31 Days to Scare ~ Anaconda

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A film crew traveling on the Amazon River is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer

Director: Luis Llosa

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If there’s one thing you should have gathered by now if you follow this blog on any kind of regular basis, it’s that The MN Movie Man loves a good creature feature.  Though they often fail to meet their potential, I’m notoriously a sucker and pretty forgiving for any movie that has a slimy monster, razor toothed alien, or, best of all, some underwater beast.  Big studios have become averse to toss their money toward these movies because they’re often heavy on CGI or animatronic effects, which increases the costs significantly, making the possibility to turn a profit more difficult for a genre that gets the most bang on opening weekend. However, don’t forget that in the late ’90s the teen slasher film was back on the rise so young audiences looking for thrills were being catered to more than ever. So while Sony was getting I Know What You Did Last Summer into production and ready for release, they already had a stealthy sleeper hit ready to slither into theaters in early 1997.

Keep in mind that when Anaconda was released in April of 1997, it carried with it a $45 million dollar price tag and a cast not known for raking in audiences.  Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t exactly a cover story anymore and Ice Cube (21 Jump Street) the actor wasn’t nearly as popular as Ice Cube the rapper.  Eric Stoltz (Kicking and Screaming) was more recognized for his brief turn in Pulp Fiction than he was for his dynamite roles in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful or 1985’s Mask and Owen Wilson (Zoolander 2) was just perfecting  his California surfer boy cool vibe that would land him a number of roles for the next two decades.  Then there was female lead Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) who we now always remember as being a star but back then hadn’t yet fully capitalized on her sensational breakthrough in Selena — that would happen in 1998’s Out of Sight.

So there was nothing to suggest Anaconda would be anything more than a silly B-movie of with a decent mechanical snake that would be substituted for a semi-convincing computer generated one for the fast moving shots.  And you know what?  That’s exactly what it is…and it’s great.  Sometimes it’s nice to just kick off your shoes and relax into a horror film that’s going to give you a little zing but isn’t going to to send you leaping out of your seat every six seconds.  There’s a particular level of fun to be had with a film like Anaconda because it gives you exactly what it promises (and a little extra) and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s campy but in all the right ways and takes itself only as seriously as the material will allow — to spoof it or make it joke-y would spell disaster so the cast (and even the snake) seem to have a tiny twinkle in their eye.

Not that it really matters, but the plot finds a film crew led by Stolz and Lopez floating down the Amazon that picks up a stranded man (Voight) who turns out to be a psycho snake hunter.  He’s obsessed with capturing a large anaconda said to lurk in the waters far off the beaten path and takes control of the expedition so that he may use their boat to get where he’s going.  Looping crew member Wilson into his plot, Voight (sporting an accent questionable for its authenticity and political correctness) may prove to be more dangerous than the snake as the rest of the cast fights to survive being offed by him before the snake can give them a good squeeze.  Director Luis Llosa keeps the action brisk and and, considering the deadly subject matter, surprisingly jovial.

When the snake does appear, the results are mostly good but can be mixed at times thanks to mediocre CGI that can make its actual size confusing.  The practical snake is finely detailed and quite effective but the computer generated one looks an awful lot like a cartoon in some shots.  Then again, the editing is so fast and quick that you don’t get much time to see it in full and Llosa goes the Spielberg route and keeps it out of sight as much as possible for as long as he can.

Ultimately, it’s a solid effort and for the time period the movie was made you can see where the money went…although you look at a movie like Jaws and wonder how they made such a realistic shark in 1975 with absolutely no computer effects yet twenty two years later they can’t make an anaconda go from point A to point B and appear mostly convincing?  Say what you will about Voight nowadays but he’s never less than fully committed to the role and the loopy performance…and his famous “wink” scene is well worth the wait.  You don’t get a huge sense of the star Lopez would become but there’s definitely something there that makes you want to see more.  Audiences clearly were charmed by this big snake film because Anacadona wound up rattling the box office with a final take of nearly $137 million dollars.  It’s no wonder it was followed with several sequels of gradually decreasing quality, many of which bypassed theaters entirely.  There’s nothing quite as entertaining as the original and it holds up well even now.

Movie Review ~ The High Note

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A superstar singer and her overworked personal assistant are presented with a choice that could alter the course of their respective careers.

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  If everything had gone as planned in 2020, we’d be sitting smack dab in the middle of the start of summer movie season right about now.  The April releases of No Time to Die and Mulan would have arrived and Black Widow along with Scoob! would have shown up in May.  For this particular weekend we’d be on the cusp of seeing Wonder Woman 1984’s release and that means the talk likely had shifted to the favorite way to combat all the big blockbusters and family friendly animated hyperactive stimuli: the counter-programming.  That’s where a movie like The High Note would have entered the conversation and looking over the list of potential releases from back then I can’t think of a title that would have a greater shot to do some business than this one.

Before we take a look at The High Note, we should first go back to last summer and the movie Late Night.  Arriving with a heap of good buzz from the Sundance Film Festival where Amazon Studios had bought it for a jaw-dropping $13 million, it was expected to be that counter-programming sleeper hit when it was released in June.  Starring Oscar-winner Emma Thompson giving an award-worthy performance, it was an admittedly formulaic comedy written by co-star Mindy Kaling that was still light years better than a number of comedies released in 2019 but it was an unqualified bomb.  This set Amazon scrambling  (and I’m sure sent some execs packing) and it surely has reshaped the way they bought movies in the future, though to be fair the similar failure of Brittany Runs a Marathon later in the year contributed to Amazon’s buyer’s remorse.

So, now we’re back in 2020 and The High Note has arrived from Focus Features and it’s worth mentioning it’s directed by Nisha Ganatra who also was at the helm for Late Night.  Featuring another diverse set of strong co-leads, you could squint and see a lot of similarities between the two films but what The High Note has that Late Night didn’t is some authenticity that helps carry it through it’s more shallow moments.  While it’s not going to win any awards for daring originality, there’s something winning about the way it worms into your heart…and your ears.

Superstar singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) hasn’t put out a new record in years, coasting on the success of several repackaged greatest hit CDs and a sold-out touring schedule that keeps her always on the move.  That’s just fine by her producer Jack (Ice Cube, Ride Along) who doesn’t want to risk new music from Grace disappointing her loyal fans but perplexes her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) who knows Grace has more inside her.  Maggie wants to produce music, too, and seems to have the talent to back it up.  With her good ear and knowledge of Grace the person as well as the singer, she takes a stab at remixing Grace’s album to satisfying, if not career-advancing results.

It’s when Maggie meets singer David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce, Waves) that she sees the chance to take a step forward and be taken seriously.  David’s gifts are raw but with great potential, something that could benefit from Maggie’s guidance…if the two can trust one another to make it work.  At the same time, Jack wants Grace to consider a Vegas residency, which would be financially lucrative but gives her the feeling she is being put out to pasture.  With Maggie feeling the pull to help David (and herself) advance but also feeling a loyalty to her employer, of which she is also a genuine fan, it creates tension between the two that threatens both their personal and professional relationship.

I could easily see first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson turning these situations into sudsy scrap or going in the other direction and creating developments with little basis in reality.  Thankfully, The High Note feels surprisingly grounded and while perhaps holding an outlook on the music industry that’s a bit on the Pollyanna side, still maintains a level degree of authenticity.  For example, a meeting between Grace and a pile of young music executives turns uncomfortable and tense when she’s attempts to assert herself and as she explains later to Maggie it’s not just her age or sex but her race that she has to consider when trying to keep her career going.  Greeson throws some unexpected curveballs late into the game and, for once, they don’t seem like moments designed for a cheap reaction.

We’ll get to the leads in a minute but Ganatra has surrounded them with an interesting mix of faces, some more successful than others.  I especially liked Zoë Chao (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as Maggie’s wry roommate and could have actually used one or two more scenes with her and for my money you can never have enough Bill Pullman (A League of Their Own) in your film.  When he shows up for his brief appearance as Maggie’s dad, you sort of just happily sigh “Of course he’s her dad…of course he is.”  There’s a nice little cameo from Eddie Izzard as a rock star Maggie hatches a plot with and an underused June Diane Raphael (Girl Most Likely) as another one of Grace’s assistants.  I have to think Raphael’s part was trimmed down in editing because she’s so valuable that to have her in such a nothing role is a waste.

The film lives (thrives, even) on its two leads, with Johnson and Ross playing well together and individually.  Once mocked for her time in the Fifty Shades of Grey films, Johnson has proven her naysayers wrong by consistently showing up in interesting roles in intriguing films.  While Maggie could have been just another wannabe producer with stars in her eyes and a dream in her heart, Johnson goes the extra mile in making her smart, determined, likable, and willing to work for her passion as well.  In a performance that I’m sure would make her legendary Motown singer mother proud, Ross shines as Grace and sings quite well, too.  Though it sounds a liiiiiiitle overly autotuned there’s a bounce to her voice that matches her personality.  The script has a way of ping-ponging Grace’s personality a little too much at times which creates some dizzyiness on the part of the viewer but Ross is so totally engaging that you won’t notice those nitpicks until far later.

With a handful of well-sung songs performed by the actors and a zippy soundtrack to cover the rest, The High Note should have had a shot at a theatrical run because I’m betting it would have found a small but respectable audience.  I also think it would have gone a long way in laying the groundwork for Ross to get some notice as more than just a television actress because she shows here she can handle carrying the duties of a leading lady.  In a perfect world, I’d love to see her name stay in the conversation when the Oscars get talked about…while the movie may not be perfectly pitched her performance is what Best Supporting Actress nominations were made for.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Book of Life

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Synopsis: Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart, embarks on an adventure that spans three fantastical worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

Release Date: October 17, 2014

Thoughts: While watching the dazzling trailer for October’s The Book of Life, my first thought was more of a concern: that my eyes were going to pop out of my head from the array of colors and textures blazing by at a rapid pace. Producer Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) is known for his attention to detail in thoughtful stories with underlying themes that reveal themselves slowly so I’m quite interested to see what new ground The Book of Life will break. While I’m not as averse to 3D as some of my contemporaries, I think it has proved to be best used in the type of rich animation The Book of Life employs. With the voices of Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy), Channing Tatum (22 Jump Street), Ice Cube (Ride Along), and Diego Luna (Elysium) the film reminds me of The Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman, and Coraline.

Movie Review ~ 22 Jump Street

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After making their way through high school (twice), big changes are in store for officers Schmidt and Jenko when they go deep undercover at a local college.

Stars: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, The Lucas Brothers

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If 2012’s reboot of 21 Jump Street taught us anything, it’s that star Channing Tatum was more than just a hunka hunka man meat only good for action shoot ‘em ups and making men everywhere feel their time in the gym that week was inadequate.  In fact, Tatum’s 2012 was one for the record books with the release of back-to-back-to-back hits The Vow, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike.  He became a true A-lister overnight due in no small part to his solid comic chops as one half of a detective duo tasked with going back to high school to uncover a drug ring.

What 21 Jump Street didn’t have was the overall stamina to make it to the finish line before petering out in the laughs department.  Though Tatum and co-star Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street, This is the End) had that rare chemistry that registered high on the believability scale, they couldn’t overcome the weaknesses in the script (Hill co-wrote it so he has only himself to blame) that saw the final third disintegrate into routine comedy territory.

Artistic merits aside, the film was a box office success landing in a prime hitless spring season before the onslaught of summer blockbusters took over every screen at the local multiplex.  So it’s two years later and the stars have aligned again to get the very in-demand Tatum and Hill back together again for a sequel that changes addresses but little else…and fully embraces its sameness in a way that makes it (mostly) okay.

Teased at the end of the first film, buddy cops Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) are sent to college by their commanding officer (Ice Cube, Ride Along) to track down another drug ring responsible for the death of a young college beauty.  Our re-introduction to the characters starts off rocky but finds a nice rhythm once the script starts poking fun at sequels in a manner more intelligent that you’d find in, say, a Hot Shots! installment but no less silly.  Tatum even gets the chance to take a well deserved dig at last summer’s non-starter White House Down…which I still say is better than the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen.

Everything about the film feels familiar but it’s never boring…even when directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller seem to have reached the end about 80 minutes in.  While it still loses steam near the true end of the action, it finds its fresh second wind and pushes forward toward an entertaining climax and riotous extended end credit sequence which is alone worth the price of your ticket.

While Tatum still has the potential to have a long career in both action and comedic roles, at times he overshoots his capabilities and some false notes are struck.  Co-writing the script again, Hill doesn’t keep all the good stuff for himself…in fact his material is some of the weakest in the whole shebang, especially a hardly believable love affair with a co-ed (Amber Stevens) that’s only returned to when the story runs out of other ideas.

Sequels can be a mixed bag because almost always they’re driven by money hungry studio execs and stars out for a quick buck to cash in on.  While 22 Jump Street most certainly was born out of love of profit, it’s nice to see that all returning parties were onboard to share the comedic wealth with audiences as well.

Movie Review ~ Ride Along

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Fast-talking security guard Ben joins his cop brother-in-law James on a 24-hour patrol of Atlanta in order to prove himself worthy of marrying Angela, James’ sister.

Stars: Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Bryan Callen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Tim Story

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Throughout the latter half of Ride Along I’ll admit to being totally zoned out and not paying attention.  Random thoughts kept floating through my mind….

Ride Along is asleep at the wheel.

Ride Along needs a jump start.

Ride Along?  More like Move Along. Nothing To See Here.

Where to begin with this one?

The buddy-cop comedy genre has taken a bit of a beating lately with 2013’s The Heat the latest casualty of writers that don’t know from funny and stars that trust those same writers to do a lot of the work for them.  On paper, I’m sure Ice Cube and Kevin Hart looked like a good combo to put together but in the poison pen of four (count ‘em FOUR!) screenwriters there’s less goodwill toward funny men and more musty cop jokes than you cake shake of box of powdered doughnuts at.

I’m not a huge fan of Kevin Hart to begin with which could have played a role in my feeling about the teeny-weeny comic’s manic energy threatening to vaporize everything left in his wake.  With many scenes winding up feeling like an extended set from his B-side comedy routines, Hart doesn’t have the instincts of the similarly wired Eddie Murphy at his age.  Murphy at least had several moments of silence in each of his films but Hart is non-stop – I halfway wondered if he kept on going so the editor would have trouble cutting away from him.

As Ben, a going nowhere security guard that spends his off work hours playing interactive videogames in a tony loft apartment he shares with his stunning girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter, Sparkle), Hart hits the ground running.   Though it’s never explained what Angela does, it has to be a high paying job in order for the two to afford the kind of rent the spacious brick faced dwelling would demand…because Hart’s low paying job isn’t cutting it.  He finds out he’s been accepted to the police academy and decides to kill two birds with one stone and impress Angela’s wary brother James (Ice Cube) who happens to be a hard-scrabble cop himself.  Make nice with the brother and get some advice…a good plan

James, on the other hand, sees an opportune moment as well…he can get Ben off his back and out of his sister’s life by giving him the kind of ride along he’ll never forget.  Over the course of the day they ride around Atlanta, assigned to 126’s…the most annoying cases no cop wants.  Each run in Hart has with a goofy cuckoo gets less and less funny…and it only makes him try harder and louder.

Ride Along has one scene in my new favorite movie location: The PG-13 strip club where no one is naked, everyone wants to get into, and women in bikinis have hundreds of one dollar bills stuffed in their get-ups.  Actually, the filmmakers don’t even fill their club inside with a lot of people…it looks like the kind of crowd that was recruited from a local dentist office.

Due to the fact that the one joke premise of James terrorizing Ben on a day long look into the life of a cop can’t last forever, the brilliant screenwriters toss in a taxing crime case for James that just happens to see a development on the very day that he’s potential brother in law is accompanying him.  Early on we see that a mysterious figure named Omar is involved with something really big (could be guns, money, drugs…who knows, I forgot) but since no one has seen him, no one can locate him.

The only thing they have to go on is a picture of Omar in the eighth grade…at which point director Tim Story makes the brilliant move of panning to a picture that looks so much like Laurence Fishburne (Man of Steel) that it’s not a spoiler to say…well…guess who plays Omar?  It’s these kind of dunderhead, “we’ll help you figure it out” hand-holding moments that make Ride Along not only not funny but mildly insulting as well.  The comedy is shoved in your face and then your good will is tossed aside until the film needs you to laugh again.

If Kevin Hart wanted to make a cop film about a guy going to the police academy…why not attach himself to the Police Academy remake that’s been talked about for years?  This movie is just incredibly lame, half-hearted, and clearly aimed to make a quick buck and pave the way for a sequel (it’s already been announced) rather than having any strong ambition to just make something funny.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ride Along

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Synopsis: Fast-talking security guard Ben joins his cop brother-in-law James on a 24-hour patrol of Atlanta in order to prove himself worthy of marrying Angela, James’ sister.

Release Date:  January 17, 2014

Thoughts: Though the mismatched buddy cop formula has been done to death in countless films (most recently in 21 Jump Street), I guess there’s always room for one more.  The unlikely combo here finds Kevin Hart (Grudge Match) trying to impress his fiancé’s policeman brother (Ice Cube) by spending some time with him on the job.  While I find that a little of Hart goes a long way, this seems to be a nice fit for the wise-cracking comedian and one that will play nicely against Ice-T’s more deadpan style.  I’m not expecting much from this one and that’s usually the best way to go into a formula film…because you may wind up liking it more than you thought you would.  Here’s hoping.

The Silver Bullet ~ 22 Jump Street

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Synopsis: After making their way through high school (twice), big changes are in store for officers Schmidt and Jenko when they go deep undercover at a local college.

Release Date:  June 13, 2014

Thoughts: The follow-up to the surprise hit of 2012 moves the action across the street and onto a college campus for more hi-jinks courtesy of Jonah Hill (This Is the End) and Channing Tatum (The Vow, Magic Mike).  I thought the reboot of 21 Jump Street had its fair share of good moments and successfully introduced Tatum as a viable star with comedic chops to boot.  I’m a bit leery that this sequel was rushed into production as a quick cash grab and this first trailer looks to confirm that.  Hey, I’m all for a raunchy R-rated comedy but I question how effective (and funny) excessive profanity and sex talk can be when both lead actors have proven they don’t need that to make a slam dunk comedy.  Should be a welcome summer release but fingers crossed the spirit of the original stays true.