Movie Review ~ See How They Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: When world-weary Inspector Stoppard and eager rookie Constable Stalker take on a case of murder in London’s West End, the two find themselves thrown into a puzzling whodunit within the glamorously sordid theater underground, investigating the mysterious homicide at their peril
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Director:  Tom George
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Never underestimate the power of a good puzzle. During the past two years, puzzle sales have increased dramatically, leveling off as more restrictions were lifted, and the world again gathered as groups. While we were all cooped up, there was fun to be had at the organization and completion of a tricky jigsaw. It certainly made the time fly by. I have a stack of puzzles in my closet that can attest to the popularity of this resurgent pastime. 

The same pull to find a solution to this game draws viewers into the mystery and thriller genre, which also was in declining output in recent years. This phenomenon is primarily due to the mid-range budgeting involved and fewer opportunities for studios to franchise future installments. It’s hard to sequel-ize a movie where the characters might not all make it to the final act. Then a film like Knives Out comes around along with streaming material like Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, and the genre feels revitalized. Before you know it remakes of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile are getting greenlit. Rather than blood, guts, and gore found in slasher films with an unknown killer, these more prestige releases represent the classic whodunit.

As audiences await the upcoming release of the third season of Hulu’s hit show and the upcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, 20th Century Studios’ See How They Run is sprinting to beat the rush, and the timing couldn’t be better. It’s a breath of fresh air, though it often plays like Only Knives Out in the Theater, just with less crisp creativity for twists in the plot. What you see is what you get in director Tom George’s period mystery that plays with real elements of history, but with a production that has a zest for the era and natty performances you want to see more of, it easily laps the lesser fare we’ve been just getting by on.

It’s 1953, and the hot ticket in London’s West End is Agatha Christie’s original play, The Mousetrap. As it celebrates its 100th performance, the film rights have recently been sold, and dodgy film director Leo Köpernick (Adrian Brody, Clean) has arrived from America to attend the festivities. While the reclusive authoress herself doesn’t make the party, plenty of the who’s who do, along with a killer that strikes before the night is over. 

The keen Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, Little Women) and the jaded Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell) are sent in to investigate. One brings an eagerness to solve the crime quickly, while the more seasoned detective knows not to trust everything you see. As they go down the list of suspects: a penny-pinching producer (Ruth Wilson, Saving Mr. Banks), a snooty screenwriter (David Oyelowo, The Water Man), and even the show’s star Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, Where the Crawdads Sing), they’ll find out there’s more to the murder (and the killer) that meets the eye. 

More than anything, See How They Run showcases Ronan’s ease doing droll comedy as the dutiful constable with a penchant for cringe-y one-liners. She makes a nice counterpart(ner) for Rockwell’s boozy Inspector. The two can efficiently work independently but strike the best chords playing off one another. A great cast is assembled in the ensemble, but it’s a shame Mark Chappell’s script doesn’t afford them more to do throughout. I was often left wondering why particular characters had greater pull than others. It helps to level the playing field as to who might be the next victim but when you have a company this game, let them play. If anything, See How They Run screams to be played out over several hour-long episodes instead of the brisk 98 minutes.

Due to the fact it is so straightforward, you may be tempted to concoct numerous solutions in your head before you get to the final reveal. I wouldn’t put too much time into working things out because the answer to the film’s riddle isn’t as complex as you think (hope?) it is. That doesn’t speak to lessen the quality of the film; it just goes to the plot’s inherent weakness for curveballs that could have been tweaked. It’s still marvelously witty at times and catty at others. I’d stroll to See How They Run in theaters if you’re dying for a drawing room-style murder mystery but do keep it high on your list to catch eventually. This talented team is too delicious to pass up.

Movie Review ~ Where the Crawdads Sing

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman who raised herself in the marshes of the deep South becomes a suspect in the murder of a man with whom she was once involved.
Stars: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., David Strathairn
Director: Olivia Newman
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I’ve had the bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens in my possession for well over two years, and once I heard Reese Witherspoon and her production company were adapting it for the big screen, I made the bold move of shifting it from the bookshelf to my nightstand. And that’s where it sat for the next several months. Always meeting my deadline, I finished the last chapter mere hours before my screening – a benefit because the characters were still alive in my head as the movie was beginning. Avoiding the marketing and as much casting info as possible allowed the situations and personalities screenwriter Lucy Alibar and director Olivia Newman brought to life in the feature film to make a good impression on me in real-time. 

Fans of the tome will be happy to know that Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) has delivered an admirably faithful adaptation of the worldwide favorite, a mystery involving a young woman left on her own in a North Carolina marsh and the murder she becomes involved with. It retains the intricate time jumps holding the key to unlocking its mystery and does so without sacrificing any character along the way. Alibar manages to make a few improvements to what Owens laid out, considerately consolidating for the efficiency of the film what could be languidly explored on the page.

As a child, Kya saw her family members desert her one by one, starting with her mother. Eventually, left alone with her alcoholic father in their home deep in the marsh, she learns to fend for herself and make her way in life. Befriended by a local couple (Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt) who ensure Kya has food and clothing without making it feel like a handout, Kya grows up knowing her place in the gossip mill of small-town life. A teen Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones, Fresh) falls for handsome Tate (Taylor John Smith, Blacklight), who shares her love for nature and unique feathers but doubts she will want to leave the safety of the marsh for a life with him once adult life becomes a necessity. Enter Chase (Harris Dickinson, The King’s Man), a popular boy that targets Kya as a conquest he can brag about to his friends. The charming man sweeps her off her feet roughly, like men trying to be a savior often do.

This history is recounted to Kya’s defense attorney (David Strathairn, Nomadland), a character in the book that’s been beefed up by Alibar to solve third-person narration issues which hindered the storytelling. Now, it’s Kya telling her story and how she winds up on trial for murdering one of the men in her life. Who it is is revealed early on, but I won’t say it here. If you read the novel, you’ll know who and the solution. While nothing about the mystery has been changed, minor details have been ironed out to tell the story at hand better. 

Well-acted by a strong ensemble, I especially liked Macer (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) and Hyatt (The Little Things) as Kya’s longtime surrogate guardian angels that knew her as a child and watched her grow into a woman that won’t follow the same rocky path as her family. Dickinson may be too oily, but it contrasts nicely with Smith’s squeaky clean chivalry. If there’s a drawback, it’s that the two look an awful lot alike, which is maybe the point, but it may be confusing to audiences. There are excellent brief turns from Garret Dillahunt (Army of the Dead) and a too-brief glimpse of Ahna O’Reilly (Bombshell) as Kya’s parents. 

The star of the film is the star of the show too. Edgar-Jones, made an overnight star for her devastating work on Hulu’s Normal People, continues her rapid ascent to the A list with an understated but deeply affecting performance as Kya. In nearly every scene of the movie, she’s a captivating presence that’s key for an audience to want to root for her, even when we might not be sure of her innocence. Playing the sensitive moments with equal gravity as passages of assertive strength, Edgar-Jones feels this role in her bones and sells it well.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a solid example of how moving from page to screen can work exceedingly well when the right group of people gets together. Newman’s direction is unobtrusive and trusting of her actors, and the cinematography from Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place: Part II) captures the appeal of the marsh beautifully. Also beautiful? Mychael Danna’s (Life of Pi) ever-present score. Haunting (just like Taylor Swift’s closing credit song) and clarion, Danna helps the setting come alive. These prestige-y adaptations don’t often come around in the summer months like this. It’s clear that Sony isn’t exactly gunning for awards for this movie (though, in another dimensional fold, Edgar-Jones would undoubtedly have earned enough points to be on the shortlist for an Oscar) but instead attempting a nice bit of counter-programming. 

Movie Review ~ The King’s Man

The Facts:  

Synopsis: As a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds gather to plot a war to wipe out millions, one man must race against time to stop them. 

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Stanley Tucci, Valerie Pachner 

Director: Matthew Vaughn 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here 

TMMM Score: (7.5/10) 

Review:  Back in 2014, Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of the real delights of the year.  An out-of-left field adaptation of a comic book by Mark Millar, director Matthew Vaughn turned it into a high-octane thrill ride and firmly introduced Taron Egerton to audiences in the process.  The 2017 sequel, subtitled The Golden Circle, promised way more than it delivered (i.e. we got far less of the American sector of the spy ring, including Channing Tatum than we were originally thought) and even I was surprised a third entry, a prequel, was greenlit by the studio.  Then the 20th Century Fox merger with Disney happened and, once complete, the pandemic lockdown hit…so it’s been a whole five years since our audiences last travelled to the Saville row shop which acts as home base for this ring of crime fighters.

With all these delays and having to introduce series fans to an entirely new cast of players, how surprising, then, to find that after two raucous films, The King’s Man is often more of a historic war drama in a similar vein to 1917 with a revisionist edge. Chock-a-block with cameos and not above a major rug pull impossible to predict, an already intriguing universe expands…and quite nicely.  If the previous films were more party than hearty, this one prefers to take its time and arrive fashionably late to the festivities.  It may be later than series fans want, but I found the wait to be worth it.

After an opening prologue in turn of the century South Africa that sets up some of the lasting relationship issues between aristocrat Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes, No Time to Die) and his son Conrad (played as an adult by Harris Dickinson, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), we jump ahead to the early days of World War I.  Due to his status, Conrad wouldn’t have to sign up to fight but it’s what he desperately wants.  Orlando, on the other hand, isn’t willing to let his son be served up for sacrifice because of a war started (as we are led to believe thanks to Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek’s loose screenplay) by a three-way tantrum between royal cousins manipulated by an unseen enemy pulling the strings from a mountaintop lair. It falls to the men to stop the ring of spys preventing the U.S. from entering the war with Europe if there is to be any hope of the U.K. surviving.

Aside from dealings with King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas (all played by Tom Hollander, Bohemian Rhapsody), Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner, A Hidden Life), Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, and another historical figure revealed so close to the end that I’d classify it as a spoiler, the films somewhat centerpiece revolves around a meeting with the infamous Rasputin.  Played with typical over-the-top delight by Rhys Ifans (Spider-Man: No Way Home), the character is marvelous in its design to be crass and creepy while still working within the context of the movie.  Your eyes will definitely bug out at one point during his meeting with the Oxford men – especially in one particular moment of craziness that’s become typical of any Vaughn film.

Overall, The King’s Man is playful, if violently wild with its tonal tidal shifts. Throw out whatever adherence to history you may come in with because the movie isn’t interested in accuracy in the least and its breezy way of tearing up the textbook approach becomes more fun if you just go with the flow. Best to report is the positioning of Fiennes as a quite appealing hero, proving again he’s always game for subversive fun. Same goes for Djimon Hounsou (A Quiet Place II), an eternally underrated supporting player. I’d re-up for another adventure with these two, but you can leave Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) off the roster.  While I always appreciate having a female perspective in the boy’s club, there wasn’t much happening with this character or Arterton’s performance that made much of an impression. Capping off the threequel is a dandy song sung by FKAtwigs that would have been perfect had it been accompanied by a creative end credit sequence. If you liked the first two entries in the Kingsman franchise and are prepared for measured change, this one should suit you nicely

The Silver Bullet ~ The King’s Man



Synopsis
: As a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds gather to plot a war to wipe out millions, one man must race against time to stop them.

Release Date: September 18, 2020

Thoughts: In 2014, the spy adventure Kingsman: The Secret Service was a surprise hit with audiences and critics and presented a cheeky fun alternative to the wise acre superhero franchise films that were multiplying like rabbits.  It also helped to introduce the public to Taron Egerton who would return in 2017 for the go-big-or-go-home sequel before hitting the big time with his hopefully Oscar nominated turn in 2019’s Elton John biopic Rocketman.  With Egerton’s star on the rise and booked out on other projects and with the franchise having bankable legs, 20th Century Fox was in a bit of a tough place with director Matthew Vaughn on how to continue the story of the elite gentlemen’s agency that battled boffo baddies in style.  The answer?  Go back to the beginning. Recently moved from it’s original February release date, September 2020 will now bring us The King’s Man, tracking the original formation of the organization featuring Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets), Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace), Djimon Hounsou (Charlie’s Angels), and Harris Dickinson (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil).  I’m sure I’ll miss the Egerton-factor but this second trailer feels in the same spirit as the two previous films with action packed intrigue to spare.  Looks like royal fun.  

Movie Review ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Maleficent and her goddaughter Aurora begin to question the complex family ties that bind them as they are pulled in different directions by impending nuptials, unexpected allies, and dark new forces at play.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay

Director: Joachim Rønning

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The spindles of the spinning wheels were poised and ready to strike when Maleficent was released in 2014 to much fanfare.  How would ardent fans of the classic Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty react to a live-action retelling of the genesis of the evil fairy that cursed the snoozing princess?  Crafting a backstory for the dark fairy that softened her up a bit but still let her sinister side through, the film was saturated with CGI and not all of it looked great.  While it added it’s own twist to the fairy tale, it still felt tied to the source material and lifted large portions of dialogue from the 1959 animated film.  The result was a box-office winner that satisfied but didn’t exactly inspire – there was simply too large a shadow looming over it.

Five years later Maleficent is back and this time she’s free from being moved through the paces recounting a story we already know the end of and more’s the better in my opinion.  While it still relies far too much on CGI (though in a make-believe kingdom stuffed with elves, sprites, and other woodland creations what did you expect?) it’s a more engaging story than the first.  I won’t say the stakes are exactly higher in the sequel but future happiness for more than just Princess Aurora (now Queen of the Moors Aurora) is on the line.  The biggest improvement is that screenwriters Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and Noah Harpster give star Angelina Jolie a worthy opponent in another high cheekbone-d A-lister.

Living in their happily ever after bliss, Aurora (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon) and Philip (Harris Dickinson) decide to make it official and get married, much to the dismay of Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) who still feels the sting of scorned love and wishes to keep her goddaughter close to her.  Pledging to keep Aurora happy, Maleficent agrees to meet Philip’s parents for a dinner at their castle but doesn’t make a great first impression, living up to her reputation as a temperamental guest.  When the King (Robert Lindsay) falls under a spell before they can have dessert, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) accuses Maleficent of resorting to her old tricks to stop the wedding.

Fleeing the castle and Aurora’s suspecting glare, Maleficent is injured and taken in by a horde of Dark Feys, winged creatures like her that possess many of her same powers.  Even without her godmother by her side, Aurora moves forward with her wedding to Philip, unknowingly entering into dangerous territory with Ingrith who has a dark agenda planned for her future daughter-in-law and the land she reigns over.  As a war brews between the human kingdom and the Moor forces, a power struggle emerges between Ingrith and Maleficent that will alter the fate of many of our favorite characters.

What’s surprising to note in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is how much time Jolie is absent from the film.  It’s not a significant amount of time but there are large stretches when you’ll likely miss her presence because she lends the film (as she did in the first) a certain winking fun.  When she’s not onscreen, the action starts to feel a little melodramatic and silly and even Pfeiffer isn’t immune to some over-the-top bits of camp.  Still, Pfeiffer doesn’t often get to play the heavy like she does here and she looks like she’s having a grand time in her gorgeous costumes by Ellen Mirojnick (The Greatest Showman).  The sparring between Pfeiffer and Jolie is a bit restrained (even the ladies in Downton Abbey got a few more snide jabs in) but they are both strong forces that have a commanding onscreen presence.  Often, the screen is definitely not big enough for the two of them.

While the CGI is still plentiful, it’s smoother looking than the first film so not quite as cartoony this time around.  I enjoyed the aerial views of the two kingdoms resting next to one another and the various creature creations the artists have dreamed up.  I could have done without two gibberish speaking nymphs that get trapped in a dungeon by a fallen pixie (Warwick Davis, Solo: A Star Wars Story) but as a whole the variety of flora and fauna were a wonder to behold.  Director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Kon-Tiki) keeps the movie going full steam ahead, even if it does clock in longer than it should running nearly two hours.  There’s perhaps a bit too much time spent with the Dark Feys Borra (Ed Skrein, Alita: Battle Angel) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Lion King) without giving them more backstory but its in service to getting back to the main action with Maleficent and Ingrith.

While I still find Fanning to be lacking in the total package for a next generation leading lady, she’s improving and shows it here with a more balanced take on a princess coming into her own.  Paired with the cardboard-ish Dickinson, she doesn’t let the script put her into a damsel in distress box and gamely takes action in the super-sized finale.  There’s one line near the end that’s terribly misogynistic that I’ve been stuck over for the last few days and it’s almost enough for me to knock the film a whole star down.  I’ve decided in the end I’m giving it a slight pass seeing the resolution to another storyline that could have gone wrong handled in an unexpected way.

Pairing nicely with the original movie, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil didn’t have a huge hurdle to overcome in living up to its predecessor.  I think it will please fans of the first film and, like me, might serve as an improvement over what came before.  It goes to show you how getting the right combination of people together is worth taking the time for, had this sequel been turned out quickly after Maleficent came out in 2014 it might not have been as polished as this follow-up is.

The Silver Bullet ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil



Synopsis
: Explores the complex relationship between the horned fairy and the soon to be Queen as they form alliances and face new adversaries in their struggle to protect the moors and the magical creatures that reside within.

Release Date: October 18, 2019

Thoughts: Though it was inspired by an undying classic and received a prestige release from Disney in 2014, Maleficent still managed to defy some lofty expectations to become a sizable hit.  Retelling the Sleeping Beauty story from the perspective of the supposedly evil protagonist (how very Wicked of them), the film had great visuals and a nice style but suffered from often being a word-for-word remake of the animated film.  It’s taken five years but the studio has enticed Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) back to play the titular character and expanded her tale in an original story.  This first teaser hints at some interesting new alliances and feels less like a plain cash-grab. Will new director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and the addition of Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) help to elevate Maleficent: Mistress of Evil from being a sulky sequel?