31 Days to Scare ~ Monsterland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Encounters with mermaids, fallen angels, and other strange beasts drive broken people to desperate acts in this eight-episode anthology series.

Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Jonathan Tucker, Charlie Tahan, Nicole Beharie, Hamish Linklater, Marquis Rodriguez, Bill Camp, Michael Hsu Rosen, Taylor Schilling, Roberta Colindrez, Adria Arjona, Trieu Tran, Kelly Marie Tran, Mike Colter, Adepero Oduye

Created by: Mary Laws

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Before this pandemic began the concept of binge watching was something that always sounded like a good idea to me and one that I only occasionally was able to participate in…but it had to be for the right show.  Even then, I would motor through a 10-episode season over a long weekend and then emerge from those three days a bit dazed and not exactly sure what I had taken in. Had I really invested the time to let the story, characters, and ideas enter my brain and take root or did it just fly by as quickly as I clicked into the next episode?  What’s worse is that by the time the next season of a show rolled around in a year, it had been so long since the last batch of episodes I blazed through that I barely remembered plot details.

Recently, I’ve found that I can do a sort of binge watch but stretch it out to make it like a long meal I am snacking on for a week or so.  This helps me process and, if the show is good, extends the pleasure of the piece even further.  So I have to say that getting the chance to see Hulu’s new horror anthology series Monsterland early was a treat but I wasn’t quite able to take my time with it like I was with other multi-episode shows that are released all on the same date.  Working on a deadline, I watched the eight episodes in two blocks and while it helped me get to them all, it wound up easily exposing what chapters stood out from the rest and the overall weakness of the show in general.

When Hulu announced they were working with creator Mary Laws who was a co-writer on the 2016 film The Neon Demon and produced the cult-favorite TV program Preacher for AMC on a show based off of Nathan Ballingrud’s short-story collection “North American Lake Monsters”, there was considerable interest in what that partnership would yield. Produced by Babak Anvari and Lucan Toh who had already worked with a Ballingrud adaptation in the past, this seemed like an interesting path for Hulu to take. While the title of the book and show implies a creature feature this is more of a “monster within us” sort of deal with a healthy dose of the supernatural and mythological thrown in to spice things up.

Each episode is named after a town and while some of these anthologies don’t need to be watched in order, I would say there are a few chapters that do include a tiny bit of overlap (I won’t say what or which ones) so would suggest you go in order.

Things get off to a promising start with Port Fourchon, Louisiana featuring Kaitlin Dever (Booksmart) as a single mom working as a waitress that encounters a drifter (Jonathan Tucker, Charlie’s Angels) at her oceanside dead-end diner.  We know he’s got a station wagon full of boxes labeled with the names of missing girls but what’s in them is…well, you’ll find out. Dever’s having a nice run of things lately and she makes this character a realistic entity struggling to make ends meet while dealing with her feral child that could be more dangerous than the stranger who takes a peculiar interest in her.  The second ep features a lonely teen taking care of his ailing mother in a familiar plot that honestly almost feels irresponsible being recycled in 2020.  I quite liked the third episode set in New Orleans, Louisiana that puts Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth) through a night of hell as a socialite who came from nothing dealing with her world crumbling around her.  It’s all predicated on the question of if she knew about a secret involving her family from years ago and looked the other way just so she wouldn’t lose out on a life of privilege that was within her grasp.

It’s back to ho-hum-edness for the New York setting in episode four with Bill Camp (Joker) as a Trump-ian business mogul that gets punished for his evil transgressions by literally being possessed by a god-like figure (kinda tacky, IMHO) as his family and business team watches on in a mixture of horror and glee.  This one is so obviously aiming its message at an audience of one that will never see this episode that it feels like you’re watching someone’s angry letter to the White House.  The one thing about this episode that I found fairly entertaining is Tina Benko as a deadly serious medium brought in to communicate with the spirit that has taken residence in the businessman.  Benko’s voice cements her being so hysterically committed to the role that I can’t tell if she was trying to be comical or if she really was attempting to be serious.  Either way, she’s the gold star highlight of this drab episode.

Episode five features Taylor Schilling (The Lucky One) and Roberta Colindrez as married lesbians dealing with Schilling’s bi-polar disorder that eventually leads to a dark place, leaving Colindrez to literally pick up the pieces of her wife.  Very strangely, when I checked just now this is the episode that has the highest rating from viewers so far even though I found it an oddly talky vamp on the zombie narrative.  Which, come to think of it, is probably why it’s so popular.  It’s the most straight-forward of all the tales in that deals with mental illness (a content warning precedes the episode) in a humanistic way…though it is essentially about learning to love your zombie wife.

After the first episode, Episode 6 and 7 are likely the star players of the lot.  Taking place in Palacios, Texas, episode 7 finds a disfigured fisherman (Trieu Tran) who finds an injured mermaid (Adria Arjona, Life of the Party) on the beach and brings her back to his double-wide where he attempts to nurse her back to health.  Trouble is, this is no fairy-tale mermaid and she has a craving for red meat and isn’t the friendliest fish in the sea.  In all of Monsterland, my favorite tale by far was from Iron River, Michigan and it finds Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) as Lauren, a sweet bride preparing for her wedding day but still haunted by the legend of the local woods where her friend disappeared when they were teenagers.  An opening prologue and flashbacks alter the storyline of the events of the vanishing, suggesting Lauren may have been more involved than originally thought.  What starts off seeming like it will be a standard “Did she do it” becomes a simmering Grimm’s Fairy Tale and it’s by far the best of all the episodes.  Which makes the bizarre (truly, bizarre) finale featuring Mike Colter (Girls Trip) and Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) as grieving parents of a missing girl given the opportunity to heal thanks to mysterious “angels” that have fallen from the sky, that much more of a letdown.  I was really put off by the ending, I have to be honest.

Wildly inconsistent from episode to episode with even the good ones having their own problems, Monsterland feels like an enormous missed opportunity.  The production has gathered an intriguing mix of casts and directors that create dynamic work but the scripts didn’t serve any of these players well.  Only a few of these episodes wound up being inspired by Ballingrud’s short stories and even then I know his work is more cerebral – so perhaps this was always the world Monsterland was going to create.  My main beef overall is that I would have liked to see the episodes tied together a bit more.  There is one connection that made sense to me but another that is of absolutely no consequence to anything else and that just felt strange.  It’s as if the actor was just passing by the set that day and they decided to let them in the scene without thinking anything through.  Linking these up in a more clever fashion would help give the overall breadth of the work a more finished feel.

Movie Review ~ The Big Short

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Four outsiders in the world of high-finance who predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s decide to take on the big banks for their lack of foresight and greed.

Stars: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Tracy Letts, John Magaro, Jeremy Strong, Byron Mann, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater

Director: Adam McKay

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Want to do something nice for your stockbroker this holiday weekend?  Ask them to accompany you to a screening of The Big Short, pay their way in, and then when it’s over ask them to explain the film to you.  Yes, this true story of the bursting of the housing market bubble is a dense watch and would benefit from studying a textbook beforehand…but at the same times it’s a riotously funny and routinely ribald comedy more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Though I’m not normally a fan of director Adam McKay (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), he’s turned in his most timely and mature work to date, juggling multiple storylines and characters over several years without ever losing the thread of what a tremendous disaster this downfall was to the economy.  Adapted by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph from the book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short is big on market-savvy terms, facts, and figures but short on overall time to explain everything along the way.

Following four distinct sets of characters of various stature that overlap throughout the years, it’s a movie you have to buckle up and into from the beginning.  I was worried early on that I was going to wind up emerging as a true dumb dumb, never truly grasping the enormity of the situation or how things got as bad as it did.  Thankfully, McKay’s script had the foresight to predict this and employs a clever means to explain things in terms that the average Joe (me!) can understand.  I won’t spoil some of this surprisingly adept tactics for you, but I will say that it involves celebrities playing themselves breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to us.

McKay was lucky to gather the high-caliber cast he did.  It’s mostly a boys club here with the likes of Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace), and Brad Pitt (World War Z) taking on roles of those involved to varying degrees of seeing a problem on the horizon and then deliberately setting up the market to fail so they can profit.  Moral quandaries are few with only Carell standing up for the littler guy, gaining a conscience that stands him apart from his cut-throat colleagues.

In the supporting department, Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is appreciated as always as Carell’s wife and even the usually campy Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) channels her natural tendency to overplay things into a dandy of a cameo as a Wall Street player conducting a meeting from behind some Mr. Magoo-ish optometrist shades.  Strong turns from Rafe Spall (Prometheus), Hamish Linklater (Magic in the Moonlight), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) round out a uniformly strong ensemble.

Though it deals with events that led to the ruin of many (mostly middle to lower class households), the film is surprisingly engaging and entertaining.  It feels like the movie that The Wolf of Wall Street thought it was behind all of the showboating performances and excessive running time.  The Big Short is still too long at 130 minutes but unlike Wolf, it gives the audience someone (anyone) to relate to.

The market is slowly building itself up again but if the final moments of the film are any indication, this is a problem that isn’t totally vanquished…making the movie ultimately a cautionary tale of unfettered greed and unregulated ambition.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Big Short

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Synopsis: When four outsiders saw what the big banks, media and government refused to, the global collapse of the economy, they had an idea: The Big Short. Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of modern banking where they must question everyone and everything.

Release Date: December 11, 2015

Thoughts: It’s an interesting move that Paramount Pictures decided to release this heavy hitter smack dab in the midst of a busy holiday movie season. That means they think they have a winner on their hands in this true-life tale, a bit of counterprogramming to the more obvious Oscar bait flicks that are being readied for the end of the year. If I’m being honest (and I always am), I’m a bit exhausted with these corporate level endeavors about the failure of big business. Like the wearying The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short isn’t lacking in star-power thanks to producer and star Brad Pitt (World War Z) looping in the likes of Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace). Still, I desperately hope it has a snap, purpose, and isn’t just another showcase for big stars saying big things about big problems.

 

 

Movie Review ~ Magic in the Moonlight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.

Stars: Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Paul Ritter, Jeremy Shamos

Director: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: If Magic in the Moonlight had been made by anyone other than Woody Allen I think I would have scored it lower because ultimately the movie is very simple, inconsequential, light entertainment that once seen quickly evaporates like a summer breeze as you exit the theater.  Still, it’s an Allen film through and through so I find myself giving the prolific director a great deal of slack because while it may not be as layered with dramatic nuance as 2013’s Blue Jasmine, it does find the director working comfortably in his element.

The period comedy set in the 20s is as light-hearted as they come, with a plot that feels straight out of a thin paperback novel that itself is part of a larger series of adventures.  An English magician (Colin Firth, Devil’s Knot) in Berlin, performing under the un-PC moniker Wei Ling Soo, is tempted to the French Riviera by a colleague (Simon McBurney) to help prove a young psychic (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is a fake.  The psychic has convinced a wealthy woman (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) of her gifts and caught the eye of her ukulele playing love struck son (Hamish Linklater) while staying at their gossamer villa with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and conducting the odd séance in between high tea and scones.  Into the mix comes the doubtful magician and before you know it, he too is wrapped up under her spell…but is it all just an elaborate ruse?

Going down like a chilled glass of champagne, Magic in the Moonlight is mostly bubbles, only going flat in the far reaches of its last act when the charm starts to wear off.  Explanations always ruin an illusion so the more the characters talk, the less interesting they all become.  Still, it takes a while to get to that place so it’s best to put your feet up and let Allen’s comedy wash over you.

As Allen (Radio Days, Fading Gigolo) nears his fiftieth feature film, it’s truly amazing how he’s able to churn out a movie year after year.  True, they may not all be winners but he’s moving away from his pattern of having solid gold with every third film.  Yes, Magic in the Moonlight lacks the depth of Blue Jasmine but who really cares?  The two films couldn’t be more different, just as Blue Jasmine was different from the film that it followed (To Rome With Love).  Allen’s filmmaking style is instantly recognizable and goes by the old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it so production design, costumes, and musical cues are all keeping with Allen’s eye for detail.

Already working on her next Allen film set for release in 2015, Stone may be Allen’s new muse (replacing Scarlett Johansson) and her crisp delivery meshes well with Allen’s dialogue.  Though her possible romance with Firth seemed a little too May-December for my tastes, the two actors chum it up well in their scenes together, with Firth thankfully unwinding a bit from his more serious roles as of late.  As Firth’s aunt, Eileen Atkins (Beautiful Creatures) gets some nice zingers in and seems to be enjoying herself quite a lot.

It’s a bauble of a film that serves as nice counterprogramming for those exhausted from a summer of explosions, aliens, lizards, and transforming robots.  Yeah, it’s easily forgotten but it could be just the laid-back kind of entertainment you’re looking for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Magic in the Moonlight

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Synopsis: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.

Release Date: July 25, 2014

Thoughts: My thoughts and feelings about writer/director Woody Allen’s personal troubles aside, it’s hard to deny that he had a most impressive 2013 with the slam-dunk of Blue Jasmine. Not only was Cate Blanchett’s performance of the Oscar she was awarded, Allen’s script (a veiled re-working of A Streetcar Named Desire) was sparkling and en pointe. Now Allen (who is in front of the camera on the recently released Fading Gigolo) takes a page from Noel Coward in the Blithe Spirit-y comedy Magic in the Moonlight which seems to be the traditional lightweight comedy he typically follows a more dramatic film with. Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Colin Firth (Paddington) seem right at home with the period and while it’s true that any bad movie can be made more interesting with a well-cut trailer, I have my eye on this one as a late summer refresher.