Movie Review ~ Phobias

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Five dangerous patients, suffering from extreme phobias at a government testing facility, are put to the ultimate test under the supervision of a crazed doctor and his quest to weaponize fear.

Stars: Alexis Knapp, Charlotte McKinney, Lauren Miller, Monique Coleman, Martina García, Hana Mae Lee, Leonardo Nam, Benjamin Stockham, Anthony Gonzalez, Steve Park, Macy Gray, Ross Partridge, Joey Luthman, Micah A. Hauptman, Mackenzie Brooke Smith

Director: Jess Varley, Maritte Go, Camilla Belle, Chris von Hoffman, and Joe Sill

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I like bad horror films just like every other true horror fan out there.  You horror fans reading this, don’t pretend like you read that sentence and don’t agree with it because for as much as we love our tried and true classics like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. we also have a fond soft spot for the other side of the movie score.  These stinkers may not reach favor with the majority of the public, but odds are if you like a silly/stupid horror film there’s a good chance someone else chalks it up as one of their long-standing must-sees as well.  Yet there’s a definitive line in the sand that gets drawn between the bad horror films that just land off the mark, but you could tell at least aimed in the right direction, and the horror flicks that are just bad movies overall.  Those are the ones to look out for, heed the warnings on, and avoid at all costs.

Newly added to this running list is the new cheap-o lame-o dumb-o anthology film Phobias.  Consisting of five short vignettes joined together by a wraparound story, you may want to have your dictionary handy to look up the definitions of the phobias because making a point of defining anything clearly isn’t the first priority of any writing or directing in this headache.  Instead, the tone from piece to piece is wildly different (somewhat excusable at first seeing that each has a different director) but there is no real cohesion to the entire saga, so the audience is left lurching forward and braking hard based on what director shows slightly more promise.  The result is a discouraging downward spiral for a concept that should work better than it does and one that could have set the stage for an easy round of sequels had the collective unity of the films been clearer.

A marginally decent start kicks of Phobias using Robophobia (fear of robots, drones, robot-like mechanics or artificial intelligence) as a jumping off theme.  Asian-American Johnny (Leonardo Nam, One for the Money) is a meek programmer caring for his ill father and avoiding local bigots that regularly torment him.  All this begins to change when he receives a new friend that promises to turn things around for him.  If only the friend wasn’t a sinister AI program that’s out to take over Johnny’s life and move from a digital space to the real world.  This clunky yet promising chapter/prologue ends right when it’s getting interesting so we can see how it will feed into the rest of the night’s events.  The next time we see Johnny, he’s at an undisclosed location along with several others monitored by a quack doctor looking to “harvest fear” through one of those contraptions that looks like it was made for a grade school production of Frankenstein.  While our visits to this interlacing story are brief, they unfortunately leave enough time for Ross Partridge (The High Note) to gnosh on some of the cardboard scenery as the psycho scientist.  To his credit, Partridge looks unhinged enough to believe the whack-a-doo malarkey he is spinning.

Each patient in the ward with Johnny has a particular phobia the dear doctor wants to exploit to gather the most fear in a single dose.  So we ping over to the usually fun Hana Mae Lee (Pitch Perfect) in Vehophobia (the fear of driving) who delivers an oddly detached and dead-eyed performance as a cruel woman that has manipulated men all her life and is about to pay a price.  While Hoplophobia’s fear of weapons has the potential to be more of a cautionary tale that maybe deserved a different platform with a longer space in which to tell its story, actor turned director Camilla Belle (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) doesn’t yet have the right tools to fashion it into a mature angle.  Ephebiphobia is the fear of youth and when you meet the wretched scuzzbuckets that terrorize a woman in the middle of the night you might come down with it as well…or does the woman have her own secrets that absolve the meen teens from their dirty deeds?

That brings us to Atelophobia, or the fear of not being good enough.  Looking up the definition afterward (you’re welcome, by the way for getting these as you go!) I was surprised this was how the phobia was defined because it’s the simplest definition for the wildest of all the chapters in a very dull book.  It’s honestly the reason to see the film at all and I have a sense the people involved knew it, and knew reviewers would say it, and that’s why it’s conveniently right at the end of the movie.  Starring singer Macy Gray as a stern executive striving for perfection at all costs, it has the most gore and I think looked the most polished.  Gray is sort of all over the map, acting-wise, but her oddball behavior seemed to make sense with the weird nature of her character.  I wouldn’t spoil where this story ends but kudos to Gray for really buckling down and embracing some gruesome work.

If it weren’t for that final Atelophobia segment and Gray’s off-the-wall performance (I’m not sure if it was good…I think it was…but it could just as easily be terrible.) Phobias would be a complete write off because even the small flashes of style it has are completely consumed by a lack of insight into anything fresh or engaging. Substituting crass dialogue in place of clever lines that enriched the story, the lack of polish only winds up reflecting poorly on those onscreen and you can’t blame it all on them.  Numerous writers/directors were involved with Phobias and it feels as if none of them ever met to discuss what this project was about and intended to be…or who it was for.  It’s certainly not for serious horror fans or even those of us that enjoy the occasional cheese-ball title.  Watch it for Gray or skip it all together.  Better yet…watch Arachnophobia again.  That’s one that never gets old.

Movie Review ~ Pitch Perfect 3


The Facts
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Synopsis: Following their win at the world championship, the now separated Bellas reunite for one last singing competition at an overseas USO tour, but face a group who uses both instruments and voices.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Britanny Snow, Ruby Rose, John Lithgow, Ester Dean, Hailee Steinfeld, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, Kelley Jakle, Hana Mae Lee, Chrissie Fit, Anna Camp, Shelley Regner, DJ Khaled

Director: Trish Sie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (3.5/10)

Review: In 2012, Pitch Perfect was an unexpected stealth weapon smash for Universal Studios.  Arriving with very little fanfare in the midst of a busy fall season, the movie relied on good word of mouth to keep audiences buying tickets and coming back for seconds.  It helps the movie was genuinely good, introducing actors and characters that were funny and appealing.  Two years later, Pitch Perfect 2 was positioned as an early summer blockbuster and the results weren’t quite as memorable.  A slack script, uninspired direction, and more than a few performances that looked like they were delivered under duress or as a way to pay off their backyard pool.  It was your typical cash-grab sequel that offered no forward motion for its players.

Here we are in the waning weeks of 2017 and Pitch Perfect 3 has arrived, supposedly as a finale of a trilogy planned on the fly.  While it corrects some structural mistakes from the first two films, it winds up suffering more than its predecessors as it falls prey to exhaustion and too-slick filmmaking.  Fans of the series will likely find major joy in the final adventures of the all-female acapella group and welcome their return, but all others might be in for a stressful 90 minutes.

It’s been two years since the Barden Bellas have sung together and the troupe has scattered to live their post-grad lives.  Becca (Anna Kendrick, The Accountant) and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, Bachelorette) share an apartment in the big city and while Amy spends her days on the street performing as Fat Amy Winehouse, Becca continues to pursue her dream of producing music for the stars.  Trouble is, she’s working with some less than talented characters, a troublesome position for someone clearly far more talented than the clients she serves.  At a supposed reunion of the Bellas organized by senior Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, The Homesman), the ladies express interest in signing together one last time and, wouldn’t you know it, gung-ho former leader Aubrey (Anna Camp, Café Society) remembers that there is a big USO show starting up and her high-ranking military dad might be able to get them a spot.

Flying off to join the troops on a European tour, when they arrive they learn the show is doubling as an audition to open for DJ Khaled (I mean, who wouldn’t want to open for a DJ, right?  Right?) at a big upcoming gig.  It’s not long before the Bellas realize their acapella harmonies don’t stand a chance against the other acts which include a twangy country band, a soul singer, and an all-female rock band (led by the bewitching and underused Ruby Rose) that call themselves Forever Moist (ew).  Jet lag hasn’t even set in before there’s the expected riff off between the groups and the Bellas, with the pre-recorded vocals being mimed pretty poorly by everyone in the movie, this has far less of the off the cuff energy that made the one in the original film so dazzling.

Sadly, there’s more to the movie and it involves John Lithgow (Intestellar) sporting an Australian accent so broad it should come with its own groaning laugh track and an out of left field kidnapping action film plot that feels like screenwriters Kay Cannon (How to Be Single) and Mike White (The D Train) got offered too much money to make a rumored Fat Amy spin-off happen.  Can’t forget to mention that the snide color commentators from the first two films (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks) are following the ladies around trying to make a documentary (sorry, daccamentary) about their struggles to remain relevant.

Looking less pained than the previous film, Kendrick grooves with the movie and regains her star status after taking a back seat in the more ensemble-y sequel.  Wilson is up to her usual schtick…is anyone else concerned that after all this time she’s still playing second banana in movies?  It’s time for Wilson to take the lead because she has potential that continues to be squandered on lame physical humor.  It’s nice to see Camp back in a larger role after having a glorified cameo in PP2 and Brittany Snow has a few pleasant moments as she allows her prefect outward façade to crack and show the vulnerability below the surface.  Banks (Magic Mike XXL) and Higgins (A Million Ways to Die in the West) have been reduced to grotesque, mean-spirited caricatures that began the series as well-sketched comic critics.  It’s a lowbrow end of the road for those two.

All of these quibbles might not matter because you might not be able to discern much of the action that’s taking place.  Director Trish Sie has shot and edited her film so frenzied that it feels like it was assembled by rabid piranhas.  Forget about the camera zooming back to catch the Bellas performances in widescreen. Nope, Sie favors quick shot close-up cuts and blink and you miss them wide shots.  I’m not convinced the movie wasn’t shot in some warehouse in Pasadena because aside from locales that look like old Euro sets on the Universal backlot, most of the musical numbers have a sameness to them.  Only a nice performance in the Brooklyn aquarium has any special feel to it.

On the positive side, the movie is 20 minutes shorter than the first two films and wisely keeps the men (including Adam DeVine, Skylar Astin, and Ben Platt) out of the mix.  For a series that has nicely sung the merits of female empowerment, it was always strange that men played such a pivotal role up to this point.  I’m even willing to forgive the inclusion of a leering producer with his eye on Becca because he factors so little into her overall arc.

Much like fans of Marvel, DC, and the Star Wars saga, the devotees of the Pitch Perfect series don’t want to hear the negative and that’s OK too.  These three films have brought some musicality back to movie theaters and that’s totally fine in my book…I just wish these last two films had the same spirit of originality that launched the first one into the repeat viewing category.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Pitch Perfect 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a humiliating command performance at the Kennedy Center, the Barden Bellas enter an international competition that no American group has ever won in order to regain their status and right to perform.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Alexis Knapp, Brittany Snow, Adam DeVine, Hailee Steinfeld, Ester Dean, Kelley Jakle, Hana Mae Lee, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Skylar Astin, Keegan-Michael Key, Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Ben Platt

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  What Pitch Perfect 2 has is a deadly case of sequelitis.  It’s a not-so-very-rare disease that most sequels succumb to and, sadly, it has no cure.  Now, it should be said that Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t deserve to be chucked in the hazardous materials bin with the likes of Poltergeist II: The Other Side and The Hangover Part III but it deserves a good spanking for taking the sweet surprise fun of the original and turning it into a off-key and slack feature length ad for a variety of advertisers.

What made 2012’s Pitch Perfect so, well, perfect was that no one involved was expecting much from the modestly budgeted comedy…least of all its studio.  When early test screenings scored high with audiences, Universal launched a smart ad campaign and released the film slowly allowing that good ‘ole word-of-mouth to drive people into the theater.  The film exploded and, thanks to its (mostly) charming cast and skilled mash-up of the musical and college comedy genres, became a bona fide repeat viewing go-to for old and young, male and female.

A sequel seemed like a no-brainer and, true to form, that’s exactly what we get.  Returning screenwriter Kay Cannon hasn’t done much to move our characters along; merely letting a few of them graduate school or to new planes of maturity doesn’t exactly qualify as improving a character arc.  Cannon’s screenplay gives the film no purpose and commits the deadly sin of gathering up all the laughs from the previous film and just repeating them, sometimes verbatim.  Laughs that worked in small doses back in 2012 are piled high and frequently fall flat because they feel so been-there-done-that.  Worse, even more time is given to Adam DeVine (who I referred to in my original review as a Jack Black-alike…and at this point DeVine should be paying Black a percentage of his earnings) who pops up all too frequently to stink up the joint.

A co-star and producer of Pitch Perfect, Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) steps behind the camera for the first time as the director and while that may seem like an inspired choice, Banks can’t seem to find a rhythm to the overly episodic nature of the film.  With its garish lighting and questionable use of color it looks like a badly produced industrial training video and unspools at an awkwardly motionless pace.  Continuity between the two films is non-existent (Anna Kendrick’s character originally sported a canvas of tattoos that she seemingly had removed in the last three years) and there just seems to be an overall forced energy in the film.

What does help to qualify the film as only a near miss in my book are several engaging performances and a loud and clear message of female empowerment and positivity.

While Pitch Perfect really centered on grumpy Beca (Kendrick, Into the Woods) falling in with the all-female a capella group at her new college, the sequel doesn’t have one central character and that works in its favor.  Now, it’s an ensemble comedy that mostly gives equal time to several of the Barden Bellas that are going through some “stuff” while the group struggles to regain its reputation after an incident labeled by the press as Muffgate (to explain it would give more time to this idiotic plot device than necessary).

The breakout star of the first film, Rebel Wilson (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), is of course given more to do here and that’s a decision that has qualified success.  Too often she’s a Rebel without a cause as the actress lazily mumbles through some improvised shtick that probably was better than what the script had her saying.  Returning Bellas like Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee are joined by freshman Hailee Steinfeld (The Homesman) and all deliver exactly what’s expected of them…which is very little.  As for the men, Skylar Astin and Ben Platt are barely utilized because the film has no real place for them or any real reason to add them into the mix.  Each time they pop up it feels extraneous and more unnecessary than ever before.  A time-waster of a side-story features Keegan-Michael Key as Beca’s boss…these scenes could have been subtitled The Sound of Silence because the comedian’s jokes land with a thud.

Forced to fight for their survival at the World Championship, the Bellas go up against Das Sound Machine, led by Flula Borg & Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.  Looking like the Eurotrash villains from a stage musical of Die Hard, the members of DSM are supposed to be forces to be reckoned with but, as is the case with an alarming amount of the musical numbers, next to none of the performances are very exciting.  It’s only in the finale (with a surreally bizarre cameo by Robin Roberts) that some sparks are ignited with a song composed by Sia and Sam Smith Hailee Steinfeld’s character.  In Pitch Perfect the music seemed to be justified and had a pulsating verve that got your toes tapping but the song choices for the sequel are pretty bewildering and not memorable in the least.

A centerpiece of the original was the Riff Off, a battle of the bands of sorts that tests the best of the best.  There’s a repeat of that (of course) here and it happens to be one of the more inspired bits in the film.  Watching the Bellas battling the likes of DSM, the Treblemakers, and one totally random group (the biggest spoiler of the movie…if someone tells you who it is, they aren’t your real friend) is where the most joy in this rather joyless sequel is found.

I recognize that I’ll probably be in a minority of those that failed to fall into the orbit of Pitch Perfect 2 (and hey, I liked Hot Pursuit so clearly I’m operating on a different playing field currently) but if this is the sequel fans were waiting for I’m glad it did its job.  I just happened to find it off-key and resting too much on its well-earned laurels.  When Pitch Perfect 3 comes out (and trust me, it will), can I make a suggestion that it’s a prequel?