Movie Review ~ Awake

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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 ~ Kajillionaire


The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.

Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Diana Maria Riva, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf

Director: Miranda July

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in March I was getting to the point where I was considering limiting my screenings to no more than two a week in theaters, if that.  The process of getting home from work and having no time to catch my breath before heading out to a screening or finding a way to fit one in during the daytime was tough stuff, especially when you consider there was a full-time job and relationship that I had to prioritize.  Then there were the audiences which, as anyone that’s been to a movie in the last two years can attest, have been growing into a headstrong pack of rogue-texting, seat-kicking, popcorn-chomping, late-arriving, no-shame-about-it-talkers that proceed to treat their fellow movie-goers as witnesses to their showcase of bad behavior.  I know, I know…this is all “woe is me” and the kind of “spoiled critic”-type complaining I normally gag at, but my candle burning at both ends was about to melt away completely and my patience level was wearing thin.

Then this pandemic hit and I suddenly found myself in an audience of one (or two if I wasn’t being impossible that day) with only myself to complain about. And I discovered something interesting.  If there’s one thing I’ve really missed these past seven months watching films at home it’s…audiences.  Not just heading to the theater and milling about shoulder to shoulder in the lobby wondering what everyone else is seeing or waiting in line to get into your auditorium but the communal nature of everyone having a shared experience of discovery together.  Laughs are great at comedies, shrieks are fun at horror, and it’s secretly fun to spot alpha males walking out of a “guys cry too” film with their eyes red and watery.  For me, though, my favorite moments are when an audience catches on to something at the same time a character onscreen does and can’t help but gasp or let their jaws hinge open.

There’s two of these very surprises in director Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire and I couldn’t help but get a small pang of sadness when I realized how much fun it would have been to be in a packed crowd to see it for the first time.  Now, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what these little moments of movie magic are, what kind of emotion they’re meant to elicit, or when they occur, but the first is easy to pick-up on while the second might be something that will sneak up on you after the movie has finished.  Known for her more avant-garde work in independent film in the past, July continues her recent streak of staying in a more commercial lane with Kajillionaire.  Thanks to emotionally resonant work from her star and a trio of fine supporting performances, July may have made her most accessible film yet…though in an ironic twist it’s primarily about the inaccessibility of emotions between a daughter and her parents.

A family of con-artists make their way through Los Angeles barely scraping by with their small time swindles and quick schemes.  Like a modern day version of the grasping couple the Thénardiers from Les Misérables, Robert (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) and Theresa (Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment) aren’t above stealing from the dying to get ahead or lying their way out of any situation if it means they might eventually turn a profit.  Yet we learn early on they’re also impulsive in their decisions and reckless spenders when they do find funds, which begins to alienate their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, Frozen II) who learns on her own the value of money and the emotions that come with it.  How Old Dolio got her name is another mystery the film holds onto until late in the game and when we learn its origin it manages to be both terrifically funny and tragically sad at the same time, another of July’s gifts in storytelling.

When Old Dolio cooks up a plan to help pay the back rent they owe through a con involving an airline luggage insurance claim, her parents somehow manage to bring Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation), into the fold.  Sensing immediate competition from the more glamorous girl, Old Dolio begins to distance herself from her family, even after Melanie comes up with her own plans to use the trio to advance a money-making hustle of her own.  Thankfully, July lets things get as messy as possible over the ensuing hour and supplies her cast with great material in which to explore the relationships between parents and their children as well as young women finding their own inner strength even without a role model/strong parental figure to guide them.

Wood completely disappears into her role, pitching her voice to a dull low monotone with a hint of California surfer thrown in for good measure.  It’s not a “dumb” voice but one that wasn’t ever exposed to any emotional levels that would signal a change in dynamics she could learn from and that’s not her fault.  Clearly, Robert and Theresa never took the time to parent their child, only using her as we see them using her now…as part of their con in one way or another.  You almost wonder at some points if she’s even their real daughter or if her birth was planned as part of another plot that paid out previously.  Though strong as ever, I feel like I’ve seen Jenkins play this kind of aloof father figure before, his complete disregard for the feelings of others stings like a slap in the face even to us the viewer.   With each passing film, I’m more and more impressed with the parts that Rodriguez takes on, they never seem to be quite the same person and she’s obviously pushing against any kind of bubble Hollywood is trying to stick her under.  A true legend when it comes to screen presence and talent, Winger is always (always) a welcome sight and her brittle character is fairly fascinating; watching her turn on a dime from uninterested to fully committed for the sake of the swindle is spooky…you’ll want to dissect it later.

Careening a bit too much with tonal issues that start to distract more than help audiences fully sync up with Old Dolio and her lot, July eventually spins Kajillionaire out of control but regains some semblance of order for a rewarding finale that I had no idea what to expect from.  These are the kind of movies where you don’t know the ending at the beginning and that’s an exciting film to be able to step up to the line for.  I’d have liked to have trusted the film a bit more in the second half when it wanted to be more serious as it shifted into a different gear, but by that time it had trained you to be on the lookout for dishonesty so much that it was almost impossible to let your guard down. Add to that characters that have made it their mission to deceive and you never know if you’re hearing the full truth, a version of the truth we want to hear, or an outright lie.  It makes for an interesting movie, which Kajillionaire certainly is, but an uneasy view.

Movie Review ~ Scoob!


The Facts
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Synopsis: Scooby and the gang face their most challenging mystery ever: a plot to unleash the ghost dog Cerberus upon the world. As they race to stop this dogpocalypse, the gang discovers that Scooby has an epic destiny greater than anyone imagined.

Stars: Will Forte, Gina Rodriguez, Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, Mark Wahlberg, Frank Welker, Jason Isaacs, Kiersey Clemons, Ken Jeong, Tracy Morgan

Director: Tony Cervone

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If there’ s one thing that’s gotten me through these past few months of uncertainty and #StayHome / #StaySafe decrees, it’s comfort food and comfort media.  While the comfort food and it’s delicious temptations has assisted in my transitioning to pajama pants exclusively, at least the TV and film that I’ve found so soothing hasn’t packed any extra pounds onto my frame.  From 80s comedies to classic nor thrillers and episodes lifted out of ABC’s TGIF line-up, I haven’t been lacking in something on the boob tube to keep me distracted/entertained.

Then there are the cartoons.  Now, normally I’m not that much of a cartoon guy and my eyebrows shoot to the skies when I hear about the whole obsession with My Little Pony but when presented with a cartoon from my youth I just can’t resist.  The nostalgia factor is so high that it almost makes up for the sad truth that many of these shows nowadays are hard to watch due to the crude animation and silly plot mechanics.  Still…back in the day there was a treasure trove of programming available to kids like me.  Could be Ducktales, could be The Jetsons, might be the Snorks, but if it showed up on a Saturday morning there was a high probability I was tuned in for it and you better believe when anything related to Scooby-Doo was airing I was not to be disturbed.

The cartoon about teen sleuths and their ever-hungry talking Great Dane had been around since 1969 but by the time I was parked in front of the TV all bleary-eyed and mussed-haired it was already in one of its numerous offshoots featuring Scooby’s wise-talking nephew Scrappy-Doo.  As I grew up, my interest in other animated weekend offerings waned but there was something about Scooby and the gang that stuck with me.   I whole-heartedly admit to owning the entire original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! series as well as the popular but chintzy live-action films they made in the 2000s.  Sure, I’ve seen the numerous straight to video animated movies that have been released and I have a particular fondness for 1988’s Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School as well as my all-time favorite, Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf, released the same year.

As a fan of this franchise, I wasn’t clutching my pearls too much when I got a look at the preview for Scoob! which was originally intended to be an early summer theatrical release for Warner Brother Animation.  With the coronavirus outbreak, Warner Brothers pivoted their plans and have released the film on demand and I think they’ll see a good profit from this family friendly, colorful reboot that captures the spirit of the show while also making it accessible for a new generation.  Though it does have a few minor missteps, it avoids the outright errors from the live-action version and winds up being more pleasing than painful to fans.

Acting a bit as an origin story, the film opens with a young Shaggy meeting a pup he names Scooby Dooby Doo on a California beach.  Both loners, not necessarily by choice, the two bond over their love of food and their friendship is sealed then and there.  When they’re accosted on Halloween night by some mean bullies who steal their candy and hide it in a supposedly haunted house, who should come to the rescue but a young Fred, Daphne, and Velma.  Together, the five solve their first mystery, setting the stage for the next decade of working as a team which brings us to the present (the film is set in modern times) when the gang is deciding on how to take their business to the next level.

Following a standard outline like many of the episodes, Shaggy and Scooby are separated from the other three by a series of occurrences as they both work on disparate mysteries that eventually have a common thread.  Shaggy (Will Forte, Nebraska) and Scooby (Frank Welker, Aladdin) team up with a bumbling superhero (Mark Wahlberg, All the Money in the World) and his sidekicks (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians and Kiersey Clemons, Lady and the Tramp) while Fred (Zac Efron, The Greatest Showman), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), and Velma (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation) track down Dick Dasterdly (Jason Isaacs, Dragonheart) who has plans to resurrect a monster from Greek mythology.  This brings all on a globe-hopping (and time-traveling) race against time to stop Dick before he can obtain what he needs to unleash the powerful beast.

At 94 minutes, Scoob! plays like an especially long episode of the show and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The four screenwriters clearly have done their homework and have pulled the best of the characters through to this update, gently smoothing some of the rougher edges while still maintaining the ostensible traits that make them so unique.  As you might expect, for young audiences viewing this now the filmmakers have amped up the action so there are times when the proceedings get especially manic, with the volume on the antics turned up high.  That works for some of the more outlandish characters (like Isaacs having a field day as the villainous Dasterdly) but tends to sink secondary ones. Thankfully, while the flick does have its scary moments (this is about bringing a teeth-gnashing three headed dog back to life, after all), it’s goofy charm keeps the film on the lighter side of the PG scale, and that’s not something a number of supposedly family friendly films can claim.

It’s been a long time since a Scooby-Doo movie played in theaters and while I think Scoob! will do well in this on-demand setting, I do think this release platform will hinder chances for future theatrical offerings down the road.  Seeing that the lovable pooch and his friends have routinely turned up in direct to video mysteries for years already, it might be hard to separate this effort (which is quite entertaining) from the others which can come off as quickie money grabs (which they often are).  You can’t keep a good dog down, though, so I’m not too worried about Scooby making a nice comeback soon…besides, we still need to get re-introduced to Scrappy-Doo!

Movie Review ~ Annihilation

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

31 Days to Scare ~ Annihilation (Teaser Trailer)

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Release Date:  February 23, 2018

Thoughts:  Here’s another interesting project to look forward to in 2018.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman  (Jackie) stars in this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, the first in a trilogy.  Portman has had some high highs and low lows in the years since she won her Oscar for Black Swan but add director Alex Garlad (Ex Machina) in the mix and I’m officially intrigued to see how this one plays out.  Paramount seems to have thrown a bunch of money at Garland, though in the past he’s been known to do a whole lot with very little.  This first look at Annihilation is a nice teaser trailer that hints at some of the horrors that await Portman and her crew sent to investigate an abandoned zone disconnected from civilization known as Area X.  Co-starring Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Tessa Thompson (Creed), and Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon), all eyes will be on this one to see if VanderMeer’s two other novels will get a similar Hollywood shine.