camp nurse (Jordana Spiro, To the Stars) shockingly tries to slice Tommy, it’s the first of many weird occurrences that lead to a night of terror and bloodshed for the campers…again, all without any adult supervision. After one of the counselors becomes possessed with the urge to murder and does so with little care for age, race, or creed, it’s up to Cindy, Alice, Ziggy, and Nick, to kill or be killed before a rage-filled ancient torment can run its course through Camp Nightwing. Who actually lives out of this group is surprising and has an impact on the latter moments of the film, leading to a cliffhanger ending which will be resolved in the final chapter next week.
With a new Friday the 13th film stuck, likely for a considerable amount of time, in development hell, this second chapter in the Fear Street series is sure to satisfy those who have missed a blood-soaked summer camp shocker. It’s light on the T&A that saturated a number of slasher films but doesn’t hold back on the gore that helped define the taste of a generation of moviegoers and what they want to see in these particular types of genre entries. It plays far more like a stand-alone movie than the middle chapter of a trilogy and that signifies strong writing. It’s actually when it comes back around to the present story where the structure starts to wobble a bit. No matter, Fear Street Part Two 1978 builds strongly on what its predecessor had set into motion and gives the conclusion some excellent energy to start off with.
Review: Too often, it feels like we think of horror on a grander scale than it has to be. Why must everything be catered to the masses or to what a certain demographic wants to see on the big screen? Sometimes it’s nice to push play on a scary movie that feels like it was targeted for a particular group of viewers, maybe not even your own, but at least you come away with the impression the filmmaker(s) knows their audience they’re seeking screams from. The best place to find examples of this is in horror shorts that pop up on festival circuits, carefully curated bite-sized morsels that are compact in size but jam-packed with tension.
In recent years, a number of these shorts that were so well received at global festivals have caught the eye of studios looking for projects that aren’t going to cost them an arm and a leg to produce. After all, horror is the genre that regularly pays for itself in the opening weekend box office receipts so why not pick a young talent out of the crowd, give them their big break, and maybe make a little money out of the deal in the end? That’s how we came to get 2013’s Mama from director Andy Muschietti who would go on to direct the 2017 blockbuster remake of IT and it’s less-successful 2019 sequel. It’s also how David F. Sandberg expanded his 2013 freaky short Lights Out into a full-length 2016 film and parlayed that into directing gigs on the well-received Annabelle: Creation and hit superhero movie Shazam!.
Before Come Play crossed my desk, I’d never heard of Larry, the 2017 five-minute short from writer/director Jacob Chase that he expanded into this new film released from Focus Features and Amblin Partners. (You can watch it below) Knowing that a number of these short film inspirations would recreate or gently rework their original scenes in their longer film, I deliberately kept away from watching the short film until after and I’m glad I did. The short film is all about scares (and good ones, too) while Chase has struggled with the expansion of his idea, showing that not all shorts can make the leap to long-form and consistently maintain what made them so special to begin with. Admittedly, Come Play has its moments to admire and maintains a slick shine of a filmmaker with promise, but it’s lost a valuable simplicity of design in favor of efficiency of storytelling.
Young Oliver (Azhy Robertson, Marriage Story) is a non-verbal autistic who communicates chiefly through an app on his phone that speaks his words for him. This has created an attachment to the electronic device that is both regrettable and necessary at the same time. His deep dependency on his technology has even distracted him from the situation developing in his own home because his parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, Life of the Party) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr., Underwater) are in the middle of a separation. She’s frustrated from always being the enforcer of rules and watching Marty sweep in to be the “good” parent; he doesn’t want to say it, but deep down hasn’t fully accepted his son’s diagnosis.
Late at night, Oliver’s phone suddenly displays a new program, a story he can swipe through about an unhappy monster named Larry who has no friends. Curious to Larry’s tale of woe and feeling a sense of kinship to the friendless outsider, Oliver progresses through the e-book and the further he goes, the more strange things begin to happen around him. Lights flicker, objects move, a Snapchat filter picks up more than just Oliver’s face as he stands next to a dark closet…all leading to a fateful sleepover between Oliver and several kids from his class that normally bully him. The four boys also read the book to terrifying and lasting consequences.
Up until this point, Chase has built up a nice amount of suspense as Oliver is essentially stranded alone to face whatever evil entity Larry is. His dad has moved out and his mom doesn’t understand his fears, pushing him to socialize more for her benefit than his. Chase introduces some interesting dynamic between this mother-son relationship but never truly cracks the code, and sadly that’s mostly the fault of Jacobs who is completely miscast as Oliver’s overstressed mother. Her line readings are so bad and insincere you almost wonder if she was trying to make her character sarcastic and Chase or his editor cut the film incorrectly to make her look bad. It’s a performance that has a large impact in breaking the film in two, with Jacobs on one side and the rest of the cast on the other.
The more we learn about Larry the less the creature manifesting in front of us begins to make sense or follow whatever rules Chase has designed…if any are given at all. One moment he has set his sights on Oliver and the next, he’s after Marty at his nighttime job as a parking lot attendant. There are two scenes set here and they’re arguably the ones that will give you best case of the shivers…so it’s no coincidence the original short film was the inspiration for these passages. Strange, then, that Chase didn’t include the best scare from that short in his feature…because it was a doozy. You would think he’d at least include that.
There are some good things to report, though. Child actors can be the absolute worst but Chase lucked out with not one but four good kids cast in roles. I cannot imagine how impenetrable that sleepover scene would have been if those kids had been impossible to watch, but they play the dialogue and rising fear so well without becoming obnoxious that you have to applaud their performances. The scares are decent too, with a number of shocks that don’t come with loud music stings or unknown haunters jumping out at you – it’s often what you aren’t seeing or just the suggestion of a presence that sends you sliding down in your seat. As much as I disliked Jacobs, she’s part of a visual near the end that is truly nightmare-inducing.
The good news bad news here is that Come Play is overall a fine film and that’s why I’m rating it higher than you might think after reading the review. It stumbles a bit during its last act and doesn’t have a finale that feels fully explored but Chase has crafted a well-made, technically sound film if you’re stepping back and looking at the big picture. I missed a simpler brand of storytelling in favor of a deeper complexity with a “message” that made it more than it needed to be, but for the audience it is aiming to please I think it mostly makes it up the hill it chugs up for 90-some odd minutes. There’s definitely a spark in Chase that studios should explore and for a Halloween option new release, Come Play might be worth inviting your friends over for.
The original short film, Larry, from director Jacob Chase.
Review: I’ve got good news and bad news for you if you’re considering making a trip to the movies to see Life of the Party this Mother’s Day weekend. The bad news is that most of the jokes have been spoiled for you in the previews, the good news is that the two best jokes haven’t. A semi-refreshing twist on the old fish-out-of-water/parent-going-back-to-school storyline, this isn’t a movie out to reinvent the comedic wheel but it does manage to capably overcome initial tone problems. What results is a sweet, if completely predictable, comedy that has its heart and brain in the right place.
The third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), Life of the Party represents the best of their work together so far. Their first outing was 2014’s Tammy, a movie so godawful I don’t permit its name to be uttered in my presence. They bounced back in 2016 with The Boss, which found more humor, less aggravation, and an overall better script. Writing together allows the couple to play off McCarthy’s strengths but continues to show Falcone’s weakness as a director – I’d love to see what another director would do with one of their screenplays.
Frumpy housewife Deanna (McCarthy, Spy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh, Into the Storm) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) off for her last year of college when Dan announces he wants a divorce. He’s fallen in love with a realtor (Julie Bowen) and is selling their house, leaving Deanna without a home or an income. In a surge of confidence, Deanna decides to reenroll at the same college she dropped out of in her senior year 20 years earlier…the college her daughter now attends.
Going back to school to finish her archeology degree, Deanna finds that while the times have changed the people getting the college experience haven’t. There’s still the mean girl (Debby Ryan) who tears down anything she doesn’t deem cool, the parties are drunken ragers, the sorority sisters have the same doubt about their futures, and Deanna’s fear of public speaking hasn’t dissipated over the last two decades. That proves especially hard during the film’s funniest sequence by far, when Deanna has to give an oral presentation that quickly devolves into a sweaty, knee-buckling, nightmare.
Still, a few things in her homecoming to co-ed life catch her off-guard. Unexpected bonding with her daughter tops the list as well as a realization she can reclaim some of the years she feels were spent in a troubled marriage by returning to finish what she started. Then there’s the romance with Jack (Luke Benward), a younger frat boy which takes some surprisingly genuine turns as the movie progresses. Eventually, even with one nice twist involving Jack, the movie works toward its predictable conclusion yet even though you know where it’s all heading it’s not hard in the least to sit back and be entertained.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have moments that call for a markdown on the final grade. As is usually the case with these McCarthy/Falcone features, there’s an overabundance of periphery characters that serve no purpose to any of the characters or the story. Usually friends (or family!) of the director and star, these annoying additions pad the running time and bring down some of the solid funny framework that has been created. Even the usually dependable Maya Rudolph (The Way Way Back) is given far too long a leash as Deanna’s friend – I almost wonder what things would have looked like had Rudolph and the tightly wound and miscast Bowen had swapped roles. There’s also at least one too many sorority sisters for my money. And Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver, Stoker, and Stephen Root, Trumbo) could have been removed all together and no one would have been the wiser.
You also have to ding the couple for not editing their films better or providing information to fill in large gaps that go unexplained. It’s never clear until far too late how Deanna is paying for college or what hoops she had to jump through to get back to her studies in less than several weeks. Timelines are also fuzzy, with events either happening too close together or too spaced out and, as with most college movies, everyone seems to only go to one class or not attend at all.
Yet the film is getting high marks from me because even with all these nitpicks, there’s a certain whiff of clean air and good intentions that keep this one afloat. McCarthy again carries an entire film on her shoulders and while that might get exhausting after a while she’s got the boundless energy to pull out all the stops when called upon to do so. While she’s never one to shy away from physical stunts, this is another pleasant example of McCarthy’s continued maturing as a performer with her comedy coming from situational happenstance instead of corporeal humor. Whether she’s dancing in ‘80s-inspired couture, trashing a wedding reception, or performing alongside a pop star’s amusing cameo, there’s always a human being underneath it all.
Synopsis: When her husband suddenly dumps her, longtime dedicated housewife Deanna turns regret into re-set by going back to college – landing in the same class and school as her daughter.
Release Date: May 11, 2018
Thoughts: The smartest thing the makers of Life of the Party did was refrain from including the phrase “From the folks that brought you Tammy!” in their marketing materials. Yes, Melissa McCarthy (Spy) has reteamed with her husband Ben Falcone (Office Christmas Party) on another comedy but this one looks considerably less revolting…so there’s a glimmer of funny hope to be had. Reteaming for the third time (2016’s The Boss was another step in the right direction) Falcone directs a script he and McCarthy co-wrote and while it may seem a bit like the sorta-classic Rodney Dangerfield 1986 comedy Back to School, McCarthy has put her own shine on things. No McCarthy vehicle is complete without a scene of her getting knocked down and the trailer gets that one out of the way immediately so…spoiler alert! McCarthy’s been absent since the female-led Ghostbusters fizzled in 2016 but if Life of the Party is as lively as it looks it could get her back in Hollywood’s good graces.
Synopsis: A reporter’s dream of becoming a news anchor is compromised after a one-night stand leaves her stranded in downtown L.A. without a phone, car, ID or money – and only 8 hours to make it to the most important job interview of her life.
Release Date: April 25, 2014
Thoughts: I’ll let you in on a little secret…Elizabeth Banks is a secret weapon. I can recall more than a few movies featuring Banks that I haven’t cared for (like What to Expect When You’re Expecting) but am hard pressed to think of a performance of hers I haven’t liked. She was wasn’t overpowered by her daffy outfits in The Hunger Games and its sequel, showed off some range in People Like Us, and donned a producers cap for Pitch Perfect. Though the poster for April’s Walk of Shame is a ghastly mess, the trailer shows Banks comfortably in her comedic element…giving me hope that this R Rated comedy (co-starring the dependable James Marsden, Robot & Frank) will give Banks another chance to shine.